March 19, 2001
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 dont 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, literatures very indirectnessits figurative
language, gaps in speech and linguistic particularitiesthat transmits
the force of a traumatic history.
Much of Caruths 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, shes 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 (199598).
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
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. Were 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 programs 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.