Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Traumatized Faith

Allowed to come to term rather than remaining forever avoided and compulsively repeated, trauma traumatizes faith itself. Through trauma everything is changed, including faith. As belongs to trauma, however, it takes a while before that change can fully register, sometimes even a very long while.

Nietzsche said that the trauma he named “the death of God” might well take two thousand years to register fully. That is, it might well take that long for such stupendous news as that of God’s death to spread everywhere.

As is always the case with traumatic shocks, it is only in its recurrent after-shocks that so great a trauma as what Nietzsche calls the death of God can finally register. It is worth noting that the extent of the destruction engendered by a traumatic shock does not become fully visible until brought to the surface precisely by its after-shocks. In just that way, for instance, a building shattered by a major earthquake may not fall down until a later, much milder after-shock gives it the final push. It even took some time, after all, for the damage inflicted by the two planes flown into New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, to bring about their collapse, a time during which at least some of those who otherwise would have remained trapped inside were able to escape death, at least for some while.

In the sense that Nietzsche speaks of God’s death, God did not die in Auschwitz, as has sometimes been said. In truth, the God at issue died well before that. As shocking as it may sound to say so, Auschwitz was but an after-shock of what Nietzsche calls the death of God. To many eyes, that after-shock made the extent of the devastation wrought by God’s death visible, to be sure. However, it was not itself the real cause of the destruction it finally made visible to so many. That is why it is far easier to say that we will never again permit an Auschwitz, than it is actually to act to against its recurrence.

I began an earlier post this year (“An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz”) by quoting some lines put in the mouth of Ikonnikov, a character in Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s great novel of World War II and the battle of Stalingrad, the battle that finally turned the tide against Nazi Germany and all its death camps. “On the fifteenth of September last year,” Grossman has Ikonnikov say at one point in the novel, “I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.” On that day Ikonnikov was given to see (to use another of Nietzsche’s formulations for restating the point of those lines) that the God familiar to him from his birth was no longer worthy of being believed in. After seeing what Ikonnikov saw that day, no one with any self-respect, or any respect for anyone else, could any longer entertain such a belief. They have become aware of what Nietzsche calls the death of that God. The corpse of that God will never be resuscitated.

In The Century, which first came out in French in 2005 and in English two years later, contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou defined the 20th century as the century of “the passion for the real.” The fictional character of Ikonnikov embodies that passion, as does the entire great novel—Grossman’s Life and Fate—in which Ikonnikov is only one of many fictional characters. So does the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian film director, writer, and public intellectual who was born in 1922 and murdered under still unclear circumstances in 1975, and to whose poem “The Ashes of Gramsci” Badiou devotes a lengthy discussion in a book he published just last year, À la recherché du réel perdu, “In Search of the Lost Real” (Fayard, 2015).

In “The Ashes of Gramsci,” as Badiou reads it, Pasolini speaks of what passes for a world today, this endless day of the global dominance of capitalism—a dominance far more entrenched today than it was in 1954, when Pasolini first wrote the poem. As Badiou describes it (pp. 43-44), “the characteristic of our [contemporary] world, let’s call it the ‘Western’ world, is to be and to want to be sheltered from all reality. [. . .] It is a world where reigns what Pascal once and for all named diversion. Today, one might as well say entertainment: ‘entertainment world’ [in English in the French text].” A few lines later Badiou adds that in the “triumphant capitalism” of our global society today: “There is nothing but diversion. There is nothing but the concern to keep oneself as distant from reality as possible.” Badiou says that “Pasolini will call that subjective disposition ‘replacing life by survival’,” which is to say replacing real life with a pseudo-life, one that is “able to do no more than continue the negative work of diversion.”

Badiou then cites a passage from the poem according to which, caught in such a pseudo-life of ceaseless diversion from all reality, “one senses the absence of all true/religion”—which is to say any religion that opens upon reality itself, and not upon some illusion. A supposed religion that opens only on illusion is no true religion at all, but only idolatry; and a faith that puts all its faith in an idol is no true faith, but only superstition.

To any such pseudo-religion and pseudo-faith, reality will always come as a traumatic shock, the after-shocks of which will eventually destroy the illusory religion and faith altogether. Only a traumatized faith can face reality—and be purified in the traumatic process. Just what remains of faith itself once it is so purified—once it is distilled down to its essence by the traumatic confrontation with the real—will be the subject of my next post.

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