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  • The Echo of Trauma and the Trauma of Echo
  • Judith Greenberg*

“For the former victims, the Holocaust is a wound that cannot heal. This is the ailing subtext of their testimonies, wailing beneath the convalescent murmur of their surface lives. We have little trouble listening to that surface murmur. When the subtext of their story echoes for us too as a communal wound, then we will have begun to hear their legacy of unheroic memory and grasp the meaning for our time of a diminished self.”

Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies

Recent attention to the witnessing, representing, and narrating of traumatic events has fostered dialogue among various academic and professional disciplines. The intersections of psychoanalysis, history, sociology, and literary criticism around the issue of trauma enable deeper understandings of both the condition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how trauma gets represented. 1 In this context of increasing exploration of “trauma studies” by literary critics in particular, I suggest a reconsideration of a trope which can offer insight for both literary and psychoanalytic thinking: the figure of Echo. While the notorious fate of Narcissus, the character from book three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, holds undeniable significance for both literary and psychoanalytic theory, his counterpart in that tale remains less familiar. I propose that Ovid’s rendition of Echo—as well as other depictions of her myth and the actual physical phenomenon of an acoustical echo itself—share structural similarities with PTSD. Echo’s is a story of separation from one’s very body due to grief and the persistence of belated and fragmentary resonances in the aftermath of the disembodiment. By drawing parallels between descriptions of the structure and features of PTSD on the one hand, and the salient aspects of the story of Echo on the other, I hope to show how trauma studies helps to expose issues at stake in Ovid’s story of Echo and, conversely, [End Page 319] how the myth of Echo can provide a paradigm for listening to survivors’ stories. 2

Given that this paper attempts to “interface” two disciplines, I stress that I am concerned primarily with narrative: the narratives of PTSD (the structure of both the re-emergence of traumatic events in PTSD and the telling of survivors’ stories) and the narrative of Echo. The paper explores the problems, limitations, and strategies of and for narrating and listening to stories of trauma. I describe general categories integral to the structure of PTSD but the scope of this paper cannot address many of the complexities and differences in individual experiences. My aim here is neither to define trauma nor to explain the root of all cases of PTSD, but rather to observe a parallel between certain salient features that recur in PTSD and the story of Echo. 3 This parallel, I hope, may provide a framework for rethinking both how trauma gets expressed in narrative and traumatic aspects of “echoing” literary texts. 4

Structures of Trauma

A Belated Return or “Rememory”

In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses a term “rememory” to describe a memory that refuses to disappear (1987, 36). Trauma can create “rememories”—paradoxical situations in which the event is inaccessible at the moment of its occurrence and then possesses the survivor after a gap in time. Due to the detachment, numbing, evacuation, or “forgetting” during the traumatic moment, the experience—or a portion thereof—re-emerges later; the past reappears and, in its interruption, confuses the primacy of present reality. The first word of PTSD, post, encapsulates this quality of a belated response to an original experience, a temporal delay and a repeated return, (against one’s will) of an event, dream, hallucination, or other image. Cathy Caruth characterizes PTSD as consisting: “Solely in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it”(1995, 4). For Caruth, the “central Freudian insight into trauma,” is [End Page 320] the fact that “the impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness, in its refusal to be simply located, in its insistent appearance outside the boundaries of any single place or...

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pp. 319-347
Launched on MUSE
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