This is the next to last of a total of seven in a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense. The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.
I would like to dedicate today’s post above all to my old friend Larry, and add a tip of my hat as well to Bill, another old friend, and yet another to Mark, a more recent but no less valued one.
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A weather-proverb from the part of the globe where I grew up and still live says that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. We who live in the climes in question can attest that sometimes the lamb in March only comes out at the very end of the month, when one has all but given up hope for its appearance.
If trauma were a March, it would be that kind of late-lambing one.
To mix my metaphors, if trauma were a play, it would come on as a tragic drama that at its very end surprised the audience by going out as a pleasant comedy. Furthermore, the tragedy that trauma would play out as would, throughout most of its duration, fit the classic formula for a tragic drama: The first part of the play would introduce the underlying conflict, followed by parts imparting the rising action of that conflict, finally culminating (like an act of coitus) in the climax (classically supposed to come four-fifths of the way through), and ending with a dénouement, in which the conflicts all get finally resolved (a sort of de-tumescence). If trauma were a classic play, and were well done, it would be one that artfully presented itself as though it were a tragedy up until it suddenly and altogether unexpectedly surprised the audience, at the very point where that audience would have expected the climax of the tragedy, by showing itself really to have been a comedy all along. If well done, such a play would defy the audience’s expectation—an expectation planted and nurtured by the play itself– of a tragic climax, the very sort of climax suggested by the lowering, doom-presaging, contorted, and tragic mask the play had been wearing up to that supposedly climactic point. It would suddenly at that point remove its tragic mask to show, as the reality beneath, the face of a welcoming, happy, harmless, and benignly smiling clown beneath.
In doing that very thing, however, the playful, comic trickster of a play would not deny the audience its climax (as though it were a certain oft-derided kind of ‘tease,’ to allude, perhaps tastelessly, to some sexist vernacular of my youth). No, the audience itself would most certainly have its climax; but it would be a climax of a no less unexpected sort than the sudden revelation of the comic nature of the play. Defying the cathartic (perhaps also salacious) expectations of the audience it itself had fostered, the expectations of being afforded a welcome opportunity to indulge some of its more guilty, voyeuristic tastes, by witnessing the climax of another, the play would turn the tables on the audience in such a way that the latter would be surprised to find that it was the one who had been brought to climax. Instead of enjoying the satisfaction of its voyeuristic expectations by watching some other person climax, the audience would suddenly find itself caught in the act of coming, all unexpectedly, to climax itself. The watcher would have suddenly found himself become the watched, like a naughty boy caught spying through a key-hole on a couple in bed together, and the shock of that sudden recognition of being exposed triggering an unexpected climax, as though it were a premature ejaculation.
However, defying no less the very salaciousness definitive of all voyeuristic audience expectations, the play would have brought the audience off (to say it in a vulgar form) in a wholly un-salacious, even wholesome way (not a “sexual” climax at all, even second hand—and least in the vulgar understanding of such matters). It would have brought the audience to an eruptive climax of . . . well, laughter (or its equivalent, if the laughter does not erupt aloud, as, perhaps, the most profound laughter never does). That, after all, is what happens at the end of a good joke, well told: the audience laughs.
Of course–as any practiced stand-up comic will readily confirm, I’m sure –there’s always the risk that some boorish, drunken lout sitting in the audience may ruin the whole thing by yelling out the punch-line before the joke has had time to be told to that line itself. While interrupting a joke’s telling may be no tragic matter, at least in most cases, still, in all cases, it is no joke.
Nor is it only the jokester who is robbed by such an interruption. He is not even the one most robbed by it. Rather, the audience to which the joke is addressed—which, after all, must always come down to those sitting there listening to the telling of the joke who have not “heard it before”—are also robbed, and they most grievously. It is they who are robbed, not just of appreciative applause, but of their climax. Such an interruption of a joke is not even like the one typical in coitus interruptus, in its ordinary reference: Interrupting a joke in such a boorish fashion doesn’t just change where the climax happens, so that it just happens elsewhere than where the one experiencing it would have had it happen if all caution had been thrown aside. Interrupting the joke stops the whole process, so that the climax does not happen anywhere at all.
Trauma is like that. It is like a comedian giving heart and soul to telling a long, long joke that is anything but funny until it at last comes to its punch-line, to send the audience off laughing.
Unskilled intervention into a still unfolding trauma, be the intervention consciously manipulative or done in all innocent ignorance and good intention, is like that, too. It is like a drunken lout who yells out the joke’s punch-line before its time, thereby ruining the joke—and all too often precipitating the eruption of an ugly, sometimes riotous scene.
And that, as I was saying, is no joke.
Lest my own vulgarity in joking about such a serious matter as trauma give offense, let me hasten to add by way of an underlining that in far too many cases the banal boorishness of interrupting the unfolding of a traumatic process is not merely no joke. It is all too often a very serious matter indeed. Sometimes, interrupting the unfolding of a trauma has tragic consequences. If they are not tragic, at least in the classic sense, since there are no heros at all center stage, they are all too often overwhelmingly horrendous and unimaginably ugly, as was Auschwitz and the whole Nazi system of death-camps, to give perhaps the prime example.
By offering Auschwitz and all it stands for as an example for what I’m talking about, I am implying that Auschwitz and all the horror for which it has become the synecdoche arose neither sui generis nor directly out of the innate evil of any heart, but ultimately out of the numberless, unskilled, clueless efforts to interrupt an earlier, already long-unfolding trauma. To give no more than a brief indication of what is at issue, I will just remind the reader of the history of the emergence of Nazi Germany and all that went with it, a history inseparable from the refusal to face and address the wave of trauma that was the First World War. That war—which was simply “the” War for at least a generation—was itself inseparable from the refusal to face even earlier waves of trauma such as the devastation wrought by colonial expansion, which were generated, in turn, in the flights to evade and avoid yet earlier waves after waves of traumatic shock. A telling case could even be made that the entire, all too sorry story of what has for so long called itself “the West”—in short, that the very “West” as such—is the story of the unfolding of one single, abysmally profound trauma.
If “the West” itself is indeed what we might speak of as the very Mother of All Traumas—as Sadam Hussein not all that long ago spoke of “the Mother of all Battles”—then the shift in perspective that happened to me in my own tiny, distant offspring of a tiny trauma, namely, the so very minor, common, everyday event of breaking a bone, gives me at least glimpses of an totally unexpected, surprising comic face smiling at all the audience beneath the far, far more than tragic, even infinitely far too far horrendous, murderous, rictus of a mask that “the West” has worn so far, throughout its whole, long history.
The same shift in perspective, brought to me on the waves of breaking my leg, my own mere joke of a trauma, lets me glimpse this, too: The deus ex machina of the play of trauma is no deus, no “god,” at all. Nor is the trauma play itself any “machine.” It is, rather, an unimaginably humble, gentle jokester, telling itself as a joke in order to bring its audience off in the very Mother of All Climaxes. It is, indeed, so humble and so gentle that it refuses in any way to manipulate its audience by any fraudulent means, no matter how divine. Instead, it just humbly trusts the audience, in all its happenstances of set and setting, to provide it, sooner or later, with what it needs to get, at last, to come to its punch-line. For that, the comedian that is trauma needs, in fact, a strait-man, but never brings one along, because that comic trusts the audience itself spontaneously to provide, eventually, someone to play the strait-man’s part. And the trauma jokester is as patient as it is humble and gentle, so it does not mind giving the audience all it has (after all, as the Don Rickleses of the world of comics say, “these are the jokes, folks!”—there are no others) for as long as it takes for that audience to bring itself around to playing its own, indispensable part. Only then, once the strait-man finally does appear, and delivers the crucial set-up, deadpan line that provides the indispensible catalytic agent to precipitate the crystallization of the whole process of the joke, does the punch-line finally get delivered. And only that, in turn, finally sets the audience free, by bringing it to its own sudden, unexpected, eruptive climax in an involuntary dissolution into laughter—audible or not.
The indispensible strait-man’s role in my own little joke of a trauma of merely breaking my leg, was played by the elder of the two friends who stayed with me throughout the final act of my tiny trauma’s whole comic play, the finally revealed, benign joke of which was on me. The two-ness of those two friends was itself equally indispensible–as was their being friends, not parents or parent-substitutes, by the way. No less crucial to the success, at last, of the whole, long, joking process in my own petty case of trauma was also that those two friends, out of their friendship for me and for one another, did not abandon me, but insisted on staying with me. In that very regard they were–crucially so, for the joke to pull itself off–unlike either my parents when I first broke my leg in 1949 or my two parent-substitutes when I broke it again in 1987, at least as I experienced them all at the various times at issue.
However, delivering the straight-man’s set-up line, to unleash the punch-line of my trauma’s so prolonged telling of its joke, fell, as it happened, to the lot of only one of my two friends, not both. It was my elder friend, as I’ve already said, who played that role. He did so by doing no more—but no less, and it was really no small thing he did—than a little bit of what counseling therapists often call “reflective listening,” in which the listener says back to the one being listened to what that listener has just heard from the lips of that very one. What my friend reflected back to me was simply this, that in all our so prolonged talk with one another as we no less prolongedly walked with one another while I was enjoying myself elsewhere, in the land of my delusion, I seemed to keep returning, in numerous asides, to my having broken my leg when I was three. All he did was told me that he’d noticed that recurrence of that aside in what I’d been saying myself, at length.
That simple deadpan strait-man’s line was all that my trauma had been waiting for. So now, at last, after thirty-eight long years since my tiny trauma had first begun to tell its little joke, delivered its punch-line. Master at his business (since I’m a “he,” please permit me to let my trauma be one too) that my tiny trauma was, however, he had delivered that punch-line so artfully deadpan himself, that it wasn’t until a few hours later, when I was alone in a small shower-stall taking a long shower, that I finally “got” the joke, and how funny it was. I broke down in laughter alone in that shower.
Significantly enough, the sounds my own laughter made when I involuntarily dissolved into them at that, my own climactic point—and, therewith, the point of the whole joke, which was told for that very purpose—didn’t sound at all like laughter to my teen-aged son, who happened to be alone with me in the place where I was alone in the shower (my two friends were off elsewhere, walking along by themselves together for a while). How my son happened to be there is a different part of the story, which I need not tell now. Suffice it to say that my son did happen to be there at any rate; and what he heard coming out of the shower-stall where I was dissolving in laughter didn’t sound to him like laughter at all. It sounded to him like crying–like convulsively erupting sobs sounding from the deepest depths of the one from whom they were issuing, wracking him. He was right, they did come from such depths, and they did wrack me. And by their sound, even to me, they were indeed sobs, but the truth of them was something else, I knew—and knew that I knew, even at the time.
My son, in concern, called out to me from outside the shower. He asked, his voice filled with that concern, if I was all right. I replied, between my still ongoing, noisy, but now somewhat abating, convulsive noise-emissions, that indeed I was. I was all right, I answered him, and more than all right—far more.
I told my son the truth, in giving him that answer. How that truth could have been true, and just what the content of my “all-right-ness” was, I also tried to tell him, but that was only later. I have tried to tell the readers of this blog the same thing in this current series of posts, an endeavor itself climaxing in its own fashion in my immediately preceding post in that series, which I will finally end with my next post.
Before I close this current post, however, there’s just one more thing. What I’ve just been saying here in this post reminds me of another story I’ll also tell here.
Have you heard this one?
In his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004, pp. 61-62), Bob Dylan is describing the profound effect it had on him when he was first exposed to the music and musicianship of folk-singer Mike Seeger in New York, not long after Dylan showed up there from the Midwest at the beginning of the 1960s. I have used the following passage elsewhere already in writing about trauma (specifically there, about the trauma of September 11, 2001), but I am using it differently to write some more about trauma here. Dylan himself writes in the passage at issue:
Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it—like in that song of Sam Cooke’s, “Change Is Gonna Come”—but you don’t know it in a purposeful way. Little things foreshadow what is coming, but you may not recognize them. But then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it—you’re set free. You don’t need to ask questions and you already know the score. It seems like when that happens, it happens fast, like magic, but it’s really not like that. It isn’t like some dull boom goes off and the moment has arrived—your eyes don’t spring open and suddenly you’re very quick and sure about something. It’s more deliberate. It’s more like you’ve been working in the light of day and then you see one day that it’s getting dark early, that it doesn’t matter where you are—it won’t do any good. It’s a reflective thing. Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door—something jerks it open and you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it [as seeing and hearing Mike Seeger did for Dylan, in this account].
For Dylan, Seeger himself was not the revelation. Seeger was “just” the mirror the revelation needed to reveal itself to Dylan. What Dylan at that moment saw, though he may well not have seen that he’d seen it until much later (maybe even only when, forty or so years later, he wrote about it in his Chronicles), was not Mike Seeger. Seeger was but the mirror in which Dylan saw what he saw.
What Dylan saw there, in that mirror that Seeger was for him at that moment, was himself. He saw “Bob Dylan,” regardless of just when it was that he began to go by that name (whether his taking of that name occurred at that very moment, or later, or even at some point before he saw himself in the mirror Seeger became for him). At that moment, Bob Dylan, the very one and only one who has for so long now been known by that name, was at last brought to full birth. Dylan became, at that moment, the very one he had always been—the one and only one he was born to be.
During my summer vacation in 1987, the elder of the two friends who spent the crucial part of that vacation with me became my Mike Seeger. I am thankful to my friend himself for letting himself be used as my mirror back then. I am more thankful for him, that he was sent my way by whatever it was that sent him that way–which, as I’ve said before in this series of posts, might as well have been a conspiracy of untold conspirators, all conspiring together for no other reason than to do me personal, lasting good.
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My next post will be the last in this series of seven on How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation.