The Repressed Always Returns: Trauma, Body, and Recovery
Dominik Lacapra, an intellectual historian, has written extensively on the representation of trauma in the Holocaust and in historical writing. While trauma is often conceived as a psychological experience, this article, by revoking the term coined by Freud, intends to draw readers’ attention to body memory, especially the abuse of body in the formation of trauma, as emphasised by Freudian psychoanalytic theories.
Despite the difference of historical contexts, Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’ film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Gao Xingjian’s novel, One Man’s Bible (1998) both present such an intricate operation of trauma. The comparison between the two may provide an additional way for historians to analyse primary source texts. This first part analyses Hiroshima Mon Amour, which narrates an one-day affair between a French actress and a Japanese architect. This temporary romance, however, triggers the secret long buried in the French actress’ mind.
He: You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.
She: I saw everything. Everything.
Hiroshima begins with this famous line, which encapsulates the paradox of trauma. In Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1987), Robert Jay Lifton, who investigated the experiences of 9,000 hibakusha (literally ‘explosion-affected people’ in Japanese), observed an intriguing ‘psychic numbing’ affecting surviving victims . One of his interviewees compared his emotional indifference to the corpses to an emotional overexposure. The conversation between He and She also echoes the same idea. When the weight of the disaster becomes too heavy to bear, the Subject turns to amnesia in order to carry on her life; therefore, trauma becomes simultaneously seen and unseen. His denial of the tragedy in Hiroshima and Her affirmation of it resemble this typical post-traumatic reaction, an ongoing interrogation in survivors’ consciousness.
The unnamed She is the French actress, who has come to Hiroshima for a film about peace; the unnamed He is the Japanese architect, who escaped the bombing attack when he was in the army, but found his hometown was completely destroyed when he returned. What sparks their intercultural romance is not the fascination with exoticness, but a mutual grief for the dead. Their ceaseless conversation elicits the French actress’ repressed memories about her previous German lover, as their relationship was fated to be unfruitful during WWII. When their rendezvous was discovered, the German soldier was shot dead in the French woman’s arms, and she was punished for her collusion with the enemy. Her hair was shaved off by the villagers in Nevers, and she was confined to a cellar. She then fled to Paris and never returned to Nevers.
Even though there is no obvious connection between Nevers and Hiroshima, they are uncannily intertwined in the actress’ subconsciousness. When She watches the documentary in Hiroshima museum, the Japanese women’s loss of hair due to radiation reminds the French actress of her own hair loss because of the atrocity of the war.
Later, through the Japanese man’s body, She recalls her German lover’s dead body. Under the obscure mechanism of recollection, desire and death become paradoxically close to each other. This merging of love and death also appears in the opening of the film. Two bodies intertwined together, but it is difficult to tell whether we are witnessing sexual intimacy or the dead bodies caused by the bombing in Hiroshima. The sweat on their skin may be the sweat of erotic excitement but could also be deadly rain from the mushroom cloud of the atomic bombing. The correspondence between the French actress’s personal history of Nevers and the public collective History of Hiroshima, therefore, indicates it is the atrocity of the war that links Nevers and Hiroshima, and it is the death of a loved one that draws the two survivors to each other.
Hiroshima certainly depicts a complicating aspect of traumatic memory, and it seems to suggest that by wording the unspeakable experience, allowing the repressed memory to re-emerge at the level of consciousness, self-narrative functions as the Subject’s primary step towards reconciling with trauma; however, the film does not claim to offer an answer about what the next step will be. When She cries out, ‘I am forgetting you already!’ it leaves the audience wondering whether the recently emerged trauma will be buried under the defensive mechanism again.