English 363b Christina Zwarg
T 7:30-10:00 HU III

After Mastery: Trauma, Reconstruction and the Literary Event

The emergence of “trauma studies” has made it possible to reenlist psychoanalysis in the work of cultural critique. Viewed as the issue most valuable for showing the blindness and insight of Freud’s legacy, trauma theory has also become a vehicle for rethinking social and literary histories.

Trauma's meaning in Western medicine extends from a surgeon's description of a wound to the head in the early nineteenth century to a much more complex and puzzling narrative about a wound to the psyche toward the century's end. This transformation has about it a compelling social character: trauma becomes attached to psychic injury when train accident victims complain of lingering mental and physical disorders despite the fact that they emerge from accident scenes "unharmed." Certain questions of liability motivate this extension of trauma's meaning: who is responsible for the disability resulting from such accidents? Indeed, the question begins to be asked, what type of disability is it? And what are the social boundaries of such an inquiry?

Trauma's value can be said to have extended in this way at a conscious level, with interested parties pulling its representation to suit specific needs. Yet the transformation of trauma's meaning reaches into deeper levels of the shared symbolic register we call culture, both in Europe and in this country. In the United States, the traumatic injuries of slavery (and mastery) are converted into elaborate psychic enclaves having both horrific and healing ideological power. Freud's mention of Uncle Tom's Cabin to explain beating fantasies in twentieth-century Vienna is only one example of the elaborate route trauma's meaning seems to have taken in the Circum-Atlantic world.

This course will expose students to recent trauma theory and the segregated traditions of literary history. Thinking about trauma theory before and after Freud, we will look again at authors attempting to bring together (and sometimes keep apart) cultural traditions irrupting into literary form from the late 18th to the early 20th century. We will also explore how satire and humor cross wires with traumatic experience. The role of heightened emotional states, including fugue or hypnotic experiences, and the shifting currency of the words "terror,” “freedom,” and “shock” will be part of our focus.

Theoretical readings in Freud and other theorists of trauma will be central and extensive. Our literary readings will include short fiction from authors like Poe, Twain, James, Du Bois, Morrison and Sebald, as well as selected poems from Simic, Reed, Brooks, and Rich.

*Enrollment is limited to 15 students.