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Number 9: Winter 2013

Whose Drive Is It Anyway? Aristotle and Freud on Tragedy and Trauma

Barry Watt

But what is it in trauma, then, that can be neither given up nor understood but must be returned to and repeated, seemingly endlessly? Here, a famous aspect of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy provides a helpful initial framework, albeit a quite different framework to the one initially appropriated by Freud and Breuer in their cathartic method. For Aristotle, tragedy involves misrecognition, a mistaking of oneself for something or someone one is not, followed by the reversal of this misrecognition, which Aristotle describes as a ‘change from ignorance to knowledge’. This is well illustrated by the cardinal myth of psychoanalysis, Oedipus, whose tragedy strikes at precisely the point at which he is enlightened about his true identity. That is, Oedipus’s world is shattered by the return, the repetition, of his past. Could there be something of a reversal of recognition at work in trauma, a repetition of something from the subject’s archaic history? Does this revelation of oneself as other, account for the intense pain attaching to the irresistible compulsion of remembering, returning to and somatically repeating traumatic incidents, which is seen in the clinic?

The patient with the most pronounced symptoms of a traumatic incident I have worked with in my practice was a young man in his early thirties. He was attacked and robbed as he walked home late one evening after carousing with friends. Following the attack he suffered the most acute somatisations. In sessions he was unable to stay still for a moment: twitching and squirming, sweating in buckets. As it was impossible for him to remain seated for any length of time he frequently had to stand or roam about anxiously during our appointments. I heard about how, outside of sessions, he was beset by unbearably intrusive flashbacks, night terrors, agoraphobia and paranoia. Describing his life and previous sense of identity before the attack, he did so without equivocation: he was a super confident cheeky-chappy, the much admired office jester. Although young, and lacking the formal education and qualifications of his colleagues, his determined, outgoing disposition ensured he had already met with considerable career success: colleagues had earmarked him for great things. He explained that, before the attack, he had felt that there was nothing he couldn’t do. After the assault however, his life fell apart; former notions of his self splintered. He was not as omnipotent as he believed. Being unable to continue as who he had been, he was thrown into a frenzied search for a way back to the status quo ante.