"Going all to pieces": A Farewell to Arms as trauma narrative.
Bullet wounds do not cause severe bleeding unless they happen to injure some large trunk or smash one of the larger bones. Wounds caused by fragments of shells or bombs tear larger holes in the skin and lacerate the muscles and are, therefore, more often the cause of serious bleeding. --Injuries and Diseases of War (15)
In the final chapter of A Farewell to Arms, the narrator and main character, Frederic Henry, describes the protracted labor of his partner, Catherine Barkley. When the attending physician recommends a cesarian section, Frederic anxiously inquires about the dangers associated with the procedure. Assuring him that the risks should not exceed those associated with an "ordinary delivery," the doctor responds to Frederic's question regarding the potential aftereffects of the operation: "There are none. There is only the scar" (321). Although this reply suggests that what remains will be of no lingering concern, A Farewell to Arms nonetheless testifies to the persistence of wounds, both visible and invisible. Frederic's particular narration of the events and experiences that mark his wartime years must be understood in such terms, for his entire narrative--no "ordinary delivery"--inscribes a continued struggle with the debilitating aftereffects associated with shell shock. He suffers from the compulsion to remember and retell his traumatic past from the standpoint of a survivor both unable and perhaps unwilling to put that very past into words; the novel stands as a record of his narrative collision with the violence of trauma. (1)
Frederic's troubled recollections find expression in apparently embodied and disembodied ways: as pain that registers at the level of the body, breaking apart the perceived unity of the physical self in the presence of terrific bodily suffering; and as trauma that registers at the level of consciousness, breaking down time, language, and the perceived unity of the subjective self in the face of incomprehensible violence. However, in staging an ongoing dialogue between inside and outside, A Farewell to Arms also challenges us to reconsider the mind/body dualism that keeps the wounds of the body separate from the wounds of the mind. For Frederic's narration--of his body, his memory, his wounds--destabilizes such distinctions in an effort to hold together a broken past that remains, in the present, a nexus of uncertainty and contestation. In accord with Tim Armstrong's emphasis on the interpenetration of machine and human in the modernist period, and with his identification of the "prosthetic thinking" (3) involved in the repair and augmentation of bodies in the face of radical disruption in warfare, Frederic'ss narration enacts a kind of prosthetic thinking: he repairs and augments his past as a countermeasure for the pain and trauma that plague him still. (2)
Looking back on events, reconstructing his memories, Frederic reveals a desire for a whole and perfect retelling of the past; his narration functions as a prosthesis meant to stave off a sense of the self as a disarticulated scar. His embodied subjectivity, like the wounds he suffers to represent, calls out for prosthetic completion. But as Elaine Scarry notes, "what is remembered in the body is well remembered" (112), and Frederic's narrative prosthesis cannot hold the wound closed. His traumatic memories bleed into and disrupt his present; his narration operates both as scar and wound, as tissue stitched together and lacerated apart. Though his prosthetic version of events insists on the potential for a "separate peace" (243), Frederic's telling of his past instead goes "all to pieces" (322) in the enduring presence of pain and trauma too "well remembered" to be left behind.
For years, analysts of the novel understood that Hemingway himself was doing the remembering--the author recalling his Great War experiences through his cipher, Frederic Henry. (3) While it seems to me simply impossible to imagine anyone's being wounded in war and not having it affect his or her writing of a novel about war memories and characters who are wounded, I am not principally interested in either the text or the trauma of Hemingway's life but rather in the text of his narrator's trauma. For Frederic's narrative, I contend, unfolds in keeping with the work of prominent trauma theorists such as Dominick LaCapra, who describes trauma as a "disruptive experience that disarticulates the self and creates holes in existence; it has belated effects that are controlled only with difficulty and perhaps never fully mastered" (41). (4) In Frederic's case, the disarticulation of the self occurs in a narrative that shifts unpredictably between past and present, between the time of the action and the time of the telling. To reconstruct the past he must confront the "holes" in his subjective experience of the war, despite the fact that he might not have full mastery over the memories.
Although accounts of the novel often emphasize the centrality of memory in analyzing Frederic's narration, critics have not fully pursued the implications of the fact that the narrative consciousness in charge of these memories is one that has been traumatized. (5) Diane Price Herndl touches on the novel's traumatic terrain, briefly discussing Frederic in the context of shell shock before going on to argue that his "illness" is "masculinity as it was presented to the World War I soldier" (39). While Herndl assesses the silencing of Frederic in terms of sociocultural technologies of the male self, I find in the novel's "enforced silences" the disruptive workings of traumatic memories aggressively imposing themselves on the survivor. (6) Indeed, Frederic's particular narrative "survival" demands extra attention in light of the key critical tendency to focus on the extent to which Frederic changes over the course of the novel. According to James Phelan, Frederic begins the novel as a "naive narrator but also as a character who does not understand the war or the larger destruction of the world" (56); in Michael Reynolds's view, Frederic is a "changed man" ("Doctors" 119) after his wounding. Phelan and Reynolds read in the novel a diminishing ironic gap between the time of the action and the time of the telling, and a corresponding closing of moral distance between Frederic the character and Frederic the narrator. In contrast, I suggest that A Farewell to Arms warrants consideration as a trauma narrative that enacts the collapsing of such distinctions. (7) From the very first page of the novel Frederic suffers from shell shock; his voice is always already the voice of a traumatized survivor of grievous wounds and losses. A "changed man" from the outset, his narrative reveals the continued and unchanging hold that his painful past has on his present. My argument, in short, rests on the belief that all of A Farewell to Arms must be considered in terms of traumatic aftereffects.
Horrified participant and helpless witness, Frederic, along with his traumatic exposure to dismemberment, killing, and death comes to us via the mediation of his own narration. As Joanna Bourke reminds us,
there is no "experience" independent of the ordering mechanisms of grammar, plot, and genre, and this is never more the case than when attempting to "speak" the ultimate transgression--killing another human being. (358)
The heuristic imperatives built into "speaking" about trauma add social dimensions to subjective and interior processes. In Kirby Farrell's terms, trauma remains a "psychocultural" matter, an injury that "demands to be interpreted and, if possible, integrated into character" (7). Frederic's narrative task, then, is always double: he must tell the story of his shell-shocked past, integrate it into his "character," while at the same time confronting the shell shock in his present as it transgresses on his capacity to tell. The retrospective organization of his traumatic experiences reflects the simultaneity of his now and then, or as James Young puts matters, the
survivor's memory includes both experiences of history and of memory, the ways memory has already become part of personal history, the ways misapprehension of events and the silences that come with incomprehension were parts of events as they unfolded then and part of memory as it unfolds now. (280)
Frederic's past intrudes on his present, and his interpretation of his injury takes shape in his prosthetic reconstitution of painful and traumatic events and experiences. (8) Bodies bleed in this novel, at times uncontrollably, and Frederic's narrative likewise suffers at times from troubling and uncontrollable outflow. Frederic's prosthetic interventions, his efforts at control, underscore collapsing distinctions between the artificial and the natural, between the mind and the body, and between the past and the present. Prosthetics challenges such distinctions by explicitly drawing our attention to relations of difference. For David Wills, prosthetic relations not only complicate the perceived relation of animate and inanimate but also, at the same time, insist on the measured distance between such domains. The prosthetic emerges in the "articulation of two heterogeneities" (30) but also in the very gap that opens up between a truncated limb and its mechanical extension. As Wills writes:
no amputation is performed without the forethought of a workable prosthesis; the knife doesn't strike indiscriminately but is guided by the range of prostheses that wait, parasitic, for a suitable host. In this respect the prosthetic possibility determines the shape of the human, the artificial determines the form of the natural. (29)
In the context of A Farewell to Arms, Frederic jokes with his doctors about his desire to have his knee cut off, so that he can "wear a hook on it" (97). While Frederic's sarcasm here comments on the incompetence of these particular doctors, his narration itself takes shape as a "workable prosthesis," a hook worn in the place of a lost limb, in spite of--rather than as a result of--the fact that his pain, his wounding, his losses, his trauma do "strike indiscriminately." That is, his narration must confront a traumatic rupturing of the self that cannot be prepared for ahead of time.
In the case of his own wounding, Frederic describes the experience of being hit with shell fragments in a prominent stream-of-consciousness passage:
I tried to breathe but my breath would not come and I felt myself rush bodily out of myself and out and out and out and all the time bodily in the wind. I went out swiftly, all of myself, and I knew I was dead and that it had all been a mistake to think you just died. Then I floated, and instead of going on I felt myself slide back. I breathed and I was back. (54)
Here Frederic describes a feeling of breaching as he rushes out of himself, his as-yet unnamed, unarticulated wounds producing an exchange across the membrane of the self. His perceptions of his wounding experience emphasize the passivity and helplessness of his situation: he can't control his breathing, he convulses outward and then floats inward at the behest of unknown and unalterable forces; he mistakes the experience as a whole for the certainty of death only to make a gentle return to the uncertainties of life. (9)
Testifying to the profound destabilizations that accompany the passive witnessing of the body's disruption, Frederic registers here a paradoxical and confusing disarticulation of the self into selves: "I felt myself rush bodily out of myself.... I felt myself slide back." Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart describe the feeling of uncoupling that Frederic experiences here: "Many trauma survivors report that they automatically are removed from the scene; they look at it from a distance or disappear altogether, leaving other parts of their personality to suffer and store the overwhelming experience" (168). Floating outward, Frederic experiences his wounding at a remove: he rushes out of his wounded body and then glides back into its consolidating confines. Importantly, he also looks at it "from a distance" to the extent that his version of the wounding comes at a considerable temporal remove. His "watching" of the events takes shape in his narration of them, and his return therefore not only describes the recoupling of self and body in the time of the action but also functions as a simultaneous reexperiencing at the time of the telling. Frederic's narration not only describes a past dissociative event but becomes in itself, in its very telling, a terribly present dissociative event. (10) Experienced in the moment of the explosion as a terrifying shuttling back and forth across breached boundaries, his wounding offers, in its recounting, a record of an uncontrollable reexperiencing of the events--a collapsing of distance between past and present. Thus, in the same way that he at once feels both inside of and outside of his "self," he feels himself "slide back" to the moment of his wounding in the moment of his telling.
While the content of such a passage certainly marks his overt efforts to describe in detail the traumatic events suffered, the desperate tone hints at the frustration Frederic feels as he attempts to describe what he cannot forget but cannot manage to put into words. In fact, he quickly resorts to shocking understatement to try to relate events: "I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn't there. My hand went in and my knee was down on my shin" (55). The effect is jarring as the vague "out and out and out" crashes into the specific horror of "my knee was down on my shin." Frederic's disembodied sense of floating, his peaceful calm, his relief as he feels himself return to his body--"I was back"--all of these experiences explode apart with the sudden understanding that the perceived integrity of his body has been radically disrupted. The momentary return to wholeness he narrates is important, for it reveals prosthetic thinking that seeks to keep the body together; however, this unity lasts but a short interval before being shattered by the insistence of the body's "well-remembered" wounds.
Reconstructing the scene of his own reconstruction, Frederic again grapples with dissociative aftereffects. Though the medical sergeant who wraps up his damaged legs notes that "there was so much dirt blown into the wound that there had not been much hemorrhage" (57), Frederic's condition still demands immediate intervention in a battlefield dressing station. While the doctor probes for shell fragments in his legs and wraps up Frederic's fractured skull, Frederic lies helpless and in pain on the "hard and slippery" operating table, surrounded by "chemical smells and the sweet smell of blood" (59). Frederic recalls a conversation and operation occurring simultaneously:
The medical captain, "What hit you?" Me, with eyes shut, "A trench mortar shell." The captain, doing things that hurt sharply and severing tissue-- "Are you sure?" Me--trying to lie still and feeling my stomach flutter when the flesh was cut, "I think so." Captain doctor--(interested in something he was finding), "Fragments of enemy trench-mortar shell. Now I'll probe for some of this if you like but it's not necessary. I'll paint all of this and--Does that sting? Good, that's nothing to how it will feel later. The pain hasn't started yet." (59)
The simultaneity of probing and talking about it provides an analogue for the dissociative elements governing a recollection that operates as both a retelling and a reliving of a painful reality. Like the doctor who insists that probing the wound is "not necessary" but does so anyway, Frederic's restaging here suggests that his probing of the past simply cannot be avoided, no matter how sharply it hurts. Though he tries to "lie still," tries to establish a protective prosthetic distance between a "Me" who experiences and an "I" who remembers, these self-articulations bleed together in the face of the extremities involved. The pain that arises on the operating table with the probing of a wound brings to Frederic the pain experienced in the moment of his wounding: the "Me" on the table shoots "out and out and out" and back into the "I" of the explosion. Likewise, a dynamic of deferred immediacy marks Frederic's narration of the operation: the "I" looking back at the "Me" on the table brings a chronic condition into contact with its acute origins.
Despite a subsequent series of operations and other treatments, all designed to allow for his return to the front, Frederic's knee does not make a full recovery. Rinaldi runs his finger along the scar and painfully tests the range of motion: "It's a crime to send you back. They ought to get complete articulation" (166). Just as the exigencies of the war call for Frederic's return to duty with a still-damaged knee, so too does his narration compulsively return to the operations involved with a partially articulated sense of the past. Well aware that in many respects the "pain hasn't started yet," his recollection of various procedures consistently reveals the prosthetic thinking at work in their management. At one point, for instance, Frederic's wounded legs must be X-rayed, a process "arranged by holding up the shoulders, that the patient should see personally some of the larger foreign bodies through the machine" (94). Although Frederic himself earlier refers to these items as "old screws and bedsprings and things" (85), the doctor attending to his X-rays has a decidedly more serious opinion of the matter: "He declared that the foreign bodies were ugly, nasty, brutal. The Austrians were sons of bitches" (94).
Frederic confronts here, at a remove and via the "eyes" of a machine, his own disrupted, penetrated body--a body "invaded" by metal Austrians out on maneuver quite literally inside enemy territory. Thus, while he must confront the terrible bodily consequences of modern warfare, he also faces a decidedly modern paradox, as his own experience of bodily integrity--disrupted both by the metal fragments and the X-rays that locate them--depends on continued technological intervention. Frederic's survival depends on seeing the foreign bodies "through the machine," a move that places his felt experience of his wounding's painful reality in a subsidiary relation to that of a machine-produced vision of the causes of the wounds. Full of holes, Frederic's body can only be reconstituted through the mediation of a mechanical device. His experience with the X-rays reveals precisely how modernity, in Armstrong's terms, "brings both a fragmentation and augmentation of the body in relation to technology; it offers the body as lack, at the same time as it offers technological compensation" (3).
The gap that opens up between lack and compensation, between Frederic's disrupted body and his body-made-whole by machine intervention, emerges in the text as Frederic refers to himself in the third person as the "patient" (94). Echoing the earlier dissociation of "Me" and "I," Frederic employs a similar prosthesis as a way for him to imagine and represent not his own, imperfect, nonstandard body but rather the body of another, the body of a perfectly standard patient. His act of divesting himself of the patient that he was also carries with it a corresponding disregard for the patient that he remains. Recourse to such reconstructive surgery, however, while speaking to a desire for prosthetic wholeness, also underscores the notion that desired-for wholeness is as much a construct as any generalized concept of patient.
The disjunction between the wounded Frederic and the "patient," articulated as an uncanny interpenetration of body and machine, reminds us that the human body is, according to Lennard J. Davis, "always already a fragmented body" (62). (11) Frederic establishes here a prosthetic relation to the "patient" as a means of bypassing the awareness of his own body as a fragmented, penetrated disunity: that body seen through the X-ray machine is not "mine" but merely the body of the "patient." He disarticulates himself from his own fragmented body, an act that prefigures later divestments of the body, such as when Frederic insists that his reconstructed knee belongs not to himself but to the doctor who performed the operation: "It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more" (231). In the first instance, Frederic distances himself from his own fragmented status as a patient and reveals a desire for a continued understanding of the self as a whole. In the second, though he foregrounds his fragmentation--that knee is his--he simultaneously reveals a continued experience of the wounded body as a site of control and order, a place where parts must still be understood as possessions of a whole self that survives: this knee is mine.
And yet, just as the line between a patient and his prosthesis inevitably blurs, just as the border between past and present dissolves, so too do certainties over bodily possession--over the integrity of the self--come undone in the face of extreme experiences and in the memories of those experiences. If, as Scarry concludes, "the record of war survives in the bodies, both alive and buried, of those who were hurt there" (113), then Frederic's narrative testifies to this. It records the story of his body's hurting and his body's survival, but buried in this record too are the remains of other bodies hurt beyond repair: Aymo, a shot sergeant, a stillborn son, Catherine. His wounding and the wounding of others leave their trace on the narrative in the form of prosthetic measures meant to keep their particular losses at bay. At the same time though, like a local anaesthetic "which froze the tissue and avoided pain until the probe, the scalpel or the forceps got below the frozen portion" (94), Frederic's prosthesis cannot mitigate the overwhelming losses. He may want to make things whole, but he cannot evade the trauma.
The principles of the treatment of haemorrhage are well established, and are the same for both civil and military practice, and these principles lay down an essential rule that bleeding is to be arrested by pressure upon, or ligature of, the bleeding point itself, and not by constriction of the limb above or by tying the artery on the proximal side of the injury. --Injuries and Diseases of War (15)
After his initial operation, Frederic is sent to a field hospital farther behind the lines. On the journey, the man above him, suffering an unstoppable hemorrhage, bleeds onto the immobile Frederic. For a while, he notes, the "stream kept on," but eventually the drops of blood "fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone" (61). Soon he feels the man's blood pooling up around his own body: "Where it had run down under my shirt it was warm and sticky." A Farewell to Arms sketches a brief history of this man's bleeding to death, but it also stands as a record of that which sticks to Frederic's recounting of his own troubled past. If history, as Cathy Caruth contends, "is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas" (Unclaimed 24), then Frederic remains implicated in the trauma of the man above him as he collects the blood that drains out of him and collects it again as he narrates the events in the present. The stream keeps on. At the same time, however, as LaCapra notes,
certain wounds, both personal and historical, cannot simply heal without leaving scars or residues in the present; there may even be a sense in which they have to remain as open wounds even if one strives to counteract their tendency to swallow all of existence and incapacitate one as an agent in the present. (144)
Frederic's prosthetic efforts to "counteract" the memories of passively collecting another man's blood, to arrest the hemorrhaging of his past into his present, stand also as a reckoning with the continued activity of trauma's open wounds. Just as Frederic suspects that wars "weren't won anymore," his narrative expresses anxieties about the uncontrollable persistence of traumatic memories: "Maybe they went on forever" (118).
According to van der Kolk and van der Hart, extreme encounters disrupt the ordinary processing and integrating of experience into narrative memory. Unable to assimilate such disturbing events, the survivor visits the traumatic memories again and again, tends to his or her open wounds, in an involuntary effort to attach meaning to the horrors. Many survivors, they write, "experience long periods of time in which they live, as it were, in two different worlds: the realm of the trauma and the realm of their current, ordinary life"--and it is very often "impossible to bridge these two worlds" (163). Like the prosthetic thinking that governs Frederic's dissociated relations to the "Me" and the "I" of his wounding, to the "patient" he was and continues to be, so too do the novel's many stream-of-consciousness passages operate as instances of efforts to articulate past wounds in a "current, ordinary life" of continued suffering. Early in the novel, Frederic's drunken discussion with the priest puts into circulation a number of elements that his narrative continually returns to: "I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now" (13). Although Frederic's narration here precedes the revelation that he suffered a serious wound, it nevertheless disrupts chronology and thereby foregrounds his enduring commitment to an experience that continually defies his efforts to narrate it. Despite his losses, he feels compelled to try again to tell the story, but finds that time has not helped him represent his experience. "I cannot tell it now": the admission speaks to his struggle to articulate a set of wartime experiences that remain resistant to the meaning-making structures of language.
The comment echoes later, when Catherine asks Frederic to explain the retreat from Caporetto. "I'll tell you about it if I ever get it straight in my head," he replies (250). But despite his repeated claims that he cannot tell his trauma, cannot put the story together for others or for himself, he does make revealing efforts to find a language for his experiences. Remembering his reunion with Catherine after his escape from the army, Frederic cycles back to his earlier remarks to the priest, blending past and present:
We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. (249)
Infusing this passage is Frederic's continued awareness that Catherine's permanent absence gives lasting shape to any articulation of the loneliness of the night. On the train to Mestre, her absence shapes his description--there's a "hard floor for a wife"--and he thinks to himself, "you loved some one else whom now you knew was not even to be pretended there" (232). He now knows that what happened to him "once" is not a singularity closed off in the past but rather a complex of ongoing physiological and psychological disturbances in his present.
Frederic's attempts to articulate the "things of the night" repeatedly involve his hospitalization and link his wound with the loss of Catherine. Considering his always already traumatized state of mind, the following scene--describing a fantasy, before he is wounded, of his first night alone with Catherine--is particularly telling for its complex deployment of prosthetic thinking:
After supper I would go and see Catherine Barkley. I wish she were here now. I wished I were in Milan with her. I would like to eat at the Cova and then walk down Via Manzoni in the hot evening and cross over and turn off along the canal and go to the hotel with Catherine Barkley. Maybe she would. Maybe she would pretend that I was her boy that was killed and we would go in the front door and the porter would take off his cap and I would stop at the concierge's desk and ask for the key and she would stand by the elevator and then we would get in the elevator and it would go up very slowly clicking at all the floors and then our floor and the boy would open the door and stand there and she would step out and I would step out and we would walk down the hall and I would put the key in the door and open it and go in and then take down the telephone and ask them to send a bottle of capri bianca in a silver bucket full of ice and you would hear the ice against the pail coming down the corridor and the boy would knock and I would say leave it outside the door please. (37-38)
Several revealing moments emerge, not the least of which is the sudden intrusion of the present--"I wish she were here now"--on a recollection that documents his past desires, suggesting Frederic's existence in "two worlds," the ordinary and the traumatic. Departing briefly from the narrative lines along which ordinary memory runs, Frederic's traumatic memory registers itself here, out of time and ahead of itself. His story of this vision in the past simultaneously registers his hopeless desire for Catherine in the present.
Of greater interest, however, is how the rest of the novel gradually reveals the extent to which prosthetic thinking controls this entire passage. For this fantasy is nothing less than an idealized, prosthetically perfect vision of a series of experiences that, as it emerges later, are structured by Frederic's wound. The fantasy amalgamates and sterilizes--cleans out--three future episodes, performing a pastiche of wholeness, a radical effacing of Frederic's disrupted self. For in fact, Frederic and Catherine sleep together for the first time not in a Milan hotel after a romantic dinner but in a Milan hospital before breakfast is served. He does not arrive there with her after a pleasant walk along the canal but travels from the "freight yard" (81) to the hospital in an ambulance. There is no concierge desk, no boy to open the elevator door, and he rides the elevator not with Catherine but with two stretcher-bearers who ignominiously bend his legs to fit into the crowded space. He and Catherine do not walk along the hall together, and there is no key to put in the door; instead, Frederic feels the pain "going in and out of the bone" (83) as they carry him down a long hallway before putting him to bed.
A later episode is likewise prostheticized by the hotel fantasy:
At the door of the hospital the porter came out to help with the crutches. I paid the driver, and then we rode upstairs in the elevator. Catherine got off at the lower floor where the nurses lived and I went on up and went down the hall on my crutches to my room. (113)
Again, he and Catherine do not walk to a hotel and have the porter bring them up a bottle of wine; instead, they return to the hospital where a porter helps with the crutches, a crucial sign of Frederic's disrupted body. Furthermore, they find themselves separated on entering the hospital--their liaison punctuated at every turn by the realities of hospital life, by her role as a nurse and by the limits of his status as an invalid. Where Frederic once wishes for a silver bucket of ice left outside the door, he finds himself now crutching along the corridors of the hospital after Catherine, a nurse's aide carrying the "basins" (113) of the other patients.
Of course, the couple at last do walk along the canal, share a hotel room in Milan, hear the clicking of the elevator as it goes up to their floor, enjoy a bottle of Capri together. However, the experience is anything but idyllic. In light of his imminent return to the front, they are both despondent. Though the purchase of a new pistol, ironically enough, brightens the mood, they arrive at the hotel only to find it worn and disreputable. "This was the best hotel we could get in," Frederic notes, and the blend of red plush furnishings and satin bedding in their many-mirrored room leave Catherine feeling "like a whore" (152). Though they do manage to enjoy themselves--"After we had eaten we felt fine, and then after, we felt very happy" (153)--they nonetheless spend the remainder of their little time together discussing the logistics of their expected child, and joking apprehensively about the possibility of Frederic being wounded again. Their time together is marked by shame, tension, and uncertainty--hardly the "whole night" that the prosthetic version seamlessly delivers.
Frederic's fantasy thus is governed by a powerful measure of prosthetic thinking meant to stave off the painful awareness not only of his wounding and subsequent hospital treatments but also of other losses. Crucially, like the field service postcard he sends home with everything crossed out except "I am well" (36), Frederic's prosthetic fantasy involves "crossing out" Catherine's loss. Wishing she were here now, wishing he was still "with the British" (37), he disregards not only the fact of Catherine's death at the end of the novel but also that she's been "gone" from its very beginning. Just as in his dream she insists "This doesn't make any difference between us.... I'm always here. I come whenever you want me" (198), Frederic disregards distance and death as he reconstitutes Catherine in his present. "Always here," she is essential to his efforts to reconstitute himself in the context of her ongoing absence; narrating his present into wholeness requires that Catherine's broken past emerge here intact and filled once again with potential: "That was how it ought to be" (38). Casting himself in the role of a fiance blown to bits, Frederic fantasizes about his capacity to compensate for Catherine's loss: "Maybe she would. Maybe she would pretend that I was her boy that was killed" (37). The reiteration emphasizes, however, the capacity of traumatic experiences to break apart any provisional efforts at pretending away the lingering pain. The awkward wording also reflects the inevitability of trauma's return as Catherine once more confronts the loss of "her boy that was killed." That that return should implicate Frederic seems fitting, moreover, given his own continuing trauma. For in fact, though he figures himself here as the embodiment of Catherine's loss, such make-believe--even in the context of a fantasy--cannot prevent the loss of Catherine from continuing to embody him.
If bleeding has been difficult to stop, a note should always be made on the field medical card, and this should also be marked "Urgent," in large letters. --Injuries and Diseases of War (17)
Just as his wounding breaches his perception of the boundaries of the embodied subject, so too does bearing witness to Catherine's death destabilize the boundaries between Frederic and his partner. "We're the same one" (299), he once tells her, and, like a scar, she stubbornly remains, her losses and wounds incorporated as his own: "The head was mine, and the inside of the belly" (231). Elizabeth Grosz argues that scars become "loci of exchange between the inside and the outside, points of conversion of the outside into the body, and of the inside out of the body" (36). But as points of conversion, as neither inside nor outside, scars and, worse yet, open wounds challenge the limits of both representation and empathetic response. In Frederic's case, Catherine's cesarean section and hemorrhaging death demand his witness, both then and now. Her loss becomes a destabilizing point of conversion between his past and present. Difficult to stop, too "well remembered" to be countered by prosthetic thinking, Catherine's loss, her echoing voice and broken body, takes shape as a trauma narrative relentlessly imposing itself on Frederic's ordinary narrative progression of events.
Paul Fussell described the shocking horrors of mechanized mass slaughter in related terms: "the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful 'history' involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future" (21). More recently, Trudi Tate considers veterans and civilians alike struggling to convey a "history one has lived through but not seen, or seen only partially" (1). Thus, in the place of a coherent stream of time, trauma survivors experience what Caruth describes as a future and past united "through a profound discontinuity" (Unclaimed 14). In Frederic's narrative, this shattering of his subjective experience of time, this radical discontinuity between his traumatic history and traumatized present, is repeatedly figured by references to the breaking of individuals, epitomized by Catherine's cry "I'm going all to pieces" (322). In elaborating this--"I'm not brave anymore, darling. I'm all broken. They've broken me. I know it now" (323)--Catherine gives voice to a whole set of concerns about the disunity of the embodied subject, confirming what Frederic already knows about himself: that "the legs"--his own legs--resemble "freshly ground hamburger steak" (95).
If we return, then, to their first night at the hotel after he deserts, we find Frederic speaking Catherine's later words: "The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those it will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially" (249). Her words, that is, appear as a traumatic intrusion of the past on a retrospective narrative given in the present. Like an echo before the sound, like the "sudden interiors of houses" (6) that appear to Frederic after bouts of shelling, these words register in the text disconcertingly out of place and ahead of their time. Fulfilling what Caruth identifies as the traumatic potential for "the outside [to go] inside without any mediation" (Unclaimed 59), they become Frederic's words; he gives them voice--or rather they voice themselves through him, illustrating how "the experience of a trauma repeats itself, exactly and unremittingly, through the unknowing acts of the survivor and against his very will" (2).
Catherine's feeling that she is "going all to pieces" becomes literalized on the operating table, raising the question once more of the relation of a body in pain to a traumatized mind:
I thought Catherine was dead. She looked dead. Her face was gray, the part of it that I could see. Down below, under the light, the doctor was sewing up the great long, forcep-spread, thick-edged, wound. Another doctor in a mask gave the anaesthetic. Two nurses in masks handed things. It looked like a drawing of the Inquisition. I knew as I watched I could have watched it all, but I was glad I hadn't. I do not think I could have watched them cut, but I watched the wound closed into a high welted ridge with quick skilful-looking stitches like a cobbler's, and was glad. When the wound was closed I went out into the hall and walked up and down again. (325)
Broken apart and sewn back together, Catherine takes center stage in the operating theater. However, as the wound gets closed she seems to get swallowed up by it, disappearing from the scene, becoming, in effect, all wound. Frederic no longer sees Catherine anesthetized on the table but only the wound: great, long, forcep-spread, thick-edged, high-welted, closed. Her reduction to an unspeaking wound would seem to contrast with Frederic's position, both as a witness in the gallery and as the narrator of the scene. At the same time, however, the moment replays Frederic's own wounding and battlefield operation. He thinks she's dead, just as he once "knew" he had died; he looks down from above on Catherine's body, just as he once floated out from his own; he avoids watching the "cutting," just as he does while on the slippery table himself. Catherine's disrupted, broken body thus confronts him with his own shattered frame; her unknowing, passive silence confronts him with the wordless holes in his own experience.
Overwhelmed, Frederic shifts suddenly to relate the parable of the ants. The detail and specificity of the memory--the ants scurrying back and forth on the burning log, his steaming rather than saving them (327)--contrast with the vagueness of its time and place. Does it happen before the war, or after? Before Catherine's death, or in the aftermath? Either way, witnessing Catherine's cesarean section and death, Frederic turns to a time and place where a sense of his own agency, however ambivalent, remains intact. The respite, however, is only momentary, and Frederic returns to the scene of the wounds that won't heal: "So now I sat out in the hall and waited to hear how Catherine was" (328). From Frederic's double perspective at the time of the telling Catherine is, of course, both dead and dying. "So now" he waits in the hall, unable to escape the thought of watching the doctor "sew up." Though his son's death registers with little emotion--"So he's dead" (327)--the loss of the boy and Catherine becomes entangled with his own wounds, sewn together into Frederic's present articulation of their absences.
So active, so now, these deaths remain alive for Frederic. They hemorrhage through the narrative--reminders that while many are strong at the broken places, vulnerabilities remain. If, as Caruth observes, trauma emerges as "a kind of double telling, the oscillation between ... the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival" (Unclaimed 7), A Farewell to Arms constitutes just this kind of double telling. Driven by the tension between the "patient" and his prosthesis, between the "Me" who cries out on the operating table and the "I" who looks down and sees two broken bodies, Frederic's prosthetic narrative cannot mend his shattered past. In his unbearable present, any former understanding of the self seems hopelessly lost. As he himself notes about his Saint Anthony talisman, "After I was wounded I never found him" (44).
On his way to the battle that will see him wounded, Frederic considers the gift from Catherine: "The Saint Anthony was in a little white metal capsule. I opened the capsule and spilled him out into my hand" (43). He reassembles it, undoes his uniform, and puts the chain around his neck: "I felt him in his metal box against my chest while we drove. Then I forgot about him" (44). Spilled out and put back again, Saint Anthony goes to pieces but returns to wholeness in Frederic's hands, and in his retelling is again spilled out and put back, remembered though still missing. Like Frederic's narrative itself, Saint Anthony is both scar and open wound. And so A Farewell to Arms--an "aftereffect," a note marked "Urgent"--manifests a search for what is lost that cannot end.
1. I use the terms trauma and shell shock interchangeably, despite the fact that contemporary critics rightly insist on their historical situatedness along a convoluted path marked by stretches of collective forgetting and frenzied attention: from nineteenth-century theories about hysteria and railway spine to First World War conceptions of shell shock, Second World War experiences with combat fatigue, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of returning Vietnam veterans and survivors of incest and abuse, and, finally, present-day conceptions of the disorder that increasingly incorporate both neurophysiological and psychological models in research and treatment. Current understandings of trauma have come a long way from Great War--era debates over brain lesions and explosions as the roots of shell shock, but many congruencies remain between our understanding now and then, including a shared emphasis on disruptions to the embodied subject's relation to language, memory, and time. Much as it was during the Great War years, trauma theory today remains a deeply and bitterly contested field marked by controversy and competing theory. Moreover, shell shock and trauma both point out one thing that current research confirms and Frederic's narrative illustrates: any attempts to articulate shell shock, to put trauma into words, involves the unavoidable, unpredictable, and perhaps unknowable impress of the past on an embodied subject's present.
For detailed treatments of the histories I have alluded to here, see Allan Young and Ruth Leys. Judith Herman's important and thorough Trauma and Recovery provides a feminist accounting of the history of trauma as well as an analysis of modes of treatment in the face of trauma's staying power. Ben Shephard offers a full-length, detailed history focused largely on military psychiatry that criticizes the current direction of trauma studies. Hans Binneveld offers a more concise and less polemical overview.
2. Armstrong explores the human body not only as a "locus of anxiety, even crisis" (4) but also as a site for recovery and regeneration through mechanical and technological intervention. Kirby Farrell extends Armstrong's terms outward from the human body, noting that prosthetic linkages between humans and society develop rapidly in the modernist period. For Farrell, trauma "reflects a disruption of our prosthetic relationships to the world. By exposing the constructed and interdependent nature of our existence, it makes vivid how radically vulnerable and ephemeral we are" (176). A Farewell to Arms stages shell shock's radical disrupting of subjectivity throughout a narrative that precisely testifies to the vulnerabilities of a self cut off from the web of prosthetic relations offering security and helping to locate meaning.
3. Hemingway's relations to the Great War and his own wounding are concerns that he returns to again and again in his career. Numerous critical attempts have been made to establish connections between the wartime experiences of the author and his Great War novel, suggesting links between memories that both author and protagonist seem unable to move beyond. For recent detailed treatments of Hemingway's construction of the novel, see Rena Sanderson, Charles Oliver, and Linda Wagner-Martin. Other important treatments of the novel include Michael Reynolds's Hemingway's First War and Bernard Stanley Oldsey. Matthew Stewart considers these matters in the wider context of Hemingway's entire career.
4. The early to mid-1990s witnessed an explosion of interdisciplinary interest in trauma. Critics such as Judith Herman, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Cathy Caruth, Kali Tal, and Bessel A. van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart contributed works that address the intersections of history, memory, medicine, psychoanalysis, and literature. Numerous anthologies also appeared, each marked by a particular approach or set of approaches: the psychoanalytically inflected Trauma: Explorations in Memory edited by Cathy Caruth, the juridical and scientific studies of Trauma and Memory edited by Paul Applebaum et al., the neurobiologically focused Traumatic Stress edited by van der Kolk et al., and the discursive identity politics of Tense Past edited by Paul Antze and Michael Lambek. Several recent anthologies productively merge trauma studies with other important domains such as comparative genocide studies, geopolitics, and the ethics of witnessing. See in particular Extremities, edited by Nancy K. Miller and Jason Tougaw; Topologies of Trauma, edited by Linda Belau and Peter Ramadanovic; Trauma at Home, edited by Judith Greenberg; and Witness and Memory, edited by Ana Douglass and Thomas A. Vogler.
While the works of Caruth and van der Kolk help in particular to focus my argument about A Farewell to Arms, it is important to acknowledge that their versions of traumatic operations have detractors. LaCapra, for instance, suggests that in the "affectively charged" (109) writing of Caruth, "trauma may itself be sacralized as a catastrophic revelation or, in more secular terms, be transvalued as the radical other or the sublime" (108). Such transvaluing can foreclose possibilities for working through by reifying trauma as fully and radically unknowable. And van der Kolk, in LaCapra's view, privileges neuroscience over the nuances of psychoanalysis: he relies on "an overly functional specific model of the brain" (109) and conveniently splits off "repression from dissociation and resists any notion of their connection" (108). Chapter-length critiques of Caruth and van der Kolk also appear in Leys, who charges both theorists with manipulative readings and research and disputes their claims about the literal truths of inscribed traumatic memories. However, the recent book by Jenny Edkins offers a direct challenge to Leys's critique of Caruth, charging Leys herself with manipulative misreading:
It is not the case that "truth" is said to exist in the memory images thought to be implanted by trauma any more than it is to be found in our original perceptions. We do not have access to these images (other than as images) without interpreting or making sense of them. We cannot pass them on unvarnished to others. (39)
As for van der Kolk, Leys's charges notwithstanding, there is much to be found in the work of other trauma theorists--Babette Rothschild, Bruce D. Perry, and Belleruth Naparstek, for example--to support the notion that traumatic experience invokes both mind and body. Perry writes:
All areas of the brain and body are recruited and orchestrated for optimal survival tasks during the threat. This total neurobiological participation in the threat response is important in understanding how a traumatic experience can impact and alter functioning in such a pervasive fashion. Cognitive, emotional, social, behavioral and physiological residues of a trauma may impact an individual for years--even a lifetime. (14)
As it happens, my own critique of Caruth's work may be leveled here. After Freud, who suggests in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that wounds or injuries suffered in the context of a frightful surprise tend to work "against the development of a neurosis" (12), Caruth contends that "the wound of the mind--the breach in the mind's experience of time, self, and the world--is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event" (Unclaimed Experience 4). Her privileging of mind over body, of psychic wounds over physical ones, however, leaves largely out of the picture the upshot of some of the most interesting conclusions about the impact of trauma on the embodied subject. In contrast, Frederic's narrative presciently considers the interpenetration of mind and body in the wake of traumatic experiences and problematizes the notion of wounds of any sort as "simple and healable event[s]."
5. Fine work by Mary Prescott and James Nagel, for instance, gestures toward trauma in the context of Frederic's narrative efforts. Prescott explores the processes by which Frederic reconstructs events "so that he can make sense of them" (43). Along similar lines, Nagel considers Frederic's retrospective efforts at "coming to terms emotionally with the events" (171). But neither essay follows through on the narrative aftereffects in Frederic's version of his past.
6. Margot Norris suggests that A Farewell to Arms is "less a novel about war than a novel as war" (693) and provides a particularly illuminating connection to what trauma theorists document as the aggressive operations of trauma. She convincingly argues that Hemingway's text delivers acts of "narrative aggression" (694) that refigure, in rhetorical terms, "the aggression of combat" (695). Norris reads inconsistencies and ruptures in the novel as coercive efforts to efface responsibility for the violence of war, and I read them as evidence of the suffering of profound traumas. To paraphrase Norris herself, A Farewell to Arms is less a novel about trauma than a novel as trauma.
The works of Lisa Tyler and Richard Badenhausen might also be considered here in the context of Frederic's trauma narrative. In Tyler's article Frederic masters his trauma by "making of it an ordered narrative" (91). While I do agree that Frederic's retelling of his losses should be considered in terms of efforts at resistance and as a measure of healing, to suggest that his narrative "triumphs over trauma" (91) is to overlook the extent to which his past relentlessly continues to intrude on his present in ways that I contend are beyond his control. Badenhausen analyzes Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth as a "working through" of the trauma of her wartime losses. Though the redemptive nature of this reading does not help me to account for what I perceive in A Farewell to Arms as the continued debilitating effects of trauma that work at denying the satisfactions of closure, Badenhausen's work nonetheless provides compelling analysis of the workings of trauma with respect to narrative.
7. Phelan insists that with "few exceptions, Frederic speaks from his perspective at the time of the action" (68). Reynolds suggests that "the only difference between Frederic in the nurse's garden and in the Milan hospital is his violent wounding. Like a victim of shell shock, he exhibits altered feelings, affection, temper, and habits" ("Doctors" 120). Like Phelan, Reynolds assumes that the novel operates in terms of a pre- and postwounding dynamic, but I suggest that there is no way to untangle Frederic's post-traumatic narration from his present version of the past.
8. Another key source for interpreting his injury remains the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the manual's terms, PTSD may develop in those who have been exposed to extreme events or stressors
involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate. (463)
Frederic, an ambulance driver on the Austro-Italian front, remains consistently exposed, both directly and indirectly, to such events. Even a partial list will suggest the extremes involved. Blown up and wounded himself, he attends to Passini: "One leg was gone and the other was held by tendons and part of the trouser and the stump twitched and jerked as though it were not connected" (55). Participating in the massive Italian retreat from Caporetto, Frederic loses one of his men, beloved Aymo: "He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet had ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes" (213). Threatened with summary execution for his officer's rank, Frederic evades rifle fire by plunging into the river:
I thought then I would drown because of my boots, but I thrashed and fought through the water, and when I looked up the bank was coming toward me, and I kept thrashing and swimming in a heavy-footed panic until I reached it. (227)
And finally, Frederic loses his son--"cord was caught around his neck or something" (327)--only hours before he loses his partner: "It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn't stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die" (331).
9. Babette Rothschild's work in The Body Remembers: Casebook suggests that during a traumatic incident the brain's limbic system signals to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) for preparation to fight or fly; if neither of these options seems appropriate, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) initiates the freeze response: "The SNS continues its extreme arousal while the PNS freezes the action of the body" (6). Although freezing "only occurs when the individual's perception is that the threat is extreme and escape impossible" (7), Rothschild speculates that the toll on the "frozen" subject--including intense feelings of shame and humiliation--may be greater afterward because of the lingering belief that more could have been done.
10. Rothschild notes that PTSD's long-term aftereffects may damage or destroy a survivor's ability to differentiate between external stimuli and to make use of the body's signals to itself regarding threats:
The ability to orient to safety and danger becomes decreased when many things, or sometimes everything, in the environment are perceived as dangerous. When daily reminders of trauma become extreme, freezing or dissociation can be activated as if the trauma were occurring in the present. It can become a vicious cycle. (Psychophysiology 14)
11. Concerned mostly with the (in)visibility of the disabled body, Davis offers a stirring condemnation of the "reception of disability" that structures the art world's perceptions and attitudes about "the presence of difference" (56) and the "traditional ableist assumptions" (52) that permeate virtually all corridors of Western life. He suggests that any conception of the body as a whole is based on "a repression of the fragmentary nature of the body" (59) as it is experienced early in one's psychic and physiological development and reinforced by a culture deeply invested in this repression.
I am extremely grateful for Laura Tanner's guidance and efforts at every stage in the writing of this essay. The insights offered by Rosemarie Bodenheimer and James Krasner along the way are also much appreciated. As ever, I extend my deepest thanks to Amy Winchester for her constant support and encouragement.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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