Other people’s traumas: the limits of language

homeless-845709_1280Trauma is a popular topic these days because it meets a widespread longing for intensity. So argues Michael Roth (p. 90) and I think he’s right. Much of what is wrong with trauma theory today is the attempt to participate in this intensity through writing about it. The result is a mistaken view of how one should write about trauma. Either the author tries to imitate the experience through literary effect, such as multiple voices and sudden changes in time and place (see my post on trauma literature). Or the author approaches trauma as though it were a sacred experience, almost too awesome for words. But only “almost,” for academics write a lot about trauma. That includes me.

The problem of writing about trauma is a real problem. The experience of trauma is too extreme for words. Indeed, trauma is often described as the inscription of intense emotions on the psyche (or brain) in a way that cannot be put into narrative speech. If trauma is speechless, then how to write about it?

This problem is compounded when one is writing about massive historical traumas, such as The Holocaust. It has become almost a commonplace that the event cannot be understood, indeed that we show our respect by not even trying to understand it. “The obscenity of understanding” is how Claude Lanzmann, producer and director of the movie Shoah, puts it.

Words always disappoint, but sometimes they are all we have

I think we should write about trauma, including large scale historical trauma, just like we write about any other event. Words are a wonderful and terrible thing. Putting any intense experience into words never does it justice, if justice means reproducing the experience in the mind of the reader.

Representation will always have its cost, and this is particularly the case with historical representation, which of necessity denies singularity by inserting an event into a narrative that makes the event commensurable (which is not to say identical) with other experiences. No matter how an event is  contextualized, it will lose its unique specificity. That’s what explanation does, and that’s what trauma theory, any trauma theory, does too.

The problem is not that the unique intensity of the traumatic experience is lost in writing about it. The problem is believing that this unique intensity could be preserved in language. Trauma is an experience, and words are words. The real problem is an exaggerated view of the power of language to make an experience live in the mind of another.

Silence or Witnessing

One solution is Wittgenstein’s.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (Tractatus 7)

A less extreme response is to allow the traumatized person to speak for him or herself. Witnessing has become an increasingly popular genre as far as trauma studies is concerned (Wieviorka). But witnessing has its limits. We may see the effect of trauma on the witness, but witnessing without context is meaningless. Holocaust testimony is enriched when those who listen know something about the Holocaust. This knowledge may be contested, by the witness or others, but a disputed context is better than no context at all. 

The same goes for the trauma of rape.  Part of understanding the trauma of rape is understanding the frequency of sexual abuse, including how frequently it is inflicted by someone the victim knows.  But the result is invariably to place a unique event within a larger framework.  Understanding trauma requires both event and framework.   

An ironist’s cage

In recent years the idea of trauma has been used to break out of this ironist’s cage. (Roth, p. 103).

Roth’s is, of course, a play on Max Weber’s well-known claim that modern life in the West has become an iron cage, ruled by routine, bureaucracy, and means without ends. The ironist’s cage is an attitude of detached ironic sophistication toward the events of the world. The hope Roth refers to is that the sheer intensity of trauma makes ironic detachment impossible.

Perhaps this is true, and if so then it is all to the good. But the triumph of trauma over irony has come with a cost, as many of those who write about trauma hold that trauma may be so intense that even (or especially) the traumatized cannot represent themselves, but must be represented by another, who can put into words what the traumatized cannot. Cathy Caruth (p. 11) is the most well known exponent of this view.

This view would make sense if the goal were to help severely traumatized people put their own words to their experiences. This is what many therapists do. But those who write about trauma as though it were a text, those who deal with trauma in literature rather than in life, run the risk of cheap intensity, so to speak, vicariously participating in the trauma of real or imaginary others. Geoffrey Hartman (p. 111) calls it “memory envy,” this strange desire among academics and others to somehow share the memories of the traumatized, particularly but not exclusively Holocaust survivors.


What is one to do? Trauma is a body-based experience that can never be put into words. But this is the case of most of the intense experiences of life, such as love, loss, pain, and joy, to mention just a few. We should expect from words what they can do. Provide a translation of an experience that cannot be shared, but can be communicated.

Nevertheless, trauma can be told and the listener can learn. But the listener is just the listener; the reader is just the reader. Language can only go so far in conveying trauma. What it conveys is terribly important, including context, meaning, causes. What language cannot convey is equally important: the experience itself. We should be content to let language do what it does best, and not expect more. Language is part of life, but it is not life itself.


Cathy Caruth, Introduction, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Caruth, pp. 3-12. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Geoffrey Hartman, The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Claude Lanzmann, The obscenity of understanding. In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, pp. 200-220. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Michael S. Roth, Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Routledge, 2001. (original 1905)

Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006.


Comments (2)

  1. “memory envy”

    A good way to put it. Wouldn’t “pain envy” be accurate, though? — and even stranger perhaps.

    There is something unseemly in inventing/creating trauma for public consumption and satisfaction of one’s own needs — and what are they, really? — as it’s often done by writers. Unseemly, because grandiose and devaluing, and un-real-ing the real experience.

    • calford@umd.edu

      Dear Emma, I just re-read my post on memory envy, and I guess if I rewrote it I would write about “intensity envy,” for that is what I think is really going on. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. We go to movies and read books to share in the intensity of other people’s lives.

      That’s fine, unless we are talking about treating the victims of trauma as though their stories existed to add a little excitement to our lives. Then it’s obscene.

      In any case, that’s the thought your comment encouraged, really an even harsher judgment: not of those who try to understand or heal trauma, but those who would try to share its intensity at a safe distance. I think some academics do this. I hope I’m not one. Fred

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