The Forgetful Figure: Armenian Representations of Trauma in Aṛakʿel of Tabriz and Shahan Shahnur
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The Forgetful Figure
Armenian Representations of Trauma in Aṛakʿel of Tabriz and Shahan Shahnur

And this is why it seems to me that the kinds of antinarrative nonstories produced by literary modernism offer the only prospect for adequate representations of the kind of "unnatural" events—including the Holocaust—that mark our era and distinguish it absolutely from all of the history that has come before it.

—Hayden White, "The Modernist Event," in Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect

With this we close for the present our study of figura. Our purpose was to show how on the basis of its semantic development a word may grow into a historical situation and give rise to structures that will be effective for many centuries.

—Erich Auerbach, "Figura"

Nearly seventy years ago, Erich Auerbach brought figuralism into the limelight of literary studies. Breathtaking in scope, his masterful Mimesis and essay "Figura" ultimately posited figuralism, which gave rise to a particular mode of representing and interpreting reality, as essential for understanding the history of Western literature.

Since Auerbach, numerous scholars, such as Hayden White, Robert Doran, and Hans Kellner, have explored the relationship between differing [End Page 65] concepts of the "figure" and the act of constructing either historical or literary narratives. Most notably, White has suggested the historian must engage in "figural" work even before attempting to represent history. Or, as White argued in Metahistory, "Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it, he must first prefigure the field—that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception."1 For White, pre-figuration is a linguistic act that serves to construct the historical field as "a ground inhabited by discernible figures" prior to introducing an interpretive mechanism or making a narrative that constructs history as such.2 This prompts our question: what happens when the "figures" of history aren't easily discernible, even to the historian? And to what extent might the "figures" of history, particularly the figures of traumatic experience, obscure, rather than fulfill, the meaning of past events in our present?

In this article I will examine a phenomenon I term "figural interruption," which, put most simply, occurs when the historian or author cannot, or will not, represent traumatic experience through "conventional" figuralism, thereby failing (or refusing) to render trauma as an object of mental perception.3 My examination will focus on two of the most harrowing experiences that have lingered in Armenian collective memory over the last four hundred years: the deportation of thousands of Armenians from the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire into Safavid Iran in 1604, as well the Armenian genocide at the twilight of the Ottoman Empire one century ago.

My purpose is twofold. First, by examining the work of Aṛakʿel of Tabriz, a significant Armenian historian during the seventeenth century, alongside that of Shahan Shahnur, a major Armenian novelist of the twentieth century, I seek to shed light on an overlooked correspondence in how premodern and modern subjects have theorized traumatic experience, especially in relation to other historical events. This correspondence is rooted in the historical development of figuralism, sometimes called typology in English,4 and therefore has relevance beyond the case studies I examine here. Second, a closer analysis of figuralism stands to make a contribution to what Ruth Leys calls the mimetic paradigm in trauma studies, which has informed the idea that trauma "never becomes part of the ordinary memory system" and therefore cannot be fully recalled or entirely [End Page 66] forgotten by the survivor.5 Sigmund Freud provides a foundational example of this paradigm, noting that a survivor might walk away from a train collision "apparently uninjured [scheinbar unbeschädigt]," only to develop a traumatic neurosis later, after an incubation period of latency.6 Cathy Caruth, in her reading of Freud, takes this hypothesis several steps further, arguing that trauma is only experienced through this process of "inherent forgetting," a "belatedness" of historical experience that comes to light only "in connection with another place, and in another time,"7 when the traumatic...