Maria Damon

Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance 
After Shock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew 
Too Much


This is a work in slow progress.  I've given a version of it a few years
ago at MLA and have written an essay under revision for the possibility of
publication in several different venues with different emphases, one a
special issue on millennial poetics, one a book of essays on theorizing
trauma as a genre of discourse, and one a book of essays on Jewish American
poets.  A consistent tenor of the feedback I've gotten on it indicates that
it is suggestive rather than demonstrative, and that there seems to be an
absence crying out for articulation (it's not expressed this way, but
rather; there's a gap in your argument)--that is the demonstration that
Hannah Weiner's writing is in fact traumatic in either etiology or effect.
To my mind, of course, the existence of this loud absence re-inscribes the
paper in the discourse it attempts to discuss, as one of the central
characteristics of traumatic utterance is that it knows and does not know,
it reveals as it conceals, etc. --in other words I was trying to posit an
intuition for which there were very slight traces of evidence; it became
quite traumatic for me to revise this paper with an eye toward articulating
the central trauma or traumas of this writing.  The problem of trying to
articulate an intuition is the problem of the traumatic text. After
devising a set of questions and answers for myself, mostly as an heuristic
exercise, I rearrived at my original thesis somewhat better defended, I
hope.  Basically, I want to argue that Weiner's writing traumatizes
normative reading expectations, and that it has as some of several and
overlapping sources the trauma of being a Jewish American woman living from
1926-1997, the trauma of everyday life under the conditions of
postmodernity, the trauma of being and/or being considered (by other) a
mentally ill person, and the trauma of being and/or being considered (by
oneself) a mystic.

So here is the set of questions through which i attempted to schematize my

*What is trauma?

Freud uses the term to describe the experience of survivors of trainwrecks
and other life-threatening disasters, wars and the like; experiences so
shocking at the time that they happen that they cannot properly be said to
be experienced at the time by those undergoing the event.  Thus, the
experience recurs in dreams, waking life, etc., as if knocking at the door
of the subject's consciousness begging to be processed in a cognized,
self-conscious way, thus to be assimilated into the subject's repertoire of
experiences that make him or her wise rather than "stuck".  Shoshana Felman
and Dori Laub use the term to refer to the experience described in the
testimony of death-camp survivors from World War II and writers like
Dostoyevski who were sentenced to die and then were suddenly pardoned.
Cathy Caruth describes the phenomenon of texts that "know and do not know,"
and attributes traumatic meaning to them.  Geoffrey Hartmann analyses,
among other poems, a lyric by Wordsworth which describes in the first
stanza the talent of a boy poet, then in the second stanza alludes to his
untimely death, rather than the expected revelation that the boy grew up to
be the poet who is writing the poem.  What all dwell on is either the
subject matter of the texts they study, or that in connection with the most
harrowing moments of the writer's biographies (as in Dostoyevski or Paul
Celan).  All the literary critics dwell, as I've said, on the need to speak
the unspeakable, but what is unspeakable is always rendered quite obvious
either by recourse to biography or the overt content of what *can* be said.
And most of the texts they examine --although this is always a problematic
observation though when compared to Weiner's work it may mean something
--are fairly coherent, even when there are silences --the silences are all
the more obvious because they come in the flow of a narrative (like the
silence of the barber in Shoah, after which he protests that he simply
cannot finish the sentence Claude Lanzmann has asked him to finish).  These
critics make trauma coherent though to do so they point to instances of

More interesting are descriptions of trauma that are more generalized,
subtle diffused throughout banal human experience.  Walter Benjamin, who
could be said to be writing out of a traumatic experience, did this
masterfully in "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" in which he posited social
experience itself, speeded up under industrial capitalism, as traumatic for
the human organism which has not been able to evolve quickly enough to
assimilate the changes it has made in our spatio/temporal culturescape.
And indeed the way he links this newly normative sensory overload to the
production of poetry is still exemplary 60 years later. I find very rich
Frantz Fanon's observation that what drives people to revolutionary
violence and/or madness is not only violence on the order of
United-Nations-defined war crimes or violations of human rights but the
accretion of countless small indignities and cruelties visited upon a
subordinated subject.  Under such terms one can talk about not only
dramatic instances of child physical and sexual abuse, rape and murder
etc.,  but the more subtle enactments of state power through humiliations,
physical policing, differential treatment, circumscribed life chances etc.
of disempowered people.

What, beyond a narrative that recounts a trauma, determines a text as

Its disorientedness, its ruptures.  In Weiner's case, not just the
occasional rupture that cries out: "I'm the hot spot --I'm where the text
breaks down!" --because the whole text is comprised of very little other
than broken bits of language.  For me, either the extreme hysteria texts
like Kathy Acker's or extreme flatness like Gayl Jones's or Marguerite
Duras's texts would signal some kind of traumatext; some paranoia like
Leslie Scalapino's obsession with placement and perspective; and in the case
of Hannah, the flatness of the relentless brokenness as constitutive of the
text itself, not just a moment here and there.  traces like Dickinson's
dashes, which can be seen as bits of Kristevan chora breaking through --the
unspeakability of extreme experience --if choric utterance is considered
traumatic, then one could posit primordial experience as per se traumatic,
and in the sense that it is known but not known because it is
prelinguistic, indeed it is.

Also, the way it is framed determines whether we read it as traumatic or
not.  Anne Frank's diary is a traumatic text because of what we know takes
place outside the frame;  the extreme circumstances under which it was
written and the subsequent fate of the writer.  The way Outsider art is
framed, in journals like Raw Vision.  The venue, the jacket blurbs, the
extratextual knowledge one brings.

what suggests to me that these texts are traumatic?
First, the way they look; they're hard to read.  They are disorienting.
They are incoherent.  My students often initially feel traumatized by being
assigned these texts.   They ask me angrily why I made them read this, or
they say, "Why would anyone write such a book?"  They've described her as
"a writer without a voice." (bells shd go off for this buffalo herd, not so
for my Midwestern MFA program where the voice reigns as ultimate god-term.)
The way Hannah's work is framed, with prefaces by herself and others
remarking on the texts' radical alterity; the publishing venues, the books'
arresting covers such as the one on Spoke --much of the paratextual
apparatus, in other words.

Is it the incoherence of Hannah's texts that mark them as traumatic?   Why
is incoherence indicative of trauma --are there different forms of
incoherence, of course there are, such as more or less systematic derailing
of the senses, surrealist exercises and party games, etc.?  Does this mean
that all avant garde or experimental texts are traumatic texts?  Are all
incoherent texts then trauma texts?  

Probably not, in the sense of being produced by a traumatized subject.  But at 
the very least rupture and unreadability traumatize coherence, that is, they 
traumatize the normative reading experience; they resist it, cripple it, mutilate it, 
liberate it. So at that most basic level yes this is a traumatic text and it stumps
me and my students until we develop some tools to normalize it if we take the
time. My students find Weiner's texts traumatic not because they think them
over their heads, like Hegel or Stein, but because it's "crazy" and pointless.

How does Hannah's writing perform violence on a normative reading practice?

At the level of organization; nothing happens.  nothing is revealed.  there
is no epiphany.  At the level of words, they are chopped up, rearranged,
they interrupt each other, syllables are set adrift from each other, proper
names are mutilated in baby talk or as passive-aggressive homages or as
play...most often the proper names of herself and male poets in her circle.
The line between violence and play here is constantly pushed --syntax is
unsystematically eroded, as is orthography,  proper word order, etc.  the
Physical /visual presentation of the text is disconcerting, the more so
because of her claim that it is dictated or seen.

In fact, her claims to first clairvoyance and then clairaudience, her
insistence on a mystical origin of her writing traumatizes, disorients and
disturbs secular humanist assumptions about authorship --something the
traditional avantgarde seems to buy in to with its geneaologies of
influence and inspiration.  Ordinary modern literary criticism does not
have a language for this writing practice, which seems based in premodern
and esoteric models of textual production.  There is both a grandiosity and
an abjectness in assuming the place of the "dictée" (she who is spoken ,
quick nod to Theresa Hak-kyung Cha's book as a kind of sister text to
Hannah's Spoke) that differs from anonymous populist modes of writing
(story-telling, ballad-singing, graffiti, etc) or the private jottings of
diarists.  So in some ways Weiner seems like a typical postmodern poet; she
is purposive --her texts get published, she moves not among a society of
mystics or religious renunciants but among other postmodern poets; she
reads their works and refers to them obsessively as her silent teachers,
among other such teachers.

In terms of content, things become curioser and curioser.  Other than The
Fast, a fairly coherent narrative account of her breakdown, during which
she became hypersensitive to certain substances and colors (the color
purple, for example, and metal, so that she could not go into her bathroom,
longed for a "blue" person to come and offset the purple that was
proliferating all around her), which I would term an account of a traumatic
experience, the only content I can find that I would term traumatic in the
conventional sense is her preoccupation with Native American history,
political activism, spirituality, treaty rights struggles, land disputes,
political imprisonments such as Leonard Peltier's and so forth.  Native
American historical trauma is acknowledged in many ways and is an integral
and ongoing concern that weaves in and out of the mental detritus she
records.  (Written In / The Zero One)

Can one reasonably posit that Hannah Weiner is a traumatized subject?

Yes, but this might be controversial.  One can posit her as a traumatized
subject in that she lives in the conditions of postmodernity that
Benjamin's work on Baudelaire anticipates.  Also, more specifically, she is
a Jewish American woman living from 1926-1997.  Why is this controversial?
Because there is an ongoing dual discourse both about the Holocaust and
about Jewish Americans, and also about Jewish Americans' relationship to
the Holocaust.  One aspect of the discourse is disgust with the violence
with which Jewish discourse is cathected around the Holocaust, using it to
justify violations of human rights in Israel/Palestine, ongoing victim
status in a present. and especially a present United States, where it looks
to most people as if Jews are doing okay, etc.  I've found it to be
somewhat touchy to talk about the Jewish experience as traumatic right now,
as if to do so puts Jews in competition with other traumatized peoples, or
as if to do so were to claim special status for Jews, part of the
historically resented arrogance (abjection and grandiosity) of considering
oneself chosen.  It is also controversial and problematic to claim that her
status as a woman is per se evidence of trauma.  Granted women are or at
least were second class citizens in when she was growing up (when Hannah
was born women had had the vote for less than a decade) and the postwar
period, her adulthood, is notorious for its backlash against white
middleclass women of which Hannah was one, its infantilization and
exploitation of women under various campaigns like the baby boom,
suburbanization, the sexual revolution, etc.  One could nonetheless
reasonably protest that Hannah and most women like her had cushy
upbringings complete with the privilege of private higher education,
economic security and so forth.  And in any event, being a second class
citizen does not automatically confer trauma-victim or survivor status on
that mildly oppressed citizen.

However, the fact is that everyone, and not just the people who had lived
through it, has been traumatized by the death camp experiences --but it has
a special meaning for Jews, just as everyone has been traumatized by the
institution of slavery in the New World, but it has a special  meaning to
the descendants and relatives of those who were enslaved, namely the
African diaspora.  And this brings up a thread hashed out long ago, perhaps
three years ago or so, on the Poetics list, about the legitimacy of non
Jewish women poets like Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath's use of holocaust
imagery to describe their viscerally powerful feelings of disempowerment as
privileged women in the postwar years.  The range of responses was
striking; some folks argued that it was okay if the poetry was good (plath
doing it was okay, sexton doing it wasn't); some people who identified
themselves as Jewish said it was crass exploitation of others' suffering
for the purposes of self-aggrandizement; some people who identified
themselves as non-Jewish protested that no one could "own" a feeling of
oppression; some people who identified themselves as Jewish thought it was
okay because they were using the most powerful imagery available to them
through the popular media (information about the nature of the deathcamps
became publically available in the 60s and was widely disseminated in
photographs, news stories, film, etc.) and that is a legitimate thing to do
to express your suffering, which is, I believe, pretty much the position
that James Young articulates in his book Writing and Rewriting the
Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, wherein he
says that that imagery became immediately archetypal; some people who
identified themselves as women etc... It was all pretty fascinating, and I
can't remember how it ended.  But I would go out on a limb and say that in
fact Hannah Weiner's status as a traumatized person is over-determined at
the same time as it is legitimately in question, and that this, again, is
the essence of trauma --something so obvious and yet something so hard to
pin down or demonstrate.  Would I say that all Jewish American middleclass
women, despite the high functioning appearance of many of them, are
traumatized. Well I'm tempted to say yes, though I'm aware how analytically
and politically irresponsible such a statement can sound.   So I say it
with huge parentheses and big hypothetical neon markers around it, but i'm
also someone who would venture to guess that most people in the world are
traumatized as a result of living in the world; i guess I'm willing to
sacrifice some of the analytic rigor that comes with the strict organizing
of categories (this is traumatic, that is not) in favor of a more nuanced
Fanonian or Benjaminian understanding of globally diffused trauma.  The
fact that Weiner does not talk about the Holocaust is not, I would say,
evidence that she is untouched by it.  And in fact, one need not even rely
on the Holocaust as the signal experience of Jewish modernity as if it had
no context; being Jewish is the signal experience of Jewish modernity, in
the millions of ways in which that "fact" in scare-quotes is experienced.
One might even posit her fascination with American Indian politics as a
displacement of her consciousness and feeling about genocide --an effect of
her relationship to her Jewishness as much as it is an effect of her having
some New Age-ish, post-1960s spiritual inclinations (in the earlier pieces,
she invokes Satchidananda's name as she later invokes Leonard Peltier's or
Russell Means's). (Jonathan Boyarin, "Europe's Indian, America's Jew").

Third, one could say that as a mentally ill person or a mystic, Hannah
Weiner suffers trauma in that she is the subject of non-normative
experiences that can frighten or tax the person undergoing them.  They are
hard to talk about and one's hope of being understood and accepted is
always on the line, making one vulnerable to social ostracism,
misunderstanding, well-meaning but destructive treatments, etc.  The Fast,
the one text that describes more than enacts psychic trauma, does, I think,
contain traces of fear in it, the sense of living through something
dangerous even if to some extent self-imposed, something isolating, an
experience bound to be misinterpreted by others.  Even the unclear status
of the particular dissociation her texts evince: dissociative states being
associated with both mystical possession and with mental illness, automatic
writing, etc. --hover around the possibility of a traumatic etiology.

What is at stake in my wanting to claim trauma-text status for
Hannah Weiner's work, especially when there are so many other ways of
looking at her work, and so many other texts that more readily lend
themselves to identification as traumatic?  

One thing I think this kind of inquiry makes possible is that texts like Hannah's 
can be put in dialogue, or multilogue, with other texts and traditions that seem 
dissimilar. To look at Written In / The Zero One next to Jacobo Timerman's
Prisoner Without a Name, Cell without a Number, or to think about it in
relation to that paradigmatic emblem of the death camps, the number tattooed
on the arm can, I think, help to undo the isolation strange texts often
suffer from.  (I'm aware that I'm anthropomorphizing the text here, so be
it, some of my best friends are texts).  Not wanting to domesticate or
normalize their strangeness can often keep us from seeing connections that
may be there, and that can be illuminated without eradicating the
specialness or anomalousness of any particular text.  And there is plenty
that countermands a traumatic reading as well: the humor and whimsy, the
articulateness with which on occasion Weiner spells out her poetics. (Interview 
in Lucy and Jimmy's House of K)

Finally, I don't think we're done with identity, any more than we're done
with modernism.  Surely we need a more nuanced and flexible notion of it,
that allows for mobility and mutation (in the spirit of queer theory and
diasporic studies) than took hold in the era of liberation politics, the
60s thru the 80s.

* What is trauma? It is very difficult to talk about because one of its characteristics is its un-pin-downability -- the fact that it was not "experienced" at the time of the "experience" --so one must either attend to the symptoms and infer an absent presence from those, or one must know of an incident commonly agreed on as "traumatic" and read subsequent behavior, utterance, etc., as symptom. As it turns out, I find the most useful formulation to be the most open -- far wider than Freud's war-trauma or survival of a train wreck -- to include such now-questionable categories as child abuse of the mental, verbal and emotional variety as well as the physical and sexual --as if these could be neatly separated from each other. I guess I'm willing to sacrifice an analytic rigor and efficacy that relies on sharply delineated categories of pain in favor of a broad and flexible range of permissible traumas and violences -- from the most historically ghastly (the Holocaust, veteran's battle syndrome etc) to the most banal invisibilities of everyday life in late century postnational chaos to the most private prelinguistic children's hell-realm. In Weiner's case the situation is even more complicated --or simpler. Even though schizophrenia is not classically thought of as having a traumatic origin (unlike, for example, depression), one need not limit Weiner's writing to an effect of her diagnosed mental illness. The writing itself traumatizes mormative expectations of writing -- as purposive, as communicative, as public, as coherent, as narrative, etc. etc. If as Barrett Watten (?) has suggested, Hannah Weiner's writing represents the "test case" for language poetry, I'd suggest that she also represents a test case for the so-called private, fragmented, quotidien style and matter we've come to associate with "women's writing" in formulations ranging from "écriture feminine" to an equation of women's writing with domeseticity or the private sphere. And also the limits of "post-Holocaust" writing in that there's both every reason and no reason to posit a relationship between that event and this writing.

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