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Caruth, C. (1991). Introduction. Am. Imago, 48(4):417-424.

(1991). American Imago, 48(4):417-424


Cathy Caruth

This is the second of two issues devoted to the unique and challenging phenomenon of trauma. At the heart of both issues is the encounter with a peculiar kind of historical phenomenon—what has come to be called “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD)—in which the overwhelming events of the past repeatedly possess, in intrusive images and thoughts, the one who has lived through them. This singular possession by the past, as we have seen in Part I, extends beyond the bounds of a marginal pathology and has become a central characteristic of the survivor experience of our time. Yet what is particularly striking in this singular experience is that its insistent reenactments of the past do not simply serve as testimony to an event, but may also, paradoxically enough, bear witness to a past that was never fully experienced as it occurred.1 Trauma, that is, does not simply serve as record of the past but precisely registers the force of an experience that is not yet fully owned. The essays in this issue examine the implications of this paradoxical experience for the ways we represent and communicate historical experience. The phenomenon of trauma, as they suggest, both urgently demands historical awareness and yet denies our usual modes of access to it. How is it possible, they thus ask, to gain access to a traumatic history?

Perhaps the most striking feature of traumatic recollection is the fact that it is not a simple memory. Beginning with the earliest work on trauma, a perplexing contradiction has formed the basis of its many definitions and descriptions: while the images of traumatic reenactment remain absolutely accurate and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control. It is this curious phenomenon that challenged Freud in his confrontation with the “war neuroses” stemming from the First World War.

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