Freud’s trauma

In the end it all goes back to Freud.  Not that he invented the term ‘trauma,’ far from it.  In fact, it’s instructive to look at how Laplanche and Pontalis introduce the topic of trauma in their entry on the subject in The Language of Psychoanalysis:

‘Trauma’ is a term that has long been used in medicine and surgery. It comes from the Greek τϱαŭμα, meaning wound, which in turn derives from τιτϱοσχω, to pierce. It generally means any injury where the skin is broken as a consequence of external violence, and the effects of such an injury upon the organism as a whole; the implication of the skin being broken is not always present, however–we may speak, for example, of ‘closed head and brain traumas’.


In adopting the term, psycho-analysis carries the three ideas implicit in it over on to the psychical level: the idea of a violent shock, the idea of a wound and the idea of consequences affecting the whole organisation.1

I think what’s particularly striking here is the reference to the wounding and piercing of skin; this seems to resonate with the idea of trauma as a rupturing of the Symbolic order.  As Laplanche and Pontalis point out, Freud talks about how the ‘living vesicle’ (the organism) is protected by a shield from stimuli from the external world.  When this shield fails trauma occurs.    And for Freud, this failure is due to:

…an experience which within a short period of time presents the mind with an increase of stimulus too powerful to be dealt with or worked off in the normal way, and this must result in permanent disturbances of the manner in which the energy operates. 2

In other words, something is too much for the subject to bear or make sense of.  And as Freud developed his theory it became clear that for him, at any rate, this something-too-much-to-bear was an early childhood sexual experience.  However, things are not that simple because as Freud pointed out, at the time of the experience the child does not actually register it as anything of significance.  It is only after a second experience occurs, after puberty, that the full impact of the original experience, in the form of a memory, overwhelms the individual’s ego defences and the subject becomes traumatised.   In other words, the subject becomes traumatised retroactively, and this brings us into the realm of Nachträglichkeit.

But why doesn’t the young child register the original experience as traumatic at the time, rather than retroactively?  One possible answer is that the young child simply does not recognise the ‘traumatic’ nature of their experiences, whereas later on they do.  This implies, of course, that there must be a cognitive element to trauma, i.e. in terms of being able to recognise a traumatic situation, even if it is the memory of one, in the first place.  Another way to look at this question is to go back to the idea of trauma as having two ‘levels’: one at the level of the signifiers-in-isolation, and the other at the level of a symbolic construction.  If we go back to the metaphor I used in my previous post on trauma,3 then a traumatic event can be seen in terms of a rupturing of the Symbolic order with a subsequent ‘fallout’ of signifiers-in-isolation.  The rupture itself is completely senseless and so too, to a large extent, is the initial fallout.  However, like its physical world radioactive counterpart, such a semiotic fallout lingers and leaves traces.

Gregory Bistoen et al argue that these traces are a form of what Freud called mnemic traces,4  and although I think there is some question regarding a strict equivalence between Freud’s idea of the mnemic trace and what I and Bistoen et al are describing, the key point here is that such traces provide the link between the original experience and the later one.   It is only when the subject experiences a second event, which can actually be quite innocuous in itself, that they (retroactively) construct the trauma.  Bistoen et al argue that this is because the subject is now able to symbolise what happened, whereas before they couldn’t.  Essentially, the isolated signifiers (although they only talk of a single signifier) are ‘hooked’ into a signifying chain and become signifiers-in-relation.  At the this point the subject realises the full significance of the original event.

Strictly speaking, however, at this stage the trauma does not yet have the status of the ‘trauma narrative’ that I referred to in my previous post.  In other words, there is no coherent story of childhood abuse which can be traced back from, for example, the string of abusive relationships that the individual becomes involved in in later life.  Such a narrative only tends to be constructed in therapy or, in the case of historical sex abuse, in the police station.  This then begs the question, of course, as to why the retroactively constructed trauma is experienced as so ‘traumatic’, so overwhelming, in the first place.

One possible answer is that it’s only when the connection is made between the second event and the original one that the original one becomes ‘energised’ or to use the Freudian term, cathected.   In other words, it becomes what it always was, a sexual experience – except now, as Bistoen et al point out, the subject is present in such an experience, whereas before they were ‘absent’, so to speak.  However, I think there is another aspect to this, and this goes back to the fallout analogy, the idea that the original Event leaves traces.

Imagine, for example, that during a walk through the forests in eastern Europe you stumble across the site of an old concentration camp.  All around you are signs, like the rusting ovens, the crumbling chimneys, watchtowers and living quarters, the strands of barbed wire everywhere in the undergrowth, the half filled pits, and so on.  You are not quite sure to start with what this place is but slowly it begins to dawn on you that some terrible must have happened here.  But now add another twist, and imagine this is the early 1960s, and you have travelled here as a young adult from your new home in Israel.  While you are ambling through the woods your mind turns to why your adopted parents never talk about what happened to your real mother and father, or to your brother and two sisters…

The key point here is that it would not be necessary for you to have a detailed understanding of the Holocaust and your family’s place in it in order for you to become deeply disturbed by what you came across.  In fact, by the time you had researched and put together this history, i.e. by the time you had constructed your own trauma narrative, you would already be several steps removed from the Event.  In the meantime, however, you would be able to start gathering bits of evidence that was confronting you in that forest clearing, to start making some sort of rudimentary sense of what might have happened, and in the process to start becoming overwhelmed by the realisation of what it is that you have discovered.

I would suggest that this ‘initial gathering of evidence’ is something akin to the retroactive construction of trauma; it doesn’t really make much sense but it’s clear something terrible must have happened.  What that something actually is can only be established by a further ‘working over’ of the material, which is the work of analysis or therapy.

As I have tried to show in many of my writings on this site, trauma, as a manifestation of the Real, can appear in many different forms and in many different contexts. One of these which is perhaps especially poignant in this centenary year of the end of the Great War is what might best be described as war trauma. And by this I am not only referring to the traumas experienced by those directly involved in the fighting, but perhaps even more significantly, to the traumatic legacy of that conflict, which remains with us to this day.

I thought it might be of interest to readers of this site if I pulled together some of these ideas regarding war trauma into a short e-book which I have entitled Trauma Without End: The Great War and its Aftermath. The title encapsulates the notion that in many ways the War never ended, but simply mutated into various other forms of horror and trauma, of which the Holocaust was perhaps the most horrific and most incomprehensible of all. I have also written a short piece to introduce the book and its key concepts.


  1. Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B. (1973) The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press – Reprinted by Karnac Books 1988, pp. 665-6 []
  2. Freud, S. (1963) Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Part III), in: Strachey, J. (trans.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XVI (1916-1917): Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Part III),. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, p.275 []
  3. []
  4. Bistoen, G., Vanheule, S. and Craps, S. (2014) ‘Nachträglichkeit: A Freudian perspective on delayed traumatic reactions’, Theory and Psychology, pp. 1–20. []

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