January 2013

Trauma

Written by James Berger

During the Christmas holidays  I read a book by José Saramago called Blindness which details what happens when nearly everyone in a city goes blind and everything starts going horribly out of control. This is a frightening story but at the same time it portrays a group of people that even in such catastrophic circumstances exhibit courage and reason as a means to re-creating a safer environment. However, there are examples of people’s selfishness, opportunism, and indifference.

Towards the end of the story the question is raised, “why did we become blind,” I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’’

The words reminded me of Existentialist, Paul Tillich’s words from his book “The Courage To Be,” where he says; “it is our uncontrolled desires that create masks and put them over men and things.”

Jose Saramago’s Blindness is a fictional story about a human catastrophe and personal traumatic experiences that prompted me to include a closer analysis by James Berger on the wider subject of trauma.

The following article is an extract from a review of three books; Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History by Cathy Caruth, Words of Hurt by Kali Tal and Representing the Holocaust, History, Theory , Trauma by Dominic La Capra:
THE CONCEPT OF TRAUMA BY JAMES BERGER
“With the publication of three important new books on the psychoanalytic concept of trauma as it intersects with literature, literary theory, historiography, and contemporary culture, it is worth asking why, at this moment, trauma should attract such attention and become a pivotal subject connecting so many disciplines.

What are the needs for and values of a theory of rauma in the United States at present, and why in particular should there be such interest in trauma among literary and cultural theorists? First, we can look at a popular culture and mass media obsessed by repetitions of violent disasters: et the successions of Die Hards, Terminators, and Robocops, as well as Nightmares on Elm Street, disease and epidemic films, and now the return of the “classic” disaster films of twisters and turbulence and the repeated sequences of mini-apocalypses within each film; at “real life” cop shows; and at the news itself, that never exhausted source of pure horror. I am particularly fascinated by the “black box” obsession that follows each airplane crash--the wish (which I share) to witness the last moments, especially the moment that reveals the certainty of death entering the pilot’s consciousness. Why do I want to know this, over and over?

We can look next at the preoccupation with family dysfunctions--child abuse, incest, spousal abuse--in the media, most strikingly on the talk show circuit. There appears to be the sense both that the family is the only hope for curing all social ills and that the family is damaged beyond hope. Along with the interest in family breakdown and violence comes the interest in the enigmatic figure of the survivor, the one who has passed through the catastrophe and can tell us what it is like. The survivor is a kind of living “black box,” a source of final knowledge and authority. Over the past fifteen years, there has been an enormous growth in interest in eyewitness accounts and testimonies of all kinds: by victims of child abuse, Holocaust survivors, survivors of neardeath experiences, and so on. And accompanying the survivor in popular consciousness, we have seen proliferating representations of ghosts, angels, zombies, and aliens--all of them witnesses to some “other side,” some realm of both trauma and revelation.

Finally, most generally and perhaps most obviously, the late twentieth century is a time marked, indeed defined, by historical catastrophe. World wars, local wars, civil wars, ideological wars, ethnic wars, the two atomic bomb attacks, the cold war, genocides, famines, epidemics, and lesser turmoils of all kinds- -these events, and the visual representations of these events, have in large part shaped contemporary American modes of viewing the world. All things considered, we might well ask, as D. M. Thomas has his fictional Sigmund Freud ask in The White Hotel, “what secret trauma in the mind of the Creator ha[s] been converted to the symptoms of pain everywhere around us?”(3) It is not surprising that theorists have turned to concepts of trauma as tools of literary and cultural analysis.

But “trauma” is not simply another word for disaster. The idea of catastrophe as trauma provides a method of interpretation, for it posits that the effects of an event may be dispersed and manifested in many forms not obviously associated with the event. Moreover, this dispersal occurs across time, so that an event experienced as shattering may actually produce its full impact only years later. This representational and temporal hermeneutics of the symptom has powerful implications for contemporary theory. In its emphasis on the retrospective reconstruction of the traumatic event (for the event cannot be comprehended when it occurs), a traumatic analysis is both constructivist and empirical. It pays the closest attention to the representational means through which an event is remembered and yet retains the importance of the event itself, the thing that did happen. Thus a concept of trauma can be of great value in the study of history and historical narrative, and also of narrative in general, as the verbal representation of temporality. The idea of trauma also allows for an interpretation of cultural symptoms--of the growths, wounds, scars on a social body, and its compulsive, repeated actions. For instance, a sense of the dynamics of trauma offers a new understanding of the insistent returns of family disasters on talk shows that goes beyond discussions of market share and public taste.”

For the full article by James Berger refer;
http://www.accessmylibrary.com/article-1G1-19950590/unclaimed-experience-traumanarrative.html

James Berger is a Senior Lecturer, English and American Studies at Yale University. His book; After the End applies wide-ranging evidence-- from science fiction to Holocaust literature, from Thomas Pynchon to talk shows, from American
politics to the fictions of Toni Morrison-- to reveal how representations of apocalyptic endings are indelibly marked by catastrophic histories. Also check this article by James Berger featured in the New Republic: From “Walking Dead”
to “Doomsday Preppers,” What’s Behind TV’s Post-Apocalypse Fantasies http://www tnr.c.om/article/books-and-arts/111393/ walking-dead-doomsday-preppers-what-tvpost-apocalypse-fantasies-tell-?fb_action_ids=439144249474075&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582

A unique thriller of ideas. Berger’s lucid, cogent, and eruditely demonstrated arguments often startled me and mesmerized me-I couldn’t put the book down until the end, and after the end I walked away with a sensation of having had
my mind expanded and edified. I predict that After the End will become a classic text not only in literature but also in theology and cultural studies. Josip Novakovich, Associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Cincinnnati