The traumatisation of history

It may seem a strange idea to talk about the ‘traumatisation of history'; after all how can history itself be traumatised?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to speak of the history of trauma?  For a while this is what I thought, especially in relation to writing about the Great War.  In many ways, the ‘narrative’ of trauma came of age during and following the First World War – although this is not to say that prior to 1914 war did not traumatise people both psychically and physically.  Rather, by 1914 both psychiatry and the wider culture had a language, a discourse, of trauma that they could utilise, largely thanks to Freud and the emerging psychoanalytic movement.

There are many narratives, many histories, of trauma in relation to the Great War and its aftermath, some of which I’ve already referred to on these pages.  This is at both the level of individual trauma – all those shell shocked soldiers for example; and also at the level of culture and society – the idea of a lost and disillusioned generation springs immediately to mind.

But what if we take this one step further and examine a bit more closely the exact nature of such trauma.  As I’ve argued a number of times in this blog, the whole point about trauma is that it escapes meaning, evades symbolisation.  A person is traumatised because they can’t make sense of what’s happened to them.  And I think it’s fair to argue that whole societies can be traumatised in the same way; in other words, there is a collapse of meaning at the collective and cultural level.  This is precisely what happened following the (official) end of the Great War.1

But what is history if not a construction of meaning – or rather, a set of meanings, to try and make sense of the past?   Although many historians were (and still are) deeply unhappy (and deeply offended) by the post-structuralist turn in their discipline, it surely cannot be denied that at the end of the day all history is based on forms of writing and textual analysis – as long as it’s clear that by ‘writing’ and ‘text’ we are referring to a range of different forms of representation, including photographs, film, art, oral testimony as well as more ‘conventional’ texts such as reports, diaries, poetry, literature, etc.  Furthermore, such different forms of text then have to be ‘written’ into particular narratives, i.e. histories.  And taking things one step further, it seems fair to argue that ‘the past’, rather than being the object of such analyses and writings, is, in fact, the product of such activities.   In other words, historians do not write about the past; rather, they construct it.  However, this is not to argue that therefore there is nothing ‘outside’ of the text, outside of the writing.  Rather, it’s simply that whatever it is that’s ‘outside’ is not the past.

What has this got to do with trauma and its history?  Essentially, if trauma can be viewed as a collapse of meaning, a rupturing of the narrative, a tear in the fabric of history (as narrative), then it is possible to speak of the traumatisation of history; in other words, it’s the breakdown of the symbolic order that produces trauma.  Or perhaps it might be better to say that in the ruins of the symbolic order a different order appears, that of the Real.

However, there is twist here.  Although it is possible for history to be traumatised, it also possible for that very same trauma to be historicised.    In other words, the trauma of the Real becomes reformulated as a new type of narrative, a new type of history.   This is precisely what we see in the cultural legacy of the Great War, with its abundance of literature, poetry and art, all focusing in one way or another on disillusionment and the breakdown of meaning.

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  1. Though in many parts of Europe , of course, the war didn’t end until at least 1945.  In this context perhaps it makes more sense, as some have argued,  to talk of the ‘Great War’ as being the second Thirty Years War. []
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