Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 61, Number 3, Autumn 2005
pp. 1-26 | 10.1353/arq.2005.0007
ROBERT HUGHES Sleepy Hollow: Fearful Pleasures and the Nightmare of History I. INTRODUCTORY QUESTIONS: irving's LEGEND AND TRAUMATIC HISTORY SOME OF THE MOST SOPHISTICATED writings that recent decades have witnessed at the nexus of literature and history have been in the field of what has come to be called trauma theory.1 One suspects that trauma theory has been especially fertile for literary studies at least in part because the telling of difficult histories gives rise to some of the most fundamental questions posed also by literature itself: questions about the nature of indirect reference, about the ethical stakes of putting events into language, and about the complex relations that may subsist between a spoken or written text and the world of history where social forces clash and real people live and die. The traumatized survivor—like, for example, the soldier who suffers nightmares and flashbacks after returning from the scene of battle, or like a community ravaged by the chaos and violence ofcivil war—is haunted by a terrible and profound problem of memory and narrative. How, for example, is one to think of—let alone tell of—an encounter with death, an event that by its very nature eludes human comprehension? How, for that matter, is one to account for the enigma of one's own survival in the face of death? As one influential critic has described the curious problem ofhistory posed by traumatic events, The history that a flashback tells—as psychiatry, psychoanalysis , and neurobiology equally suggest—is ... a history that literally has no place, neither in the past, in which it was not fully experienced, nor in the present in which its precise images and enactments are not fully understood. In its repeated imposition Arizona Quarterly Volume 61 , Number 3 , Autumn 2005 Copyright © 2005 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 610 2 Robert Hughes as both image and amnesia, the trauma thus seems to evoke the difficult truth of a history that is constituted by the very incomprehensibility of its occurrence. For the survivor of trauma, then, the truth of the event may reside not only in its brutal facts, but also in the way that their occurrence defies simple comprehension. The flashback or traumatic reenactment conveys, that is, both the truth of an event, and the truth of its incomprehensibility. (Caruth, Introduction 153) Thus, on the one hand, it seems impossible to tell of such events that overwhelm any straightforward comprehension or narrative memory; yet on the other hand, to tell the tale, to bear witness, to testify to these events acquires for the traumatized subject a psychological and ethical necessity. To the question of how one is to reconcile this paradox of impossible discursive necessity, literature has seemed to promise an answer, as if literature perhaps had some privileged capacity for communicating the nightmares of history. And indeed, one might argue that a relationship between literary writing and traumatic history was intuited as early as Sigmund Freud who, in his well-known essay on "The Uncanny" (1919; SE 17:218-56), turned to the question of literature just as he was then also renewing his theoretical interest in trauma (in Beyond the Pleasure Principh), following the explosion of "war neuroses " in World War I. Yet it seems plain, too, that direct testimonies of trauma—for example testimonies from Holocaust survivors—are not themselves events of "literature," at least not as we have ordinarily used the term in English Departments. How, then, are we to understand the relations among history, trauma and the properly literary? If we take Freud's hint and wish to consider the uncanny as the special province of trauma in literature, what are we to make ofthe indirection by which such fictional tales necessarily proceed—that they tell the truth, so to speak, by telling a lie? As the present essay will demonstrate, this shift from the traumatic register into the uncanny is precisely what allows the tale of a trauma to be told and heard and passed on again. Thus, a traumatic history—which of itself would be painful—is communicated instead as an uncanny tale that produces a strange variety of unsettling pleasure while still...