Wednesday, November 4, 2009

History as ER

Freud Behind His Desk

Dominic LaCapra and other historians have explored the nexus between memory and history and come to the conclusion that life is a response to the experience of trauma. Following Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia", LaCapra argues that we have in us a compulsion to repeat the past. Traumatic events morph into symptoms that are endlessly "acted-out"; by repeating them we keep the bad memories at bay but fail to overcome them. They never get integrated into any larger and more encompassing personality scheme. Freud thought a good analyst could help a neurotic "work-through" the trauma, altering the repetitive pattern until the compulsion had been transformed into healthier behavior. For LaCapra what is true of individuals goes for societies too. It is easy to see symptoms in our own society that represent an acting-out of the original traumas of slavery, Indian genocide, the Civil War, and so on. LaCapra's own preferred example is the Holocaust, which gets acted-out and worked-through by German intellectuals and ordinary folks in interesting ways.

Part of what is interesting about the Holocaust and the Nazi period in German history is its aberrational status. People are always confounded, for some reason, that the country of Goethe and Beethoven could have become the site of Nazi mass murder. The Russian case, though unexplored by LaCapra (and no one else I know of in these terms), is even more interesting in that rather than a momentary bout of insanity, trauma has been persistent and unremitting.

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