An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


It doesn’t sound very nice. Unlike ’Pleasure’, say, or ’Laughter’ or ’Desire’ or ’Love’, ’Wounds’ is perhaps not a particularly appealing topic. Just by way of reassurance: we do not propose to offer a detailed inventory of gory events, gruesome injuries and ghastly moments of self-harm in literature. Chambers dictionary gives the primary meaning of ’wound’ as ’a physical injury’ that has been caused (in the dictionary’s perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic phrasing) by events such as ’cutting, piercing, striking, crushing, tearing or poisoning’. ’Wound’ in this respect may apply to plants (especially trees) as well as to animals (human or otherwise). But we also speak of wounds in a more figurative sense, when we talk of wounded pride, say, or wounded feelings, of feeling hurt, gutted or broken-hearted. In this respect wounds are not only physical but psychological, and indeed they are just as much at home in the enigmatic borderlands between the corporeal and the mental.

It is also necessary to think about wounds in relation to language and writing. Writing can inflict wounds. Words can wound. In Shakespeare at least, they can even be wounded. On the verge of death, for example, Hamlet expresses his terror that the truth will not be known: ’O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!’ (5.2.296—7). Likewise, just before he stabs Hamlet with a poisoned rapier, Laertes declares that he is duelling, above all, ’To keep my name ungored’ (5.2.196). In both cases the ’name’ means ’reputation’ but also has a more visceral character: one’s name can be wounded, irreparably injured, as if gored by a charging bull. Implicit in these moments from Shakespeare’s play is the idea that the wound that is feared has to do with story-telling, with how those who survive ’tell my story’ (5.2.301).

Wounds, then, can depend on and be caught up in words. At the same time it has become increasingly clear, especially since the recognition and naming of ’shell shock’ in the First World War, that some of the worst kinds of wounds are at least as much psychological as physical. The vocabulary that we use for these kinds of wounds has itself undergone changes in this period — from ’shell shock’ and ’war neuroses’ to ’battle fatigue’ and (most recently) ’post-traumatic stress disorder’. And while today we are (sadly) quite familiar with the phrase ’self-harm’, a hundred years ago the more common idiom — as Wilfred Owen makes clear in a poem of that title — was ’S.I.W.’ or ’self-inflicted wound’ (see Owen 1985, 46—7). One word that has remained remarkably constant down the centuries, however, is ’trauma’, from the ancient Greek word for ’wound’. In medical discourse, ’trauma’ tends to refer to a physical injury; in everyday speech, as when we speak of a traumatic experience or event, the sense tends to have a more psychological inflection. While experiences such as falling in love may be traumatic in their own way, by and large trauma has to do with something bad, something overwhelming, even catastrophic. And it invariably involves a sense of shock, something unprepared-for, out of the blue.

We could explore some of these ideas by looking at a poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons —

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —

’Tis the Seal Despair —

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —

Shadows — hold their breath —

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death —

This poem was written by Emily Dickinson in around 1861 and first published some four years after her death, in 1890. As with other Dickinson poems, its form is singular and strange: it has no title, it deploys ambiguous and disjunctive syntax, irregular rhyming and metre, idiosyncratic noun-capitalization and punctuation (lots of dashes, no full-stops, oddly placed commas). These formal aspects of the poem are, moreover, intimately entwined with what the poem is about. It evidently records some kind of traumatic experience, one that comes out of nowhere and challenges our very nature, our language and our world. A particular angle of the light apparently starts it all. But this visual figure is almost immediately shattered or dissolved into the auditory: it is a slant of light that oppresses like ’the Heft’, the heaving, strain and heaviness of organ music in a cathedral. The wound or ’Hurt’ that this experience produces is ’Heavenly’: the oxymoron affirms strange division, suggesting something that is at once painful (’Hurt’) and coming from God, or coming out of the heavens, something of more than earthly beauty (’Heavenly’). As if magical or imaginary, it leaves ’no scar’.

But we know there is a wound, because there is ’internal difference, / Where the Meanings, are —’. We are not what we were: we have received an ’imperial Affliction’. The shocking experience that the poem is talking about cannot be taught (’None may teach it’), but at the same time it apparently entails an encounter with something like the very quick of life. And while Dickinson’s dashes can themselves resemble wounding slashes or cuts, perhaps the most peculiar and poignant incision comes in the comma ’Where the Meanings, are’. This comma is at once grammatically superfluous and at the heart of the poem. In a disquieting and peculiar way, the poem suggests that the trauma evoked — the ’Heavenly Hurt’, the invisible ’scar’ — might most effectively be embodied in something that can never be encountered in the world beyond the poem, a random but painfully fraught comma.

The comma also, of course, foreshadows the eerie pauses conveyed in the syntax of the final lines: ’When it comes, the Landscape listens — / Shadows — hold their breath —’. In a bizarre animistic or anthropomorphic reversal, the landscape and shadows take on life, ’listen[ing]’ and ’hold[ing] their breath’. The ’we’, on the other hand, seem to have withdrawn into that enigmatic place of ’internal difference’. The experience involves ’Despair’ (its very ’Seal’, its authenticating stamp or signature) and yet, with the final two lines of the poem, we are left to infer that when it passes it is like the passing of life itself: ’When it goes, ’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death —’.

It can feel oddly jarring, even painful to stop reading a poem like Dickinson’s. The world it creates — in the space of just 16 lines — can seem more charged and vital than the everyday reality to which we return on putting down the book. While the poem is about an ambiguously painful (but also heavenly) traumatic experience, it also aspires to make that experience impact on us, in us (this, after all, is ’Where the Meanings, are’). The poem might therefore lead us to think about poetry and perhaps literature more generally in terms of a theory of wounds. In a remarkable little text entitled ’Che cos’è la poesia?’ (’What is poetry?’ or ’What is this thing called poetry?’), Jacques Derrida declares that there is ’No poem without accident, no poem that does not open itself like a wound, but no poem that is not also just as wounding’ (Derrida 1995b, 297). A poem, in other words, is a kind of accident and is something like a wound — but it also works to wound the reader, according to Derrida. We could suggest, then, that there is perhaps no poem that is worth talking about that does not somehow wound us.

When it comes to thinking about wounds in the context of literature it is important, therefore, not only to reckon with the question of language, with how the words, punctuation, syntax, rhythm, rhyme and so on participate in the production of meaning, but also to acknowledge the singularity of the text that we are examining. To respond critically to a poem or other literary work is to try to do justice to what is irreducibly singular about it, to what makes it seem distinct from any other poem or work of fiction. The literary text under examination might be regarded as prompting a series of questions: What kind of wound or wounds is this text about? In what ways does the text encourage us to think about itself as a traumaturgy, that is to say ’both a work and a theory of wounds’ (Bennett and Royle 1994, 43)? How is this wound-work figured in the language or even inextricably tied up in the language in which it is figured? And in what respects might it make sense to think about how the text wounds its reader?

Sylvia Plath has a poem called ’Cut’, for instance, which begins like this:

What a thrill —

My thumb instead of an onion.

The top quite gone

Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin…

These lines were written on 24 October 1962 (in Plath 1981, 235—6), less than four months before the poet killed herself. This is the poem’s opening — in perhaps more than one sense. The lines might seem at first simply to be describing some grim act of self-harm. But just as Dickinson mixes elation with the thought of death, Plath mixes humour into the phrasing. There is an awkwardness about intent (does the speaker mean to slice off the top of her thumb?) that appears to be playing out in more formal terms — in the rhyming or off-rhyme of ’thumb’ and ’onion’, and ’onion’ and ’gone’. The poem is written in tightly controlled quatrains, with many lines comprising just a single word or couple of words (’Of skin’, for instance). A sense of control and knowingness is suggested even in the way the text works on the page. The run-on lines (’a sort of hinge // Of skin’) alert us to the way in which enjambment is itself a sort of hinge, connecting the end of the first with the beginning of the second stanza.

There is a powerful sense of immediacy: it is written in the present tense, as if the wounding is happening in ’real time’. The poem is full of images that are by turns visceral and surreal, funny and macabre. Their power is generated in part through the elision of any sign that these are metaphors. So the wound is addressed: ’Little pilgrim, / The Indian’s axed your scalp.’ The wound is not like a little pilgrim: it is that little pilgrim. Similarly, the bloody corpuscles are seen or imagined as a mass movement of soldiers all dressed in red: ’A million soldiers run, / Redcoats, every one.’ ’Whose side are they on?’, the speaker asks of her own blood cells. She does not say that the streaming blood is like soldiers. The metaphorical status of the image is shorn off, excised.

As Freud was the first to argue, trauma has to do with the sense of something that happened in the past but in a past that has not really ended. He uses the word Nachträglichkeit (variously translated as ’deferred sense’, ’deferred action’, ’afterwardsness’) to describe this (see Laplanche 1999, 260—5). The traumatic event does not happen when it happens: its force and significance is only experienced later on. Like a ghost, the force of a traumatic experience or event can always come back. While Plath’s poem is ostensibly focused on a private, domestic moment of food-preparation gone wrong, it reaches out to larger-scale historical traumas. The poem manages to identify the speaker’s minor cooking injury with the extreme violence of America’s colonial past, in the allusions to pilgrims and Native Americans and to British red coat soldiers (associated in particular with the American War of Independence (1775—83)). The poem also recalls the trauma of slavery and its horrific legacy in contemporary American racism: ’The stain on your / Gauze Ku Klux Klan’. White gauze now wrapped round the thumb resembles the peaked white hoods worn by members of this vile organization, and the blood is (literally and figuratively) seeping back through. Through its concise and elliptical language, the poem suggests that these various traumatic narratives continue to leak into the present, informing and staining it. The wounds of history have not closed.

The singular force of the poem is vitally dependent on such linguistic effects and rhetorical strategies. They are part of Plath’s signature, part of the thumb-print, so to speak, that she leaves in her poems. Again we might here usefully recall a succinct formulation from Derrida: ’The signature is a wound and there is no other origin of the work of art’ (Derrida 1986c, 184). It is striking that Plath’s title-word, ’Cut’, does not appear in the text: we are thus invited to think about the poem itself as a cut. In its troubling shifts between present trauma and past atrocity, between the personal and the political, between autobiography and history, ’Cut’ expresses something fundamental about the nature of trauma, its crossings of time and place. As the prominent trauma theorist Cathy Caruth observes: ’[T]he impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness, in its refusal to be simply located, in its insistent appearance outside the boundaries of any single place or time’ (Caruth 1995, 9). A traumatic experience cannot be readily pigeonholed, above all because of what Caruth calls ’the enigmatic relation’ (9) between the event of trauma and its aftermath. In staying in the continuing present of the wounding it describes, Plath’s poem seems to cut itself off from the possibility of recovery or healing.

The internet, 24-hour news and new digital technologies oblige us to recognize, more than ever, how widely and deeply different kinds of trauma have affected and continue to affect people across the world — not just in war zones, but in terms of innumerable other forms of religious, sexual, racial and ethnic violence. (An obvious example would be FGM, or female genital mutilation, which remains a shockingly widespread practice across the world, though until recently — at least in the UK — hardly acknowledged as existing.) Increasingly, too, it has become clear that the distribution of wealth across the world is profoundly unequal and unjust. ’Global capitalism’ has become a global trauma: despite the unprecedented wealth and material comfort that it offers to many, countless millions, indeed billions, are condemned to poverty, starvation and effective or actual slavery. In this respect it is perhaps not very surprising that, especially since the mid-1990s, an entire field of literary, cultural and political analysis should have emerged under the headings of ’trauma studies’ and ’trauma theory’.

A common response to contemporary or historical trauma is to gloss over or disavow its existence. In this context, literature (and art more generally) is often seen as a place of refuge. Literature doubtless can serve this function: we read a good novel in order, as the saying goes, to escape. As much as anyone else, Sigmund Freud enjoyed reading a good detective story: he knew about the need, sometimes, to escape, and about the therapeutic benefits of doing so. But disavowal and escapism are only of limited value. The importance of literature has to do more with the way in which reading a poem, play or novel can critically illuminate and even transform our thinking about traumatic experience and events. It is for this reason that Leo Bersani talks of ’the traumatic shocks of art’ and its potential to ’reconfigure the social and political’ (Bersani 2015, 92). Reading a poem or novel can be troubling, disturbing or shocking. As such, it can alter our sense of the world and ourselves.

We might illustrate these ideas in the context of Will Self’s Shark (2014). In formal terms, this 466-page novel is decidedly challenging. There are no chapter-breaks, nor even any paragraphs. Moreover, the narrative point of view disconcertingly lurches about — sometimes it is one of the characters, at other times it might be a dog (342, 450). And the place and time also unnervingly shift about, backwards and forwards and to the side, in abrupt and unsignposted ways. The novel, in short, does a kind of violence to the novel (to the conventions of the novel as a genre), as well as to its readers. As readers, we are at sea — afloat on what the text calls a ’choppy wordsea’ (14). If Shark is demanding, it also a rich and thought-provoking work, in part because of the way that the form is intricately bound up with its subject matter — an exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is about traumatic aspects of modern history and culture that continue to affect us in ways we may prefer not to acknowledge.

We like to think that the Second World War (1939—45) is over: Self’s novel shocks us into seeing things differently, above all into seeing how the bombing of Hiroshima has not finished happening. Its effects or after-effects are still reverberating. Mixing fiction with historical fact, the novel covers a period from the 1940s through to the 1990s, acutely, disturbingly, at times comically showing how people are haunted by their pasts. We are repeatedly made aware of ’the past overlaying the present’ (67). The novel features an anti-psychiatrist called Zach Busner and explicitly works with a knowledge of psychoanalysis — with concepts such as ’unresolved attachment trauma’ (79) and ’Nachträglichkeit’ (81). Like the recounting of traumatic experience in William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (1929) or Absalom, Absalom! (1936), for example, Shark circles around, repeats and retells what is traumatic.

At the horribly wounded heart of the novel is what happens to Claude Evenrude, a (fictional) US Army Air Corps captain who is on board USS Indianapolis when, shortly after delivering bomb-parts for Enola Gay, it is torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese on 30 July 1945. Some 900 crew members initially survive the torpedo attack. Claude is one of the 321 who do not drown or get eaten by sharks. Of course these numbers are small in comparison with the dozens of thousands killed by the bomb on Hiroshima a week later, on 6 August. Claude has already ’let [a] boy die’ (63), and now, from the relative safety of the life-raft he has requisitioned, he watches as the ship’s Chaplain goes down:

Claude watches him sink for as long as he can see the twirling feet — it’s a peaceful enough sight, and a distraction from the swimmers’ shouts and screams, which are frankly rather overdone — vulgar, sobbing, maudlin rummies pleading for mercy in the tank. Claude’s confronted by one fellow who manages to grab on to the raft — every contour of his face is defined by a desperate yearning — then his body quivers and shakes, reaching … a climax: the blood pours from his eyes, his mouth, his nostrils, he goes limp, lets go, lazily up-ends … a cork … from the end of which protrude threefour white vertebrae. The offal slick spreads out across the water, replenished for a time by the pumping of the half-man’s heart. — Anywhere Claude directs his gaze there’s more of the same … to feast my eyes on: arms taken off at the shoulder, legs at the knee or crotch, heads at the neck … kinda merciful really. Try as he might, Claude finds it difficult to maintain the necessary detachment — appreciate the spectacle for what it is: A Saturday night fish fry... . (437)

Much of Self’s novel swirls in, around and out of this terrible time in the water: as the insistent present tense implies, it is a traumatic experience that Claude Evenrude cannot be done with. Disjunctive dashes and uncertainly connecting ellipses (...) reinforce a disturbing sense of perceptions, bodies, feelings becoming literally and figuratively detached, disordered, drowning. Far from it being ’difficult to maintain the necessary detachment’, the trauma for Claude has to do with a radical derangement of his capacity to distinguish between what is detached and what is not detached. This sense of derangement is underscored by the strange, italicized other voice (’frankly rather overdone’, ’kinda merciful really’), which might be Claude’s voice or the narrator’s, or some anonymous, eerily mediatized voice-over.

We might conclude by returning to the idea that wounds are not confined to the human realm. In a critical reflection on Shark (’I Had Planned to Write Jaws Without the Shark’), Self suggests that one way of conceiving ’the massive shark attack’ is ’as a pre-emptive punishment, inflicted by Mother Nature on the wanton boys who’d been accessories before the fact to the poisoning of her Earth and her oceans’ (Self 2014). Wounds can be inflicted on the planet. This indeed is how Milton describes the worst moment in the history of mankind (according to the Christian account), when Eve sank her teeth into the forbidden fruit: ’her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat: / Earth felt the wound…’ (Book 9: 780—2). The Fall is traumatic: the entire world is palpably, permanently changed by Eve’s single act. Nowadays we are more likely to think of wounding the earth and its atmosphere in terms of carbon emissions, pesticides and other agricultural and industrial pollutants, radioactive fallout and so on. In ways that are not altogether opposed to the Miltonic phrase ’Earth felt the wound’, it is important to recognize the environment itself as deeply vulnerable. We need, more than ever, an expanded, less anthropocentric conception of ’self-harm’ that would include harming the environment. We need new ways of relating — and of talking about our relation — to such planetary self-harm. In literature and in literary studies more generally, there is an intensifying acknowledgement of climate change, pollution and environmental degradation — in short, the planet’s vulnerability. The entire planet is vulnerable to the effects of what has come to be called the anthropocene, that is to say the period since the industrial revolution in which human activity has radically altered the earth’s eco-systems. The word ’vulnerable’ is another ’wound’-word, deriving from the Latin vulnus, meaning ’wound’.

Further reading

As we have tried to indicate, trauma is a more or less all-encompassing topic. The preceding pages do not offer specific discussion of the Jewish Holocaust, the US—Vietnam War or more recent wars, though these have been major focal points for trauma studies and trauma theory. For initial orientation in this field, Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996) and Kalí Tal’s Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (1996) are standard points of reference, while Caruth’s edited collection, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (1995), also contains excellent material. Dominick LaCapra’s Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma (1994) and Writing History, Writing Trauma (2001) are wide-ranging, illuminating and critically provoking studies. For a rather different account of the Holocaust and later twentieth-century philosophy, see Robert Eaglestone’s The Holocaust and the Postmodern (2004). All of Derrida’s work is arguably about wounds and trauma: for a short, accessible introduction to this topic, see ’The Truth That Wounds’ (in Derrida 2005b). On ecology, geotrauma and what he calls ’a quake in being’, see Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). For two good recent collections with a literary emphasis, see The Future of Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism (2014), eds. Beulens, Darrant and Eaglestone, and Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of Form (2014), eds. Onega and Ganteau. Also well worth exploring are essays published in the recently established Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies.