Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Return to Griffin Creek: Communal Trauma in Les Fous De Bassan

Academic journal article Quebec Studies

Return to Griffin Creek: Communal Trauma in Les Fous De Bassan

Article excerpt

To interpret trauma in literature is to read stories marginalized by the human mind. It is to attempt to understand what could not be fully experienced and integrated into the consciousness of the individual or the community, and that nonetheless manifests itself through language. Such is the interpretative battle running throughout Anne Hebert's 1982 novel, Les fous de Bassan. On the night of August 31, 1936, in the community of Griffin Creek, Nora and Olivia Atkins were murdered. Les fous de Bassan textualizes the difficulties of representation and understanding engendered by traumatic experiences. It speaks to us about how we relate to traumatic events in our world. From a distance we encounter traumatic stories affecting communities weekly if not daily: murders, school shootings, terrorism, and car crashes, among many others. But what happens to these traumatic stories as time passes? What becomes of the individuals and the communities? Can they come to terms with these events well after their occurrence? In order to demonstrate the relevance of Les fous de Bassan to these questions, I will begin my essay by interpreting manifestations of trauma within the six texts that make up the novel. Then I will expand the discussion to argue that the trauma is communal in nature. In the final section, I will examine the community's struggle to come to terms with the trauma in 1982. What will emerge is a story of trauma, time, and a community searching for self-representation in the face of a horrible crime.

Trauma, Time, and Narrative

The six texts of Les fous de Bassan signal trauma through narrative disruptions and temporal relationships. Before turning to the analysis of the text, it is useful to describe what I mean by trauma. Traumatic events are not experienced and understood by the individual in the same way as what may be termed "normal" events. The mind of the individual is unable to assimilate the traumatic event into consciousness, and the traumatic experience is repressed into the unconscious. The individual is unable to be there, in the experience, and unable to consciously remember it or, by extension, to forget it. In her 1996 book, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Cathy Caruth writes that a traumatic event exhibits "an inherent latency within the experience itself" (17). This is not to say that all individuals will react the same way to the same event, but rather that when trauma occurs, it occurs from the moment of the event forward. The "inherent latency" stems from the way the individual experiences, or rather doesn't experience, the event. The repressed material then lies beyond the conscious mind, but can nonetheless make its presence known in certain specific ways through dreams, actions, slips and gaps of language, and repetition.

The "compulsion to repeat" manifested in individuals suffering from traumatic neurosis impinges upon memory and thus affects the state of the individual's relationship to the past and the present. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud writes:

   The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him,
   and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of
   it. ... He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a
   contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer
   to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past. (18)

When individuals repeat, they do not remember, yet they cannot forget. They are unable to tell a story about the past event. Interpreting an experience as traumatic means considering its epistemological status; it means calling into question the validity of experience and highlighting the limits of knowledge. Caruth writes that trauma "is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available" (4). Trauma represents an experiential and epistemological theory of a structure of meaning within a literary text. …

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