- A Lifetime of Anger and Pain:Kalí Tal and the Literatures of Trauma
I am squirming uncomfortably as I read the first few pages of Kalí Tal’s Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. She opens the book with a political anecdote that questions the integrity and judgement of no less a figure than Elie Wiesel, the high priest of Holocaust survivor literature. A bit stunned, I flip to the beginning of the next chapter. Here Tal characterizes a group of Vietnam veterans in front of the Lincoln Memorial as “entrepreneurs...hawk[ing] commercial products [and] POW/MIA propaganda” (23). Chapter three? George Bush is under fire: his pronouncement that “‘we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome’” implies, in Tal’s words, that “the whole country has been struck ill with this disease, and the Gulf War is the prescribed (and successful) cure” (60–61).
To anyone not familiar with Tal’s subject matter, the literature of trauma, or with the repressive and reductive treatment afforded the study of such literature by the academy, Tal’s aggressive polemics might seem excessive; her use of public political examples might appear inappropriate in a work devoted primarily to literary texts. But as Tal herself reminds us early in her text, “bearing witness is an aggressive act” which “threatens the status quo.”
It is born out of a refusal to bow to outside pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain.(7)
Tal’s own work, like the work of the writers/trauma survivors she describes, is a calculated act of aggression that situates the literature of trauma (and the study of such literature) within the broader realms of literary theory, cultural production, and national politics, all of which have long combined, Tal argues, to ignore its authority, devalue and silence its authors, and deny its unique position in the world literary canon. Tal seems to argue that those few trauma survivors/authors (Wiesel among them) who have entered the literary pantheon have done so not in recognition of the unique qualities of the literature of trauma, but in spite of them.
The formidable task Tal sets for herself is to establish a position of recognition and respect in contemporary literary and cultural studies not for literature about trauma survival, but for the literature of the trauma survivor. To do so, she must begin with a definition of terms. But in this field, even the defining of terms becomes a political mine field. “Trauma,” for example, is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an event “generally outside the range of human experience.” Yet, as Tal points out, in the United States one form of trauma, rape, is “more common than left-handedness.” Thus, it is clear that, to the APA, “usual human experience” can only mean “usual white male experience” (136); the recurring traumas of women are politically silenced by a psychiatric vocabulary which denies their prominent and disturbing place in our society.
Defining a “Literature of Trauma” is no less problematic. For many scholars (including members of the literary and psychoanalytical communities at Tal’s alma mater, Yale), any work of literature which deals with traumatic events or the aftermath of such events is literature of trauma. The status of the author is irrelevant; no differentiation is made, for instance, between a fictional work of literature and the autobiographical bearing of witness by a trauma survivor. Text is text, the argument goes; literature is literature. Tal’s work, by contrast, is based on the conviction that for therapeutic and political reasons, one must identify a distinct literature of trauma comprising the writings of trauma survivors, and unwaveringly defined by the status and identity of those authors as trauma survivors. In Tal’s study, this literature includes, but is not limited to, narratives written by Holocaust survivors, Vietnam War veterans, and incest and sexual abuse survivors.
Using Vietnam veteran authors as an example, Tal explains the difference between the...