Trauma and Remembrance

As news spread throughout France of the Liberation of Paris, 25 August 1944, a division of the Waffen-SS entered the small town of Maillé in the Indre-et-Loire department, a few hours south of the capital, and proceeded to murder 124 people. The soldiers had been stationed nearby for several years, and had interacted with the town folk on a regular basis, so, as they approached, the citizens of Maillé were not alarmed. Men and women and children stood in the street and in their front yards and looked out from their windows, realizing only too late that the soldiers were not there on friendly terms. The Germans opened fire and began to systematically work their way through town, shooting those they could, bludgeoning, bayoneting, and burning the rest. With only a population of 600, Maillé suffered the loss of an entire fifth of its population, including almost a whole generation of young people (CBC). Apparently satisfied with their violence, the soldiers returned to their vehicles and left. But they were not completely finished with Maillé. In the afternoon, bombardment from an artillery emplacement on a nearby hill commenced, flattening most of the city and leaving those who had survived the initial bloodshed with nowhere to go. Why the Germans decided to commit such an atrocity against such an insignificant target is not definitively known. On some of the bodies, notes were left with the message “this is punishment for terrorists and their assistants,” perhaps referring to the aid given by members of the French Resistance, located in the vicinity of Maillé, to an Allied pilot who had crashed nearby, an act that had in no way previously been associated with the town. Regardless, the Maillé massacre was an appalling occurrence of human brutality, and a crushing, tragic stamp upon an entire population that would go unspoken of and unhealed for over half a century. Maillé was largely forgotten, though the massacre was only second in size to the largest and most widely known massacre of the War at Oradour-sur-Glane. So how could such a significant event be ignored? Why did the people of Maillé not seek justice for the criminals who devastated them? Why did it take so long for the town’s population to even begin to talk about it? To answer these questions, to talk about Maillé, we must take a diagnostic approach, looking at the massacre through the lens of subjective psychological damage and collective shock. Through this dialectic—private/public, subjective/collective—a synthesis of the events of 25 August 1944 and the process of recovery afterwards is possible. To talk about Maillé is to talk about the nature of trauma.

On 9 June 2015, my classmates and I travelled to Maillé to visit the Maison du Souvenir and hear a testimony from a survivor of the massacre, M. Serge Martin, who lost both of his parents and three siblings to the violence. After watching a short documentary, M. Martin spoke to us (remarkably composed given the emotional weight of the subject) and we, in turn, were able to ask him questions. The floor open for dialogue, there was, at first, only silence. How do you talk about horror, and more, how do you talk about horror with someone who experienced it? After a few moments, the first question was asked, and then from there we were able to talk, but overcoming that initial barrier of language, the putting into words of unbearable psychological content, took significant effort. We, certainly to a much lesser degree than the people of Maillé, nevertheless experienced a similar mental block surrounding the trauma, and only through force of will caused our tongues to move and break the silence. It is this act of talking—precisely, of signification—that is important here. It is this act that forms the core of psychoanalytic therapy, particularly in the theory of Jacques Lacan, and for the people of Maillé is at the center of their recovery.

In Lacan’s paper “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud” the unconscious—the seat of desire, of impulse, of memory—is structured in and through language, specifically, la lettre, the “material support that concrete discourse borrows from language” (1130). This is a distinction he draws from the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, in which language is a bipartite structure, langue (structure) and parole (utterance). The “agency of the letter in the unconscious,” then, is a linguistic agency. The mind cannot be talked about apart from its situation in language. This is important for Lacan because, as a psychoanalyst, the primary mode of therapy is the talking cure. For Lacan, and for the broader psychoanalytical school at large, “speech is the key to truth” (1130). But why does Lacan make this connection between language, therapy, and the unconscious?

For Lacan, the unconscious, though structured in language, is inexpressible, or in his terminology, “unsignifiable”—meaning, it cannot be put into signs (words; language). When a person experiences trauma, the extremity of the psychological experience, located in the unconscious, cannot be contained in words. Through the talking cure, the psychoanalyst aims to build up the language around the unsignifiable event, circle around and around it in ever tightening circles, until, at last, the event is sufficiently illuminated by its encompassing context. The thing itself cannot be attained: “to grasp in language the constitution of the object, we cannot fail to notice that this constitution is to be found only at the level of concept, a very different thing from a simple nominative” (1131). One can read about Maillé on websites like the CBC or The Guardian or Wikipedia, one can even go there and hear testimony, but there remains a gap between the nominal or conceptual trauma, the massacre as such, and the experiential trauma itself, the thing or object of the psychological break. So, to articulate an experiential thing as a conceptual thing is to make the difficult move from unsignifiable unconscious to signified consciousness, to transliterate, as it were, something primal and without speech into an entirely different register. This simultaneous distancing and drawing nearer to is what occurs in treatment, and it is what occurred, to some degree, for us as visitors at the Maison du Souvenir. For the citizens of Maillé, however, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, they had no such recourse. Their trauma remained unexpressed, and thus, the long road to healing was not even open to them.

As both the documentary and M. Martin explained, this lack of speech had a few causes. Primarily, the massacre was not discussed out of a simple “rural mentality.” They kept to themselves, they did not talk, they just put their heads down and work. The massacre was only talked about at the church service and funeral following, but even then, the people remained silent, stoic, repressing the trauma rather than trying to cope with it in a healthy way. As the years progressed, then, talking about it became even more difficult because, without signification psychological content begins to muddy or even disappear. As one woman in the film described it, talking about the massacre was like putting a puzzle together with missing pieces, memories forcefully forgotten. In Maillé forgetting is thus a twofold process, an initial, deliberate, reticence, followed by an actual inability to put together a coherent picture of what happened. So, as years pass, to talk about their shared trauma became incredibly challenging. The struggle of remembering simply caused further pain, which would then be actively repressed in order to cope. The cycle continues; more is forgotten. The wound scabs over, perhaps, but the damage underneath never heals.

This is problematic for the psychoanalyst. If, in fact, “speech is the key to truth,” it follows, then, that truth, one’s “whole experience . . . find[s] in speech alone its instrument, its context, its material, and even the background noise of its uncertainties” (1130). If the subject cannot speak, cannot, in anyway, signify what he has experienced, his “whole experience”— “instrument,” “context,” and “material”—becomes fractured, and everything, from the event to the self, loses focus. If the trauma is never reckoned with clarity of focus can be permanently lost, the fracture becomes ingrained, and the trauma becomes like a knot in a block of wood, unnegotiable and belligerent but undeniably there, an undesirable and unhealthy byproduct of the natural processes of the unconscious mind. For the survivors, with no access to, or even a desire for counseling, how did they, after sixty-four years, finally come to talk about the tragic events of 25 August 1944?

As M. Martin told us, though talking about the massacre was so difficult as to be nearly impossible, not talking about it meant the lost died for nothing. Without signification there can be no meaning. For him, it was necessary to have a public ceremony, to bring their individual, subjective traumas out into the collective light. When asked if he ever considered moving away to try and distance himself from the memories, M. Martin responded that that would be impossible: the memory would remain if he stayed or if he went five hundred kilometers away. The only thing that brought him relief was the collective speaking of what happened, the acknowledgment and vocalization of the community’s trauma and grief. Overcoming the language barrier between the unconscious and conscious, to put the massacre into words, actually felt good, and in doing so, M. Martin and many others found freedom. The massacre does not go away by acknowledging it; on the contrary, it almost becomes more real. But through articulation, the simultaneous distancing and drawing nearer to of the talking cure that they, collectively, undertook, the people found both release and clarity.

To discuss the significance of the public in the recovery process it is necessary to turn to the work of the philosopher James Mensch and his paper “Public Space.” For Mensch, “freedom depends on its appearing” (31). A person can only be free if they first are able to appear, thus, for Mensch, the importance of the public space. But why is this act of appearing so important? What is the particular relationship between it and personal freedom? In Mensch’s theorization of the concept, freedom is always intersubjectively produced, which is to say, freedom is a collective product. The individual in himself cannot be free because freedom is a collective state. Because freedom is specifically concerned with the “exercise [of] our will” (32), with the continuity between thought and action being what we call choice, it is necessary for the individual to interact with others through whom those choices, and thus, potential actions, can be made known. No child is born with an understanding of the “projects” associated with an object—“how to eat at the table, dress herself, ride a bicycle, read, and so on” (32-33). Raw will, the capacity for action is made real through the projects and choices made known to us by our others, which means that will, without others, is fettered—it can never be actualized.

What we encounter in Maillé, then, is a retreat from public life and the associated ceasing of communication between subjects. The public space is emptied of human “content” (32), and the humans who previously inhabited it lock themselves within their own subjectivities. In this way, the “content of [their] freedom” is limited by the unsignifiable trauma and their reticence in engaging with it. Freedom for Mensch is no different than speaking for Lacan: each is an articulation, and each, I would argue, is a different name for the same thing. Mensch argues that freedom requires a Sartrean “separation of the self from the world” (34), what Sartre phrases as being “put out of circuit” with the world. The self must step outside of herself to free her will, must create distance within her psyche so as to draw closer to it. The talking cure and public appearing are one in the same, variations on a theme, which we can simply call speech. Indeed, Mensch is concerned with the nature of speech and the self, drawing on the theorization of the self by Emmanuel Levinas as “the saying and the said” (34). Just as language (and so, the unconscious) consists in a bipartite structure, langue (what we might call, the said) and parole (so, saying), the self is similarly structured. For Mensch (and for Sartre and Levinas), freedom is “excessive” (34). Though language structures utterance, and so the said structures saying, utterance and saying nevertheless always exceed their structure. There is always more to be said, more to be uttered. For Mensch, this is the necessity of appearing. Only in appearing to our others, in engaging with the excessive quality of their existence, are the limitless bounds of our own experience realized. Similarly, only in talking, in stepping out of oneself and into the shoes of the psychoanalyst, can the patient, the analysand, find the distance necessary to cope with trauma.

The tragedy of Maillé provides for us the perfect picture of the confluence of self and collective, private and public, and the necessary interrelationship between the two. For M. Martin and his fellow citizens, freedom and healing is only possible when they engage, communally and publicly, with each other, when they finally speak about what happened to them. Speaking in itself affects no tangible change—the past cannot be unwritten, what is said cannot be undone. But speaking looks toward the future, and in so doing opens up the present to limitless possibility, a freedom in which can be found the necessary medication for a seemingly irreparable wound. For M. Martin, talking to visitors at the Maison du Souvenir, like my group and I, or groups of at-risk youth, will not bring back his mother and father, his brother, or his two sisters. But in remembering, and in sharing, M. Martin makes known a tragedy so that those who hear his testimony feel it, internalize it, and so, experience it with him. M. Martin, in stepping outside himself, in speaking, not only found healing for himself, but found an ethical cause as well—to make known the brutal capacity of humanity so that we might never forget, so that we might seek a better tomorrow.

Works Cited

CBC News. “64 years later, France and Germany delve into shrouded WW II massacre.” CBC. 15 July 2008. Web

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2006. 1129-1148. PDF.

Mensch, James. “Public Space.” Continental Philosophy Review 40 (2007): 31-47. PDF.

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