Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Linking Legacies of Loss: Traumatic Histories and Cross-Cultural Empathy in Caryl Phillips's Higher Ground and the Nature of Blood

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Linking Legacies of Loss: Traumatic Histories and Cross-Cultural Empathy in Caryl Phillips's Higher Ground and the Nature of Blood

Article excerpt

The work of the British-Caribbean writer Caryl Phillips provides a notable literary instantiation of Cathy Caruth's claim that "trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures" ("Trauma" 11), a claim that, though central to trauma theory's ethical agenda, is hardly borne out by the practice of the field, which is still largely Eurocentric. In his novels Higher Ground (1989) and The Nature of Blood (1997), Phillips excavates histories of both black and Jewish suffering: all of his protagonists struggle with traumatic memories of racist or anti-semitic violence and oppression. However, Phillips does not treat these individual histories in isolation but lets them address one another. As a result, his work resonates with Caruth's understanding of history and trauma as inherently relational: "history, like trauma, is never simply one's own.... [H]istory is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas" (Unclaimed 24). In this essay, I will probe the nature of this implication by focusing on the novels' management of empathy, a concept that plays a crucial role in much recent work on trauma and witnessing (e.g., LaCapra, Bennett, and Kaplan).

Many theorists agree that an appropriate response to accounts of trauma must involve empathic identification with the witness, but they also insist that this empathy must be checked. Dominick LaCapra has coined the term "empathic unsettlement" (Writing 41) to denote the desired type of affective involvement, which he distinguishes from "self-sufficient, projective or incorporative identification." Empathic unsettlement means feeling for another without losing sight of the distinction between one's own experience and the experience of the other: "it involves virtual not vicarious experience-that is to say, experience in which one puts oneself in the other's position without taking the place of--or speaking for-the other or becoming a surrogate victim who appropriates the victim's voice or suffering" (History 135).

Jill Bennett relates LaCapra's notion of empathic unsettlement to Bertolt Brecht's critique of identification, and specifically of art that induces what Brecht termed "crude empathy," that is, "a feeling for another based on the assimilation of the other's experience to the self" (10). Bennett analyzes contemporary trauma art that in a Brechtian fashion seeks to negotiate a balance between encouraging audience identification and thwarting it through the deployment of strategies of estrangement. The empathic connections engendered by these works are seen to combine affect with critical awareness, resulting in encounters of an expropriative kind in which the space between self and other is not eradicated but "inhabited" (105). I argue that Higher Ground and The Nature of Blood go some way toward redeeming the ethical promise of trauma studies by promoting such a critical and self-reflexive empathy as conducive to the establishment of a truly inclusive post-traumatic community marked by openness to and respect for otherness.

I will proceed by briefly analyzing some of the textual strategies Phillips adopts for "managing" empathy--in the double sense of succeeding in eliciting an empathic response and of controlling or limiting empathy. I will mainly focus on the latter aspect--the attempt to rein in empathy--as that part of the equation seems to me to have been relatively underexplored in the existing criticism. I want to start with a quotation from a survey article on Phillips's work up to Higher Ground that was published in World Literature Today in 1991. The authors of the article, Hasan Marhama and Charles Sarvan, conclude their detailed analysis of Higher Ground by praising the imaginative feat that Phillips performs in this, his then latest novel, which "shift[s] from the days of slavery somewhere on the coast of black Africa to a contemporary maximum-security prison cell in the United States and then to a Polish Jewish woman suffering incomprehension, loneliness, and a breakdown in Britain during World War II. …

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