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Reviewed by:
  • Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History by Cathy Caruth
  • Brittany Hirth
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Twentieth-Anniversary Edition). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016. Pp. 195.

Initially published in 1996, Cathy Caruth's Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History has been reprinted as a twentieth-anniversary edition and remains a remarkable text for reading trauma. This new edition offers Caruth's original publication plus an afterword in which she addresses some of the criticism her treatise on trauma has received over the last two decades. When Unclaimed Experience was first published, "trauma studies" was not a formally declared field. In the mid-1990s, research on trauma was pursued in clinical areas such as psychology and neurobiology, and marginally by Holocaust studies. Caruth's text was one of the first to shape this now recognized field, along with the scholarship of Shoshana Felman, Dori Laub, and Geoffrey Hartman, among others. However, in her newly added endnotes, Caruth resists the designation of "trauma studies" and claims the phrasing "has the disadvantage of codifying the term 'trauma' and eliminating some of its surprise and literariness" (174).

Unclaimed Experience offers an extensive framework for reading narratives of traumatic experience through psychoanalytic and literary theory. Caruth's crucial and contemporarily resonant question for the experience of trauma is posed in her introduction: "Is the trauma the encounter with death or the ongoing experience of having survived it?" (7). Caruth approaches this question by analyzing the "double telling," an oscillation between a "crisis of death" and "the correlative crisis of life" (7); or, a confrontation of death and then of survival, which is elucidated by an intersection between the language of literature and psychoanalytic theory. [End Page 345]

Exploring the work of European psychoanalysts, philosophers, and filmmakers, Caruth argues these texts "stubbornly persist in bearing witness to some forgotten wound" (5) in the absence of an immediate understanding of the traumatic experience. For this, she interprets explicit references to traumatic experience, but she also traces the recurrent words and key figures of "departure," "falling," "burning," or "awakening." The first chapter reinterprets Sigmund Freud's theory of trauma described in Moses and Monotheism; the second chapter demonstrates the mutual narrative of personal catastrophe within Marguerite Duras's and Alain Resnais's film, Hiroshima mon amour; the third chapter returns to Freud to discuss the enigma of trauma as both a narrative of destruction and of survival in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and in Moses and Monotheism; the fourth chapter examines the resistance to theory that can be provoked by privileging referential reality, illustrated by the figure of the "falling body" found within passages from Paul de Man's essay, "The Resistance to Theory," and within de Man's essays on Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist and Immanuel Kant; and, the fifth chapter elucidates Jacques Lacan's reconsideration of trauma through his interpretations of Freud's texts, particularly The Interpretation of Dreams.

By primarily reinterpreting Freud's writing on trauma, Caruth illustrates that the language of trauma is literary because it "defies, even as it claims, our understanding" (5). Beyond pathology, Caruth argues that within these passages is "the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available" (4). Working with Freud's concept of latency, Caruth explains that trauma is a deferred experience that returns to repeatedly haunt the survivor. After a latency period during which traumatic symptoms are not apparent, subjects then engage in an involuntary cycle of repetition, a reliving of the traumatic experience. For Caruth, this involuntary repetition occurs because the traumatic experience was not assimilated by the subject at the inception—the trauma is so unexpected that the subject experiences a rupture in perception. This rupturing experience then belatedly repeats as nightmares or flashbacks. Essentially, Caruth asserts that a crisis is marked not by "a simple knowledge but by the ways it simultaneously defies and demands our witness" (5). For these enigmatic aspects of trauma, Caruth suggests a rethinking of reference for resituating trauma "in our understanding," through which "history" arises where "immediate understanding may not" (12; emphasis in...


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