Archives for : Stef Craps

Literary theory is not trauma theory

Literary theory is not trauma theory.

It may come as a surprise to some, but trauma theory has become a leading analytic framework through which to analyze literary texts.  Of course, literary theorists can and should use any framework they find useful.  The problem is the confusion that has developed between literary trauma and psychic trauma.  Theories of psychic trauma derived from literature have been applied to real trauma in an attempt to make sense of the suffering of real people. The result is confusion and misunderstanding about how real trauma might be healed.  Trauma is healed through care and love, values that have no place in literary trauma theory.

My account of this phenomenon draws heavily on a book edited by Roger Kurtz, Trauma and Literature, a reader that Amazon markets as a textbook.  Offering few new ideas, the book represents the state of the discipline and its players.

Cathy Caruth, a major player, is a literary critic who, drawing on the work of the litterateur Paul de Man, has influenced many who have sought to understand trauma in real life.   Often overlooked is that Caruth’s claims are not just literary, but empirical.  They can be tested against real trauma.  I conclude with an example drawn from the testimony of Holocaust survivors.  Some of this testimony was given in 1946, some twenty-five years later.  The testimony given shortly after the liberation of the concentration camps was as narratively competent as that given a quarter-century later.  Knowing this makes a difference in how we use literary theory to understand psychic trauma.

What Caruth claims

Caruth argues that traumatic events are unavailable to the conscious memory of the traumatized in the normal form in which memory operates, as narratives about events.  Instead, trauma is experienced in terms of flashbacks, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, nightmares, physical tension, and physical illness.  Trauma is experienced in symptoms rather than stories.  These symptoms repeat themselves, as though the original trauma can never be put into the past. 

Trauma is experienced as symptoms because it is too intense, and generally too sudden, to be understood as though it were an ordinary experience.  Absent understanding, it can only be experienced and re-experienced, time after time. In this regard, trauma is like language, which according to poststructuralists, as they are called, claim that the signifier (the word) is always unable to properly designate the signified, that is the world.

For poststructuralists, there is a break between word and world; for trauma theorists, there is a break between word and wound . . . . For Caruth, the nonreferential quality of words and wounds renders the former appropriate for communicating the latter: “On this view, language succeeds in testifying to the traumatic horror only when the referential function of words begins to break down.” (Kurtz, p 100; internal quote from Leys, p 268)

Words can’t capture an overwhelming experience that lies beyond or beneath words.  The words that come closest are the tropes of literary fiction, representing absence, indirection, and repetition.  In both traumatized memory and narrative, lacunae serve as markers of traumatic experience (Kurtz, p 101). 

More recent criticism of Caruth et al.

What if literary critics spent less time on modernist and postmodern texts, such as Caruth’s writing on Resnais and Dorfman, or Shoshana Felman’s on Celan? (p 106).  Consider instead, says Stef Craps, Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, a realist trauma narrative.*

Continue Reading >>