Writing: A Way to Incorporate a Past of Trauma into a Life

An essay on Georges Perec, the Holocaust, death, trauma and writing as powerful tool of living

Renee Carmichael
Oct 26, 2017 · 18 min read

Trauma arises from an event that causes shock to the mind or the body. The events of this shock are not realized as they occur but belatedly return in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and other repetitive devices.

As a result, trauma becomes a lack of understanding of a near death experience; a near death experience that is sharpened in the Holocaust by a sense that some die and others go on living.

In the novel W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec, the concept of trauma constitutes every page as Perec attempts to remember and retell his childhood years during the Holocaust. Perec discusses his use of imaginary arm slings, the departure of his mother, and his obsession with parachuting, all which illustrate Perec’s trauma and his lack of concrete childhood memories. It is Perec’s use of writing, however, about these elements as well as others that occur during his childhood that Perec’s trauma becomes fully illuminated.

The cover of W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec.

Perec’s statement about why he writes found on page forty-two of the novel illustrates Perec’s desire to write in order to understand his connection between life and death, to provide the means to survive despite his trauma, and to create a grave for his past. All of these desires that encourage Perec to write stem from the idea of lack that is found in trauma theory.

Trauma theory, as illustrated in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History by Cathy Caruth, attempts to understand the lack that trauma creates by tracing the repetitive and reoccurring words and figures in literary texts and how these words and figures then come to portray indirectly a person’s trauma. It is only through the way in which writing, as illustrated in Caruth’s trauma theory, allows Perec to portray his trauma despite his lack of a concrete understanding of this trauma that Perec is able to deal with the pain of a lacking past. Writing provides Perec with the power to connect the weight of his past to the story of his life so that he can live alongside his trauma.

The body becomes an illustration of the way in which Perec’s life is continually connected to death as a result of trauma; his desire to write because he was, “a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies[1] and continues to feel this connection.

In Caruth’s discussion of the film Hiroshima Mon Amour the difference between life and death and the ability of the body to function becomes important. Caruth writes: “for in missing the moment of his death, the woman is also unable to recognize the continuation of her life: ‘I couldn’t feel the slightest difference between his dead body and mine.’”[2] In order to continue this connection between the dead body, the woman attempts to enter her madness through the manipulation of her hands in which her hands no longer function properly and are symbolic of a dead body: “It is…only as a fragment that the body can become, for the woman, the faithful monument to death.”[3]

A connection between life and death, as the woman’s example illustrates, is a way in which a person can relate the death of a loved one to his life without having to fully understand the nature and impact of the death itself. The woman, through her symbolic tribute to death, is illustrating a lack of details that would enable her mind to understand how death impacts her life, and instead, the woman creates physical strain through the manipulation of her hands to gain an understanding of this impact through her body.

Perec illustrates similarities to the woman in the film in relation to the connection between life and death that trauma creates. As Perec is unable to realize that the point of departure at the Gare de Lyon train station is a departure of his mother to her death and Perec to continue his life, Perec creates an imaginary arm sling to compensate for his lack.[4] The arm fracture allows Perec to loose a part of his ability to function as a body, and in doing so, Perec becomes a step closer to death; a step towards death that provides a way for Perec to connect his living and functioning body to his mother’s un-functioning and dead body in order to consider how his mother’s death continues to impact his life without having to fully understand the nature of this impact in his mind.

Perec is eventually able to realize that through writing he can gain a stronger understanding of the way that death impacts and connects to his life by replacing the physical strain of the arm sling with the emotional and mental strain of delving directly into his trauma. Perec writes because he has been a body close to their bodies and realizes that even after the death of his parents, his parents continue to have an impact on his life, and that it is only through writing and dealing directly with his trauma that Perec can emulate the connection between living bodies with that of life and death to understand the way in which his parents continue to have an effect on his life.

It is through writing that Perec can separate his attempt to deal with his past from the abstract idea of the body and place his thoughts more concretely in words. Caruth in her chapter on Hiroshima Mon Amour discusses the woman’s attempt to free herself from her madness: “To be reasonable here is no longer to cling madly to the memory of her lover’s death; it is to exit into the freedom of forgetting…a freedom that is fundamentally a betrayal of the past.”[5] It is through Perec’s choice of writing, with its indelible nature, as a means to deal with his past; however, that Perec is able to become reasonable by acknowledging his past instead of forgetting it.

Perec mentions:

“Whatever the truth of the matter and as far back as I can remember, the word ‘scapula’ and its companion, the world ‘clavicle’, have always been familiar to me.”[6]

By giving emphasis to the concrete terms that surround the manipulation of his body, Perec creates a way to escape the torment of his past by separating his past from himself and making it a term; an object that does not fade away but has the power to live on. As Perec writes because he was left in the indelible mark of his past and that this past is traced in writing,[7] Perec is able to separate the thoughts of his past from his emotional pain in order to gain a freedom from his past; a freedom that entails understanding and not forgetting.

A freedom to understand allows for writing to become a stronger example of the way in which life is connected to death, and this connection is explored in Caruth’s examination of de Man’s works on Kant. De Man’s argument in his essay “The Resistance to Theory” attempts to distinguish natural law from theory by showing how theory is unable to directly refer to the world: “…the only thing that was adequate to the world was, paradoxically, that which didn’t refer (mathematics); and what did refer, language, could no longer describe the world.”[8]

Through this definition, Perec’s tale of the island of W remains a fictional island that is based on sport: “Nor are there any relay races; here they would have no meaning, would not be understood by spectators: an individual win is always a win for the team, so a “team win” meanings nothing.”[9] The allegorical meaning of an ‘individual win’ as it relates to the Holocaust survivors’ ability to survive by deserting their family and friends and concentrating only on themselves would not be present in the story of W.

A continuation of de Man’s theory and Perec’s choice to write because of the indelible mark of his past, however, illustrates Perec’s wish to refer to more than just fiction and convey the reality behind his words. Kant distinguishes between metaphysics which tells facts about the world and transcendental philosophy which tells the conceptual conditions of possibility for thinking about the world. Kant applies these definitions to bodies in motion in which a metaphysical law states that all changes in motion of a moving body have an external cause while a transcendental law says that all changes in motion to a body must have some cause.

De Man notes the significance of the example of the body: “if critical philosophy and metaphysics…are causally linked to each other, their relationship is similar to the relationship, made explicit in the example, between bodies and their transformations or motions.” [10] The example of the body, although philosophy has given up direct reference of it through the definition by de Man, refers figuratively to the body in the example, and becomes a figure for the knowledge of philosophy’s inability to refer to the empirical body.[11] It is in this awareness of philosophy’s inability to refer to the world in the way that science does, that philosophy indirectly refers to the empirical world, and it is through this indirect reference that Perec is able to write despite his lack.


Page sixty-two of the novel entails an ellipsis which illustrates a gap in the story or that something is left out; mainly, Perec’s inability to grasp and remember his traumatic childhood in relation to the Holocaust. After this ellipsis, Perec starts to describe the island of W, and many of the examples he uses in this description relate to the way in which the Holocaust survivors have told the story of their survival. The example of the ‘individual win’ then gains its allegorical meaning. It is in this double use and underlying allegorical meaning of Perec’s tale of W, that Perec’s inability to discuss his past becomes apparent as a result of the an awareness of his lack that is illustrated on page sixty-two of the novel.


Perec does not write to say nothing or write to say that he has nothing to say,[12] but writes because his nothings gain meaning indirectly regardless of Perec’s lack of power to explicitly state the meanings of his past, and these indirect meanings allow for Perec to understand how the indelible mark of his past impacts his life.

In de Man’s analysis of Kleist’s On the Marionette Theater the importance of the indirect power of language is developed further. The Marionettes are seen as dead bodies that move mechanically without human clumsiness and become superhuman graces. De man furthers the idea of marionettes as dead, superhuman graces by relating the puppet to the puppeteer in which the puppets do not move themselves but only through the action of the puppeteer:

“The aesthetic power is located neither in the puppet nor in the puppeteer but in the text that spins itself between them.”[13]

By de Man relating the concept of the marionettes to writing, the ability of Perec to use grammar, in place of the puppets, to convey his past becomes important. In the use of grammar, as it is a formal and quantified system, the puppeteer, or Perec as a writer, is hidden behind the superhuman power of dancing puppets or the art of words on a page.[14] The ability of grammar to remove the referentiality of the author is seen in the story of W: “However, so as not to mistake this, or these (since there are several) honorific Kekkonens with the reigning Kekkonen, the title is slightly modified, usually by reduplicating the initial syllable. Thus: the kekkonene, the Jojones, the MacMacMillian…”[15]

Through this description of names, the reader is placed in the same position as the athletes of W in attempting to ascertain the confusing way of life on the island. As the reader attempts to sort the words to discover how the words relate to the development of the storyline, the reader becomes lost within the dead words, the formalized grammar, and the detailed descriptions of W and is unable to see past the words to consider the meanings that the author wishes to portray that extend beyond the story.

Through these detailed descriptions of W and as de Man’s analysis of Kleist continues, the referentiality of the author, however, is not completely lost through writing. Caruth states that: “The paradox of this writing system is that it produces the human figure of the author in the very elimination of authorial referentiality. Precisely when the text appears most human, it is most mechanical.”[16] Through the process of having to sort the words to understand the story, the reader is able to realize that the words do not provide the usual emotional clue that guide the reader to an understanding of how the pieces of the storyline fit together.

As a result of this lack of emotional reading, the reader then turns to ponder why the author would use words that lack emotion, and it is through this pondering that the referentality of Perec’s lack of an understanding of the death of his mother appears. When describing a photograph of his mother, Perec’s writing also becomes mechanical: “Her eyes are darker than mine and have a slightly wider shape. Here eyebrows are very fine and sharply delineated. Her face is oval, her cheeks well defined…”[17]

Perec’s overly descriptive prose illustrates his lack of an understanding of his mother and reveals the humanity of the text to the reader.

Perec must write because the indelible mark of his past is traced through writing, and it is only through writing as a formalized grammar system that contains dead objects or words that can be manipulated, that Perec is able to hide behind these objects to portray a story.

It is in the very nature of the dead words, that this story comes to resemble his past and the humanity of the way in which Perec’s past continues to affect his life.

Once Perec becomes conscious of his lack through his desire to understand his connection between life and death, it is through the experience of parachuting that Perec is able to survive and gain the independence of his life, in which:

“Their memory is dead in writing: writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.”[18]

As de Man in his essay “The Resistance to Theory” distinguishes natural law from philosophy in which philosophy cannot be based on perception, Caruth illustrates how de Man relates this concept to falling: “Those who resist theory in the name of perceptual reality, de Man seems to be arguing, are in fact resisting the force or impact, of a fall.”[19]

The oldest known depiction of a parachute, by an anonymous author (Italy, 1470s).

Perec’s own experience with falling can be related to de Man’s concept of falling and theory. At the departure of his mother, Perec is given an issue of Charlie in which Charlie Chaplin parachute jumps. Perec relates the idea of suspension found in parachute jumping to the departure of his mother through an arm sling, but is unable to prove that he has worn a sling:

“But my aunt was quite definite: I did not have my arm in a sling; there was no reason at all for me to have my arm in a sling. It was a ‘son of father deceased’, a ‘war orphan’, that I was being evacuated by the Red Cross entirely within regulations.”

Perec then ponders the human experiences, such as an operation, that could explain why he has worn a sling.[20]

Perec is resisting theory in this sense as he is unable to move away from the perceptual, empirical world to theorize that his need for support relates to the trauma of his mother’s departure. It is only by combining theory with the empirical experience of falling that Perec can understand his past and realize his survival:

“Yet what falling signifies, and signifies uniquely, is a mobile and vertiginous verticality that links the body and the virtually indistinguishable realm of thought by means of impact with the plane of horizontal movement of a life or even a text.”[21]

Perec parachute jumps thirteen times which is an anagram to the age at which his father dies.[22] At each jump, Perec must throw himself into the void of death and his past and each time he lands safely and alive.

Through the repetitions, Perec is able to realize that the free-falling of parachute jumping, with its sense of fear and inability to have control, represents his connection to and experience with his parents’ death, and the opening of the parachute, with its stable and controlled descent, as symbolic of his destiny to survive past their death.

Perec is then able to understand the point of departure between life and death. The deaths of his parents become dead and permanent in writing as a result of the combination of the mind and body in which Perec is able to gain an understanding of his survival so that he can assert his life.

The power of writing in allowing Perec to assert his life is even more important when considering how the combination of experience and the mind changes the way in which Perec can write about his trauma. Schnitzer relates parachute jumping to Perec’s past: “…jumping means ridding oneself of this past almost at the point of reaching a tabula rasa. It also means a loss of identity and a death warrant, which is why jumping is almost impossible for Perec…Perec can only respond with an act of faith. He cannot merely jump, but must throw himself.”[23]

It is by throwing himself into this void, that Perec is able to accept his past and to fall out of trauma and into life.[24]

Perec’s fall into life stems from an ability to relate the experience of throwing himself into the void to the lack within his mind: “…I suddenly saw, in the very instant of jumping, one way of deciphering the text of this memory: I was plunged into nothingness; all the threads were broken; I fell, on my own, without support. The parachute opened.”[25] The importance of Perec’s experience lies in his ability to ‘read’ his memory in which the ability to ‘read’ this memory allows it to gain meaning in writing.

This creates a before and after in writing in which ‘before’ writing defines itself through an obsessive relation to words and ‘after’ writing stages the referent of the word.[26] It is in this unique example of parachute jumping that words do not only relate to de Man’s theory as objects that indirectly refer to Perec’s lack, but gain a connotative meaning that is personal to Perec’s trauma. Through these connotative meanings, Perec is able to extend his understanding of the death of his mother beyond the way it connects to his life to include the nature of this death itself so that his mother’s memory is dead in writing and Perec can assert his life.

It is through writing that Perec is able to accept a Jewish identity and to finally create a grave for his mother. Perec’s Jewishness has not always been a distinct part of his identity: “I am Jewish. For a long time, this was not evident to me; there was no association with a religion, a people, a history, a language, barely even a culture.” Perec also states about his Jewishness: “I don’t know exactly what it is to be a Jew, or what effect being a Jew has on me. There’s something obvious about it, I suppose, but it’s a worthless obviousness that doesn’t connect me with anything. It isn’t a sign of belonging, it doesn’t have to do with belief, or religion, or a code of behavior, a way of life or a language.”[27] As illustrated in Perec’s quotes and as a result of his upbringing in which Perec was encouraged not to consider his Jewish background and convert to Catholicism, Perec is unable to feel a part of the Jewish people.

Perec states, however, that: “I believe that I began to feel Jewish once I began to tell the story of my childhood.”[28] In essence, writing is what allows Perec to accept his Jewishness and his past. Although the word ‘Jewish’ still does not mean anything to Perec through writing in regards to culture and religion, it was the historical aspect of the word that gains its importance: “This almost-nothing was yet a word, a word that had the weight of a whole history; it was a name they shared…”[29] Perec understands his place within this broad Jewish history as he mentions that history with a capital ‘H’ has replaced his childhood memories,[30] and this understanding of history generates a responsibility of Perec to become a witness to history and aid in creating a voice for the Jews. It is in this responsibility as well as Perec’s attempt to come to terms with his trauma that Perec’s writing becomes a monument to his mother’s death so that her story and the traces of it through its impact on Perec’s life can be shown to the world.

It is through writing that Perec is able to accept the Jewishness of his past in order to assert his life and to create a grave for his mother; a grave that exists as one story within a history of many.

Perec writes because he desires a more conclusive understanding of the connection between the death of his parents and his life than the body can provide; a desire of connection that stems from his lack in which he is unable to understand the minute details of his parents’ deaths. Writing permits Perec to understand this connection as it allows Perec to separate himself from his trauma through the use of words that are objects.

The objectivity of words and de Man’s theory of philosophy then allow Perec the freedom to indirectly refer to the world despite his lack. Writing also allows for Perec to become hidden in his words, yet in the very hiding of the author, writing illustrates Perec’s lack of an understanding of his past which becomes an indirect reference to this past itself.

Through the experience of the parachute, Perec is able to use repetition and the mind in combination with the body to gain an understanding of his mother’s departure and her death. The words that Perec uses to describe this departure and parachute jumping then gain an anchored emotional meaning and loose their objectivity.

In each of these ways, writing helps Perec to incorporate his past into his life by understanding the way in which the two are connected so that Perec can free himself from the grips of his past; a freedom that allows for his acceptance of his place in Jewish history and the creation of a grave for his mother. Perec realizes this importance of writing through his choice in writing found on page forty two of W, or the Memory of Childhood. Or perhaps it is in combination with this statement that Perec is able to understand how the power of writing can be used to his full advantage:

“I feel confusedly that the books I have written are inscribed and find their meaning in the overall image that I have of literature, but it seems to me that I shall never quite grasp that image entirely, that it belongs for me to a region beyond writing, the question of ‘why I write’, which I can never answer except by writing, and thus deferring forever the very moment when, by my ceasing to write, that image would visibly cohere, like a jigsaw puzzle inexorably brought to its completion.”[31]

Just as his past is an indelible mark on his life, Perec realizes that he must live with his trauma. Writing, with its ability to maneuver around this trauma as illustrated in trauma theory, defers the moment when Perec will have to directly face the pain of his trauma, and instead provides a way for Perec to understand how his trauma and past fit into his life: it is without writing, that Perec would be powerless in the face of his trauma.

Writing does not provide Perec with the means to completely understand his trauma; rather, it provides Perec with the means to understand how his trauma can be connected to his life so that Perec can survive and live alongside his trauma.


[1] Georges Perec. W, or the Memory of Childhood. Trans. David Bellos. (Jaffery: David R. Godine, 1988) 42.

[2] Cathy Caruth. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Unversity Press, 1996) 39.

[3] Caruth 30–31.

[4] Perec 26.

[5] Caruth 32–33.

[6] Perec 81.

[7] Perec 42.

[8] Caruth 76.

[9] Perec 82–83.

[10] Caruth 77–78.

[11] Caruth 78–79.

[12] Perec 42.

[13] Caruth 80. (Quote on page 81).

[14] Caruth 81.

[15] Perec 101.

[16] Caruth 82.

[17] Perec 49.

[18] Perec 42.

[19] Caruth 74.

[20] Perec 55.

[21] Kaufman 51.

[22] Daphne Schnitzer. “A Drop in Numbers: Deciphering George Perec’s Postanalytic Narratives.” Pereckonings, Reading Georges Perec. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 112.

[23] Daphne Schnitzer. “A drop in Numbers: Deciphering George Perec’s Postanalytic Narratives.” Pereckonings, Reading Georges Perec. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 112.

[24] Eleanor Kaufman. “Falling from the sky: Trauma in Perec’s W and Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience.” Diacritics. Winter 1998: 44–53. 48–49.

[25] Perec 55.

[26] Schnitzer 114.

[27] Marcel Bénabou. “From Jewishness to the Aesthetics of Lack” Pereckonings, Reading Georges Perec. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 23.

[28] Bénabou 22.

[29] Bénabou 25.

[30] Perec 6.

[31] David Bellos. Georges Perec: A Life in Words. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1993. 651.


Bibliography

Bellos, David. Georges Perec: A Life in Words. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1993.

Benabou, Marcel. “From Jewishness to the Aesthetics of Lack.” Yale French Studies,

Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The

John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Kaufman, Eleanor. “Falling from the Sky: Trauma in Perec’s ‘W’ and Caruth’s

‘Unclaimed Experience.’” Diacritics 28.4 (1998): 44–53.

Perec, Georges. W, or the Memory of Childhood. Trans. David Bellos, Jaffrey: David R. Godine, 1988.

Schnitzer, Daphne. “A drop in Numbers: Deciphering Georges Perec’s Postanalytic

Narratives.” Yale French Studies, Pereckonings: Reading Georges Perec. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Renee Carmichael

Written by

Researcher at Flee Immediately! Interested in poetic infections and dancing online. PhD student working on dance, code and plague. www.fleeimmediately.com

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