From the Napoleonic Wars to the invention of the railway to the shell shock of World War I, writers tried to give voice to the suffering they witnessed. Yet they, like the doctors who treated the victims, repeatedly ran up against the incapacity of language to describe such anguish. Those who suffered trauma, those who tried to heal it, and those who represented it could not find the words. The Language of Trauma uncovers the hidden reaction of three major central European writers – Franz Kafka, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Sigmund Freud – to the birth of modern trauma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Zilcosky makes the case that Kafka, Hoffmann, and Freud managed to find the language of trauma precisely by not attempting to name it conclusively and instead allowing their writing to mimic the experience itself. Just as the victims’ symptoms seemed not to correspond to a physical cause, the writers’ words did not connect directly to the objects of the world. Unlike doctors, who attempted to overcome this indeterminacy of language, these writers embraced and investigated it. They sought paradoxically a language that described language’s tragic limits and, in so doing, exemplified the wider literary and philosophical crisis of their day. Zilcosky boldly argues that this emerged together with the medical inability to name the industrial experience of trauma. He thereby places trauma where it belongs: at the heart of both medicine’s diagnostic predicament and modern literature’s most daring experiments.
About the Author:
John Zilcosky is a professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.