Responding to “That Trauma Plot Take Down"
- Leonard Cohen
It easily could have been REM’s “Everybody Hurts” (1992) leading off here, but it was Cohen mumbling I heard first. It’s true, right? Everyone’s nursing something.
Which is not Art, let me point that out. That’s Life. And Art / Life is what we (I) do around here, so the stir around Parul Sehgal’s essay, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot” (New Yorker, online, December 27, 2021) caught my attention.
Her concluding paragraph is a tight summary:
The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too—forget about the pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd angularities of personality, and, above all, about the allure and necessity of a well-placed sea urchin.
The image of the sea urchin is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s 1924 essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in which Woolf makes the case that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” and this change is reflected in England’s literature.
What this has to do with the “trauma plot” is not immediately clear, except Sehgal begins her argument by summarizing Woolf’s essay: “Plot and originality count for crumbs if a writer cannot bring the unhappy lady to life.” Mrs. Brown is the imagined unhappy lady, a character created by Woolf based on a real woman she shared a train carriage with on a journey from Richmond to Waterloo.
This is the totality of what Sehgal takes from Woolf, a call for complexity and a defense of uncertainty: “The experience of uncertainty and partial knowledge is one of the great, unheralded pleasures of fiction.” Unheralded? Surely not. But the force of contrast is her point. Trauma plot fiction presents its point case closed, and thus it fails to engage readers’ powers of speculation, “squandering,” she writes, “our intuition.”
Well, okay, cool, I guess. But is this not a tautology? Bad writing is bad writing, yes? Clunky, dull fiction is clunky and dull. But at least what we are engaging here is Art. We are in the realm of literary criticism.
Elsewhere in her essay Sehgal questions the idea of trauma itself, which is not a claim about Art. Here we are moving into Life. She cites, for example, a recent essay by English novelist Will Self, “A Posthumous Shock: How Everything Became Trauma” (Harpers, December 2021).
Self, Sehgal says, “suggests that the biggest beneficiaries of the trauma model are trauma theorists themselves, who are granted a kind of tenure with a lifetime’s work of ‘witnessing’ and interpreting.”
Well, sure. That’s part of what he is up to, showing how academics are using trauma to rescue post-structuralism from itself. His bigger point, though, in his own words, is “the heretical notion that trauma as we now understand it is not a timeless phenomenon that has affected people in different cultures and at different times in much the same way, but is to a hitherto unacknowledged extent a function of modernity in all its shocks and suddenness.”
And here it’s interesting to turn back to Woolf and her notion of 1910.
Woolf’s Mrs. Brown is, yes, a woman on the train with an imagined life by the sea. She is also, Woolf says, “to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she has made famous lately”: Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock. By this point in her essay, Woolf has compared and contrasted the Victorians and the Moderns and argued the Moderns are responding directly to the new fragmented age. The literary approaches of the Victorians are no longer of assistance, and the country is now “trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature.”
It is Woolf’s awareness and articulation of the shift in the culture that I want to draw attention to. Both Sehgal and Self speak of a shift in the culture, too. Sehgal seems to want to harken back to a previous age of sublimity. Self says modernity itself is the source of trauma. The technology shift that began in the 1800s with the train and the camera and now includes the MRI and the iPhone has forced our lives to accelerate at ever increasing speeds, leading to one conclusion: this is how it is now.
If in 1910, life was fragmented. In 2022, life’s a blur.
How it is now, is Life. How writers respond to how it is now, is Art.
Is the trauma plot an attempt to grapple with the increasing speed of the culture? An attempt to slow it down, give it a frame, bring our experience back into a more easily understood structure of cause and effect? A sorrowful wail into the dark?
In his own response to Sehgal’s essay, “emotional support trauma plot,” Brandon Taylor, agrees that bad writing is bad writing: “Where explanation takes over for experience, it’s a tedious and sorrowful read.” He also locates the trauma plot in the past, arguing (contra Self) it’s nothing new.
The idea that novels of the past aren’t themselves filled with this so-called trauma plot is kind of silly, no? Like, A Farewell to Arms is a trauma plot. As is Rabbit Run. As is most post-war American fiction. As is Ann Perry’s The Street. As is most of Bellow and Malamud. Bruno Schulz. Virginia Woolf—To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, especially. Camus’s The Stranger. Daddy Sebald himself partook.
Of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, Taylor says: “It’s an extensive exploration of the toll of intergenerational trauma in French society.” Fiction is, he says, “always kind of about the shock of human experience. The shock of being alive.”
Which leaves us where, exactly?
I want to pick up on one of Art / Life observations Taylor makes. He writes:
In some ways, book reviewers, critics, book club hosts, readers, and even the writers themselves, are engaged in a long war against the idea of fiction itself, involving reverse-engineering and geolocation of various hurts and harms in the psychology of the writer.
Something he’s been thinking about lately: “The way that people read fiction these days, on the hunt.”
Literature is not immune to this fixation on biography and identity. Far from it. So much of the contemporary cultural response to literature is predicated on turning that literature into biography.
Art = Life? No. Lit Crit 101, the narrator is not the author.
But he’s not wrong here, right?
I remember after 9/11 another shift happened. Non-fiction titles dominated the best seller lists. There were numerous articles about how people couldn’t read fiction anymore. That shift, in general, appears to have taken hold. At the same time, poetry beckoned. Consolation was desired. Auden’s September 1, 1939, had its unexpected shining moment.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Or Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Everybody hurts, man. Art can assist. Don’t let your pain become a “totalizing identity,” no one wants that, it blocks off paths to healing, and, yes, sorry, it’s dull.
Yes, too, there is a thing called Post Traumatic Growth. It’s not BS. It’s possibly even a model for the future of the novel.
There are numerous schools of futurism, led by communities who have located the apocalypse in the past. When the worst has already happened, the best, Woolf’s “trembling … great age,” believe it or not, may be yet to come.