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A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma, and WWI
A Look at War and Artistic Creation Through the Theories of Cathy Caruth and Sigmund Freud

CaruthsurrealismSalvador Dali, "The Persistence of Memory" 1931

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis,” is perhaps best known to the general public for his work on the unconscious, sexuality, the ego, and dreams. He showed us the often-enigmatic ways past traumatic experiences play themselves out in the present.

Freud’s work with WWI combat veterans marked an unprecedented turn in his understanding of dreams and trauma as his focus on the individual transformed into a study of community and the collective unconscious. The war not only had professional but personal implications for him; his two sons, Jean-Martin and Ernst, fought for Austria, a country that, almost 20 years later forced Freud, a Jew, and his family into exile when the Nazis took over. Three of his four sisters died in concentration camps during WWII.

CaruthFreudSonsFreud with his two sons. Image courtesy of http://www.worldwar1.com/

Cornell University Professor and Literary Theorist, Cathy Caruth, provides a reading of Freud’s study on WWI combat veterans that sheds light on one of the most complicated aspects of what is today known as PTSD. This aspect, she argues, also gives us insight into the relationship between trauma and artistic creation.  She writes:

Freud begins his groundbreaking work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his astonished encounter with the veterans of World War I, whose dreams of the battlefield bring them back, repeatedly, to the horrifying scenes of death that they have witnessed. Like the victims of accident neuroses, these dreams seem to bring the soldiers back to a moment of fright or surprise that constituted their original encounter with death (1).

 People suffering from “accident neuroses” and war neuroses have dreams that demonstrate a pathological condition which involves, as Caruth says in her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, “the repetitive intrusion of nightmares and relivings of battlefield events…whose symptoms seem to reflect, in startling directness and simplicity, nothing but the unmediated occurrence of violent events” (30). These dreams differ from what Freud originally thought about dreams. These dreams do not surrealistically uncover hidden desires or fears; instead, they show the literal revisioning of the traumatic event repeatedly against the will of the WWI veterans. In his book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud explains:

Dreams occurring in traumatic neuroses have the characteristic of bringing the patient back into the situation of his accident, a situation from he wakes up in another fright. This astonishes people far too little (13).

CaruthLewisBattery Shelled by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1919). Courtesy of http://madefrom.com/history/world-war-one/painting/

The repetition of battlefield horrors in the dreams astonishes Freud because dreams in psychoanalytic theory, Caruth points out, had always served the function of fulfilling wishes: dreams let the unconscious conflicts of childhood find expression through the symbolic world of the dream. In the dreams of the returning veterans, however, the encounter with death and horror cannot be given any symbolic meaning because these dreams reflect real events exactly as they happened in the past. For example, in a dream, the veteran will relive a scene of horrendous shelling that occurred on the front in which many of his comrades perished. For Caruth, Freud's surprise comes from the fact the dream  “does not only bring back the reality of death but the fright or unpreparedness for it; the dreams not only show the scenes of battle but wake the dreamer up in another fright” (21). The veteran wakes up afraid not only because the events in the dream were frightening themselves; his fright comes from the terrifying understanding that, while living, he encountered his own death. Caruth asks, “What does it mean for life to bear witness to death?” 

CaruthWarNeurosisWar Neuroses: Netley 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital 1918, from http://www.britishpathe.com

Freud notes another peculiarity to these dreams. The patients suffering from them did not seem to suffer symptoms from the terrifying memories while they were awake. Only during sleep would they experience the feelings of fright. He seemed to notice that, just as the soldiers were not prepared for their violent death on the battlefield, they were not prepared to confront the memory of their death while conscious.

Why does the psyche protect them while awake but not while asleep? Traumatic experiences present overwhelming blows to the conscious, so overwhelming, it is impossible to fully comprehend them as they are happening. It is almost as if the soldier were not completely present when the event occurred. The encounter with death happened too quickly for the conscious to grasp properly. The fright of the repeating literal dreams, Caruth suggests, comes from this double realization; the soldier is frightened not only by the fact that he almost died but also by the fact that he only came to this realization well after the experience was over. By waking up from the dream, which is happening in the unconscious, he becomes conscious of this death encounter for which he was unprepared. No matter how many times the dream occurs, the waking from it never ceases to be terrifying. The WWI soldier witnesses his own survival, which he struggles to believe.  

CaruthSpencerResurrection of the Soldiers by Stanley Spencer (1929). Image courtesy of http://madefrom.com/history/world-war-one/painting/

While it may seem intuitive that survival is something to be thankful for, Freud and Caruth show that it is also an extremely difficult experience. While violent events occur in the past, they may remain forever incomprehensible, never fading from the conscious or unconscious mind. Survival may be the process of endlessly trying to understand. No one can fully recover from war.

That brings us to the question of writing and artistic creation. If soldiers’ traumatic dreams represent a way for the mind to return repeatedly to events that can never be quite understood, could it be said that the act of writing creatively is a way to externalize this internal struggle? Is writing a way to emerge from perhaps an unbearable loneliness even though the subject is painful? No one can literally see dreams or listen to the unconscious. Yet language can be read and shared. Painting and drawings can be seen. Music heard. We cannot heal a veteran’s indelible wounds. But what we can do is listen, read, see – acknowledge endlessly their struggle, even if appears repetitive or even incomprehensible to those who have not experienced war.

For example, in “Dulce et Decorum Est,”  Wilfred Owen repeats the word “drowning” over the course of three lines in a poem:

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

The dying soldier of the poem is not at sea but on a battlefield. Yet gassing has the effect of drowning–it starves the lungs of oxygen, but no one can jump in and bring the gassed soldier to the safety of a shore. It could be said that fact this word is uttered twice in a failed attempt to understand an incomprehensible, horrible image. How could someone drown in the air? Can we understand or should we even try?  

Owen did not survive the war. But his poetry did. Let’s read it endlessly.

Cathy Caruth's bio

CaruthbiophotoCathy Caruth is Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University and is appointed in the departments of English and Comparative Literature. She taught previously at Yale and at Emory University, where she helped build the Department of Comparative Literature. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1988 and is the author of Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Johns Hopkins UP, 1991), Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Johns Hopkins UP, 1996), Literature in the Ashes of History (Johns Hopkins UP, 2013) and Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience (Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming 2014). She is also editor of Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 1995) and co-editor with Deborash Esch of Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing (Rutgers University Press, 1995).


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