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174 7 Ethnostalgia Irish Hunger and Traumatic Memory JOSE PH VA L E N T E THE USE AND ABUSE OF TR AUM A THEORY Trauma theory made its debut in Irish studies during the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Great Famine (1846–49). A critical genealogy of this intervention will help to clarify the potential, the limitations, the dangers, and above all the ideological stakes and motives of this recent addition to the arsenal of nationalist historiography and cultural analysis. Among the most terrible catastrophes on modern European record, the Great Famine self-evidently qualifies as a massive collective trauma in the popular sense. But the spate of anniversary reflections also encouraged a reading of the Famine as traumatic in the psychotherapeutic sense, that is, as a catastrophe that brought suffering so intense and dehumanizing as to overwhelm the emotional resources of affected individuals and communities to “work it through”: to confront, objectify, recover. On its sesquicentennial , many felt, the Famine should not only be memorialized, but retrieved as an occulted memory. An exemplary enactment of this viewpoint can be found in the anthology Irish Hunger, which comprises commemorative discourse from journalists, politicians, academics and literati of both the homeland and diasporic communities (Hayden 1998). The one thing these sundry pieces have in common is adherence to a loosely psychoanalytic model of repressed memory Irish Hunger and Traumatic Memory 175 syndrome. In the opening essay, Irish Times columnist John Waters lays out the conceptual grid of the volume: “Any psychiatrist worth the salt on his spuds will tell you about . . . ‘inhibited experience,’ the repression of a painful episode in the past of the human person, the denial over many years . . . of something too traumatic to face” (Waters 1998a, 27). What Cathy Caruth has proclaimed as the grounds on which “psychoanalytic theory and trauma meet,” the “impossibility of saying” (Caruth 1995, 10), represents for Waters the principle of Ireland’s relation to its past: “Not only are we reluctant to face the trauma of our own history—we are unwilling even to face the possibility that such an inhibited experience may exist in our collective consciousness” (Waters 1998a, 25). True to the consensus in trauma theory, this breakdown in Irish memory, the incapacity to take symbolic possession of the harrowing event, is seen to result in a discharge of unprocessed material in literal forms, whereby the harrowing event reveals its continued “possession” of its victims. When it comes to the nature of this breakdown and the ensuing discharge , however, Waters and his compatriots in Irish Hunger cannot rely on a received consensus, and in their approach to these questions, one can discern the ideological tendentiousness of their shared project. The field of trauma theory is divided between two incommensurable conceptions of memory disorder, which are too often mooted interchangeably (van der Kolk and van der Hart 1995, 167–68). Familiar from Freud’s foundational account of conversion hysteria, traumatic repression entails a vertical topography of mind, in which experiences that prove intolerable to consciousness are “pushed down” only to “return” in symptomatic formations. Despite the popularity of this conception and its recrudescence in “repressed memory syndrome,” the dominant theory of memory loss in trauma studies is that of dissociation. On this account, which entails a horizontal topography of mind, experiences whose agonizing intensity cannot be accommodated within the apparatus of voluntary memory are subsumed, without being integrated, in an “alternative stream of cognition,” whence they surge forth, involuntarily, in flashbacks, hallucinations, nightmares, cold sweats, and other psychosomatic reminders. Caruth’s characterization of traumatic memories as “accurate,” “precise,” of an “overwhelming immediacy” yet “inaccessible to conscious recall and control” elaborates on a dissociative 176 Joseph Valente mnemonics (Caruth 1995, 151).1 For ideological reasons, this influential dissociative model goes systematically unaddressed in Irish Hunger. Waters himself assembles an impressively dismal “array of legacies” that reflect Ireland’s failure to commemorate these events: “the hemorrhaging of our young, the corruption of our spirituality, the destruction of our independence of spirit, the final assault on our sense of self,” “the cravenness of our dependencies,” and “the whole warped nature of our society” (Waters 1998b, 109; 1998a, 28). But he tellingly makes no provision for the more direct forms in which, as Caruth says, “traumatic recall survives at the cost of willed memory” (Caruth 1995, 152), and his elision announces a commitment to an exclusively repressive mnemonics, the sense of Ireland as a “culture of amnesia” that needs to return to the scene of the...


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