Acclaimed psychoanalyst Françoise Davoine highlighted the importance of literature as an instrument for healing victims of traumatic experiences at a conference on trauma theory Saturday morning.
From Thursday to Saturday evening, nearly 20 writers, professors and artists — including several Cornell graduates — gave lectures in honor of Prof. Cathy Caruth, comparative literature, who was celebrating the 20th anniversary of her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History.
Citing examples from 16th and early 17th-century literature, including Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote, and Pierre de Ronsard’s poem “Contre les bucherons de la foret de Gastine,” Davoine described the therapeutic qualities of literature for individuals who may have experienced traumas.
Davoine emphasized the importance of storytelling as a method of confronting haunting memories, which she characterized as “the dead.”
“Literature is there, often as a healing process to bury the dead,” she said. “My office is full of ghosts.”
In order to have closure for upsetting memories, she argued, it is often essential to tell the story in a narrative. Telling the truth of a “death,” whether literal or metaphorical, can help traumatized individuals create a space to address their thoughts and ultimately put traumatic events in the past.
“For me, it’s always important to say that it is not medical diagnosis which will make a change for you,” Davoine said. “It goes with what Cathy [Caruth] says, that it is a process of admitting what we have inherited, catastrophes before us, that were not inscribed as past. They come in the present time.”
During her lecture, Davoine emphasized her personal and professional relationship with Caruth, referring jokingly to a time when she had stolen two of Caruth’s books from her office. Speakers and visitors throughout the conference referred to such relationships with Caruth, whom they lauded as a “warrior woman.”
Davoine described her own political trauma from her childhood in France in the 1940s, “in the middle of the turmoil, the [French] Resistance.” She said the experience of war drove her to investigate trauma, “which is the field where literature comes, since antiquity.”
Defining literature as “tool of survival,” that includes oral histories, songs and ceremonies, Davoine explained that mythical figures and archetypes can enable both readers and writers to confront real situations that evade description.
“The monsters, the fairies, all that, are the place … from where you can retrieve things that you cannot tell in the ordinary language,” she said.
Caruth praised Davoine’s work, emphasizing Davoine’s clinical work as a practicing psychoanalyst.
“When she says literature is a place of healing or it’s the site where traumatic stories are told and healing takes place, she’s not doing a theory of trauma. She’s talking about what happens in the sessions, the clinical sessions, and in her life,” Caruth said. “It’s quite remarkable.”
Caruth added that she most appreciated the mix of attendees present at the conference — both clinicians like Davoine and theorists such as herself — who came to Ithaca to speak and attend lectures.
With such a combination of people, Caruth said, theorists “can see what’s at stake in the work we do.”
Though a conference on traumatic experience addresses difficult topics, including death, Caruth said she had found the weekend to be a place of creative “life.”
“Everybody here is talking about trauma,” Caruth said. “They talk about the death drive, death, but what I have experienced is really the life drive. Seeing what they do is life.”
“For me, mainly to see the kind of life that’s come from this site of working on trauma, it’s really been the greatest thing of all,” Caruth added.