Suroshikha Debnath

Research Scholar, Department of English, Tezpur University
(suroshikhadebnath@gmail.com)

Abstract

The paper aims to study the role of trauma, death instinct in the construction of autobiographical subjectivities of the Indian English life narrators Dom Moraes and Salman Rushdie. With Freud’s theory of death instinct and Cathy Caruth’s treatise on trauma as theoretical frames, it shall argue how such factors render the autobiographical self alienated, distorted and fragmented. The memoirs taken for this study are Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father (1968), Never at Home (1992) and Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (2012). Though not written in the same century, issues of traumatic subjectivity invariably feature through these two memoirs by Indian English authors. While the former encompasses trauma as a result of strained relationship with a parent, the latter is an expression of death wish and trauma owing to a societal scar. Freud in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” observes that it is the fixation of the mind to some kind of unpleasant reality that leads to anxiety, fear and death wish. Again, Cathy Caruth in her work Unclaimed Experiences: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996) argues how a whole new perspective on history and subjectivity is imparted by the experience of trauma. Both Freud and Caruth theorize how a complex, paradoxical incomprehensibility of survival overpowers the traumatic experience. Taking these interpretive tools into consideration the paper will make an attempt to identify the role of harmful traumatic repetition in controlling autobiographical narratives of the two writers taken for this study.

Keywords : autobiographical subjectivity, death instinct, traumatic repetition.

Introduction and Objectives

Traumatic experiences are often at the heart of life stories told by survivors of events like natural disasters, war or such other kinds of violence. Gadi BenEzer writes in the essay “Trauma Signals in Life Stories”, “Life stories include an exposition of the relation between the private and the collective context. They can thus give a better understanding of both the personal trauma, as it is viewed within a social context, and of the social milieu, as reflected in the individual’s life.”  (BenEzer 30) Literature often plays the role of an outlet to traumatic experiences and vindications, autobiographies and memoirs being no exception.

The paper aims to study the role of trauma, death instinct in the construction of autobiographical subjectivities of the Indian English life narrators Dom Moraes and Salman Rushdie. It shall argue how such factors render the autobiographical self alienated, distorted and fragmented. The memoirs taken for this paper are Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father (1968), Never at Home (1992) and Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (2012). Though not written in the same century, issues of traumatic subjectivity invariably feature through these two memoirs by Indian English authors. While the former encompasses trauma as a result of the torture of his hysteric and mentally retarded mother, the latter is an expression of death wish and trauma owing to a societal scar.

Theoretical framework

Sigmund Freud introduced the term death instinct in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920) where he dwells upon how experience of trauma repeats itself knowingly or unknowingly. Freud calls this experience “traumatic neurosis”, an unwished for repetition of trauma as a result of some risk to life. (Freud 18) He observes how a disorder of the mind reflects the inescapable burden of historical events in the psyche. He took up war neuroses in the wake of World War I as the core of his study beyond the pleasure principle. It is the fixation of the mind to some kind of unpleasant reality, Freud observes, that leads to anxiety, fear and fright. Cathy Caruth in her work Unclaimed Experiences: Trauma, Narrative and History (1996) theorizes the belated impact of trauma on the human mind with Freud and Paul de Man as her references. She defines trauma as an “overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which response is delayed, uncontrolled and repetitive.” (Caruth 11) She argues how a whole new perspective on history and subjectivity is imparted by the experience of trauma. Both Freud and Caruth theorize how a complex, paradoxical incomprehensibility of survival overpowers the traumatic experience.  Taking these theoretical tools into consideration the paper will make an attempt to identify the role of harmful traumatic repetition in controlling autobiographical narratives of the two writers taken for this study.

Interpretive Analysis of the memoirs

Salman Rushdie’s autobiographical subjectivity remains incomplete without taking his death instinct and traumatic experience into consideration. As Cathy Caruth aptly writes, “destructive traumatic repetition plays a major role in the creation of an individual who has survived trauma.” (Rushdie 63) A peculiar and puzzling experience of survival is what results from the fixation to trauma. A destructive repetition of trauma is seen to rule a person’s life.  The out of the blue declaration of death sentence by Ayotallah Khomeini was the event that marked the origin of Rushdie’s trauma.  He was accused of being blasphemous and no less than a terrorist. The harassment and embarrassment of fatwa constantly haunted him thereafter making him ashamed even in front of his mother and son. The threatening was restricted not just to Rushdie. Even his wife Clarissa on her fortieth birthday received a threatening phone call on Rushdie’s death. “Hang Satan Rushdy. How easy it was to erase a man’s past and to construct a new version of him, an overwhelming version, against which it seemed impossible to fight” (Rushdie 5), writes the author. His traumatized self reflects Freud’s notion of the incomprehensibility of survival at the heart of human experience. (Caruth 64)

The whole of media, radio, journalists, newspapers amplified the threat to his life in the worst possible way besides posing him as a Satanic writer. “He looked at the journalists looking at him and he wondered if this was how people looked at men being taken to the gallows or the electric chair or the guillotine.” (Rushdie 5) A set of protestors outside the US Cultural Centre in Islamabad carried signs saying “RUSHDIE YOU ARE DEAD”. Pakistanis produced a film where terrorists vowed to kill the author Salman Rushdie. Such acts of forced psychological terrorism came up again and again, shattering his mental balance totally and making life totally incomprehensible for him. The burning of his book in Yorkshire also added to his deep scar. The fear was restricted not just to him but to the entire publishing industry. He now had to confront the threat again and again in different forms of violence.

A complete crisis dawned in the path of his survival. “…the author of The Satanic Verses was crouching in shame behind a kitchen worktop to avoid being seen by a sheep farmer.” (Rushdie 151)  Crisis arose in his private life as he had to shift to secret locations one after another. Time and again in the memoir Rushdie mentions how he has been living with threat of death in his mind. Going by Caruth’s dictum, the endless repetition started leading Rushdie towards a destruction of his survival. He could not imagine anything beyond this terrible reality. The traumatic neurosis in his subjectivity is greatly instrumental in the construction of his self throughout his memoir. It even led to the hallucination of distorted imaginations in his mind as he recounts: “He saw bodies sprawling on the stairs in the front hall. He saw the brightly lit rag-doll corpses of his son and his first wife drenched in blood. Life was over.” (Rushdie 159)

Split personality and self alienation invariably result from Rushdie’s incomprehensibility of trauma as the author is seen constantly torn between his identities as Rushdie and Salman. Rushdie writes, “‘Salman’ might be crushed under the weight of what happened. ‘Rushdie’ was another matter entirely. . . Rushdie was much hated and little loved. He was an effigy, an absence, something less than human.” (Rushdie 251-52) The author could always only visualize a whole image of his self through the reflection in the world, whereas inwardly he experienced multiple fragmented personalities of himself. Following his fatwa, the world perceived a single version of the author as against his internal fissures as a persona. His image was mirrored only as an author who did something wrong. Joseph Anton is thus an attempt to identify the rather fragmented versions of Rushdie himself ‘Satan Rushdy’ was the image mirrored by the extremists about Rushdie.

The fact that Joseph Anton is written in third person narrative is imperative of the huge gap between Rushdie as a writer and Rushdie as a victim of fatwa rendered Joseph Anton. The many letters in the book on God, religion etc are, however, authored in first person addressed to the reader making his troubled mind and split personality all the more prominent. He mentions at one place of how he hated the pseudonym Joe. (Rushdie 466) The pseudonym Joseph Anton that he took up signifies only an alienated personality or a fictional entity to demarcate what he actually is not. The fictional name hardly resembled the real Rushdie. In a traumatic, isolated, secret chamber with all the securities, Rushdie felt like a prisoner which he reinforces all throughout the memoir. He kept on receiving threats against himself and also his young daughter, including letters written in blood. Such acts repetitively reinforced his trauma.

The constant repetition of his trauma triggered his death wish as evident from his own account: “At night he heard I love you but the days were shouting Die.” (Rushdie 264) the claustrophobic and choking existence made him wish to die. To quote him further, “He was prepared to die, if dying became necessary for what Carmen Callil had called ‘a bloody book’.” (Rushdie 285) A most vivid form of death wish appears when he relates, “His biggest problem, he thought in his most bitter moments, was that he wasn’t dead.” (Rushdie 415) The recurring trauma of fatwa affected his relationships too in the worst possible way, with a constant lack of stability and security in his bonds with Clarissa, Marriane, Elizabeth and Padmalaxmi. He was scared for both of his sons terrified that their futures could be in utter danger in the absence of freedom and safety. The repetition thus claimed his very survival.

Dom Moraes’ trauma arose from the mental as well as physical wounds inflicted upon him by his mentally sick mother. The book My Son’s Father, he writes, was cathartic in letting go his traumatic childhood. “The other reason for this book was that my childhood and adolescence had been very traumatic for me,” he wrote in the Forward.  His separation from his mother was not only physical but also mental, owing to her hysterical nature. The furious and destructive nature of his mother left imprints of terror in his mind. The worst instance is when his mother once reverted towards him with a kitchen knife and he had to run for his life. This kind of physical torture left serious wounds in his mind. Such horrible encounters with his unstable mother recur time and again in his memoir to the extent that he is made to hit his mother back in the most unwilling state of mind: “Yet vivid in my mind was the moment I had slapped her that afternoon, when above the smeared blood on her face the eyes of a hurt person stared back at me and filled with tears” (Moraes 95) A sense of trauma mixed with guilt keeps haunting his mind as found in his memoir. His subjectivity is thus the consequence of “the belatedness and incomprehensibility that remain at the heart of this repetitive seeing”. (Caruth 92)

Moraes writes in his second memoir Never At Home that his mother was one of the main reasons why he was scared of and he preferred staying away from India. His trauma led to terrible nightmares of his hysteric mother. To quote Moraes, “The grotesque, insane figure that had ridden my nightmares for years. To come back to India and to have, at least occasionally, to confront the reality was a terrifying prospect.” (Moraes 1) The mental suffering even affected his physical condition as is manifested through his constant accounts of nausea on meeting his mother. He relates his visit to his mother after returning from a long stay in England: “My physical nausea at the sight of her, my inability to speak to her, increased my own hatred of myself. . . I usually left because I wanted to vomit.” (Moraes 2)

The kind of trauma experienced by Moraes was very much physical besides being mental. Such instances are again reinstated in an elaborate manner in the second memoir Never At Home where the physical aspect of such violence is more vividly comprehensible.  “I carried scars from those years which were not only mental but physical. The back of my right hand still bears cigarette burns inflicted by my mother”, (7) expresses Moraes. His account of trauma is therefore psychosomatic in nature. Repetition and incomprehensibility of trauma occur both in his mind and body. The prospect of going back to India with his wife Judith and son Francis even became something terrifying for him, owing to a recurrence of his traumatic experience and scars, as he relates in the middle of his second memoir, “She had attacked me several times with knives; I had a scar at the back of my hand, where she had stubbed out a cigarette. I remember wild and violent scenes: my mother, disheveled, with bulging eyes and maenad hair; the sound of her screams.” (Moraes 108)

However, he brought his wife and son to visit his mother with all apprehensions, just to find his physical discomforts recurring on his way to Juhu. Moraes’ self and identity often get moulded and controlled by the physical manifestations of his trauma like nausea and vomiting as perceived from his second memoir Never At Home. “What she had done to my childhood was something I tried to forget; but it expressed itself physically.” (Moraes 303) He accused his mother for messing up his childhood as well as adulthood. The impossibility to comprehend life and subjectivity in the normal way gets reflected through Moraes’ undesired physical troubles like that of nausea and a feeling of revulsion. The recurrence of the distorted image of rats that he associates with his mother’s illness is basically a doorway to his distorted memory and experience that inevitably dominated his self construction.

Moraes’ subjectivity is intertwined with a feeling of lack—within himself, and also in his friendships, relationships. “I felt that something was lacking in most of my friendships, because in few of them did I find people with any true awareness of the world…” (Moraes 22) The way he oriented his love relationships also got intertwined with the constant traumatic recollections of his mother. His survival was at stake and an unrealized death drive dominated his thoughts and actions. During his relationship with K, the troubled experiences with his mother figured in between and strained their bond. K’s reactions only reminded of the shock he had encountered from his furious mother: “Her anger made her voice shrill, and mine uncertain. All these brought terrible images to my mind: this naked, hostile emotion to me was associated only with my mother.” (Moraes 189) His unhappy and traumatic childhood thus took a toll upon his future relationships. Similar to Rushdie’s case, a lack of stability is evident in Dom Moraes’ relationships too, as she shifts from K to Judith to Leela Naidu. This lack and unstable nature of his subjectivity was the consequence of his inflicted relation with his mother.

Conclusion

The two memoirs thus function as an outlet to let go off their traumatic experiences. Caruth’s formulation that what follows trauma is not simply an effect of destruction but also an enigma of survival can be negotiated completely in both Rushdie and Moraes where a helpless incomprehensibility of life becomes prominent as a consequence of trauma. Their selves stand in a paradoxical standpoint between destructiveness and survival as death instinct and trauma causes a distortion of subjectivity.  Alienation, split personality and a disruption therefore characterizes their traumatized autobiographical subjectivities.

References :

Akhtar Salman and O’Neil Mary K, editors. On Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure principle”. Karnac Books, 2011.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. John Hopkins University Press, 1966.

Chakraborty, Abhrajyoti. “Tall Tales: Dom Moraes’ neglected non-fiction”. The Caravan, 1st July, 2019. https://caravanmagazine.in/literature/dom-moraes-neglected-nonfiction

Ganapathy-Dore, Geetha. “Playing Hide and Seek with Names and Selves in Salman Rushdie’s “Joseph Anton, A Memoir”. JSTOR. Vol. 35, no. 2.pp 11-25. http://www.jstor.com/stable/43486056

Marcus, Laura. “Autobiography and Psychoanalysis”. Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Moraes, Dom. My Son’s Father. Penguin Books India, 1990.

—-Never at Home. Penguin Books India, 1994.

Rogers, Kim Lacy, et al., editors. Trauma and Life Stories: International Perspectives. Routledge, 1999.

Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton. Vintage, 2012.

Teverson, Andrew. Contemporary World Writers: Salman Rushdie. Viva Books, 2010.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.