The Traffic in Trauma: Legitimations? Legitimations? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Legitimations!

“Be Nice?  No, It Damages Bottom Line”—that was the headline for a front page article by Nathaniel Popper in the business section of the New York Times for Wednesday, July 25 of this year.   The article concerned Richard X.  Bove, a professional market analyst with a large securities investment firm, and an insight he had recently had into how banking operates today.   Here’s how Popper paraphrases Bove’s insight:  “catering to customers may actually distract from the pursuit of making money in the new world of finance.  What really matters, he now believes, is pushing products and managing risks.”  Despite the fact that Bove recently moved his own accounts from Wells Fargo because of his own dissatisfaction with their customer service, he recommends that bank for investors on the basis of its continuing financial strength and growth.  He was “struck by the fact,” he tells Popper, “that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good.”  (Obviously, he means good for investors, of course, not for customers.)  Accordingly, he goes on to say, by Popper’s account:  “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.”

In fact, Bove’s insight into contemporary banking practice actually applies to the entire contemporary global economic situation.  The global economic system has at long last reached the critical point beyond which it no longer needs to maintain any pretenses.  From now on it can simply present itself in its full reality as what it is:  a system of pure, perpetually self-escalating exploitation.  The economic realities of today demonstrate that the exploitation of potential “resources” for the extraction of profit no longer even needs to mask itself under the guise of providing goods and services of use or pleasure to potential consumers.  “Customer satisfaction” is just no longer required.  The customer has now become inured to all possible dissatisfaction.  That customer now just keeps on taking whatever is dished out to him (the masculine pronoun is appropriate here), and keeps asking for more of the same, which keeps on being supplied him.  Public exploitation for private gain—in short, the pursuit of profit:  “the bottom line”—has finally achieved such complete and unquestionable dominance, such unchallengeable, taken-for-granted “normalcy,” that it can finally dispense even with that old chest-nut, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  The only hand that has been at work all along—the hand of the huckster–is now not only wholly visible, but also mocking in its insistence on exposing itself, on “showing its hand,” with no embarrassment and no apologies whatsoever.

In short, as I put it in one of my recent posts, the whole world has become Las Vegas!

There nothing at all unexpected about that.  Such an outcome was entirely predictable.  It has been for-ordained all along, at least since Adam Smith first tried to cover the con.  It goes inseparably together with the very pursuit of “the bottom line,” that is, of profit itself, as–well, as the bottom line.

That is because economic exploitation, the pursuit of the bottom line of profit, as the driving force behind the whole engine of the modern, gone-global, “market” economy, is as such dependent upon trauma.  To be precise, it is and has always been dependent upon the avoidance of trauma, which is to say, by an only apparent paradox, upon the institutionalization of trauma—what I have been calling, in my entire recently inaugurated occasional series of posts occasioned by my recent trip to Las Vegas, “the traffic in trauma.”

By the “avoidance” of trauma I do not mean anything like the elimination of trauma, the successful skirting of traumatic events, or somehow securing oneself against traumatic shocks.  Far from it!  I mean, rather, the sustained, systematic refusal to face trauma when it happens.  By the “avoidance” of trauma, I mean, not escape from the traumatic blow, the shock of trauma, but, rather, the refusal to address it.   We might also say such avoidance of trauma is the insistence on remaining stupid, which is to say willfully ignorant.  Avoiding trauma is keeping trauma stillborn, in effect, by denying it all possibility, not of “birth,” as it were, but of “after-birth,” as I called it in a relatively recent previous series of posts on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André.  It is refusing to grant the traumatic event any opportunity of really “taking place,” after it once has initially happened–denying it any “place” to “take,” as I put it in that previous series.

As Walter Benjamin observed almost a century ago, life in our modern, urbanized society is one of constant bombardment by recurrent shocks.  His model for this was cinema, with its clicks whizzing by from frame to frame so quickly that our perception of any interval between them as they pass vanishes altogether.  What he is pointing to is even more evident, of course, in today’s ubiquitous digital media, which have become our shared constant global environment.  As Benjamin saw for cinema, such media forms are emblematic of what is structurally definitive of modern life as such:  a life subjected to just such incessantly recurrent jolts on all experiential fronts, delivered at such high frequency as to blend into one another to appear as though they were a single, continuous surrounding element in which we live.  And that, indeed, is just what the never-ending storm of shock has become for us.  It has taken on the status of a neutral given, like the white noise of an air conditioner that lets us sleep, whereas it is the interruption of that constant noise that now wakes us.

As Freud taught, there are two sides to the effect of trauma upon the psyche.  He named one “negative,” the other “positive.”  Freud used those terms to characterize the specific role each part of the response to trauma played relative to the traumatic shock that engendered such response (rather than to offer any evaluation of their worth to the “organism”).  On one side, the “negative” one, the response of the organism to a traumatic blow is to numb itself against the shock–putting the trauma at a distance, as it were, distancing from it–precisely in order that the organism may survive the shock, rather than being annihilated by it.  The other, “positive” side consists of the contrary impulse to that of distancing.  That is impulse to retain the traumatic impact, to hold on to it, until—and so that—the organism is finally able to address and somehow “process” it, whatever such processing may ultimately look like.  Thus, the “positive” effect manifests in the unconsciously operative “repetition compulsion,” as Freud famously labeled it:  the compulsion to keep repeating the traumatic episode, reenacting it again and again compulsively, with no deliberate intention, until it finally can be so “processed” in some satisfactory sense.

When struck by what Jean-François Lyotard calls “the first shock” of trauma, its sudden, eruptive occurrence, its “birth,” if one will, it is the numbness that overcomes us by Freud’s “negative” effect that lets us survive the blow that would otherwise kill us.  To live through it that initial tidal-wave of traumatic shock we must be numbed to its impact, “repressing” it.  Then, by Freud’s “positive” effect, there is the ongoing “return of the repressed” in the form of unconscious, compulsive repetition of the traumatic event—in effect, the long series of subsequent “after-shocks” that follow the first shock.  They continue to remind us, as it were, of what happened to us to numb us so.  They will never let us “forget” what, paradoxically, we have in at least one sense yet to “know” at all.  Only when, if ever, we at last made able to provide a place for the traumatic shock to take place, so that it truly can “take place” and not just “happen”—only when we have been properly prepared to serve as receptacles for what amounts to a “second birth” of the trauma in us, what I called its “after-birth” in my posts on André—does our numbness finally pass.  Only then can it be let go, and can we at last awaken from the sleep into which the first shock of trauma numbed us.  Only then, when we at last awake to how traumatized we have so long been, does anything that might appropriately be called “recovery” from trauma finally become possible.

However, the interest of making a profit out of trauma—the interest that feeds the traffick in trauma—lies altogether elsewhere.  The interest of such an interest in trauma is not invested in any such place of possible recovery.  The interest of the traffic in trauma lies not in waking us up, but in keeping us asleep.  It lies precisely in keeping us numb, numb most especially to our very numbness.  The interest of anyone who has an interest in “the bottom line” when it comes to trauma is just this: to keep the compulsive repetitions coming, that is, to keep the “customers” for trauma-traffic in shock. 

That’s the simple secret of success in Las Vegas:  that the only success finally possible at all in Las Vegas is the success of Las Vegas—of the reality that gaudily, mockingly, blatantly dresses itself with that name, the name of the self-styled City of Sin.  As we all know, even though it is very hard and rare for any of us to belief it (a hardness and rarity itself in service to Las Vegas, feeding the success thereof) nobody ever really beats the odds in Las Vegas, where the odds always, always favor the house.

Now, to close this post by bringing it that all back to where I started, with Mr. Bove’s insights into banking and investments:  All Wells Fargo branches are in Las Vegas, of course.  Wells knows well what it’s up to.

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In the post after next—which will be specific to a certain upcoming anniversary–I will probably resume the general line of thought I am pursuing in the above post.

The Traffic in Trauma: Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas II – The Sequel

This post is one in an ongoing series to which I will add posts from time to time, sometimes in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between, under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.”  Each post in the series—or, in some cases, sub-series of interconnected posts under that general series title–is designed to be read independently from the others, yet all are meant to resonate together with one another, in an ongoing deepening of meaning.  All the posts in the series explore, from various perspectives, the unifying theme of what we might call “the institutionalization of trauma.”  The idea for the entire series came to me on a recent short visit I made with my wife to Las Vegas, to join our daughter and son-in-law as they also visited there.  The trip proved to be very profitable to us all, and a number of the posts in the overall occasional series make use of my winnings from that trip.

This particular post is the second in a sub-series on “Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas.”  Accordingly, readers may want to start with my immediately preceding post, the first of that sub-series.

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As I said in my preceding post, Las Vegas is a great place to go if you want to get your ego boosted, but it’s also a great place to go if you want to get your ego busted.  Either way, when you go there, to Las Vegas, you put yourself at considerable risk.  Those not already practiced in either ego boosting or ego busting, depending on which they’re after in going to Las Vegas, are better advised to stay away.  Those unprepared are likely to lose their shirts if they go to Las Vegas—and more than their shirts.  Regardless of what the city may say about itself to draw visitors there, Las Vegas is not for amateurs.

No sooner have I said that, however, than I feel the need to take it back, at least from one perspective.  That is the perspective surprisingly opened up for me when, by chance, I found myself reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th century English poet, in Las Vegas.  The accidental, coincidental conjunction of going to Las Vegas, the self-styled City of Sin, on the one hand, and my happening to choose a biography of the ascetic, Jesuit poet Hopkins as my reading selection to take along on the trip, on the other, unexpectedly allowed me to gain deeper insight into both Vegas and Hopkins–and beyond.  Indeed, it actually allowed me to see more and more deeply and broadly into the realities—realities far deeper and larger than an individual piece of Nevada real-estate and a solitary, depressed, repressed, 19th century converted English Catholic Jesuit and poet—for which both Vegas and Hopkins themselves beautifully function as metaphoric condensations.

Part of what it let me see is what gives me reason to think about taking back what I said above, that Vegas is not a place for amateurs, whether at ego-boosting or at ego-busting, to go, as soon as I’ve said it.  That’s because, as reading Hopkins in Las Vegas occasioned me seeing, amateur ego boosters or busters who make a trip to Las Vegas, only to lose their shirts and more, are in fact more than likely to find themselves drawn back there again–again and again and again, in fact—until they eventually lose even their amateur status itself.  Expressed just a bit differently, when amateurs at the game of ego-boost and/or ego-bust do once go to Las Vegas, then, however it may be with what happens in Las Vegas while they’re there, they will find themselves staying there.  Or at least they are likely eventually to discover they may as well have just stayed there from the start, to save themselves the added time and expense of having to make a long series of return trips otherwise.  Thus, amateurs who go to Las Vegas at all may as well just stay there once they go, until they find that they have ceased to be amateurs at all any longer, and have joined the ranks of the proficient instead—at which point they can then leave when they choose, with no need ever to return again.

Sometimes, of course, to put the point one way at least, those who, consciously or not, are aspiring to such proficiency keep returning to Las Vegas till they’ve got it, return there by going, in fact, somewhere else.  Without ever going back to the specific piece of Nevada real estate that goes by the name of Las Vegas, they go back to Las Vegas by going, in effect, to some other Las Vegas.  They return to Las Vegas by going, perhaps, to some other piece of real estate in Nevada, maybe  Reno.  Or they may even go to Las Vegas by going somewhere in some other state, maybe to Atlantic City, in New Jersey–or, for that matter, maybe to Wall Street, in New York, New York (I mean the New York, New York that’s in the state of New York, not the New York, New York that’s in Las Vegas, Nevada).  Or maybe they even return to Las Vegas by going to Main Street at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida.  It doesn’t really matter.  All those places are really just one and the same.  They are all really just Las Vegas.

The glimpses of truth that reading Hopkins in Las Vegas let me see also included this:  that once you’ve managed to find your way to Las Vegas the first time, however difficult that first trip there may have been, you find it’s really easy to go there again.  You don’t even need to leave home, to get back there.  You don’t even need to get up off your own couch, if you find yourself zoned out in front of the TV in your own living room.  (All that is a matter I’ll blog more about in some future post).

Indeed, when looked at from the proper perspective, if once you manage to get to Las Vegas, you will stay in Las Vegas, whether you wish to or not.  Once you’re in Las Vegas, the only real way to leave there is, as the saying goes, “in a pine box,” the same way Nicolas Cage’s character finally manages to do it in the movie version of Leaving Las Vegas.  Whoever goes to Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas–till death does them part.  (I’ll also blog more about that, sometime.)

To sum up, then:  Amateurs who go to Las Vegas will find themselves, whether they like it or not, unable to leave there the same way they came—namely, as amateurs.  Before they will be allowed to leave Las Vegas, they will have ceased to be amateurs, and will have become experts instead.  In that sense, Las Vegas is the place where, once they go there, no amateur ever comes out again alive.

What’s more, in yet another ironic twist of fate, or at least of how that fate gets put, whoever has stayed in Las Vegas long enough to lose amateur standing and then be given permission at last to leave again, will have lost, along with their amateur status, all need or desire to get out of Vegas at all any longer.  That is, the only time any amateur who goes to Las Vegas is finally allowed to leave again, is after the erstwhile amateur has ceased to want to leave.  Once you go there, whoever you are and regardless of why you went there, you can only get out of Las Vegas when you no longer want to!

All that applies equally to all who go to Las Vegas for either of the reasons I’ve discussed.  Thus, once you go to Las Vegas, regardless of whether you go there to get your ego boosted or to get it busted, you will not be allowed out again, no matter how much you want to leave, until you no longer want to get out.

That brings me to yet another fatefully ironic twist, perhaps the most ironic and twisted twist of all, which is that, regardless of why you went there in the first place, whether for ego-boosting or for ego-busting, by the time you are finally allowed really to leave there again you will find that your ego has in fact been simultaneously both boosted and busted.  Indeed, you will discover that your ego has been boosted all the way to busting—and then boosted even beyond the bust.  That is what I was pointing to at the end of my preceding post on reading Hopkins in Las Vegas, when I said that the ultimate truth of the matter is that, contrary to everything said about the place–including especially what it says about itself to drum up business–in Las Vegas the House, poor thing, never wins!

La Vegas is Ego itself.  It is the 100% pure distillation and absolutely maximal concentration of ego as such.  It is the veritable black hole of ego.  That is why whatever of ego goes to Las Vegas, even if only to the most outlying suburban reaches of the City of Sin, will never leave there alive again.  As the gravity of a black hole is so strong that, once drawn into its orbit, not even light—no “information” whatsoever—can ever escape it again, so can no ego at all go anywhere near Las Vegas and have any chance at all, however infinitely thin, of getting out again.

Precisely because Las Vegas is Ego itself, the only way for any ego to leave, once it has gone there, is in a pine box.  Because it is Ego, it is the graveyard of all egos.  As I put it a while ago, any ego who goes there, regardless of why, will find itself trapped there, to be boosted till it busts—that is, till it explodes or implodes, it doesn’t really matter which, and simply vanishes without trace, as all phantoms of our dreams do once we awaken.  As I already said, Las Vegas is the place to go, whether you want your ego boosted or you want it busted.  Either way, you’ll get just what you want in Las Vegas, with the other thrown in, free of charge (which, of course, is truly a miracle in Las Vegas, the place where they’d sell you the air you breathe if they could only figure out how).  That’s why, as I’ve also already said, Las Vegas is not only such a great place to go if you’re into self-indulgence, but also an even greater place to go if you’re into self-mortification, as, say, Hopkins was.

That’s the good news about Las Vegas.  The bad news, on the other hand, is that if you go to Las Vegas for any reason whatever, whether to boost or bust your ego, or just on a lark or by pure accident (maybe your plane to Poughkeepsie gets diverted there for an emergency landing), you will stay there forever, never to return alive.  Since you, after all, are, your ego, your “I”—that’s just what the word ego means after all:  Latin for “I,” whoever “I” may be, including you—that means you had better stay out of Las Vegas, if you value your life.

If only you could!  If only you could stay out of Las Vegas!

But you can’t.

That is the very worst of the bad news about Las Vegas–that you cannot not go there.  (And that, too, I’ll blog about more sometime.)

That’s what I learned, at any rate, from reading Hopkins in Las Vegas.

The Traffic in Trauma: Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas

This post is one in an ongoing series to which I will add posts from time to time, sometimes in flurries, sometimes with varying intervals between, under the general title of “The Traffic in Trauma.”  Each post in the series—or, in some cases, sub-series of interconnected posts under that general series title–is designed to be read independently from the others, yet all are meant to resonate together with one another, in an ongoing deepening of meaning.  All the posts in the series explore, from various perspectives, the unifying theme of what we might call “the institutionalization of trauma.”  The idea for the entire series came to me on a recent short visit I made with my wife to Las Vegas, to join our daughter and son-in-law as they also visited there.  The trip proved to be very profitable to us all, and a number of the posts in the overall occasional series make use of my winnings from that trip.

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At the very start of my wife’s and my recent trip to Las Vegas, I downloaded and began reading an electronic edition of a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century English poet, by Robert Bernard Martin (London:  Faber and Faber, 1991).  During his short life—he died in 1889 at only 44—Hopkins converted from the Anglicanism into which he had been born, to become a Roman Catholic.  After his conversion, he went on to join the Jesuit Order and become a priest.  Throughout his adult life, beginning even before he became a Jesuit, Hopkins practiced various regular aesthetic disciplines designed to “mortify” his appetites.

The conjunction of Hopkins with Las Vegas may seem eccentric to the point of schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Hopkins’ whole life was lived in the spirit of asceticism and the disciplined practice of denying ones’ appetites.  On the other hand, Las Vegas, with its wide- open, no-holds-barred self advertisement as ‘The City of Sin,” is the place where visitors are not only permitted, but even encouraged, to indulge to excess their every appetite.  The two would not be expected to blend their very diverse voices at all harmoniously.

Yet for me, that’s exactly what they did.  Those two so different voices, the interplay of which by all reasonable expectations would produce nothing but a cacophony, ended up in my own experience resounding with one another to produce a remarkably deep and rich harmony.  To try to put some of their joint song in words, one of the themes they were sounding with one another was this:

Whether it is gambling or prayer, drinking or tee-totaling, sex or self-abnegation there’s nothing either right or wrong with any given game as such; what makes it either right or wrong is all a matter of how the game, whatever it may be, is played.  In just that same way, whether an institution in general traumatizes those whom it affects, or guides them into and through recovery, is a matter, not of the nature and structure of the institution itself as such, but of how it is incorporated and reiterated in the living of human life itself—a matter, as it were, not of different institutions, but of different ways of institutionalizing whatever institutions get instituted.

As thoughts will do, that one came to me unbidden.  Appropriate to thought’s own traumatic structure, it struck me by surprise while I was reading Hopkins in Las Vegas, and came packaged in a different form than I’ve just given it—a form suited to what provided it occasion to enter.

Since my first serious engagement with them in the summer of 1987, some of Hopkins’ poems have carried lasting importance for me, and I long intended to read a good biography of him.   I finally got around to it, and I began reading Martin’s excellent biography on the plane on our way to Las Vegas.

The thought at issue came to me a day or two after that, as I was continuing my reading in our room at the hotel-casino on the Vegas Strip where we were staying.  That thought came to surprise me while I was reading, well along in Martin’s biography, about a period in Hopkins’ novitiate as a Jesuit when he was placed under orders not to follow one very common ascetic practice frequently mandated by the Jesuit Order and, indeed, recommended by the whole Roman Catholic church.  It is a practice, in fact, that is widely recommended across a large number of spiritual traditions, not only within Christianity but also beyond it, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and more.  Even emphatically self-styled secular atheists have often practiced it.  That is the discipline—“discipline” being the original meaning of the Greek term from which we get the English term ascetic—of fasting.

As Martin’s biography shows through quotations, Hopkins himself fully agreed with the proscription, in his own case at the time at issue, of that common discipline of fasting.  Such ascetic practices were originally designed and instituted to humble their practitioners by ingraining into them the deep awareness of their interdependence with others and with creation as a whole.  Fasting and other such bodily disciplines of self-denial, properly practiced, serve as highly effective regular reminders of just how generally dependent the practitioners of those same disciplines are, and how interdependent they are with their fellows and, indeed, with all the rest of creation.  They show those who practice them—show them at the most concrete, bodily level, that of their most basic bodily appetites, drives, and affects themselves–how dependent they really always are on “outside factors” to sustain themselves at all, moment by moment, in all regards, mental, emotional, spiritual, and bodily.  In short, when practiced in such a way as to accord with the underlying proposed and intended goal or purpose for which they were instituted in the first place—which is to say, to be genuinely ascetic in their actual practice or implementation in any given case—ascetic practices needed to be ego-de-flating, rather than ego-in-flating .

Why Hopkins himself was so cautious towards his own inclination to engage in such ascetic practices as fasting, and why he agreed with his superiors’ decision when they ordered him not to engage in some such practices, was that he saw clearly the ease with which his own mind—his own way of thinking and being—could pervert those very practices.  Hopkins understood completely that genuinely ascetic practices were designed to serve the goal of his own “self-mortification,” by humbling him and driving the awareness of his complete interdependence with others ever more deeply into his soul.  He saw with full self-reflective clarity how adept he was himself at turning such humbling practices into yet more fodder for his own pride in himself, in the negative sense of that term, where it goes together with feeling and holding oneself to be someone special, not at all like all those “other” people, almost all of whom appear to lack the “strength of character” and “pride in themselves” to practice the sort of remarkable “self-control” that one demonstrates so clearly in one’s own case—at least in one’s own eyes.  That is, Hopkins realized how deeply ingrained in himself was the tendency toward what is often called “spiritual pride”:  vanity masquerading as spirituality—a matter, to use the terms of the nicely oxymoronic title of a book by Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist  guru and founder of Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, of “spiritual materialism.”  Thus, the lesson my reading Hopkins in Las Vegas occasioned me learning–worded as it first came to me, to fit what occasioned it in that setting–was this:

Any practice or other institution is to be abandoned as soon as it becomes overall ego-boosting rather than ego-busting.

Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas taught me that lesson–and a rich stock of others, as it turned out–altogether free of charge.  That in itself made the lesson remarkable.

It was remarkable insofar as its cost-free availability to me in Las Vegas, of all places, defied all the ordinary expectations one would usually have in making a trip there, and that I had myself as we went there.  That is because Las Vegas is a glittering, glitzy place where, as I remarked to my wife at one point during our stay, “they would charge us for breathing, if they could just figure out a way to package the air, without killing off all their potential customers in the process, before they could even pick their pockets.”  Indeed, looking back now, after our trip and our receiving all the great, genuine gifts that were readily available to us there altogether gratis, I’m actually surprised that no one tried to con us into thinking we did have to pay them, if we wanted to keep our air supply going.  Any lesson one learns for free in a place where they would charge you for the air you breath, if only they could figure out how, is remarkable simply on the count of coming for free in Las Vegas, of all places, in the first place.

In the second place, the lesson at issue was also remarkable by virtue of its unusual sort of “back-reference,” so to speak.  I immediately saw that it applied to the very same institutional setting in which it was transmitted to me, as it were.  That is, it applied to Las Vegas itself, or, more specifically to two very different ways one could experience that city.  On the one hand, one could experience Las Vegas, that “City of Sin” itself, as a wonderful place to go to practice grossly hedonistic self-indulgence–a place, that is, to get one’s ego boosted.  On the other hand, however, one could alternatively experience Las Vegas, same city (that one of “Sin” itself), as a wonderful place to go to practice austerely ascetic self-denial—that is, to get one’s ego busted.

Las Vegas, the City of Sin, as it quite accurately advertises itself as being, is “Sin,” which in that context means precisely selfindulgence.  Las Vegas is Sin in the very same sense that Uncle Sam is America, or that John Bull is England.  True to its name and to what it names, the City of Sin is indeed the place to go, if what you want is to indulge your taste for self-indulgence, that is, to get your ego boosted, as I already said.  If you want to get your ego boosted, by all means you should go to Las Vegas, where, once there, whatever you may end up doing, it will indeed boost your ego.

If that’s why you want to go there, taking a trip to Las Vegas is guaranteed to boost your ego one way or another.  It may, if you get lucky, at least by ordinary standards, boost your ego by letting you hit that big jackpot you’ve always dreamed of one day hitting on the slots, or at craps or poker or roulette or whatever equivalent, letting you glory in your new-found—yet so richly deserved, for all you’ve had to put up with to get there—riches.

That does happen in Las Vegas from time to time, of course.  However, as everyone really knows, if one lets oneself know it, it does not happen very often.  It happens only very, very rarely, in fact, given all the millions of tourists annually who gamble by going to Las Vegas.  Far, far more likely is that, if you go to Las Vegas for some ego-boosting, you will indeed find your ego boosted, but not in that way.  It will be boosted, rather, in the same way that a pickpocket might boost your wallet.  That sort of ego-boosting is, after all, what Las Vegas, where all the odds that can be rigged always are rigged to be on the side of the House, is all about.

Las Vegas is the place to go, to get your ego boosted, one way or another, whether you like it or not.

Unless, that is, the flipped coin of your luck lands differently, as flipped coins can do, even in Las Vegas.  Despite how hard they try to rig everything in favor of the House, the forces of order that order Las Vegas can never manage entirely to rig that, at least:  Sometimes the coin really does come down against the house.  What’s more—and to Vegas’s lasting chagrin—in terms of the coins that really count, when those coins come down, the coin always comes down against the House.

Poor Las Vegas!  It just can’t win!

My own experience in Las Vegas is proof of that.  It was there, after all, in Las Vegas itself, that the coin I flipped in going there came down–by sheer good luck of reading Hopkins, by hap, in that place—in my own favor, and broke the House itself, by showing me that the House, poor thing, and despite all its rigging of everything it can rig, and also despite what it may think itself, never wins.

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Coming soon!  “The Traffic in Trauma:  Reading Hopkins in Las Vegas II–The Sequel”!  Look for it in my next post!

How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation: The End

This is the final post in a unified series of seven in which I use 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.

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Trauma changes nothing, it changes everything.

It is only because trauma changes nothing, that it can change everything.

“From death, from the fear of death . . . ”:  That is how Franz Rosenzweig begins his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, first published in 1920 in German.  Here he how he ends it:  “. . . into life.”  There is a very important sense—perhaps it is even the most important, final sense—in which the entire book should be read as one long sentence with that beginning and that ending.  In the more than 400 pages that intervene between those opening words and those closing ones, Rosenzweig struggles valiantly to articulate his vision of that very transition–the one from death, or more precisely from the fear of death, into life—for his readers, in a loving effort to give guidance to those same readers as they undergo the same transition themselves, undergo it precisely by reading the book itself.

By the end of the book, even for the most diligent, attentive, sympathetic, understanding reader—the “perfect” reader, if you will—in one sense, the very most important, final sense, in fact, nothing has changed.  All the facts of that perfect reader’s life, and of that reader’s death, remain the same, unchanged.  That the perfect reader was born, and born whenever, wherever, to whomever, and to be whoever that reader was in fact born as, and born to be—none of that is changed one bit by all that reader’s reading.  None of the facts of birth of the reader are altered even to the slightest degree.  None of the background, including genetic, or circumstances of the reader’s birth, down to the tiniest, most trivial, inconsequential details, are changed in any way whatsoever by the transition Rosenzweig has led the reader through.  The same thing goes for all the facts, background, and circumstances of the reader’s death, in all the certain uncertainty of just when and where and how death may actually come to the reader, as it inevitably will.  They, too, stay absolutely the same.

Thus, neither anything about the reader’s life, nor anything about the reader’s death has changed at all from going through the transition Rosenzweig articulates for the reader.  In fact, not one single thing about anything–or any range of things, no matter how wide the range, all the way out to infinity itself—has been   altered in any way whatsoever.  Absolutely nothing has changed.  And yet:

Everything has changed.  The whole way the reader sees everything, or sees anything at all, has changed.  Forever after, absolutely everything has absolutely changed.

Trauma is the transition from death, or, rather, from the fear of death, into life.

As I said at the start of this post:  Trauma changes nothing, it changes everything.

Before my 1987 summer vacation I was a professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Denver.  After my 1987 summer vacation I was a professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Denver.  I still am.  Nothing has changed.

Before that vacation, I had a wife, and we had two children.  After it, I had a wife, and we had two children.  I still do, and we still do.  Nothing has changed.

A lot of things have changed for me between 1987 and now, of course.  I’ve been promoted, and am set to retire in a year.  Instead of being married to my wife for seventeen years, I’ve now been married to her for what will be forty-two years come vacation time this summer.  Our children have both grown up and moved away, starting families of their own with their own spouses.  We’ve moved from one house in one town in northern Colorado to another house in another town in northern Colorado.  Both the current house and the current town are much bigger than the previous house and town.  We make more money, and pay more taxes, at least by absolute dollar-amount.  Both of my parents were alive in 1987, but both are dead now, along with my father-in-law, who was also still alive in 1987.  I drive a different car than I drove then, wear hearing-aids now that I didn’t need then, have been to a lot of different places I had not yet ever been by 1987, have read a lot of books I hadn’t read by then, eaten a lot more food than I’d eaten by then, and so on, and so on, and so on, for as long as I might choose to keep going on, which I don’t.

I neither know nor care to know which of such matters if any–some trivial, some not so trivial, and some anything but trivial, and filled to overflowing with significance (at least to me: for example, the death of two parents whom I loved, and still do)–of all those countless things that have happened since, would, could, or might have been different, had I not spent my 1987 summer vacation the way I did in fact spend it.  That, indeed, they would have been different in at least some ways, in all the various registers of triviality and consequentiality, and not in others—of that, I have no doubt.  But just how they would have differed, in just what ways, I neither know nor care to know.  Nor can I imagine how knowing such matters could possibly ever matter to me, such that I might ever come to find such knowledge at all worth having or caring to have.

What was itself born in the first breaking of my leg in 1949, then finally took its place fully (filling that place over-full, to full overflow) thirty-eight years later, in 1987, didn’t change anything for me.  It changed everything.  Suddenly, I found myself living in a new day—or, more exactly, I found myself living in a new way in the same old day.  In that new way of living unto the day, that same old day never grew old, but stayed ever new.  Since then, I keep awakening again and again morning after morning to the same old day, day after day after day after day, like Bill Murray caught in Groundhog’s Day.  That, too, remains unchanged from how I awakened again and again day after day before my summer vacation of 1987.  It’s still that same old day again today, as I write this, on May 12, 2012, the day before Mother’s Day, which this year happens to coincide, as it often enough does (so that too is the same old same old), with my wife’s birthday (after all, when nothing changes, nothing changes).

It just keeps on being the same old day I wake up to, the same day I’ve been reliving over and over and over again all the days of my life—the time of which I know, by the way, will eventually run out, just as the time of the hourglass that always began the old TV soap-opera The Days of Our Lives eventually did, so that the network finally pulled the plug on that so long running daily series.  The day never changes.  But what did change for me, back in 1987, was how I lived to that day, and in it.  Suddenly, one day in the summer of 1987, I woke up yet again to find myself living yet again the same old day I’d already been living over and over every day until then, as though I were trapped in it as in a nightmare, or in a broad comedy, I couldn’t tell which.  But all of a sudden that same old day was an altogether different, brand new one, as it keeps on being every new morning since then, when I awake to it.  As Heraclitus said of the world, each morning my day—the self-same, single day of my entire repetitious life—is born again anew, for the very first time:  A brand new day!

Thus, I awoke on that morning back in the summer of 1987 to find myself waking differently to the very same day I’d awakened to all the days of my life until then, and would continue to wake to every day thereafter, as I will continue to do till all the days of my life at last run out.  What’s more, just as I found myself waking up differently but still to the same old day, so did I find myself waking up differently with all the same old mannerisms, gestures, and behaviors I’d developed over all my life till then, and woken up for countless days before that day.  All of those, too, all the things I did habitually, without even needing to think about them, were just the same as they’d always been.  But I found that I inhabited all those habits differently.  I still spoke the same way, with the same verbal intonations, patterns, and other idiosyncrasies, still accompanied by the same characteristic gestures.  Yet they all just no longer carried the same emotional, symbolic charge, in effect, that had invested them with significance for me up until then.  I was “stuck” with them still, in the sense that they were the only tunes I was able to play–the only tunes in my repertoire, as it were, of behaviors.  Yet they no longer had the same significance, the same “meaning,” that I had always, without even being aware of it, vested in them.  I had lost all my “investment” in them, in that sense.  Or, to put the same thing from the other side:  Those behaviors themselves had lost all their power to infest me with themselves, taking up residence in me like a virus.    They had been stripped of all their prior power, and had become dis-empowered.  All their charge had been discharged.

I still played all the same old tunes.  What else could I do?  They were the only ones I knew.

Since then, of course, I’ve learned some new ones.  But that took time, and was a very gradual process.  And it really didn’t matter that much, one way or the other.  The old tunes were still perfectly good for playing, but now I had finally learned how to play them well, to fill them with my newfound “musicality,” so to speak.  What mattered, I found, was really not which tunes I played, but how I played whatever ones I did play.

Just so does it stand with all our institutions, and what trauma does with and to them:  Trauma changes nothing, because it changes everything.

“Love—and do what you will!”  Augustine famously—or, in some circles, infamously—said that.  One thing my 1987 summer vacation taught me was how to hear that sentence differently than I’d always heard it up till then..  I found to my surprise that it no longer sounded to my ears as a dangerous formulation that could all too easily degenerate into a rationalizing justification for wantonness, if not in one’s sexual behavior specifically, then in one’s ethics generally.  In one sense, I spent my 1987 summer vacation learning that, if I just placed the emphasis in Augustine’s sentence differently than I’d been accustomed to placing it, that very same sentence delivered to me some crucially important advice, along with direction along the way of heeding that advice, to boot.  My new way of hearing it changed nothing in the advice itself, just in my hearing of it.  In that sense, nothing changed in what the sentence said.  It was still the same old sentence.  Nothing new.  My 1987 summer vacation taught me nothing on that score, any more than it did on any other.

So, in conclusion of this long, long-winded account (seven consecutive posts!), I guess, when you come right down to it, I have to say that I really spent my whole, long 1987 summer vacation doing nothing at all.

No wonder it has taken me so long to tell you about it!

Some sentences just take longer than others.   Some are even life sentences, “until death.”