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Hannah Weiner Beside Herself: Clairvoyance After Shock or The Nice Jewish Girl Who Knew Too Much Preface 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 thinking: *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 incoherence. 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 traumatic? 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.
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