By Patrick Blanchfield
This is the first post in a blog, In the Godforsaken Wilderness, that Patrick Blanchfield will be writing in the coming days and weeks.
The people are kept in urns, giant amphorae, immobile, up to their necks in dirt. They babble in fear and anguish, but they do not acknowledge each other. Their eyes are locked forward, their speech is so much rapid overtalking.is anyone looking at me?
am I as much as being seen?
it will come it must come there is no future in this
is there something I should do with my face other than utter? weep?
Samuel Beckett’s 1961 short theater piece, Play, offers a nightmarish landscape of alienation, pain, recrimination, and grief. As staged and filmed by Anthony Minghella, the dysphoria is palpable. The characters, unnamed, “so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of the urns,” tell fragments of a story of betrayal and heartbreak, a story which implicates all of them, and which they are condemned to repeat, infinitely, chattering past each other in the dark.
Surveying the past days, I cannot banish the thought of this play. Lives in desperation, immured apart from one another – what better image of us all, in our little silos of information and expectations, could there be? And then another image: an earthquake comes, a giant hammer, smashing the urns. Broken shards and spilled earth lies everywhere, mingled with writhing, naked limbs. The formerly sessile people are now rudely exposed to the sky. Will they die of exposure? Will they remain catatonic? Will the babbling continue? What will they do?
Make no mistake about this: for masses of people, the election news came not just as a shock, but as a kind of trauma. For Freud, trauma was defined by the element of surprise. Your body is, until the moment of disaster, in motion or at rest, under your control, a coherent part of a comprehensible world. Until suddenly – it is not. Tossed from your seat in a train wreck, flung into the air by an exploding shell, you become a rag doll: buffeted, powerless, at the mercy of forces indifferent or cruel, in any event beyond your control. It is telling that Freud reached in his examples for symbols of accelerating modernity: trains, long-range munitions. These embodiments of speed and power are monuments to human ingenuity – but also, by accident or design, things that can disrupt, dismember, and destroy, revealing us in all our vulnerability. Describing the First World War, Walter Benjamin framed such dislocation as collective, and epochal: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of forces of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human life.” Technological innovation begets new dislocation; “progress” is also a word for novel flavors of pain, helplessness, and grief.
How does one recover from such trauma? “You know how refrigerators have that hum?” an analyst who was one of my teachers would say. “That sound of the motor, it’s always running, continuous, so you forget it. You only notice it when it’s off. What I’ve come to think from working with traumatized people,” he’d continue, “Is that we all have a buzz like that going on in the background of our minds, a constant awareness, taken for granted: You are alive. With trauma, that sounds stops. You’re victimized, powerless, you have no choice but to dissociate as whatever happens to you happens to you. Part of what makes trauma so difficult, though, is that you don’t die – you come back. But once that sound stops, to whatever extent it returns, it’s never the same. You died. But here you still are, alive.” The task of working with trauma as a therapist, he’d go on to say, is helping the traumatized person reckon with this experience – perhaps not to integrate it into their “daily life,” so to speak, but to recuperate the possibility of Life as such.
We are lucky: we have not died. But to think that death and horror is not now more at our door than it was before – and even more now for those of us who were already more vulnerable – is a lure, a luxury. This was “just” an election, yes, and the exercise of the democratic transfer of power will proceed. But autocracy is not an equally indifferent option among a range of political preferences. The status quo of the American polity was already underwritten by violence and bigotry, yes, and the ideology of our noble exceptionalism was indeed always already an absurd lie. But this does not mean that the horrors to come cannot be even worse. And the edifice of American hegemony, such as it is, and the rule of law, whatever that means, will hold. But the norms that have been obliterated in the past months are gone for good, and while the old ones were indeed frivolous and hypocritical, what will follow in their absence will be grim and mean.
One of Beckett’s characters in Play seeks to convince herself that all is not as bad as it seems. I had anticipated something better. More restful. Less confused. Less confusing. And yet, she says, still: There are endurable moments.
The idea of a return to normalcy, to daily life, holds its comforts. One cannot abide without such things. But the mere existence of “endurable moments” is not Life: grasping at them is no way to live, and retreating into them is no politics worth the name. The urns are shattered, and now can choose either to finally face each other or to pretend, as we lie in the dirt, that we can crawl back in.
Patrick Blanchfield is the Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Religion and Media at NYU. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.