Academic journal article PSYART

What Happens When the Body Matters?: Phantom Transmissions and Corporeal Textualities in the Life and Work of Olive Schreiner and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Academic journal article PSYART

What Happens When the Body Matters?: Phantom Transmissions and Corporeal Textualities in the Life and Work of Olive Schreiner and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

Article excerpt

Something outside of us has been stored inside of us. How did it get there?

Stephen Mitchell, From ghosts to ancestors (1998, p.845)

In my clinical work I have regularly encountered the ways in which the psychiatric establishment diminishes somatic complaints (often referred to as "medically unexplained illness," "somatic preoccupation" or "Somatoform disorder") in clients/patients and finds little usefulness in bearing witness to what the body attempts to convey-the unspeakable narratives of trauma. Recent empirical and theoretical research on the connection of somatic symptomology to unsayable/inexpressible trauma (van der Kolk, 1994 & 2000) has begun to explore the problem of intergenerational trauma transmission and more specifically to elaborate on the possibility that one mechanism of trauma transmission occurs via the body. I seek to explore the possibility that psychosomatic symptomology is, in one capacity, an alexithymia of the colonial predicament and a mechanism by which bodies are literally haunted by the collective trauma of the colonial encounter.

In spite of research regarding somatic symptomology, the phenomenon of psychogenic, somatic, psychosomatic and conversion symptoms in individuals remains marginalized. Contemporary analytic historians of somatic-based therapies argue that, since Freud, there has been a "biased interest in the power of the mind to affect and/or control body experience" (Shapiro, 1996, p. 7). And so I pose this question: What happens when the body matters? What if I were to trace narrative and seek out clinical material via the body? Is it possible for a body to speak about its own haunting legacies?

To explore the unknowable traumatic impact of colonialism on the body, I turn to two white South African women, one fictional/contemporary (Lucy of JM Coetzee's novel Disgrace (1999)) and one real/historical (Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm (1883)). Perhaps focusing on corporeal textualities could be a means of better understanding the complex phenomenon of the transmission of trauma as it relates to the legacy of colonialism in South Africa.

In a 2006 New York Times Book Review of Alexandra Fuller's memoir recounting her childhood growing up "in a country (Rhodesia/Zimbabwe) where white men still ruled" (Scribbling the cat: Travels with an African soldier, Penguin Books, 2005), Stephen Clingman writes, "as much as the Fullers are pushed by external circumstances, it is also personal tragedy that drives them. One of the achievements of the book is somehow to make it clear that their private anguish mirrors the larger lunacies in which they are involved" (Clingman, 2006, p. 26). Similarly, in my case material, the bodies of Olive Schreiner and Lucy, when attended to via feminist and relationally oriented theoretical lenses, evoke the destabilizing impact of living as a white woman in colonial and postcolonial South Africa. Like the Fullers, Schreiner and Lucy are inheritors of the ghosts of white colonial desire and violence. Unlike the Fullers, however, Olive and Lucy oppose the racial tyranny of colonial imperialism in South Africa and are nonetheless emotionally and somatically impacted by their circumstances.



Alexithymia is an explanation for a seeming incapacity or challenge in utilizing language to adequately describe emotions, an inability to distinguish between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal, a deficit in drive-fulfilled fantasies, and a constricted imaginal process (Taylor, Bagby, Parker, 1999). This formulation can and does explain any number of body-based symptomologies, such as anxorexia nervosa, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, substance abuse and certain personality disorders.

Here, alexithymia is used to describe specifically the dissociative element of the white colonial experience that is transferred to "post" colonial subjects. The dissociation, expressed as a seeming inability to hold in conscious awareness the horrors of colonialism for both oppressors and oppressed individuals and communities, often manifests, like other collective traumas (such as the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust) in subsequent generations (Laub, 2005). …

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