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The Trauma Novel

Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disaster


Ronald Granofsky

This study attempts to make sense of a group of novels that deal in a symbolic way with contemporary forms of collective disaster (the prospect of nuclear war, the Holocaust, environmental destruction). It shows similarities among British, American, Canadian and other novels never before grouped together and argues that they constitute a distinct sub-genre of fiction: the trauma novel. In so doing, the book sets forth an original theory about how literary symbolism functions as part of a cultural response to collective trauma.


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CHAPTER TWO: Elemental Dissolution: Trauma and Transformation: (Kosinski, Golding, Findley, Hoban) 65


Chapter Two Elemental Dissolution: Trauma and Transformation Earth, air, fire, and water, which, to the western mind since pre- Socratic times, have imaged the constituents of the physical world, often play an important role in the symbolic depiction of trauma in contem- porary fiction. Like the categories of knowledge assimilation discussed in the last chapter, the four elements are a means of orientation in a world of myriad sensations whose value is both practical and symbolic. Suggestive of both a dispersal into fragments and of a prior unitary universe from which the fragments derive, the elements possess powerful representational resonance obviously relevant to the conception and portrayal of a psyche shattered by the stress of trauma and to the suggestion that recovery of integrity is possible. Furthermore, the regression which is frequently a feature of the response to trauma in the trauma novel is figured in the concept of dispersed elements, which may connote a non-integrated and hence primitive state of existence. It was Empedocles who first formally declared earth, air, fire, and water the basic elements of existence. Heraclitus before him spoke of three elements, and gave primacy to fire over water and earth: " ... fire turns into earth; earth turns back to sea, and then sea is kindled again into fire" (Heraclitus 154, 326). The Greek, more particularly the Heraclitean, concept of the elements has influenced many twentieth-century writers, T.S. Eliot coming perhaps most readily to mind. The ways up and down cited in the second epigraph to Four...

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