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  • On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies
  • Geoffrey H. Hartman (bio)


Both philosophical and linguistic skepticism, whether of the anarchic or the methodical kind, have challenged the possibility of certain knowledge. Trauma theory introduces a psychoanalytic skepticism as well, which does not give up on knowledge but suggests the existence of a traumatic kind, one that cannot be made entirely conscious, in the sense of being fully retrieved or communicated without distortion. Can we bear, Adam Phillips asks, “our inevitable ignorance?” Is the contemporary psychoanalyst a paradox, that is, “an expert on the truths of uncertainty”? 1 A theory emerges focusing on the relationship of words and trauma, and helping us to “read the wound” with the aid of literature.

My account of what is perking in literary studies must remain tentative. We have only a beginning, something like a virtual community of explorers. The theory derives mainly from psychoanalytic sources, though it is strongly affected by literary practice. It recasts, in effect, an older question: what kind of knowledge is art, or what kind of knowledge does it foster?

The theory holds that the knowledge of trauma, or the knowledge which comes from that source, is composed of two contradictory elements. One is the traumatic event, registered rather than experienced. It seems to have bypassed perception and consciousness, and falls directly into the psyche. The other is a kind of memory of the event, in the form of a perpetual troping of it by the bypassed or severely split (dissociated) psyche. On the level of poetics, literal and figurative may correspond to these two types of cognition.

Traumatic knowledge, then, would seem to be a contradiction in terms. It is as close to nescience as to knowledge. Any general description or modeling of trauma, therefore, risks being figurative itself, to the point of mythic fantasmagoria. Something “falls” into the psyche, or causes it to “split.” There is an original inner catastrophe whereby/in which an experience that is not experienced (and so, apparently, not “real”) has an exceptional presence—is inscribed with a force proportional to the mediations punctured or evaded. Reading such accounts, [End Page 537] that try to be clinical and rational yet are as highly imaginative as Lacan’s mathemes, I am put in mind of William Blake’s revision of the “primal scene” of Genesis, with its cosmogonic chaos or tohu-va-bohu.

Blake depicts a mysterious turbulence in the heavens that expels or segregates a god (Urizen). The fall is thus a divine sickness, a disorder in the heavens; and it does not happen after the Creation, as in Christian interpretations of the Book of Genesis; rather Creation is itself the catastrophe, at once shock, splitting off and the reification of a mysterious diminishment. We fall into Creation, or rather into a parody-world made in the image of Urizen, its tyrant-demiurge, and confirmed by mankind’s complicitous and terror-stricken imagination. 2

Blake sometimes reveals that his titanomachia is a psychomachia: the imaginings of an ideal human being seeking to reverse a mysterious loss. An ancestor-figure he names Albion tries to recover—to dream himself back to—a state of unity and self-integration. But Albion’s dream cannot easily escape history, or a constricted imagination: it is therefore mostly a repetitious nightmare purging itself of internalized or institutionalized superstitions. Albion works them through, we would now be tempted to say.

The hyperbolic picture of trauma we find in Blake is justified when we recall a child’s impressionability and vulnerability, qualities that constitute, as Winnicott and others have observed, a necessary, even creative part of development. Despite the miracle of maturation, adults do not overcome that childhood phase. If the infant imagination projects itself onto what appears to be a giant, that is, a grown human being, and if it had the capacity to articulate its moment to moment fears and fantasies, might we not approach a cartoon of Blake’s fantasmagoria? And might not the ironies and ambiguities in the poet’s mature vision, or the vacillating and often confusing sequences of enchantment and disenchantment, reflect a very early developmental ambivalence or even dualism?

We too ask, like Blake...

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pp. 537-563
Launched on MUSE
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