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Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Age of Trauma: From "Candide" to "Incendies/Scorched"

News item: 20.04.2010

Iranian cleric: Promiscuous women cause earthquakes
By The Associated Press

A senior Iranian cleric said Monday women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.

The Birth of the Modern Discourse on Trauma

In 1755, Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, followed shortly after by the start of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), prompting many reflections by Europeans on their belief in the Enlightenment. Voltaire responded in 1759 with Candide, a picaresque novel, which the Germans call a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. It is a biting satire on the naïve Candide and his philosophical mentor Dr. Pangloss with his cheerful optimism, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” The character of Pangloss reflects many layers of invention and satire; it is above all a satire of Leibniz’s optimistic philosophy and in speaking all languages (pangloss), the philosopher’s name is a reference to a preternatural, all-knowing, ur-language. We see a negative apotheosis of this in Umberto Eco’s character Salvatore in The Name of the Rose who garbles a variety of languages from Latin and its derivatives in the Romance languages, to German, Greek and others like the grammelot of commedia dell’arte. This hapless creature inadvertently mouths the vulgarized Latin phrase, “Penitenziagite,” from Poenitentiam agite, the doctrine of a heretical sect, leading to his demise.

(For a scholarly review of the notion of an ur-language, see Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995. For a description of grammelot, see Dario Fo’s brilliant Manuale minimo dell’attore, 1987; Tricks of the Trade in English translation, 1991).

If we stay with the history of my country, Italy, we see that Giordano Bruno talked about the eruptions of Vesuvius being acts of nature, not related to divine providence or the mistakes of men (that is, human agency versus acts of God). In passing, Polish Nobelist Czeslaw Milosz wrote a stirring poem, “Campo dei Fiori,” about the place in Rome where Bruno was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Written in 1943 in Warsaw, it addresses through the rhetorical device called paralepsis or preterition the burning of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw by the Nazis.

(Rowland, Ingrid D. Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Another countryman from my own region of Abruzzo, Ignazio Silone, was deeply marked by the earthquake in 1915 of his hometown, Pescina. Bruno’s and Silone’s reflections on the relationship between natural disasters and our perceived sense of trauma are instructive. One hears these distinctions in almost all discourses on disaster and trauma and here we have an emerging topology of trauma in the thought of Giordano Bruno: acts of nature, divine providence, mistakes of men. There is no question that the human experience of these three distinct categories is both socially constructed and historically robust. All of this connects our reflections with Voltaire, his reaction to the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 with Candide, and the opening of the modern discourse on trauma as neither a divine (Voltaire’s rejection of divine providence) nor a natural occurrence (in the wake of the Seven Years’ War).
Let us sketch this out:

·      In the 18th century, with the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War, we questioned whether we failed a providential God.

·      In the 19th century, we questioned whether God was really there.

·      In the 20th century, with the declared death of God, we questioned the core values of the Enlightenment, made all kinds of apocalyptic declarations and entered a world of post-everything: the death of the author, the death of all possible metaphysics, the death of philosophy and of thought itself.

So the Iranian cleric is not so strange in attributing natural disasters to human behaviour. This is simply premodern thinking, a world where there is a God whose providence is contingent on human actions. In a world where God has already been declared dead and the humanism that was constructed to replace theism fails to move people in a consistent and predictable manner, we have invented trauma as a way to explain disasters and our reactions to them.

In a premodern world, we didn’t need trauma. We had convenants with God, and bad things happened when we didn’t live up to our end of the bargain.

In the modern period, with the Enlightenment project, we elevated reason and made ourselves the masters of our fate. Whether we wanted it or not (J-P Sartre: “Every man is condemned to freedom”; Erich Fromm: “escape from freedom”).

But with the accumulation of horrors, where we can blame no one else but ourselves (war, crime & violence, pace Steven Pinker and his cheerful reassurance of their decline; see Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011) if indeed blame can be assigned (consider natural disasters, famine, diseases), we entered a period where successive generations kept reinventing traumatic responses to human horrors and natural disasters:

·      The First World War: shell shock

·      The Second World War: battle fatigue, concentration camp syndrome, survivors

·      The Korean War: brainwashing, “The Manchurian Candidate”

·      And after the Viet Nam War, it all coalesced into PTSD Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

It is not coincidental that it took two great man-made tragedies before PTSD coalesced into a medical-psychiatric syndrome or disorder. Not so much WWII as a military engagement but the assault on civilians, above all in the Holocaust, and the unpopular war in Viet Nam, led to the invention of PTSD.

Surely, there were injured soldiers and populations after WWI and WWII.
It took the massacre of innocent civilians and an unpopular war for the effects of war to be construed so negatively. The work of Paul Fussell, The Boys Crusade (2004), is instructive in this regard.

The Age of Trauma

And we now live in the age of trauma.

The age of trauma is only possible with a dual loss of faith—in both God and in all the other gods that failed as substitutes (communism, fascism, nationalism—politics generally—and humanism). (See the now almost-forgotten classic, The God That Failed, 1949, edited by Richard Crossman, with contributions by Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and André Gide, among others. Cf. also the anti-humanism of Althusser, Lacan, Foucault and Badiou.)

Arthur Miller (1949), in his bold essay in The New York Times, “Tragedy and the common man,” redefined tragedy not as an affair of kings and the great men of history but of the “common man” and of the gap between his aspirations and his paltry achievements. Note the date—just four years after the end of a supposedly victorious American involvement in WWII.

What we have in the figure of the traumatized victim is a contemporary articulation of tragedy doubly redefined: firstly, as Miller’s “common man” (rather than the privileged patients making their way to Bergasse 19, to Freud’s study), and secondly, as the unwitting victim of large forces whose circumstances are themselves morally charged and “beyond reason,” bringing into question the gods of rationality and the myth of progress of modernity in our day just as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 brought the Enlightenment into question.

Our age, the age of trauma, has not yet found its Voltaire who found in the Lisbon earthquake the perfect foil for his critique of Leibniz’s optimistic philosophy, forever remembered in the satirical figure of Dr. Pangloss hailing “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

It is not for want of trying. Novelists have given it a hand—and come to grief (Jerzy Kosinski’s masterwork, The Painted Bird, defined him and perhaps hounded him to his grave). Others who touch it have mixed results (Canada’s Yann Martel attempted to tell the Holocaust as a fable with animals in his Virgil & Beatrice with so far, negative critical reviews). Günter Grass’ Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in great part for his Die Bechtrommel/The Tin Drum—which would now be unfilmmable for many reasons, including the allusion to/illusion of a young boy making love to an adult woman. I will do a close reading of this novel in my dissertation, examining Grass’ use of Oskar as an emblem of war. Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness and Kaddish for an Unborn Child were met with indifference or worse in his native Hungary, though eventually garnering another Nobel Prize in Literature.

In film, from the garbled Sette Bellezze/Seven Beauties (for which Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller was savaged by literary scholar Leon Wieseltier) and the sado-masochism of The Night Porter to Schindler’s List and La Vita É Bella (see Slavoj Zizek’s comment on the film’s denouement), we have a constricted emotional range from bathos to exploitation. Only perhaps in documentary form has the Gorgon medusa been faced full on with acceptable results: Claude Lanzmann’s relentless Shoah and the raw personal statement of Araz Artinian’s The Genocide in Me.

Theatre may be a privileged venue for staging horror. Lebanese Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies/Scorched (play, 2005; film, 2010) is intense and excessive but this may be the only way for contemporary audiences to take their tragedies. The searing phrase intoned in that play is:

L’enfance est un couteau planté dans la gorge. 
On ne le retire pas facilement.

Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat. You don’t remove it easily.
(my translation)

The Holocaust has not found its satirist with the possible exception of the dark humour evinced in Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Peter Weiss’ The Investigation and Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona attempt the staging of historical tragedies. They are powerful, but somehow unsatisfying. I inhaled Weiss’ The Investigation in a single, breathless reading in London and was left both tingling and numbed. Notably with Sartre, I have an intense subliminal perception of legerdemain, misdirection, or to invoke the phrase he coined and made infamous, “bad faith.”

The age of trauma is like that: we are left a-tingle and benumbed, we can’t avoid it and we can’t quite it wrestle it down to the mat, like Jacob with the angel. German writer Christa Wolf said it so well:

What is past is not dead; it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers.
Patterns of Childhood (1976, p. 3)

Wolf sets out to write, confronts harsh choices: “to remain speechless, or else to live in the third person.” She ponders, “The first is impossible, the second strange.” Then admits: “the less unbearable alternative will win out.”


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