Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History-Cathy Caruth

Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History-Cathy Caruth

This article aims at dealing with an Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History as discussed by Cathy Caruth.


In the post-modern time, due to the fragmented social structures and unstable psyche, there arose several themes in the literary texts. The devastating world wars made massive impacts on the psychology of human beings. And to make an analysis of human psychology and social conditions, several theories developed along with trauma theory. Along with several theories developed, the theory of seeking knowledge has been problematic in the present time due to the recent literary criticism that is the post-structuralism and particularly the deconstructive criticism. Because the deconstructive criticism focuses that there could not be fixed meaning. It may lead to political and ethical paralysis. There could be impossibility of making political and ethical judgment because that reference is indirect and we may not have direct access to others’ or even our own history, impossibility of any access to other cultures, Cathy Caruth, the trauma theorist talks about the peculiar and paradoxical experience of trauma i.e. the recent phenomenon arising not only in the reading of literary or philosophical texts, emerging most prominently within the wider historical and political realms.

Cathy Caruth

In its most general definition, “Trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.

For example; The experience of the soldier faced with sudden and massive death around him. He may go in the numbness, will be insensible, shocked, surprised and relive in it with repeated nightmares. It is the central and recurring image of trauma. As a consequence of the increasing occurrence of such perplexing war experiences and other catastrophic responses during the last twenty years, physicians and psychiatrist have begun to reshape their thinking about physical and mental experiences, including most recently the responses to a wide variety of experiences (including rape, child abuse, auto and industrial accidents, and so on) which are now understood in terms of the effects of “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.

trauma possibility of history Cathy Caruth truma theory unclaim experience


Since the early 1990s, trauma theory has been rising within the academic base. Several texts have become seminal (innovative) which grew the interests in trauma within the humanities. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s “Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History” (1992), Cathy Caruth‘s edited Collection ” Trauma: Explorations in Memory” (1995) and her monograph “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History” (1996). These are undoubtedly the books which opened up the Humanities to trauma.

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Unclaimed Experience

The term “trauma theory” first appears in Caruth’s “Unclaimed Experience”. This is an anti-representational or anti-mimetic trauma theory. It talks about the post-structuralist approach, particularly the deconstructive approach. This theory postulates that the truth is inaccessible and when the event happens it happens so sudden or overwhelming that your biological body will not get a chance to experience, as your consciousness is suspended. Cathy argues that because of the nature of trauma (the suspensive nature), the truth becomes inaccessible, but it doesn’t mean that you will not have access to the mainstream history. Several constructed trauma history (story) will lead you to access the truth. Trauma histories are partial but it will help to access the inaccessible truth.

Cathy brings the reference of the history of the Jews, the issues raised most urgently in one of the first works of trauma in this century Sigmund Freud’s book Moses and Monotheism. Because of its seeming fictionalization of the Jewish past, this work has raised ongoing questions about its historical and political status; yet its confrontation with trauma seems to be deeply tied to our own historical realities. Cathy chooses this text so that it can help us understand our own catastrophic era, as well as the difficulties of writing a history from within it. She focuses that Freud’s writing itself confronts historical events and we need to rethink the possibility of history as well as our ethical and political relation to it. Truth cannot be represented as it is, so you have to reconstruct the history, so trauma history is constructive. The history of Jews is the history of struggle and trauma. So, trauma is continuity and discontinuity both.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychoanalyst was a Jew, who later went to England and completed an entire process of writing the history of Jews in his book Moses and Monotheism (1938). (According to the Bible, Moses is the religious leader, also one of the captive Hebrews who eventually arose as their leader and led them out of Egypt back to Canaan, the historic region of the Middle East roughly equivalent to Palestine). In his book, Freud highlights that Moses, though liberator of the Hebrew people was not, in fact, himself a Hebrew, an Egyptian, a persistent follower of an Egyptian pharaoh and his sun-centered monotheism. After the pharaoh’s murder, according to Freud, Moses became a leader of the Hebrews and brought them out of Egypt in order to preserve the waning (becoming weaker) monotheistic religion. Moses was quite interested to promote his own religion among the enslaved Hebrews who were later freed. For after the Egyptian Moses led the Hebrews from Egypt, they murdered him in rebellion, repressed the deed and in passing of two generations, assimilated (compared) his (Moses’s) god to a volcano god named Yahweh and assimilated the liberating acts of Moses to the acts of another man, the priest of Yahweh (also named Moses). The most significant moment in Jewish history is thus, according to Freud, not the literal return to freedom, but the repression of a murder and its effects.


Exodus means the massive Jewish movement. When the Nazis, Hitler’s armies captured Austria, Sigmund Freud made an exit to England. When he was in Austria, he was tormented seeing the pitiful conditions of Jewish sufferings. He couldn’t continue his writing. The process of the actual writing of the book took place between 1934 and 1938, during the period of Freud’s last years in Austria, and his first year in London to which he moved in June of 1938 because of Nazi persecution of his family and his psychoanalysis. The first two parts of the book, containing the history of Moses, were published before he left Austria in 1937, while the third part containing the more extensive analysis of religion in general, was withheld from publication until 1938 after Freud had moved to London. As he fled to London, he got sort of relief. His exit to England has been compared to the exodus of Jews and returning to Canaan, present Palestine from Egypt. Writing the last part is like narrating the traumatic experience or trauma history. The term ‘Exodus’ is always important. The exodus from one language (German is Austria) to the next language (English in England). This makes the radical break in the establishment of the new history.

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The underlying trauma works because the enslaved Jews in Egypt were harassed and even the Jews in Austria. So, Freud felt that it could happen to him. This triggers him of the collective trauma. In the middle of the third part of his book, Freud inserts what he calls a “Summary and Recapitulation”, in which he tells the story of his book in his own way. The book itself, Freud seems to be telling us, is the site of a trauma; a trauma which in this case moreover appears to be historically marked by the events which, Freud says, divide the book into two halves: first, the infiltration of Nazism into Austria, causing Freud to withhold or repress the third part, and then the invasion of Austria by Germany; causing Freud to leave, and ultimately to bring the third part to light.

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Suppose you might face an accident. There is the suspension of memory or consciousness. The events are not directly referential, the presentation is anti-representational. There is called incubation period. But when the consciousness lingers or postpones, then it is latency, being late to regain truth. Trauma cases aren’t mimetic as they are anti-mimetic/anti imitation so, you have to construct a strong to recall the truth. The truth may not come as it but several constructed stories will lead you to the near truth.

Freud’s freedom to leave is paradoxically the freedom, not to live, but to die: to bring forth his voice to others while dying. In the line he writes to his son, the last four words- “to die in freedom” – are not, like rest of the sentence, written in German, but rather in English. This is also a departure.

  • Historical memory or Jewish Historical memory is always the matter of distortion.
  • The historical memory of Jewish is filtering of the original event through the fictions of traumatic repression.
  • So, the event available to us is indirect (Hence, indirect representation as Caruth says).
  • So, Jewish people had gone through traumatic experiences and their experiences of trauma and repression is like Freud’s reference to his own unconscious life,
  • “Moses and Monotheism ” is like Freud’s “unresolved father complex”.
  • The departure and return of Hebrews is like Freud’s departure from father and departure from Judaism.
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trauma possibility of history Cathy Caruth truma theory unclaim experience
Incubation period
This is a train collision (an accident) the first symptom arises

But if it lingers or postpones then it is latency or the effect of experience do not apparent

-Traumatic neurons, the murder of Moses remains buried in unconsciousness.

-In Incubation period, the first symptom arises and is seen but in latency, it is not apparent.

Caruth claims “Jews freedom, the murder of Moses, repression, and Canaan” – a single accident.

Caruth claims the trauma history/story cannot be fully perceived.

-The structure of book starting to write 1934, 1936; and Nazi infiltration in Vienna Austria and repression and later repetitive reappearance (reaching London) in 1937 is like the structure of trauma because the traumatic events get manifested through the symptoms. So, is traumatic structuring of Book.

-Leaving home of Austria (in Viena) is a kind of freedom which brought him to publish the book later in London.


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