University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > German Graduate Research Seminar > The Now always comes After: Post-Traumatic Bodies and Creaturely Subjectivities in Ilse Aichinger’s 'Der Gefesselte'

The Now always comes After: Post-Traumatic Bodies and Creaturely Subjectivities in Ilse Aichinger’s 'Der Gefesselte'

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In this paper, I wish to discuss the idea of Nowness in relation to historical trauma with reference to Ilse Aichinger’s collection of short stories, Der Gefesselte (1948-1952). Whilst these stories are parables and are not explicitly located within a historical context, their insistence on themes of pain, freedom and redemption betrays their relevance to post-war concerns of trauma and recovery. Furthermore, the stories dramatise the process of building and adapting to a ‘now’ which is always after a particular traumatic, pregnant but absent past, which sheds light onto the potential of the parable to register the reverberations of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Austria’s collaboration with the Third Reich in new creative configurations.

‘Der Gefesselte’, the title story of the collection, sees a man wake up to find himself bound by thick ropes. Unable to move as freely as a normal human, but able to move to the extent the ropes allow, the bound man’s body begins to adapt to and find freedom in its new constraints. He has no idea why he has been bound; although he assumes that this is the result of some violent attack, he cannot be sure. The traumatic cause of his constriction is constantly present, ‘now’ because the ropes remind the Gefesselte of it constantly to the extent that they define his identity post factum. As Slavoj Žižek maintains, the foundational trauma of the emergence of subjectivity is permanently ‘now-ed’ through its echoes in the signifying processes: ‘it is through its repetition, through its echoes within the signifying structure that the cause [of trauma] retroactively becomes what it always already was.’ The ropes are therefore both ‘after’ the moment of violence and the omnipresent reminder of its ‘nowness’.

The bound-man joins the circus and discovers a new kind of physicality, more akin to that of a powerful animal than to a man’s. He begins to live a ‘now’ similar to the ‘now’ of animals, adapting to his environment and those who share it physically rather than socially. Hence, I would like to devote the second part of my analysis of Aichinger’s work to the blurred boundary between animal and human that occurs after the moment of trauma. It is my hypothesis here that the post-traumatic subject and body can be described as ‘creaturely’, in the sense that Santner uses it in his On Creaturely Life. The ‘creaturely’, the new physicality that emerges at the moment of trauma, testifies to the excess of the now which is haunted by the indigestible past which it is always after; this overwhelms the bound man physically and ontologically. Santner gives the following definition of the creaturely as ‘a kind of life in excess both of our merely biological life and of our life in the space of meaning.’ In ‘Der Gefesselte’, the moment of trauma, the tying of the ropes, will not become memory until the ropes are cut; therefore the bound man’s physicality becomes organised around the traumatic kernel of the moment of binding and his body is absorbed into the nowness of trauma which cannot be digested.

Thus, the dialectic of Now-As-After in trauma is crucial to help us understand the formation of a post-traumatic subjectivity which defines itself through the re-evocation of the traumatic absence of trauma (when were the ropes fitted? Who tied them?) as well as a post-traumatic physiology which re-enacts the moment of traumatisation.

This talk is part of the German Graduate Research Seminar series.

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