Foreign Bodies: History and Trauma in Flannery O'Connor's 'The Displaced Person'



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áíóíóíőáŰŰ"Foreign Bodies: History and Trauma in Flannery O'Connor's 'The Displaced Person'"

Critic: Rachel Carroll

Source: Textual Practice 14, no. 1 (2000): 97-114.

Criticism about: Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), also known as: (Mary) Flannery O'Connor, Mary Flannery O'Connor, Flannery OConnor


Nationality: American

[(essay date 2000) In the following essay, Carroll asserts that repressed memories of crisis surface through the unconscious in "The Displaced Person."]

We must presume ... that the psychical trauma--or more precisely the memory of the trauma--acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must be continued to be regarded as an agent that is still at work.

(Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud)1

History and the irrational are revealed to exist in intimate proximity in O'Connor's texts: the past haunts the present by returning through the unconscious. The role of history in O'Connor's narratives could be addressed by drawing an analogy between the persistence of the unresolved conflicts of the past and the return of the repressed in the form of the uncanny. Freud defines the uncanny as 'that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar'2 and as that which 'ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light' ('The uncanny', p. 345). The material which is subject to this mechanism of repression and return in O'Connor's fiction is history, and its violent disruptions reveal their imprint on the unconscious in the form of trauma.

History and psychoanalysis have traditionally been perceived as being at odds with each other. However, as Maud Ellmann has written, they are two discourses which urgently require a language through which to speak to each other: 'What history needs is a science of tropes--that is, a psychoanalysis--to understand the ways in which the conflicts of the world are reconfigured in the conflicts of the mind.'3 An encounter between a crisis in subjective and historical memory is theorized in the concept of trauma. Cathy Caruth proposes the following definition of trauma:

Trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.4

According to Caruth, the quality of 'latency', which characterizes Freud's understanding of the deferred symptoms of shock, also defines the 'structure of experience' constituted by trauma: 'The event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.'5 O'Connor's fiction is 'possessed' by history: the oppressions and conflicts of history return from repression and register their violence in the memory in the form of trauma. The historical experience of the American South is constituted, in O'Connor's fiction, by denials and displacements. Indeed, in a number of narratives, and most significantly in 'The Displaced Person' (1954), the repressed crises of American history, both past and present, find displaced expression in an event of profound historical crisis: the Holocaust. The memory of the Holocaust becomes the screen on which unresolved conflicts are re-enacted. Thus, a powerful model of history as trauma can be found in O'Connor's writing. As Caruth writes, trauma is 'not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history' ('Introduction', American Imago, p. 4).

The March of Time: Modernity and Trauma

In 'The Displaced Person', the visual evidence of the Holocaust, in the form of a cinematic screening of documentary footage of liberated concentration camps, is registered in a traumatic manner: the sudden and shocking image of a mass grave sweeps over Mrs Shortley's consciousness, 'before [she] could realise that it was real and take it into [her] head'.6 Yet the image does return, compulsively and intrusively, in the form of an unsummoned memory: it thereby fulfils Caruth's definition of trauma. Mrs Shortley is visited by the memory of a liberated concentration camp:

A small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing.

(CS [The Complete Stories] p. 196)

The dispassionate quality of this description, with its grotesque motifs of fragmentation and dismemberment, suggests a stunned incomprehension. The violence that the image records seems immanent in the very medium which forcefully imprints it on the viewer's ill-prepared consciousness: the cinematic image has the uncanny stillness of a freeze frame or traumatic flashback. By an association which, in the course of the narrative, becomes fatal, Mrs Shortley places the Polish refugees (who have been resettled on her land) in the monochrome, two-dimensional plane of the screen as if they were shadowy simulations: 'you reckon they'll know what colours even is?' (CS, p. 196). The deadly progress of the deportation trains seems to represent the dreadful and interminable progress of history, and both are captured in the coffin-like confinement of each individual frame of film. The motto of the newsreel--'Time marches on!' (CS, p. 196)--identifies these images as belonging to the March of Time documentary series, but its heroic optimism is here in terrible juxtapostion with an apparently barbaric regression.

It is significant that in O'Connor's texts the experience of the Holocaust is mediated through two central signifiers of modernity: the cinema and the railway. The cinema transmits the visual documentary evidence of genocide. The railway is both a literal instrument and a symbolic signifier of the Holocaust.7 For O'Connor's deeply reactionary characters, the complicity of this apparatus of modernity in historical catastrophe only confirms their own revolt against the modern. Hence O'Connor's texts demonstrate a powerful problematic: that the Holocaust not only explodes a liberal myth of history as progress, but is itself enlisted by reactionary impulses in a renunciation of history as a process of change. Furthermore, the role allotted to the cinema and the railway in this problematic of history and modernity does not seem to be entirely accidental: both are implicated in the construction of the experience of modernity as shock. Moreover, they assume a compelling significance in their contribution to the relationship between trauma and historical experience.

In employing the railway as a signifier of the Holocaust, O'Connor captures the indelible imprint made on contemporary consciousness by its transformation from a benign agent of human mobility into an instrument of terror: the freedom of movement granted by the arrivals and departures of travel is forever haunted by the fact of mass deportations and the gates of Auschwitz. This alienation constitutes a translation of the uncanny from the subjective to the historical plane; the Holocaust casts into crisis the history in which we were 'at home'. Elaine Scarry captures this quality of modern estrangement when she writes of the conversion of domestic objects--the window, the door, the chair, the bed--into instruments of torture:

The appearance of these common domestic objects in torture reports ... is no more gratuitous and accidental than the fact that so much of our awareness of Germany in the 1940s is attached to the words 'ovens,' 'showers,' 'lampshade,' and 'soap'.8

Nor is this horror entirely irrational. It is a lucid recoil from the barbaric destination at which the advance of rationality has arrived. Indeed, in one sense, the liquidation of human beings inflicted by the Holocaust represents the triumph of technology over the body; as such it is the 'end' of modernity not in the sense of its failure but as its product.9 Both film and the locomotive are implicated in a modernity which inflicts a certain violence on the body. Miriam Hansen characterizes modernity as the 'traumatic reorganisation of perception';10 the technology of the cinema, like that of the railway, imposes on consciousness the shocks inflicted on the body and senses by the automated mechanism of industrial capitalism:

With its dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, with the rapid succession and tactile thrust of its sounds and images, film rehearses in the realm of reception what the conveyor belt imposes upon human beings in the realm of production.

(p. 184)

Hence, the cinema and the train are two of a number of new technologies which 'contribute to the detachment or dissociation of the subject from the space of perception' (p. 190).11

Both the railway and the cinema contribute to an association between modernity and shock; they assume a significant role in the development of theories of shock and trauma. The earliest accounts of the pathology of shock emerged out of studies of railway accidents, the shell-shock of First World War neuroses being the second major contribution made by the twentieth century to the evolution of shock. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the first accounts of shock, in relation to the railway accident, describe a 'sudden and powerful event of violence that disrupts the continuity of an artificially/mechanically created motion or situation, and also the subsequent state of derangement'.12 It is the very fact of human assimilation to the mechanized motion of the locomotive which makes such a shock possible: the passengers are absorbed into their surroundings as if to a second nature.

In O'Connor's fiction, it could be said that history, conceived as inexorable advance, is the second nature to which subjects succumb, as if to the soporific motion of the train. Relinquishing individual agency, they are possessed by its dynamics but all the while lulled by the impression of movement; the effortless conveyance that the train delivers mimics the myth of history as progress. The condition of shock is induced by a disruption of this continuity, but the experience is constituted by a failure to assimilate it into consciousness: it exerts its presence by eruptions from the unconscious in the form of flashbacks. As Caruth writes, 'the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations' ('Unclaimed experience', p. 181).

Latency, the delayed effect, is the defining characteristic of shock--one which Caruth takes from Freud. Freud takes the railway accident as his example to illustrate his theory of shock. Significantly, he articulates this proposition within a history, in 'Moses and monotheism', of the captivity, exile and return of the Jewish people:

It may happen that someone gets away, apparently unharmed, from the spot where he has suffered a shocking accident, for instance a train collision. In the course of the following weeks, however, he develops a series of grave psychical and motor symptoms, which can be ascribed only to his shock or whatever else happened at the time of the accident. He has developed a 'traumatic neurosis'. This appears quite incomprehensible and is therefore a novel fact. The time that elapsed between the accident and the first appearance of symptoms is called the 'incubation period', a transparent allusion to the pathology of infectious disease. ... It is the feature one might term latency.13

The period that has elapsed between the event and the symptom seems to suggest that the experience has been forgotten; the person was unharmed and so the delayed effects are incomprehensible. However, as Caruth suggests, it is 'only in and through its inherent forgetting that [the traumatic event] is first experienced at all' ('Unclaimed experience', p. 7). Caruth's theory of trauma is informed both by theories of shock and by the testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust. Hence, trauma provides a psychoanalytic account of the impact of catastrophic historical events. Trauma is constituted by unassimilated historical experience, but this is not to suggest that the past is lost to the oblivion of forgetfulness: on the contrary, history is preserved in the unconscious because it is not resolved and discharged by the conscious mind. Such a privileged role for the unconscious in the transmission of history is supported by Freud's distinction between unconscious memory and the conscious act of recollection, such that the latter has, as Fredric Jameson has described it, the effect of 'destroying or eradicating what the former was designed to preserve'.14

In trauma, memory erupts from the unconscious in the form of intrusive symptoms which include the vivid visual memory. The cinematic technique of the flashback could be read as resembling this traumatic return of memory. Caruth writes that the 'flashback, it seems ... provides a form of recall that survives at the cost of willed memory or of the very continuity of conscious thought' ('Introduction', American Imago, p. 418). The flashback preserves because it alienates; it disrupts the static present with the otherness of the past.15 In the particular case of the Holocaust, the failure to assimilate experience, when consciously chosen by a witness, could indicate an ethical reaction: a refusal to admit any philosophical system which could accommodate such an atrocity. Claude Lanzmann has spoken of a 'refusal of understanding' as a profoundly ethical position:

There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding. Not to understand was my iron law during all the eleven years of the production of Shoah. I had clung to this refusal of understanding as the only possible ethical and at the same time the only possible operative attitude.16

In O'Connor's texts, however, this 'refusal of understanding' indicates a failure of witnessing. O'Connor's American characters are not actual victims, bystanders or perpetrators of the Holocaust, yet such is the impact of the visual revelation of the Holocaust that they assume fantastic identifications as if obeying an unconscious injunction. Initially victims only of an overpowering fear, O'Connor's characters are transformed into agents of an arbitrary violence as if to evade becoming its victim.

'The Displaced Person': False Witness and History

The statelessness of the Displaced Person renders him strange and ominous on American soil; his reception is one evoked by Julia Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves: 'He is a foreigner: he is from nowhere, from everywhere.'17 He is a person without origins: that is, without the family, 'blood' and soil which constitute the rootedness of identity in the rural American South. In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva identifies a paradox that emerges out of the common genealogy shared by the concepts of the universal 'rights of man' and of nationalism: the person without a state is a person without a claim to humanity. Kristeva concurs with Hannah Arendt in a belief that 'the national legacy served as guarantee for Nazi criminality' (p. 151). Arendt's lament for the fate of those deprived of the protection of nationality but subject to the extremities of nationalism captures the plight of the 'displaced person', both the refugee in the modern world and the character in O'Connor's text: 'The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human. ... It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man' (quoted in Strangers to Ourselves, pp. 151-2). The perverse symbolic transformation of Guizac from a victim into a perpetrator, through Mrs Shortley's identifications, accords with a recurrent pattern of displacement evident in O'Connor's narratives. 'The Displaced Person' is indeed a narrative about displacement, not merely of people but of history, memory and guilt. That it is the Holocaust--with its place in an irrational ideology of racial purity and heredity--which revives this mechanism is revealing of the content of repressed historical material in this American context. That is, it exposes a persistent racial anxiety compounded by historical denial.

The trauma of the Holocaust, both as an event and as knowledge, encounters the suppressed conflicts of American history in O'Connor's fiction; the responses of O'Connor's characters carry this unresolved history and unwittingly re-enact it. The sequence of displaced identifications which O'Connor depicts in her narratives, especially in 'The Displaced Person', fulfil Robert Jay Lifton's account of 'false witness'. Lifton suggests that when a witness to violence in turn becomes an instigator of violence, it is a result of 'false witness', a 'compensatory process which is very dangerous'.18 The death anxiety provoked by such an experience is suppressed and converted into a desire to kill: that is, in order to ensure safety from violence, the victim adopts the extreme measure of assuming the role of agent of that violence. Lifton's proposition is an attempt to account for the disturbing phenomenon that the lesson of violence is not inevitably that violence must cease. In the midst of the trauma of violence, the subject may make a choice as if the roles of victim and perpetrator were the only positions available.

Lifton writes that this process of displacement proceeds through the production of 'designated victims'--a process which draws its material from the historically specific scene in which it occurs:

False witness tends to be a political and ideological process. And really false witness is at the heart of most victimisation. Groups victimise others, they create what I now call 'designated victims', the Jews in Europe, the Blacks in this country [the US]. They are people off whom we live not only economically, as is often the case, but psychologically. That is, we reassert our own vitality and symbolic immortality from denying them their right to live and by identifying them with the death-taint, by designating them as victims. ... That's what false witness is. It's deriving one's solution to one's death anxiety from extreme trauma, in this case in an extreme situation [the My Lai massacre], by exploiting a group of people and rendering them victims, designated victims for that psychological work.

('Interview with Robert Jay Lifton', p. 166)

In O'Connor's narratives history is shown to proceed through this mechanism of false witness: a mechanism to which the foreign body of the displaced person, in the narrative of that title, falls victim. The image of the Holocaust becomes the site on which these displacements and repressions are reproduced.

O'Connor depicts a society in thrall to a myth of a golden age to which it yearns to return. The advance of history is perceived, in the words of the ossified General in 'A Late Encounter With the Enemy' (1953) as 'deadly as the River Styx' (CS, p. 134). Post Civil War history is resentfully perceived as a process of accumulating debt, the South being engaged in a futile pursuit of recuperation; in 'The Displaced Person', the Judge's desire for a 'return' to a society without money--as Astor, an African American labourer, wryly remarks, "'Judge say he long for the day when he be too poor to pay a nigger to work'" (CS, p. 215)--implicitly advocates a return to slavery. Like Judge Clane's scheme to pursue compensation for the loss of confederate money in Carson McCullers' Clock Without Hands (1961), this preposterous grievance betrays an incapacity to interpret the emancipation of the slaves as anything other than an outrage against property rights. As Leonard Olschner writes: 'History and seeming timelessness are the antagonistic forces ... it is history which breaks into the assumed unshakable, static social order of the American South in the years following World War II.'19 The past persists in attitudes of uncanny suspension. Conversely, modern mass culture conveys its icons into the depths of the rural South in a radically remote fashion. The faded sweatshirts sported by a number of characters function as distant and decomposing snapshots of a distant American mythology: the 'faded cowboy on a horse' (
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