Understanding the impact of trauma

Is trauma a major locus of modern human existence? Are our lives pervaded by instances, events, experiences or chains of events and experiences which are significantly traumatic, at an individual and collective level?  And if so, can literature and film become reflectors of this reality?

“Trauma Narratives: Points of Departure and Meeting in Psychology, Film and Literature” is engaged with this fascinating and troubling question. Dr. Sanders and I envisioned this topical module as an academic learning and teaching response to the catastrophic age in which we live; an age that Cathy Caruth suggests in Trauma: Explorations in Memory to be a multicultural society under constant change.

UNYP Psychology program offers Trauma Narratives course

The course addresses students who are interested in how fictional traumatic memory can turn into narrative memory. Only when traumatic memory becomes narrativized, can it actually hit the page and the screen and fully reach out to an audience. The audience watches, listens, reads and departs from the narrative. It is a copious undertaking to explore the limits of a truth never entirely possessed by the traumatized character, a relentless effort to locate history in a past experienced in numbness, in a memory afflicted by latency, in a present bombarded by flashbacks and, above all, a present which struggles with remembrance and forgetfulness at the same time, in the imperative need of the character to survive.

It is exactly this crisis of truth, history and memory, which presents a significant challenge for psychoanalysis too. In a process mirroring that of a reader’s and spectator’s quest, the therapist is involved in listening, witnessing and departing from the patient’s trauma narrative. Is survival from “death” and from a subsequent traumatized life ever to be achieved?

This question represents the main query of this course, as we are addressing the wound’s origin, nature and healing alike. Our focus is on three distinct trauma narratives which address a wide range of experiences within the trauma spectrum, including imprisonment and torture, maternal death and familial dissolution, incest and child abuse.

Three trauma narratives to help you understand the impact of trauma

“In the Penal Colony” is a 1914 cryptic short story by Franz Kafka open to multiple interpretations. We attend a meeting between an anonymous officer and an anonymous traveller, in an unnamed penal colony. The story’s real protagonist is a torturing device, a representative of state authority and blind justice, which delivers judgement by inscribing, in tattoo fashion, the sentence on the condemned human body. When the traveller denies the support and approval of the inhumane, traumatizing tactics of the machine, the device’s enthusiastic supporter, the officer, sacrifices himself to the device and the traveller flees the colony.

In “The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann,” French thinker and film director Claude Lanzmann stresses that suicide can actually represent an escape from justice and execution, utterly an escape from history. He also delves into the issue of false witnessing and the moral responsibility to transmit the news of trauma to the world, which could be the traveller’s duty in the penal colony. The military context of the penal colony alludes to such contexts in which authoritarian, totalitarian combat rhetoric dictates and shapes the lives of collectively traumatized individuals. The Holocaust and the ongoing refugee crisis are two distinct historico-political contexts with compelling cultural implications, contexts to which the trauma hermeneutics of this story could be directly applied.

As I Lay Dying, written in 1929 by Nobel laureate Willian Faulkner, is a narrative which negotiates trauma on an individual and familial basis. While still at her deathbed, Addie Bundren instructs her husband and five children that she be buried at her far-flung ancestral hometown, in Jefferson. On the aftermath of her death, the family departs on a modern Odyssey, undertaking the agonizing task to carry a beloved’s corpse around the Southern American countryside, and to literally fight against water and fire to save Addie’s decaying body. Our focus is on the stages through which each member of the family goes while coping with the traumatic experience of maternal death.

In “Pride and Nakedness: As I Lay Dying,” distinguished literature scholar and Faulknerian critic Calvin Bedient highlights how, in view of maternal loss, the Bundrens’ family forms a conglomeration of intersecting human solitudes, all developing distinct responses to this most definite and irreversible form of separation. Such intersection of solitudes masterfully corresponds to the fragmented, polyphonic, poly-prismatic structure of the narrative. When the family reaches Jefferson and Addie is buried, numbing, dissociation, objectification, scapegoating and insanity have already rained their consequences on the characters’ struggle of survival in one of the most brilliant modernist trauma narratives ever written.

The last trauma narrative to be examined in this course promises absolution and survival in a most subversive manner: intrafamilial child abuse in the young protagonist’s past is met with consensual incest in her present. In Koutras’ film, Strella, screened in 2009, the young protagonist receives news that her father, Yiorgos, will be soon released from prison. Estranged daughter and father form a complex relationship which redefines the limits of familial co-existence and love, crossing gender borders, baptizing the transgressive as normal and functional. Family seems to be a site of trauma par excellence, a sight to return in Strella’s quest for self-affirmation and post-traumatic, post-numbing identity formation. As Strella comes to terms with her trauma, she narrates her story of intra-familial abuse to an ignorant and surprised Yiorgos, who is forcefully rendered witness to his own life story. Where are the family’s truth and history to be located?

In Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Judith Butler underscores that “both Strella and Yiorgos get co-implicated in a process of remembering and repossessing the traumatic historicity of dispossessing desire.” Accordingly, our focus is on the processes of remembering, repossessing and reprocessing a trauma engraved in the heart of a once dysfunctional family, a wound to be healed by that, now functional, very same family. I believe that the problematics of this conundrum forge a major challenge of interpretation to the literature, film and psychology student and scholar alike.

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