“Screen-Visions,” Prophecies, and My Mazatlan Weekend (3)

This is the last post of a series of three under the same title.  After this post, I am taking the summer off; but I will return to blogging sometime this fall.

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We’re not experiencing a crisis of capitalism but rather the triumph of crisis capitalism. . . . The present crisis, permanent and omni-lateral, is no longer the classic crisis, the decisive moment. On the contrary, it’s an endless end, a lasting apocalypse, an indefinite suspension, an effective postponement of actual collapse, and for that reason a permanent state of exception.

— The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*


In what I have come to regard as the truly proper sense of the term, a “prophecy” is a telling, a speaking-forth and thereby letting-be-seen, of truth. Prophecy tells truth in a way that emphasizes what might be called the “futural” dimension of truth’s nature as sheer arrival. Truth as truth is always in arrival—which literally means “touching shore” (from Latin ad-, to or toward, and ripa, shore)—insofar as truth itself is the casting of light wherein what is shows itself.   When that light stops shining, truth stops being truth. It follows that only a literally “fore-casting” speaking of truth, one that casts truth forth, speaks truth truthfully, that is, truly accords with the always advent-al (from Latin ad-, plus venire, to come) nature of truth itself: Only prophecy truly tells the truth.

So understood, a prophecy is a sort of screen-vision, an “image” in and as which truth literally fore-casts itself. The term “screen-vision” should be taken in a sense parallel to that in which we speak of a “screen-memory,” in the sense I have discussed in this blog before—as well as in my book The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community (CreateSpace, 2013). In that sense, a screen-memory is a memory that simultaneously conceals and reveals—or more precisely reveals in its very concealing and conceals in its very revealing—thereby reflecting the very nature of the trauma of which it constitutes the “memory.” Insofar as a trauma is an event that, when it strikes, cannot be “processed” or “comprehended” by those it strikes, such an event cannot be retained in any simply representational image, as though in a snapshot. It is in that sense not available to be “remembered” at all, if remembering is taken to be no more than pulling up some sort of representation of an earlier, already comprehended or experientially processed event, its quasi-photographic reproduction in a “memory image.” What has never produced at the level of such an image in the first place cannot later be re-produced in one either.

Thus, as traumatic, an event is not an objectified externality that can simply be referenced by images or other signs that are supposed to represent it thanks to some iconic, indexical, or even just conventionally symbolic connection. In that sense, the relation of images to the traumatic is actually the same as that of “sacred languages” to the sacred, as Benedict Anderson describes that notion. “A sacred language,” as I wrote in recounting Anderson in my preceding post, the second of this series, “does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.” In the same way, what we might call a traumatic image—whether in the form of a “memory,” or of a “vision”: that is, casting backward or forward respectively—would be an image that was not distanced from the traumatic event it imaged, distanced in such a way that we could speak of how closely the image “resembled” the traumatic event itself. Instead, the image would itself belong to the traumatic event as such, literally pro-jecting or retro-jecting rather than just “re-presenting” it.

So, for example, the “screen-memory” of a traumatic event itself belongs to that very event, being part of its event-ing, as we might put it. The screen-memory of a trauma is itself, we could say, one of the “after-shocks” set off by the initial shock of the trauma as such—thus belonging to the very process whereby the traumatic shock continues to “register” itself. In that way—serving in effect as what we might call “after-images” of trauma, to parallel talk of “after-shocks”—screen-memories of traumas would be images in which those traumas retrojected themselves, or made their mark backward into “memory” itself. They would thus serve as a sort of “screening” of trauma, in the sense of a sort of surface on which (more properly, “as” which) trauma could cast itself.

If taken as “representations” of “what actually happened,” such memories would indeed be “inaccurate,” often extremely so. They would therefore be “false” memories in the sense at issue in talk of “false memory syndrome” and the like: memories that, taken as subsequent, reproductive representations of a preceding event from which they stand away at a temporal distance, mis-represent something already presented at some preceding time. All treatment of traumatic screen-memories as such falsifying representations, however, is a falsifying treatment of memory itself, which is really never such a paltry thing as a mere recording device, an apparatus for taking snapshots, as it were.

In contrast to any such “snapshot” images, traumatic screen-memories stand to the trauma they remember as sacred languages stand to the sacred they bespeak. Sacred languages do not refer to the sacred but rather name it, speaking it forth. In the same way, screen-memories do not represent trauma but rather embody it, showing it forth. And since trauma as such “conceals” itself, in the sense of always in effect withdrawing itself away from what can be comprehended within experience, that self-concealment must be respected in any proper memory image of trauma. Traumatic memories must remember traumatically, as it were.

In parallel fashion, what I am calling “screen-visions” must envision traumatically. Just as screen-memories are not re-screenings of features already shown before, so are screen-visions not previews of coming attractions. Put differently, they are not predictions: saying what will be, before it has come (from Latin pre-, plus dicere, to say). Rather, they are prophecies: voicings forth of truth (from pro-, plus a derivative from Greek phanai, to speak). We might also say that screen-visions are truth-projections (from pro-, forward or forth, and Latin iacere, to throw or cast): truth casting itself concretely forth before us, in order then to cast its light back, upon what is and has been there all along—retro-jecting itself to manifest as and in screen-memories.

That double-stroke of retrojective projection, in turn, clears a space and time—e-jecting it, we might say: that is, casting it out and open. It is there, in that opening, that we have room to dwell.

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I made the same mistake in Mazatlan in 1982 that I would say Günther Anders made in Japan in 1958 (see my preceding post): I confused prophecy with prediction. I interpreted what I was seeing as a vision of things yet to be, in the sense of things that had not happened yet, but would some day, after an interval (concerning the length of which I was able to form no definite conclusion). However, I eventually—but already long ago by now—came to a very different understanding, in accordance with which what I saw on the beach in Mazatlan back then was no prediction of what would someday be, but was instead a screen-vision, which is to say a truth-projection, of what is.

At any rate, whether taken to be a prediction or taken to be a prophecy, what I “saw” in Mazatlan in 1982 came to me in a sort of double vision, as it were. I saw at once two different but interrelated things. The first was what I can best express as the sheer vacuity and nullity of what passes for reality itself today at the level of surface appearances. By “surface appearances” I mean all the standard stuff–good, bad, and middling—of our modern commercial “civilization,” as epitomized by a middle-aged, relatively well-off American couple briefly escaping the dreary northern winter of Denver by flying away to spend the Valentine’s Day weekend at a touristy beach resort in a town that lives off such tourism along the warm, Gulf-coast of Mexico.   I saw the emptiness of “all that,” projected as its inevitably coming collapse.

The other thing I simultaneously saw—in effect seeing through all the glitter of the surface of the pretend reality, to what that surface disclosed in the very attempt to cover it over, seeing though to it as it were the lasting, underlying sense of the very sensory level through which I saw it—was the inexorable return and triumph of the very thing all the glitter and glitz of modern global market commerce is designed to mask and devoted to keeping away, or at least to perpetually postponing. I saw, through the irreal itself, the return of the real, as it were.

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In accord with my initial, mistaken understanding of the nature of my vision at the time, I took the “return” at issue to be something that was going to occur eventually, rather than as something already here. But as I eventually came more fully to understand it, my vision on the beach at Mazatlan was actually a sort of invitation to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, so to speak, that is, to stop sham-living in a sham reality, and instead simply to start really living now, today—just taking up residence in the reality of what I would years later, in The Open Wound, come to call “the irrelevance of power.” It was an invitation to live awake to the nullity and insignificance of the whole global commercial illusion I was seeing through: to stop granting that illusion any status, any authority over me any longer.

In one longstanding tradition, the devil himself is said to have no power except what we give him ourselves by our resistance to him. That’s one way of appreciating the Christian injunction against resisting evil. Then, too, there are vampires as they were depicted in the movies that gave me nightmares in my childhood: those vampires who come into our rooms to suck our blood, and turn us into vampires ourselves in the process, but who can come in at all only if we first let them in—which, of course, they use all their considerable wiles to tempt us to do.

Though I did not make use of the vampire metaphor at the time, what I both saw and already knew that I saw even back in 1982 when I first had my Mazatlan vision, was that our entire contemporary “civilization” is essentially vampiric in that old, Hollywood way. It sustains its own undead existence only by sucking the blood of the living, and in the process turns all the living into undead bloodsuckers too. However, the problem with bloodsucking, and in the process converting all whose blood is sucked into bloodsuckers themselves too, is that inevitably all the blood eventually gets sucked, so there’s no more blood left for the sucking, and then the whole bloody, sucking thing just collapses. On the beach during my 1982 Mazatlan weekend I saw and understood how true that was of our whole “civilization,” vampiric as it is in its very essence.

But what I basically forgot to apply back in 1982 was that other part of vampire lore I also always knew, that part about us having to let the bloodsuckers in, before they can even begin the whole business. Perhaps better put, I neglected back then to appreciate fully the application to our vampiric global system of the Christian wisdom—a wisdom, I should add, that can in fact also be found in other traditions, perhaps especially the Buddhist one—about resistance only giving power to what it tries to resist.

I thereby failed fully to appreciate that we don’t even have to wait for the devil’s reign to end, before we can come out of hiding and go about living our lives again, and living them “abundantly,” for that matter, just as Christ tells his followers he wants them to do. All we have to do is stop giving power to that old devil. If we do, then—poof! he’s gone! We then see, too, that he never really had any power of his own over us anyway, that it was all just an illusion we bought into, letting him get into us. We can just stop buying into that illusion.

When we do, we will see that the sun has been there shining brightly all along, the grass and other vegetation growing luxuriantly, and the whole world just waiting for building.

*     *     *     *     *     *

When the house in which we’ve been living since 1991 was itself being built, we had an “invisible fence” installed to keep the three dogs we had then confined to the part of the property we wanted to confine them to. To build such a “fence” it was only necessary to bury a small, insulated wire a few inches below ground, around the area we wanted to confine the dogs to. The wire was then hooked into a low-voltage source of electricity. Then some put electrode-equipped collars went around the dogs necks, so that when the dogs tried to cross over the line where the hidden wire was buried, they’d get a little jolt of electricity. They’d yelp and jump back. After a very short they were conditioned to stay properly within the area we wanted to confine them to.

Everything worked exactly as promised. Soon, we didn’t even need to make the dogs wear the special collars anymore. They just stayed put in their invisible pen.

Not long after that, however, the TV cable company came around and did its usual sort of thing. That is, it buried TV cable where it wanted, without really caring where other things might already have been buried. As a result, they cut the dog-jolting lines of our “invisible fence.” So no electricity flowed through the wire any longer. That meant, of course, that the dogs would no longer get jolted if they crossed the line enclosing the area where we wanted to keep them in bondage.

Nevertheless, the dogs never crossed that line anyway, such slaves to our will had they become. Their prior conditioning continued to bind them. Absolutely nothing was holding them in any longer, except their own ignorance of the fact that they nothing was holding them in.   They no longer saw that they had any option. Therefore, they no longer had any option, really.

The vision I had on the beach back in 1982, the vision of the grass growing back over the pathways of the Camino Real and the jungle reclaiming all the asphalted highways around Mazatlan, was not a vision of any distant future. It was a vision of a future already come—the only future there is, has been, or will be, really: the future that shows itself to have been there all along, just waiting for us to enter into it. After all, it’s really been ours all along, just waiting for us to see it, and understand that it’s ours for the entering. Only our ignorance stands in our way.

We just need to be effectively shown that we have an option, which we can then just begin exercising. We don’t even have to resist anything first.**

*Translated by Robert Hurley—Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 25.


**Here, resistance is to be understood in the ordinary way—namely, as a reaction against something that acts originally. As such reaction, resistance not only remains dependent upon what it reacts to, but even ends up being robbed of its own definitive intention, so that it actually strengthens the very power it tries to resist, as Christ was not alone in seeing. That there are other, no longer self-defeating forms of resistance, offering options to dependent reaction, is something about which I have already written in The Open Wound. I will write of the matter again on this blog in the future, probably in a post or post-series I’m currently thinking of calling “Striking Back, Standing Up, and Striking Out,” inspired by the story of the contemporary New Mexico poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, as told in his 2001 memoir A Place to Stand and the documentary film released under the same title earlier this year (2015).

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“Screen-Visions,” Prophecy, And My Mazatlan Weekend (1)

After smoking, the body thinks. Catastrophe, riot, factories blowing up, armies in flight, flood—the ear can detect a whole apocalypse in the starry night of the human body.

— Jean Cocteau, Opium


Two possibilities remain for the age of the completion of modernity: either the violent and rash end (which looks like a catastrophe, but in its already determined triviality is too lowly to be able to be such a thing), or else the current situation of unconditional manipulation just going on endlessly decaying.

— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII (GA 96)


What today is unjustly named “peace” is the continuation or the extension of war by other means. No, neighbors! The preparation for an event for which the expression “war” is no longer suited.

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall


The catastrophe may not be coming. It may already be here. The catastrophe may be that there is really no such thing as “the coming catastrophe.” We may already be buried beyond hope under the catastrophe of an endless continuation of one equivalent catastrophe after another—for example, Hiroshima followed by Nagasaki, followed by Three Mile Island, followed by Chernobyl, followed by Fukushima, followed by whatever’s nuclear disaster happens to come next—ad infinitum.   That’s what Heidegger envisions, in the lines from him above, as the second of the two possibilities he mentions. And the first of those two possibilities is really not that different from the second, since an unending string of equivalent catastrophes just becomes “the new normal,” with nothing truly new under that sun, not even any truly new catastrophe. Catastrophe itself loses all its catastrophic quality. (Always, just one after another of the same old catastrophes, with no end to it! Bor-ing!)

At any rate, whether the catastrophe is still on the way, or already happened long ago and from now on just keeps on keeping on forever after, the catastrophe is, as Günther Anders suggests in his lines above, no longer one to which such terms as “war” and the like—including even the name “catastrophe”—are any longer suited. Really to succeed in saying what we are trying to say when we talk today, this never-ending day of the age of the completion of modernity, about “the catastrophe,” we would need an altogether new language, or at least a new relationship to our old one, as Heidegger used to like to say. We would need something like what Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (revised e-edition: Verso, 20006; original edition: Verso, 1983) calls a “sacred language,” which is to say a language that is no longer just another “vernacular” one, no longer just another language people somewhere actually speak to one another as they go about common transactions in their everyday lives.

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Over the Valentine’s Day weekend of 1982 my wife and I left our son (our daughter’s birth was still a bit over a year away) with my parents and flew away from the cold of a Denver February, and into the warmth of Mazatlan–where we stayed at the Camino Real Hotel en la playa (“on the beach”) just to the north of the main city. One morning around 10:00 that weekend, as I was finishing my second Cerveza Pacifico (my version of doing what the Romans did when one was in Rome was to drink the local beer wherever I happened to be at the time), I had a vision–a “mystical experience,” one in which I “saw the very face of God,” as I thought and spoke of it even then, long before I had any real truck with God-talk or the like (which only happened after I stopped drinking cervezas—or Scotch, or gin, or whatever else you had handy).

I never forgot what I saw then. It was the truth.

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In his discussion of “sacred languages” in Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson’s main example of a sacred language is Latin during the European Middle Ages. Latin had once been a vernacular language, a “native tongue” or “mother tongue” that children, with no need for special schooling or explicit instruction, just picked up naturally at home, as the everyday language of the nation, the “people,” into which the child was born. Such a language is a language of the hearth, not of the market place—or only of the latter insofar as when one goes out in public one continues to speak the same language that one speaks at home, which is exactly what occurs when markets and other common places for sharing with others remain local. The situation changes once markets and the like go trans-national, which is to say become polyglot places, places where a variety of regional, vernacular languages are all spoken, because trade and sharing is carried on between diverse communities, that is, “peoples” or “nations.” (I will consider what happens in such trans-national situations more fully later.)

Originally, Latin had been—to put it in Latin—just such a domestic matter, something belonging to the domus, the “household,” for those who spoke it. Only later did Latin become a res publica, a “public thing” (cosa nostra, “our thing,” to use what turns out to be an all too appropriate term from Italian, one of the vernacular languages that eventually evolved from Latin itself). By the time Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and all the other Romance languages had evolved from the Roman language of Latin, the latter had altogether ceased to be a native language, a mother tongue children just picked up naturally at home. It had ceased to be spoken everyday at home in any place in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter), at least in the overwhelmingly vast majority of homes. Latin had instead become something that required explicit instruction to learn—a language in which one had to be literally schooled. Latin had ceased being a domestic language, and had instead become an academic one.

Latin became an academic matter, that is, a matter of explicit schooling, rather than a domestic one, just something one picked up naturally at home, because of the in-egalitarian social forms that Europe had inherited from Rome along with Latin. As long as the common people were to be kept subordinated to an elite, then Latin, as the “universal language” of the day, was also reserved to that elite, as the very language that communicated elitism the way contact with carriers communicates disease, to adapt the notion of “communication” to fit the case at hand. To protect the insecure ruling elite, Latin could not be allowed to become any mere lingua franca, which means literally “Frankish language” or “language of the Franks”—or “Bastard Spanish” as the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me it was sometimes called in 17th century English sources. Whatever such lingos are called, at issue are the mixed, “pidgin” forms of speaking that common people naturally develop, with no need for schools and instruction from appointed and certified teachers held accountable for their teaching, in order to communicate with one another across all their vernacular linguistic borders.

For those denied access to the schools—or for those granted access to them as part of the ruling elite, but who, as St. Gregory says of St. Benedict in the former’s classic, brief biography of the latter, freely chose to remain “wisely uneducated,” when faced with such all too Roman things as schools—it was precisely the lingua franca or “Bastard Spanish” of their day that gave them a truly universal, which is to say trans-national, language for conducting all the common business of truly common life, that very ongoing, thronging life upon which the elites themselves constantly depended for their very own survival. In contrast, the language used in the courts, schools, tribunals, and other organs of force and enforcement for keeping the elite in power—in which institutions that language had the status of being the officially “universal” language of the day—was reserved to the elite. Throughout the European Middle Ages that officially universal language was Latin.

Such an officially universal language could be accurately characterized as “universal” only in the perfidious sense that it was the language used everywhere by the powerful to impose their power over others. Accordingly, it was anything but “universal” in the non-perfidious sense, namely, the language spoken everywhere by everyone everyday in community. In that latter sense of the term, it was not Latin that was the universal language of the European Middle Ages—at least “universal” across Europe, which is already an obvious tweaking of the notion of universality. Rather, the language that was truly universal in that non-perfidious sense was precisely the pidgin tongue that the nose-thumbing, Latin-literate, über-national, ruling elite of the age derisively referred to as “Frankish language,” or maybe “Bastard Spanish.”

As the “officially” universal language of that age, Latin was nothing that could just be picked up naturally at home, as a “national” language, a language belonging to some one “nation” in the original sense of the word, namely, a community of people indigenous to some limited area. Nor was it some simple, pidgin mix of divers national languages that one picked up naturally in one’s everyday dealings with polyglot others in trans-national markets or other places of trans-national sharing and exchange between diverse peoples from diverse regions. Instead, Latin was something the learning of which was confined to schools, which is to say institutions that were themselves among the most important elite-serving organs of force and enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the people who lived in that day could not speak, read, or write that supposedly “universal” language.  Only those who claimed and held power could speak, read, or write Latin; and the speaking, reading, and writing of Latin belonged itself to the claiming and holding of such power.

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What I saw in Mazatlan in February of 1982, when I was staying there with my wife in the upscale Camino Real hotel over the Valentine’s Day weekend, was grass growing tall in the cracks between the cobblestones on the paths around the resort. I saw the Camino Real hotel in ruins, and the ruins already returning to the jungle that had come back to claim its proper place.

I looked to the rest of Mazatlan, the bulk of which lay south of the north beach area where we were staying. I saw the whole city in ruins, all vanishing back into the triumphantly, inexorably, but gently returning jungle.

To the west, away from the beach, I saw all the highways around and through the town abandoned, and already over-grown with vegetation reclaiming the land. The roads were void of traffic, and littered here and there with rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles—cars, busses, and trucks. Some rabbits hopped along the road at places.

I looked up. No contrails tracked across the sky. No planes flew there. No helicopters patrolled the beach, nor were there any motorboats pulling kites with swim-clad men and women strapped safely into them, to soar above the crowds of swimmers and sunbathers below—had there been any. But they were all gone, too. No bathers lolled in beach chairs on the sand, or swam in the warm ocean waters. Nor were there any local entrepreneurial traders walking up and down the beach, accosting the tourists, trying to sell them blankets, trinkets, or anything else they could muster up.

In sum, I saw what came after the collapse of the entire system of unending economic expansion and exploitation, and the ever-deepening impoverishment that inevitably accompanies it. I saw the return of what had been there all along, biding its time till it could return, patiently awaiting the inevitably coming catastrophe. I saw peace descended again over all the earth after that whole seemingly endless economic battle had actually ended, and I heard the silence that had come back over everything again once all the noise of our “civilization” had fallen away. And I saw all the sovereign nations everywhere drawn back into tribes, those nations before there were sovereigns.

In Mazatlan in February of 1982, I saw all that—and I saw that it was good. Void of anything I would have been willing to call “belief,” I nevertheless gave thanks to the God who had created all this.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What is sacred or holy is literally what has been set apart as special, freed from limits, which is to say made absolute, from Latin ab-, “from or away,” and solvere, “to loosen or free.” To be truly a sacred language, one holy and absolute, a language would have to be freed from all subservience, whether to everyday interests in the simple preservation or enjoyment of individual or communal life, or to the interests of a ruling elite in preserving and enjoying special privileges denied to the vast majority of people—hoi polloi, “the many” (in Greek, not Latin).

Accordingly, Latin in the European Middle Ages was no truly sacred language, however much it served the interests of the elite to have it pass as one. It was far from a language loosened from all ties that bound it, and thereby set free solely to speak, which is what a language as such does. Rather, Latin in the European Middle Ages was a language shanghaied into bondage to serve power— deprived of its own power, the power of speech, of saying what is, and made to tell lies instead. Latin in those ages was therefore the very opposite of sacred. It was sheer blasphemy. Any God of that day would have had to speak some other language than Latin—perhaps Bastard Spanish.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

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.

*     *      *      *      *

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.”

How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation, penultimate post (with another tip of my hat to Bob Dylan)

This is the next to last of a total of seven in a series of posts using an autobiographical incident to explore some connections between trauma, memory, human community, and social-political institutions in the broadest sense.  The incident at issue is my breaking of one of my legs when I was still a young child, then reliving the experience as an adult, years later, triggered by the chance coalescence of various circumstances at that time.

I would like to dedicate today’s post above all to my old friend Larry, and add a tip of my hat as well to Bill, another old friend, and yet another to Mark, a more recent but no less valued one.

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A weather-proverb from the part of the globe where I grew up and still live says that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  We who live in the climes in question can attest that sometimes the lamb in March only comes out at the very end of the month, when one has all but given up hope for its appearance.

If trauma were a March, it would be that kind of late-lambing one.

To mix my metaphors, if trauma were a play, it would come on as a tragic drama that at its very end surprised the audience by going out as a pleasant comedy.  Furthermore, the tragedy that trauma would play out as would, throughout most of its duration, fit the classic formula for a tragic drama:  The first part of the play would introduce the underlying conflict, followed by parts imparting the rising action of that conflict, finally culminating (like an act of coitus) in the climax (classically supposed to come four-fifths of the way through), and ending with a dénouement, in which the conflicts all get finally resolved (a sort of de-tumescence).  If trauma were a classic play, and were well done, it would be one that artfully presented itself as though it were a tragedy up until it suddenly and altogether unexpectedly surprised the audience, at the very point where that audience would have expected the climax of the tragedy, by showing itself really to have been a comedy all along.  If well done, such a play would defy the audience’s expectation—an expectation planted and nurtured by the play itself– of a tragic climax, the very sort of climax suggested by the lowering, doom-presaging, contorted, and tragic mask the play had been wearing up to that supposedly climactic point.  It would suddenly at that point remove its tragic mask to show, as the reality beneath, the face of a welcoming, happy, harmless, and benignly smiling clown beneath.

In doing that very thing, however, the playful, comic trickster of a play would not deny the audience its climax (as though it were a certain oft-derided kind of ‘tease,’ to allude, perhaps tastelessly, to some sexist vernacular of my youth).  No, the audience itself would most certainly have its climax; but it would be a climax of a no less unexpected sort than the sudden revelation of the comic nature of the play.  Defying the cathartic (perhaps also salacious) expectations of the audience it itself had fostered, the expectations of being afforded a welcome opportunity to indulge some of its more guilty, voyeuristic tastes, by witnessing the climax of another, the play would turn the tables on the audience in such a way that the latter would be surprised to find that it was the one who had been brought to climax.  Instead of enjoying the satisfaction of its voyeuristic expectations by watching some other person climax, the audience would suddenly find itself caught in the act of coming, all unexpectedly, to climax itself.  The watcher would have suddenly found himself become the watched, like a naughty boy caught spying through a key-hole on a couple in bed together, and the shock of that sudden recognition of being exposed triggering an unexpected climax, as though it were a premature ejaculation.

However, defying no less the very salaciousness definitive of all voyeuristic audience expectations, the play would have brought the audience off (to say it in a vulgar form) in a wholly un-salacious, even wholesome way (not a “sexual” climax at all, even second hand—and least in the vulgar understanding of such matters).  It would have brought the audience to an eruptive climax of . . . well, laughter (or its equivalent, if the laughter does not erupt aloud, as, perhaps, the most profound laughter never does).  That, after all, is what happens at the end of a good joke, well told:  the audience laughs.

Of course–as any practiced stand-up comic will readily confirm, I’m sure –there’s always the risk that some boorish, drunken lout sitting in the audience may ruin the whole thing by yelling out the punch-line before the joke has had time to be told to that line itself.  While interrupting a joke’s telling may be no tragic matter, at least in most cases, still, in all cases, it is no joke.

Nor is it only the jokester who is robbed by such an interruption.  He is not even the one most robbed by it.  Rather, the audience to which the joke is addressed—which, after all, must always come down to those sitting there listening to the telling of the joke who have not “heard it before”—are also robbed, and they most grievously.  It is they who are robbed, not just of appreciative applause, but of their climax.  Such an interruption of a joke is not even like the one typical in coitus interruptus, in its ordinary reference:  Interrupting a joke in such a boorish fashion doesn’t just change where the climax happens, so that it just happens elsewhere than where the one experiencing it would have had it happen if all caution had been thrown aside.  Interrupting the joke stops the whole process, so that the climax does not happen anywhere at all.

Trauma is like that.  It is like a comedian giving heart and soul to telling a long, long joke that is anything but funny until it at last comes to its punch-line, to send the audience off laughing.

Unskilled intervention into a still unfolding trauma, be the intervention consciously manipulative or done in all innocent ignorance and good intention, is like that, too.  It is like a drunken lout who yells out the joke’s punch-line before its time, thereby ruining the joke—and all too often precipitating the eruption of an ugly, sometimes riotous scene.

And that, as I was saying, is no joke.

Lest my own vulgarity in joking about such a serious matter as trauma give offense, let me hasten to add by way of an underlining that in far too many cases the banal boorishness of interrupting the unfolding of a traumatic process is not merely no joke.  It is all too often a very serious matter indeed.  Sometimes, interrupting the unfolding of a trauma has tragic consequences.  If they are not tragic, at least in the classic sense, since there are no heros at all center stage, they are all too often overwhelmingly horrendous and unimaginably ugly, as was Auschwitz and the whole Nazi system of death-camps, to give perhaps the prime example.

By offering Auschwitz and all it stands for as an example for what I’m talking about, I am implying that Auschwitz and all the horror for which it has become the synecdoche arose neither sui generis nor directly out of the innate evil of any heart, but ultimately out of the numberless, unskilled, clueless efforts to interrupt an earlier, already long-unfolding trauma.   To give no more than a brief indication of what is at issue, I will just remind the reader of the history of the emergence of Nazi Germany and all that went with it, a history inseparable from the refusal to face and address the wave of trauma that was the First World War.  That war—which was simply “the” War for at least a generation—was itself inseparable from the refusal to face even earlier waves of trauma such as the devastation wrought by colonial expansion, which were generated, in turn, in the flights to evade and avoid yet earlier waves after waves of traumatic shock.  A telling case could even be made that the entire, all too sorry story of what has for so long called itself “the West”—in short, that the very “West” as such—is the story of the unfolding of one single, abysmally profound trauma.

If “the West” itself is indeed what we might speak of as the very Mother of All Traumas—as Sadam Hussein not all that long ago spoke of “the Mother of all Battles”—then the shift in perspective that happened to me in my own tiny, distant offspring of a tiny trauma, namely, the so very minor, common, everyday event of breaking a bone, gives me at least glimpses of an totally unexpected, surprising comic face smiling at all the audience beneath the far, far more than tragic, even infinitely far too far horrendous, murderous, rictus of a mask that “the West” has worn so far, throughout its whole, long history.

The same shift in perspective, brought to me on the waves of breaking my leg, my own mere joke of a trauma, lets me glimpse this, too:  The deus ex machina of the play of trauma is no deus, no “god,” at all.  Nor is the trauma play itself any “machine.”  It is, rather, an unimaginably humble, gentle jokester, telling itself as a joke in order to bring its audience off in the very Mother of All Climaxes.  It is, indeed, so humble and so gentle that it refuses in any way to manipulate its audience by any fraudulent means, no matter how divine.  Instead, it just humbly trusts the audience, in all its happenstances of set and setting, to provide it, sooner or later, with what it needs to get, at last, to come to its punch-line.  For that, the comedian that is trauma needs, in fact, a strait-man, but never brings one along, because that comic trusts the audience itself spontaneously to provide, eventually, someone to play the strait-man’s part.  And the trauma jokester is as patient as it is humble and gentle, so it does not mind giving the audience all it has (after all, as the Don Rickleses of the world of comics say, “these are the jokes, folks!”—there are no others) for as long as it takes for that audience to bring itself around to playing its own, indispensable part.  Only then, once the strait-man finally does appear, and delivers the crucial set-up, deadpan line that provides the indispensible catalytic agent to precipitate the crystallization of the whole process of the joke, does the punch-line finally get delivered.  And only that, in turn, finally sets the audience free, by bringing it to its own sudden, unexpected, eruptive climax in an involuntary dissolution into laughter—audible or not.

The indispensible strait-man’s role in my own little joke of a trauma of merely breaking my leg, was played by the elder of the two friends who stayed with me throughout the final act of my tiny trauma’s whole comic play, the finally revealed, benign joke of which was on me.  The two-ness of those two friends was itself equally indispensible–as was their being friends, not parents or parent-substitutes, by the way.  No less crucial to the success, at last, of the whole, long, joking process in my own petty case of trauma was also that those two friends, out of their friendship for me and for one another, did not abandon me, but insisted on staying with me.  In that very regard they were–crucially so, for the joke to pull itself off–unlike either my parents when I first broke my leg in 1949 or my two parent-substitutes when I broke it again in 1987, at least as I experienced them all at the various times at issue.

However, delivering the straight-man’s set-up line, to unleash the punch-line of my trauma’s so prolonged telling of its joke, fell, as it happened, to the lot of only one of my two friends, not both.  It was my elder friend, as I’ve already said, who played that role.  He did so by doing no more—but no less, and it was really no small thing he did—than a little bit of what counseling therapists often call “reflective listening,” in which the listener says back to the one being listened to what that listener has just heard from the lips of that very one.  What my friend reflected back to me was simply this, that in all our so prolonged talk with one another as we no less prolongedly walked with one another while I was enjoying myself elsewhere, in the land of my delusion, I seemed to keep returning, in numerous asides, to my having broken my leg when I was three.  All he did was told me that he’d noticed that recurrence of that aside in what I’d been saying myself, at length.

That simple deadpan strait-man’s line was all that my trauma had been waiting for.  So now, at last, after thirty-eight long years since my tiny trauma had first begun to tell its little joke, delivered its punch-line.  Master at his business (since I’m a “he,” please permit me to let my trauma be one too) that my tiny trauma was, however, he had delivered that punch-line so artfully deadpan himself, that it wasn’t until a few hours later, when I was alone in a small shower-stall taking a long shower, that I finally “got” the joke, and how funny it was.  I broke down in laughter alone in that shower.

Significantly enough, the sounds my own laughter made when I involuntarily dissolved into them at that, my own climactic point—and, therewith, the point of the whole joke, which was told for that very purpose—didn’t sound at all like laughter to my teen-aged son, who happened to be alone with me in the place where I was alone in the shower (my two friends were off elsewhere, walking along by themselves together for a while).  How my son happened to be there is a different part of the story, which I need not tell now.  Suffice it to say that my son did happen to be there at any rate; and what he heard coming out of the shower-stall where I was dissolving in laughter didn’t sound to him like laughter at all.  It sounded to him like crying–like convulsively erupting sobs sounding from the deepest depths of the one from whom they were issuing, wracking him.  He was right, they did come from such depths, and they did wrack me.   And by their sound, even to me, they were indeed sobs, but the truth of them was something else, I knew—and knew that I knew, even at the time.

My son, in concern, called out to me from outside the shower.  He asked, his voice filled with that concern, if I was all right.  I replied, between my still ongoing, noisy, but now somewhat abating, convulsive noise-emissions, that indeed I was. I was all right, I answered him, and more than all right—far more.

I told my son the truth, in giving him that answer.  How that truth could have been true, and just what the content of my “all-right-ness” was, I also tried to tell him, but that was only later.  I have tried to tell the readers of this blog the same thing in this current series of posts, an endeavor itself climaxing in its own fashion in my immediately preceding post in that series, which I will finally end with my next post.

Before I close this current post, however, there’s just one more thing.  What I’ve just been saying here in this post reminds me of another story I’ll also tell here.

Have you heard this one?

In his autobiographical Chronicles:  Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004, pp. 61-62), Bob Dylan is describing the profound effect it had on him when he was first exposed to the music and musicianship of folk-singer Mike Seeger in New York, not long after Dylan showed up there from the Midwest at the beginning of the 1960s.  I have used the following passage elsewhere already in writing about trauma (specifically there, about the trauma of September 11, 2001), but I am using it differently to write some more about trauma here.  Dylan himself writes in the passage at issue:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it—like in that song of Sam Cooke’s, “Change Is Gonna Come”—but you don’t know it in a purposeful way.  Little things foreshadow what is coming, but you may not recognize them.  But then something immediate happens and you’re in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it—you’re set free.  You don’t need to ask questions and you already know the score.  It seems like when that happens, it happens fast, like magic, but it’s really not like that.  It isn’t like some dull boom goes off and the moment has arrived—your eyes don’t spring open and suddenly you’re very quick and sure about something.  It’s more deliberate.  It’s more like you’ve been working in the light of day and then you see one day that it’s getting dark early, that it doesn’t matter where you are—it won’t do any good.  It’s a reflective thing.  Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door—something jerks it open and you’re shoved in and your head has to go into a different place.  Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it [as seeing and hearing Mike Seeger did for Dylan, in this account].

For Dylan, Seeger himself was not the revelation.  Seeger was “just” the mirror the revelation needed to reveal itself to Dylan.  What Dylan at that moment saw, though he may well not have seen that he’d seen it until much later (maybe even only when, forty or so years later, he wrote about it in his Chronicles), was not Mike Seeger.  Seeger was but the mirror in which Dylan saw what he saw.

What Dylan saw there, in that mirror that Seeger was for him at that moment, was himself.  He saw “Bob Dylan,” regardless of just when it was that he began to go by that name (whether his taking of that name occurred at that very moment, or later, or even at some point before he saw himself in the mirror Seeger became for him).  At that moment, Bob Dylan, the very one and only one who has for so long now been known by that name, was at last brought to full birth.  Dylan became, at that moment, the very one he had always been—the one and only one he was born to be.

During my summer vacation in 1987, the elder of the two friends who spent the crucial part of that vacation with me became my Mike Seeger.  I am thankful to my friend himself for letting himself be used as my mirror back then.  I am more thankful for him, that he was sent my way by whatever it was that sent him that way–which, as I’ve said before in this series of posts, might as well have been a conspiracy of untold conspirators, all conspiring together for no other reason than to do me personal, lasting good.

How amusing!

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My next post will be the last in this series of seven on How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation.

Published in: on May 4, 2012 at 9:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How I Spent My 1987 Summer Vacation (5th of a series of 7 posts)

This is the fifth in a series of what will be seven 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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When I was three and the shock-waves set off in me by the first breaking of my leg began rolling over me on a rising tide—and began rolling me over and over right along with them—what I most needed to feel was that something would hold me safe till the tide finally ebbed, and then continue to hold me safe lest I be swept out to sea with the tide’s retreat.  For me as the child I was at three, that so necessary sense of security came from my blind trust in my parents being there to pull me through.  Only by clinging to them and my own certainty of their ongoing love and power to keep me safe by enacting that love, was I able to survive the tidal flood—or at least so it was for me in my world at three.

My parents were not perfect, but they were good enough.  As a wisdom I later learned from reading David Winnicott, the founding-figure of “object-relations” theory and therapy in psychoanalysis, has it, that means they were parents of the very best kind.  My parents never read Winnicott, nor, so far as I know, ever even heard of him.  For that, I am also grateful, since I also learned from Winnicott that one very effective way of failing to be good enough parents is deliberately trying to be that very thing, rather than just mucking around as best one can with the bewildering business of child-rearing.  As Pope Gregory the Great wrote of Saint Benedict, the father of Latin Christian monasticism, my parents were “wisely uneducated” with regard to all such matters of parenting.  By not even trying to be good enough parents, but just doing the best they could, they did everything I could have asked for, if I’d had the wisdom to know what that might be, which I didn’t (which in turn let me be a good enough son, I still have good reason to hope, years after my parents both died).

By failing to be perfect parents my parents wisely proved to be just what I needed when I broke my leg the first time.  In their fumbling and bumbling love for me they made it a point to protect me from the truth, by telling me lies about how I broke my leg, beginning when I first broke it.  I am especially grateful to them for that lie, for without it I would never have found myself in the double-bind that engendered my nightmare projection  whereby I was able to preserve the illusion that was absolutely indispensible to me at the time.  If I was not to drown in the waves of the rising tide of the shock of breaking my leg, I needed at three to believe that I had not only loving parents, but skillful one’s as well—so skillful that they may as well have been all powerful, that is, skillful enough to keep me safe from all possibilities of accidents ever happening to me.  Had I had to confront the reality of their utter ineptitude at playing the divine role that my childhood, in common with every other, required them to fill, I would actually have lost what eventually proved to be my best chance ever to become hale and whole “this side of the grave,” as Gregory Bateson says.  By closing all my exits, save that of my own dreams, my parents’ well-intentioned lie gave me that chance.  Paradoxically, in that sense their lie proved to be not only well-intentioned but also utterly successful:  It hit its mark.  That is, their genuinely loving intention toward me (and no less toward my brother and sister, for that matter) fulfilled itself above and beyond all their own expectations, not despite but through their very ineptitude as divinities. (I cannot speak for my brother and sister, and I do not know whether the arrow of our parents’ love has yet found its mark for them.  I can only speak for myself in saying that the thirty-eight years it took my leg finally to finish breaking taught me to trust that it eventually will find its mark, one side of the grave or the other.)

That may just be how divinity itself works:  through the stumbles and fumbles of its wonderfully inept agents, rather like how otherwise unsolvable mysteries somehow got solved through the egregious missteps and pratfalls of the doltishly incompetent Inspector Clouseau in the old Pink Panther movies.  At any rate, as it turns out I had had an insight to that effect five years before I broke my leg the second time.  It came to me while I was sitting on a beach with my wife in Mazatlan Mexico in February, 1982, working on my second Pacifico beer of the day, but I had no way to hold onto the insight and build it into my life—or, rather, my life into it, to be more precise—at the time.  Only in 1989, when I broke my leg again, was I able to begin that construction project, one which is still underway.  So I will return to that leg and its breaking here, and leave the story of my Mazatlan weekend till another time, perhaps in some later post to this blog.

To return to my broken leg, as a child of three when I first broke my leg I was fortunate enough to have been given a good enough rearing by good enough parents to that point in my life that I was able to take the chance that my parents’ bumbling lie gave me.  That the lie was a bumbling one was obvious even then, when they first told it.   After all, I was there at the time I broke my leg, so lying to me about it could not possibly work.  At least it could not work, unless by my own unconscious connivance I myself compensated for my parents’ incompetence at lying.  Thanks to my good enough development to that point, my unconscious actually generously granted my parents’ lie its chance.  I unconsciously (as it had to be, to work at all) took my opportunity to become an accomplice in my own mystification.  I took it by projecting into a nightmare image the very rage that otherwise, had our laughable conspiracy to lie not given me the opportunity to take such a way out (the only way out of a situation in which every way out had been blocked to me:  the way of going crazy, in short), would have consumed me.  Without that nightmare, that rage would have had no other choice than to direct itself toward my parents, now exposed to me as the false gods they really were.  Had that happened, it would have cut the ground out from under the illusion that—as Nietzsche says is true of all truth, I might note—was indispensable for me to maintain around myself, if I was not to vanish in the waves of my own shock.

To use another way of putting the point, it was only by enacting, all unknowingly, a “disownment” of myself at the level of my own affective response to my own experience, enacting it by “projecting” what would otherwise have become a self-consuming rage toward my parents and the world at large “outside” myself and into my nightmare image of an axe-murderer stalking my family and me, that I was able not to let myself know the “reality” of my situation—a knowledge which I could not let myself know, if I was fully, and still in some sense whole, to survive the very “reality” such knowledge would have revealed to me.  My projection of all that negative affect into and upon my axe-murderer gave me the only viable chance I had left for not dying of my broken leg.

Only because my parents were no more than good enough to let me get by well enough by hiding myself under the covers from myself by projecting the disowned part of myself into the axe-murderer I hid from in my nightmare, was I given enough sense of security—paradoxically put, the sense of security that only the illusion of security could have given me at that age—to keep on bumbling through on my own for the next thirty-eight years.  Only thus was I able to keep bumbling along until at last, in the summer of 1987, the combination of set and setting I found myself in finally gave me a good chance of coming out of hiding from myself.  On that second occasion, too, by my good hap my unconscious once again took its opportunity:  It withdrew the nightmare projection of negative affect it gave me in my childhood, and recast it as the waking, daytime delusion that my parent-substitutes at the time were so filled with all-embracing love, humility, wisdom, and skill that for all intents and purposes they were divinities.  The necessary, Nietzschean-truth of an illusion that manifested initially in the projection of a dream-image that let me disown my own negative affect had to be taken back and projected anew, this time not in dreams but in delusion, and this time not of dark, obscure, negative things but of bright, gleaming positive ones.  The illusion of parental perfection that was protected by the nighttime projection of some horrible something stalking me in my dreams to do me untold harm was recalled, like a automobile in which a defect has been discovered, then corrected and sent back to me again, now become the daytime delusion of in reality being guided by a parental pair effectively exercising a boundless care toward me that knew my own deepest good and how to help me find my way to it.  Caught in the very throws of my delusion in 1987, I could not but be awed before the utter humility of such selfless love as I then projected to be operative within my two main benefactors—and, indeed, by the entire conspiracy that I in delusion perceived to be operative around me, a conspiracy that included my two colleague-friends who were with me in our shared enterprise at the time.

Nor was that, the recall of a dream-projection of a deadly threat and its conversion into a delusional projection of a life-bestowing love, the end of the process—the long, thirty-eight-year process of breaking my leg at last, clean through.  Rather, the end came, at least in the first of the clock-strikes announcing its hour, only at the close of that whole delusional day in 1987.  It came when the delusion of that day in 1987, the very delusion that had come to replace the nightmare of that much earlier day in 1949, was itself recalled, withdrawn, taken back.  It came, that is, when I finally came out of my delusion and “reconnected with reality,” as the saying go.

Utterly appropriately, given the slapstick comedy in which we were all acting, as it turned out, I came out of that delusion only thanks to the bumbling, fumbling efforts of my two clueless friends to help me.  Neither of them had any idea how in the world, or out of it, one might break through such a blissfully self-reinforcing delusion of bliss as I was lost in.  Everything they tried—whatever they said or did in hopes of somehow helping me regain my sanity—just became more grist for further grinding in the bliss-producing mill of my delusion.  The harder they tried to free me from that delusion, the more it tightened its grip upon me.  Yet they kept on trying.  They did not leave me alone, as virtually everyone else (my two reluctant parent-substitutes included) certainly at least tried to do, walking wide paths around me, as animals—which we all are, of course, by our good hap–will instinctively (and without any malice whatever) do around an ill one of their kind, to avoid infection themselves by whatever has infected that one.  Too blinded themselves, no doubt, by their friendly concern for me to give room for that healthy instinct of self-preservation to do its usual salvic work, my two friends did not abandon me.  They stayed with me.  They kept me company.

That is what saved me.  Or, rather, that is what became the delivery system for my own delivery from delusion.  My two friends just stayed with me, accompanying me–mainly as we walked endlessly around with one another, with no destination beyond the walking itself.  Had they mounted attacks upon the fortress of my delusion, they would have succeeded only in strengthening it further, as I have already indicated.   Happily, for my sake, they had no idea how to go about launching such attacks.  So in their concerned befuddlement they just kept walking with me—and talking while we walked, and listening to me as I talked, which I did a lot.

As already articulated, when I broke my leg in childhood I projected into and upon a nightmare image the negative affects that, had they been allowed fully to affect me when I was three and first broke my leg, would have utterly incapacitated me.  Then, thirty-eight years later, when at the emotional level I relived that childhood breaking of my leg, that earlier nightmare projection was effectively taken back or retrieved and completely recast in terms of purely positive affects.   What is more, both the initial projection of negative affects and the later retrieving re-projection wherein those affects were transformed into positive ones were two moments or phases of one and the same overall process. That is, it stands between those two projections just as Freud says it finally stands between what he called the “negative” effect of trauma (numbing, dissociation, distancing, or “going into shock” in the face of trauma) and its “positive” effect (the “return of the repressed” in symptomatic, compulsively repetitive behaviors):  in the final analysis, both are actually just the two sides of one and the same single process—that process which is itself the processing of the trauma as such.

However, as also already indicated, the entire traumatic process as such is not yet over, once it reaches that second stage of projection, the stage at which the initial projection gets recalled/transformed/re-projected, as occurred for me when I broke my leg “again” in 1987, thirty-eight years after I broke it “the first time” in 1949.  Rather, the culmination and end—the final fulfillment–of the entire overall traumatic process of breaking my leg, to which both the “first” and the “second” times I broke it belong, occurs only when the “second” recalling-transforming re-projection of the “first” projection is itself recalled and thus, since the projection and the re-projection are both one and the same process (just as Freud’s “negative” and “positive” effects of trauma are, as he says, really part of one and the same overall traumatic effect), the entire projection that unfolds in that two-stage way gets recalled, in the sense of crossed-over, cancelled, or annulled.

Thus, for example, when in my own case the whole traumatic process—the whole “trauma as such”–was finally allowed to reach its culmination and fulfill itself, it ended up retrieving–withdrawing, taking back–both projections, not only the initial, “negative” one of my nighttime dream but also the subsequent “positive” one of my daytime delusion, and canceled or annulled them both together, crossing them over.   Moreover, once the whole double-projection process was finally cancelled out, something was left behind—something fine, like a treasure left behind on the beach by a flood-tide once it finally ebbs away.

More precisely put, at last something that during all those years had been able to show itself to me only in tantalizing glimpses flashed, as it were, through flickering, unstable, subliminal images, was finally allowed to come to the fore, to manifest itself in a clear, focused, stable figure or form.  At last, what had been struggling to form itself into a steady figure for all those years finally succeeded in con-figuring itself.  What had really been there all along, the whole “sense” of what had been happening to me throughout all that time, stood revealed: the one simple truth of the whole process, of the whole traumatic event itself as such–“what it was all about,” what it “meant.”

What was that truth?   In once sense, that is easy to say, and countless voices have said it throughout history, in an inexhaustible variety of ways.  It was the truth, to put it in one of my own ways, that the only real security lies in giving up all illusions that one is ever really secure, which means giving up those very illusions that it was necessary to maintain around oneself for so long, until one was secure enough to give them up.

It comes down to this, that only when one is secure enough to give up all illusions of ever being secure enough, does one suddenly come to find that just that—the simple, unvarnished, dis-illusioned truth of one’s radical, ineradicable in-security–is always security enough, and indeed more than enough.  Good enough is good enough, but only when we can succeed in letting it be what it is, do we find it good enough for us—and then, to our surprise, we find that finding to be so much more than merely enough for us.  We find to our delight that good enough is good galore, that it is a super-abundance of good, more than enough to go around for all, giving each an overabundance of good in turn, of itself overflowing our hands and into the hands of others, sharing itself out in equal, immense portions to everyone, without anyone ever even having had to try to share it.

Our great good luck is that we are all finally without defense against what threatens us, whatever form that threat may take.  But just as lottery winners must still show up to claim their prizes before they receive their winnings, so must we all still abandon the illusion that we can somehow secure ourselves against what threatens us, whatever that is, if only we manage well, as it were.  We must abandon those illusions—or, rather, we must be brought to abandon them, since we can’t even manage that ourselves—before we can finally see what’s really been there all along, which is that no security is good enough security, and not only good enough, but ever so much more than that.

*      *     *      *      *

My next two posts will complete this series on how I spent my 1987 summer vacation.

Published in: on April 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

*        *        *        *        *

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).

*      *      *      *      *

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!

The Truth of Trauma


Today’s post contains three brief entries I wrote last winter in my philosophical journal, and all of which pertain to an issue I have raised more than once before at this website.  That is the issue of just what response trauma elicits from those whom it strikes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Susan Cheever, Desire:  Where Sex Meets Addiction (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 35, on trauma:

The human balance that enables most people to live without mind-altering substances [with which she’d include sex as the sex addict relates to it] every day is fragile. It can be upset by trauma or by witnessing trauma.  Once you see what people can do to each other, it’s hard to go back to the level of trust in strangers and the human community that makes life bearable.

How true–especially and paradigmatically for Holocaust survivors.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, translated by Andrew Brown (London and  New York:  Routledge, 2004), p. 146:

Affirmation forms the sole place of struggle against evil.  To say no to the no means to say no again, leading back one way or another to what one is opposing and making one dependent on it.  To resist evil is to carry with one, permanently, the Trojan  horse that contains it.  To struggle against it can only mean attacking it, and only the diamond of the yes can really attack all negation, at its heart, without having to deny it.

It would be necessary to think that through in relation to [(among other similar things)] Jean Améry’s defense of suicide, as well as the resistance that surfaced in the uprising that destroyed the crematorium stack at Auschwitz.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reading Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century.  Late in the book, discussing Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written and first performed in Stalag VII, when Messiaen was imprisoned there by the Germans [during World War II], Ross writes:

Messiaen expects paradise not just in a single awesome hereafter but also in the scattered ecstasies of daily life.  In the end, his apocalypse–“There shall be time no longer”–may have nothing to do with the catastrophic circumstances under which it was conceived.  Instead, it may describe the death and rebirth of a single soul in the grip of exceptional emotion.

That links up not only with Franz Rosenzweig’s earlier [i.e., before World War II] emphasis on the  quotidian character of redemption  in the Star of Redemption, but also with the issue I’ve been raising in various earlier journal entries about the “truth” of Auschwitz being found in the affirmation expressed in, for example, the  “unsuccessful” rebellion that blew up  one of the crematoria smoke stacks there:  the issue joined in the Psalms that sing of the transitoriness of worldly power.

Published in: on July 17, 2009 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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