‘I never thought this would happen to me’ is a common sentiment heard from the recently traumatised. Invoking shock and surprise, the traumatised tirelessly underscore the unexpectedness of the fate that has befallen them, appealing to what is familiar as the language of tragedy: a catastrophe has turned life upside-down. Those suffering from traumatism – or what has now been ubiquitously rebranded as PTSD – typically arrive in the clinic speaking the language of incomprehensibility, fate, and the inexplicable turnaround of fortune. So as to distinguish this kind of contingent trauma from the necessary ‘structural trauma’ psychoanalysis posits as the mythical origins of the subject in the psychosexual drama of infancy, I will here follow a convention established by Paul Verhaeghe by referring to ‘accidental trauma’.

The aim of my paper this morning is to discuss some of the points of contiguity between tragedy – in a highly delimited aspect of the formal sense developed by Aristotle in his Poetics – and Freudian drive theory. The relationship of Freud and Aristotle on tragedy is a vast topic demanding a fuller treatment than can be undertaken toady. I have, elsewhere (Watt 2012), begun to try and establish the indispensability of Aristotle’s Poetics for grasping the intellectual, socio-cultural and interpersonal circumstances leading to the emergence of psychoanalysis through Freud’s, Breuer’s and Bertha Pappenheim’s relationship to Jakob Bernays, the uncle of Freud’s wife Martha Bernays. A renowned classicist and philologist, Bernays published a groundbreaking study on Aristotle’s account of tragedy that made a significant impact within contemporary artistic and intellectual circles. Bernays’s key innovation was the proposal that, contrary to the received scholarship of the time, one of Aristotle’s famously tricky terms in the Poetics, catharsis, was better understood as belonging to the medical rather than the religious register.