Archives for : “memory envy”

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.

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