Trauma without end: the Great War and its aftermath

A hundred years on the Great War still casts its shadow over our society, and in some ways, even more so over mainland Europe. The legacy of the war was not only the collapse of empires, but also the rise of new ones – most notably the United States and the Soviet Union. It saw the rise and collapse of fledgling democracies across Europe, the rise and eventual collapse of fascism, the advent of the Second World War, the Cold War, the collapse of communism, and finally the emergence of the post-Cold War. But there is another legacy, another shadow, and this is the psychical wound that the First World War has left us.

The idea of a ‘lost generation’ forever damaged and traumatised by the experiences of the Great War has now become an accepted, and central, part of the wider history of the War and its aftermath.  It led, amongst other things, to a politics of pacifism and appeasement, along with an outpouring between the wars of a great deal of art, literature, poetry and film.  However, I would argue that it also helped pave the way for an even greater catastrophe: a war of annihilation, which was most horrifically embodied in the Holocaust.

And I think part of the problem is that in some ways it is all too easy, although perfectly understandable, to focus on the human tragedy of the Great War, and especially on physical and psychical scars that it left.  However, in my view we also need to look at how such trauma has become, for want of a better term, narrativised. In other words, how what are essentially meaningless (and deeply troubling) experiences become articulated into a narrative, or set of narratives, concerning not only the experiences of those who suffered directly but also the wider impact on culture and society of such experiences. And one of the key points here is that the narrativisation of trauma is itself a way to try and ‘detraumatise’ traumatic experiences. In other words, and somewhat paradoxically, the telling of stories about trauma is a way to ‘make sense’ of nonsensical experiences.

However, there is something of a savage irony here in that the articulation of such narratives, the telling of such stories, in one sense constructs the trauma in the first place. This is what we might call the ‘Nachträglichkeit effect’, which is a reference to Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, mistranslated by Strachey as ‘deferred action’, but perhaps better translated as ‘afterwardness’ (though I prefer to leave it in the German).  I have explored this rather peculiar concept in some depth elsewhere, but put simply, Freud discovered that many of his patients only appeared to become traumatised after puberty, even though they may have suffered sexual abuse as young children. It was only when another experience occurred later on that in some way ‘enacted’ the original experience that they started to develop psychopathological symptoms. However, as Freud soon realised, this was not simply that the latter experience ‘reminded’ them of the former one, or somehow ‘triggered’ the memory of the original experience. Rather, there was a retroactive ‘looping back’ from the present to the past which constructed the trauma itself. This is not to say that the subject was not abused as a child, far from it. What it means is that at the time of the original experience, the subject was unable to register what had happened to them and was often left with a feeling of puzzlement and a sense that something was not quite right. It was only later on, when they were able to psychically ‘process’ such experiences that they were able to construct a ‘trauma narrative’, and, in essence, to construct their own history.

It is tempting, I think, to regard the whole process of constructing what we might describe as ‘Myth of the Great War’ as a similar exercise in retroactive history. And, of course, in many ways it was. Many of the key texts, along with key works of art and films, which went to form the ‘canon’ of the Myth , did not appear until the late 1920s or even later.  I would suggest that in many ways such works are forms of self-analysis or therapy. In other words, writers such as Graves, Sassoon, Blunden and Remarque (just to give a few well known examples), who were clearly deeply affected by the War, used their ‘writing’ of it as a way to make sense of their experiences. At the same time, though, perhaps we need to ask whether such a ‘writing of trauma’ produced a temporal ‘looping back’ effect as described above, which in essence constructed the very trauma that such writings were aiming to describe in the first place. In other words, can we speak of a ‘Nachträglichkeit effect’ at play here?

Clearly, this is a very unusual way to think about trauma, and seems to contradict the idea that trauma is something ‘raw’ and outside of representation. However, the key point to recognise here is that there is a crucial difference between the narrativisation of trauma and being traumatised. It is also important to recognise that telling stories about one’s own or other people’s trauma does not ‘trigger’ the memory of such experiences. Rather, the trauma narrative contains within it something inherently traumatic itself; something we might call the ‘Real kernel’ of the narrative, just as the dream, which is a way to articulate desire, contains within it a kernel of the Real, of trauma.

Perhaps the key question here is not whether it is helpful for people to construct such trauma narratives, but how we should respond to them. And unfortunately, in my view at least, the most common response is to throw one’s hands up in despair and say how terrible it (war, sexual abuse, genocide, and so on) is and that it must never happen again. But as we know all too well, it does keep happening again, and it is naïve, I would argue, to put this down to faulty education, regressive cultures/ideologies and/or lack of safeguards. What seems to be missing from such responses is a recognition that there is something inherently traumatic in human existence itself, and that perhaps the best we can do is to find a way to negotiate our way round or through such trauma.

In this sense such trauma narratives are critically important because they represent attempts to encounter and engage with the Real of trauma, which is the Real of human subjectivity itself. The problems only start when the response is to try and ‘bury’ the reality of the Real, of trauma, which simply ensures it will keep repeating itself. With regards to the response to the trauma narratives of the Great War this was a classic example of ‘this is terrible and must never happen again’, which paved the way for a culture of pacifism and appeasement across Western Europe in the 1920s and ’30s and, I would argue, ultimately paved the way for the Holocaust itself. Whereas it might have been more constructive to have tried to gain a much deeper understanding of the social, cultural and psychical forces that were at play prior to, during and after the War.

I have pulled a lot of these ideas together in the form of an ebook also entitled Trauma Without End.  As stated earlier in this piece, my core argument is that rather than simply accepting the idea of a ‘lost (and traumatised) generation’ it is probably more helpful to explore how this lost and traumatised generation came to be ‘written’ in the first place, the function that this writing played as a form of ‘detraumatisation’, and how, ultimately, how such a writing became ‘unwritten’ by itself.


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