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  • The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century
  • Harriet Murav
The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century. By Shoshana Felman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002. viii+253 pp. $19.95

At first glance, trauma and trials seem to have little in common. Trauma, a devastating, hidden psychical wound, remains unavailable to consciousness, but nonetheless spills over into conscious life, making its effects known by symptomatic repetition. Trials, in contrast, deal with what is known, clear, and subsumable under rational categories, and most importantly, bring conflicts to closure. Regardless of the fundamental differences between the two, Felman argues that law in the twentieth century has been forced to deal with trauma. However, as her readings of Walter Benjamin, the O.J. Simpson trial, Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata," and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem show, trials repeat the traumas that they are meant to adjudicate. [End Page 234] Legal institutions and procedures seek closure, but as the O.J. Simpson case and the Eichmann trial both reveal, the attempt at finitude is doomed to failure. The literary work, however, opens up what cannot be subsumed by that totality; the literary work names the "black hole," the abyss, the gap that the law tries, but cannot succeed in closing. The trauma of gender, the trauma of race, and the trauma of the Holocaust refuse to remain behind the closed door of history and court procedure. According to Felman, Benjamin's writing and his suicide speak to the trauma of world war. In "The Storyteller" Benjamin argued that people had lost the ability to "exchange experiences," a problem, which according to Felman, reflects the trauma of the first world war. Benjamin's own suicide, however, does not simply reflect trauma, but instead speaks against complicity and collaboration, restores voice to those who were silenced. Felman sees his death not as a form of collapse, but as a protest. Benjamin "brings history to court," seeing in advance that courts will come to judge history, as in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials.

In her discussion of O.J. and Tolstoy, Felman shows that the traumatic history of race and gender erupts in court whether legal officials mean for it to or not. Felman writes that Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata" makes us see the fundamental problem that the Simpson trial could not address. Tolstoy shows the "abyss" separating women from men. His hero, Pozdnyshev, confesses that he murdered his wife "because of that terrible abyss there was between us" (92). The same distance and failure of understanding separates blacks and whites in twentieth century America, giving rise to the wide divergence in the way the two communities responded to O.J.'s acquittal. Felman states that in both the imagined situation of Tolstoy's story and the real-life Simpson trial, the law cannot grasp "the nature of the case." But the nature of Felman's claim requires additional qualification: what is at stake in this claim and for whom is it compelling? In Tolstoy's time, for example, Russian women could not travel or work without their husbands' permission, and divorce, which was controlled by the Orthodox church, was nearly impossible. Legal observers of the time argued for the secularization of and increased access to divorce on the grounds that these reforms would lessen the number of cases of domestic violence. Felman's comparison of "The Kreutzer Sonata" and the Simpson trial suggests that legal reform makes no difference in terms of bridging the gap. I suspect that at least some victims of domestic violence, for example, for women who succeed in having their abusive husbands prosecuted, would not agree. The imperceptibility of trauma is of great significance for literature, but the mitigation of its [End Page 235] effects through legal means, albeit imperfect ones, is no less important for victims. Felman's totalizing rhetoric suggests otherwise. Law necessarily fails to redress trauma, but is doomed only to repeat it. But it is not altogether clear from Felman's discussion that the law should be in the business of therapizing trauma victims: she leaves unspecified what success would look like. In a lengthy footnote that addresses the...


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