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  • Regarding the Pain of Self and Other: Trauma Transfer and Narrative Framing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Ilka Saal (bio)

Coping with trauma entails not only the repair of incurred physical damage but also the reconstruction of shattered narrative structures. As Elaine Scarry insists, “physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it” (4). The reconstruction of language is therefore essential not only for the purpose of giving testimony to pain and suffering but also for healing, for the remaking of the world, as theorists of trauma, such as Cathy Caruth and Dominick LaCapra, have pointed out. However, such translating of the wound into narrative poses important aesthetic and ethical questions not just with regard to what Caruth has described as the essential incomprehensibility of trauma, but also with regard to what kind of narrative perspectives, structures, and tropes we ultimately deploy to render the ineffable fathomable. Formal decisions are crucial in determining our historical, cultural, and political understanding of the event. [End Page 453]

As Judith Butler reminds us, our collective experience of a cataclysmic event always emerges within a particular narrative frame, and it is this very frame that can either open up or preclude “certain kinds of questions, certain kinds of historical inquiries” (4). It decides “in a forceful way, what we can hear, whether a view will be taken as an explanation or as an exoneration, whether we can hear the difference and abide by it” (5). Ultimately, it is also this very narrative frame that determines whether “the experience of violence and loss have to lead straightaway to military violence and retribution” or whether “something can be made of grief besides a cry for war” (xi). With regard to 9/11, Butler points out that while the event momentarily disrupted the American nation’s narcissistic understanding of itself, providing it with an opportunity to acknowledge its interdependency with other nations, the narratives triggered in its wake immediately shored up a first-person perspective that reasserted impenetrable boundaries between self and others.1 With such prompt recentering of its public identity, so Butler maintains, the US forfeited the opportunity to reflect on injury as such, “to find out the mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways” (xii). In order to enable reflection on the global power relations that interlink one’s own vulnerability with that of others, one would have to abandon the convenience of a unilateral narrative frame and begin to tell the story differently. What would happen, so Butler asks, if the nation was to start the narrative not on September 11 but earlier by way of deciphering the very conditions that produced terrorism in the first place? Or what if we were “to narrate ourselves not from the first person alone, but from, say, the position of the third, to receive an account delivered in the second” (8)? And she adds in a hopeful manner that such an attempt of inhabiting the decentered position of vulnerability might even prompt the nation to “endeavor to produce another public culture and policy in which suffering unexpected violence and reactive aggression are not accepted as the norms of political life” (xii).

Prompted by Butler’s concern with the ethics and politics of the narrative framing of trauma, this essay reflects on one prominent narrative strategy emerging in US literature in the wake of September 11, namely the reading of the current trauma through the lens of a previous one—a strategy that I will refer to as trauma transfer. Frequently the Holocaust serves as such a point of reference as, for instance, in Israel Horovitz’s play Three Days After Paradise (2001) or Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, it is primarily the firebombing of Dresden and the nuclear [End Page 454] destruction of Hiroshima that are evoked to deal with the attacks on New York. Yet, by sketching out the larger semantic field of World War II atrocities, Foer also conjures up what many perceive to be...


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pp. 451-476
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