When talking about the relationship between literature and trauma, we have to understand howtrauma works. There exists a huge corpus of research on the characteristics and effects of trauma. Ican depict only one small aspect here, which is nonetheless a crucial one: its devastating anddecomposing effects on language and communication. Please keep in mind that I am speaking of trauma rooted in what the psychoanalyst Frederick calls the “interhuman infliction of significantand avoidable pain and suffering.”
In other words, I am speaking of trauma that bears human, inthis case sexual, violence at its heart.One of the main characteristics of trauma is its resistance to narrative representation, revealingitself more in a language of symptoms than in a language of words and sentences. Speaking abouttrauma we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of speaking about the unspeakable, to look forwords for what originally surpassed the signifying power of words. In his essay “Symptoms of Discursivity: Experience, Memory and Trauma,”
Eric van Alphen shows that already the term‘traumatic experience’ proves inadequate. Experience is a discursive process and demandssubjectivity. Traumatizing violence however cannot be ‘experienced’ and therefore cannot beintegrated into narrative memory, as it puts the self and its usual functions out of order. “Trauma isfundamentally (and not gradually) different from memory because ‘it becomes dissociated fromconscious awareness and voluntary control.’”
According to Werner Bohleber’s depiction of thehistory of trauma theory we can filter two basic factors from the numerous definitions of traumapresent in psychoanalytical thinking today: 1. Traumatic experience always constitutes ‘too much’for the self to contain.
2. It mutes the interior ‘other,’ the interior good object that mediatesbetween the self and the outside world making confidence and communication possible.
Thisoverwhelming ‘too much’ and the loss of the empathic interior ‘other’ destroy the ability to narratethe trauma.To understand narratives of traumatic experiences we must recognize and understand theabsence of language and meaning such an experience originally provokes. An absence that signifiesa violent interruption of the interhuman flow of communication, a destruction of one’s basicedition: Judith Herman,
Die Narben der Gewalt: Traumatische Erfahrungen verstehen und überwinden
(München: Kindler 1993, repr. 1994), Kapitel 1, 19-51.
Quoted in Irene Kacandes, “Narrative Witnessing as Memory Work: Reading Gertrud Kolmar’s AJewish Mother,
in ed. Mieke Bal et al.,
Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present
(Hanover:Dartmouth College et al., 1999): 57.
Eric van Alphen,
“Symptoms of Discursivity: Experience, Memory, and Trauma,” in ed. Bal,
Eric van Alphen,
“Symptoms of Discursivity,”
Werner Bohleber, “Die Entwicklung der Traumatheorie in der Psychoanalyse,
Psyche, 54(September/October 2000): 798.
Bohleber, “Die Entwicklung der Traumatheorie in der Psychoanalyse,