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Trauma is a Wound in Language–Meta Moments that Crash Narrative

October 5, 2013
Trauma is a wound in language

Trauma is a wound in language

For memoir writers hoping to express a painful experience, language sometimes fails. By its very nature, pain exceeds articulation. It exists beyond and maybe prior to language.

Trauma works the same way– by undoing language. The problem for writers comes when the attempt to speak what Toni Morrison has called “the unspeakable” threatens to crash the whole structure of the writing situation.

If this happens to you, if you find yourself writing about a psychically painful moment, and all language seems to stop, you may be re-experiencing a trauma for which there are no words, a trauma for which there can be no listener or receiver of words that will not come.

This is why theorists say that trauma is a wound not just in the psyches of those who have suffered but in language itself–that system of communication and the expectation for its possibility that we all imagine to exist between ourselves and everyone else. It is a system that precedes us, jutting propitiously out of our reptilian brain to form the basis of reason, imagination, and compassion.

For trauma theorist Dori Laub, all experience depends upon an imagined structure of address. According to Laub, the lack of external witnesses to an event as traumatic as the Holocaust made it impossible for those within the event to witness even to themselves. And so in working with survivors, Laub’s treatment aimed at enabling survivors to create internal witnesses within themselves, to double the self, as victim and observer. This imagined other self in the interior who listens–call it the double, the substitute, the proxy–is a witness within. It is through such a figure that the wound in language caused by a traumatic event may begin to heal over with words. Words that may be listened to, if not always fully understood.

For writers of fiction, a similar operation is possible, though not always so personally painful. Whenever a writer chooses to omit a central detail in a story, a trauma in miniature occurs for readers. There is a tiny wound in language caused by a deliberate omission, a gap in the reader’s desire and expectation to know. By withholding key pieces of information, writers reveal how a story or a novel is a type of desiring machine, managing readers’ knowledge investments by always giving a little, just enough to encourage further reading but not so much to collapse the desire for more that keeps the pages turning.

I’ve been reminded of two remarkable examples of simulated trauma, when a wound in language cuts into the very structure of the story being told. One occurs in Alan Moore’s graphic novel Promethea. The other happens in the middle of Herman Melville’s “The Encantadas.” Two disparate texts to say the least, but each one stages an all-important trauma that threatens to undo the very foundations of the narratives that fail to contain them.

Promethea, written by Moore with artwork by J.H. Williams III, re-tells the myth of Pandora. It’s about Sophie Bangs, an average college student in an unusual dystopic New York City, who learns that she is to be the vessel for a supernatural force hell-bent on destroying the universe. It’s like the Dark Phoenix saga from the X-Men for literary types. In one of the most ingenious moments of any graphic novel by Moore (and that’s saying a lot), the apocalyptic power of Promethea is shown to be so great that it creates a meta moment, rupturing the graphic novel’s established form of fictive address.

Promethea 30 p23

At this moment, the enticements of Promethea are so powerful that they alarm the “real-life” men who are in the very act of writing and drawing them. Promethea is a force bigger than the frame of the story that contains her. Her power creates a visible scar in the story’s suspension of disbelief–momentarily wounding its structure of fictive address. We see the artist there at his drawing board afraid of the entity he is supposedly drawing. We see the author there at his computer likewise aghast at what his “creature” is about to do. The moment complicates thresholds of time, blurring boundaries of reality and creation.

A similar moment of femininity in reverse–a femininity that snuffs out rather than births–comes in Melville’s sketch in the Encantadas about Hunilla, the Chola widow. Melville sets up Hunilla to be the sentimental lynch pin of his story. She has tragically witnessed the sudden drowning of her only two companions on a tropical island, her dear husband and brother. She’s been living a marooned existence among wild dogs and Galapagos tortoises when Melville and his crew spot her on the shore and come to her “rescue.” Melville’s narrator records the incredible poise of this broken widow as she relates her trauma, but goes one step further to convey that trauma. He doesn’t just describe it for readers. Like Moore in Promethea, he enacts and performs the trauma upon us.

Melville does this by dramatically withholding a key piece of information. He draws attention to the absence he gives us, deepening the loss Hunilla suffers by forcing some loss onto us as well.


Melville begins to tell us what lies at the heart of darkness of his excursion into the jungle, but twice here he refuses. He starts and stops. Against his own purpose, against the structure of the work he presents, as with Moore, he breaks the flow of storytelling in order to create a gap. And gaps tell a different kind of story.

There are some events so tragic that they intervene upon the usual hubris of Language to grasp all things in its mighty palms. As Melville pithily declares, it is not the fault of language or books in telling about these tragic events:

Events, not books, should be forbid.

I’m preparing my bumper sticker version of that statement as I conclude this. Nevertheless, I’m still struck by Melville’s choice here to forbid one possible version of his book. That version that might divulge Hunilla’s secret is conjured up and performatively prohibited right on the page. Unlike most Victor Frankensteins or Marlowes of his era, Melville’s narrator chooses not to relate the secret interiors of the jungle he “penetrates.” Until here, when he relates it as a trauma. A wound in language itself.

  1. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I’ve found that writing tragic scenes, whether non-fiction or fiction, requires digging beyond grief into an understanding of how the event changes the character’s world. Otherwise I’m left with the writing equivalent of a blur. The reader knows something big and awful has happened,but the effectiveness of the scene as a plot device is limited because the author was unsure what it meant beyond tragedy.

  2. Wow. Just wow. I am going to PRINT this out, and research the items you mentioned.
    It’s above my pay grade, but that’s how we learn, eh?

  3. How interesting. The gaps in language, in memory, the absences, the things we skip over, leave out, all speak to some missing presence, and that can be powerful indeed. I’ve been peeking around at different posts on site today and enjoying it immensely.

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