Unwelcome Return of Trauma and the Necessary Paradox of Beauty in the Beast
I had just moved into my new one-room flat along Kersal Way, Salford, UK. In all accounts, it is a clean apartment which overlooks the River Irwell, with a semi wasteland in my backyard. It is tranquil, the kind of peace I’d need to sit by the window and write, but the extreme quiet in the neighbourhood, especially at night, has had a stranglehold on my state of calm.
It has barely been 7 days but the noises startle me. Not strange ones – no, not those in horror movies – but typical sounds like the wind causing the window to slam against the windowpane, or a sudden rumbling from the washing machine. Sometimes I hear other sounds, as if someone is by the door. Then my imagination goes berserk, like how I went to “check out” where the source of the sound came from: I opened my kitchen door and, instantaneously, flashbacks of The Event in Kabul rushed through the pores of my entire being. What if they were in the hallway waiting to attack me?
I had locked my main door. I was certain no one would enter through the door. But you see, I always leave my windows open. I have always preferred the cool wind to warm humid nights. Here in Salford, I live on the ninth floor, but even then, my irrational mind entertains the imagination that they would scale down the roof and enter through my windows – and replay the scenes of horror I had witnessed, of which I had also been a victim.
And sudden noises.
I am not privy to reveal the details of The Event in Kabul as yet, but I know my body reacts in ways that I cannot sometimes fathom. Even though I have not been diagnosed with clinical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the post-traumatic symptoms of irrational fear of death – and dying – are as real as the shakes in my body, shallowness of breath, dilation of pupils, and a hyper-vigilance that permeates everything I am re-experiencing.
Trauma is a strange beast. When you think you had tamed it, it pounces on you in unexpected moments. Even if it was just a growl, the claws dig deep and leave emotional scars that can never be fully healed.
I seriously thought I had recovered from it. It has been five months now since The Event.
My previous blog posts recount the trauma (see “Post-Trauma Notes”) and the two poems I wrote as a result of the insomnia I was having (see “Awakenings at 4”, or “From 9 to 4”). At least I sleep better now. But with the new quiet of the Salford neighbourhood resembling Qala-e-fatullah Sarake Haft (Street 7) where our Kabul guesthouse was located, I feel it coming back. All too familiar now.
When does one ever overcome trauma? Or is it like I said, that trauma still comes back to haunt? Oh, those uncanny images. Those sounds, or lack thereof. Oh, that dampness in my cold clammy fingers.
God, I don’t want a replay of the horror. I am not afraid of dying. I’d already died that night. I just don’t feel strong enough to experience it over and over again.
In Stephen K. Levine’s (2009) book Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering, he writes:
How can we understand trauma in a meaningful way? It seems to me that trauma cannot be properly grasped in a purely cognitive manner. The experience of fragmentation which traumatic suffering entails resists any approach which assumes that experience can be mastered and known through rational discourse. Such a discourse, which is fundamental for our conception of science, is based on the assumption that the subject is capable of mastering existence through knowledge. Reason thus aims for a totality of understanding in which the elements of a field are connected through their mutual significance. Trauma, on the other hand, fragments experience and prevents any totalization into a whole. In so doing, it robs suffering of its meaning. Trauma doesn’t mean anything, it just is. (p.17, bold mine)
The fragmentation of experience (i.e. trauma resists ‘making sense of’ in a total, coherent manner), according to the above quote, then seems to suggest that one cannot fully make sense of it. In fact, if my reading of the quote is correct, I shouldn’t even accord meaning to suffering. By doing so, it robs it of its inherent power.
In other similar instances, naming is an act that transforms the “energy” of that which should not be named. Often confused as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the “observer effect” in Quantum Mechanics refers to the changes an act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. So by naming the trauma, I change its inherent composition, its horrific qualities which then eludes my grasp and attempts to understand it. To overcome this, the observer must also be part of the system that is being observed. In other words, I need to be part of it again, not just as a passive, disinterested “audience” describing what I feel as its effects, but agreeably co-partaking in its horrific system, whatever that means. Perhaps I need to facilitate the dialogue between I and The Other, Me and Trauma.
This gives rise to one reason for an autoethnographic phenomenology of some degree. Because I cannot observe my own trauma standing outside of it, my recordings, bloggings and possibly performances are therefore part of the observational mechanism on the effect of trauma on the body. My body. My mind. My memories. Still, it seems inadequate.
On page 20, Levine adds a way out of this recurring pattern, an iterative performance in my mind.
The kind of thinking which the comprehension of trauma requires must itself incorporate the experience of chaos and fragmentation. It cannot therefore take the form of a system of knowledge but rather must consist of a series of inquiries linked by an underlying concern, inquiries that proceed circuitously along different pathways but nevertheless attempt to arrive at the same destination. The disparate writings contained herein are focused on certain key concepts that recur again and again in different contexts, particularly the concepts of poiesis (making, especially art-making) and mimesis (imitation or representation). This repetition is apropos: trauma repeats itself, and a discourse that attempts to come to terms with trauma will have to find a form of representation in which repetition can coincide with difference. Such a form can be found only in the poetic (or ‘poietic’) shaping that can encompass the chaos and fragmentation of traumatic experience without promising any harmonious overcoming of contradiction.
I suspect performing my stories of trauma would be the “discourse” Levine mentions above, that “form of representation in which repetition can coincide with difference”. However, it has to be non-linear. The fragmentation of a predictable narrative structure, including my blog posts, defies the irrationality of my experiences. Poiesis, on the other hand, privileges multiple narratives, multiple stories, multiple perspectives. What if Trauma could speak, what would it say? What if I turn myself in and allow for that which cannot be named to name itself? Through what shapes and sounds would it emerge? These are all the important questions Levine poses, and aptly resonant with my current state of being.
Levine proposes, as in accordance to what Martin Heidegger says of art as a “setting-itself-into-a-work-of-truth”, that I, the artist, become the conduit through which the art manifests itself. I do not master beauty, but I allow it to happen through, and in, me. It is the attitude of “letting-be” (Gelassenheit). More precisely, Levine states:
Letting-be means openness to what is coming, to the event of manifestation (Ereignis) that we welcome into the world. The artist is not the master, the god-like imposer of form upon chaos, he is the one to whom the work comes, who humbly opens himself to its arrival in the world.
The artist is thus the attendant of beauty, not the master of it. If she can become open, then something may come to her; something may be given which can be responded to by a further act of shaping. Even at that point, the artist cannot shape the work by an act of will but must submit to its dictates, and discover what it needs to be manifest. (p.33)
I recall earlier posts where I entertained the possibilities of “performance as research” (see “Performing One’s Research”, and “Practice as Research with an Afghan NGO”). Perhaps that is becoming more of an urgency, my poiesis, my art-making, my script, my dance.
Here I stand, attending to my own trauma, listening to the rhythms of nervous attentions, pulsating to the rapid breaths.
I breathe. Then remark, “Open me to Thy Beauty.”
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Postscript: Where I am at is a journey. In an earlier blog, I was vehement against any personal storytelling (see “When Telling Personal Stories of Horror Produces Unexpected, Unhelpful Responses”, and “No More Drama: Critical Distance or Emergency Stop?”). I still am, but that’s because I felt powerless against my having to re-tell stories for other people’s benefit. Now, I may possibly do it for my own sake.