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Reading Modernist Fiction as War Testimony: The Case of D.H. Lawrence’s “Nightmare”

Carl Krockel
p. 153-186

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1Trauma theory has offered literary studies a panacea to the extremes of indeterminacy and inflexibility that emerged in Post-structuralist and New Historicist readings. The practice of deconstruction at turns laid bare the infinite openness of a text, and the fixed “ideology” within it. However, instead of the reader instigating the death of the author as moral and cultural authority, for trauma theory he bears witness to the author as a survivor of history. Reading literature as testimony is modelled on the practice of psychiatric therapy between doctor and patient: the relationship between author and reader is one of empathy which sets boundaries upon the range of interpretation of the text and discourages the tendency to impose a moral critique upon the author.

2Literary trauma studies emerged out of, and in reaction to Post-structuralism. The first theorists of literary trauma, Shoshana Felman and Cathy Caruth, were former students of Paul de Man in the seventies at Yale; during the following decade their work was influenced by Dori Laub and Geoffrey Hartman’s founding of the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. Felman, leaning more closely towards her co-writer Laub in Testimony, uses the model of psychoanalytic therapy to read literature in opposition to Post-structuralist principles as an “alignment between witnesses,” and between survivor and listener, “to speak for others and to others” (151, 155). Caruth’s notion of trauma in Unclaimed Experience and Trauma: Explorations in Memory, while referring to Freud, is modelled on the Post-structuralist paradigm of broken signification, in combination with neurobiology: while “images of traumatic re-enactment remain absolutely accurately and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control,” but through testimony one can “speak beyond what is already understood” (Trauma: Explorations 151, 155). Both writers make great promises for testimony, of direct communication of others’ experience, and of a reality beyond our conception of it.

3Felman quotes the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that his “generation invented a new literature, that of testimony” (Testimony, 6), with writers such as Primo Levi being exemplary. Yet as the range of Felman’s case studies shows, from Mallarmé to Celan and Camus, literature as testimony is more particular to the modern age than the Holocaust itself. Trauma theory has opened up links between twentieth century writing and history, with contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison and W.G. Sebald participating in the resurgence of trauma studies in psychiatry, law and historiography to provide a belated testimony for the century as a whole. The features of testimony have been retrospectively identified in Modernist writing, especially following Walter Benjamin’s reading of Baudelaire as the poet of the “shocks” of the city. However there are still large gaps remaining in the possibilities of trauma theory and Twentieth century literary history, such as Postmodern writing and World War II, and Modernist writing and World War I. Symptomatic of this gap is how both movements are greatly indebted to Joyce’s Ulysses, whose compositional history across a war torn-torn Europe from Paris to the comparative neutrality of Zurich and Trieste somehow yielded an articulation of contemporary experience beyond the “nightmare” of “history.” Inscribing the critical values of Modernism, Eliot celebrated how Ulysses gave order to “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (177). However both their notions of “order” excluded events that absolutely resisted affirmative meaning, such as the industrial slaughter of sixteen million people. While Baudelaire prepared readers for the traumatic shocks of the city, as did his Modernist inheritors including Eliot, the testimony of war trauma is still regarded as the preserve of “war poets” who are sidelined from Modernism. But if World War I is the ur-trauma of the Twentieth century, which spans a history of large-scale violence, then this gap in our cultural understanding is in need of redress.

Case study and methodology

4This paper offers an initial investigation into how we may attempt to read the trauma of war in Modernist writing by focusing on the case of D.H. Lawrence’s “Nightmare” chapter in Kangaroo, written in 1922. Lawrence’s thinly disguised autobiographical narrator Richard Lovatt Somers manoeuvres through Australia’s political landscape of violent confrontations between socialist and First World War veteran right-wing groups. Surprised by his own creation, on completing Kangaroo Lawrence exclaimed, “such a novel! Even the Ulysseans will spit at it” (iv. 275). He had attempted to rival Joyce in his novel’s lack of consecutive thread, and digressions which were important as the central narrative. Tony Pinkney suggests that the chapter “Bits,” which consists of newspaper excerpts, “should probably be considered the Lawrentian equivalent of the ‘Aeolus’ section of Joyce’s Ulysses” (115). However, Lawrence presumed that the admirers of Ulysses would spit at rather than admire Kangaroo because it did not impose an aesthetic order upon the disorder of its material; for Somers the “bits” represent “the sheer momentaneous life of the continent. There was no consecutive thread. Only the laconic courage of experience.” The innovation of “this gramophone of a novel” (K 272, 280), an anti-Ulysses written deliberately at breakneck speed between 3 June and 15 July 1922 (an average rate of 3,500 words a day), lies in its recording of the flux of existence. It shares with other Modernist novels a self-reflectiveness of the conditions of its production, in the form of the chapter “The Nightmare”; in itself another mere record of moments, this chapter functions as a centre of illumination upon the rest of the novel through describing the narrator’s revulsion of Britain and humanity in general as a consequence of the war.

5“The Nightmare” is a corner-stone in understanding Lawrence’s work biographically, and generally has been read at face value. Richard Aldington asserted in his novel of the war, Death of a Hero (1930), that any further attempt to describe wartime England would be redundant because “Lawrence has done it once and for all in the chapter called ‘The Nightmare’” (255); Aldington’s intrusively opinionated and often raging narrator in his novel was intended to emulate the emotional integrity of Lawrence’s in Kangaroo. “The Nightmare” has been a focus of attention by the Cambridge biographers of Lawrence. John Worthen in his last monograph on Lawrence boldly refers to it as “the real history of the war” (269). David Ellis characteristically urges “wary discrimination” in presenting fiction as fact, but is surprisingly affirmative in concluding that “in all respects that matter, Harriett and Richard Somers ‘are’ Frieda and Lawrence” (44-45). Mark Kinkead-Weekes first quotes “The Nightmare,” reading it critically against other available sources, then dispenses with the quotation marks to let it seamlessly enter his account of the military examinations, and accepts unconditionally the chapter’s conclusion of the effect of persecution upon Somers: “It was the final step in the making of an alien” (471).

6Essentially, the reader needs to account for how “The Nightmare” is structured as a traumatic flashback. In its modern definition by the American Psychiatric Association “Post-traumatic stress disorder” is the terror and surprise of an event destroying the ordinary mechanisms of awareness and cognition; the victim is unable to integrate the hurtful experience in normal consciousness, but is haunted or possessed by intrusive traumatic memories. The experience of the trauma is fixed in time, refusing to be represented as past, and is perpetually re-experienced in a painful, dissociated, traumatic present. Somers describes how “deep in his unconscious had lain this accumulation of black fury and fear, like frenzied lava quiescent in his soul.” This eruption occurs after his tense encounters with the socialist leader Willie Struthers, then the right-wing Ben Cooley: Struthers’ insistent probing reminds Somers of the wartime medical examinations; then Cooley grasps Somers, and transforms into “a great thing, a horror,” as if he were a personification of the war itself; Somers’ terror of Cooley, “If he came near enough to touch—!” (K 260, 211), reprises his feelings of being physically violated during his final examination.

7As an ill-disguised flashback of Lawrence’s experience of war, “The Nightmare” may seem too transparent for a demonstration of reading Modernism and war through trauma theory. However, unlike an elliptical text that could be used to parade the resources of trauma theory in providing historical illumination, this apparently unproblematic example will reveal the considerable problems involved in reading Modernist fiction through trauma theory.

8Because such reliance has been made upon it in psychiatry, law and history, the theory of trauma is ridden with controversy. The official status of PTSD was only recognised in 1980 through the political struggle of psychiatrists, social workers and activists to acknowledge the post-war sufferings of Vietnam veterans, although it was also designed to incorporate the testimony of victims of the Holocaust and sexual abuse. Yet there are irreconcilable differences between its various applications in the social sphere. Whilst the legal definition is propped on psychiatric expertise it abandons a psychological understanding of trauma’s apparently non-causal temporal development, unpredictable proliferation, and vaguely defined limits. “Cultural trauma” is virtually impossible to reconcile with legal definitions. This issue is especially worrying for one who wants to relate theory, literature and history, since the discourse of history with its demand for substantial evidence is closely related to the legal. Also there is conflict between literary interpretations of trauma and the therapy of trauma as producing two differing narratives, the latter threatening to normalise the kernel of individual experience valued by the former. Even within the literary critical consideration of trauma Felman mentions the unpredictability of exchange and interaction between historical, clinical and poetical dimensions of testimony (42). The whole concept of trauma has been dismantled as a “historical construct” of disparate interests, institutions and moral arguments, especially by defence lawyers, however the more positive, and pragmatic, attitude lies in regarding it as a “hybrid assemblage” (14), to use Roger Luckhurst’s term.

9The question facing literature and trauma theory is the enduring one of the nature of truth in literature, and how we assess its truth value. If we do not trust the immediate historical value of a statement, then we have to ask what the “lie” indicates, or at least, what truth is subsumed in the fabrication of fiction; then we need to validate our interpretation. Distortions can arise at each stage of trauma: as a lack of distanced perspective of the traumatic event on entering the victim’s psyche, the transformation of the traumatic memory in the mind as it is elaborated by the victim’s personal history, and the difficulty of articulating it in a way that preserves its integrity. In attempting to identify distortion we are beset by the enigmatic causation and effects of trauma which bridge the mental and physical, the individual and collective.

10Throughout this paper, while focusing on Lawrence’s “Nightmare” and the First World War, I will examine the general issues that problematise a historical reading of literature through trauma theory. First I shall discuss the effects of fictionality and the author’s absence from the direct source of trauma upon the historical value of the text. Then I will read “The Nightmare” through the “post-structuralist” trauma theory of Caruth and traditional psychoanalytic theory, to compare their effectiveness in terms of what knowledge they yield, and how this knowledge can be verified against other available historical sources.

Fiction as survivors testimony, or witness to testimony, or witness to witnessing…

11One of the blind-spots between the disciplines involved in literary trauma studies is the lack of distinction made between testimony of a personally experienced trauma, a witness’s testimony to another’s trauma, and even a witnessing of another witness. Then there is the further question of the reader’s position in this chain. This lack of definition is a consequence of a post-structural dismissal of distinctions between author and reader, reality and literature, in favour of the independent textuality of literature as a series of intertwining discourses. In trauma studies this dismissal is exacerbated by the psychoanalytic process of transference between victim and witness, or even the “contagion” of trauma. Transference also has implications for whether a victim must be present at a traumatising event, since one can be traumatised contagiously through other victims; this issue is important for the literary historian where Modernists such as Lawrence were absent from the field of battle.

12The issue of fictionality can be very difficult to decide upon. Alongside Caruth and other theorists, Felman is particularly prone to the tendency of confusing subject positions in literary testimony. She defines testimony in a similar way to her co-writer Dori Laub in the psychoanalytic notion of where “the speaking subject constantly bears witness to a truth that nonetheless continues to escape him, a truth that is, essentially, not available to its own speaker.” Yet her definition of literary testimony of the Holocaust has very little common psychological points with testimony per se, as “a new form of narrative as testimony not merely to record, but to rethink and, in the act of its rethinking, in effect transform history by bearing literary witness to the Holocaust” (15, 95). Instead literary testimony in this sense is a pseudo-philosophical discourse which contributes to the theorisation of trauma.

13“The Nightmare” actually does provide testimony in the way that a victim of trauma would: its truth is not available to its narrator, or to its author despite his self-objectification as the narrator. The testimony is more immediately attached to its specific historical circumstances of production, rather than a discourse of theory, and this history is the focus of my study.

14However, the effect of fictionalisation is critical in Kangaroo. “The Nightmare” is such a classic case of traumatic recall that one may suspect it was invented as such by Lawrence; after all, he could have known its characteristics from his friend David Eder who treated traumatised soldiers in Malta during the war, and published his clinical discoveries in the book War-Shock. Alongside this possibility is the issue of dividing the supposedly factual material of the “Nightmare” and the fictionalised events of Somers’ encounters with Australia’s political scene, since the latter is the trigger for the former. Cooley’s reference to Struthers, that “a bite from a hyena means blood-poisoning” (K 207) is imported into the traumatic recall of “The Nightmare” and repeated in a variety of forms. Could an actual flashback of Lawrence’s be triggered by the imaginary experiences of Somers? Perhaps through imagining a scenario of a fictional character, Lawrence could identify with the character to trigger traumatic recall in himself, as a role-play technique common in therapy. If not, then we have to address an unbridgeable gap between elements of fiction and autobiographical experience.

15The uncertain function of literature in trauma theory is explored indirectly by Freud throughout his speculative analogies between literature, play, daydreaming and therapy. As we shall see, the problem that Freud poses to later theorists of trauma lies in his stress upon fantasy, and creative writing may exacerbate this problem by multiplying the fantasy already present in real life testimony. In “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (1908) he compared play and creative writing as acts of fantasising. Both child and writer’s imaginative worlds are unreal, since fantasy fulfils the wish to correct an unsatisfying reality. Through fantasy one harks back to a memory (usually infantile) in which a present wish was fulfilled, thus one memory may displace another (14: 132,134). Yet fantasy need not be only escape. In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, Freud described how the ego, having experienced a trauma passively, repeats it actively in a weakened version, in the hope of being able to direct its course. Children do this towards distressing impressions by reproducing them in play; from passivity to activity they master their experiences psychically. Also a patient performs this action through “abreacting a trauma,” reproducing the effect of the trauma until mastering it as an identifiable danger to achieve mental health (10: 327). In literature the narrative events may be fantasy, to loosen up the repressed emotions in reality; therapy has an analogous setup in the patient’s transference of feelings towards feared and hated figures of his personal life onto a benign therapist in the protective environment of the clinic. In this sense, creative writing and play can resemble the process of therapy to come to terms with trauma, not to substitute it with a pleasing fantasy as in daydreaming.

16Moving to the related issue of a victim’s proximity to the traumatic event, in the case of Lawrence and other Modernists there is the further problem of his absence from the battlefield. Lawrence’s position as outsider during the war constitutes his trauma, which begs the question of how a civilian’s experience of war can be traumatic in the way that a soldier’s is. Historically, the contagiousness of trauma has been recognised. Charles Myers as Consultant Psychiatrist to the Army dismissed shell shock as a “contagious” term since one officially recognised case could spread via neuromimesis or simulation throughout a whole battalion; suspected cases were refused leave in case it led to an outbreak of others. In recent formulations of PTSD secondary witnesses such as bystanders, rescue workers and relatives receiving news of death or injury have been included as potential victims. Transmissibility threatens to undermine the historical value of trauma; Wulf Kansteiner identifies the most severe abuses of the trauma concept in “the abstract, metaphorical language of cultural criticism,” especially the “aestheticised, morally and politically imprecise concept of cultural trauma” which “turns us all into accomplished survivors” (Trauma Question 54, 13).

17While the fictionality of a Modernist novel and absence of a Modernist author such as Lawrence from the site of war do not disqualify “The Nightmare” as testimony of the First World War, these factors severely complicate how we read it.

A literally absent truth

18Caruth’s theory seems to offer most to the literary historian in manoeuvring beyond these potential limits. Luckhurst appraises her work as “where the lines feeding notions of cultural trauma converge: the problem of aesthetics “after Auschwitz,” the aporia of representation in poststructuralism, the diverse models of trauma developed by, and in the wake of, Freud” (13). However, perhaps it is more accurate to describe Caruth’s work as lying at the faultlines rather than points of convergence between disciplines, since she holds the post-structuralist perspective of the bricoleur: “The phenomenon of trauma has seemed to become all-inclusive, but it has done so precisely because it brings us to the limits of our understanding: if psychoanalysis, psychiatry, sociology, and even literature are beginning to hear each other anew in the study of trauma, it is because they are listening through the radical disruption and gaps of traumatic experience.” Reversing critical attacks upon the indeterminable nature of trauma, for Caruth this quality is essential for its potential to supplement deconstruction. Highlighting Freud’s own uncertain conclusions about trauma, she suggests that psychoanalytic theory is traumatised by the phenomenon of trauma, “as it listens to a voice that it cannot fully know but to which it nonetheless bears witness” (Trauma: Explorations 4). This breakage in theory is not a weakness, but crucial for its effectiveness in accessing a reality beyond our conceptual limits.

19Caruth is conspicuously faithful to the psychiatric definition of PTSD in her explanation of how trauma enters the psyche:

The return of the traumatic experience in the dream is not the signal of the direct experience but, rather, of the attempt to overcome the fact that it was not direct, to attempt to master what was never fully grasped in the first place. Not having truly known the threat of death in the past, the survivor is forced, continually, to confront it over and over again. For consciousness then, the act of survival, as the experience of trauma, is the repeated confrontation with the necessity and impossibility of grasping the threat to one’s own life. (Unclaimed Experience 62)

20Yet the literal repetition of actions and flashback imagery which gives substance to the scientific and legal certainty of PTSD, for Caruth is founded upon an absence. The traumatic event “was never fully grasped” because it is immediately dissociated into an isolated area of the mind. This negative situation is reversed by Caruth since cognitive understanding and knowing can only distort the reality: instead, the resistance to constructing a “narrative memory” “opens up the space for a testimony that can speak beyond what is already understood” (Trauma: Explorations 155). By this reasoning she manages to reconcile a claim to referential certainty with a poststructuralist framework of semantic breakdown.

21The key to reading “The Nightmare” in Caruth’s terms, then, is to pass over the factually verifiable material that the biographer would prioritise. The trauma was outside experience and therefore representation; it cannot be ordered into a narrative of space and time, of subjects and objects. Linear cause and effect are replaced by repetition, geography by the absent or omnipresent. Instead of identifying a physically tangible reality, the “reader-analyst” tries to apprehend the emotional affect expressed in language.

22The affect in “The Nightmare” is “fear,” and it is ever present. During late wartime England was immersed in a “true and deadly fear of the criminal living spirit,” “a reign of Terror” throughout which “the torture was steadily applied” by the governing class. It is both foreign but inside Somers himself, as he describes how “England was in the grip of something monstrous, not English, and he was almost gripped too.” If there is a centre of fear, it is London: “the war news always coming, the war horror drifting in,” London became “a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors,” “nothing but war, war” (K, 212, 229, 216, 230).

23London, along with Bodmin, Zennor and the Midlands, are not so much geographical places, as figures of an obsessive tic which structures the narrative. It begins with the journey to the first examination at Bodmin, then a description of London, then back to the journey to Bodmin, then Zennor, then the second examination at Bodmin, then to the Midlands, then London again, then Zennor, then London, then the Midlands, then London, then the Midlands. The narrative can only break off by Richard and Harriet escaping from Britain. The journeys from one to place to another are subsumed in the general fear of war, to the point that they seem to be the same journey. On the train to Bodmin, in “the lost corridors of hell,” the “men howled as if they were going to their doom, helplessly, ghastlily”; on the bus from the Midlands to London the colliers make “real death-wails,” “the wails of a dying humanity” in a “ghastly trailing song, like death itself” (K 215, 229-30).

24Somers describes how, as the colliers “tore their bowels with their singing, they tore his.” Caruth explains that, since the trauma cannot be pinned down in material or representational terms, it infectiously spreads through testimony, of which the colliers’ singing is an example. As we saw, where infectiousness devalues the factual substance of trauma in the eyes of historians and legal judges, for Caruth it is the essence of trauma’s historical significance, beyond the individual’s pathology. According to Caruth trauma cannot be objectively identified in traditional historiographic terms, instead its ontological force exists in how it pervades the psyches of individuals, and whole populations. In the following retrospective chapter “’Revenge!’ Timotheus Cries” Somers generalises his personal trauma to the whole world: “if the fire had suddenly erupted in his own belly it would erupt one day in the bellies of all men. Because there it had accumulated, like a great horrible lava pool, deep in the unconscious bowels of all men” (K 230, 261). The trauma becomes not a historical event, but a force within history which had caused the Russian Revolution, the Easter Uprising in Ireland, and would soon break forth in India.

25Caruth’s approach seems a powerful way of accessing the trauma of Lawrence as Somers, and even the global trauma of the war. However, within this paradigm the victim cannot provide an independent frame of reference by which to observe the traumatic event since it broke down the ego’s defences. The global applicability of Somers’ impulse for revenge could also be diagnosed as a symptom of megalomania. After all, the core to his war trauma is expressed in a moment of supreme illumination, which includes an almost comical sense of disproportion:

Masters of life, as they were masters of steam-power and electric power and above all, of money-power. Masters of money-power, with an obscene hatred of life, true, spontaneous life.

26Richard Lovett knew it. They had looked into his anus, they had put their hand under his testicles. (K 256)

27The last sentence is so incongruous that, in Caruth’s terms, its resistance to rationality assures its truth value as testimony. On the other hand, it betrays the very personal terms of Somers’ trauma, in comparison, say, to a near-death experience on the Western Front. As Ruth Leys argues in her extensive criticism, Caruth does not allow for elaboration of the trauma as an event with a victim and perpetrator, and precludes the possibility of verification, and of identifying moral culpability (266-297).

28Here we see the problems of Caruth’s approach for the historian. Dominic LaCapra accuses her of approaching history only through the medium of theory and literature, without historiography; he criticises the resulting instability of her approach from the shifting nodal point where her literary, psychoanalytic theories and literature intersect (183-84). Equally critical is a contrary problem that arises from the decentred nature of Caruth’s approach, a kneejerk reaction against uncertainty to the near positivism of neurobiology. This reaction is most evident in her introduction to Trauma: Explorations in Memory, from initially embracing plurality to a very one-sided reading of Freud that excludes symbolic distortion and establishes the “center” of trauma in its belated recurrence that is “absolutely true to the event”: “It is indeed this truth of traumatic experience that forms the center of its pathology or symptoms; it is not a pathology, that is, of falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself.” Within this paradigm the victim cannot provide an independent frame of reference by which to observe the traumatic event since it broke down the ego’s defences. As Ruth Leys argues in her extensive criticism, Caruth does not allow for elaboration of the trauma as an event with a victim and perpetrator, and precludes the possibility of verification, and of identifying moral culpability (266-297).

The Truth of distortion

29Acknowledging that a trauma needs to be integrated into the language of consciousness for the sake of being cured, Caruth resists this process for trauma studies since it threatens the loss of “the event’s essential incomprehensibility, the force of its affront to understanding” (Trauma: Explorations 153). However in taking this stance she resists the whole psychoanalytic project of interpreting the distortion of traumatic material from its repression. LaCapra criticises trauma theory that restricts itself to acting out, since the focus upon unrepresentable events can become undifferentiated. “Working through,” which Caruth is sceptical of, as a process of therapy is highly valued, not as a betrayal of the victim’s experience, but an enabling of the victim as survivor to make that experience contribute to the future of culture and society. For Laub it allows the survivor to resume life with others; for Robert J. Lifton it transmutes pain and guilt into responsibility, which is a central agent for reintegrating the self (Trauma: Explorations in Memory 153, 138). These writers all admit to the impossibility of full recovery and full knowledge of extreme trauma but insist on the hope of achieving it, at least partially.

30Rather than tracing the repetition of untreated traumatic symptoms as Caruth does, Felman and Laub are more concerned with breaking the cycle. A professional psychiatrist and victim of the Holocaust, Laub advocates and practices therapy as “a process of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and essentially, of re-externalizing the event,” and thereby reassert “the hegemony of reality” (68-69). His approach is deeply indebted to Freud’s as outlined in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, of uncovering the patient’s resistances through their transference onto the therapist. Therapy entails the struggle between repetitive acting out of repressed material as if it were a present experience, and working over and through this material with the patient’s moderate detachment to recognise it as belonging to the past.

31Like Caruth, Laub believes that testimony can only be given belatedly, yet while she holds that the original traumatic material lies unaffected in the psyche, he warns that testimony can become distorted if left untold. The difficult question is how to read history through the distortion of memory, or rather how to interpret this distortion. Laub describes the case of a woman narrating her experience at Auschwitz for his Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. In a sudden intense moment of her narrative, “she was fully there,” describing how all four chimneys of the camp exploded during a revolt by the inmates. However, attending historians protested that only one chimney was blown up, and this inaccuracy made it impossible to give credence to her account. Laub’s task lay in interpreting the psychological meaning of her distortion, as “historical truth”: “She had come to testify, not to the empirical number of the chimneys, but to resistance, to the affirmation of survival, to the breakage of the frame of death […] This was her way of being, of surviving, of resisting” (60-62). The woman’s distortions can be understood in Freudian terms, in her ego’s defences against repressed material. The memory of the four towers being destroyed is a wish-fulfilment, a denial of how the rebellion failed and all participants were executed. It is also a manic defence of omnipotent control in the face of complete powerlessness.

32Laub attempts to achieve “the subtle balance between what the woman knew and what she did not, or could not, know.” Unlike the historian who is concerned with validating facts, he argues that as a witness to testimony “you often do not want to know anything except what the patient tells you, because what is important is the situation of discovery of knowledge—its evolution, and its very happening.” La Capra, referring to Laub’s case study, draws attention to the performativity of the woman’s narration with its analytically distinguishable but existentially entwined processes of acting out, working over, working through, which have many subtle intermediaries and combined or hybridised forms (89). In a severely traumatised person different dimensions of the self may be acting out, working over, and working through, all of which communicate with each other; the narrative both repeats itself and moves forward towards the narrator’s self-objectification.

33For the reader of “The Nightmare” the challenge lies in identifying the different processes of distortion occurring in the performance of this chapter of Lawrence’s “gramophone of a novel.” In light of Freud’s speculations on creative writing, the reader follows its therapeutic motions, while being alert to its distorting fantasies.

34One of the first anomalies to investigate in “The Nightmare” is the difference between the two descriptions of the first medical examination at Bodmin. The first description is apparently neutral:

Was medically examined in the morning by two doctors, both gentlemen, who knew the sacredness of another naked man: and was rejected.
So, that was over. He went back home. And he made up his mind what he would do. He would never make a martyr of himself.

35However, in the process of working through there is a compulsion to return to this event through the probing of the narrator’s “inner therapist,” in order to release some undisclosed but insistent anxiety associated with it. The second description brings more attention to itself through the complexity of its attitudes. On one side Somers is relieved that “he was out, he was free,” yet there is the “ignominious word Rejected”; still, “glad he was, and in some mysterious way, triumphant,”but then the men where he lives would “be horribly ashamed of their physical ignominy if they were labelled unfit.” He replies in his own mind that his body is fragile, but “very strong,” and the conclusion of the first description of the examination is repeated, that “he simply could not commit himself to any service whatsoever.”. The reader as therapist is aware of conflict here, but is uncertain of what is being repressed. A clue lies where Somers later implausibly ascribes his second rejection to the authorities’ perception that “he would be a firebrand in their army, a dangerous man to put with any group of men” (K 214, 220-21, 231). It appears that he is denying a sense of inadequacy and powerlessness, not from being conscripted into the war but from his rejection by the authorities. This is the displaced manifestation of Lawrence’s war trauma: he is rejected from service, so decides not to serve.

36His “triumph” lies in being able to preserve his freedom, and he imagines that the other conscripts bewailed “not the death in front” but “the surrender of their old beliefs, and all their sacred liberty.” This statement also displaces his sense of guilt, in arguing that the death of those who passed the examination is not as important as the threat to liberty, which he eventually will lose in Cornwall. Apart from a sense of personal inadequacy, he feels “a dreary misery, knowing how many brave, generous men were being put through this slaughter-machine of human devilishness.” Somers suffers from a distortion common to Holocaust survivors under Laub’s supervision, a sense of guilt that they were responsible for the atrocities they witnessed, perhaps as a “manic defence” of identifying with the power of their aggressors in a belated strategy to survive. Somers in turn denies this distortion by implying that he could have saved the conscripted men if they had followed his lead: “If men had kept their souls firm and integral through the years, the war would never have come on” (K 215, 221). To compensate for his sense of inadequacy he claims to be too integral and firm as an individual to serve, and if others had been likewise, the war would have avoided becoming a disaster, which answers his guilt.

37The main strategy that he employs to displace his guilt is internalising the war, to be a participant. Hence London, not Flanders, becomes the centre of war. Somers is quick to mention that during the Zeppelin raids he “was never afraid,” unlike the rest of the civilian population. “The spirit of the war” comes “in advancing waves,” as if it were the divisions of an attacking army. He even transposes the war from the front to the home: “We hear so much of the bravery and horrors at the front. Brave the men were, all honour to them. It was at home the world was lost. We hear too little of the collapse of the proud human spirit at home, the triumph of sordid, rampant shamelessness” (K 216, 217). From having been rejected, Somers transforms himself into a potential war hero.

38In this respect “The Nightmare” has another common element with one of Laub’s case studies, that of Menachem S. smuggled out of the Plashow labour camp near Krakow by his parents, he spent most of the war as a guest at gentile houses and a member of gangs of boys. In adulthood he became a high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, performing many brave acts because he believed himself to be an untouchable and self-sufficient hero. Meanwhile, he suffered from a recurring nightmare of being on a conveyor belt moving relentlessly to a metal compactor. The extreme polarity between his self image and dreams suggest to Laub that “he could neither allow himself to experience the horrors nor could he move away from the position of the child victim, except by relentlessly attempting to deny them”(88). In Somers’ corresponding denial of helplessness, he does not become a war hero, but fantasises of being one.

39The rest of the “Nightmare” can be read as a tragic story of Somers’ war heroism. He imagines in Cornwall that “he was getting the better of the military canaille,” and when he and his wife are ordered to leave he lashes back at the officers through his contemptuous expression: “they were just things, obeying orders. And his eyes showed that. The young officer wanted to get out.” Afterwards he feels paralysed, and can only bring himself to leave by resolving to fight the authorities and eventually return. At this point too he feels he has been “killed.” His single-handed “combat” against the authorities becomes more desperate at the final examination, with the desperately pathetic image of him sitting naked in his jacket while feeling that “from his heart, from his spine went out vibrations that should annihilate them—blot them out, the canaille, stamp them into the mud they belonged to” (K 244, 247, 255).

40The core of Somers’ trauma from this narrative is not the actual mistreatment he receives from the authorities, but the sense of inadequacy and guilt that makes him present himself as a tragic combatant, while others on the Western Front were actually powerless before the threat of guns and possible death. Guilt is the untold threat to Somers throughout the war, and the displaced content of his trauma, behind a screen of persecution by interfering locals, constables, officers and doctors. To escape from the “horror” he must endure the guilt as “terror”, as these two passages indicate:

And now, if circumstances had roped nearly all men into the horror, and it was a case of adding horror to horror, or dying—well, on the other hand, the irremediable circumstance of his own separate soul made Richard Lovatt’s standing out inevitable. If there is outward, circumstantial unreason and fatality, there is inward unreason and inward fate. He would have to dare to follow his inward fate. He must remain alone, outside of everything, everything, conscious of what was going on, conscious of what he was doing and not doing. (K 222)
So, when ever the feeling of terror came over him, the feeling of being marked-out, branded, a criminal marked out by society, marked-out for annihilation, he pulled himself together, saying to himself:
“I am letting them make me feel in the wrong. I am degrading myself by feeling guilty, marked-out, and I have convulsions of fear.—But I am not wrong. I have done no wrong, whatever I have done. (K 250)

41In the first passage he explains that his standing out from the horror exposes him as a target of it, and that he could not escape it anyway since it has entered the inner self which can be his only guide towards escape. The second passage shows how being the object of persecution makes him persecute himself through guilt; again the external horror is internalised, and all he can do is proclaim to himself his innocence. Hence, when an officer investigating the neighbouring house tells him “No we didn’t want you”, Somers interprets this as an expression of contempt, no doubt because it echoes in his mind the rejection at the medical examination, and he begins to feel guilty “under this mass of poisonous condemnation”; at the third examination the doctor throws “the stethoscope aside as if he were throwing Somers aside” (K 222, 250, 228, 253). In both cases one can posit that much of the perceived persecution from others is actually coming from within.

42In the terms of this psychoanalytic reading of “The Nightmare,” then, Somers’ trauma lies in a repressed sense of helplessness and guilt from not being able to contribute to the war effort—the inverse trauma of the soldier’s on the front. He compensates for these feelings with the fantasy of being a hero, but as his personal war develops over the course of successive military examinations, the fantasy is strained to breaking point, in the great disparity between the physical harm incurred and his corresponding distress. In unconsciously retelling this fantasy, Somers is acting out the trauma, having loosened the repressed memory without objectifying it, but this process is combined with glimpses of insight where he works over and through the trauma.

43Laub stresses the “joint responsibility” of witnessing through the encounter between survivor and listener to achieve “the experience itself of living through” testimony, of giving testimony”; in transferring this relationship to the author and reader of “life-testimony,” Felman claims that it is “a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life” (85-86, 2). However, how does testimony have the immediacy to penetrate us like “an actual life” when it depends on psychoanalytic theory to interpret defences? In other words, how can we verify our interpretation? A case in point is Somers’ conviction that the officers ordering him to leave Cornwall are intimidated by him; instead of being a wish-fulfilment in the face of his actual powerlessness it may have been literally true for Lawrence, since a local farmer and friend, William Hocking, overheard one of the departing officers say “that’s a job I would rather not have to do” (Kinkead-Weekes 400).

A choice of theory

44We are still beset with two problems that pose complications for reading Lawrence’s “The Nightmare,” and more generally Modernist literature, in terms of the First World War: how to choose between contradictory theories of trauma, and how to verify the historical truth of one’s interpretation of literature as testimony.

45The first is perhaps a simpler problem, since its solution demands a practical choice. LaCapra describes how different processes occur simultaneously in traumatic recall, which allows for the option of incorporating both Caruth’s literal and Laub’s interpretive approaches. Caruth’s model of dissociation from van der Kolk has been supplanted in more recent neuroscientific research, for instance of Joseph LeDoux (albeit on lab rats) that trauma is not registered exclusively by the amygdale, but can be simultaneously by the cortex also. Given that controversies and contradictions of theory are unlikely to be resolved by neuroscience alone, E. Ann Kaplan advocates “a more complex and malleable theoretical system” which deals with the peculiar ways that trauma makes it impact, the kinds of subjectivity it produces, and its implications in ideology. She lists three possible kinds of brain function in firsthand trauma: dissociation inaccessible to cognition, not mediated by the unconscious, as in van der Kolk and Caruth, involvement of both dissociation and cognition, according to LeDoux, psychoanalytic repression that Laub and Felman adhere to. For Kaplan each theory has some validity (38), which leaves us with the responsibility of choosing one on the basis of the particular traumatic situation, and perhaps more decisively, the objectives of our particular argument.

46Comparing the two interpretations I have made of “The Nightmare,” we see that where for Caruth the trauma is manifested as an unobjectified “fear,” a psychoanalytic reading enables one to trace the source of this fear to anxiety of the authorities, but more specifically to Somers’ personal circumstances, his sense of powerlessness from his feeble body and guilt which is presented more neutrally as fear. In the case of London as the nexus of this fear, the interpretations follow similar lines: for Caruth it is part of this undifferentiated traumatic condition; for psychoanalysis a compensatory wish fulfilment, a way of denying Somers’ exclusion from the direct action of war. Finally, where for Caruth the geographical and temporal spread of this fear demonstrates its intrinsic contagiousness, and historical significance, again one can interpret this psychoanalytically as Somers’ avoidance of guilt.

47The choice between theories can be facilitated by the historian’s critical comparison of other sources, although in these the source of causation again may be inaccessible. For the most part Lawrence’s corresponding expressions of anger especially prevalent in early 1918, including his complaint of suffering from a “weary bowel-burden of a kind of contained murder which I can’t bring forth” (iii. 231), could reflect either an involuntary compulsion to repeat the violence or a frustrated wish to identify with it. Also, the letters are not entirely trustworthy. For instance, during the first half of 1915 Lawrence wrote The Rainbow and Study of Thomas Hardy with the conviction that war did not affect his core belief for “getting our sex right”; however reflecting on this period he claimed to Cynthia Asquith “the war finished me: it was a spear through the side of all sorrows and hopes” (ii. 390, 218, 233).

48However, much evidence points to Lawrence’s repression of guilt and powerlessness, and identification with war. The letters flatly contradict “The Nightmare” where Somers claims with bravado that he was “never afraid” of the Zeppelin attacks; throughout the war Lawrence avoided London because of air raids, and confessed in September 1915 after a raid that “it seems our cosmos is burst […] so it is the end—our world is gone, and we are like dust in the air.” In 1915, working with Bertrand Russell, Lawrence was convinced that the war would culminate in a class war and revolution, and while the Germans made Paris their objective, his was “this ponderous incubus of falsehood, this massive London, with its streets and streets of nullity” (ii. 390, 233, 380). His vision of the miners on the bus in “The Nightmare” perhaps reflects his own wish to focus the war back onto civil life, since they would be prominent figures in his predicted “big smash-up, after which my day will begin” (ii. 205). Even after his shock on seeing soldiers at Worthing in 1915, the destination of his “escape” switched between antipodes, perhaps “to Thibet—or Kamschatka—or Tahiti—to the Ultima ultima ultima Thule,” or “to be a bus conductor at the front—anything to escape this that is.” In Cornwall at the end of that year, he seemed to find his destination: “a sort of no-man’s-land. For that I love it: it is not England. And there is no war” (ii. 330, 494).

49Perhaps the strongest evidence for a psychoanalytic interpretation of “The Nightmare” is how Somers mirrors Lawrence’s initial fascination with primitivism during the war. According to psychoanalysis, distortions borne of fantasy do not conceal the truth, but present it in a disguised form. Somers’ sense of individuality, as symbolised by the “dark god” is rooted in the war. It emerges in his imagination of the ancient druidical religions of Cornwall: “the mystery of blood-sacrifice: to sacrifice one’s victim, and let the blood run to the fire.” He is most excited by the thought of “human sacrifice. Human sacrifice!” (K, 237-38) Since the outer violence of war has entered him, the apparent escape from war turns out to be an identification with it. Fantasy involves regression, and as Freud observed in Totem and Taboo primitive and infantile thought have common structures. Statements in Lawrence’s correspondence, such as “to build a new world, to our own minds” have been commented on by Paul Delaney as seeming “pure megalomania, like the ‘magic thinking’ of infants or savages who feel they can create and destroy external reality by a single exercise of their will” (224). This form of regression is more blatant in how his horror of London inhabitants on one side makes him imagine himself as a soldier on the front, “walking into some horrible gas, which tears one’s lungs,” while wishing to be a child playing red Indians, but with real poison arrows: “I want to crouch in the bushes and shoot them silently with invisible arrows of death” (ii. 648). Like Somers, Lawrence’s turn to primitive civilisation was partly a sophisticated denunciation of the destructiveness of industrial civilisation, but also a regression into an empowered fantasy.

Testimony within and without history

50The final question remains whether one can hold in balance an analysis of trauma elaborated in terms of the victim’s personal history, and external history. Felman claims that a historically recorded event fails to account for the nature of testimony; Laub betrays the inverse implications of this in observing that “living through” testimony is more important than establishing facts. To mediate between testimony and history Laub precedes his interviews of survivors with a “primary stage” of reconstructing and reaffirming a historical reality, of factual information. However interpretation can become solely a means of reconciling testimony and fact, or it may fail even to do this. LaCapra observes that historians have yet to work out altogether acceptable ways of “using” testimonies, given the different psychological processes creating them (110).

51Lawrence’s experiences as expressed in Somers’ “Nightmare” are not necessarily of great historical significance. As Delaney acidly remarks on the advent of “The Nightmare” with the call-up of married men in 1916, “quite typically, Lawrence took the news much harder than the call-up of single men in January. Typically, also, his anger at Britain’s loss of liberty was directed more at France’s call for help than at their common enemy” (235). The significance of his first examination in late May is dwarfed by the events in France, of the millions of shells bombarding the German lines in preparation for the Somme Offensive on 1 June, the worst day in the history of the British army. At the other end of the “Nightmare,” the trauma of the final examination was exacerbated by Lawrence’s personal circumstances that September, of his thirty-third birthday (Christ’s age when crucified), his sense of betrayal by Hilda Doolittle on getting pregnant by Cecil Gray when she had professed celibacy to Lawrence and her husband Richard Aldington after her miscarriage in 1915, and a letter from the minor poet Robert Nichols that he had been invited to lecture in America. On the other hand, the medical board would have been hostile to those on the verge of escaping the war at this most critical moment before the long awaited victory, when casualties were only exceeded during the Somme.

52The problem of a historical reading of testimony also lies in Freudian theory, which was to a great extent disavowed in the formulation and diagnosis of PTSD; in particular, Feminists and child psychologists denounced Freud’s abandonment of the “seduction theory” that female hysterics were former victims of sexual abuse. This point is avoided by Felman, Laub and Caruth. Freud undercut the material truth claims for testimony in his statements that “there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect,” and that “it may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess.” In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, which attempted to resolve war and peacetime traumas within psychoanalytic theory, anxiety, the affect accompanying a sense of helplessness before a potentially traumatising unknown danger, was modelled on these previous anxieties of possible loss. Freud concluded that “in relation to the traumatic situation, in which the subject is helpless, external and internal dangers, real dangers and instinctual demands converge.” Consequently, for the interpreter of testimony it is impossible to isolate and identify the cause of trauma since it is only experienced in terms of the subject’s history of personal traumas, including those which were only feared could happen. Also, these traumas were not based upon a fear of death but frustration of the libido, which could generate further anxiety regarding the possible consequences of an alternative outlet of its satisfaction (10: 244, 263, 328). Hence, Freud concluded in a late introductory lecture, “where we are dealing with anxiety, you see everything in a state of flux and change” (2: 125). Added to this problem, he elsewhere described how when the libido is frustrated by the loss of an object of desire it can become “introverted,” forming the source of fantasy based upon earlier objects of desire (10: 119-20).

53In accordance with Freud, we can identify Somers’ war trauma as part of his overall life history in his opening remark in “The Nightmare” referring to Cooley’s threatening presence, that “he had known such different deep fears.” The first glimpse of Somers’ trauma of the medical examinations after the conversation with Willie Struthers is coupled with the very distant comparison of being “like a child escaped from school,” which links the war trauma to childhood—the period for Freud of the mind’s formative traumatic events. We can see the instability of Somers’ trauma over the period of incubation since the war in the inconsistencies of his description of his thoughts over the period, beginning with his attitude to the German military:

They had once threatened to arrest him as a spy, and had insulted him more than once. Oh he would never forgive them, in his inward soul.—But then the industrialism and commercialism of England, with which patriotism and democracy became identified: did not these insult a man and hit him pleasantly across the mouth? How much humiliation had Richard suffered, trying to earn his living! […] They wanted to bring to heel even more than the German militarist did. And if a man is to be brought to any heel, better a spurred heel than the heel of a Jewish financier. So Richard decided later, when the years let him think things over and see where he was.

54Therefore when the war came, his instinct was against it. While the Asquith government so softly floundered, he began to suffer agonies. But when the Asquith government went right under, and in its place came that John Bull government of ’16, ’17, ’18 , then agonies gave way to tortures. (K 212, 203, 213-14)

55The “enemy” switches repeatedly within this passage, during which various traumas of Lawrence’s past jostle with each other: the first is the soldier who arrested him in Metz before the war, who is sidelined by the British middle-class establishment, which mutates into the “Jewish financier,” making the German military seem a positive alternative; then the German military at the beginning of war returns, and the British establishment which inflicted a medical examination upon him. Traumas merge into and emerge out of each other.

56Lawrence’s letters confirm Freud’s ideas of how the source of trauma is elusive. His “nightmare” began on the very advent of war, as he wrote during its first month, “the war is just hell for me. […] I can’t get away from it for a minute: live in a sort of coma, like one of those nightmares when you can’t move” (ii 211). Instead of his trauma of war forming an accumulative sense of fear from 1916, the day to day evidence of correspondence presents it as a series of stages from 1914, with roots in his whole personal history. The second major shock, described by Lawrence as “one of the crises in my life,” occurred when he visited Cambridge and witnessed the homosexual lifestyle of John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett and others. Afterwards he suffered from a recurring dream of black-beetles that transformed into insects a month later when he saw soldiers at Worthing, whom he compared to “one insect mounted on another—oh God!” From this period onward he could “see only death and more death, till we are black and swollen with death,” and it was only through reading Heraclitus that he became reconciled to violence as integral to life. Meanwhile the “nightmare” of war recurred, as “one of those horrible sleeps from which I can’t wake” (ii. 321, 331, 352, 339). The final traumatic blow, before the trauma recorded in Somers’ “Nightmare,” occurred when The Rainbow was banned in November 1915. Apart from some resistance to dispute the legal judgement and to publish the novel privately, this event crushed Lawrence utterly, leading to an almost fatal bout of influenza including physical paralysis in January 1916, probably his lowest point in the war. Kinkead-Weekes remarks that “it is impossible to exaggerate the effect of this on Lawrence. He had been made to feel a contemptible alien in his homeland. He had lost his audience” (282). Consequently, Lawrence’s autobiographical experiences in “The Nightmare” are conditioned decisively by the two years preceding it.

57But the significance of “The Nightmare” goes beyond the period of the war as a whole, as its violent outbursts recur throughout Lawrence’s post war writing. Also, it reaches back into Lawrence’s entire personal history. His influenza at the beginning of 1916 was part of a series of related illnesses marking critical moments of his life: first in 1901 following the death of his beloved elder brother from the same disease, then in 1911 when double pneumonia forced him to give up a career in school teaching and eventually became a full-time writer. Lawrence’s idiosyncratic reactions to developments in the war can reflect apparently unconnected events in his early life. For instance, he reacted with apocalyptic venom to the recruitment of women into traditionally male activities. Delaney speculates that this reaction was related to a private obsession traceable to Lawrence’s humiliation by a gang of girl workers at Haywood’s surgical factory in Nottingham when he was nineteen years old (282). A more fascinating issue is the impact of homosexuality at Cambridge upon Lawrence’s attitude to the war, especially in the light of excluded drafts from Women in Love describing Rupert Birkin’s homosexual tendencies. One can speculate that his fragile utopian alternative in the sexual relationship between man and woman was unconsciously undermined by his latent homosexual tendencies, and the war combined with these tendencies to shatter his belief. However, we are reaching deeper and deeper into Lawrence’s psyche, from a possible objective historical construction of the war.

58In reading literature as testimony psychoanalysis offers a wide sense of the particular ways that history affects individuals. However, the wider its reach is, the weaker its grasp on the traumatic event becomes, since the trauma cannot be separated from the fabric of the victim’s life, both before and after the event. This problem is not merely applicable to reading Lawrence’s fiction on the war, but Modernists generally, especially since the majority of them did not directly participate in the conflict. Yet the most prominent alternative, Caruth’s approach, seems to replicate the dangers of Post-structuralism and New Historicism that I outlined at the beginning of this paper, in their extremes of indeterminacy and fixity of conclusions. The radical uncertainty of traumatic experience in Caruth’s model resembles that of textual signification according to deconstruction, and it dialectically gives rise to a very static notion of the trauma as repetition beyond the victim’s conscious grasp.

59Trauma theory remains in a state of flux that threatens to discredit its claims to truth, but this situation at least guarantees its fertility for debate and imagining new approaches to understanding literature and history. Laub ultimately stresses the commitment to truth, even if truth is beyond reach. There is a moral imperative to read literature in its history of production when characterised by large-scale violence, and trauma theory offers a means of pursuing this task: we can only attempt to construct history in the personal histories of its victims and survivors.

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Carl Krockel, « Reading Modernist Fiction as War Testimony: The Case of D.H. Lawrence’s “Nightmare” », Études Lawrenciennes, 42 | 2011, 153-186.

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Carl Krockel, « Reading Modernist Fiction as War Testimony: The Case of D.H. Lawrence’s “Nightmare” », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 42 | 2011, mis en ligne le 17 janvier 2014, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.124

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Carl Krockel

Seoul National University, South Korea

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