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  • When “to die in freedom” is Written in English
  • Petar Ramadanovic* (bio)
Cathy Caruth. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. [UE]

For Teresa Brennan

While waiting to leave Vienna in May of 1938, Sigmund Freud writes a letter to his son Ernst. “Two prospects,” he says, “keep me going in these grim times: to rejoin you all and—to die in freedom.” Almost sixty years later, Cathy Caruth comments upon this letter, emphasizing that the last four words—“to die in freedom”—were written in English. It is here, Caruth suggests,

in the movement from German to English, in the rewriting of the departure within the languages of Freud’s text, that we participate most fully in Freud’s central insight, in Moses and Monotheism, that history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, that history is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.

[UE 23–24]

And she concludes: “In this departure, in the leave-taking of our hearing, we are first fully addressed by Freud’s text, in ways we perhaps cannot yet fully understand” [UE 24].

In this text I argue that Caruth’s understanding of trauma as “deeply tied to our own historical realities” [UE 12] offers a possibility to think anew our involvement in each other’s histories, as we examine what we mean by history, writing, and community. My reading depends in particular on the insistent recurrence of figures of “entanglement” in Caruth’s text, which I take to be Caruth’s own “translation of the concept—of the experience of trauma” [UE 7]. 1 That is, Caruth’s “entanglement” is the trace of an [End Page 54] unclaimed experience and has a function analogous to “departure” in Freud’s text and to “falling” in Paul de Man’s, both analyzed by Caruth in Unclaimed Experience. As such, “entanglement” and its variations, being “inextricably bound up” or “inextricably tied,” are not representations of trauma. They rather suggest a different, aporetic understanding of the relation between history and reference, experience and writing.

I will try to show that Caruth’s notion of trauma as unclaimed experience, together with our entanglement in each other’s histories, chart a history of the modern subject as a history of implication. This subject is recognized by its inextricable ties to what cannot be experienced or subjectivized fully. And this unfinished becoming, surviving and being with others, is the form of its being and its history. The subject in or of trauma is thus, for Caruth, culturally and politically a diasporic subject, en route toward subjectivity.


Freud—the one who wants to die in freedom—is running away from a genocide, just ahead of it, so to speak. The diaspora toward which he is going is a place where one simultaneously speaks English and another language. As such, this diaspora is both a site of translation and a destination of resettlement: neither a paradise nor a melting pot, but a situation or a space which is not yet and which still waits to be thought. So we follow Freud, a Jew, who wants to die in freedom and is about to embark on a journey from Vienna to London, where he will rejoin his family. London, for Freud, is a place where language, freedom, and death somehow come together, where they will meet in the future. It is a substitute home. A substitute because Freud departs toward it. And a home because it offers shelter. Moreover, since London is also the place of Freud’s death, his departure towards it is not a simple forward movement but also what Caruth would call a return—a return to inanimate matter.

If Freud’s return/departure speaks to “us” “today,” as Caruth suggests, this is not only because of the literal or figurative itinerary Freud covers but also because there are other departures that themselves inform the way we hear Freud. Indeed, Freud’s desire for freedom, a desire, as Caruth says at one point, to bring “his voice to another place” [UE 23], invokes the fundamental American myth of freedom. The phrase “to die in freedom” unwittingly carries with it...

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