“A Lifetime of Anger and Pain”: Kali Tal and the Literatures of Trauma

David J. DeRose

Tal, Kalí, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1996. 296pp.

Reviewed in Postmodern Culture (7:1) January 1997

I am squirming uncomfortably as I read the first few pages of Kalí Tal’s Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. She opens the book with a political anecdote that questions the integrity and judgement of no less a figure than Elie Wiesel, the high priest of Holocaust survivor literature. A bit stunned, I flip to the beginning of the next chapter. Here Tal characterizes a group of Vietnam veterans in front of the Lincoln Memorial as “entrepreneurs… hawk[ing] commercial products [and] POW/MIA propaganda” (23). Chapter three? George Bush is unde fire: his pronouncement that “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome” implies, in Tal’s words, that “the whole country has been struck ill with this disease, and the Gulf War is the prescribed (and successful) cure” (60-61).

To anyone not familiar with Tal’s subject matter, the literature of trauma, or with the repressive and reductive treatment afforded the study of such literature by the academy, Tal’s aggressive polemics might seem excessive; her use of public political examples might appear inappropriate in a work devoted primarily to literary texts. But as Tal herself reminds us early in her text, “bearing witness is an aggressive act” which “threatens the status quo.”

It is born out of a refusal to bow to outside pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain. (7) Tal’s own work, like the work of the writers/trauma survivors she describes, is a calculated act of aggression that situates the literature of trauma (and the study of such literature) within the broader realms of literary theory, cultural production, and national politics, all of which have long combined, Tal argues, to ignore its authority, devalue and silence its authors, and deny its unique position in the world literary canon. Tal seems to argue that those few trauma survivors/authors (Wiesel among them) who have entered the literary pantheon have done so not in recognition of the unique qualities of the literature of trauma, but in spite of them.

The formidable task Tal sets for herself is to establish a position of recognition and respect in contemporary literary and cultural studies not for literature about trauma survival, but for the literature of the trauma survivor. To do so, she must begin with a definition of terms. But in this field, even the defining of terms becomes a political mine field. “Trauma,” for example, is defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an event “generally outside the range of human experience.” Yet, as Tal points out, in the United States one form of truma, rape, is “more common than left-handedness.” Thus, it is clear that, to the APA, “usual human experience” can only mean “usual white male experience” (136); the recurring traumas of women are politically silenced by a psychiatric vocabulary which denies their prominent and disturbing place in our society.

Defining a “Literature of Trauma” is no less problematic. For many scholars (including members of the literary and psychoanalytic communities at Tal’s alma mater, Yale), works of literature that deal with traumatic events or the aftermath of such events is literature of trauma. The status of the author is irrelevant; no differentiation is made, for instance, between a fictional work of literture and the autobiographical bearing of witness by a trauma survivor. Text is text, the argument goes; literature is literature. Tal’s work, by contrast, is based on the conviction that for therapeutic and political reasons, one must identify a distinct literature of trauma comprised of the writings of trauma survivors, and unwaveringly defined by the status and identity of those authors as trauma survivors. In Tal’s study, this literature includes, but is not limited to, narratives written by Holocaust survivors, Vietnam War veterans, and incest and sexual abuse survivors. Using Vietnam veteran authors as an exaple, Tal explains the difference between the impulse which leads an author employ traumatic events as a literary device and the compulsion that leads a survivor to bear witness:

These works [by nonveterans] are the products of the author’s urge to tell a story, make a point, create an aesthetic experience…. in short, the product of a literary decision. The war, to nonveteran writers, is simply a metaphor, a vehicle for their message….

For combat veterans, however, the personal investment of the author is immense. (116-117)

Literature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of the traumatic experience, to make it “real” both to the victim and to the community. Such writing serves both as validation and cathartic vehicle for the traumatized author. (21)

The act of bearing witness is undertaken both therapeutically in order to rebuild the survivor’s internal sense of “personal myth,” and publicly and politically—before the community—in order to insist on validation from and make an impact on public norms of reprsentation. As Tal insists, “Representation of traumatic experience is ultimately a tool in the hands of those who shape public perceptions and national myth” (19). Those who control such representation are empowered to identify social power relationships and to determine the public perception and the fate of such traumatized communities as, for instance, rae and incest survivors.

Thus, not only is the representation of trauma a highly political tool—a tool, Tal insists, which must remain in the hands of those who have first-hand knowledge of traumatic experience—so too is the job of interpreting and decoding such representations. The conventional literary scholar (or the manipulative politician) “has at his or her disposal the entire cultural ‘library’ of symbol, myth, and metaphor, but he or she does not have access to the meanings of the sign that invoke traumatic memory” (16). Survivor/readers, by contrast, “have the metaphorical tools to interpret representations of traumas similar to their own” (16). Tal identifies herself as a survivor of sexual abuse who “consider[s] it necessary not only to admit, but to define [her] subjectivity” (4). She seems to challenge literary scholars and political pundits who hide behind the mainstream’s customary adopted guise of neutrality to do the same.

Tal’s exclusionist position—that only trauma survivors may represent trauma, and, perhaps more militantly, that only trauma survivors can properly “read” representations of trauma—is sure to incite critical rioting between the guardians of the “test is text” status quo and the anti-hegemonic forces of the marginalized. And yet, it is even more likely that Tal’s inclusionist position—that is, her controversial inclusion of various traumatized communities under a single umbrella—will create acrimony within and among those groups of trauma survivors. Holocaust survivors are inclined to insist that there is no human experience which could possibly be compared to the Holocaust; no body of literature with which Holocaust literature could be linked. But Tal classifies literature of trauma across demographic and political lines, unifying the voices of survivor communities who would appear to have little in common. By citing the psychiatric community’s recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an occurrence exhibited across boundaries of gender, community, and experience, and by pointing out the successful treatment of various post-traumatic ailments with arts therapy, Tal establishes a bridge among these communities and defines a therapeutic model that links the artistic output of sexual assault survivors, Vietnam veterans, and Holocaust survivors. Her argument is compelling, but none of these groups is likely to feel entirely comfortable with a comparison that empowers their voices as trauma survivors but that lumps them together with other such groups.

Worlds of Hurt is broken up, over seven chapters, into alternating units of theory and application, the latter coming in the form of “readings” from a broad range of cultural products and texts. The first chapter, “Worlds of Hurt,” serves to establish the academic and political battleground over the meaning and relevance of trauma narratives, to identify the common links among the various communiteis of trauma survivors that Tal will examine, to crate a critical vocabulary, and to propose an interdisciplinary methodology for “reading” such narratives.

In Chapter Two, “A Form of Witness,” Tal introduces that most paradigmatic of trauma literatures, the Holocaust narrative. But rather than offer a textual reading of Holocaust literature itself, she illustrates the transformation of the Holocaust into a metonym, not for the actual events which took place under Nazi rule in Europe, but for a set of formulaic symbols that reflect the narrative codification of those events. She then demonstrates the struggle of scholars to take control of and to dictate the meaning of “the Holocaust” as metonym by giving a political reading of the scholarly battle between Bruno Bettelheim and Terrence Des Pres for the right to “interpret” Holocaust literature.

Chapter Three, “Between the Lines,” again looks at how trauma literature is traditionally “read,” this time comparing the attempts of seven prominent Vietnam war scholars to “fix the floating signifier of ‘Vietnam'” (61). All seven demonstrate Tal’s assertion that “traditional literary interpretation assumes that all symbols are accessible to all readers” and that most critics, unable to access the survivor’s symbolic universe, “dismiss the ‘real’ war and its devastating effect on the individual author,” interpreting the war as a set of symbols and metaphors “which denote instead an internal crisis of the ‘American character'” (115).

To offer graphic evidence of the “real” war and its aftermath, Tal turns in her fourth chapter, “The Farmer of Dreams,” to a reading of poems and selected prose memoirs from the writings of the prolific Vietnam veteran, W.D. Ehrhart. Tal demonstrates the existence in Ehrhart’s work of what Chaim Shatan calls the “basic wound,” a psychological scarring generrated in response to trauma which leads to a state of permanently altered, adapted interaction with experience. Employing a psychoanalytic vocabulary developed in arts therapy to define a survivor’s stages of recovery from PTSD, Tal chronologically traces Ehrhart’s various periods of writing as acts of personal revision in the wake of trauma.

In Chapter Five, “There Was No Plot, And I Discovered It By Mistake,” Tal builds upon the theoretical groundwork laid in Chapter One and focuses in grater detail upon a number of concepts introduced within the first four chapters. She continues to define the terminology necessary for appreciating literature of trauma and for distinguishing between her proposed approach to such literature and conventional approaches. It is here that she defines the key terms of “personal myth”—one’s internal “assumptions about experience and the way the world works” (166)—and “national myth,” the collective myth of a people, “propagated in textbooks, official histories, popular culture documents, public schools, and the like” (115). Here she also defines the liminal state of the survivor. Because trauma, by its very definition, lies beyond the boundaries of “normal” conception or experience, because it is “unspeakable,” trauma survivors have set for themselves an impossible task. “The accurate representation of trauma,” Tal notes, “can never be achieved without recreating the event” (15). In other words, only trauma can convey trauma; only trauma can “accomplish that kind of destruction” (122). It cannot be re-presented. Thus, the trauma survivor “comes to represent the shattering of our national myths, without being able to shatter the reder’s individual personal myths” as his/hers have been shattered. (121)

It is also in Chapter Five that Tal elaborates on the applicability of feminist theory in comprehending the therapeutic and political roles of trauma narratives and their interpretation. Because violence, for instance, frequently occupies a prominent position in the lives of women and their narratives, many of the tools developed by feminist criticism to address that violence are applicable to the literature of trauma. Feminist theory is concerned with “how we read” and how our reading of events, as well as literature, is dictated by hegemonic control of cultural discourse. The dismantling of that control is a shared goal of feminist thought and the literature of trauma. Likewise, feminist theory has focussed on the limitations of language and of conventional literary means of expressing women’s experience. Since the literature of trauma deals with the “unspeakable,” it explores similar situations.

In Chapter Six, “We Didn’t Know What Would Happen,” Tal demonstrates the applicability of the theoretical models built in the previous chapter, offering a brief political history of incest and sexual assault narratives in a “society where violence against women is the rule rather than the exception” (137). She looks specifically at the techniques of cultural production associated with such writings by giving a comparative reading of the packaging, presentation, and marketing strategies employed in two recent anthologies of sexual assault survivor narratives.

In Chapter Seven, “This Is About Power On Every Level,” Tal begins with models of post-traumatic behavior and experience generated in arts therapy and PTSD studies to trace the process of self-healing in three incest survivor narratives. But Tal moves beyond her therapeutic models to demonstrate the link between self-healing, self-validation, and the advocacy of public awareness and political action. According to Tal, the author’s work involves not only self-healing, but also the “reclamation of anger” (215) and control over “both the writing process and the interpretation of her work” (242). The work of healing the individual, she concludes, is inseparable from “the work of building a community of women, of making changes in the world” (221). These are conditions of struggle which Tal then applies, in her final pages, to the work of all survivor/artists.

Kalí Tal’s book is equal parts scholarly brilliance and political and academic defiance by a member of a survivor community reclaiming control of the process of interpreting the literature of trauma. She has, in essence, defied and rewritten existing definitions of such literature, creating a critical methodology out of seemingly disparate and frequently feuding and territorial arenas of expertise. The diversity of the invaluable resources she calls upon and integrates into her arguments is truly impressive. And she reads so many different kinds of literary, cultural, and political texts, that all but the most broadly read interdisciplinary scholars will find themselves reeling as she blends critical vocabularies and methodologies to move effortlessly from the intellectual grudge match of Bettelheim and Des Pres, to the veteran poetry of Ehrhart, to the marketing of sexual abuse anthologies, to a therapeutic model of incest narratives.

I am still squirming as I put down Kalí Tal’s Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma; but my initial anxiety over the vehemence of Tal’s attack has long since been replaced by uncomfortable and contradictory emotions regarding the embattled rights to represent and to interpret evoked in this book. Tal’s work reveals scholarly criticism of trauma narratives as a battleground of political agendas and no less political methodologies. Her own adversarial position invites attack from academic as well as political opponents, from both the jealously territorial and those professing neutrality. But Tal seems both ready and eager for the fight; after all, bearing witness to trauma is “an aggressive act,” a lifetime decision “to embrace conflict rather than conformity” (7). Worlds of Hurt should be widely read—and, one would hope, widely employed as a model of interdisciplinary scholarship and academic activism—in all circles of cultural, gender, psychoanalytic, and literary studies related to the various literatures of trauma.

© 1997 by David J. DeRose.