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March 19, 2001

Caruth injects trauma into
comparative literature

By Michael Alpert

Literature and trauma might appear loosely correlated, if at all, but Cathy Caruth considers them intimately intertwined.

As a trauma theorist and newly reappointed director of the Comparative Literature Program, Caruth believes literature is often inextricably bound up with trauma in ways we have yet to grasp.

“Traumatic memories are never fully known but nonetheless insist on being told,” she said. “Literature tells us as much about what we don’t know as about what we do, and it can therefore communicate what resists ordinary memory or understanding.

“Literary language has always been distinguished by its capacity to transmit what cannot be communicated in more straightforward ways.”

Caruth believes that traumatic experience is not possessed by an individual or group, thus its impact is never captured by direct reference. It is, paradoxically, literature’s very indirectness—its figurative language, gaps in speech and linguistic particularities—that transmits the force of a traumatic history.

Much of Caruth’s trauma research has dealt with literary, theoretical and testimonial texts as aides in conveying new forms of personal and historical experience. Not only did she help develop an archive of Holocaust testimony at Emory and co-organize a national interdisciplinary conference on trauma, she’s taught courses like “Literature, Trauma and Culture” and “Narrative and Survival.”

Caruth incorporates her literary theories into a graduate curriculum she helped develop the first time she was comp lit director (1995–98). When she initially came to Emory after eight years of teaching English at Yale University, she began to sculpt a fledgling program that was primarily graduate-level but since has drawn more and more undergraduates.

Comp lit now includes 20 associated faculty from 11 departments and serves 44 of its own graduate students and 20 undergrads, as well as 14 students from other graduate programs seeking certificates in the subject.

Charged originally with examining literary texts across national boundaries and differing genres, the discipline of comparative literature has expanded to explore relations among literature and other disciplines, such as psychoanalysis, philosophy and law.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, comp lit enlarged its emphasis to include a theoretical examination of literature from a variety of perspectives and to extend this questioning to non-canonical texts and lesser-read literatures. Students are required to read original works in foreign languages to gain a more precise understanding than English adaptations allow. The program includes 12 associated foreign language faculty, and several courses are conducted almost wholly in other languages.

Similarly, program dissertations must incorporate at least two separate literary traditions and analyze original texts in a minimum of two languages. Caruth considers such multilingual reading essential.

“A lot of what literature teaches us is communicated by means of textual features that remain essentially untranslatable,” she explained. “To read these texts well, students have to be able to read very closely.”

This combination of close reading and theoretical reflection is what marks the uniqueness of the program. Students are encouraged to study psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, philosophy, gender studies, literature and technology, literature and ethics, and other theoretical perspectives appropriate to their projects. Toward that end, comp lit students, along with French students, have organized several two-day national conferences (including the upcoming “Literature and Democracy,” including students from a number of departments) all of which involve students and faculty from a variety of disciplines.

“Comp lit is a good theoretical forum that lends itself to connection with other disciplines,” said Claire Nouvet, associate professor of French and director of graduate studies. “We’re trying more than ever to build connections with other disciplines. We want a grounding in literature, but from there, we want to open up to other areas of inquiry.”

Caruth hopes to expand the program’s faculty to include more joint appointments, like hers was when she was hired in 1995 for three-quarters comp lit and one-quarter English. Her goal is to explore more fully the ways in which literature informs and is informed by other discourses and other kinds of experience.

“I want to teach students to learn to be surprised by literature and be able to articulate the unexpected things they encounter,” she said. “Literature can teach us how to rethink many of the categories that shape our lives.”


Back to Emory Report March 19, 2001