Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Replaying Trauma with a Difference - Zoë Wicomb's Dialogic Aesthetic

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Replaying Trauma with a Difference - Zoë Wicomb's Dialogic Aesthetic

Article excerpt

Zoë Wicomb's novel David 's Story (2001) responds to the traumatic conditions of racism, the psychology of the traumatized individual, and the (failed) 'collective therapy' of the TRC, which aimed at integrating the trauma suffered under apartheid in a national narrative of reconciliation and progress.1 Wicomb points out the gaps in the national project of coping with trauma, and complements the 'monologic' kind of historiography harnessed by the ? ? and the ANC by perspectives neglected in their versions of the recent past. The writer does not aim at a transparent imitation of disruptive trauma in an art of commitment, which might invite voyeuristic indulgence in horror or re-traumatize readers. She shuns linear narrative and closure, which would allow for detachment and the return to the ordinary. Wicomb deliberately replays trauma in a dialogic aesthetic that foregrounds the process of negotiating the past and its disruption by trauma. Her selfreflexive explorations of 'sharing' trauma reveal the difficulties - for the traumatized individual as well as for the various groups affected in different ways by trauma - of coming to terms with the past. I will locate the conditions of trauma in the discursive framework of monologic ideologies and its practices, which have a potentially harmful impact on the bodies and the selves of individuals and groups singled out for discrimination and repression. I will explain my broader understanding of trauma and dialogic aesthetic before developing an interpretation of the novel.

Trauma, Dialogue, and Dialogic Aesthetic

The discussion of trauma is often based on the psychoanalytic paradigm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but positions differ widely concerning the causes of trauma, its individual or collective reach, representation, and therapy. Individuals are traumatized if they cannot "come to terms with real experiences that have overwhelmed their capacity to cope"3 because these experiences defy their imagination, understanding, and acceptance. "The core issue of trauma," van der Kolk and McFarlane argue, "is the inability to integrate the reality of particular experiences, and the resulting replaying of the trauma in images, behaviors, feelings, physiological states, and interpersonal relationships."4 Ordinarily, "memories of particular events are remembered as stories that change over time."5 However, people suffering from PTSD experience the traumatizing events of the past as if they were present. The "tyranny of the past"6 interferes with their coping with the present.

I would like to single out three of the many problems related to PTSD that seem to be of particular importance for understanding trauma in Wicomb's novel: shame and blame; the re-enactment of victimization; and intrusion or amnesia. Having been abused, raped or tortured often goes along with humiliation, shame, and blaming oneself for one's own victimization.7 Some traumatized individuals avoid situations that have any resemblance to their traumatic experience. Those strongly affected by shame and blame may punish themselves, repeating the traumatic experience, or inflict trauma on others. In spite of intrusions of traumatic memory, traumatized individuals often fail to consciously recall it, tell it coherently, and make sense of it.8

Scholars are divided over the victims, the representation, and the 'healing' of trauma.9 It seems to me that a normative either/or is less helpful than a descriptive both/and in order to grasp the protean nature of trauma and its multiple responses in reality. In the Western perspective, trauma has often been located in a single incident that affects an individual 'patient'. In South Africa, it has been claimed that the apartheid regime created conditions that traumatized everyone.10 Boraine and Wicomb argue that South Africa is not collectively traumatized, as many young people are too young to remember the atrocities of apartheid, whereas Susan Mann considers the 'normalization' of violence in contemporary South Africa to be evidence of a traumatized society, albeit with racial differences. …

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