- Bombs and Roses: The Writing of Anxiety in Henry Green’s Caught
(The firemen saw each other’s faces. They saw the water below a dirty yellow towards the fire; the wharves on that far side low and black, those on the bank they were leaving a pretty rose. . . . They sat very still, beneath the immensity. For, against it, warehouses, small towers, puny steeples seemed alive with sparks from the mile high pandemonium of flame reflected in the quaking sky. This fan, a roaring red gold, pulsed rose at the outside edge, the perimeter round which the heavens, set with stars before fading into utter blackness, were for a space a trembling green.)—Henry Green, Caught
War, she thought, is sex.—Henry Green, Caught
Roses are not generally thought to be objects of anxiety. They are objects of desire, or better, objects that arrest desire by their invitation to aesthetic contemplation, but only for the phobic could a rose be said to be an occasion for dread. Writing during World War II, the British writer Henry Green (“a trembling green”) suggests otherwise. In this description of the London Blitz from his 1943 novel, Caught, everything comes up roses. 1 First among literary clichés, roses lend themselves to this kind of figurative estrangement (by virtue of which, in literature, a rose is in fact only very rarely a rose), and Green is by no means the only British writer in World War II to note that the fire and the rose are one. 2 In Caught, however, Green’s roses wreath desire and dread together so tightly that the psychoanalytic cliché—war is sex—snaps back into the tautology that Freud perhaps always intended.
The idea that war could be sex was, of course, the scandal of Freud’s theory of the traumatic neurosis during World War I. As is well known, only a desexualized version of psychoanalysis was admitted into the field hospitals and the officer’s convalescent homes that sprang up in upper-class houses all over Britain. One of these was Green’s childhood home, which, he later said, like many of the overprivileged, opened up its doors to the wounded and traumatized in a calculated act of class preservation. 3 One does not have to [End Page 25] think too hard to appreciate why, for some at least, it was preferable to see these torn and shocked bodies as seized by a dreadful—but after all perfectly understandable—fear in the face of war, rather than gripped with a less comprehensible anxiety that carried with it a dangerous and potentially lethal sexual charge.
The temptation to unsex trauma theory is still with us today. It is not quite that something has been occluded in contemporary debate and that this something is sexuality. It is more accurate to say that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, the agon of sexuality—and particularly of the drives—is right at the heart of trauma, and that this, especially in the recent alliance of psychoanalysis and history, causes a certain awkwardness. One of the strengths of contemporary trauma theory lies in its articulation of a nuanced and subtle historicity, read through both psychoanalysis and literature, which allows the humanities to reconnect with historical violence, without (supposedly) falling into the pitfalls of a naive historicism [see Caruth]. The awkwardness comes because sexual antagonism is both clearly historical (the violence is well documented) and structurally necessary to psychoanalytic theories of trauma. The two, the historical and the psychic, are clearly not analogues, but they remain stubbornly and infuriatingly intertwined. 4
Faced with this theoretical tangle, two options present themselves. The first is to privilege historical trauma over sexual trauma. Psychoanalysis, hence, provides an account of the multiple difficulties of historical representation while escaping the age-old accusation of sexual determination. War, thus, is not (only) sex. For all its hermeneutic power, this new historiography runs the risk of producing a trauma theory without, paradoxically, a psychoanalysis (an Orphics without Eurydice). The second is to insist on the structural necessity of sexuality and, in particular, of sexual difference, not as the ahistorical referent that lurks beyond representation but, as Slavoj Zizek has...