St Teresa And Mary Rolandson Essay Research

St. Teresa And Mary Rolandson Essay, Research Paper

Mary Rowlandson and St. Teresa:

Analyzed Through Dori Laub’s ‘Collapse of Witnessing’

Dori Laub, author of, “Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History”, discusses a concept of missed experiences referred to as the ‘collapse of witnessing’. The ‘collapse of witnessing’ is the idea that a person can witness an event and yet at the same time not really witness it at all. Through the analysis of Laub’s ‘collapse of witnessing’, a connection can be seen between St. Teresa and Mary Rowlandson. St. Teresa is a nun that devotes her life to God, while Mary Rowlandson is the wife of a minister that is taken captive by Indians. They both have missed experiences and/or situations of the ‘collapse of witnessing’. A traumatic event that can not be understood, can not be mastered, and can not be incorporated in the social, often times also, can not be witnessed. This ‘collapse of witness’ can be seen in both The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself and The True History of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; and the ‘collapse of witness’ can be used as a tool to connect these two trauma texts.

According to Dori Laub there are, “three separate, distinct levels of witnessing” (Laub 75). These three levels are, “the level of being a witness to oneself within the experience; the level of being a witness to the testimonies of others; and the level of being a witness to the process of witnessing itself” (Laub 75). The ‘collapse of witnessing’ is how in relation to trauma, many times a person can not witness the event because the event is beyond the realm of the social. “The events [that] are remembered and seem to have been experienced in a way that [is] far beyond the normal capacity for recall” are the events, according to Laub, that often succumb to the ‘collapse of the witness’ (Laub 76).

A person that experiences a traumatic event has trouble, in many ways, witnessing the event even though they were physically there. This relates to the concept that trauma and traumatic events can not be incorporated into the mainstream of the social. People can not master the concept and therefore can not incorporate the event into their everyday life and everyday understanding. Laub says, “the loss of the capacity to be a witness to oneself and thus to witness from the inside is perhaps the true meaning of annihilation, for when one’s history is abolished one’s identity ceases to exist as well” (Laub 82). In other words, people have difficulty being a witness, but by not acknowledging the traumatic event, by the ‘collapse of the witness’, it is actually the collapse of that person’s identity. Therefore there is a constant struggle to not have a ‘collapse of witness’ in order to not lose one’s identity, but also to not be a witness in order not to have to face the trauma.

The ‘collapse of witness’ of a person that has physically experienced a traumatic event can be connected to the latency period discussed by Caruth. The latency period, as defined by Caruth, is the period, “during which the effects of the experience are not apparent” (Caruth 7). According to Caruth, people can not always realize the effect that an event may have had on them. The period of time from which the event actually took place and any sign of effect from the event, may be a time where a person may underestimate the effects of the event. The significance of this is that the latency is, “what precisely preserves the event in its literality” (Caruth 8). The latency period is what causes the event to be imbedded into one’s mind forever. The latency period, similarly to the ‘collapse of a witness’, is a period of time when a person may choose not to remember and/or succumb to the traumatic event because the acknowledgment of it may be just as traumatizing if not more traumatizing then actually living through it.

At, “the level of being a witness to the testimonies of others” people still often have a ‘collapse of witnessing’ regardless of the fact that they themselves did not physically experience the event (Laub 75). The person listening to the testimony has the challenge of being, “part of the struggle to go beyond the event and not be submerged and lost in it” (Laub 76). This is difficult because the person that is listening to another person relive their traumatic experience is actually reliving the event with them. As difficult as it is for the physical witness to relive their event and attest to being a, “witness within the experience” the listener has to be a witness of the testimony of another (Laub 75). Caruth says, “the challenge of [for] the therapeutic listener … is how to listen to the departure” and, “to listen to the crisis of a trauma, that is, is not only to listen for the event, but to hear in the testimony the survivor’s departure from it” (Caruth 10). Both people are subject to the ‘collapse of witnessing’. Neither wants to believe the truth of the event or attempt to incorporate it into the realm of their social. Both are struggling to surrender to the trauma and the telling of the trauma and moving past the event.

At the third level of witnessing there is yet another opportunity for the ‘collapse of witnessing’ to take place. At the third level of witnessing both the physical witness and the witness of the testimony are working together to find a Truth. Laub says, “the traumatic experience has normally long been submerged and has become distorted in its submersion” (Laub 76). The Truth that is trying to be attained is tangled within the distortion of the traumatic event within the physical witness’s social. The ‘collapse of witnessing’ can be seen again as a person tries to be a witness of distortion rather then of the Truth. The Truth is more difficult to be a witness of because it is not what a person necessarily wants to believe, but it is what actually was and is.

In The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, St. Teresa devoted herself to God from the age of 21 years forward. She was separated from her family and forced to live a life that incorporated many unexplainable ‘favours’ from God. These ‘favours’ were often considered traumatic because of their long-term effects and because they almost always could not be incorporated into the realm of understanding of everyday life. These ‘favours’ were delivered in ways that can be described as excessive jouissance. Jouissance is excessive pleasure, however according to Freud’s pleasure principle, excessive pleasure would be an effect of unpleasure and excessive unpleasure can be traumatic. A person needs to have a certain amount of pleasure in order to function. The pleasure principle is what imposes reality and unpleasures upon a person’s thoughts and actions. If there is excessive unpleasure and the pleasure principle does not function to counteract this excess it can be traumatic for the person. The excessive jouissance was physically seen in uncontrollable orgasms, which Teresa was unable to control. Teresa believed at first that the orgasms were sent to her by the devil, as she says, “the devil plunged me into a spiritual battle once more” (Teresa 267). However, she realized and “resolved to suffer most willingly all the Lord might be pleased to send [her]” for “he showed [her] ways of making sure that these visions were not of the devil” (Teresa 265, 207). These multiple and uncontrollable orgasms were traumatic for Teresa on many levels. However, Teresa did not realize the effect of these ‘favours’ until after they had stopped. Teresa said, “from that day onwards I have looked on everything that is not directed to God’s service as vanity and lies” (Teresa 306). It took Teresa many years to be a ‘witness’ to the events that had taken place in her life and to come to the realization that she must devote her life to God. There was a ‘collapse of witness’ because of how traumatic God’s ‘favours’ were for her. In addition, Teresa’s followers and disciples of the church had to endure ‘witnessing’ Teresa’s trauma as well. Those that witnessed what was happening to Teresa both seeing it and hearing about it had to endure not being able to incorporate these experiences into their social. The other people of the church experience the, “the level of being a witness to the testimonies of others” (Laub 75). These followers and disciples of Teresa and the church had to endure living through the telling and the ‘witnessing’ of Teresa’s traumatic experiences. The inability to master the concept of what was happening to St. Teresa caused these ‘others’ to have a ‘collapse of witnessing’ in regards to hearing the testimony of Teresa and her experiences.

Teresa’s faced the actual ‘witnessing’ of her trauma throughout the writing of her autobiographical text. It was when she wrote the text itself that she first realized, to the extent, what she had experienced. This is similar to Ota Yoko. Ota also was forced to realize the trauma of the atomic bomb through her writing. Ota had a missed experience, in the sense that she did not realize the effects of the bomb until she realized that she could not adequately write about it. She was forced to be a ‘witness’ to the bombing in order to write about it. There was a ‘collapse of witnessing’, a collapse of understanding as these traumatic events were taking place in Ota and Teresa’s life. As Teresa wrote and was forced to face the traumatic experiences as they were, she was forced to face the Truth. It is the facing of this Truth that forced her to be a ‘witness’ to the actual traumatic events of her life.

Similarly to Teresa, Mary Rowlandson faced the actual ‘witnessing’ of her trauma through the writing of her autobiographical text. Throughout the telling of her story, Rowlandson is forced to face the Truth of the traumatic experience she endured. However, it was only through the writing that Rowlandson completely was able to come to terms with what she went through and the effect that it had on her life. Rowlandson says, “If trouble from smaller matters begin to arise in me…[I] say, it was but the other day, that if I had the world, I would have given it for my Freedom” (Rowlandson 69). It is not until the last page of her text that Rowlandson acknowledges the Truth and faces the extent of her trauma. The ‘witnessing’ of her trauma did not take place as she was going through the traumatic period of her life, but instead, when she was writing about the events after they had already happened.

Rowlandson suffered the ‘collapse of witness’ on all three levels that one can experience the ‘collapse of witness’. Rowlandson was separated from her family, taken captive by Indians (a group of people whom she felt were savages), and thrown into a life of pseudo-slavery from the respectful life of a minister’s wife. Rowlandson faced the ‘collapse of witnessing’ on the level of “being a witness to oneself within the experience” (Laub 75). She physically suffered through the, “grievous Captivity…[and] several Removes … up and down the Wilderness” (Rowlandson 28). Although she was there, she was not there on the level of understanding. The Removes and Captivity were beyond the realm of the social for Rowlandson. She was unable to ‘witness’ the trauma because she was unable to incorporate the events into her understanding.

Again Rowlandson experienced a ‘collapse of witness’, however now on a level of, “the level of being a witness to the testimonies of others”. Rowlandson, several times throughout her text, was forced to her the stories of her son and stories of hearsay about her husband and other children. It was through these dreadful encounters of information that Rowlandson could not be a ‘witness’ to the trauma that her loved ones were enduring in addition to her own trauma. Rowlandson’s son came to visit her and she, “asked his Maser to let him stay a while with me, that I might comb his head, and look over him, for he was almost overcome with lice” (Rowlandson 48). Rowlandson could not deal with seeing her son this way and listen to him describe his own trauma that he had to endure and continued to endure. Rowlandson had a ‘collapse of witness’ in order to continue surviving. If she was to take in everything that was happening to her and her son and her family, and ‘witness’ the experiences for what they really were she would be unable to survive.

Furthermore, Rowlandson experienced, “the level of being a witness to the process of witnessing itself” (Laub 75). Rowlandson, just as Teresa, was a witness to the process of witnessing through her writing. Needing to attain the Truth came through the writing of the texts, but there was first a ‘collapse of witnessing’ and a haziness of what the Truth was. However, Rowlandson also experienced a ‘collapse of witness’ on the level of, “being a witness to the process of witnessing itself” in another respect. She was cut off from the social of which she was used to and later thrown back into that same social but with a new view on all that lays before her. Defining the social as everything to which Rowlandson is accustomed to and survived on, we can she was completely cut off. She had her society, status, family, values, and prestige ripped out from under her, as she became cultured in a new world, a new social and a new paternal order. Through living through this extreme, traumatic change in her life style, Rowlandson shows many signs of Melancholia. Melancholia, as defined by Freud, is “a loss of a more ideal kind” (Freud 245). It is an object that has not, “actually died, but has been lost as an object of love” (Freud 245). In addition, melancholia brings on the feelings of the loss of self-regard, self-esteem, and self-respect. These symptoms are clearly seen in Mary Rowlandson throughout her trauma and adjustment to the social, which was sprung upon her as the Indians took her captive. It is because Rowlandson is so sharply cut off from her social and the paternal order of which she knows that she experiences melancholia. It is at the time of reentering the social which she knows, when she is sold back to her husband, that she realizes what she has been through and becomes a ‘witness’ to not only the trauma which she faced but the Truth to the process of witnessing. Rowlandson realized why it was of importance to be the witness to both the socials from which she was originally from and the social from which she endured trauma for eleven weeks and five days. It is at this point that we can clearly see why there was a ‘collapse of witness’ to the process of witnessing and why Rowlandson chose and was forced to be a ‘witness’ on all levels.

Both Rowlandson and Teresa are examples of the ‘collapse of witnessing’ but also of the eventual ‘witnessing’ of the traumatic events of their lives. It is important to be aware of the other concepts that tie into Teresa and Rowlandson’s ‘collapse of witnessing’. Latency and melancholia play a part in Teresa and Rowlandson’s ‘collapse of witnessing’, respectively. These concepts intertwine with Laub’s theory of ‘collapse of witnessing’ to show a clear connection between The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself and The True History of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.



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