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The Necessity of Sitting Down with Trauma

There are things in life that happen which humanity is always unprepared for; trauma is one of them. Traumatic events; no matter how much one reads about them, watches movies that attempt to contextualize these events, or even live through the traumatic events themselves, are harsh on the human heart. In order to protect the heart and soul from eternal damage of trauma, it is important to never leave oneself alone with it. As trauma leaves us with an, ‘unavoidable need for reflection on the means and modes of representation in all scholarly and lay approaches’ (Rothberg 2). Reflection is most complete when done through the lens of the self, the lens of the community, the lens of humanity, the lens of Earth, and even the lens of the Universe itself.

One of the more traumatic events in modern human history has been the Holocaust. The trauma of the Holocaust goes so deep, that some argue there is no possible way that humanity can overcome the scars that it has left our species with. Michael Rothberg, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of California Los Angeles, writes about the difficulty one faces when attempting to reveal information about traumatic, horrific, and atrocious events in the introduction of his book, ‘Traumatic Realism - The Demands of Holocaust Representation’.

Rothberg states that the Holocaust is a radical problem for understanding. He highlights the importance of studying the trauma of the Holocaust in various way and through various forms in order to gain a more accurate understanding of what fundamental problems arose due to the Nazi genocide (Rothberg 1-2). Due to constraints of time and space, scholars of today are left only with personal verbal accounts, pictures, writings, film reels, and audio recordings of the Holocaust. As time machines are only a reality within science fiction novels and film, scholars must work carefully to dissect information from relics of the past in order to attempt to understand how such a horrific circumstance could have arisen.

Visual media left behind from the Holocaust has left humanity with the most striking depictions of what may have happened less than one hundred years ago. The pictorial fields developed by the United States Army Signal corps have left us with haunting images which say something so difficult it is nearly impossible to put the images into words.

Rothberg highlights the importance of reflecting upon the positioning of items within the pictorial field and encourages his audience to question if there are allegories within the positioning of the figures with regard to the Holocaust imagery. Does the positioning of the visual points within the field help to develop a deeper understanding of the story? Rothberg argues that many times in depictions of the past, there is a skewed viewpoint. What does the skewed imagery tell the audience about the dilemmas of the modern world? What are the modern demands for representation and documentation? Why do the demands change as humanity evolves through time? Rothberg invites the work of another artist, Art Spiegelman, to illustrate the importance of reflecting upon this notion of the evolution of representation.

Why is it important to approach traumatic events; such as genocide? What is the best way to represent traumas to ourselves and to others; especially as life is ever changing due to emerging technology and ideologies? Is it ok to change the past in order to engage the audiences of the present day even if the story changes and begins to drift from the original happenstance of its time? Is it necessary to provoke audiences who would otherwise be disinterested in the subject by including them in the story through abstraction? (Rothberg 2).

Rothberg is curious about the modern worlds’ contemporary fascination with trauma, catastrophe, the fragility of memory, and the persistence of ethic identity (Rothberg 3). What about suffering, death, inhumane choices, and destruction is fascinating? Why do humans seek to relive problematic situations? How can humanity model the struggles that it goes through to help create a better world? Can humanity move past being sad about the events of the Holocaust and be brave enough to honor those who died during the Holocaust instead? Can humanity offer those who passed away in the Holocaust the love they didn’t get while they were here? Is theater, art, media, and film the way to do this? What did the Nazis learn about life by being with those who died? How do we present the voices of the unheard?

Rothberg states that, the Holocaust is best approached through interdisciplinary means, but then later remarks that this approach can lead to, ‘seemingly irresolvable contradictions between the events “uniqueness” and its “typicality”, its “extremity” and its “banality”, its “incomprehensibility” and its susceptibility to “normal” understanding (Rothberg 3). What forms of knowledge can humans acknowledge that is not recognized by a specific field? How can studying traumatic events be used as a form of healing, as forms of healing are not all anti-resistant? How does nostalgia for the past continue to motivate teaching and research methodologies? How can humanity work to move beyond the contradictions innately found within the intertwinement of culture and barbarism? Is the Holocaust a knowable and representational claim? Or must humanity surrender itself to ‘new regimes of knowledge’ so that humanity can be provided with a useful tool from the data which has been preserved? How much can one change the field before it too disruptive to understanding the subject itself? It is important for individuals to ask themselves these questions; especially when they are working with such immense problems of the past and even potential problems of the future (Rothberg 4).

Engaging the past is the age old secret to finding the future. How can humanity do this in an enriching way that incites international interest? In a time of extreme intelligence and military power, it is important to recognize the need for confrontation of the past so that we may avoid the dangers that humanity once fell into. Rothberg states that the, ‘confrontation with the reality of the events of the past is unavoidable no matter how far removed one might seem to be from the past’ (Rothberg 7). Unfortunately, the problems of the past are still present today. Traumatic events are continually arising; many of which are avoidable. How can the instigators of avoidable trauma be held accountable for their actions? How can humanity occupy its power to illuminate the constellation of trauma in a way in which the past can be communicated but that the emphasis is on the illumination of who we want to be in the future.


Rothberg, Michael. Traumatic Realism: the Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minnesota Press, 2000. (pp. 1-15)

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