Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trends in Literary Trauma Theory

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Trends in Literary Trauma Theory

Article excerpt

A central claim of contemporary literary trauma theory asserts that trauma creates a speechless fright that divides or destroys identity. This serves as the basis for a larger argument that suggests identity is formed by the intergenerational transmission of trauma. However, a discursive dependence upon a single psychological theory of trauma produces a homogenous interpretation of the diverse representations in the trauma novel and the interplay that occurs between language, experience, memory, and place. Considering the multiple models of trauma and memory presented in the trauma novel draws attention to the role of place, which functions to portray trauma's effects through metaphoric and material means. Descriptions of the geographic place of traumatic experience and remembrance situate the individual in relation to a larger cultural context that contains social values that influence the recollection of the event and the reconfiguration of the self.

The trauma novel demonstrates how a traumatic event disrupts attachments between self and others by challenging fundamental assumptions about moral laws and social relationships that are themselves connected to specific environments. Novels represent this disruption between the self and others by carefully describing the place of trauma because the physical environment offers the opportunity to examine both the personal and cultural histories imbedded in landscapes that define the character's identity and the meaning of the traumatic experience. The primacy of place in the representations of trauma anchors the individual

experience within a larger cultural context, and, in fact, organizes the memory and meaning of trauma.

Trauma, in my analysis, refers to a person's emotional response to an overwhelming event that disrupts previous ideas of an individual's sense of self and the standards by which one evaluates society. The term "trauma novel" refers to a work of fiction that conveys profound loss or intense fear on individual or collective levels. A defining feature of the trauma novel is the transformation of the self ignited by an external, often terrifying experience, which illuminates the process of coming to terms with the dynamics of memory that inform the new perceptions of the self and world. The external event that elicits an extreme response from the protagonist is not necessarily bound to a collective human or natural disaster such as war or tsunamis. The event may include, for example, the intimately personal experience of female sexual violence, such as found in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, or the unexpected death of a loved one, as found in Edward Abbey's Black Sun.

The popular trauma theory employed today depends upon the abreactive model of trauma, which is used to assert the position that traumatic experience produces a "temporal gap" and a dissolution of the self. For example, in Worlds of Hurt Kali Tal writes: "Accurate representation of trauma can never be achieved without recreating the event since, by its very definition, trauma lies beyond the bounds of 'normal' conception" (15). This Freudian concept of trauma and memory emphasizes the necessity to recreate or abreact through narrative recall of the experience. Yet, at the same time, this model claims, as Tal makes clear, that the remembrance of trauma is always an approximate account of the past, since traumatic experience precludes knowledge, and, hence, representation. The literary trauma theory articulated by Kali Tal, and critics such as Cathy Caruth, considers the responses to traumatic experience, including cognitive chaos and the possible division of consciousness, as an inherent characteristic of traumatic experience and memory. The idea that traumatic experience pathologically divides identity is employed by the literary scholar as a metaphor to describe the degree of damage done to the individual's coherent sense of self and the change of consciousness caused by the experience. …

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