Is Narrative Always a Product of Trauma?

I was commissioned to write this piece on JG Ballard for openDemocracy: I conclude, "I am struck by how adept we writers are at developing our early traumas into accounts of how the world really is - not because we are helpless to do otherwise, but because this is often the most productive way for a writer to proceed."

There are events in our lives we just can't make sense of, and these are precisely the events that, as writers, we have to try and make sense from. The fall of China to the Japanese mysteriously pervades Ballard's work -- as the failure of the Prague Spring does Milan Kundera's, or the 1973 coup d'état in Chile does Roberto Bolaño's.

As a boy, Charles Dickens nearly fell out of the middle class into the working class -- his parents ran into financial difficulties, and he had to work in a factory at the age of twelve. Victorian factories were truly horrifying places. Almost every Dickens novel has at its heart a child whose place in the class structure is uncertain -- David Copperfield, Pip, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit... Dickens's early anxiety about his place in Victorian society was a big part of the reason he excelled at bringing that society so riotously and wonderfully to life.

Franco Moretti, in his delightful Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, diagrams Jane Austen's novels and, if I remember correctly, discovers that all her plots begin and end inland, while the central plot complication happens in a coastal town. From Claire Tomalin's insightful biography of Jane Austen, I recall that Austen received one marriage proposal, in Portsmouth, which she initially accepted, then after thinking it through overnight, changed her mind the next morning. I propose that marriage proposals, and all the nightmarish rituals of courtship in English coastal resorts, functioned for Jane Austen the way being interned by the Japanese did for JG Ballard -- as a sort of unhealable wound that could be used as a window onto reality.

6 thoughts on “Is Narrative Always a Product of Trauma?”

  1. Nice piece. I definitely think many writers work through trauma in their writings. For some the working through involves projecting that trauma onto the universe (so to speak)–and by that making sense of things. For others, however, I think the work is more a re-writing, a way to try and change that world, even if minutely. Regardless, writing, in making meaning, regains a sense of control of what at one time seemed completely uncontrollable.

  2. Ballard’s Drowned Giant says it all. The past creates the robber. The last of the English rebels, a cruel blow for the suburbs.

    A Black

  3. Robert W. Fuller

    When a powerful idea is simple, it’s even more powerful. This idea is one such. Trying it on Tolstoy, Proust, V. Woolf, Hemingway, et al. And on myself! Awareness of motivations for writing can sharpen both character and plot. Thanks much.

  4. The other Olga

    i would argue that frequently trauma can also be a product of narrative, a method of reading. reading somebody like nicholas baker is a powerful experience in this regard, because you (I) start noticing that you (I) want to read trauma into his text whether it’s there or not. (I’ve only read “Mezzanine”).
    trauma, as anything else expressed in language, becomes a device and a formative principle.

  5. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine — I read that when it first came out, and at the time I didn’t perceive the narrator as traumatized. But I think you’re onto something, I’ll have to take another look.

  6. The other Olga

    Just came across this post in my blog scroll:

    I’m intrigued by the idea that “the twenty-first century will see this posttraumatic subjecthood – characterized by a lack of emotional engagement, indifference and detachment from others, and a life deprived of erotic enjoyment, whether sexual, artistic, religious or sensual – become normative.”

    and what this means for narrative

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