IT IS DISTURBING and painful to be told that the world that formed you, held you, has now ceased to exist – nonetheless, this experience is not unusual. You may have questioned this world, disapproved of it, held it in contempt – and it is better if you did. Nonetheless, this world is all you knew.
In Berlin last September – a city I found myself living in, like many Australians in their mid--to--late twenties, rather haphazardly – I attended a two--day seminar on trauma. That I could afford to attend such a seminar says much about my milieu and my lifestyle; something else I suspect is ending, or has ended. The seminar considered trauma as a temporality: is trauma genetically transmitted, can there be a ‘pre’--trauma as much as there is a post--trauma? If so, is this the moment in which we find ourselves?
Following a morning of theoretical discussions not uncommon within groups of academically trained artists and writers, a British photographer presented his work from the Bosnian War. Every photograph presented a distortion: photographs of agony appeared unreal or hyperreal, but in any case, immaterial. The photographer moved through them quickly, perhaps out of discomfort, but lingered on just one: a simple shot of blood on snow. He explained that he took so many photographs daily, he hadn’t even noticed this one; it was his editor who picked up on it, and the image became an important work within his oeuvre. The power of the photograph, the editor correctly noted, was in the shadows – in what was withheld from the frame, rather than shown within it. Every good storyteller knows to leave a space for projection.
Later, we discussed trauma as an abyss, a cavity, something that wraps you up in what Jacques Derrida calls ‘dead time’ – a wound that repels closure. This definition felt true to me: the after--effects of life in war had been imposed on many people I know and love. In their movement through the world, I saw that they walked with ghosts: how much control they had over these ghosts varied from person to person, and was often dependent upon material factors, such as how much agency they felt they had lost, gained or repossessed in their new world.
The photographer was reluctant to accept this observation of trauma: he noted that there were ‘great parties’ during the siege of Sarajevo. That pleasure and defiance can survive within destruction is a fact I hope to be true – but it does not negate the experience of violence. I have heard no one who escaped or survived Sarajevo recount its parties; I have heard the siege described mostly in terms of hunger. Defiance, too, can involve a type of hunger – a relative once rather unceremoniously described having a bottle of hair dye smuggled in with the regular provisions of potatoes and onions. ‘I had finally gone grey, and I needed to cover it.’ Why she went grey is the part we don’t speak about. We can discuss the physical act of surviving – the potatoes and onions – but what her contraband L’Oreal represents is incommunicable. Often I find that trauma is like an ellipsis. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s seventh proposition – whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent – it is that which is unspoken.
WHAT ARE THE aesthetics of loss? The semantics? Can you really describe losing a country, or are some kinds of loss beyond representation? In his 1966 poem ‘Black Art’, Amiri Baraka wrote, ‘Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step.’ Which is to say, poetry is not enough. In her 1976 poem ‘One Art’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote, ‘I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. / I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.’ I read that poem often, and consider Bishop to be writing with a kind of desperation rather than defeat. Bishop is mourning the end of a relationship throughout the poem, and it took fifteen drafts for her to expel the ghost of Alice Methfessel from this text – earlier versions noted her blue eyes, her ‘dazzlingly intelligent person’. It would be trite to consider art a cure, but it can offer a sense of control.
To return to the question of pre--trauma, consider the ways in which much younger people have responded to the climate crisis, such as the school climate strikes – these approaches have appeared extreme beside our own well--trained distance. Striking is stopping – it is agitation towards an end to allow for a new beginning. The liberal consensus has largely favoured ethical consumption, recycling, carbon taxes. All of this is at best insufficient, and at worst a fiction. Perhaps one principle of pre--trauma is denial: what my mother would call burying your head in the sand, and would implore me against. Collectively, we are moving out of this stage, whether by choice or force, and are now within the kind of crisis we have long dreaded. At the time of writing, rent strikes are gaining international momentum, and the most precarious workers are finding strength in collectivity – for example, the March 2020 Amazon workers’ walkout in New York’s Staten Island fulfilment centre, a protest against Amazon’s response to the spread of COVID--19 among its employees. Derrida used the term contretemps to describe temporal dislocation – this translates as accident in English. Can we change the direction of the accident, through will and (as in Bishop’s poem) endless revision, to regain a sense of control within chaos?
IN 2017, FOR the twenty--fifth anniversary of her immigration to Sweden, a friend was asked to describe – in the form of a lecture – what the war in Bosnia had taught her. The audience would be a room of recently arrived refugees, most from Syria or Libya; her role was to provide an image of perseverance, perhaps even justice. She was alive; she made art that she sometimes sold, and sometimes it was enough to make a living. The lecture was intended to project a well--meaning exercise in resilience, a word my friend detests. She says resilience is a Western notion – that our bias towards a cure leaves out a lot of data. I want to agree. For every example of resilience is an example of its opposite: those who did not survive. So when my friend was asked, politely, to describe what war had taught, she replied, the experience taught me nothing. I can imagine her describing, in her loud voice, with her gesticulating hands working like armour for her sensitivity, how she slept for a year when she arrived in Germany. How it was the first time she understood that the Earth was a sphere: that there was an abyss above and an abyss below. How in the stillness, her body still ached. I can also imagine what she can’t describe. When she said nothing, she also meant everything: she meant that the experience eclipsed her. I’m reminded of a quote by American writer Gertrude Stein: ‘Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.’
Polish--born Yehiel De--Nur, known by his readers and once by his captors as Ka--Tzetnik 135633, was a Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor. Appearing at the trial of leading Nazi Otto Adolf Eichmann in 1961, De--Nur said in his opening statement: ‘I do not see myself as a writer who writes literature. This is a chronicle from the planet Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. The time there is not the same as it is here, on Earth.’ He collapsed when he was asked to recount his name, and thus provided no admissible evidence. The language he possessed was not sufficient; his experience fell outside the parameters of language.
It is not uncommon, when speaking to people from the former Yugoslavia, to hear them use the words prije rata and poslje rata – before the war or after the war. What they are describing is a rupture in time so profound that it cannot be reconciled. It is an economical communication device: prije rata refers to the time when things were good, plentiful, and poslje rata is the opposite. This is neatly summarised in a meme my father recently received featuring a picture of former Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito with the text ‘You ask when things will be good. They already were good.’ As I said, the past is no place to live, but it can offer us some humour – or some direction. To perceive the past not as a single, unified story, but as a multiplicity, may provide some power.
In Australian--born archaeologist Lynn Meskell’s The Future in Ruins (OUP, 2018) – which draws on Meskell’s experiences at UNESCO World Heritage sites – the Indian architect Vyjayanthi Rao describes a similar tendency. Rao explains a collective response to the physical removal of more than one hundred temple complexes from their villages due to the building of a megadam:
When I first arrived in Jetprole, people used the phrase ‘after Srisailam’ a great deal, expecting me to translate Srisailam as I wished: as a dam that was constructed at Srisailam; as a traumatic event in their collective history; as an evocative metaphor for their present condition of being unmoored, without land, water and livelihoods. The phrase covered a variety of conditions – both material and psychic.
Many villages disappeared, unmoored by shared spirituality and community. This kind of loss is a common feature of what we have labelled progress the world over: in its softer forms we call it gentrification, but it is marked by a structural disregard for dispossession.
HISTORY IS LONG, and our lives are so short. When I flew to Melbourne from London in February 2020, my flight was full – but you could sense the crisis that was to come, in the form of a virus that was then mostly dismissed as a flu, and is now a pandemic, and a threat to our entire social order. You could observe the crisis in the tautness of my neighbour’s posture when a woman coughed beside him. Still, he remained polite; still, he was nervous. Still, half the flight wore surgical masks. I was in the half that did not: I possessed one, but I had not yet worn it. Today I would wear it. Today we are paralysed by the COVID--19 crisis – the world appears as a waiting room for the lucky, and a hospital room for the unlucky.
Marginal categories of experience – such as the loss of nationhood – are often, in fact, the very opposite. What appears peripheral is often symbolically central – and this is the place where we can observe power as it works in its most undiluted form. The relationship between part and whole is explained in the way rot extends from the fringe to the centre. Migrant workers’ rights are your rights – they underpin a supply chain that we depend on; and the erosion of a democracy implicates and degrades us all. It was largely the young, the poor and the dispossessed who began mediating life predominantly online. In this sense, the way we are living now is an exaggeration of the way we lived before: behind the tyranny of the screen, and in a kind of constant communication that remains insufficient and undernourishing. Perhaps what is required is akin to the direct action of the Amazon workers, the striking children. Their hope is tied not to their individuality, but to their collectivity. Indeed, collectivity is demanded of us by the new language of social distancing. To protect one another, we must again place the needs of others ahead of our own; we must renegotiate the borders of the public and the private.
SO I RETURN to where I began: a world ending. I am familiar with world endings – I was born into one. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia existed for forty--seven years. Today it is remembered mostly for the brutality of its ending. Through the early 1990s, genocidal regimes were elected or designed, depending on how you view things, and Yugoslavia failed in the most spectacular way a country can fail: in civil war, with slaughter. Europe’s failure is today happening in slower motion – it takes place not on battlefields, but in waiting rooms. The swan song that was Brexit appears to be never--ending, and now nobody wants to listen any more. Waiting in our rooms, the world over, we follow the COVID--19 crisis as it unfolds in real time.
One thing is certain: we inhabit a gap in time, and what was never will be again in quite the same way. The world has revealed itself as fragile, again; it is impossible to deny our fundamental interdependence. While there is no art that can contain loss, there is an art in contesting it – in remaking it, rewriting it.
5 June 2020