- The Body of the Child, the Body of the Land: Trauma and Nachträglichkeit in David Grossman’s To the End of the Land
Bodies in the world, embodied selves, the land itself as a responsive body: these are the concerns that animate the fiction of David Grossman. This essay addresses the resonances of embodiment in Grossman’s fictional universe. By “embodiment” I mean to indicate both the contours of the child’s body and the configuring of the land as a political entity. Each is a “body,” either literally or figuratively. As such, the borders, surfaces, and orifices of both child and land are contested ground, subject to incursion and appropriation. David Grossman’s most recent novel, To the End of the Land, registers the traumatic impact of both of these encounters.
I bring to this study of narrative and embodiment the psychoanalytic concept of Nachträglichkeit that is associated with trauma. Commonly translated as “deferred action,” Nachträglichkeit indicates a later experience of falling ill that is the consequence of the mind’s inability to process the impact of an earlier event in the moment of its occurrence. And yet the temporal structure of Nachträglichkeit, caught between past and present, can also help to understand a more general feature of the mind, the idea that mental life involves a constant return to and reworking of earlier experience.
The concept of Nachträglichkeit draws attention to movements of the mind that involve both retrospection and anticipation from a position in the present. In this more general context, trauma indicates a breakdown in precisely the ability to move freely, mingling past, present, and future in one’s inner world of thoughts and feelings. [End Page 43] Within a psychoanalytic frame of reference, one could say that analyst and analysand work together to restore the capacity of mind for the kind of temporal reversibility to which the concept of Nachträglichkeit draws attention. As several recent studies point out, this temporal flexibility is crucial to psychoanalytic work, insofar as the moment in the present might open up the possibility of a different future through change in one’s relation to the past (Faimberg; Dahl).
Precisely this ability of the mind to weave together past, present, and future, drawing on events real and imagined, is central to literary experience. Literature is, after all, the imaginative domain that is not bound by the constraints of empirical experience, offering writers and readers alike precisely the ability to roam through time and space that quotidian life constrains and trauma interrupts. Acknowledging the damaging impact of trauma on the ability of the mind to move through time and space can make us more aware of narrative as a deeply rooted human capacity, one that is linked to Nachträglichkeit, the specifically psychoanalytic conception of temporality.
This essay works through the reading of a novel to understand narrative in just this sense of its connection to a central function of mental life, one that we may notice more through its negation or disruption than through its active exercise. In this respect, it is worth noting that the theoretical concept of Nachträglichkeit itself first arose in the context of illness and impediment, that is, in Freud’s work with patients suffering from symptoms of hysteria. Through the work of listening and verbal reconstruction, Freud came to see that the painful symptoms from which his patients were suffering could be understood as bodily enactments that represented unconscious repetitions of real and imagined scenes. “Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences,” he noted, recognizing the bodily symptom to be a dense text whose physical manifestations encoded memories and fantasies too overwhelming—too painful or exciting—to recall. The “talking cure” worked through verbal associations to sort out the layers of meaning that hysterical symptoms had accrued over time. Together, patient and doctor elicited events, feelings, and fantasies in the patient’s history and gave them place in an emerging life story. Indeed, Freud’s rueful remark that his case studies of hysteria read more like short stories than science might well be regarded as an unwitting insight into the scientific value of narrative understanding (“Studies” 160...