On Learning to Live

Or had he invented that tender moment to prop up the madness to come?
Le Jetée (1963)

This is a more personal account inspired, as it were, by Jacques Derrida’s proclamation of 'learning to live, finally.'1 The nature of the topic at hand comes with its own sort of warning label. As such, I’m granting myself permission to write freely; which is to say, it’s going to be messy and perhaps offered in final form as a sort of incomplete completion. Written in response to Catherine Malabou’s seminar, “Unconscious and Negativity: Freud, Lacan and Their Critical Legacies” presented at The European Graduate School in June-July 2021, this essay will further explore the intersection of the unconscious, trauma, and survival.

What I have come to appreciate about Freud is his ability to put himself at risk, be wrong, expand, or even change his mind, and we can follow along with this trajectory of thought across his texts. In his early work, he theorizes that all trauma comes from the outside, such as accidents, natural disasters, or acts of violence — birth itself being the first. But the discovery of the unconscious further complicates this theory due to the ever-present, ever-pressing drives, the mediation of the extremes of life and death. With this in mind, he expands his theory of trauma to include a trauma whose origin is internal; indeed, for Freud, the genuine traumatic form comes from within. He goes on to suggest that, in fact, all trauma received from the outside actually triggers this primitive internal traumatic wound. Thus the real source of the traumatic, for Freud, is the unconscious, and this is what Lacan will later call the Real. The Real is, as Malabou suggests, 'this kind of anonymous, non-symbolizable nature of the trauma.'2 It is the trauma that cannot be explained. It remains inaccessible, and as such, what is narrated is never the original, but always a version. At the same time, non-symbolizable does not mean that it is without structure, for Lacan will also say that the unconscious is structured as language. To take this even further, and to which we’ll return later, for Derrida language is a pharmakon, at once both medicine and poison.

Malabou explains that 'the unconscious is the way in which we hide the blows of the different traumas we've been going through all our life.'3 The unconscious functions as a sort of archival knowledge, and the traumatic as such is this always and already non-present present; a kind of immemorial trace. Trauma as this non-present present is especially troublesome for those of us suffering from PTSD and Malabou’s category of the new wounded. In her book, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Malabou explores the subject of cerebral suffering as psychic suffering. The new wounded are defined as victims with brain lesions, head trauma, degenerative brain diseases, and those whom psychoanalysis have unsuccessfully attempted to cure (such as schizophrenics), but also 'every patient in a state of shock who, without having suffered brain lesions, has seen his or her neuronal organization and psychic equilibrium permanently changed by trauma.'4 The new wounded are defined not only by the traumatic event, but by the repercussions of the wound; that is, by their behavior. In a fascinating observation, the 'behavior of subjects who are victims of trauma linked to mistreatment, war, terrorist attacks, captivity, or sexual abuse display striking resemblances with subjects who have suffered brain damage [emphasis added].'5 To be clear, according to Malabou, 'there is no trauma, therefore, without impact upon cerebrality.'6 What emerges from the new wounded as a result of such disruption of identity is a new subject.

For Malabou, the new wounded have replaced the madmen of ancient medicine.7 In the aftermath of my own escape from domestic violence, madness has been a topic of interest. I have found particular resonance in learning that Nietzsche went mad after witnessing a horse being beaten. As the story goes, he threw his arms around the horse’s neck while weeping, and then collapsed. Never again the same, he spent the remaining 11 years of his life burdened by this madness. What is ironic is that it was Nietzsche who was almost arrested in this instance for having disturbed the peace. Interestingly, a similar story of attempted intervention can be found in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment — whose writings Nietzsche admired — but this time, as cruelty escalates it is the horse that gives up to injury, collapses and dies.8 Dostoevsky, for whom animals were especially significant, had diary entries illustrating how one’s 'relation to animals reflects our ethical relation to other humans.'9 In another entry, a person is found beating their horse, and it is suggested that he might very well return home to beat his wife. This, for Dostoevsky, is 'something that very graphically demonstrated the link between cause and its effect. Every blow that rained down on the animal was the direct result of every blow that fell on man.'10 The particularities of my own feelings of madness and subsequent abuse began in an eerily similar manner.

In processing my own experience as a victim of domestic violence, it was the writings on war, prisoners of war, the torture associated with war and prisoners of war, and PTSD from war trauma that resonated more than contemporary writings on domestic abuse. Turning to Malabou’s work was like being offered a new language for something before which I had no words. In what can only be described as torture, I experienced time and again a certain confrontation with death — strangulation in particular made me vulnerable to this confrontation, but this wasn’t the worst of it or even the most traumatic. Nothing can prepare you for an unexpected confrontation with death. I think Freud said it well when describing the traumatic as 'any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield.'11 And when an event such as this then continues to happen regularly, as in the case of extreme domestic violence or other forms of torture, such trauma becomes its own sort of hell — each encounter might very well be the final. In this case, having been rendered entirely defenseless, the traumatic ruptures a protective shield that is at once bodily and psychical.

Characteristic of this psychic life of torture is the compulsion to repeat, for the traumatic illness does not disappear after the event. Rather, such illnesses 'become so much more complex and severe.'12 As Cathy Caruth explains, 'consciousness, once faced with the possibility of its death, can do nothing but repeat the destructive event over and over again.'13 This posttraumatic state is a gaping wound; a lacunae of trauma. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok would call this gaping wound a psychic tomb, or a crypt, in which we bury unbearable violence. As a burial place within the self, a site of failed mourning, this psychic tomb becomes home to an undead ghost. While Abraham and Torok’s theories of crypt and phantom concern transgenerational trauma, it is applicable to individual trauma as well. As Gabriele Schwab notes, 'It can also include the loss of self after a trauma such as rape, torture, or severe forms of rejection and humiliation. A crypt could thus, for example, be built as a tomb for one’s lost self.'14 This ‘lost self’ feels like the opposite side of the same coin when paired with Malabou’s new wounded, as the unrecognizable self for which there is a distinct before and after(math).        

For Derrida, language is what becomes harbored in the crypt, the undead ghost in the form of traumatic words and silences that have been buried alive.15 Schwab takes this further to suggest that such words are 'shrouded in secrecy or relegated to the unconscious.'16 Language, and writing as the tangible expression of language, go hand-in-hand. For Freud the psychic apparatus is a writing machine and the unconscious is shaped by this writing, a cryptographic writing bearing the marks of the trace, the inscription, and encryption. It is both haunted and haunting. As Avital Ronell recently expressed, the written scream is the traumatic origin of all writing.17 Returning again to Derrida’s conception of language as pharmakon, at once both medicine and poison, within the unconscious, writing functions as a negotiation between the extremes of life and death. It operates, Rosaura Ruiz suggests, as a 'parenthesis, a detour, impasse, or circuitous route to death.'18 Indeed, we write in order to defer or delay death.

Speaking from my own experience, trauma has absolutely functioned as a pharmakon. I’ve wrestled with the question of what healing looks like for a posttraumatic state that can only be described as a gaping wound. For me, healing looks like survival that looks like learning how to live, finally. And there is a sense in which this learning how to live is a learning how to live with ghosts, which comes with being awakened — just as we can’t see ghosts, but we are aware when objects are, perhaps metaphorically, moved around the room. Caruth points out in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that 'the beginning of the drive… is not the traumatic imposition of death, but rather the traumatic 'awakening' to life. Life itself, Freud says, is an awakening out of a ‘death’ for which there was no preparation.'19 Thus trauma, as 'an accident that takes consciousness by surprise and thus disrupts it' becomes for Freud, the 'very origin of consciousness and all of life itself.'20 Alenka Zupančič says it well, suggesting that the death drive 'makes it possible for us to die differently. And perhaps in the end this is what matters, and what breaks out from the fatigue of life: not the capacity to live forever, but the capacity to die differently.'21 As Caruth points out, to 'awaken is thus to bear the imperative to survive.'22 But Derrida takes this even further, '...because survival is not simply that which remains but the most intense life possible.'23

To conclude, I am all too aware that it seems as though I’ve found a way to end on a more positive note. Malabou herself critiques the move toward reparation and resilience in the aftermath of trauma in her text on the new wounded, reminding us of such a thing as depleted plasticity, whereby there is no viable hope for a plastic future, as well as the concept of a negative therapeutic reaction, whereby healing is absolutely refused and the patient insists on holding onto their illness. However, much like Freud, who is known to say one thing on one page, and then can be found making another seemingly contradictory point on the next, Malabou shifts from a critique of resilience and plasticity (which returns to its original form) to a claim for elasticity (which does not return to its initial form). She further expands this theory of elasticity to suggest that it also loses memory of the changes it has previously undergone, so as to suggest that it might also forget the traumatic event itself. For my purposes, I want to pause just before this suggestion and close with a consideration that rather than ending on a positive note, I’m ending with a nod toward elasticity, wherein a subject who emerges from the trauma as I’ve endured is a new subject, with a distinct before and after(math), but one who continues to be haunted by this non-present present and is learning to live with ghosts.

1. Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Hoboken: Melville House Publishing, 2007), 16.
2. Catherine Malabou, “Unconscious and Negativity: Freud, Lacan and Their Critical Legacies” (seminar, The European Graduate School, June 10, 2021).
3. Malabou, “Unconscious and Negativity.”
4. Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 10.
5. Malabou, The New Wounded, 10.
6. Ibid., 157.
7. Ibid., 17.
8. Fyoder Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment: A New Translation, trans. by Michael R. Katz (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2019), 57.  
9. Chris Townsend, “Nietzsche’s Horse,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 2017, https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/nietzsches-horse/
10. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Writer's Diary Volume 1: 1873-1876 (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 329.
11. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), 35.
12. Malabou, The New Wounded, 147.
13. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 63.
14. Gabriele Schwab, Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 45.
15. Jacques Derrida, “Fors,” trans. Barbara Johnson, in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), xiv.        
16. Schwab, Haunting Legacies, 4.
17. Avital Ronell, “Marx, Nietzsche, Freud: World-class Downsizers” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October 23, 2021).
18. Rosaura Martínez Ruiz, Eros: Beyond the Death Drive, trans. Ramsey McGlazer (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), 75.
19. Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 65.
20. Ibid., 104.
21. Alenka Zupančič, What IS Sex? (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017), 106.
22. Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 105.
23. Derrida, Learning to Live Finally, 52.