18 Aug

Trauma & Voice
A case can be made that the most compelling fictions are records of trauma. This seems to be true of Greek mythology and its tales, as collected by Ovid for example. Incest, rape, intra-family murders and cannibalism transform shape and condition. The gods manage this system of self re-presentation and transfiguration. The idealism of the Greeks, and perhaps of the West, is derived from trauma.

Nietzsche suggested this cultural dynamic, this culture-specific psychology (a word that, after all, is coined from Greek by a Hellenizing strain in the West; by the pressure on its Hebrew DNA to Hellenize) may have been the dominant force in Hellenic poiesis. Initiating the period of his greatest works, he proposes that “the Greeks every more powerful demand for beauty, for festivals, entertainments, new cults really grew from a lack, from deprivation, from melancholy, from pain.” The increasing “demand for beauty” or idealization generated by a culture wed to transfiguration of the self via an idyllic image is a dynamic and tragic process that consumes the host culture or individual. I term this process “image-work” and its phases from idyll to apocalypse to elegy is similar to the concept of “second” or belated “religiousness” or a return to primitive or alien cults by a culture declining into civilization and petrified forms of value and behavior. The dominance of institutions, of bureaucracy, administration and management over personal, spontaneous or emotive or local modes of intercourse is a sign of what Spengler termed “the great petrifact,” the Urban Metropolis that absorbs the life of a people by fusing finance with the will to power. This principle is embodied in the structure of the National Security Council with its chilling name and function.

Like growing old, the development of civilization, at least in the Western world (a pseudomorphosis of Hebraic and Hellenic material in European ‘Christian’ forms) is a trauma that produces increasing verbiage, imagery and a confessional mode of discourse, first in the great forms of art (beginning with the Romantic period, when the apocalyptic phase of Western development began to generate an increasing elegiac mode), then in the degraded forms of popular culture, a decadent reversion to primitive cults. Thus Romantic neo-Gothicism with its mystique of imagination-terror-transfiguration has devolved into a ‘War on Terror’ and the pervasive terror of technological suppression and displacement of the human. During these two centuries the elegiac mode increasingly dominates Western idealization. Its pre-eminence was marked by the nearly simultaneous creation – writing of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King with its motif that “the realm reels back into the beast” and Wagner’s Ring Cycle during the quarter century that saw the upsurge of the Early Modern Period and Symbolism. “This strange disease of modern life” with its “half-believers in …casual creeds,” “its sick hurry,” frenzied selling and frozen false smiles exposing the inauthenticity of a culture whose individuals feel, if they do not understand, their profound alienation and distance from the (debased) ideals and glittering images by which they seek to construct their personae and lives.

This ongoing trauma of the ossifying old age of the West, a Culture that is passing into the last stage of Civilization before shedding its husk to emerge as a global mass directed by a predatory oligarchic mantis is bracketed by three great works of literature. With astonishing precision the Culture formed individuals whose developing potential disgorged them in almost exactly eighty-two year intervals: Mary Shelley, scion of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, working with her husband, Percy wrote Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (first edition 1818). A second masterwork of traumatized Voice speaking out of the darkness and demanding to be heard (“mine is the voice that will not be silenced” says Marlow in “the heavy night air of the river”) is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1900) which exposes the metaphysical identity and shared historical fate of the Congo and the Thames, the jungle and London, “a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” And Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (1982), a dream-like narrative of an aging magistrate schooled in the traditional values of a mature Culture of Art, History, courtesy and restraint caught between the pastoral Barbarians and the ‘new men’ of the late Empire, inwardly hollow, flashy and sadistic in their need literally to stamp or inscribe the power of their administrative machine on others and destroying the machine, peace and history in the process. All are novels of savage regression and intentional brutality with decreasing levels of justification for the pain they dramatize. Coetzee’s novel, the last of the three consists largely of the mutually unintelligible affair of the Magistrate and the tortured barbarian young woman whom he tries to heal in a ceremony of sexuality and fertility in desuetude. The magistrate’s inability to ‘see’ (understand) the young woman from an alien and primitive culture is a correlative of her physical inability to see the center of things after the suave sadists of “The Third Bureau of the Civil Guard” probe the limits of her humanity in seeking “the tone of truth,” their term for an outcome-based politically correct answer. The answer in this case is that the Barbarians are preparing a concerted attack on the frontier, an image of the periodic hysteria of an Empire in senescence needing to jazz itself into occasional aggression to persuade its younger members of its identity as a Power. This is all that remains of its authenticity: lies and aggressive, wasteful delusions in the name of “truth” that has become a synonym for torment. Its “tone of truth” is terror. The ‘defensive’ action is suicidal and impoverishing and the trauma pervades every level of the action.

There are other major works that fit the paradigm of a relentless narrative Voice telling and re-telling an experience traumatic largely in its incomprehensibility. The original work in this socio-cultural aesthetic likely is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge (1797) at the beginning of the Romantic period. This poem remains a classic, perhaps the classic in its genre of regret and compulsive confession and the clearest in basing itself on the archetype, itself an image constructed by Europe to ‘justify’ its narrative of the disbelieving Jew, the wandering “Achasuerus.” All the narrators of trauma tales have journeyed into a place, situational and /or physical that shakes the structure of their understanding, abilities and will. It is notable that Percy Shelley, the paradigmatic Romantic poet, philosopher and person had from his youth and earliest writings a strong identification with the Wandering Jew, the alienated outsider by whom and by displacing and punishing whom the dominant culture maintains its mythos. This myth is a cult of trauma in which ‘God dies’ and is transfigured, in which the traumatic tragedy of the Greeks undergoes a shotgun wedding to the Hebraic understanding of history as a pattern of providential salvation inscribed in creation. The interplay, opposition and balance of Hebraic inscription to Greek imagery, representation and transfiguration form the nexus around which the dynamics of the West formed and have developed.

Shelley’s “Lines on the Medusa of Leonardo” and Kafka’s “The Penal Colony” as well as Coetzee’s novel and aggressively imagist poems like Yeats’ “Byzantium” are core texts for examining this interplay. Waiting for the Barbarians to a large extent is an excursus on Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and its verse, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The cultist Yeats has an ambivalence toward the rough beast, a Sphinx “with gaze blank and pitiless as the Sun” while Coetzee, at the end of the elegiac phase and its postmodern chill stares with fascinated horror at the new age.


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