Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Traumatic Event: What Is It, That Thing You Most Fear?

“In order to save your life you must lose it.”

- Matthew, 16:25
When faced with a genuinely feared emotional event, we may do anything we can to avoid it. Beyond the simple root desire to avoid pain lies another challenge that encourages us to flee: the tragic event often possesses the power to destroy the value we place on ourselves and, specifically, the qualities by which we have defined our character. We define ourselves in terms of our service to values, which thereby become properties of our moral character. Our perception of our worth and identity as persons come to depend on remaining true to the conception we form of ourselves in relation to those values that we refuse to compromise. More important than one’s life is the thing that gives one’s life meaning. But often, in the face of a profoundly tragic event, the defenses we have relied upon collapse under the infinitely dense mass of reality. Reality and its undistorted meanings are more fully available to the subject. Until now, ego identity has been a flight from knowing. The truth now assaults us in the middle of the street, and we are left without shelter – all doors and windows rudely shut in our face. The ego, now undefended, is threatened with annihilation. The trauma entails the threat of self-dissolution.

This is the threat at the core of trauma that makes it so terrifying – and why traumatized subjects may clutch at any lie as long as it eases the pain. A tragic agent is one who refuses that option, and maintains the will to assault herself with reality and the truth about herself. In the midst of trauma, the need for deliverance is often overwhelming, and may be experienced as the pull of a system of guarantees. This pull is never greater than when one has come face to face with a trauma that has threatened to dissolve those guarantees. Spinoza’s fundamental insight into emotion is the starting point which takes one to the heart of what we are as subjects: emotional beings forced by that fact to seek the emotions that will release us from the burden and suffering of other emotions. This, in brief, is the source of the terrible things we do to one another and to ourselves. Trauma reveals that fact in a way that puts emotion on trial. We replace one emotion after another, seeking the one that will resolve the problems of the psyche in a way that puts an end to anxiety.

Change, one discovers, is an emotional struggle that requires the overcoming of emotional conditions that have a far deeper hold over us than we had imagined. Freud believed that in any psychological conflict, the strongest emotion would always win. Such observations give quietus to the idea that our emotional life is the harmonious application of an armory of independent emotions to discrete situations. Such is the case only when tension is relatively minor. Get in an area of genuine conflict, and one soon learns that the oppositions between different ways of feeling and the relative strength of different emotions vis-à-vis one another are the defining characteristics of our emotional life. Everything then proceeds, as in Hamlet, to the clash of mighty opposites. Such is the call of the tragic in each of us. To know the actual truth of one’s emotional constitution depends on taking those actions that will engage one’s core conflicts. But the knowledge that one’s situation is irreversible, and that what the traumatized subject initially experiences as the end of the line is actually the turning point.

1 comment:

  1. Dear James,
    your blog has been the reason of resuscitating mine. A year ago, I had this impulse to produce a journal of ideas hoping that communication would foster my creativity. Split between my maternal language and English I chose the former. After a while the engine stopped. Now I realize I chose the selected the wrong audience. One year later I gave to my performing side another chance. God knows how much it enjoys them!
    Coincidentally, my current subject gravitates around the tragic. I am preparing an act for Dave Keith's creativity conference about The Body (in May) together with developing my older project on narratives of self-injury. Intrigued by the magic of those texts and the spectacular display of blood, I started to speculate about pop mythology, trauma, and the tragic. Your texts are a source of inspiration, especially because your stance seems different than mine(though compatible with it) . We may find something to say in common about the tragic - its roots in and its connections to psyche and culture. I am glad you've been such an inspiration and I will continue to follow with your ideas. Passion fosters passion.