Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (review)
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Reviewed by
Kalí Tal. Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 296 pp.

Kalí Tal’s Worlds of Hurt is a significant pioneering venture into an area deserving serious attention. As a development of the author’s outstanding doctoral dissertation “Bearing Witness: The Literature of Trauma” (1991), it contains new material and further insights into the field it explores.

Tal begins by commenting on the irony of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s designation of Henry Kissinger (who wasn’t “there”) as a fellow survivor in 1991. This leads the author to question the process whereby Wiesel becomes the voice of a survivor as well as to examine the conflict between individual psychic trauma and cultural representations of traumatic events. Tal concentrates upon three main areas of traumatic representation: Holocaust survival, the Vietnam War, and narratives of rape and incest victims. “The subject of this work is psychic trauma; its cultural-political inquiry moves back and forth between the effects of trauma upon individual survivors and the manner in which that trauma is reflected and revised in the larger, collective political and cultural world.” Three main strategies of cultural coping usually occur: “mythologization” often reduces a traumatic event to a set of standardized narratives; “medicalization” regards traumatic victims as objects who can be “cured” within existing institutional structures; and “disappearance” works at undermining the credibility of the victim and refusing to admit the existence of a particular trauma. To her credit Tal interrogates the dominant mechanisms of these three discourses and argues for the crucial role of the victim’s identity and testimony.

Holocaust survival, Vietnam War trauma, and incest-victim narratives all involve a struggle for memory and a vehement opposition to revisionist mechanisms. Tal critiques various attempts to place the unique nature of the conflict into convenient literary and mythological categories making the event another tragic episode in the fall of the American Adam. “The incapacity of traditional criticism to deal with the literature of the Vietnam War is exemplified in its inevitable and total reduction of the war to metaphor.” Better interrogative cultural, sociological, and historical approaches avoiding certain postmodernist pitfalls of dismissing valid testimony and denying “the specific effects of trauma on the process of narration” are definitely needed. [End Page 1065]

As in her dissertation, Tal includes a valuable chapter on the Vietnam poet and writer, W. D. Ehrhart, who exemplifies the major qualities of an artist searching for a “whole new mode of speaking in order to articulate his subject.” This “Farmer of Dreams” engages in an important literary exploration frequently misjudged by proponents of academic creative writing programs. Ehrhart’s later poetry reflects a breakdown of coping mechanisms and an “ability to once again fully experience the range of human emotion” leading away from death and toward life and uncertainty.

The final chapters deal with the emotionally disturbing but poignant nature of narratives by rape and incest survivors. Much of this material is upsetting to read, but it is also different from most literary narratives. It expresses traumatic feelings in ways that urgently need to be understood and disseminated to a world often expressing willful ignorance about these experiences, whether in academic or everyday life. Tal has performed a valuable task in depicting this painful world and arguing for its inherent relevance. Traditional conceptions of literature and taste are irrelevant toward understanding the nature of these different voices. She cogently argues, “Literature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it real both to the victim and to the community. Such writing serves both as validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized writer.”

The various psychic journeys undertaken in trauma literature involve a move from fragmentation to wholeness marked by struggle in which survivors fight ideological battles over a struggle for meaning. Throughout this book, Tal often sees remarkable unities between the diverse narratives she examines, such as those linking Louise Wisechild’s The Obsidian Mirror with Ehrhart’s prose narratives. Tal contends, “Both authors insist firmly on allowing the protagonist to speak for himself/herself, and on situating the reader in the same state...