Bodily Detours: Sarah Kofman's Narratives of Childhood Trauma

By Robson, Kathryn | The Modern Language Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Bodily Detours: Sarah Kofman's Narratives of Childhood Trauma


Robson, Kathryn, The Modern Language Review


Although psychological trauma has repeatedly been described in terms of the body, the relation between traumatic loss, narrative, and the body requires further elucidation. This article explores how Sarah Kofman's autobiographical texts--Rue Ordener, rue Labat and critically neglected shorter texts--deploy bodily figures to narrate Kofman's own traumatic childhood as a Jew in Occupied France. Where psychoanalytic theory offers a model of articulating traumatic loss through bodily figures, Kofman's writing mobilizes a different model figured through a corporeal 'double bind' that embodies the difficulty and concomitant necessity of recounting traumatic loss.

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In a short text about her experience of psychoanalysis, Sarah Kofman claims that 'J'ai toujours eu envie de raconter ma vie' but cannot because, in her own words, 'elle est inenarrable'. (1) Although Kofman is still primarily known as a philosopher, a commentator on Freud and Nietzsche in particular, she is also the author of several short autobiographical texts, '"Ma vie" et la psychanalyse', 'Sacree nourriture', and 'Tombeau pour un nom propre', besides the well known Rue Ordener, rue Labat, published less than a year before her suicide in 1994. (2) Kofman's suicide so soon after the publication of her only book length autobiographical text has, perhaps inevitably, inspired much critical speculation as to the potential relation between writing an autobiographical story of trauma and suicide. (3) Her earlier autobiographical texts are, however, for the most part ignored in favour of Rue Ordener, rue Labat, and the present article aims in part to redress this critical imbalance. Two of these short texts, '"Ma vie" et la psychanalyse' and 'Tombeau pour un nom propre', focus on the narrator's construction of identity in the present, but these works, like the others analysed here ('Sacree nourriture' and Rue Ordener, rue Labat), point implicitly or explicitly to Kofman's troubled childhood as a Jew in Occupied France and her father's deportation and death in Auschwitz. In Rue Ordener, rue Labat, Kofman recounts her father's disappearance and describes how she and her mother were hidden during the war in the house of a Gentile woman in Paris to avoid deportation. Yet the pain of loss and trauma in Rue Ordener, rue Labat emerges not from the story itself, but from the recurring bodily imagery through which its story unfolds--images of bodily ingestion and expulsion and, more precisely, of eating. This is not uncommon: autobiographical accounts of trauma, as well as theories of trauma, frequently deploy bodily figures to recount experiences that seem to resist narrativization. I will, however, question this link between trauma, narrative, and the body, which is too often taken for granted, by analysing the ways in which bodily figures are mobilized as a means of giving voice to otherwise unspeakable ('inenarrable') experiences in Kofman's writings.

Theorists of trauma have repeatedly suggested that traumatic experiences cannot be assimilated into the mind and instead are encoded in the body, recalled via bodily sensations rather than through words. Trauma is experienced as a loss of language and cognition: thus, as the literary critic Roberta Culbertson suggests, trauma 'is known not in words but in the body'. (4) It is, then, unsurprising that memories of trauma should equally be associated with bodily sensations: in the words of Susan J. Brison, 'A primary distinguishing factor of traumatic memories is that they are more tied to the body than are narrative memories.' (5) If, then, traumatic memories may be seen as the 'unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences which need to be integrated with existing mental schemes, and be transformed into narrative language', (6) the attempt to convert--assimilate--these into narrative must mean giving voice to bodily sensations. As Culbertson observes, 'telling [a story of trauma] is a process of disembodying memory', of converting bodily memories into conventional, linear narrative memories. …

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