Does it mean anything to claim that trauma is “aporetic”? No.

trauma is aporeticThe first time I read that trauma is aporetic I rushed to my dictionary. An aporia is from the Greek, referring to an impasse, and generally refers to a paradox or perplexity that cannot be resolved. The term is frequently used in rhetoric; a Texan declaring that all Texans are liars would be a rhetorical aporia. Aporetic is the adjective, describing the condition of being caught in a paradox or contradiction.

Many, perhaps most, who have written about trauma from a literary perspective have seen trauma as aporetic. My comments are informed by Roger Luckhurst’s The Trauma Question, though mine is not so much a review as an appreciation of the issues he raises. It’s a good book.

For Cathy Caruth, doyenne of literary trauma theory, trauma is paradoxical or aporetic because its truth cannot be known at the time of its experience. Not just the traumatic event, but the trauma itself can only be understood after the fact, as it “returns to haunt the survivor later on.” (p. 4) Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub call this a crisis of history and truth, in which the most privileged observers of their own experience are unable to recount it. “The necessity of testimony . . . derives, paradoxically enough from the impossibility of testimony.” (p. 224, their emphasis).

Agamben and aporia

As might be expected, the Holocaust plays an outsize role in influencing contemporary thinking about trauma. Giorgio Agamben states that

the aporia of Auschwitz is, indeed, the very aporia of historical knowledge: a non-coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension. (p. 12)

Some events are beyond our comprehension. Or are they? Agamben’s leading example is a few sheets of paper buried under crematorium III at Auschwitz. Zelman Lewenthal, a member of the Sonderkommando, who were forced to empty the gas chambers and put the bodies in the crematoria, was its author.

Just as the events that took place there cannot be imagined by any human being, so is it unimaginable that anyone could exactly recount how our experiences took place. . . . we, the small group of obscure people who will not give historians much work to do.

Members of the Sonderkommando were routinely murdered by the Germans, so their story would not get out.

But their story did get out, even if it never got out exactly as Lewenthal and other Sonderkommando experienced. But, history never does justice to the suffering of its subjects, no matter how hard it tries. We can’t even do justice to the suffering of those nearest and dearest to us. It is simply impossible to know their experience. The best we can do it to be as caring, empathic and imaginative as possible.

It’s been argued frequently that even the families of survivors of the Holocaust didn’t want to hear their stories, at least at first (Levi, pp. 11-25). It seems to have been true in many cases, but even sympathetic listeners never get it just right. The Holocaust was uniquely horrendous, but the problem it presents for historians, as well as the rest of us, is not. The problem is the difference between you and me, then and now. It is not an aporia. Just a fact, the fact of human difference in a world marked by time.

All significant events, not just traumatic ones, are known only in retrospect. What is the significance of your marriage, your divorce, or your first job? Only with perspective, gained by time, can you begin to answer this question. Time, otherwise known as history, reveals that what we thought we knew we had barely a glimmer. There is no paradox here, unless perhaps one is desperate to find one.

What Freud called Nachträglichkeit, often translated as afterwardness, means that we don’t remember the trauma. We remember the memory of the trauma, and then the memory of the memory. It’s true, but again it applies to most of the events of our lives.

What is unique about trauma are its symptoms, such as flashbacks, and more generally the constriction of experience that trauma victims impose upon themselves to mitigate symptoms.


In Aporias, a short book about death, Derrida summarizes his life’s work: the trauma that most Western thought suppressed is how difficult it is to determine what an author meant; probably the author didn’t fully know. The violence of metaphysics is the search for certainty of meaning that would avoid dealing with this trauma. This at least is Luckhurst’s (pp. 5-6) interpretation, and it seems right to me.

Trouble is, I don’t think there is either trauma or aporia here. There is uncertainty. Texts are always uncertain, people are always uncertain. In fact, it might be useful to think about people instead of texts for a moment. Just when you think you know your closest friend or lover they surprise you, betray you, or understand you better than you understand yourself. Nothing is certain except death, and that includes people as well as meaning. It’s not an aporia. It’s just life.


Luckhurst seems correct when he says that there is a “flat contradiction” between cultural theory that regards the narration of trauma as betrayal (what Derrida might have called the violence of narrative), and various therapeutic views that regard the goal as one of turning trauma into narrative (p. 82). What David Wood says in his book on Paul Ricoeur applies to the therapeutic view. “Narrative heals aporia.” (p. 4) Narrative is “the privileged means by which we re-configure our confused, unformed, and at the limit mute temporal experience.” (Ricoeur, p. xi).

Only it’s not true, at least as far as trauma is concerned. Holocaust survivors are often masterful narrators of their experiences, yet many continue to suffer terribly, as I’ve argued in After the Holocaust (pp. 58-93). Both Primo Levi and Jean Améry wrote magnificent accounts of their Holocaust experiences, and both committed suicide in states of despair. Narrative doesn’t heal all wounds. Maybe if we turn wounds into aporias it would, but in the end aporia is just a fancy word. Wounds, pain, symptoms, life—that’s what counts.

What difference does it make?

Literary trauma theory dotes on aporia or paradox, as though to tell the story must disrespect it. Instead, we must circle (trope) around it forever. In fact, there is no story. Only stories, different versions of experience from different perspectives. Not just the perspective of different people or groups, but the different perspectives of the same person over time. There is no trauma just beyond our grasp. Just traumas.

Narrative theory, which includes among its practitioners many who would simply call themselves therapists, imagines that to finally tell the story is to heal the wound. Judith Herman is a good example, arguing that the sexual abuse survivor or the Holocaust survivor can begin to heal only when he or she has told his or her story. Integration means narrative integration (p. 175).

Both are wrong, and the reason they are wrong is that both think about trauma in literary terms, just different literary terms. Caruth et al. as though trauma is a story that can’t be told, Herman and Ricoeur because they think trauma is a story that can be told.

Trauma isn’t a story. It’s an experience. Talking about it helps, but so does body work, everything from massage to yoga. Body work helps because it helps recover the ability to experience the present, rather than constantly rework the past.

Of course, body work and narrative work are compatible. Probably the worst thing we can do is imagine that we respect trauma most when we don’t talk about it. Or rather, the worst thing we can do is mystify trauma, turning it into a paradox that must never be solved. But that, dare I say it, is common sense.


C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Giorgio Agamben, The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 1999. [available at:]

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Jacques Derrida, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993. [available at:]

Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

David Wood, ed., On Paul Ricoeur. New York: Routledge, 1991.


Comments (2)

  1. Shruti

    Thanks much for this, I was looking for a brief synopsis of the various positions on trauma and a bibliography to supplement a paper on pretty much the lines you seem to have used and your piece was most helpful.
    A greatly useful book is Thomas Trezise’s Witnessing Witnessing that you might want to look up. I thought it very helpful to sort of dismantle Caruth et al’s emphasis of this unspeakability for my work

    thanks again!


      Thanks Shruti, glad my post helped. I’ll look at Trezise’s book. And yes, there is something odd about writing about the unspeakable. Not only is it contradictory, but it’s just not true. Unbearable might come closer to the mark. We can speak the unbearable, even if we can hardly stand it. Fred

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