The politics of abuse: the traumatized child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras.

by Laurie Vickroy

With the political liberation of various colonies in the 1950s there also came the recognition of the need for a more profound investigation of the dynamics of oppression and subjugation. In particular, cultural theorists began to focus on the psychological effects of colonization and the emotional strategies employed in response to such pressures. Thus, Ashis Nandy drew attention to the way that the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized was constructed as one of "civilizing" parent/"primitive" child (34); Frantz Fanon demonstrated the way that racist attitudes could be internalized and could transcend any obvious issue of skin color (162); and Albert Memmi examined the self-loathing emerging from conditions of oppression, i.e., "injustice, insults, humiliation and insecurity" (16, 19-20). Similarly, literary critics began to show how psychological theory can help to elucidate not merely the artistic depiction of colonized subjects but also the narrative techniques used in politically-conscious fiction. Patrick Colm Hogan, for example, has used Lacan's notions of the socially imposed ego to explore the relations between cultural domination and madness in Bessie Head's A Question of Power, and Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub have explored the way that traumatic responses are significant factors in the recovery and narration of Holocaust memories.

My purpose in the following essay is to further this line of research by providing a more detailed analysis of the relationship of trauma to social oppression and by showing how this connection is dramatized in the critiques of colonialism evident in Toni Morrison's and Marguerite Duras's fiction. Although Morrison addresses white American racial dominance in the 1930s and Duras addresses British/French governmental dominance in East Asia during these years, both writers are concerned with the relation between social power and individual psychology and both try to give voice to those who are traumatized by oppressive social and familial forces. In particular I want to focus on Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) and Duras's The Vice-Consul 1966), because both novels introduce a new element into colonialist discourse: they feature as protagonists young subaltern girls not previously represented in the Western literary tradition. For both writers, traumatized children provide not merely poignant metaphors but also concrete examples of the neglect, exploitation, disempowerment and disavowal of certain communities and even entire cultures (e.g., African American or Third World citizens). In this way, these novels encourage us to see "colonialism" as an on-going problem and in doing so they serve to challenge the abstractness which frequently tends to characterize "postcolonial" theorizing. I will demonstrate particularly how these writers challenge the subordination of women and children by testifying to their experience and by engaging their readers in that experience.

Trauma is an event in an individual's life which is "defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization" (LaPlanche & Pontalis 465). Kai Erikson emphasizes that trauma can result "from a constellation of life's experiences as well as from a discrete event- from a prolonged exposure to danger as well as from a sudden flash of terror, from a continuing pattern of abuse as well as from a single assault, from a period of attenuation and wearing away as well as from a moment of shock" (457). Prolonged exposure to threats of violence and ongoing abuse are particularly characteristic of oppressed groups and constitute a pernicious form of trauma, because the constant stress and humiliation are associated with being a person of low socioeconomic status (see Brown 124-25).

In The Bluest Eye several of Morrison's characters experience the gradual psychic erosion of which Kai Erikson speaks (457), representing the weakening of whole communities living under an oppressive white cultural dominance. Whether the process of internalizing dominant values occurs psychologically through reinforcement and punishment, or whether it is a reflection of what Lacan saw as a universal process of inscription of individual identity by the social order (Hogan 100), Morrison depicts an imposing white culture whose values are enforced through a variety of means (violent, economic, psychological, etc.). As she presents it, what has been seen as individualized psychopathological symptoms must be viewed differently when abuse is endured on a larger, systematic level as in 1930s America. The Bluest Eye explores how the traumatic experience of social powerlessness and devalued racial identity prevents the African American community from joining together and truthfully evaluating the similarity of their circumstances, much less finding ways to oppose dominant forces.

The epitome of this devalued community, the Breedlove family suffers from trauma caused by single, startling events, but also in the form of daily, grinding oppression, whereby the parents pass their suffering on to their children. The Breedlove's daughter, Pecola, is especially sensitive to the fearful, repetitively ritualized violence that her parents direct toward each other and their children. Her further devaluation by the world, with little relief except from her playmates and the whores who befriend her, includes constant ridicule from other school children because of her dark skin, poverty and ugliness. The black boys who torment her fail to recognize a fellow member of their community. As Michael Awkward observes, their insults ironically reflect "their ability to disregard their similarity to their victim; the verse they compose to belittle her ('Black e mo...Yadaddsleepsnekked') reflects their own skin color and, quite possibly, familial situations" (191). White attitudes toward blacks are exemplified in Pecola's encounter with the storeowner, Mr. Yacobowski: "She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition- the glazed separateness" (42). In this context Pecola becomes especially vulnerable to the sudden, violent traumas of being beaten and rejected by her mother Pauline, and by the more horrific traumas of being raped by her father Cholly and then losing the baby.

Pecola's parents, furthermore, are often powerless themselves, subject to the whites who employ them, victims of their poverty and the culture which invalidates them. In addition, they themselves have been physically or emotionally abandoned by their families- Cholly was rejected by both of his parents, Pauline was made an outsider because of a limp. Traumatized children themselves, they continue the trauma by denying their own weakness in their abuse of parental power, by instilling their own fears of impotence, and by calling upon their children to fulfill their own unmet needs.

Never valued as an individual when she was a child, Pauline continues throughout her life to seek approval in others' eyes, particularly in her position as a servant for whites. In the one place that she feels powerful- the kitchen of the white family for whom she works- she attacks her daughter (who has spilled a cobbler), and in turn denies her own place in the world when she not only fails to acknowledge Pecola but also comforts the white family's child. Pecola's desire for blue eyes is in fact an inheritance from Pauline herself; based on idealized white images- images of acceptance and beauty completely disconnected from herself and her blackness- Pauline's desire is to look like Jean Harlow. Pauline and Pecola, like the rest of the black community, have internalized the pervasive standard of whiteness: in the white dolls they buy their children, in the movies they watch and emulate, and in their privileging of the light-skinned black child, Maureen Peal, over the darker children. Donald Gibson points out that even through narrative, in the use of the school primer as a structuring device, Morrison has foregrounded the way that their lives are "contained within the framework of the values of the dominant culture and subjected to those values" (21). More subtly, she uses the motif of trauma to suggest the overwhelming power that the larger white culture wields in its slow, relentless obliteration of the value of blackness, which forces them to affirm the dominant perspective because cultivating awareness of their own collusion would bring incredible pain, no readily available form of action, and increased hopelessness.

Cholly's traumatized past ultimately leads to consequences that are even more devastating for his daughter. After being abandoned by his parents, the most formatively brutalizing incident in Cholly's youth was the interruption of his first sexual encounter by armed whites. The experience of being forced by the white hunters to continue relations with his partner constitutes a trauma not only in its humiliating intensity, but also in the impossibility of his being able to react to the situation. The displacement of his anger onto his fellow victim Darlene, as Gibson notes (28), reveals the extent and depth of his psychic wound: "Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless" (119). Cholly, in short, cannot assimilate the truth of his subjugation without being annihilated by a sense of his own powerlessness.

When the environment sustains him, i.e., when his marriage and work are stable, Cholly copes well, but when these sources of support and stability are taken away his past returns to plague his present actions. Psychological research indicates that stress causes "state dependent returns to earlier behavior patterns" (Van der Kolk & Van der Hart 444). A stressful situation will cause thoughts to travel along the same pathways as those connected to a previous traumatic event, and if immediate stimuli recall this event, the individual will be transported back to that somatic (bodily) state and react accordingly; responding as if faced with past threat, and losing "the mental synthesis that constitutes reflective will and belief," the individual will simply "transform into automatic wills and beliefs the impulses which are momentarily the strongest" (445). Such is the process which accounts in part for Cholly's rape of Pecola.

When Pecola makes a gesture which reminds him of the tender feelings he once had for Pauline, Pecola's sadness and helplessness and his own inability to make her happy provoke a repetition of the violent impotence and the helpless fear that he and Darlene felt with the white men. His angry response toward Darlene returns and becomes confounded with feelings of love for Pauline and Pecola, and also with self hatred, because Pecola is like Cholly once was, small and impotent. His pessimistic attitudes toward life, himself and his capacity to love return to this traumatic context, and he loses the ability to approach life or his daughter positively. One way for him to rid himself of his fears is to project them onto Pecola, and in part he tries to destroy those fears by raping her.

This type of projection as a manifestation of the trauma victim's dissociation from the truth of his or her situation is not unique to Cholly. The community in which the Breedlove family lives also projects its own sense of devaluation onto the Breedloves, dismissing them for being "low," ugly outsiders, when actually they are merely extreme examples of the larger group's own abasement by white culture. An important example of this projection may be seen in the way that another member of their community, Geraldine, separates herself from "trashy" blacks like Pecola, who she believes threaten her position vis a vis whites.

She looked at Pecola, Saw the dirty torn dress, the plaits sticking out on her head, hair matted where the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeping out from between the cheap soles....She had seen this little girl all of her life....[children like Pecola] crowded into pews at church, taking space from the nice, neat colored children....Like flies they hovered; like flies they settled. And this one had settled in her house. (75)

In her poverty and blackness, Pecola represents everything that Geraldine is "fighting to suppress," and in telling Pecola to leave her house she is "attempting to rid herself of her fears of her own unworthiness, of her own shadow of blackness" (Awkward 194). Geraldine's disregard of Pecola represents what Donald Gibson sees as Morrison's acknowledgment of the black community's participation in its own oppression (21). Geraldine and others fail to recognize that they are outsiders in a white world. Not recognizing that they themselves are what Morrison calls a "pariah community," they reject and revile their own members, like the Breedloves, whereas they should examine the condition of such despised members as "useful for the conscience of that community," so that they can realistically evaluate their own subjugation (Tate Interview 129).

Though not specifically addressing trauma, many critics of Morrison's work, in particular Cynthia A. Davis, analyze how oppression is represented in the form of "psychic violence," i.e., the destructiveness of a white racist society which is not always physically brutal, but destroys by engaging in "the systematic denial of the reality of black lives" (323). Roberta Rubenstein also sees Morrison's work as illustrating that the "constriction of the growth of the self is implicitly linked to restrictive or oppressive cultural circumstances" (126). Like Davis and Rubenstein, I believe that the role of scapegoat which is assigned to the abused child Pecola in The Bluest Eye reveals the connection between her devastated life and those of the other individuals in her community. Not psychically able to acknowledge their own lack of power, their seeming lack of sympathy with Pecola is really a displacement "onto the Other all that is feared in the self" (Davis 328). To avoid a sense of their own victimization, the community projects its sense of inferiority onto Pecola, who "is the epitome of the victim in a world that reduces persons to objects and then makes them feel inferior as objects"; in order to escape from a similar fate their response is to act within "the interlocking hierarchies that allow most to feel superior to someone" (Davis 330).

The traumatic context of Duras's The Vice-Consul is Third World destitution endured personally by one native character and observed by European colonists living in India. The novel opens with a colonial narrator and character imagining the thoughts and actions of a beggar woman he has seen. He gives an extended account of the beggar, who as a girl had become pregnant through her own ignorance and was subsequently driven away from home by her mother. The narrative follows the beggar's wandering on the roads from Cambodia to Calcutta, surviving despite the experience of being outcast and pregnant and of giving birth to numerous subsequent children whom she abandons out of madness and destitution. Throughout the narrative she longs to be a child again, imagining a return to her mother and clinging to all that she has left of the safety of childhood and home, i.e., scraps of memories and a word, the name of her town.

Interspersed with the beggar's story is that of a group of European colonists who are appalled at the apparent breakdown of one of their own- specifically the eponymous Vice-Consul, Jean-Marc de H., a colonial official, who has shot at a group of East Indian lepers in the Shalimar Gardens. This incident is not only harmful to his career but disrupts the veneer of control that the colonials have amidst the extreme poverty, disease and misery that lie just outside the walls of their enclaves. The other male colonials, Peter Morgan, Charles Rossett, Michael Richardson, and the French ambassador, Stretter, avoid and abhor the Vice-Consul's instability and betrayal of their social and psychological order. He gets marginal sympathy from the ambassador's wife, Anne Marie Stretter, who, like Jean-Marc, is affected deeply by the misery around her, but who also helps distract and protect her many lovers in the colony from the realities of the Third World: with her, they believe that "all the sorrows of the world wash over them in waves" m(93). Although Jean-Marc and Anne Marie never meet the beggar, both are textually linked to her in several ways: by geographical proximity, in being abandoned by parents early in life, and by their manifestations of madness and sorrow. The other men try to keep Anne Marie away from Jean-Marc because his influence would bring on despair and compromise her role as an emotional buffer for them. On at least a subconscious level all these Europeans mirror in a milder way the traumatic responses of the beggar in their denials of and dissociations from reality.

Both Morrison and Duras portray adults as preying on children and destroying their innocence: Pecola is raped by her father, and the fate of Duras's beggar began when she was a young Cambodian girl who became impregnated by a neighbor. "I went into the forest with him," the girl says simply; "I am too young to understand" (10). Like Pecola, the girl is still a child, but menstruating, and so she is treated as an adult for adult needs. When the Cambodian girl's mother rejects her for becoming pregnant and forces her out into the world to beg because of her "adult" behavior, she is refusing to see the girl as still a child and is choosing on behalf of the survival of her younger children. The mother's ruthless detachment from her daughter, like those in Pecola's community, could also be a strategy of survival, an avoidance of the pain of feeling that one is powerless to change one's situation because this truth is too overwhelming. Although the mother inflicts a traumatizing emotional and physical isolation upon her daughter, the text leaves open the possibility that though the mother's anger, like Cholly's toward Pecola, is directed at the daughter, it may stem from the impossibility of any other kind of action, given her own destitute situation and belief in sexual taboos.

The child victims created by Morrison and Duras are the embodiment of traumatic knowledge that, once understood and articulated, would reveal fearful truths about the other characters' lives. This knowledge, denied by victims and observers alike, sets individuals apart from one another, and underlies separations by skin color, cultural affiliation, class, etc., that help to maintain hierarchies of power. The "communities" depicted in The Bluest Eye and in The Vice-Consul all lack an ability to recognize themselves and their own experience in the outcasts they shun. They illustrate what Judith Herman so aptly describes as the communal expedience of forgetting such truths: "Repression, dissociation and denial are phenomena of social as well as individual consciousness" (9).

Neither her family nor community can offer Pecola support- the latter are embarrassed or revolted by her incestuous pregnancy and madness. They blame the "dog" Cholly, but cannot offer her comfort because her situation is an extreme of their own unacknowledged powerlessness. The narrator Claudia admits: "All of us felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her....Even her waking dreams we used- to silence our own nightmares....We honed our egos on her....and yawned in the fantasy of our strength" (159). It is this lack of understanding and response that Morrison attacks, the toleration of isolated suffering, which in fact not only reflects but also perpetuates collective suffering. For all the Breedloves, trauma stems from their devastated, love-deprived lives, from a barren cultural landscape, a "soil [which] is bad for certain flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong of course..." (160). According to Claudia, in 1930s America the oppressed and traumatized cannot help one another because the only power they have available to them is that of feeling superior to the weakest. This is especially evident in the treatment of children. Alice Miller stresses that the kind of contempt and violence shown to children is really the weapon of the weak to mask their own feelings of helplessness and loneliness (67-69). Morrison's work often recognizes the mistreatment of children (e.g., Sula and Beloved) and, though attributing it to adults who have also been brutalized, she nevertheless does not condone their abuse of power.

The madness brought on by the victimization of the two child protagonists frightens others. The people of her town avoid Pecola and exacerbate her separateness by removing her from school because of her uncanny, staring eyes. The beggar in Duras's novel similarly terrifies other characters, such as the British colonist Charles Rossett. When she approaches him covered with mud, her "unwavering smile is terrifying" (163) as she bites the head off a live fish in his presence. Unable to endure the reality of her madness and her filth, he runs toward the safety of the fence which encloses his hotel, and which separates the whites from the people of color, the rich from the poor, the colonists from the colonized. Rossett is afraid of the beggar because he cannot tolerate that which he cannot act upon, that which would make him despair, i.e., madness, hopelessness, poverty, the forces of nature, all of which the beggar represents. He and the other colonists do not want to acknowledge that they might also be vulnerable to these forces. Hence, the beggar- but also the Vice-Consul, one of the few colonials who can empathize and give up the illusion of emotional control- become the objects of others' fear or scorn in order that these others can avoid their own role in the oppression and destitution they witness. In The Bluest Eye, avoidance of these individuals enables those in the larger group to mask their fears and their collusion in systems that degraded themselves; in The Vice-Consul, the colonizers mask their fear, their privileged status, and their weakness in the face of abjection through denial and avoidance.

In their discussion of trauma, Van der Kolk and Van der Hart explain that "a feeling of helplessness, of physical or emotional paralysis, is fundamental to making an experience traumatic: the person was in a position of being unable to take any action that could affect the outcome of events," and because appropriate categorization of experience was impaired, traumatic experience cannot be integrated into memory as with normal events (446). A failure to make sense of these past experiences results in fixed ideas which create repetitive and impotent activities around attempted recreations of the event, and leads to dissociation, where the individual becomes "emotionally constricted and cannot experience a full range of affects." At its worst, personality development is arrested and "cannot expand any more by the addition or assimilation of new elements" (432). In a traumatic experience the past remains unresolved and lingering, because it is not processed in the way that normal information is: either cognitively or emotionally. Non-traumatic memories lose their force, for when new ideas and information become stored, they "are constantly combined with old knowledge to form flexible mental schemas," and once an event is within a larger scheme, the remembrance of it changes and the event cannot be accessed as an individual element anymore. In contrast, traumatic memories are those which are frozen in time, not subject to a previous contextualization or to subsequent experience, and are therefore reexperienced without change (441-42). The reality of the traumatic event "continues to elude the subject who lives in its grip and unwittingly undergoes its ceaseless repetitions and reenactments" (Felman & Laub 69). Moreover, Van der Kolk and Ducey affirm that "a sudden and passively endured trauma is relived repeatedly, until a person learns to remember simultaneously the affect and cognition associated with the trauma through access to language" (271).

In a traumatic context repetition can be an attempt to attack one's own fears, as in Cholly's rape of Pecola, but it can also be a sign of being caught in stasis, of not being able to move on and resolve the initial trauma. Pecola's compulsion to repeat begins after her rape. In her conversations with her imaginary friend, her obsessive but ineffectual questioning of herself and what happened with her father- "He just tried, see? He didn't do anything. You hear me?" (154)- exhibits some of the repetition and dissociation common in the victims of such experience, and this coupled with her mother's denial- "She didn't even believe me when I told her" (155)- cuts Pecola off from any reconcilable knowledge of what she endured. Pecola takes her other "voice" (a split-off part of herself) to task for continuing to question her about what happened with Cholly, expressing a desperate need to be believed, to understand, and yet to forget and deny as well. Her response is very similar to that of many trauma victims, who, as Robert Jay Lifton has observed, feel compelled both to confront and to avoid traumatic experience (162-63).

Pecola's desire for blue eyes becomes obsessive after her rape, and her conviction that she has been given them by Soaphead Church (the man who promises her a miracle) indicates a complete psychic disintegration. Her own negative reflection in others' eyes has been the continual source of her pain, and her main wish is that her reflection be desirable. The extent of Pecola's obsession and pathology at this stage is presented through hallucinations, through her resistance to blinking, and her delusional view that others envy her gift. "Look. I can look right at the sun..." she says, "I don't even have to blink...He really did a good job. Everybody's jealous. Every time I look at somebody, they look off" (151). Her obsessive return to the mirror for reassurance that her "blue eyes" are the bluest and the nicest- "How many times a minute are you going to look?" her "friend" asks (150)- also represents a textual repetition of the destructive power of judgment based solely on appearance and prejudice.

With this repeated theme and imagery Morrison underscores her critique of the way that an individual's entire being is reduced to and determined in a glance, just as she is deeply critical of insubstantial and superficial images that lead to the creation of false selves and which assign such power to the gazer. Pecola's belief that she has blue eyes represents her pitiable attempt to take power, for she is now the one who looks, but they more importantly symbolize the trauma of not being loved. She defends against her pain by reexperiencing others' gazes with what she believes is an acceptable, if not loveable, appearance. Ironically, this delusion makes her more of an outcast because her madness spooks everyone, including her mother. In our last glimpse of Pecola, her wandering in a regressive animal-like state is punctuated by useless, repetitive movements:

The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach- could not even see- but which filled the valleys of the mind. (158)

Duras's beggar acts in an even more repetitive fashion, particularly after the loss of her first child. The successive abandonment of her children is but one scenario connected with her own abandonment. In order to survive and obtain food she must prostitute herself to other fishermen, forcing her to reenact the original loveless sexual encounter which led to her pregnancy and rejection. Her somnambulistic, interminable walking also exhibits reenactive and dissociative responses to trauma. In wandering, she is obeying her mother's early commands to leave. As she is about to leave the first child behind, she feels that the word for her home village, "Battambang," will protect her- a word she will repeat, the only word remaining to her, signifying a desire to return home to her mother and to the past (46, 48-49).

This unproductive traumatic activity is also subtly linked by both Morrison and Duras to metaphors of nature or fecundity gone awry. Pecola, just become a biological woman at age eleven, cannot sustain her father's unwanted seed. In The Vice-Consul, like the cloyingly sweet custard apples, children are obscenely abundant beyond what can be sustained and are consequently wasted (just as in another of Duras's novels set in Indochina, The Sea Wall, the dead bodies of children are said to make the land fertile). Each girl (Pecola and the beggar) carries a child (or children in the beggar's case) that is lost or left behind, and these losses create dissociation and deterioration from which they never recover. In the beggar girl's rejection of her first, and subsequent infants, Duras represents in "the abandonment of a child the scandalous limit of dispossession: the limit of misery, of un-awareness, of madness" (Borgomano 489). When babies do not survive, the future is cut off; so the loss of these children is a powerful symbol of an ultimate loss of the future. As the narrator of The Bluest Eye says, "I felt a need for someone to want the black baby [Pecola's] to live- just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls..." (148).

The most severe traumatic loss of the beggar girl's life was having to give up her first child, a girl. Although she knew that she would never be able to find work with a child in tow, she had heard that whites will sometimes take in children (38). Accordingly, she pursued a French woman and begged her to take her ill, starving child, which the mother did (40-43)- as Duras's own mother once did (Vircondelet 37; Borgomano 491). While the French foster-mother consults with a doctor and cries over the obviously doomed infant, the baby's girl-mother observes: "It no longer concerns me. It is the business of other women now. You [the baby] in addition to myself, an impossible association, yet how hard it was to separate us" (49). And then to dramatize this dissociation, the narrative shifts to the third person:

The doctor approaches the newly-washed infant, and gives it an injection. The child gives a feeble cry....Unconsciously, she mimics the grimace on the child's crumpled face. For the rest of her life she will feel, between her shoulders, the pressure of the child's weight, her exact weight now. Alive or dead, for her the child will never exceed that weight. The girl leaves the spot from which she has been watching. She turns her back, now bare of its burden, on the window. She leaves. (49-50)

Speaking for and about her, Duras's narrator predicts that the girl will in turn abandon all her other children after this one, that she will put them aside, miss them briefly and forget them. This detachment from them can be explained as a way of coping with the loss of the first child; in order to keep that original pain at bay, she shuts down affectively and separates herself from them both physically and emotionally. In doing so she also repeats her own traumatic separation from her mother.

When individuals are exposed to trauma, i.e., a frightening event outside of ordinary human experience, they experience "speechless terror" (Van der Kolk & Van der Hart 442). Traumatic memory, psychoanalyst Judith Herman explains, is "wordless and static" and initially iconic or visual (175, 177); it also manifests itself in "behavioral reenactments, nightmares [or] flashbacks" because traumatic experience "cannot be easily translated into the symbolic language necessary for linguistic retrieval" (Van der Kolk & Van der Hart 442-43). Traumatic experience creates a "loss of voice...of knowledge, of awareness, of truth, of the capacity to feel...and to speak" (Felman & Laub 231-32). In order to help the individual to reexperience the past fully and affectively, it is therefore necessary for the therapist to encourage the victim to construct a completed narrative of the event, including "a full and vivid description of the traumatic imagery" (Herman 177). Duras and Morrison are "textual" therapists who attempt to recover traumatic experience from the silence and repression that attends it.

In both novels there is an attempt to speak for victims virtually silenced by the process of trauma. First, this takes the form of trying to articulate the victims' own words, suggesting their traumatized condition through the narratively dissociative yet emotionally overdetermined quality of these words. For example, the only word left to the beggar, the name of her hometown, "Battambang," is repeatedly invoked to emphasize her desire to return home (though there is some indication that she would no longer recognize it), and to symbolize the safe place of childhood. Even though this is the place of her mother's rejection of her, she longs to speak in her own language (she has strayed, symbolically, out of her own country). The narrator informs us that she speaks to her absent mother now that she no longer has the child to hear her, but she remains silenced in effect because her word(s) remain incomprehensible to others.

Julia Kristeva asserts that in Duras's texts the sense of loss or void is presented as "unused affects and in a discourse emptied of meaning," but that her texts also speak a "discourse of blunted pain," which represents "the trace of an absence" (140, 146). That is, all that is left for these dispossessed individuals is a profound sense of absence of self or of significant others. Kristeva does not directly link Duras's characterization and discourse to traumatic reactions, but I would argue that these "traces" also correspond to the left-over emotions and the inarticulateness common to victims of trauma, and that if such emptiness is in keeping with Duras's general philosophy, it is also important to acknowledge that this philosophical conception is born in a context of trauma and takes the form of a psychological critique of oppression.

Pecola similarly seeks comfort in words. In part she seeks understanding of what her father has done to her, but her conflicted dialogue with a split-off persona of herself also illustrates how much she has been isolated and how her pain and need to speak are ignored by her community and even her family. To characterize this self-splitting, Morrison utilizes an interchange of roman type and italics: "How come you don't talk to anybody? I talk to you....I just wondered. You don't talk to anybody. You don't go to school. And nobody talks to you. How do you know nobody talks to me? They don't. When you're in the house with me, even Mrs. Breedlove doesn't say anything to you. Ever. Sometimes I wonder if she even sees you" (153). Hence, both writers are faced with two important issues when speaking for these protagonists: first, there is the necessity of communicating their experience so that it will be known; second, there is the question of how this can be done when the characters are cut off from linguistic connections or from dialogue with others. They address this dilemma by creating other voices to compensate for the gaps.

Outsider narrators are employed by both writers to supplement the victims' voices and to construct the "completed narration" that is essential for their stories to be fully told and for the therapeutic function of such telling to occur. By demonstrating the limitations of their narrators, however, both writers also acknowledge the problem of the further oppression that might result from the attempt to give voices to oppressed victims. Morrison tells Pecola's story in part through an omniscient narrator and primarily through the sympathetic eyes of Claudia, who has been Pecola's friend and who realizes the harm done to Pecola by the community, including herself in that complicity: "She seemed to fold into herself, like a pleated wing. Her pain antagonized me" (61); "We tried to see her without looking at her...because we had failed her" (158). Not only is Claudia sympathetic toward Pecola, but she is also self-conscious and self-critical about her own complicity. In this way, through her narrative we are doubly exposed to the dynamics and effects of racism. Similarly, if Claudia is an insider in the way she experiences some of the same pain as Pecola, she is also an outsider and privileged in the sense that having been loved, she possesses the strength to have her own desires. Outsider and insider at the same time, she is sympathetically aware of the need to recognize her community's role and their own defeat in Pecola's disintegration.

Duras's use of a male narrator to tell the story of an abused girl is equally effective in drawing attention to the suspect position of speaking for (i.e., defining) an other. Peter Morgan tries to understand the tragedy of Calcutta through the narration of the beggar's story, and his hope is that "wisdom may start to grow out of bitter experience" (18). In his narrative appropriation of others' suffering, however, Morgan indulges in what Eric Santner would call "narrative fetishism," i.e., "the construction and deployment of a narrative consciously or unconsciously designed to expunge the traces of the trauma or loss that called that narrative into being in the first place" (144). As Duras portrays him, Morgan, like most of the other colonists, keeps himself remote from the horrors of deprivation surrounding him by creating a narrative about a dispossessed beggar woman whom he sees in Calcutta. Only by focusing in on one case of destitution in a fictional form can he approach the woman's condition from a safe distance: "I am drunk with the sufferings of India. Aren't we all, more or less? It's impossible to talk about such suffering unless one has made it as much a part of oneself as breathing. That woman stirs my imagination. I note down my thoughts about her" (124). The identification with suffering that Morgan claims for himself is actually more true of the Vice-Consul (whom Morgan studiously avoids) and Anne Marie Stretter, who are both immediately and emotionally affected by India, and almost driven mad by it. Thus Morgan's approach reveals the fear, denial and repression characteristic of the colonists' position, and though he uses his own memory and others' accounts to "explain the madness of the beggar woman of Calcutta" (54), he remains out of touch with the sources and contexts of her madness.

Morgan's attempt to identify with this woman and with India through language is also problematic because she has no available language with which to express herself and her sufferings. Up to a point Morgan is aware of this problem: "How to put into words the things she never said?...How to describe the things that she does not know she has seen, the experiences that she does not know she has had? How to reconstruct the forgotten years?" (55). Duras displays here an awareness of possible appropriation and the simultaneous need to understand that occasions any narrative. We should also notice the way that Duras ultimately removes the beggar from the control of the colonial viewer of her story. That is, though Morgan's narrative serves to establish the story's context and the voices of the colonists, Duras follows the beggar further than he does and allows her to surpass the definition and containment of Morgan's narrative when she is described toward the end of the novel by an unidentified neutral narrator. The beggar here emerges in an almost triumphant madness, as if in panoply; she ceases here to be the one who helps another (Morgan) to understand himself and becomes someone whose presence demands recognition in and of itself. By bringing her into contact with the obsessively rational Englishman Rossett, Duras forces a colonist to confront directly the awful reality of the beggar- i.e., one of their colonized subjects- and he is horrified by the encounter (163-64).

In The Vice-Consul the beggar becomes an externalized symbol of oppression and of the sufferings Duras witnessed during her childhood in Indochina; she becomes what Madeleine Borgomano has called the "generating cell" of Duras's work. In her more autobiographical novels (The Sea Wall, The Lover, and The North China Lover) the beggar is deeply mourned and internalized into the workings of the narrator's identity and Duras's relation to her family. According to Maria DeBattista, she "comes to symbolize for Duras the negative interpenetration of figure and world, indeed represents...the possibility of representing the sufferings of the world, the brutalities of colonialism...and it is here, and here only, that literature stops and writing becomes sacred- here where it rejoins the world as a transgressive text insistent on its sins but penitent for its self-absorption" (295). In many of Duras's texts the characters are caught in madness and pain without social context and these works would seem to reinforce Kristeva's argument that in Duras's work political life becomes unreal, that "madness represents a space of antisocial, apolitical, and paradoxically, free individuation" (143). Certainly, in many of her texts traumatic events are measured in the context of individualized human pain; to focus on the victims' pain, however, does not remove the influence of the world, but rather emphasizes the human consequences of its machinations. In The Vice-Consul, and later works such as The Lover and The North China Lover, the contexts of colonized India and Indochina are specified, and it is precisely through Duras's rendering of the effects on individuals of such contexts that we can measure the traumatic impact of world events and practices. The "generating cell" that fuels her need to write is part of a real childhood memory- of her mother buying a dying infant from a beggar woman: "The act has remained with me in an opaqueness from which I will never emerge...the event recurs to me as a problem to resolve with the only means that I have, that is, writing...I have tried to put it in literature...and I have not succeeded" (cited in Borgomano 491, trans. mine). Much of Duras's writing has been an attempt to understand this woman's act, an event which has continued to haunt her, and which cannot be separated in her mind from the larger context of destitution and colonialism in the Third World.

Morrison's work also shows a strong awareness that victims of trauma are mentally imprisoned and isolated by their traumatic experience, and she makes it very clear that disturbed relationships reflect and interconnect with a broader social context. Focusing on traumatized characters who return to unresolved memories, she suggests that our ability to change the nature of our attachments to others depends on whether we evaluate the past and examine our behaviors and relations in it. What is especially needed from all black writers, she says, is "the clear identification of what the enemy forces are, not this person or that person and so on, but the acknowledgment of a way of life dreamed up for us by some other people who are at the moment in power, and knowing the ways in which it can be subverted" ("Memory" 146). Thus the message that underlies her focus on traumatized victims is not merely that they are oppressed, but that correcting the situation cannot be done by solitary individuals who are psychologically and even physically immobilized. This is why Morrison emphasizes communal or collective knowledge, solidarity, refusal and resistance: "If my work is to be functional to the group then it must bear witness and identify that which is useful from the must make it possible to prepare for the present and live it out, and it must do that not by avoiding problems and contradictions but by examining them" ("Memory" 389). In a world where the social, racial and political exercise of power creates destruction of the human psyche so that it cannot oppose domination, Morrison's emphatic message is that the traumatized responses of individuals must not be relegated to the domestic sphere but should instead be seen as a clear signal that destructive forces are at work. For Morrison, the act of narration can be one means in the process of collecting and sharing knowledge heretofore held by "discredited people," a means of resisting the urge to see collective victimization only as individualized ("Memory" 388; Davis Interview 146).

There is a tendency for both those involved and the outsiders to want to forget or cover up real traumas. As Judith Herman explains, to become aware of extreme abuses leads us "into realms of the unthinkable and...forces us to face human vulnerability and our capacity for evil, forces us to bear witness to horrible events"; to become aware also sometimes requires that one take sides between victims and perpetrators, especially where the perpetrators promote forgetting and defend themselves through secrecy, silence, denial and undermining of victims' accusations (7-8). Duras and Morrison want their readers to confront the unthinkable, to be able to demystify what is denied or rationalized, to help readers unfold those "unspeakable things unspoken" that Morrison refers to in discussing the exclusion of African Americans from American literary and cultural history ("Unspeakable" 1). Morrison has said: "My writing expects, demands participatory's about involving the reader. The reader supplies the emotions" (Tate Interview 125). Duras similarly will not let go of the injustices she witnessed in her youth in Indochina, incorporating them in her writing as much as possible, and she goes even further than Morrison in describing her engaged readers' connection to her texts as "a private relationship between the book and the reader. They weep and grieve together" (Practicalities 107).

What can be the writer's rights and goals in describing such misery? Can such abjection be understood? Morrison and Duras are very sensitive to how the social construction of individuals and the internalization of inferior status can be formidable and brutal. They suggest that oppression and resulting psychic vulnerability will be perpetuated unless memories are collectively articulated and shared, and this I posit is where the greatest value of their work lies: in helping readers to empathize with and share the victim's experience from the victim's point of view, and in insisting through their portrayal of narrators that we all must explore our own role in this victimization, whether our guilt take the form of direct responsibility or complicity. Through their depiction of the larger social contexts of trauma, Morrison and Duras urge their readers to remember and evaluate the wrongs of the past. They recognize what Shoshana Felman calls the importance of testifying about what has been forgotten or repressed: "To testify is thus not merely to narrate but to commit oneself, and to commit the narrative, to others: to take responsibility- in speech- for history or for the truth of an occurrence, for something which, by definition, goes beyond the personal, in having general (nonpersonal) validity and consequences" (204). Both writers acknowledge that the inarticulate victims of abuse can be spoken for only inadequately, can be understood only partially, and yet that they need such interpretation from outside because they cannot do it alone. In giving each of their characters the opportunity to speak or to act in his or her own right, however briefly, Duras and Morrison give us a sense of the victim's limited ability to communicate and act, and his or her need to find empathetic ears.


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LAURIE VICKROY is Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University. Her essays have appeared in Modern Language Studies, Obsidian and The Journal of Durassian Studies. She is currently writing a book-length study of Marguerite Duras and Toni Morrison which examines their writing in the contexts of mothering, trauma and narrative.

Publication Information: Article Title: The Politics of Abuse: The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras. Contributors: Laurie Vickroy - author. Journal Title: Mosaic. Volume: 29. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1996. Page Number: 91+. COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Manitoba, Mosaic; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group