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  • Das Vergangene wird gewußt, das Gewußte [aber] wird erzählt”: Trauma, Forgetting, and Narrative in F.W.J. Schelling’s Die Weltalter
  • David Farrell Krell

Here is the primal source of bitterness intrinsic in all life. Indeed, there must be bitterness. It must irrupt immediately, as soon life is no longer sweetened. For love itself is compelled toward hate. In hate, the tranquil, gentle spirit can achieve no effects, but is oppressed by the enmity into which the exigency of life transposes all our forces. From this comes the deep despondency that lies concealed in all life; without such despondency there can be no actuality—it is life’s poison, which wants to be overcome, yet without which life would drift off into endless slumber.

—Schelling, The Ages of the World1

Is there reason to believe that trauma studies have anything to learn from philosophy? The happenstance that philosophy today, whether of the analytical or hermeneutical persuasions, is itself traumatized—having both run out of problems and bored even its most dedicated audiences to death—is no guarantee. It seems incredible that a never-completed work of romantic-idealist metaphysics, namely, Schelling’s Ages of the World (1811–1815) could have much to tell the contemporary student of trauma. What could the omnipotent divinity of ontotheology have to say to victims of violence? What would the God of traditional metaphysics and morals know about ignominious suffering—about a passio deprived of the safety net of resurrection?

I am not sure. In the present paper I am operating on the (naive?) assumption that several aspects of Schelling’s account of God’s difficulties—those told in narratives about the distant past—are somehow related to the traumas that human beings have undergone in the recent past and are undergoing in our own time. While I am not prepared to say that Schelling’s God is suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), there do seem to be grounds for saying that God’s memories, like those of his or her children, are “stored in a state-dependent fashion, which may render them inaccessible to verbal recall for prolonged periods of time” (Van der Kolk, et al., “Introduction” xix–xx). As we shall see, that inability to recall over prolonged periods of time is precisely what Schelling understands to be the principal trait of time past and present. Further, if experiencing trauma is “an essential part of being human,” and if human history “is written in blood,” then being human is an essential part of divinity, and the blood spilled in human history is the blood of the lamb (Van der Kolk and McFarlane, “Black Hole” 3). The memory of God is surely deep, but it is also anguished, humiliated, tainted, and unheroic (Langer).2 If human memories are “highly condensed symbols of hidden preoccupations,” and are thus very much like dreams, and if the memories that are “worth remembering” are memories of trauma, then it is arguable that a memorious God could be nothing other than a suffering godhead (Lambeck and Antze xii). Indeed, if psychic trauma involves not only intense personal suffering but also “recognition of realities that most of us have not begun to face,” no God worthy of the logos would want to be without it (Caruth, “Introduction” vii). No Creator worthy of the name would be willing to forgo testing his or her creative powers against radical loss—the terrible test of survival (Aberbach).3 Finally, such a suffering God would also have to become his or her own historian, exercising a craft in which both memory and narrative are crucial—and disenchantment inevitable (Le Goff).4 The suffering godhead would have to advance from trauma to melancholia, living a life “that is unlivable, heavy with daily sorrows, tears held back or shed, a total despair, scorching at times, then wan and empty,” under the dismal light of a black sun (Kristeva 4). In the light and dark of all these recent inquiries into traumatized memory, the question is not whether trauma studies have anything to learn from philosophy but whether philosophy is capable of thinking its traumas.

Having spoken of narrative, trauma, forgetting...

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