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Traumatic Reliving in History, Literature and Film

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Traumatic Reliving in History, Literature, and Film explores an intriguing facet of human behavior never yet examined in its own right - an individual or a group may contrive, unawares, to repeat a half-forgotten traumatic experience in disguise. Such reliving has shaped major careers and large-scale events throughout history. Insight into it is therefore vital for understanding historic causation past and present. Traumatic Reliving has also proliferated in literature since antiquity and lately in film as well, indicating its tacit acceptance as a piece of life by the reading and movie-going public. This book examines the evidence of history, literature, and film on how this irrational behavioral mechanism works.

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CHAPTER ONE: Reliving

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Reliving is live repetition. Repetition is the way of the material world—set courses of change, regular runs and re-runs, self-identical cycles and sequences, reprises unending. Life, having been born of the material world, does not escape this rule of recurrence. Before it comes full circle in death, living is mostly reliving, even short of the eternal return hypothesized by a latter-day seer, or of being trapped in a closed loop of time like tempunauts in science fiction.1 Animals, although self-propelled, feel and act repetitively by instinct, reflex, and habit. Groups of animals likewise survive by routine, as in seasonal migrations. And humans, themselves “repetition machines”,2 contribute often senseless personal patterns of behaviour to the replicative repertoire of the natural world. To be sure, not all conduct, animal or especially human, is repetitive, in confirmation whereof I tried horseradish once and never tried it again. Yet repetition, insidious repetition, is the rule with animate as with inanimate matter, however uncertain its next moment may often be.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Reliving with Freud

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Contriving unknowingly to repeat an especially painful experience in disguise, and more than once as circumstances permit, is a pattern of human behaviour sufficiently distinct to deserve a technical name: episodic traumatic reliving. Sigmund Freud opened the way to understanding this bizarre phenomenon even though he never dealt with it clinically or even recognized it as an entity unto itself. He did see his early neurotic patients as continually reliving traumatic experiences—sometimes fresh, more often stale—but in a static form: condensed, compounded, and converted into stable symptoms. His early constructions on such symptomatic reliving, though they were in continual flux, are known collectively as his “traumatic theory of neurosis”, which was the forerunner of psychoanalysis proper. Psychoanalysis proper is commonly dated from Freud's abandonment, by the end of 1897, of his sudden, ephemeral, ill-conceived notion that all neurosis originates in early sexual abuse and his recognition that such abuse is commonly fantasized by the child. It can be dated more consequently, if still less precisely, from Freud's assumption, developed gradually thereafter in the late 1890s, that every adult neurosis derives from an infantile original whatever later disturbances it may reflect as well. On going psychoanalytical, Freud did not relinquish the idea that neurotics are all reliving distilled traumatic material, far from it, so long as the term “traumatic” is taken to cover upsets, fixations, conflicts, and forbidden impulses indifferently, as in his own loose initial usage; not until well into World War I did he settle on the strict and narrow sense of trauma as an unmanageably shattering experience of a kind with shell shock.1 It bears restating and emphasizing for clarity's sake that from first to last the neurotics within Freud's purview were all reliving their traumatic material of the sort chronically, in the form of fixed, steady symptoms (what he called Dauersymptome), rather than re-enacting some whole traumatic episode or conjunction of episodes in a full-scale performance itself subject to further replay, as in the historic cases to be discussed below. By the early 1890s he already saw no difference among neuroses of whatever type (mainly hysterical or obsessional) with respect to such fundamentals as that, besides reconfiguring what he styled as traumatic material, they were always intermixed in some measure and were always, at bottom, sexual.2 It was to these shared fundamentals that, in the late 1890s, he added an obligatory childhood original, and ultimately an infantile original, for every neurosis. I propose to show that he did so for reasons theoretical rather than empirical and that in so doing he cut himself off from all further insight into traumatic reliving, whether chronic or episodic, in the stricter and narrower sense of trauma, just when—paradoxically—he had opened the way to understanding it.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Reliving in history

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Traumas that are relived are not themselves relivings. On the contrary, they normally strike out of the blue1 with no precedents that leap to mind to help their victims cope. Or so I asserted a few pages ago in my rundown of Freud's trouble conceptualizing trauma and especially schematizing its aftermath. That aftermath may include episodic reliving of the trauma, but this is not the clinician's business, for it is not seen or felt as a sickness by those who unwittingly engage in it; indeed, it is not seen or felt by them at all. How traumas get relived episodically—or for short, how they get relived2—is best known from history. Such historical knowledge is the subject of this chapter. I propose to approach that subject through some historic cases of traumatic reliving that I have studied in depth over the past decades, and first off through the case best suited to turn the page on Freud in that the traumatic experience involved ought by all Freudian rights to have thrown back to Freud's own preferred infantile hang-up but didn't. In this very case, which he himself explored from close up, Freud took the infantile original of the experience for granted only to miss the traumatic impact of that experience altogether.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Reliving in history: A closeup

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It is high time for a fresh, close look at another historic group trauma relived. I propose to take such a look at the collapse of the Third French Republic as re-enacted through the collapse of the Fourth.1 Besides adding to my pool of traumatic relivings, this new enquiry will display my mode of analysis in hopes of facilitating other enquiries into the phenomenon of traumatic reliving at its most baffling: en groupe. Or should I have written more positively: “at its most challenging”? After all, human history is what people have done or experienced, no more and no less, and what they have done or experienced in groups predominates. Hence this recurrent, pervasive mode of group action, traumatic reliving, cries out for the historian's attention.

The Third French Republic came to an inglorious end between Bordeaux on 16 June and Vichy on 10 July 1940. That 16 June in Bordeaux, makeshift capital of France at the height of the German invasion, Premier Paul Reynaud made way for a successor, Marshal Philippe Pétain, to request armistice terms. Then on that 10 July as much of the French parliament as could meet in the watering town of Vichy voted Pétain's government full powers to draft a new, authoritarian constitution for popular approval and to rule by fiat meanwhile. Some eighteen years later, between 28 May and 1–3 June 1958, the Fourth French Republic came to an equally inglorious end. In Paris on that 28 May Premier Pierre Pflimlin made way for General Charles de Gaulle to succeed him in order to avert a coup d'é tat by the military fearful of a sellout to rebels fighting French rule in Algeria. Then on that 1–3 June the parliament in Paris voted a government under de Gaulle full power to draft a new, authoritarian constitution for popular approval and to rule by fiat meanwhile. Like Pétain, further, de Gaulle was to work on the new constitution through a consultative council and to legislate through the Conseil d’É tat. Unlike 1940, on the other hand, the chambres voted separately in 1958, and de Gaulle's special powers were limited to six months. Also, Pétain did not, whereas de Gaulle did, deliver on a new constitution for popular approval, but never mind: for now I am considering only how the two republics fell.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Reliving in letters

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Let us back up before broaching traumatic reliving in belles lettres.1 Freud put mental trauma on the clinical agenda in the 1890s, when he took neurosis to be a mix of old “traumas”, meaning loosely emotional tensions, stresses, or upsets, relived in disguise. Toward 1900 his focus gradually shifted away from relatively recent “traumas”, or pathogenic material such as he had been finding behind neuroses, to their presumed infantile originals. Psychoanalytical trauma theory followed this same turn to infantile originals even though the earmark of a trauma proper is that it has no original. The psychiatric diagnostic category “post-traumatic stress disorder”, introduced in the 1980s, has confused the subject further by taking bodily violence suffered, threatened, or witnessed, followed by incessant, anxious recall or else by defensive memory blackout, to be the standard traumatic syndrome. Here psychiatry is wrong. As historic case studies of individual traumatic reliving show, a purely emotional upset can traumatize on a par with an experience of bodily violence. The effect of either is of a blow too hard to be taken in stride that inflicts a wound too deep to heal on its own. The blow may indeed be incessantly remembered, in pain and dread, either waking or sleeping, particularly in response to outside reminders. But it may instead be memorialized with the affect controlled or repressed. Or else the affect may recur in eerie isolation, detached from any recollection of its source; thus a clinical study of episodic hypertension attributes it “in almost every single case” to traumatic anxiety relived unconsciously.2 Again, the blow may be defended against after the fact beyond all useful purpose without the original experience in mind. It may equally well enter into a chronic symptom, like a steady headache from a scary bang on the head. Finally, it may appear to be more or less absorbed except that, long months or years afterwards, the sufferer contrives to relive it unawares together with the key elements of the attendant experience. In this last case, the original experience itself may well be remembered in the process, but then with no connection drawn to the reliving underway. The most recognition a reliving normally gets in its own time or afterwards is just an unfocused déjà vu. As Ernest Hemingway put it for a traumatized narrator, “I had the feeling as in a nightmare of its all being something repeated, something I had been through and that now I must go through again.”3 This creepy feeling is about as close to consciousness as an individual reliving ever comes.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Reliving on screen

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Dig around long enough anywhere in history for traumas relived and you will find some—individual traumas, collective traumas, even the two in tandem. For no obvious reason, the pickings are somewhat slimmer in creative literature, especially for collective traumas relived: under this head only Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author comes to mind with its six parties to a family “drama”, as they call it, bound together indissolubly to keep replaying it in concert. In film as well, specimens of collective traumatic reliving are in lamentably short supply by historic standards. On the other hand, individual traumatic reliving has made itself very much at home on the silver screen, and more and more so in recent years. This most popular and most commercial of the arts has provided pure personalized instances of the mechanism on the loose in its manifold guises and disguises while probing its workings ever deeper.

Movie-makers have also spawned new and newer variants of the mechanism while drawing increasingly on its vast potential as a motif of drama and melodrama, comedy and farce. They have even injected relived trauma into history as ferment1 and comparably added a pinch of it as a flavouring to much classic fiction adapted to the screen.2 And they have done all of this with no clear indication that they or their public regard this run of films, as I am presenting it here, in the context of a psychological syndrome being explored or even just exploited.3 Nor by all indications are movie-makers or movie-goers, for all that exploring and exploiting, any more finely attuned to its operations than were fifth-century Athenian playwrights or playgoers. The medium itself, with its quick cuts, crosscuts, and flashbacks, is simply more hospitable than the novel or the theatre to trauma striking with an abrupt impact and to past trauma stealthily intruding on the present. It is the better attuned to reliving of whatever sort, traumatic or no, in that repetitions are instantly recognizable when conveyed visually and, more subtly, in that on-screen images are themselves repetitions of prior performances before the camera. Even so, this inherent affinity of the medium for the theme of traumatic reliving in particular appears to have borne its lush fruit spottily and somewhat belatedly, with a rapid build-up only after a whole cinematic century.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Reliving: Who, when, why?

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What, finally, do history, literature, and film tell us about reliving trauma? To back up to scratch yet again, the mechanism is best known from history. An individual or a group unwittingly reproduces the key pieces of a profoundly upsetting experience, or trauma, in outward disguise, often in a wholly different sphere of activity. As a rule, a traumatic experience will have struck all at once and unexpectedly. Otherwise, a prolonged traumatic ordeal that is relived will have been compacted for the purpose into a single psychological moment. Even where a traumatic impact has been piecemeal or gradual, however, as it is more usually with groups, the reliving runs to type. And as with individuals, so with groups, a traumatic reliving leaves those sufferers who survive it as if traumatized anew and hence ready to relive anew, now with two overlapping experiences to draw on. They have come full spiral.

To judge by the historic cases considered above, the most widely shared features of individual traumatic reliving are guilt felt for the trauma itself and especially a sense of acting under a higher constraint, as if on binding orders received unconsciously as in hypnosis. Individuals reliving traumas also tend to gain uncanny persuasiveness over others for the purpose while overriding any obstructive inhibitions or scruples of their own in the process. Beyond this, they may carry the relived trauma to a conclusion more drastic than the original finale even while straining in vain to fend off that dread outcome. Considered abstractly, to contrive a scenario for a reliving and then to impose it on the surrounding world may seem to argue a stronger traumatic drive than to recycle a long-dormant trauma in response to some circumstantial reminder, and yet Bismarck for one relived a seemingly superannuated personal trauma on the European stage with nightmarish intensity after taking his cue from a mere coincidence of proper names.

 

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