By C. Fred Alford


The Montréal Review, November 2023


Winter Landscape (1970) by Anselm Kiefer at The Met Fifth Avenue


It may come as a surprise to some, but trauma theory has become a leading analytic framework through which to analyze literary texts. Of course, literary theorists can and should use any framework they find useful. The problem is the confusion that has developed between literary trauma and psychic trauma. Theories of psychic trauma derived from literature have been applied to real trauma in an attempt to make sense of the suffering of actual people. The result is confusion and misunderstanding about how real trauma might be healed. Trauma is healed through care and love, values that have no place in literary trauma theory.

Cathy Caruth, a major player, is a literary critic who, drawing on the work of the litterateur Paul de Man, has influenced many who have sought to understand trauma in real life. Dori Laub (1992) is a leading example. Often overlooked is that Caruth’s claims are not just literary, but empirical. They can be tested against real trauma. I conclude with an example drawn from the testimony of Holocaust survivors in 1946. Testimony given shortly after the liberation of the concentration camps was as narratively competent as that given a quarter-century later. This is not what Caruth would predict. Knowing this makes a difference in how we use literary theory to understand psychic trauma.

What Caruth claims

Caruth argues that traumatic events are unavailable to the conscious memory of the traumatized in the normal form in which memory operates, as narratives about events. Instead, trauma is experienced in terms of flashbacks, overwhelming feelings of anxiety, nightmares, physical tension, and physical illness. Trauma is experienced in symptoms rather than stories. These symptoms repeat themselves, as though the original trauma can never be put into the past.

Trauma is experienced as symptoms because it is too intense, and generally too sudden, to be understood as though it were an ordinary experience. Absent understanding, it can only be experienced and re-experienced, time after time. In this regard, trauma is like language, which according to poststructuralists, as they are called, claim that the signifier (the word) is always unable to properly designate the signified, that is the world.

For poststructuralists, there is a break between word and world; for trauma theorists, there is a break between word and wound . . . . For Caruth, the nonreferential quality of words and wounds renders the former appropriate for communicating the latter: “On this view, language succeeds in testifying to the traumatic horror only when the referential function of words begins to break down.” (Kurtz, p. 100; internal quote from Leys, p. 268).

Words can't capture an overwhelming experience that lies beyond or beneath words. The words that come closest are the tropes of literary fiction, representing absence, indirection, and repetition. In both traumatized memory and narrative, lacunae serve as markers of traumatic experience (Kurtz, p. 101).

More recent criticism of Caruth et al.

What if literary critics spent less time on modernist and postmodern texts, such as Caruth’s writing on Resnais and Dorfman, or Shoshana Felman's on Celan? Consider instead, says Stef Craps, Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love, a realist trauma narrative.*

Instead of serving as a symptom of trauma, silence is a coping mechanism. Silence refers not to the inability to remember or integrate loss, but a way to memorialize loss (Craps, p. 55). Set toward the end of the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone, the spirit of Forna’s novel is seen in the narrator’s comment about Kai, the doctor who treats victims of terrible physical injuries, amputations, and so forth.

The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against, every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love. (Forna, pp. 184-185)

Forna’s novel, Craps writes, is a fine example of literary realism, which does not transform unspeakable suffering into broken, traumatized speech, but describes the terrible experiences its characters confront along the way. What enables Kai’s confrontation with horror is human connection, the memory of love.

Caruth makes an empirical claim; so does David Boder

Surprisingly, Caruth’s argument that traumatic experience is unavailable to narrative memory is seldom treated as the empirical claim that it is. This is the result of confusing literary trauma with real trauma.

Consider David Boder’s 1946 interviews of Holocaust survivors, who recalled the terror of their experience shortly after their liberation. On his own, weighed down by sixty pounds of recording equipment, the 62-year-old professor on summer vacation showed up at almost two dozen DP (displaced persons) camps with a huge red Webcore wire recorder, a relatively new invention. He had no funding, only the money loaned to him by his sister and the proceeds of the sale of his life insurance. Asking for volunteers, he would have them state their name and tattoo number (if they had one), and let them start talking.

It’s a little complicated to situate these survivors’ testimony in time. Alan Rosen refers to it as “belated,” coming from what Henry Greenspan has called the “middle ground.” The war had been over for a year by the time Boder arrived, and most of the witnesses were living in DP camps. For many in these camps, time had stopped. Soon they would have to get on with the business of building a new life, but at just that moment Boder encountered them they were suspended between past and future. In some ways, it was a perfect place from which to reflect on the recent past. They had moved out of the KZ (concentration camps) but not beyond. That would take years.

Does this mean that survivors’ testimony was especially reliable then, before it was subject to the reworking of subsequent experience? Not necessarily. What one can say is that their testimony was narratively competent, stories with a beginning (before the war), a middle (life in the KZ), and a pause imposed by residence in a DP camp. Little of the horror was elided. Missing, of course, was context, but its absence was more characteristic of Boder than his informants.

The term “Holocaust” was not yet in use, and Boder had no real idea of the scope of the disaster. Nor did many of his informants. One, Nelly Bundy, described herself as a “French political prisoner,” before going on to recount the horrors of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. It was Boder, not Bundy, who was confused, imagining that the Germans only murdered their victims after a military trial. Bundy’s coherence was matched by almost all the other 130 interviewees. If some survivors broke into tears or fell into silence, it was not the silence of elision, but a silence by which narrators gathered themselves together to go on with their stories. In this regard, theirs resembled the silence to which Craps refers.**

Greenspan (p. 33) writes of the ritualization of testimony which occurred in the years following 1970, when oral histories of survivors began to be collected. True enough, and ritualization brings narrative order. But there is no striking difference in narrative order between the survivors interviewed by Boder and more recent testimonies.*** Many victims of terrible trauma can give a coherent narrative account of their experience in the recent aftermath of their ordeal.

The difference between literary trauma and real trauma: love lost and regained

Literary trauma theory is an artifact of the studied way in which texts are read, words that are never able to capture what they signify. The narrative is broken before it begins. In real trauma, it is human attachments that are broken after they have been established. Lindemann defines trauma as “the sudden, uncontrollable disruption of affiliative bonds.” By this, he means the abrupt realization that everyone and everything that one values can be annihilated in a moment. The experience is a moment of madness, the sudden loss of attachment to everyone and everything that makes life worth living.

There is a similarity between this loss and the absence to which literary trauma theory refers. The difference is that the solution to real trauma is love, by which I mean care and ongoing concern. Love restores the world from which meaning has been emptied. It can be the love of a partner, but the ongoing care and concern of a therapist may be the first step before this more intense and personal love can be risked. More needs to be said about this topic, but not here. Suffice it to say there is a difference between texts, absence, and love that is worth remembering.


C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.


* Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book award in 2011, among other awards.

** Quotations are taken from the “Voices of the Holocaust” project and are available online at The quotations all come from the original wire recordings made by Boder. At the website, one can read the transcript, an English translation if needed, and simultaneously hear the interview, now digitalized (Alford, 2009a).

*** I viewed over 150 video testimonies given after 1970 that are held in the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University. See Alford, 2009b.


C. Fred Alford, “What if the Holocaust had no name?” In Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, vol. 15 (3), pp. 71-94, 2009a.

C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, 2009b.

Stef Craps, “Beyond Eurocentrism: Trauma theory in the global age.” In G. Buelens et al., ed. The Future of Trauma Theory, pp. 45-60. Routledge, 2014.

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love. Grove/Atlantic, 2010.

Henry Greenspan, On Listening to Holocaust Survivors: Recounting and Life History Praeger, 1998.

J. Roger Kurtz, editor. Trauma and Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Dori Laub,“An event without a witness: truth, testimony and survival.” In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, pp. 75-92. Routledge, 1992.

Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy. University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Erich Lindemann, “Symptomatology and management of acute grief.” In American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 101 (1944), pp. 141-149.



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