Coming all the way home: Fictions of Post-War Trauma

 Marjorie Worthington, Ph.D., Professor of English at Eastern Illinois University (EIU), presented the following paper at the Inaugural James Jones Symposium held on Nov. 4, 2015, at EIU in conjunction with the Ninth Annual James Jones Lecture Series.

It has been observed for decades that traumatic experience during wartime can cause physical and psychological disorders characterized by intense flashbacks, memory loss, dissociation or hyperarousal. Over time, these disorders have gone by many names: Shell shock, war strain, and even war neurosis were common diagnoses during and after World War I; similar syndromes were called “combat exhaustion” or “gross stress reaction” after World War II and later, “post-Vietnam syndrome.” But while the symptoms of post-war neuroses have been recognized for one hundred years or more, they have not been and are still not particularly well understood. Indeed, doctors and scholars are only now beginning to comprehend the depth of the psychic repercussions of war-related traumatic experience. For example, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was only added to the medical diagnostic lexicon in 1980 and is only now being widely recognized, as newer treatments are introduced to a new generation of sufferers.

Although the actual diagnosis of PTSD did not exist at the time, literature has long been depicting it in relation to a variety of different wars, from the character of Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway to John Wade in Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods from 1995 to Brian Remy in Jess Walter’s 9/11 novel The Zero from 2006. Currently, literary scholars are bringing the new clinical insights afforded by research into PTSD to bear on these literary texts. With interesting and far-reaching effect, scholars employ psychological interpretive techniques as a means of understanding both the effects of trauma on the psyche of the literary characters and the sometimes dense and opaque narratives depicting trauma survivors.

Thus, in recent decades, Trauma Studies has emerged as an important mode of both psychological and literary analysis. The resultant body of trauma theory has done a great deal to explicate the traditions and narrative strategies particular to that genre. A “trauma” is typically understood to be an experience or event so overwhelming that its sufferer is often unable to process or make sense of it. A traumatic event, according to Cathy Caruth, “is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it” (Trauma 4, emphasis Caruth’s). Or, as Kai Erikson argues, “Above all, trauma involves a continual reliving of some wounding experience in daydreams and nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations, and in a compulsive seeking out of similar circumstances” (184). As described here, a person suffering through a trauma does not or cannot understand the event as it happens, but afterward repeatedly returns viscerally and often unwillingly to that event in his/her memory. Indeed, one of the primary symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is this vivid reliving of the traumatic moment or moments, either in dreams or waking life. Lawrence Langer deems this constant reliving of a single moment a “durational” mode of time rather than a “chronological” one; to Langer, the concept of durational time better describes the ways that a trauma survivor shifts back and forth in time and continues to experience the trauma as though it were still happening, even though it is long in the past. In Langer’s estimation, the trauma has lasting duration, even though it has receded in chronological time (14-15). Thus, the event takes on greater and greater significance after the fact, as time is essentially put out of joint and the trauma survivor is often unable to set it right.

This idea that trauma survivors experience time as durational rather than chronological provides a fascinating insight into one of the classic novels of post-World-War-II literature: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1969. In this novel, protagonist Billy Pilgrim is described as having come “unstuck in time”: “Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another on in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says. Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next” (29). Now, Billy Pilgrim’s situation goes beyond what most trauma survivors might experience, since some of his time travels involve being abducted by aliens and put in a zoo exhibit on the planet Tralfamadore. After all, Vonnegut is known, among other things, as a master of science fiction. But this idea of being unstuck in time, of vividly reliving moments of one’s life as though they were actually happening again and again, of not knowing when such a flashback might occur or where in time one might emerge…these characteristics are indicative of what we would now call PTSD.

And as for those aliens, it is lucky for Billy that he met up with them, for they explain to him their own perception of time, and he finds their view tremendously helpful in understanding his own: to the Tralfamadorians, “All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever” (34). The Tralfamadorians remind us that time is, after all, just another dimension; viewing it their way not only helps Billy understand his own relationship to time better, but it also helps him cope with the sense of mourning for those he has lost. He explains, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments” (34). The idea, I suppose, is to try not to get stuck in the bad moments, or to try to see them for what they are: part of a much larger landscape. For trauma survivors like Billy, of course, this is easier said than done.

But in its way, Slaughterhouse-Five not only depicts a trauma survivor’s experience, but attempts to explain it and, perhaps, to assuage its considerable pain. And this is often the case in literature that has come to be known as “trauma narrative.” These narratives represent the attempt by trauma survivors, through telling the story of what happened, to impose order and meaning upon the experience, but with the, often implicit, understanding that a trauma cannot be accurately depicted in a straightforwardly mimetic fashion. Realism, the argument goes, cannot get to the real Truth of a deeply traumatic experience: sometimes it requires aliens. In other words, trauma narratives often tend to eschew strategies of traditional Realism in favor of experimental strategies and structures that better convey the horror and confusion indicative of a traumatic experience. As Laurie Vickroy puts it: “Trauma narratives go beyond presenting trauma as subject matter or character study. They internalize the rhythms, processes and uncertainties of traumatic experience within their underlying sensibilities and structures” (3).  Such a narrative can take the form of a surrealistic Slaughterhouse-Five, or the intensely naturalistic and personalized form of James Jones’s own 1962 novel The Thin Red Line.

Perhaps Tim O’Brien, keynote speaker of the 2009 James Jones Symposium, explains this concept much better when he differentiates between “happening-truth” and “story-truth.” To O’Brien, “happening-truth” refers to the historically accurate facts about what actually happened in a particular moment; “story-truth” refers to the process of turning that moment into a narrative—a process that often requires taking liberties with or even altering actual events to fit them into a story. O’Brien argues that, although they deviate from the actual facts of the event, such alterations can and should serve the purpose of rendering a deeper “Truth” about the event than the happening-truth could ever convey. In The Things They Carried, published in 1990, O’Brien puts it this way: “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain” (152). Thus, somewhat ironically, chronicling the Truth of a horrific event sometimes requires fiction. “Story-truth,” to O’Brien, provides a deeper understanding of trauma than could a blow-by-blow chronological, referential account.

For example, Chief Bromden, the Native American World War II veteran who narrates Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest envisions the world around him as a machine called the Combine, which forces people to fit into society by cutting them all down to the same size. To Chief, the purpose of the psychiatric institution where he lives is to take people who do not fit and subject them to so-called “therapies” designed not to help them but to force them through the Combine: to force them to fit. While perhaps a very apt metaphor for society in general, the Combine is no metaphor to Chief Bromden. Because he suffers from a mental illness that causes him to drift into catatonia and to dissociate from his current surroundings—because, in other words, he suffers from PTSD—he claims to see things that others cannot. He sees the literal manifestation of the Combine, hears the whir of its machinery in the hospital walls, and understands that the nefarious Nurse Ratched is a part of the giant engine: “She looks around with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian…So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load” (30). As O’Brien might say, these images are part of the “story-truth,” if not the “happening-truth,” and we as readers recognize them as such. In other words, we recognize that it is the Chief’s mental illness that causes him to see the Nurse as a giant tractor-like machine. But simultaneously, we also recognize that as story-truth, these images convey a deeper Truth about the Nurse as an agent of social control than a merely Realistic description ever could: this is a testament to the power of fiction, and to the non-mimetic nature of the trauma narrative.

Michael Rothberg has coined the term “traumatic realism” to describe this somewhat ironic need for trauma writers to move away from traditional Realistic literary traditions in order to convey trauma realistically. In the case of Chief Bromden, what he describes is not realistic, but what the novel portrays IS a realistic portrait of the inner workings of his mind, and it is that portrayal which mines the deeper truth of life in the hospital.

Traumatic Realism often manifests itself at the level of narrative structure as well as the level of plot or character. What I mean is, as a traumatic event returns to their consciousness again and again, survivors often attempt to transform that trauma into a narrative as a way to make meaning from the apparent meaninglessness of their experience, to impose narrative order on chaos. But imposing that order often requires a seemingly disordered narrative: the disjointed sense of time and the tumultuous feelings evoked by the trauma are often best depicted by a variety of structural experiments. As Anne Whitehead points out, “if trauma is at all susceptible to narrative formulation, then it requires a literary form which departs from conventional linear sequence” (6). Just as the trauma survivor re-experiences the trauma repeatedly and long after it occurred—in durational rather than chronological time—trauma narratives often reject straightforward temporal linearity and are characterized by repetitions and jumps forward and back in time.

In addition to Slaughterhouse-Five, novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 published in 1961 and Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel Ceremony are also characterized by frequent repetition and breaks with a linear storytelling structure. In Catch-22, the plot unfolds in a repetitive and circular manner, an event is referred to several times before it is fully explicated, making it difficult to discern the chronological order in which things took place. For example, the death of Radio Gunner Snowden is perhaps the most important event to our protagonist Yossarian. Snowden’s death is referred to throughout the novel and is the cause of much of Yossarian’s eccentric behavior. Yet the death is not fully described until near the end of the novel; oddly, then, Snowden’s death is presented as the climax of the novel, yet it had taken place long before many of the other events we read about. In other words, Catch-22 does away with traditional linear temporal structure, and instead presents the material in terms of its importance to Yossarian: the novel presents the material the way a trauma survivor might experience it, with the traumatic moment positioned as the most important, as the novel’s climax, even though it took place early on in the strictly chronological scheme of events.

The novel Ceremony also links disjointed temporal presentation with wartime trauma, as Tayo, a Laguna Pueblo Indian, returns to his home in New Mexico after surviving the Bataan Death March which took the life of Rocky, his cousin and best friend. Although it is not diagnosed as such, Tayo’s PTSD is so severe that he at times imagines himself as disembodied white smoke, unable to speak or move, but also unable to feel the very real pain of his loss. At other times, he lives and relives the moments of his trauma, thinking “Years and months had become weak, and people could push against them and wander back and forth in time” (18). Once Tayo has returned home physically, the novel portrays his struggle to return home mentally and spiritually as well, rather than to continue to dwell on past pain and loss.

In Tayo’s case, the trauma narrative—the story that helps bring order to the chaos of his traumatic experience—takes the form of a Native American ceremony, adapted from the traditional ones used to heal warriors who had killed in battle. This contemporary ceremony needs to be done very carefully: “They couldn’t simply take him back because he would be in between forever and probably he would die” (130). Rather, the ceremony story has to unfold slowly and the whole community must take part in order for Tayo and others like him to be able to come all the way home and not be stuck in between. For Tayo, the story that ultimately allows him to come all the way home involves reframing his pain and loss and looking at them in a different way: “Josiah and Rocky were not far away. They were close; they had always been close….he could still feel the love they had for him. The damage that had been done had never reached this feeling. This feeling was their life, vitality locked deep in blood memory, and…nothing was ever lost as long as the love remained” (219-220). Tayo’s hard-won healing process provides a new story frame through which he can see his experiences—instead of remaining locked in moments of pain and loss, he learns to take a more Tralfamadorian view of time, learns to feel the presence of his loved ones by focusing on the happier moments lodged in his memory.

I should make clear that, while trauma narratives can sometimes bring some relief to trauma survivors, scholars do not suggest that such experimental narrative techniques can actually “cure” PTSD, or even render a traumatic experience with complete accuracy; in this manner, trauma scholars find their forebears in the poststructuralist theorists who argue that language can never be a completely transparent mode of communication. Instead, critical consensus suggests that the goal of a trauma narrative is to facilitate psychological closure to a traumatic event. As Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub explain: “For traumatic memory to lose its power as a fragment and symptom and for it to be integrated into memory, a form of narrative reconstruction or reexternalization has to occur” (Felman and Laub 69).

One conclusion we can draw from this discussion is that trauma narrative can play an important role in a historical understanding of events that may be too horrible to depict in traditional historical terms. In his book Traumatic Realism, Holocaust scholar Michael Rothberg discusses the conflicting need to both position the Holocaust as an actual event within verifiable historical contexts, and to recognize that the sheer horror of the event renders it incomprehensible and in some senses unrepresentable in traditional historical modes. This is where trauma narrative can be useful. Ann Whitehead argues that the experimental nature of many trauma narratives is in keeping with contemporary literary traditions: “Trauma fiction emerges out of postmodernist fiction and shares its tendency to bring conventional narrative techniques to their limit. In testing formal boundaries, trauma fiction seeks to foreground the nature and limitations of narrative and to convey the damaging and distorting impact of the traumatic event” (82). I might actually argue the converse. What I mean is, given the repeated worldwide traumas that characterize the twentieth century, it could potentially be argued that the opposite is more accurate: that postmodernist fiction emerges out of trauma, much the same way that scholars have long suggested that Modernism emerged out of the traumas of the early twentieth century. Most significantly, however, trauma narratives use language and structure in innovative ways in the attempt to convey the unusual and life-altering nature of the traumatic event and, in the process, often serve to help bring the survivor all the way home.

Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” In Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Cathy Caruth, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 183-199.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Signet, 1963.

Langer, Lawrence. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009 (orig. pub’d 1990).

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Vickroy, Laurie. Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville, UVA Press: 2002.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five Or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Delacorte Press, 1994. Originally published 1969.

Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.

 

 

 

 

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