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Lefer, J. (2014). Literature in the Ashes of History, by Cathy Caruth, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013, 129 pp., $22.95.. Psychodyn. Psych., 42(4):712-714.

(2014). Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 42(4):712-714

Literature in the Ashes of History, by Cathy Caruth, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2013, 129 pp., $22.95.

Review by:
Jay Lefer, M.D.

Entering Freud's mind at the moment of his creation is the task Caruth gives herself. Caruth, a Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University and a daughter of a psychoanalyst, employs narratives, plays, philosophical texts, and Freud's monographs to bring history into a mosaic: Honore de Balzac, Hannah Arendt, Ariel Dorfman, Wilhelm Jensen, and Jacques Derrida.

This is quite an undertaking in a slim volume. The leitmotif is hermeneutic philology. How to bring Jacques Lacan's “silence into language” to arrive at the personal meaning of a child's game? Caruth evokes Freud's footnote about a five-year-old playing a game with a spool saying, “fort-da” (away-here).

Freud's interpretation of the play is to bring trauma into language and to master it. The spool is the mother who separated from the child and the child is bringing her back. Parting is not “such sweet sorrow.” It is sorrow.

Separation anxiety turns into trauma, an expected event for the child, now turned into play and repetition.

What was Freud working through when he added this footnote? Caruth recalls the loss of Freud's daughter, Sophie, the mother of the child, as well as Freud's treating soldiers suffering from the traumas of the Great War. Their dreams were not wish-fulfillment. The horror of the unexpected, meeting Thanatos suddenly, requires re-enacting the trauma. The diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder is much more than stress. Is the child's play of “fort-da” a form of self-medication? Caruth could have added Winnicott's “tertiary process,” giving a space for playfulness and treating repetition compulsion.

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