I’ve used this space to explore trauma at length lately, and I’m starting to want to move away from that topic again and back into “aspie anthropologist” mode. But I do have a few things left to say about PTSD and trauma services, so I’ll try and develop a segue from trauma topics back into my usual musings on the arts and sciences.
Trauma is central to relationships in Freudian theory, a catalyst to the maturation of primary relationships in childhood and a subliminal impulse operating under the surface of erotic love relations. To possess love is to annihilate the competition for one’s love, and to be loved is to be consumed by another to the destruction of one’s integrity as an individual.
In my experience, love is intimately related to fear. To be loved is to hold fear of abandonment over someone, and to assert oneself within a love relationship is to inspire fear and resist being taken for granted with physical force. There is no respect for autonomy that isn’t backed up by the power to inspire awe, either through threat displays or through competitive accomplishments and prestigious appointments, socioeconomic importance.
Love dwells in the deep shadows of adventure, more present in adversity than its reward.
Patronage politics holds sway in my family. Might is right and authority is charismatic, in the sense that only the person in charge talks about themselves and sets themselves up to be admired. Escapism is dissociative and dysfunctional, submission is taken for granted and punished as a dependency-parasitism. Ritual reenactments of violence through empty threats and rote accusations maintain the pecking order in spite of a one-sided distribution of resources.
That was the dyadic relationship style I left behind after my mother was arrested. You could say that I was always trying to usurp my mother’s control over her own earnings because I felt at home in her house and wanted to enjoy autonomy there as if I owned the place. Like an Oedipal conflict between same-sex parent and child, or an Elektra complex complete with absent father and unmarried daughter.
Trauma wasn’t just a catalyst in our relationship, it was a currency. I was preoccupied with whether or not my mother had broken any of my bones in a long series of beatings with heavy objects like a hammer or a cast iron skillet, and she was preoccupied with the likelihood that she could get away with murdering me if she ever got worked up enough to actually do it. She was impatient with me for skulking in her house like an anonymous stranger and bringing no friends home to meet her, and she was disgusted with me for being the sort of person who would not be missed if I disappeared.
The mistake we make is to attribute to religions the errors and fanaticism of human beings. —Tahar Ben Jelloun
Disgust is a way of enforcing fidelity to the values we hold true, and of someone who never gets disgusted we might ask, “don’t you discriminate at all?” Out of the furnace of my mother’s tantrums I secretly became very particular in my likes and dislikes, obscurantist in my cultural affiliations and self-indulgent in my tastes. Superficially passive and ready to go along with anything, I developed an inner life defined by convoluted ideas and idiosyncratic pursuits.
Inequalities are reconciled by compensating strengths and specialization of labor, and I cultivated skills that were specialist to a fault. I cultivated weaknesses too, zones of dependency that gratified my mother’s appetite for power and left me ill-prepared for living independently.
In The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf writes of her ghost, “She didn’t trust these names, oh no. She didn’t trust herself. She was doubtful, amid our toxic swirl of new name-giving; what she doubted was the reality of the names, though seldom accurate and that, even if it is accurate, name and thing coincide only for a short time. She shrank from stamping any name on herself [..] What are you going to be Krischan? A human being? Well, you know…”
That tenuousness to belonging is very familiar to me, that listlessness about what to say in a social situation, the tendency to second guess every possibility and offer no satisfying alternative, that inquisitive shrug that is neither indifferent nor convinced of anything yet, a life of examination that falls short of drawing any conclusions worth speaking up about, disapproving of conventionality but inhabiting it, too.
I like what Walter Bagehot wrote about the disincentives to openly discussing one’s aims or reasoning: “‘Democracy’, it has been said in modern times, ‘is like the grave: it takes, but it does not give’. The same is true of ‘discussion’. Once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery, or fence it by consecration; it remains for ever open to free choice, and exposed to profane deliberation.”
Obscurantisms restore a little mystery to conversation, like a word borrowed from another language. Obscure fan references protest the inadequacy of names for things by invoking whole works of art with the stubborn enthusiasms of someone who thinks the reader’s understanding will never be complete until they’ve seen the movie or read the book.
These overelaborate metaphors and allusions exploit the vague depths of incongruous comparisons and celebrate an overextended feeling of affinity central to fandom. To not put it into one’s own words instead is to insist that art is present in everyday experience as a constellation of reference points suspended above the mundane in the imagination.
If you love what you see of yourself in someone else, you would theoretically expect to find something of your self that you love in others as well; but there is a reflex for snapping back onto the particular person as beloved, because you have a sound instinct for insisting there’s a there there, even if each person’s individual experience and identity is in another sense a confluence of external forces in the grand scheme of things.
Contingency is the rational power to explain away love, and it puts the fear into awe when nothing else does. Need compels love, but pity corrupts love. To receive love is to be reminded of how rare it is. What is mundane about love is animal in its ferocity and fecundity, and what is imaginative about love is trivial in its narcissism and illusory quality. All this is very dull because it’s so abstract, where a fan reference would be vivid and vehement, and at least still vehement if it were inscrutable.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens
“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
Blogging for me is both an overture to friendship and a practice in isolation, both sharing and journaling, both conversation and monologue. I’ve probably been making too many allusions for good conversation lately, but disclosing about trauma is a very isolating experience for me, alienating and unsatisfying. It feels needful but unpleasant. I’m impatient to move on.
As a writer, I think wanting to be seen for who you really are comes to mean settling for the distant hope that some people will get to know you well enough to notice the truth about things you couldn’t tell them persuasively yourself, because so much of experience is idiosyncratic yet one must form preconceptions about what is believable out of the commonalities.
Reducing burdens of enforced privacy comes at an exact price: you must make the grounds of validation mutual even in your own mind, and reduce your sense of conviction that your personal authority as a knower differs qualitatively from theirs. You must make deciding what to say for yourself more like listening for what they have to say.
Complaining about trauma is all about distinguishing a private experience of fear and pain from the common lot, claiming to be different in what you have seen and felt, asserting a kind of secrecy about what you have to say – that it can be described but not understood. To get out of this loop of introspection “for display only” I’ll have to acknowledge that traumas are a universal experience, and build a common vocabulary for how I feel from there.
Negotiating the ironies of attachment and disillusionment is part of the project of understanding love and detachment, belonging and alienation. I’ve been meaning to pursue a more formal approach to film criticism here, too, something less subjective and more transparent than the way I usually write about film.
I think the best place to begin that transition is to take an ironic look at fandom as a way of relating to art, self-situating as an implicated participant. Escapism and the dissociative side of trauma experience are strongly related to fandom for me, so I’ll try to work them into this multi-part segue out of the territory of extended monologue.