Post-Traumatic Parataxis and the Search for a "Survivor by Proxy" in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Article excerpt


In light of works by Primo Levi, trauma theory (Herman), psychoanalytic criticism (Hartman, White), and criticism concerned with the poem's dialogism (Macovski, Wheeler), this article reads Coleridge's "Rime" as a post-traumatic, paratactic narrative mirroring the guilt- and shame-ridden experiences of trauma survivors. The Mariner is compelled to repeat his story of trauma because he lacks an "authentic listener" (Laub) or "survivor by proxy" (Lifton) capable of internalizing and reflecting his pain and dislocation so as to integrate it into a new conception of humanity. The Mariner's "crisis of witnessing" (Felman, Laub) is characterized by dissociation evident in emotionally charged paratactic gaps and the responses to them by "false witnesses" (Lifton), including the Wedding- Guest and the Mariner himself, who judge the Mariner based on inadequate frames of reference. The authentic reader-engaged with the paratactic structure of the poem-does, however, recognize the Mariner's post-traumatic humanity and is, therefore, further humanized.

The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart. It seemed to me that I would be purified if I told its story, and I felt like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune. (Levi, Periodic 151)

These words are from Primo Levi's Periodic Table. Levi's identification with Coleridge's Mariner is not incidental. In fact, he has articulated this identification in several of his writings as critics such as Geoffrey Hartman, Sara Guyer, and Judith Woolf have recognized. Levi, one of the most prolific and well known of Auschwitz survivors, clearly identifies with the Mariner's compulsion to tell his tale and be "purified" or, in the words of Coleridge's Mariner, to be "shriven." The attempt to be purified or shriven, as both Levi and the Mariner find out, fails, and it fails because in order to integrate traumatic experience, another process is necessary: testimony and integration, not confession and absolution. Our use of the concept of "integration" originates from trauma theory. As Judith Herman states in her formative study of trauma and recovery, the "survivor seeks not absolution [from others], but fairness, compassion, and the willingness to share the guilty knowledge of what happens to people in extremity" (69). In other words, "The goal of recounting the trauma story is integration, not exorcism" (181).

It seems that by the time Levi completes The Periodic Table (1975) and certainly by the time he completes his final book, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), "possibly his most striking, profound and also darkest book" (Gordon XV), Levi has no illusions of "purification." And yet he continues to tell the tale of his experiences inside and outside Auschwitz and is plagued and driven by traumatic memory to communicate the incommunicable. "Once again it must be observed, mournfully," Levi states in Chapter I of The Drowned and the Saved, "The Memory of the Offense," "that the injury cannot be healed: it extends through time, and the Furies, in whose existence we are forced to believe, not only rack the tormentor (if they do rack him, assisted or not by human punishment), but perpetuate the tormentor's work by denying peace to the tormented" (25). "The injury cannot be healed," but the post-traumatic pathology of compulsively repeating the story of trauma can be eliminated within a specific psychotherapeutic situation, suggests Coleridge's "Rime."

At the outset of The Drowned and the Saved, establishing a literary ground for the disturbing current of thought to follow, Levi aligns his own torment-and all he has learned from it-with that of Coleridge's Mariner in the following epigraph:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns,

And till my ghastly tale is told

This heart within me burns. …