How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation, continued yet again

This is the fourth of 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.

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One of the after-shocks set off by my breaking my leg the first time, when I was three, took the form of what I remember as the recurrent nightmare recounted in my immediately preceding post, a nightmare in which an axe-murderer was on the loose in our house, bent on the brutal murdering of my entire family.  Then, thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one and broke my leg a second time, that second episode set off reverberations in recollections of the recurrence of that old nightmare when I was a child.  As I also recounted in my last post, those reverberations in and as my memory of that recurrent dream culminated before long in a flash of insight wherein I saw, at forty-one, that the axe-murderer of my childhood nightmare was none other than myself—in psychoanalytic terms the “projection” of the boiling rage the fist breaking of my leg set off in me, a projection of that rage onto and into my nightmare’s image of an axe-murderer.

The insight that the after-shock of breaking my leg the second time in 1987 brought me, insight into what had happened when I broke it the first time, way back in 1949, was that the only way the child I was at three when that first blow struck could process what was happening to him was, at least in large part, by such a projection outside himself of the rage with which he affectively responded to that blow at the time.  To use one way of putting it, that child could not directly “own” his own rage.  He could not “own up to it,” as we say.  The reasons for that were complex, including some pertinent to the very idea of “primary” or “precocious” trauma, an idea I have explored a bit in some earlier posts.*  But for my purposes here, I will leave such matters without further discussion, so that I can focus instead on something else—which is how what happened to me thirty-eight years later, when I broke my leg again, involved an interestingly parallel but very different “projection” on my part—significantly different from the one that occurred back when I broke my leg the first time.

In that second projection to go with the second time I broke my leg, in 1987, what in effect occurred was that the first projection, the one that came with the first time I broke my leg way back in 1949, got withdrawn and re-projected differently.  As I have been explaining, in the initial incident and projection the child that I was at the time externalized the negative affect of rage, projecting it in and as the image of the axe-murderer in my childhood nightmare.  What happened when I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later was, as it were, a taking back—an active withdrawal, in the same sense that we withdraw money from the bank–of that initial projection, with and in a new re-projection whereby what I experienced was transformed into positive affect.

That with-drawing re-projection thirty-eight years later of the first projection completed the latter, fulfilled it.  As a man of forty-one I was at long last able to own and own up to what as a child of three I could not and, therefore, did not own and own up to.  Thus—at last!—my leg finally broke once and for all.  After that I was free—but only after that was I free—finally (!) to become (a process that is still ongoing to this day) who I had been all along.  I will try to explain a bit more what I mean.

As I recounted in my last post before this one, by sheer luck and happenstance both the set and the setting in which I found myself in the summer of 1987 replicated the set and setting in which I had found myself in 1949 when I first broke my leg.  To recapitulate what I already said along those lines in my preceding post:  As there were three of us siblings playing during the incident in 1949, so were there three of us colleagues and friends serving as sibling-substitutes in the incident of 1987**; as there were two parents overseeing the activities of the three of us siblings in 1949, so were there two presiding figures to serve as parent-substitutes overseeing the enterprise in which we three sibling-substitutes were engaged in 1987.  Finally, just as the incident of 1949, at least in its nearest after-shocks, involved an institution the day-to-day operation of which depended on the service of mostly-offstage nuns (a Catholic hospital), so did the incident of 1987 unfold in an institution serviced by mostly-offstage nuns (a place of retreat)–though of a different denomination, a difference that made no difference in terms of my twice-breaking leg.

I will let that suffice for my recap of parallels I’ve already mentioned in earlier posts.  Now I will add some new ones that were just as important for what happened to me.

Another such parallel is that both incidents involved experienced abandonment for me.  By speaking of “experienced” abandonment I mean to highlight that what matters is not whether the one undergoing such experience was “really” abandoned or only “thought” so; all that matters is that it was so experienced by that one.  So, as I did in fact already recount in an earlier post, the first incident in 1949 involved for me an experienced abandonment at two points.   At unconscious or at least pre-conscious levels I experienced my parents as somehow abandoning me to the physical pain of the initial breaking blow to my leg, and then repeating and deepening that abandonment by leaving me with all my pain in a hospital for ten days in traction.  Well, in parallel with that first incident, the one in  1987 also included me experiencing myself as being abandoned by the two parent-substitutes involved.   At the very heart of the abandonment in both cases what was at stake was feeling myself crucially left alone in torment by those whom I trusted to “take care of” me.  The excruciating physical pain that went with the first incident, in 1949, was absent in the second one, in 1987.  However, even in 1949 what most mattered in my experience was not the physical shock as such, as intense as it must have been, but the affective—“existential” would not be a bad word for it—shock of finding those I trusted for care not there for me, not pulling me out of my pain and rescuing me, but leaving me alone in it.  In parallel, the pain in which I found myself in 1987 was the non-physical but nevertheless still excruciating pain of coming to feel publicly humiliated, as I perceived it, not only in the presence of the two “authority” figures I was trusting in, without them intervening on my behalf, but also, far worse, by their very hands—at least indirectly, insofar as I humiliated myself by my own behavior, but which behavior in turn was a matter of me doing just what I thought they were giving me to do.  Beyond that, the details of the episode do not matter for my present purposes, any more than does the question of the “accuracy” of how I experienced things, at least in any usual sense of that term.

That experience of abandonment, of being left alone in torment, left alone there by the very ones in whom I deeply trusted and by whom I could never have expected to be so abandoned, was only half of the crucial parallel, however.  Coupled with that sense of abandonment in both cases, 1949 and 1987, was a equally strongly experienced blockage and even prohibition of processing either episode in terms of attributing any betrayal on the part of those in whom I trusted, and who were so suddenly and shockingly abandoning me to deal alone with my own intense pain.  That is, in neither case was blaming the parental authority figures for my torment involved, as though they were somehow at fault for it.

In the 1949 case, what blocked me from such blaming was, in effect, that it would have been even more traumatic for the child of three I was then to entertain the possibility of such deep perfidy on the part those whom I loved and on whose constant and continuing love for me I was utterly experientially dependent—my parents—than it was for me to find myself suddenly and shockingly left alone by them, abandoned to my pain.  Betrayal by those parents, for the young child I was in 1949, was even less conceivable than abandonment itself—and would have been even more tormenting.

Nevertheless, even at three I needed some sort of “account” of what was happening to me—some way of making sense of it.  The sense it turns out I made (as I came to see it, finally, thirty-eight years later) was to relate to my abandonment, in all its torment, as deserved punishment.  Given the strictly unthinkable thought that my parents would betray me, which thought would have torn all ground out from under me and cast me in free-fall into a bottomless abyss, the only thought left for me to think was that all the blame was my own, in effect.

Thus, the axe-murderer of my nightmares did double-duty for me by coupling the externalization of all my un-feel-able rage, on the one hand, and embodying my own self-condemnation—read as an affectively effective sign, my axe-murderer image functions as a sort of performative utterence wherein I pronounced a sentence of condemnation upon myself, as I merited for being the monster I projected myself as being in that same image—on the other hand.  I have always preferred stones that let one kill more than one bird at a time, and my axe-murderer was just such a stone.  He let me finish off the very ones who loved me, and simultaneously in the very process enact my own condemnation to the hell where I belonged, thereby finishing my despicable self off as well.  In him I washed my hands of myself, like Pontius Pilate.

Fast-forward to the incident of 1987.  Because of the conditions under which I had, voluntarily after full and careful deliberation, delivered myself, in company with my two colleague-friends, into the care of the two parental-authority figures who ran things in the setting at issue that summer, the idea of those figures not measuring up to the very trust I was putting in them was finally as unthinkable to me as betrayal by my parents had been for me as a child of three in 1949.  I had submitted myself to their authority because I was experientially convinced beyond a shadow of an existential doubt that they had what I had long been searching for, without ever even knowing it until by hap I found my way to them.  Finding them, or what I thought was them, finding the liberation, the deliverance that I took them to be offering me, was–as I had said more than once to my two colleagues when we all three decided to turn ourselves together for a time over to their care and supervision in the first place–“like going home,” but to a home I’d never known I’d left, until I found my way back to it.  As I have already remarked, the details do not matter for my present purposes.  All that matters is that, as I have also already remarked, the possibility of perfidy on their part was no less inconceivable to me with my mindset in the setting at issue in my summer of 1987, than perfidious parents had been to me thirty-eight years before, in 1949.

Thus, on both occasions, 1949 and 1987, I found myself, experientially, in what R. D. Laing and others have called a “double-bind.”  Alternatively expressed, on both occasions I found myself in a condition of radical “cognitive dissonance”—or what might better be called “existential dissonance,” perhaps.  I was, to put it colloquially, in an insane situation.  As a number of others have observed before me, when in an insane situation the only sane thing to do is to go insane oneself.  That’s just what I did, on both occasions, but in two different ways—different, yet complexly interwined in compound ways, as though to fit the compound, complex fracture of my leg that had first put me in ten-days’ traction.

In 1949, my insanity manifested symptomatically in my dreams, and recurrently in a choice variety of apparently bizarre, repetitive behaviors for the next thirty-eight years.  Then, in 1987, I went insane differently—this time not at night in my dreams, but in broad daylight and in full public exposure.

The closest I can come to saying what happened to me in the middle of my 1987 summer vacation is this:  I went to spend a day in the absolute elsewhere of a psychotic episode—specifically, of a full-blown paranoid delusion.  That, at least, is how I have always categorized it ever since then, and that is close enough for all my purposes.  Beyond that, I am happy to leave it to experts to decide about the “objective accuracy” of that categorization, if any care to waste their expert time on the matter.  For me, it more than suffices, at least provided that one interpret the notion of paranoia broadly—broadly enough to involve what I will call a “positive” form to go alongside the “negative” form that, in my impression at least, paranoia more usually tends to take.

In the case of my own paranoid delusion, I was indeed thoroughly convinced, beyond all possibility of doubt, that there was a massive conspiracy focused on me going on behind my back.  However, whereas (by my impression) in most cases the conspiracy that the paranoiac discerns everywhere to be at work is aimed at doing him harm, in my own case in 1987 the conspiracy was wholly aimed at doing me good.  I was convinced, at a visceral and immediately perceptual level that could only confirm itself more profoundly with each new affection or perception, not that the whole world was out to “get” me, but that all the world was out to help me.  As delusions go, one could not ask for a better one, surely.

That is, in my 1987 delusion I projected upon the two parental authority figures at issue the entirely positive affects with which, on that occasion, I was overwhelmed and swept away no less than I had been by the thoroughly negative affects of pain and terror and responsive rage thirty-eight years before when I first broke my leg in 1949, and projected those negative affects into and as the nightmare image of an axe-murderer.  What is more, when the echoes of the events of my 1987 summer vacation at last died away–which took till that fall, on my way to take my wife to the airport, as recounted in my preceding post—all of the so much louder and longer echoes of what had first happened to me way back in 1949 died away too.  When the din of all those multiple soundings and re-soundings finally stopped, it restored to me the blessing of silence, and thereby let me hear clearly again anew—and feel that way as well.   In the process of all the noisy sound and fury finally dying away, I found to my surprise that the very negative affects that I had only just then discovered to have owned me for so long had also themselves vanished.  Along with all the idiotic sound and fury, the rage and terror and pain were gone.  Those dominant, dominantly negative affects no longer affected me, at least not in any dominating way.  They had all been taken back, withdrawn, as I said earlier in today’s post, from their so-long-standing projection into and as my nightmarish axe-murderer, and recast no longer as something experientially outside me, but rather recast upon me and into me, transformed from pain, terror, and rage into joy, delight, and gratitude.

Said differently, when all the bells and whistles at last stopped echoing in my ears, I was finally able to hear that something had been patiently and persistently knocking on my door for all the while that din had kept itself up.  It was knocking still.  And now I was at last able to answer the knock, and open the door, at least tentatively, given how drained the whole process had left me.

When I did open that door, who I found standing there no one but myself, at last delivered.  My now at last fully broken leg had done the delivering.  In the end, when it was finally done, breaking my leg gave me myself to be.

Accordingly, ever since I broke it the second time, I have been very grateful for my broken leg.  How could I not be grateful, given that it delivered to me such a sudden, unexpected, unmerited gift?  What is more, what difference does it make to me–or my gratitude—how long the giving took?  So it took thirty-eight years from the rap on the door that first announced the delivery, plus some months more than three years before that since the gift was first sent my way (which by hap was on January 1, 1946, the day I was born), for a total of almost forty-two years (till well along into 1987) for the delivery to be completed in my reception of it from the hands of the delivery system—my long-breaking, at-last-broken leg.  So what?

My broken leg delivered me doubly–at least.  First, it delivered me in the sense that we say the mail-carrier delivers the mail:  It brought me to my own door.  But we also call the mother’s labors in bringing forth a child a delivery.  In that sense, too, my broken leg delivered me.  Indeed, in terms of birth and birthing, my broken leg both delivered me of myself, as a skilled midwife might deliver a mother “of” her child, and delivered me to myself, as the same midwife might deliver a child “to” its mother, perhaps even placing it in that mother’s arms, for her then to cherish and nurture.

In sum (at least for this post), the truth I was at last given to see one snowy morning in October 1987 talking with my wife on the way to the airport to deliver her in turn to her pending flight, was that the day I broke my leg was the luckiest day of my life.  In my next post (unless it proves to be the one after that—it’s hard to predict such things), I will address the next day, the day after I broke my leg, which is the day I’ve been living in ever since (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day—a trauma-trip of a movie, by the way).

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This series on How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation will be continued in my next post.


* Especially in the series of three posts I recently devoted to the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—the series that immediately precedes this current one on my summer of 1987.

** It is worth noting, as well, that the differences in age between the three of us involved together as friends in 1987 was roughly the same as that between my sister (about 10 years older than I, as is the elder of my two colleague-friends), my brother (about 3 years older than I, and a bit more than that for my second friend), and me.  Another good fit!

How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation

This is the first of 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.

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When I was three years old, I broke my leg.  Thirty-eight years later, I broke it again—sort of.

I broke my leg at three in the sense that it I was the one whose leg was broken, not in the sense that I was the breaker.  There really was no “breaker” as such.  No one did it to me.  It just happened.  It was an accident.

I am the youngest of three siblings.  My sister is ten years older than I; my brother, three.  Early one Saturday evening way back in childhood, we three were playing together in our father’s “den”—that is, the one-time dining room that he had converted for use to hold a desk with our telephone on it, along with a desk chair and a few other odd pieces of office-like furniture–while our parents were getting ready to take the whole family to the movies.  At one point in our rough-housing together, my brother, six at the time, pushed me.  We had a German Shepherd dog named Duke, who was possessive and protective of us, and never far away from us when we were at home with him.  He was there lying on the floor as we played, and when my brother pushed me, I tripped over Duke.  The result was a compound, complex fracture.  It put me in the hospital for ten days flat on my back, with my legs up in traction.  Though my family is not Catholic, it was a Catholic hospital, staffed by nurse-nuns.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always known that I broke my leg at three.  But I always knew it second hand.  Moreover, it was not until I broke my leg again thirty-eight years later that I found out the real story of what happened that night when I was three.   It was not until then that I discovered my parents had misrepresented the whole thing over all the intervening years.  They had made up a story—intending, I am sure, to spare both me and my poor brother what they no doubt perceived as the pain that knowing the truth might bring us–that became the official, sanctioned family account of the incident.  By that family myth, there was no push to implicate my brother.  Nor did Duke share, however unintentionally, in any blame by lying there for me to trip over him.  Rather, I supposedly went to the kitchen, good little boy that I was (of course), to fetch a facial tissue for one of the adults in the living room (my paternal grandfather and his second wife helped play the adult roles in the official family story, along with my parents).  While I was returning to the living room with the tissue, as the myth had it, I tripped over a jump-rope we kids had left lying on the floor in the den, through which I had to pass on my way.  I fell and broke my leg.  The jump-rope was to blame.

No memories of my own ever gave me reason to contradict that officially sanctioned, well-intentioned lie.  I have no ordinary memories at all of the incident itself.  I remember nothing of our siblings’ play, or of my brother pushing me, me falling over Duke, the breaking of my leg, the pain, or even being in the hospital as such.  I do remember coming home from the hospital, with a full cast to the hip; and I remember when that cast eventually came off, cut off me by our family physician in his office.  That even includes an olfactory remembrance of the rank stench my own flesh gave off, when it was finally set newly open to the air again after its long time under the plaster of the cast.  But I have never had any recollection, at least in the ordinary sense, of the traumatic event itself, the breaking of my leg and my consequent hospitalization, taken there by my parents to be left all alone in the hands of unknown nuns.

By recollection “in the ordinary sense” I mean eidetic recollection, memory manifesting itself in the form of representational images (regardless of whether those images are “true” or “false,” as such notions are usually understood—a matter I have pursued before at this blog-site, but one not directly pertinent here).   I have never had any eidetic recollection of the traumatic event I suffered when I broke my leg at three.  Eventually I did have, however, an emotional recollection of that event—or what might fruitfully be thought of as a re-construction of it, at the affective level, as I will return to later.  That, however, brings me to when I re-broke my leg thirty-eight years later, when I was forty-one.

That second time I broke my leg gave me no new broken bones.  It was not a second time I broke my leg in that sense–the sense in which, for example, one might at one time break one bone, then years later break another bone, or even break the same bone again, maybe re-breaking it at exactly the same place.  That latter sort of thing has also happened to me, as it turns out.  When I was seventeen I had a bad automobile accident in which, among other things, I broke my left clavicle.  The doctors elected not to put a pin in the bone, then reconnect it at the point of the break.  Instead, they put my arm in a sling and left the collarbone alone to mend itself, resulting in a bit of a bulge where the mending occurred, because of a slight overlap of the two bone-parts there, and an all but unnoticeable slump to my left shoulder.   Well, just five years ago I had a bicycle-accident in which I broke the same clavicle again, at the same spot, the weakness there helping the break along.

But the second time I broke my leg was not like that.  It was not another break, either of another bone, or of the same bone again, even at the same point as the first break.  Rather, it was, I would like to say, literally and numerically the very same break happening again, for a second time, the repetition of one and the same break, its coming back to strike again.  What happened that second time, when I broke my leg again, was that the impact of the trauma that first struck me when I was three finally registered, as it were.  Only then, when it struck “again” thirty-eight years after it struck at first –only then, in the shock of that long delayed “after-shock” of that first shock itself, to use a term that appropriately alludes to my immediately preceding series of three posts, on the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques André—did it finally get recorded.  Only then, in that so belated after-shock when I was forty-one, did what had happened, setting itself in play by hap, all those years ago when I was three and broke my leg, finally take place.

When I broke my leg again in 1987 I remembered what I could not possibly have remembered before then, for the simple reason that it had not yet taken place—and did not take place until I thus remembered it.  Strange memory, indeed–one that remembers something that has never taken place before it gets remembered!  Just what sort of memory is that–a memory that creates the very event it remembers?

The answer I propose to that question is, to give it an initial formulation, that the sort of memory in question–the sort that is genuinely a creative memory, in which it is “remembering” itself that first actively constructs or builds the place for the event that gets “remembered” finally and literally to take, so that the very occurrence or happening of that event, its e-venting or coming forth, can complete itself, as it were—is, in short, traumatic memory.  It is the memory of trauma, the form to which any memory must con-form, if it is to be a memory of a trauma.  Once again I will use my own experience of recollecting, in the summer of 1987, a traumatic event from my early childhood to elaborate.

As I have already said, I have no eidetic memories, no memories in the form of visualize-able images, of what happened to me when I broke my leg in 1949 at the age of three, nor did my experience of recollecting or remembering that event years later in 1987 involve any such images.  However, as I have also already said, in 1987 I emotionally or affectively remembered that earlier event.  In a sense, in 1987 I relived the experience or lived through it again.  I lived through it again in the same sense that is at issue in the phenomenon of “transference” in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.

In and at the stage of “transference,” the patient, the one being analyzed, unconsciously comes to relate to the analyst in the same way the patient originally related to those at whose hands, or at least while among whom, the patient first suffered whatever it was that, through the analysis itself, eventually emerges as what underlies the neurosis or mental-behavioral issue that brought the patient to seek help through psychoanalysis to begin with.  In transference, the patient “projects” upon the analyst emotions originally felt toward the patient’s parent or other significant person who was the focus of the symptom-originating earlier situation—most typically the emotions involved in a love-hate relationship.  So projecting, the patient “relives” the originating situation again, this time in the therapeutic setting of analysis.  By so reproducing the originating situation within the analytic setting—at least so psychoanalytic theory and practice hold—the patient, with the help of the analyst, has the opportunity to find some way to resolve the problem that, in the originating situation, exceeded all the patient’s capacities to resolve it.

It is only if and when psychoanalytic therapy reaches that stage of “transference,” that such an opportunity, one of resolving something theretofore irresolvable, opens up.  Thus, only if and when that stage is reached does there emerge the very opportunity of any psychoanalytic “cure” occurring, and therewith of the prolonged analysis itself proving to be “successful”

In my summer vacation of 1987, I took part, along with two of my colleagues who were also personal friends, with a number of other individuals from diverse places and backgrounds and whom my two friends and I had never met till then, in a joint project over a period of days.  By pure serendipity, the setting and the dynamics of the group involved, conjoined with my own mindset in relation to the group and our shared task, ended up creating an opportunity for me to go through something analogous to psychoanalytic transference, and to go through it “successfuly.”  That is, in the same sense as that at issue in such transference, what I did in my summer vacation of 1987 allowed me to relive the breaking of my leg as a child thirty-eight years before that, in 1949.  And in my case, the “analysis”—that is, the equivalent, altogether outside of any therapeutic analysis at all, of such analysis—proved to be “successful.”  That is, my later re-experience of my broken leg of many years before proved to be one in which I did not just break my leg again, but was able this time finally to heal that break, which until then had never been properly mended, without me or anyone else even knowing it.  I’d been limping around all those years with an un-attended broken leg without anyone, including me, ever even noticing I had a limp, let alone that my leg-bone still needed proper mending.  It was only when I “re-broke” it in 1987 that I was at last “cured” of my broken leg of 1949.

Lest I create a fall impression, or engender an expectation doomed to undergo frustration, let me add that I still limp.  It’s just that I now limp differently.

It may take me a while to explain.

To be continued in my next post.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 9:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crossing Time, The After-Birth, and Being Human: Part III

Below is the third of a series of three posts occasioned by my recent reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques André’s Les désordres du temps (Paris:  Presses Universitaires de France, 2010).  I thank Barbara Kowalczuk, one of my readers, for calling my attention to that work.

III.  Being Human

The human being–the single, solitary human being, who can only die alone–is the after-birth of time, the place time takes to cross over from endlessly passing by, and at last first comes again to strike the hour.

Put a bit differently, a human being is a place that time takes when, having put itself at risk there, it wins its wager.  If the wager is lost, time passes on, and passes away, and with it passes the opportunity that another human being might have come to have been born, but never was.  What is born at one’s birth is the richest of opportunities, an absolute opportunity, so to speak:  the very opportunity that there might come to be any genuine opportunities at all!  Once missed, however, the absolute opportunity that is birth becomes no more than just one more common entry on the infinite list of missed opportunities; and, like all missed opportunities, it altogether vanishes.  Even the fact that there ever was an opportunity at all vanishes.  The door–open once, for a moment, but a moment that never came—closes again, and so does the very possibility of there being any memory of the door having once swung open, if only for that moment, or even of there ever having been any door there at all.  That one was ever even born then becomes debatable, to understate the case sarcastically, however much it rends. Time does not stop for that, of course.  It only passes on, still waiting for its hour to strike.

To use categories made familiar to us by Freud and psychoanalysis, the human being, as what I am calling here the after-birth of time, is the point at which time and the ego (the “I”) cease to by-pass one another like two ships that pass in the night, and instead cross paths with one another.  It is the point at which one’s daily living crosses paths with one’s life itself, and as such the point beyond which—but only “beyond” which, or “after” which—one can begin actually living life, rather than just living it out.

“The birth of time,” writes Jacques André (page 92), “is permitted by the permanence that the ego [le moi] conquers in the course of its first experiences.”  Time hazards itself at such birth, as such birth.  It puts itself into play there, risks itself.  Yet it may well lose its wager, as I have put it.  Thus, André immediately qualifies his remark by adding that although the birth of time is “permitted” by the ego’s establishing of its own permanence through its conquests of its early experiences, such newborn time is not yet able to “constitute itself.”  It is not yet able to “differentiate itself” (emphasis in original).  For that to occur, for time to “differentiate” itself, is for it to separate itself out into what we call its three dimensions.  It is for time to cleave or rend itself into past, present, and future.  However, a time that does not yet rend itself into past, present, and future is no time at all.  Thus, to “differentiate” itself into its three dimensions is for newborn time itself to become what it was born to be—time itself, as such.

In turn that cannot occur–time itself canot be given time to become time: for the time of time to come—“unless,” André continues, “certain things occur.”  Only if they do occur, can time itself be given time to take place:  “It is at that point, the hour of the event, that the shock and the after-shock [le coup et l’après-coup]”—the striking of the hour as such, and its continuing to sound in its echoes, its re-soundings, in the sense of its soundings-again—“make their contribution.”  Indeed, “that point,” the very point of “the hour of the event”–which means not just any old occurrence that may happen to occur, but the good hap wherein occurs the taking place of what becomes the very place of all occurrence—is itself also the point where that hour then continues to resound.

There, at last, and only there, does the hour of the event, the hour of time itself, resound, in the sense of “filling a place with sound, being loud enough to echo,” as the dictionary says, but also in the sense of being celebrated, coming to have such fame or reputation that it comes to “be much talked of.”  That most of the talk all too often all too quickly drowns out the sound of what goes on resounding there, to besmirch the fame and sully the reputation of what is being so much talked about, leaves the underlying point unaffected, the resounding of the sound still there, just dimmed, like the peal of a bell by snow.

On the very next page (93), André returns yet again to an issue he has already repeatedly addressed from various angles before, the issue of the crucial importance in psychoanalytic therapy, especially as informed by Lacan, of the “failures” of the analyst.  That is, he is concerned to underline the importance of the inevitable failures of the analyst properly to fill the role expected of the analyst by the analysand.  Those same expectations, indeed, are fostered by the entire analytic “set up,” in effect: the analysand on the couch and the analyst sitting silently behind, offering only cryptic grunts and prompts to “go on” and the like; the analyst occasionally offering annoying interruptions by way of bizarre, outlandish, sometimes long-winded interpretations based on no more than what appear to be trivial glitches in what the analysand is saying; and so on.

By André’s own deft analysis in his book, it is precisely in and through such very failures of the analyst that anything like a “cure” can occur.  As Lacan taught, the analyst in the therapeutic situation occupies the position of (indeed, literally sits in the chair of) the presumed “master,” the position of “the one presumed to know.”  The analyst is the one presumed to know what is really happening, really going on, with the suffering analysand who has sought the analyst out and submitted to a lengthy (if not interminable) analysis.   The analysand even pays the analyst large sums for session after session in the analyst’s office.  The analysand or patient is paying the analyst such hefty fees precisely for the analyst to bring all the analyst’s presumed knowledge, expertise, and mastery to bear on helping the patient solve the many besetting problems that brought the patient to the analyst in the first place.  The patient does all that, only to have the analyst time after time test the patience of the patient by failing to deliver on the presumed promise of mastery and knowledge.  The analyst just keeps on bungling the job.

Yet, as André insists, it is just and only in such repeated ungainly failure to know that the analyst–given good fortune or fortunate hap: the sheer blind luck even the least gifted, knowledgeable, masterful, or lucky among us can sometimes fall into—can, to everyone’s total surprise (especially that of the analysand and the analyst themselves), occasionally hold up a no-longer-distorting mirror, wherein the truth, of the analysand, the analyst, and the entire scene, at last can be seen.  And that truth, at least, does set one free, as might always be added.  For one thing, it frees the analysand to terminate the analysis.  That is because it frees the analysand at last to see, insofar as it can be seen at all, just what once did happen, what blow, what coup, was really once struck, thereafter to keep on restriking again and again, repeating itself endlessly and unconsciously in the everyday life, choices, and behaviors of the analysand, until at last, “in” the moment of vision or flash of insight triggered by yet one more failure of the analyst and the seemingly endless analysis it finally takes place—taking place at last, to use André’s own terms, “in the psyche.”  What first happened long ago, and has compulsively repeated itself again and again ever since, is finally, at and in and as that very moment, allowed to take place, to take place now, “in reality” (which does not entail that the behaviors, choices, or daily life of the analysand will necessarily change, it is important to note).

Only insofar as it has so truly “taken place” by coming to be there at and as that very place can what has now taken place, be con-fronted by, that is, brought face-to-face with, the analysand as such.  Only there does the analysand at last stop running, and turn to face the time that will not pass—not in the sense that the time of boredom seems never to pass, but as the time of trauma will not pass by, or let one pass it by–but insists instead on happening again ever anew, thereby opening the truly lasting “now,” which never passes.  And thus eternity blooms.

It is an “eternity,” however, not of anything “supra”-temporal or “extra”-temporal–unless it be in the sense of being even more temporal than temporality itself:  being extra-temporal, to paraphrase what Chogyam Trungpa once said of the “ordinary” and the “extra-ordinary”—but of the truly temporal.  Even Husserl said of temporality that it was the never-passing form of passing itself; and the eternity of what strikes only once, and strikes once only, then keeps on striking ever again, nevermore after that to pass on by, is that eternity, the eternity of time itself.

That is the same eternity as what André tellingly calls the a-temporality of the unconscious itself.  It is the eternity of life, as opposed to the eternity of death—a never-ending-ever-beginning eternity, rather than an endlessly ever-ongoing one.  Of the former, the eternity of the a-temporality characteristic of the unconscious itself, André writes (page 107) that it “carries the trace of infancy, that ‘time’ before time, when the latter was not yet psychically constituted,” but only trembling, newborn, on the verge thereof.

André contrasts the eternity of such a-temporality–the a-temporality of infancy, seeking to find its ripening place, and then to take it for itself—with the eternity that (page 108) “lies outside of time, a continuous present without start or end.”  That latter eternity is “outside” time—outside, that is, the time that takes place only in an event, a time that happens, and in which alone there can then be any story or history of what happens besides.  Insofar as eternity is what lies outside such time, the only time that happens, the time of eternity itself is an altogether different time, one which is  “[a] time without shock, without after-shock,” a time “which hates nothing so much as change.”  The time of any such supra-temporal, unchanging eternity is a time only of deadness and of death. It is time as an eternity where everything always remains the same.  It is therefore the time, as well, of identity, from Latin idem, the same:  “Identity, the quality of what remains the same, substantial identity, is the dream of [such supra-temporal] eternity” (page 109).

The eternity of endless identity, of self-same sameness, is also in secret, silent league with another a-temporality, appropriately different itself from the a-termporality of infancy.  The endless eternity of the identical, the ever self-same, has the a-temporality, instead, as André will write a bit later (page 144), “which characterizes the repressed.”   The a-termporality of the repressed is one that in effect “ignores time, in the sense of wanting to know nothing of it:  to desire is to attain, the desire is satisfied without delay, without interval of time” (emphasis in original).  In contrast, in the a-termporality of infancy–or of the “unconscious strike” of “precocious” trauma, we might well add–time is (page 145) “less ignored than not [yet] constituted.”  Such a time of the ignoring of time is the time before time of “infancy.”

Only a newborn who is born already called upon eventually to speak is truly an “in-fant.”  A new-hewn statue or new-minted coin is no such thing.  In that sense, only the human child—if being human is defined as being called to language, to speech—goes through any “infancy.”

Infancy, that time before time, is the “first time,” when time first strikes its hour, sending out its first shock-waves of sound, which cannot even yet be heard, since there is no one there yet to hear them—nor could there yet be.  The very “one” time needs, if the striking of time’s own hour is ever to be heard, and thereby to come fully into its own sounding and resounding, is only formed from the impact of that first not-yet-fully-struck strike, after and in response to it, in (literally “in”) the resound and re-sound of the sound of it.  What is more, the first formulation, as it were, of that “one” is as an “I,’ an ego—an ego ensconced in its “identity,” that self-same subsistence of the subjective substance as which the newly emergent ego has so cautiously (“dubiously,” we might say, to be mindful of Descartes) secured itself.

No wonder, then, that the figure of Narcissus takes on such importance within psychoanalysis!  As André writes playfully late in his book (page 136):  “The unitary point of view in psychoanalysis pays heavy tribute to the demands of Narcissus.  The point of view of the One [de l’Un] is his point of view.”  Identity is the realm of Narcissus—the “ego” completely absorbed in itself, as all egos must always be, endlessly fascinated by their own images in the mirror.

As the myth tells us, the self-absorption of Narcissus proves always to be deadly.  Nor can the ego ever free itself from that deadly absorption.  That is because the ego is itself nothing but the illusion, the very image of himself, that so absorbs Narcissus that he has no attention left over to give to anything else, losing himself in it as though fallen to drown into a depthless pond.  For the self-destructive self-absorption of Narcissus ever to be interrupted, the smooth, reflecting surface of the pond must be broken, the fascinating, phantom image broken up and made to vanish amid the troubling ripples.  The mirror must be shattered, dispelling the illusion of the ego (the illusion that is all the ego is), by a blow delivered from some source “outside” the ego and its self-absorption, some Other than the One, if one will.  In that blow, the ego finally crosses paths with time—in a collision the ego cannot itself survive.

In short, to save one from one’s own ego and its narcissism, an event must occur, something must come to take place and set itself up and at work there, at that place.  That can only come as a bolt from the blue, altogether unexpected, casting light into the darkness to dispel all the shadows that absorb one there.  There must be a Heideggerian stoke of in-sight, an Ereignis.  As André himself writes (page 142) in echo of Heidegger—conscious or unconscious, matters not (at any rate, André does not cite Heidegger as a source for his remark):  “Ereignis, the German word to say event, takes its source in eräugen, when something brings itself before the eyes [Augen in German].”

How such a stroke of luck may come about cannot be foreseen.  For one it may come in the bungling of one’s therapist in psychoanalysis; for another it may come from being struck off one’s steed on the road to Damascus; for a third, it may come from the light through the window striking one’s shoes in a peculiar way when one is tying one’s shoelaces again one otherwise dreary day, just as one does drearily every day, to begin the deadly boring round of a thankless daily grind.  It is all a matter of luck—of chance, fortune, or happenstance.

But if, by sheer good luck, good fortune, or good hap, such a happening happens, then, however that event may transpire, the one, whoever that one is, who was once born an infant is at last given speech, and thereby set free finally–once and for all–to emerge from infancy and come forth to say just who that one was always born to be.

No easy thing!

Published in: on March 16, 2012 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crossing Time, the After-Birth, and Being Human, Part II

Below is the second of a series of three posts occasioned by my recent reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques André’s Les désordres du temps (Paris:  Presses Universitaires de France, 2010).  I thank Barbara Kowalczuk, one of my readers, for calling my attention to that work.


II.  The After-Birth

Every birth is premature.  Every baby comes before it is due.

Every birth is premature from two different perspectives at once:  the perspective of the one being born, and the perspective of those to and among whom that one is born.  So, for example, it is both for the baby itself and for its parents that every baby comes before it is due.  Every baby arrives unexpected, from both perspectives.

For the baby itself, it can hardly “expect” its own birth, precisely because until then it isn’t even born yet.  There is, in effect, no one there to expect itself, until that one is first born.

With regard to those to and among whom the baby is borne, to the mother who bears the baby and to those around her–fathers, consorts, family, and, in general, the whole community into which the child will be born–every birth occurs before any of them can expect the one yet to be born, either.  Of course, we say that pregnant women are “expecting” a child, and talk of “expectant parents” awaiting the birth of a child; but what is expected or awaited is always just that, a child.  The actual child who eventually gets born, however, is never just a child, it is precisely this child, the one who actually shows up at birth; and that child, the one actually born, always comes as a surprise, never as someone expected.  How could one expect the arrival of someone one has never met–nor ever could have, since it is someone who has not even been born yet?

I am waiting for someone—perhaps someone I’ve requested be sent to fix something on my computer, for instance.  Whenever I am thus waiting for someone to come, if I do not know just who that “someone” will actually turn out to be, regardless of whether the one to come turns out to be someone I have met before or not, then it is always as someone un-expected that that actual one eventually shows up at my door.  That holds true even—perhaps even most especially—when I nevertheless already know well in advance that “someone” is coming.  So, for example, an expectant mother may know nine months in advance that a child is on the way.  But just who that child will turn out to be, upon arrival, the expectant mother does not know, and cannot know, until the child itself arrives, all unexpected and as a complete surprise.  So it is, indeed, with all arrivals, really.  We may be waiting longingly for our savior to appear, to give another example.  But the savior we are sent always comes as an unexpected surprise–perhaps even a thoroughly unpleasant one.  Our redeemer may live, but if he shows up at our door suddenly and is not at all what we expected, we may miss our chance at redemption.  Or, arriving at the same doom by a different route, we may confuse the one sent to rescue us with some vacuous but attractive fellow with the Nordic good looks we may have been expecting, and go off with him to our doom, refusing to let ourselves be saved by the real rescuer—like running away from a true and loving spouse for a fling with an itinerant, no-account drummer, to use a now dated image.

Thus, the arrival of what truly arrives–rather than just the showing up yet one more time of the same old thing come ‘round again, like the proverbially bad penny—is always an unexpected arrival.  On the other hand, however, yet inseparable from such an impossibility of expecting the coming one, the one on the way, the one to be born as itself and both by and among others: “One cannot really be born, unless one has been expected,” as Jacques André writes, at one point in his book on “the disorders of time” (page 85).  As a gift refused, left un-received, is thereby shorn of fulfillment of its own intention as a gift, and falls short of itself, as it were, so is a birth that arrives unexpected, indeed, as a kind of interruption of expectations, rather than being joyfully welcomed as an arrival long awaited and lovingly prepared for, in effect cut off short of full birth.  An unexpected birth is a birth left hanging, not yet fully brought to term—something still unachieved, yet to be completed.

In that regard, what we ordinarily think of simply as one’s birthday and birthplace—the date, time, and location that appear on one’s birth-certificate or the equivalent—might better be called the day, hour, and location at which one’s birth first came truly to be at stake.  It was then and there, at that exact time and place, that one’s birth itself—one’s very own birth, one’s birth not just as another one of many (a child), but as this very one, the single, unique one that one is (this child)—was risked or hazarded.

Regardless of whether every trauma is at bottom—and if so, then in just what sense and with what import—a trauma of birth, or “birth-trauma,” every birth is a trauma.  It is obviously a trauma for the one being born, but it is also, though perhaps less obviously, a trauma for whoever bears that one, as well as for those into the midst of whom that one is born, as I have tried to explain above.  In all trauma something is put at risk or hazarded, set at hazard.  If it were not, if nothing were “at stake” in a given occurrence, then that occurrence would not longer have anything “traumatic” about it.  Traumatic events are inherently hazardous.

What conceivable trauma could be more hazardous—that is, what could put more at risk—than being born?  Birth is so hazardous, in fact, that it is the hazard that must first be hazarded, if there are ever to be any hazards at all.  Without the risk of being born, there’d be no opening at all there in the first place, to let anything be put at risk.  Indeed, birth is the very risking, the very hazarding, of the risk that no risks will really be run, no hazards hazarded, ever.

Birth is an absolute hazard, then.  It is the hazard of all hazards, the risk of all risks, the wager without which there can no wage to wager.  Birth is the unconditional wager, the riskiest of all conceivable risks.  It is so risky that it even risks that what it risks will never even come to be known, a risk that risks not even being registered by anyone as a risk in the first place, but that may just pass everyone by unnoticed, like a ship passing by in the night.   Thus, it is an altogether blind risk:  a risk in which one is not only called upon to risk everything one has, without being permitted an inventory of what that is, or, therefore, any way to count in advance, before one decides to risk, the possible costs of losing, but also any assurance that one will ever even know how much one has lost, should one lose.  Indeed, one even risks altogether forgetting that one ever had, or risked, anything at all in the first place.

Birth is the putting at risk, at hazard, of the very one born, a risk so complete, so perfect, that it even risks itself.  Birth is a casting at risk or hazard that goes so far as even to risk that the very risking will never be allowed to manifest, that is, that birth itself will finally come never to have come to pass, that it will come never to have happened–never to have taken place—“in the first place.”  Birth is the risking, the throwing at hazard, of the very one born, in such a radical way that it remains at risk whether that one—that very one the birth of whom was in fact hazarded at the time and place recorded on one’s birth-certificate or its equivalent—will actually succeed in having been born as that one, the very one that one is, or at least would have been, had one ever really succeeded in having been born in the first place.  Unfortunately, many die—some of them after lives even longer than one hundred years—without ever having been born in the first place, and with even the fantasy that they might have been born erased forever.  No longer can one speak of any possible changes in such lives, even in the memory of others.  As André remarks later in his book (page 128):  “To change one’s life, one must first have one.”

The struggle of life is to have been born.  It may take most of a long lifetime to reach that goal, if one reaches it at all.  If one does not, then one dies still unborn, as it were, regardless of how old one may be.  Our birth does not really happen, it does not take place anywhere at any time, unless we have, sometime after what we might at least provisionally call our “first” birth, a sort of “second birth,” a “re-birth”–what I would like to call an “after-birth,” in a sense of that term very different from its usual one, of course.

What are called “after-shocks” follow the initial shock-waves of an earthquake, and can often even be far more destructive than those initial shocks.  In the same way, in Freud’s definitive example of a trauma, a survivor walks away from a serious train accident apparently unscathed, only after a latency period to then suffer “belatedly,” as an “after-shock”—in French, “après-coup”—from the impact of the original shock of the accident itself.  It is only in such after-shocks, in fact, that the “initial” shock, the “original” trauma, registers or manifests—breaks out into the open—as a shock or trauma in the first place!  Before that, before such shocks that come “after” that “first” shock, the first shock, so to speak, has not yet made any impact on, which is to say actually managed to be a shock to, the very one it struck.  Only when it comes “back” as a “later” shock, an “after”-shock, does it succeed in having such an impact on, and delivering a shock to, the very one it did strike in the “first” blow or shock.  The “first” strike or shock only becomes that very thing, the “first” shock, in relation to its apparent “recurrence” in the “after”-shock wherein it manifests itself “belatedly” (in Freud’s German, nachträglich) as what has already hap-pened, which is to say hazarded itself, put itself into play and at risk, in and as the “first” strike.

As André neatly expresses it at various points in his book in conjunction with his discussion of the “return of the repressed” in the form of the “transference” so crucial to any psychoanalytic “cure” of a “precocious” trauma, a trauma of early childhood or “infancy,” what one in dealing with in such situations is the paradoxical return of what prior to such return never “turned,” the coming again of what never came before, the “repeating of what has never taken place [eu lieu]” (page 116).  Only in the “after-shock” does the “first” or “original shock,” which first put itself at hazard long ago, literally take place—that is, set itself up and at work at some place.  That place, where what has already in one sense happened, but has yet to take place or to take its place, as it were, does take place, and take that place “for itself, as its “own” place, is nothing either more or less than the one who is stricken.  That one, and only that one, is the strike point—“ground zero,” if one will.

What conceivable precocious trauma could be either more traumatic or more precocious than birth, that precocity that first makes precocity itself possible to begin with, that trauma without which no traumas at all could occur?  What is true of all trauma is most especially and emphatically true of the trauma of birth:  it does not take place when it first hap-pens, but only afterward, when it hap-pens again, and even then only with great good luck, the chance happen-stance that constitutes “good hap,” a truly happy hap.

What we call someone’s birthday is the day when that one, that single, singular one, and no other, was first hazarded, first risked or put at hazard.  It is the day that by hap–which means random “chance” or “fortune”:  the turn of the wheel, the roll of the die, the fall of the card—that very one was cast, thrown into the game, such that, with a bit of good luck, by lucky chance or good fortune, “good” hap, the birth of that very one might one day, one later day–often very long after the birthday, when that same one was first cast, absolutely, at hazard to hap–come actually to take place, that very place one was, on one’s birthday, born to be.  That later day, long after the “first” birthday–the later, long awaited day when the expected one finally arrives, the day the baby is finally brought to term and, therewith, truly borne, the day birth finally takes place, winning the wager so long ago thrown down, is thus the day of the after-birth, wherein birth itself finally takes its proper place.

The after-birth of birth is the moment in and at which one first comes, at last, to have been born—born as oneself, the very self one was born to be.  At birth, one is born to be that very self, that one “itself,” the very one that one is.  On one’s birthday, one is “born to be” the self on is, in a sense Heidegger struggles to capture in Being and Time when he writes that each one of us “has” oneself (one’s “self”) “to be,” as a sort of task that one may achieve, or fail to achieve (one may “find” or “lose” oneself).  Birth is the casting loose of the one born into that task, the task of “becoming who one is,” as Nietzsche put it well before Heidegger.  Many “pass on”—which is just the right expression for what happens at the end of a life, even a very long one, which passes by beside one, as one passes by beside it—without ever so becoming.  And when they do pass on, it is as if they had never been.  Like a fog dispersed by the sun–or a dream one wakes from, as the Psalmist says–they simply vanish away.

Concerning the sort of “cure” that can be achieved, with luck, through psychoanalysis–focally through the process and at the point of “transference,” the point at which what has never yet taken place gets “repeated” in and as an “after-shock,” thereby again offering the participants in the analysis the opportunity to grant it a place to take–André distinguishes (pages 128-129) between what such a “cure” consists of, in cases involving what appear to be new traumas, in effect, and what it consists of, in cases involving “precocious” traumas.  In the former case, that of traumas apparently not precocious, “the after-shock augments the past, it adds something to history.”  That is, it provides a way of retelling the tale of the past, so that it can now incorporate the traumatic event, which up until that moment of after-shock was repressed, so that it manifested only in neurotic symptoms, and therefore kept disrupting the tale or story, the “history” of “what happened.”  In contrast, with regard to after-shocks that “echo precocious traumas,” the moment of after-shock “participates in the genesis of temporality, of the invention of time.”  He goes on to write that in the first case, where one is not dealing with an echo of precocious trauma, the moment of after shock “permits the remaking of history, the changing of the past.”  However, in cases that do involve such echoes of a truly “precocious” trauma, the after-shock “opens upon historicity” as such.  That is, moments of after-shock of the first sort allow us to change the past by adding to its story, open up new, different histories, in which we are no longer a prey to the mechanisms of repression and symptomatic return of the repressed.  But moments of the second sorts of after-shock open up history itself, and ground it in what can never be incorporated as part of an ongoing story, to become through such incorporation no more than an episode in that larger, ongoing story.  After-shocks that echo precocious traumas ground history—and time itself–in the time-before-time of one’s own birth.

Earlier (pages 96-97), André writes:  “The analyst is used to seeing history redesign itself, when a memory many times evoked is ‘suddenly’ seen from a new point of view that permits [such redesign].   Because history is a story [in the sense of a narrative account:  un récit], it is possible to rewrite it.  It’s obviously more surprising when it is history as such [or “in itself”:  en elle-même], the psychic category theretofore inexistent, that the analysis sees born. . . . A history that is at times able to remember its own pre-history, when time was not yet there in time [le temps n’etait pas encore dans le temps].”

The after-birth of birth is the beginning of the story of history itself, the time when time at last begins.  It is the moment time starts, giving us all the time in the world, more than enough time to tell all our histories, rendering all our accounts of ourselves. Each and every birth is the hap-hazard-ing of time and history as such, the risking of a wager past counting and accounting, a risk the running of which meets now and then with good hap, and wins the whole world.  Such winning moments are the after-birth which make our births themselves—each and every one, but each for each and each one at a time, one by one by one by one, and on forever, without end—indelible.

In such moments our lives themselves become, to quote Rilke, “no longer revocable.”

Published in: on March 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crossing Time, the After-Birth, and Being Human

Below is the first of a series of three posts occasioned by my recent reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques André’s Les désordres du temps (Paris:  Presses Universitaires de France, 2010).  I thank Barbara Kowalczuk, one of my readers, for calling my attention to that work.

I.  Crossing Time

When we find ourselves having to wait for something–the arrival or departure of a plane, or the ring announcing an expected phone-call, or release from the hospital after surgery: in short, anything that creates a gap in our typically busy schedules—we have the uncomfortable experience of encountering an expanse of what today in our digital age we often call “down-time,” or, using an older locution, “dead time.”  It is a time between times, that is, a time between the completion of one activity (say, getting to the airport) and the beginning of another (unleashed by the announcement that we can board our plane, to stay with the same example).  Such between-times are times in which we have “nothing to do,” as we often put it—nothing, that is, but wait.  Faced with such a time of waiting, not doing, most often we immediately start looking around for something–a newspaper or magazine to read, a computer or cell-phone to activate, a TV to watch, just anything, whatever’s available, or that the more “pro-active” among us have brought along for the purpose, planning ahead–that we can use to “pass the time,” as we say.

That is a fitting expression.  What is more, from one perspective worth exploring, it is an apt phrase for describing not only our experience of, and response to, such between times.  It proves to be just as accurate when applied to our overall experience of time in general, and response to that experience, in our contemporary daily lives.  Time as most of us encounter it in our busy, schedule-filled, everyday lives is just that:  time experienced as something we need to find ways to “pass.”  It is time experienced as stretching out before us in vast expanses that threaten never to pass, but to become as interminable for us as the prolonged wait for a repeatedly re-delayed flight, if we cannot manage to find ways to make it pass by “passing” it, “passing the time.”  It is time itself experienced as a threat.  Time threatens, if we cannot quickly find ways to make it pass, to dump us suddenly into what strikes us as an interminable and bottomless boredom, that dreaded “noon-day devil” of the Christian monastic tradition.  If we cannot manage somehow first to fill up the vast expanse of time with activities, things that will keep us busy while time passes, we are doomed to fall prey to that devil.  Activity—any activity at all, just so long as it keeps us busy long enough for all that time, and the devil who lurks so threateningly in it, to pass us by.  We desperately need to pass the time, until it has passed by us.

In a book on “the disorders of time” (Les désordres du temps, Presses Universitaires de France, 2010) French psychoanalyst Jacques André describes how certain individuals and even whole cultures can, so to speak, lose one or another of time’s three dimensions.  Thus, there are individuals who have lost or never acquired any ordinary memory of their childhood, but who have access to it only through the accounts of others, or old photographs, or the like.  For most of us, that is true for our earliest childhood, from birth until around the age of three, when most of us begin to be able to construct a more or less continuous narrative of our lives since “then.”  At any rate, to the extent that we are void of such memories, we may indeed be able to know something of our own past, but that very past itself, our own past, is not there for us as part of our own story of ourselves, what André calls a “history.”  Thus, to that extent we do not have our own “past,” in the sense of such a “history.”   The past is not there for us.

Similarly, there are those of us who are no longer capable of projecting ourselves into the future by making plans, or never were so capable.  Once again, that is true at least at some stages of life for everyone.  Newborns, for example, are not yet capable of making any plans, let alone carrying them out (or failing to, for that matter).  Some of us return to such a condition in advanced age.  At any rate, insofar as that is the case, we do not have a “future.”  It is not there for us.

Harder to grasp, perhaps, as André suggests, is that there are people for whom there is no present.  However, he offers a wonderfully helpful way of expressing that idea, so that we can grasp it, or at least get glimmerings of it.  To describe what it is like to have no present, he writes (page 11) that in such a condition “one lives without being there [être là], life passes, and one passes by beside it.”

We all know what it is like to be somewhere, without really being there at all.  Often, for instance, we “listen” to some other person in only the most perfunctory sense, our minds—and us with them—elsewhere, such that we are not really listening at all.  There we are, but we are not really there.  In all likelihood, most of us actually spend most of our lives “living” them in only the same sort of perfunctory sense.  Instead of actually living those lives, we just sort of stand alongside of them while they run their course, as though we are just waiting for them to be over, the same way we wait for the delay of our flight to end at last with the boarding announcement, setting us free from our waiting.  We can spend our entire lives waiting around for the announcement that they are at last ready to begin, only to discover to our shock at the moment of death that they have been running their course all along beside us, and we have just let them run out.  The time of our lives themselves can run out before we have even begun to live them.  It is as if we do not “show up” for our own lives, do not “take part” in them, but just let them unroll beside us, in the time we pass till it passes by, and our own lives with it.  In such lifeless living, we live out our lives until they are all lived out, and we can finally expire–ex-pire, to breathe-out, as in a sigh:  a fitting word indeed for a life just lived out, a life lived as one long sigh of expiration.  (In fact, in our contemporary culture, life lived out in one long, sighing expiration is not the exception but the rule.  The mechanisms of the global market economy everywhere institutionalize precisely that form of living with no participation on our part, wherein one lives out one’s life, rather than living it.  The evidence in support of that contention is so readily available that it would be otiose to adduce it here.)

In contrast to the compliant time that obediently lets us continue to pass it, while it passes quietly by beside us, carrying our lives peacefully along with it, the time with which trauma confronts us just will not co-operate.  The time of trauma is a time that refuses to pass us by, while we pass it.  It is a time that simply cannot be passed.  However hard we try to pass it and thereby to make it pass by beside us (as quickly as possible, please!), by trying to fill it with all our diverting business–in the literal sense of busy-ness–it will not do so.  The harder we try to make it pass into the past, the more tenaciously it clings to us and–like loved ones who insist we actually listen to them and not just hold down a seat while they chatter away next to us–insists that we attend to it, be fully present to it, in its own insistent presence.  It will not pass by, nor let us pass it by–while we look the other way, as it were, happily distracted, keeping ourselves busy.  Try as we might to guard ourselves against any break in the narcotic constancy of the passing of well-mannered, obedient, everyday time, in trauma we encounter a time that interrupts all our business and disturbs all our peace.  It breaches all our security systems, throws us into the anxiety of being stripped of all our defenses, exposes us in all our vulnerability, reduces us to panic-inducing in-security.

Congealing into the troubling moments of such disturbing security breaches, the time of trauma literally punctuates our lives.  It breaks our life’s time—our very life-time itself—apart, shattering it into distinct, un-passable moments between which no commerce, no exchange is permitted.  In trauma, the moments of our lives become momentous break-points wherein the tumultuous, rebellious time of trauma takes its place and sets itself up to bar the way of any return—at least any without remainder of the insistently nagging memory of our deep and inescapable insecurity—to the unruffled tranquility of the everyday flow of time in its constant, continuous, blissfully obedient passing by.  The moments of a time of trauma are eruptive, interruptive moments.  They are ill-mannered, unruly children who insistently make demands on our time, showing no respect at all for how busy we are with our important adult business, and insisting that we give them our full attention–whatever form that attention takes, even if it is that of rage and abuse, which for such children is always better than our usual indifference–rather than letting us just pass them by, as all good children should.

When trauma strikes—and, ultimately, that is redundant, since all strikes are, in truth, traumas–we are thrown into a time that will no longer let us live out our lives as prolonged sighs of expiration.  Once trauma has struck—“after” trauma—we are no longer permitted to expire.  From the first stroke of trauma time on, we can no longer expire, we must die–a much less pleasant, quiet affair than expiring, as much less as a death rattle is than a sigh.  The time of trauma keeps breaking in upon us ever anew, catching our sighs in our throat, turning them into gasps for air, struggles for room to breathe.  The eruptive, disruptive time of trauma interrupts our living out of our lives as one long sigh and demands of us instead that we begin breathing again, again for the very first time.  Trauma insists—and does so insistently–that we stop just living out our lives, and begin at last to live them, live them all the way to the end, when we die, with no expiration.

With the first bell-stroke of trauma time, all of a sudden and for evermore the living out our lives gets broken off, our passing of time gets stopped.   Time itself gets torn apart, riven, cleaved.  So riven in itself, the time of trauma in turn rivets us; so cleaved, it cleaves us.  It rivets and cleaves us to itself–to its own broken, arrhythmic rhythms, the very irregular, pulsating rhythms of life itself, come fully alive at last.  The riven, cloven, riveting, cleaving time of trauma leaves us with no choice any longer—no choice except to take up our very lives and live them all the way till we die, rather than just hanging around together beside them, waiting for our mutual expiration.

Bummer!


Published in: on February 29, 2012 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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