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  • The Psychical Nature of Trauma: Freud’s Dora, The Young Homosexual Woman, and the Fort! Da! Paradigm
  • Ellie Ragland

In recent literary studies of trauma, many critics postulate trauma as itself a limit on representation. In Shoshana Felman’s words, working with trauma in the literary classroom, whether through fiction, historical fiction, or poetry, has the pedagogical effect of “break[ing] the very framework of the class” (50). Yet what makes the study of trauma particularly germane to literary critique and analysis is not, as one might assume, some extra-linguistic component which would seem to belong to the field of History. Rather, what appears in narrative accounts of trauma are the pathetic, suffering, passionate and affective dimensions that literary language and genres have always sought to embody and recount.

Relating the descriptive words used by her students on the occasion of their having viewed a videotaped session of Holocaust testimony, Felman finds commonality between the students’ words and those of various poets, such as Paul Célan and Mallarmé. Célan recalls “A strange lostness/Was palpably present,” while Mallarmé speaks of “the testimony of an accident.” But the larger point to come out of trauma studies is that art cannot be seen as separate from life, or as separable from a certain normal affectivity which is the very domain of literary language.

The goal of this essay is to link the relation of trauma to memory (and forgetting) in terms of its speech, displaced in symptoms, passion, and affect; to unveil the nature of traumatic catastrophe as a concrete, historical event; to argue that the limits of representation in trauma tell us something new about the affects (as opposed to cognition) which Lacan tried to explain by his category of the real. Further on, I shall relate my argument to Freud’s Dora case, his “Fragment of a Little Hysteria” (1905), his study of “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman” (1920), and his comments regarding the trauma undergone by his young nephew in the Fort! Da! paradigm. I shall reconsider these in light of Lacan’s interpretation of Freud’s theory of the object in reference to his Seminar IV: The Object Relation.

Critics working in this new mode of literary study have isolated certain features marking a clear set of responses that arise from trauma material. Dori Laub, for example, speaks of the temporal delay that carries one beyond the shock of a first moment of trauma to what inevitably follows: a repeated suffering of the event. Traumatic memories—whether recounted by Holocaust survivors, incest victims, or survivors of rape or other abuse—have the characteristic of reappearing with a literal repetitiveness that reminds one of Freud’s arguments in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920): at the point where one would expect the pleasure principle to function, one discovers, instead, a repetition whose fixities are on the side of the death drive.1 Lacan put forth the theory that what is repressed in the real—the order of trauma, of the unsayable, unspeakable, the impossible—will return in the symbolic order of language. A trauma, in other words, will not just disappear. It cannot simply be forgotten. Not only will it remain recorded in the real as a limit point to memory; it will reappear as a symptomatic enigma which opens onto a certain anxiety. In his Seminar X (1962–1963): L’angoisse, Lacan stresses that the anxiety accompanying a trauma is not doubt. Rather, its effects have remained inscribed as an unconscious system of knowledge which appears in conscious life as a concrete insistence, whose characteristic modes are repetition, passion, strong affect, or a suffering that one cannot simply and easily talk away or talk through. Trauma, in Lacan’s estimation, is not only not doubt; it is, rather, the cause of doubt.

Lacan stresses an unfamiliar picture of the causality of trauma, then: it is a kind of certainty that can be known insofar as it is acted out. Put another way, behind an affect caused by trauma, one finds the movement of cause itself as a return of the real into the symbolic. Precise knowledge regarding the trauma’s cause...

Additional Information

ISSN
1053-1920
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
Open Access
No
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