October 13, l998

Dear Colleagues

Just a few comments to try to frame some thoughts about our reading.


I'd like to ask, first, what we think about the "possibility of history" as it is framed by Caruth, particularly since I think that both Caruth and Leys hope to address the idea of history by approaching the idea of trauma and its relationship to memory.

Caruth tells us that she wants us to consider history as no longer directly referential, and that in this rethinking of reference we might find a way to re-situate history in such a way as to "permit" history to arise where "immediate understanding may not." This play between "knowing" and "not knowing" appears to be central to her assessment of memory in Freud. What other ways might we choose to value or read that relationship?

Her terms emerge from an immersion in her reading of de Man, Freud and Lacan, yet she also appears to have drawn from another sphere in her discourse. She particularly values the tropes of departure, awakening, and survival, terms that make for extremely powerful challenges to the role of memory or recollection as conservative forces. Can we find a relationship between these terms and our earlier discussion of belief, truth, revision (tendentious or otherwise) and tolerance?

Caruth is particularly fond of reframing her reading of authors and their narratives by posing questions. Thus the "question" of her reading of Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle becomes "what does it mean to survive?" even as the primary question of his Moses and Monotheism then becomes, in her reading "what does it mean to be chosen." This transformation of theory into question or possibility forms a rather fascinating rhetorical device. Thus she shows how Lacan, in his reading of Freud, turns his approach toward a particular dream and the question "what does it mean to sleep" into a question of "what does it mean to awaken." All of these transformations may say something about the process of choice in reading. Or are our readings "chosen" for us, in traumatic terms that we as readers may not fully comprehend?


Is the "history" of our reading thus coded with the same complexity that Caruth calls to our attention in her sense of its possibility?

One wants to credit Caruth's turn toward the "ethical" in history. How does she arrive at a sense of the ethical. What is her understanding of this term?

In thinking about the ethical role of memory, Ruth Leys is careful to point out in her essay how problematic it may be to assume "that the determination and recuperation of the historical past has an inherent ethicopolitcal value." While she does not herself engage in this wonderfully problematic issue, she does seem to imply that this "assumption" led Janet to "distort" his own theory. (See page 653).

That is, his effort to make both "assimilation" and "liquidation" central to traumatic narrative is compromised by the fact that he diminishes the role of forgetting in his understanding of traumatic memory.


Ian Hacking, who is mentioned by Leys, makes a rather bold statement about the relationship between Freud and Janet. I think it might be worth considering:

the doctrine of psychological trauma, recovered memory, and abreaction created a crisis of truth. Freud and Janet ... faced the crisis in opposite ways. Janet had no compunction about lying to his patients, and creating false memories through which they could deal with their distress. Truth was not, for him, an absolute value. For Freud, it was. That is to say, Freud aimed at the true theory to which all else had to be subservient, and he believed that his patients should confront the truths about themselves. When he came to doubt whether the memories elicited in analysis were true, he developed a theory that worked just as well when they were taken to be fantasies. He may have made completely the wrong decision (Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory").

It would be useful, I think, to compare this comment with the closing pages of the article by Leys.

At the same time, we want to ask, again, how Freud is being "read" by these fascinating critics. As we turn ourselves to his essay BPP, how do we understand for ourselves what he is doing with the concept of repetition and trauma? Is a child's game related or unrelated to the nightmare of soldiers? Is departure the central issue of the game, or sadism? Is mastery less important or more important to our understanding of memory, trauma and loss? What is Freud doing with the idea of active and passive here? How do we reconcile or distinguish the passing on of a trauma Freud describes (the child playing sadistic games with his friends in the transition from passive to active) with the transmission that Caruth concerns herself with in her reading of Lacan and the idea of survival and witnessing? I'm particularly interested in the way Freud narrates psychoanalysis: note we get at least two "historical" narratives about how the method of analysis has transformed with each new discovery. The first is in section III and it is well worth reviewing in this context.

Derrida makes much of the idea of "speculation" to which Freud continually succumbs in his effort to move "beyond" the pleasure principle. It is useful, I think, to review Freud's own discussion of impartiality and prejudice at the close of his essay, as well as his comment about "science" and those who have chosen science as a substitute for an earlier religion. This last appears to be a particularly vexed issue in Freud. What is the relationship of utopian or "perfect" chains of being to his thinking about trauma and the conditions and accidents of our "higher" being?

Freud jumps again and again from one level or argument to another in this text. Find a passage where that movement proves both productive and mystifying for you as a reader. Note, for example, how he jumps from the provocative idea that "becoming conscious and leaving a memory trace are processes incompatible with each other in the same system" 607—to a discussion of the "protective shield" that is breached during trauma. Is repression his focus here? Or some other form of defense? Note Caruth's description in her note on page 135 (note 18), where she narrates her understanding of the division in trauma which Freud could never quite reconcile.

If we want to choose a complex passage in Leys (beyond her last two pages, as noted above), we might dwell on her narrative about the turn from hypnosis on page 627 and the tension between those who imagined that a collaboration with the subject was inseparable from cure and those for whom medicine was something to be applied to a passive agent in the service of a cure. We return, in the end, to the question of memory and cure.

Best, Tina