- Coming Too Late:Freud, Belatedness, and Existential Trauma
It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made that we exist.—Emerson, "Experience"
We were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together.—Justin Martyr, First Apology
In discussing the impact of traumatic experience on the workings of memory, Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart challenge one of the central tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis—the concept of repression— at least as it relates to trauma. Like Freud, especially from the writing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) onward, van der Kolk and van der Hart are interested "in the role of overwhelming experiences on the development of psychopathology" (158). But against Freud's theory of repression as a response to trauma, they offer a new way of understanding what it means for the traumatized psyche not to be able to lay claim to a past experience in the form of a conscious relation to it.
Concerned both with how, in general terms, "memories are stored in the mind" and, more particularly, with the "disruptive impact of traumatic experiences" on the storage and retrieval of memories (158), van der Kolk and van der Hart argue that trauma's disabling of the mind has less to do with repression as an active refusal of an experience—its forced relocation to a hidden region that escapes conscious attention1—than with dissociation, a process whereby the mind, faced with an incomprehensible experience, fails to organize that experience within an unfolding temporal order—fails, that is, to assign it narrative coherence. Where such coherence ("narrative memory") is lacking, they argue, the mind cannot assimilate an experience into a broader life narrative. In this model, in other words, trauma renders experience inaccessible to conscious thought through the failed psychic integration of that experience: the experience cannot be assimilated into the broader cognitive patterns that are central to memory and, through memory, to the possibility of continuous or narrative selfhood. [End Page 119] One might say that, for van der Kolk and van der Hart, trauma and narrative inaccessibility-incomprehensibility are one and the same.2
Nevertheless, even as they disagree with Freud on the mental process that governs trauma, van der Kolk and van der Hart implicitly accept a key element of Freud's thought. If in the formation of trauma the role of conscious thought in engaging experience is somehow bypassed, the mind yet latches onto this experience at a different level. Thus, even as they reject Freud's use of the term "repression" in the context of trauma, van der Kolk and van der Hart still imagine some subconscious storehouse where the experience will be retained:
With regard to trauma, [Freud's] use of the term "repression" evokes the image of a subject actively pushing the unwanted traumatic memory away [later, they will write "pushed downward into the unconscious"].... [But] contemporary research has shown that dissociation of a traumatic experience occurs as the trauma is occurring ... There is little evidence for an active process of pushing away of the overwhelming experience; the uncoupling seems to have other mechanisms. Many trauma survivors report that they are automatically removed from the scene; they look at it from a distance or disappear altogether, leaving other parts of the personality to suffer and store the overwhelming experience.... [W]hen a subject does not remember a trauma, its "memory" is contained in an alternate stream of consciousness.(168; my emphases)
Although van der Kolk and van der Hart are no doubt right at the technical level to note that "traumatic memories cannot be both dissociated and repressed," they yet share with Freud the notion that trauma creates—indeed is essentially coincident with—an experience that goes underground and subsequently disrupts consciousness "during traumatic reenactments" (168-69), that is, through repetition compulsion. The traumatic event may not be accessible to consciousness, but the mind retains a remnant, however distorted, of some part of an actual experience.3
Without trying to resolve the debate here (trauma as repression or trauma as dissociation), in what follows I would like to offer another possibility for understanding the...