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Navigating Trauma in Conrad's Victory: A Voyage from Sigmund Freud to Phillip Bromberg

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 81-92 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0036

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"Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and to put its trust in life!" This statement, which anticipates the ideas of contemporary relational psychoanalysts, was in fact written by a novelist who long preceded them—Joseph Conrad—in his 1915 novel Victory (410). In this literary work, Conrad revises his earlier treatment of trauma as a singular cataclysmic event in the life of a potentially heroic adult, usually male (as depicted in Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Under Western Eyes) to a conception of trauma as the corrosive effect of a child's repeated exposures to emotionally-invalidating caregivers. In this revision, Conrad departs from a view of trauma that accords with Freud's account in Beyond the Pleasure Principle 1920, of a single shocking incident—witnessing the primal scene, surviving a train wreck, fighting in a war—to a concept of trauma as a series of mundane but nevertheless toxic childhood occurrences or reoccurrences, a view that accords closely with the contemporary understanding of trauma by relational theorists, most notably that of Philip Bromberg. Thus Conrad's novel presciently anticipates the corrective vision of contemporary psychoanalytic theory, which has supplanted Freud's rather sensational narratives with a more subtle and nuanced understanding of trauma as a long-term lack of validation in childhood that forecloses adult possibilities.

In his earlier works, including Heart of Darkness (1898), Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), Conrad presents a series of protagonists, who each receives a single and singular psychological shock that radically disrupts a previously unperturbed existence. In Heart of Darkness, the seaman Charlie Marlow, anticipating a comradely meeting with the exemplary Kurtz, encounters instead a rapacious colonial agent, gone mad with greed and lust. In Lord Jim, the eponymous ship's officer and would-be hero, in an act of cowardice that shocks him as much as his peers, jumps ship in a crisis, abandoning the eight hundred passengers in his charge. In Under Western Eyes, the apolitical protagonist, Razumov, is undone by the precipitous act of an importunate fellow student and revolutionary, who compromises Razumov's neutrality by seeking his help.

But in Victory, Conrad presents not a solitary would-be hero, but two unheroic yet sympathetic characters, a man and a woman, who fail in a more mundane undertaking—in their effort to love and understand each other and to forge a life together—because of the traumatic deprivations and depredations of their respective childhood. Both these characters have experienced psychological trauma in childhoods, as Bromberg defines it: "the precipitous disruption of self-continuity through the invalidation of the patterns of meaning that define the experience of 'who one is'" (Spaces, qtd. in Dreamer 33). As children, Conrad's two central characters, Lena and Heyst, both suffered continual rejection by parental figures of crucial aspects of self, and so, as adults, both are undermined by a dissociative structure of self that prevents them from recognizing as "me" sequestered self-states essential for their well-being: Lena cannot experience herself as worthy or lovable; Heyst cannot experience himself as engaged, loving, or effectual. Thus, in this later novel, Conrad's concern is not with a single potentially heroic male figure wrestling with his conscience, whose actions reverberate in the larger world, but with the relationship of a man and a woman, wrestling with the phantoms of childhood trauma, in order to secure domestic happiness.

Conrad's conception of trauma as presented in this novel accords with Philip Bromberg's, particularly as explicated in his book, Awakening the Dreamer). Bromberg's understanding of trauma derives from a theory of mind very different from Freud's. According to Bromberg (and other relational theorists, including Donnel Stern), the "self" is not unitary but an amalgam of discrete and discontinuous self-states—also known as affect states or feeling states—that alternate so fluidly and rapidly that the shifts are imperceptible: the subject does not notice that they are dissociated, one from the other. As Bromberg puts it, "self-states are what the mind comprises. Dissociation is what the mind does" (2). Thus, Bromberg's understanding of the mind...



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