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Wurmser, L. (2015). Mortal Wound, Shame, and Tragic Search: Reflections on Tragic Experience and Tragic Conflicts in History, Literature, and Psychotherapy. Psychoanal. Inq., 35(1):13-39.

(2015). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35(1):13-39

Original Articles

Mortal Wound, Shame, and Tragic Search: Reflections on Tragic Experience and Tragic Conflicts in History, Literature, and Psychotherapy

Léon Wurmser, M.D., Ph.D.

We can distinguish between a) the original concepts of tragedy as a particularly influential form of drama, culminating in extreme suffering; b) the tragic compassion, terror, and pathos, shudder and awe evoked in the audience; c) the tragic vision of life and world as a form of value philosophy stressing the unsolvable nature of some basic conflicts and their radical, even absolute nature; d) the tragic conflict described as an exemplary phenomenon in history, i.e. as value destruction, specifically as the dialectical turning of a high value into destruction; e) the popular overextension of the term used for any swift, unexpected disaster; and, finally, f) the tragic experience as a central psychopathological phenomenon, a complex of archaic conflicts, images and events, as exemplified by the tragic character. The tragic fate is a heroic fight against catastrophe, death and inner deadness, which fails.

Specifically, the article studies a fourfold layering of the dynamics of tragedy (of conflict and trauma): 1. The conflict of reason, order and measure against various forms of incomprehensible compulsion or necessity from within or from without. 2. This leads to the violation of some basic order of existence and the need for expiation for that guilt. The overriding conflict is that of power, honor, and possession as absolute values against love, belonging and community commitments. Shame versus guilt is the tragic dilemma par excellence. 3. All the conflicts express an absoluteness and global nature of all value pursuits by the protagonists which makes them principally irreconcilable; it is the core of hubris and comes closest to what Aristotle refers to as Hamartía. This stands in sharpest conflict with nature’s measure and limitations and society’s law and order as mostly represented by the chorus. 4. The wish to violate the most basic limitations and boundaries is rooted in the “mortal wound” or trauma and the desperate search for some healing. This image of the “mortal wound at the core of being” stands for “primary pain”, “primary shame”, and “primary anxiety” as the essence of the tragic dimension of human existence.

An analysis of shame is the focus of the second part of the article.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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