Anne-Marie Levine

Trauma, Art, and Poetic Knowledge

Author's note: The following remarks were made at Maale-Hachamisha, just outside of]Jerusalem, in March 1996 to an audience of lsraeli, American, and German clinicians, scholars, and artists. The conference was organized by the Israeli Ministry of Health to discuss new ways of helping 800 chronically hospitalized Holocaust survivors in Israel, using video testimony as therapy and documentation. Special attention was paid in this presentation to the often-expressed concern of the group that these survivors might be unable to use language coherently enough to bear witness to their own experiences.

I understand my subject to be the process by which art, or meaning, is made out of witnessing. How is art made out of trauma? How does art "know" trauma? How does trauma become art? What can clinicians learn from artists about trauma? These are most probably the questions. I cannot answer them, but 1 can give you some ideas.

You have a powerful partial answer in the film we saw Thursday night. a film made from a marathon 32-hour group therapy session with Israeli-born children of survivors. I think that what the members of that group did is what artists do-they testify. At any rate, that is what traumatized artists do: and it is a question if there is such a thing as an artist without a central trauma. But the artist in that film, the person who made art out of trauma, is the director, by virtue of the choices he made in editing those 32 hours of film.

Now I want to read you some lines from Samuel Becken, the Irish playwright/poet who chose to live in France and who wrote sometimes in English, sometimes in French, often serving as his own translator: 'there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." This is a description of survivor art, or of what drives survivor art, and it has some relevance, I think, for the situation of the 800 individuals whose fate we have been discussing.

Here are two other statements, by or about Beckett which seem to me to bear upon the situation as well. About Waiting for Gadot: 'Waiting in Beckett's sense is an alternate activity. Waiting becomes a way of living; waiting for inspiration, recognition, understanding, or death." And this: Beckett was asked why he wrote. He said, 'I couldn't bear not to leave a stain upon the silence ."

In my view one becomes an artist not only because one has the ability, but because of a kind of pressure, what Beckett calls 'obligation," a drive, a sense that one has something to say, a message perhaps, that one must deliver. Even if one is not aware of, or clear, verbally, what it is that one must say.

Here I want to quote a painter, Mark Rothko, the great Jewish abstract expressionist artist, who came to the United States from Russia as a child: "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless." And remember that Rothko painted completely abstract canvases. His view arises from trauma. Here are some lines from Aharon Appelfeld: "right after the war. . .there arose, inchoate and inarticulate, the first efforts at expression. Later the desire to keep silence and the desire to speak became deeper; and only artistic expression, which came years later, could attempt to bridge those two difficult imperatives."

Now: what about art? Is it a home for trauma? I say yes. Art closely parallels the workings of the mind and the subjects on which the mind dwells. For instance: art is a home for silence, space, Fragments, juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated fragments, accretion of details, layering, collage, dislocation, gaps, leaps, repetition, lists.

Art Frees one of the obligation to be consistent, the obligation to be logical, to "make sense." It bees one of the tyranny of cause and effect. Art encourages forms of expression which do not include facts, may not include story or narrative, or even words. Art can work by exclusion, the “conspicuous exclusion” Lawrence Weschler finds in the painting of Vermeer-the notion of themes that are "saturatingly present but only as felt absence-themes that are being held at bay, but conspicuously so."

Art is a language; it is the language of the unconscious; it is a direct link to the unconscious; art can bypass the conscious; art can bypass the anecdote, the story, and thus express a more profound range of feeling; art can bypass sequence, logic, cause and effect, factual memory, even Fear.

Art may express the unknown; art is a balancing act between unconscious (that is, the source) and conscious (discipline, the editing self; art may express trauma in a way that makes it intelligible to the rest of us; art presupposes a dialogue.

Artists aren't necessarily aware of what they know. But they transform it into something others can know. Art is a way to tell, even if you don't know what it is you're telling.

We know that silence is toxic. Art is a way of breaking the silence.

Dreams, Fragments

A baby lies in a matt's hand
It does not breathe
We try hard to revive it
I lump up and down
We fail
I cry and cry

The baby is mine
It is I
We are the baby
It is the aborted twin

The hand is yours

"I can't go on, I'll go on"

I make an appointment to have my vocal cords

"Everyone possesses in his own unconscious
an instrument with which he can interpret
the utterances of the unconscious in another"

There is a record in the body of what happened

Memory muscles out invention

May one loose one's Holocaust memories on another;
or must one keep them oneself!

If you had been clear-headed we could have gone
If you had been clear-headed I could have staved

"You are my son. Your book will be the child
of my book."

Page 44 Provincetown Arts - 1997