The Trauma of Evolution
In his brief, peculiar, essay of 1925, "A Note on The Mystic Writing Pad,"1 Freud describes the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as akin to the functioning of a children's toy called the Mystic Writing Pad. This "pad" is made up of "a slab of dark brown resin or wax with a paper edging." A two-layered "transparent sheet" lays on top of this slab, the bottom layer a "thin, translucent wax paper," while the upper layer is a "transparent piece of celluloid." Using this toy, upon which one inscribes text or image unto the celluloid sheet, signals for Freud "a return to the ancient method of writing upon tablets of clay or wax: a pointed stilus scratches the surface, the depressions upon which constitute the 'writing." 2 However, it is not necessarily the act of writing upon the Mystic Pad that Freud is ultimately concerned with, rather he is interested in the eventual erasure, or perhaps lack thereof, of what one has inscribed. So as to appreciate the the complexity and completeness of Freud's metaphoric illustration, it is worth quoting him at length. As he explains,
If one wishes to destroy what has been written, all that is necessary is to raise the double covering-sheet from the wax slab by a light pull, starting from the free lower end. The close contact between the waxed paper and the wax slab at the places which have been scratched (upon which the visibility of the writing depended) is thus brought to an end and does not recur when the two surfaces come together once more. The Mystic Writing Pad is now clear of writing and ready to receive fresh notes...But it is easy to discover that the permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in suitable lights. Thus the Pad provides not only a receptive surface that can be used over and over again, like a slate, but also permanent traces of what has been written, like an ordinary paper pad: it solves the problem of combining the two functions by dividing them between two separate but interrelated component parts or systems.3
As Freud demonstrates, though one may continually erase the icons writtens on the celluloid sheet, the "wax slab" below it retains an indelible and indexical inscription of these uses. Thus, he triumphantly concludes, "this is precisely the way in which...our mental apparatus performs its perceptual function. The layer which receives that stimuli...forms no permanent traces; the foundations of memory come about in other, adjoining systems."
This "wax slab," then, mediated as it is below protective coverings, and waiting to reveal its history through its uncovering, is, for Freud, a near perfect representation of the unconscious. Laying latent and concealed, this foundational slab contains within it a complicated and messy bricolage of past traces; traces which do not make themselves evident until one consciously looks for them (perhaps say, through psychoanalytic therapy) and which yet continually informs and exists just behind your present.
Where Freud employs the Mystic Writing Pad as a reification of memory and the conscious, I wish to extend his metaphor, and to suggest that it is also an apt description of evolutionary processes. Whether biological, cultural, or individual, "evolution," may be understood as gradual change over time, an ongoing and somewhat arbitrary path forged by natural selection and adaptive variation. However, just as the Mystic Writing Pad deceptively appears to be continually changing, "adapting" to the forms written upon its celluloid surface but nonetheless deep-seatedly preserving relics of its past, so too do present-day forms-manifestations of the current state of evolutionary processes-enclose within them the remnants of their precedents. Though concealed and contained, a look "under the hood,"(or the "celluloid sheet") say, to the back of one's mouth wherein obsolete molars reside, or to literary works in which intertexuality and references to previous compositions lurk, or even indeed, to one's personal ancestry, by which linguistic affectations and tastes signal the inscription of familial influence, reveals the present presence of the past.
By drawing this parallel between memory and evolution, I do not simply wish to demonstrate these two concepts' descriptive similarities. Rather, by further pursuing this Freudian allegory through the addition of a conspicuously absent component of the psychoanalytic endeavor, I hope to illustrate how it is that wading among these relics of the past in fact serves to propel evolution forward. Though this metaphor does seem to tidily encapsulate the manner in which Freudian psychoanalysis supposes that memory is maintained and present-experience shaped, it is also glaringly lacking in a module that is traditionally so central to the psychoanalytic endeavor: trauma.
Barring a brief reference in the opening sentence to "neurotics," who apparently distrust their memory to a "remarkable extent," Freud makes no mention here of abnormality, or of the persistent mental wounds that are conventionally understood as the impetus for lifting up the "transparent sheet" and examining the "slab" to begin with.4 Indeed, Freud's metaphor itself reveals its imperfection when we consider that generally speaking, psychoanalysis posits that we continually relive and revive events that jarred and disrupted our established way of perceiving the world around us. Yet, the immediate implication of the Mystic Writing Pad is that all memories, each event of "writing," is maintained. Freud offers his readers no inkling towards which occasions warrant their permanent inscription, and which, if any, are in fact fated for enduring "erasure." I think, however, if we consider, as Freud does, the material conditions of the Pad, we may glean a hint in that direction. The inscription upon the surface of the wax tablet is not simply a neutral impression, but rather a physical infliction, indeed a wounding depression that corrupts and disturbs the would-be placid plane of the wax foundation. Perhaps, then, we can in fact garner from this metaphor that that which remains is that which, one some level, does harm through an interruption of cohesion. Unsettling a cohesive, uniform narrative, these depressions and inscriptions and our awareness of them, introduces and reveals a chaotic jumble of injury; a "blooming, buzzing confusion" indeed, but one not of the present, but of the past.5
So, where does this leave us in our evolutionary parallel? If trauma. is what is retained in our memory, are the remnants of our biological, cultural, and familial(individual) manifestations of shocking events that preceded us? Through an examination of four authors who either explicitly and implicitly concern themselves with distinct forms of developmental progression-physical, cultural, societal, and personal-I wish to demonstrate that in many ways, exploring evolutions reveals that it is only through a confrontation with loss, and with disturbance, that change over time may occur. It is not only through arbitrary rupture that movement and modification occurs, but also through an adaptation to that rupture through a close investigation of it. As Darwin, Dennett, Whitman, and Husvedt demonstrate, it is only by reckoning with, and reveling in, the chaos of our past that we begin to understand our present, and propel ourselves towards the future.
Trauma is implicitly woven into Charles Darwin's seminal 1859 On The Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection.6 As the naturalist introduces his thinking, he makes clear that he is well-aware of the potential for controversy his theory holds. Laced with qualifiers, and steeped in debts to his own theoretical predecessors, the introductory chapter to Darwin's opus is itself representative of a kind of evolution of thinking up until this point. Though Darwin takes pains to contend that his theory is intended for reception only by the community of naturalists, such persistent refusal is revelatory of the author's awareness of the larger reverberations of his theory. And yet, he proceeds. Attentive to the cataclysmic propensity of suggesting that species formation and change over time is an arbitrary and ongoing process, Darwin nonetheless attempts to persuade his readers that "that each species had not been independently created but had descended, like varieties, from other species"7
Though generally Darwin's theory of evolution is considered "dangerous,"8 or radical for its implication that man, once held as perfect expressions of the power of divine creation, might not in fact have always existed as we know ourselves today, but rather may be closely related to the seemingly primitive and crude primate family, Darwin's theory in fact disrupts and disturbs convention on a much broader scale. What is suggests, is that the pat, tidy, narrative of history must be supplanted by an ambiguous and disorganized tale of arbitrary events and slow succession by inheritance. By implying that species are mutable, and that distinction between types is the product of divergence from a once homogenous beginning because of a certain degree of randomness, Darwin "bursts the categories"9 that allowed for hierarchy and linearity.
Thus, Darwin introduces a kind of "chaos theory." As with the Mystic Writing Pad, looking under the celluloid of discreet categories and divine intention reveals an overlapping and confused history, the product of which, which is to say, the present, exposes itself as a palimpsest of random events and ostensibly "erased" characteristics. Using organized empiricism, Darwin inflicts a traumatic wound through the revelation of disorganization. Moreover, it is not only a revelation of this disarray that Darwin contends. Rather, he argues, "much remains obscure"10 and "it is therefore of the highest importance to gain insight into the meaning of modification and coadaptation."11 The author advocates not only for an awareness of this chaos, but a reckoning with it. As such, Darwin implies that movement is only possible when we confront the seemingly inexplicable losses and changes that have occurred over time, and reconcile ourselves to the trauma of capricious development.
Daniel Dennett strongly reinforces Darwin's push for a confrontation with loss, and with change, in his polemic Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett describes the theory of evolution as a "universal acid" that "eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways."12 If Darwin himself tried to evade implicating his theory in a holistic renovation of societal and cultural thinking, Dennett rebukes this elision, and urges his readers to concede that the random and bequeathing framework of evolution suggested by Darwin has essential consequences for how we think about ourselves.
As Dennett begins his book by revealing his own personal attachment to some of the "stories" that evolution apparently disturbs-most particularly the "skyhook" that says things are the way they are because someone bigger than us put them there-he immediately demonstrates that understanding and exploring our development and our past, as both biological and cultural creatures, is an endeavor fundamentally rooted in demise and upheaval. However, according to Dennett, this traumatic loss of beliefs is productive, as it opens up the space for newer, supportable ideas that he promises will drive our own development forward.
Dennett returns to, and relies upon, the writing of early philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke so as to establish how Darwin's theory of natural selection "eats through" the reductionist thinking of his philosophical predecessors, so much so that the validity of their ideas themselves should be considered extinct. In so doing, Dennett immerses himself in history to ultimately demonstrate that it is only by confronting the past, and the traumatic knowledge that that which thought was correct no longer holds, that we may constructively push through to the present and eventual future. Thus, implies Dennett, by facing, or perhaps effacing, the past, we understand our present. Like psychoanalysts before him, Dennett contends that unless we begin to reexamine and reinterpret the failings of our former selves, we are doomed to neurotically repeat those events, and to circumscribe our own development as a culture.
Where these two authors, Darwin reluctantly, and Dennett gleefully, reveal the radical potential of evolution, Walt Whitman seizes upon this promise, and enacts this very transformation through poetry. Breaking with the stylistic rigidity of his poetic precursors, as well as with the dogmatic naturalism of his transcendental peers, Whitman celebrates the reformation of the American landscape through industry, and the possibility of multiple selves dwelling in a single body. If the metaphor of the Mystic Writing Pad requires some adjustment of parameters so as to demonstrate how, in the case of Darwin and Dennett, one must examine one's past in order to explain the present, then Whitman's Leaves of Grass has an even stronger affinity to Freud's initial theory.
Whitman's meandering and whimsical litanies of people, places, and things available for celebration and praise may be understood as constituting a representation of the associating and ambling nature of the unconscious. As he jumps from thought to thought, and conjures precise images of nature and industry, only to then immediately leave them for another line of inquiry, Whitman performs for his readers the "multitudes" he claims to contain,13 textually representing the jumbled mass of thought that lies just beneath the "celluloid sheet" of consciousness. Yet, "representing" cannot be a too heavily emphasized term here. Using language, with all its signifying weight, Whitman does not grant his readers direct access to his unconscious, to do so through language-itself a construction of consciousness-would be unfeasible.14 Rather, by explicitly and aggressively unraveling the tidy verses of his poetic peers, Whitman draws his readers' attention to the distinction between the unconscious and the conscious, rupturing the canonization of work that is ordered and organized in favor of writing that challenges this canon through its very form. Thus, Whitman illustrates the trauma inflicted when thought passes from the unconscious to the conscious. By using a representation of unconscious thought in order to celebrate the merging of selves, and the progress of "civilization," Whitman, like Darwin before him, highlights damage done by perceptions that teach prejudice and hierarchy.
For Whitman, by undoing this hierarchy-between nature and culture, one self and many, logic and irrationality-however traumatic confronting our own unconscious may be, we can evolve towards an optimistic future in which people thought merge. He writes that: "the corpses rise...the gashes heal. the fastenings roll away."15 Thus, through the dissolution of discretion, here seen through the evocation of the undead, the "gashes," like those upon the wax tablet of Mystic Writing Pad, are ameliorated. By challenging our ideals, and accepting the multiplicity of personalities within in each of us that arises through the presence of the past and promise of the future, Whitman contends that through traumatic rupture (of form, of beliefs) we progress towards catharsis.
The "gashes" invoked by Whitman resonate deeply with the epigraph employed by Siri Husvedt as the opening gambit to her recent novel The Sorrows of An American. Quoting Rumi, Husvedt cites: "Don't turn away. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That's where the light enters you."16 This quote evocatively encapsulates the premise of her book, which finds its characters mired (one might even say wallowing) in their personal pasts in order to sort through the dramas of their present. Husvedt is perhaps the most explicit of the authors we have thus far examined in her notion that we may explain ourselves to ourselves through an examination of our histories, and it is only by doing so that we may move forward. As a book focused and narrated by a protagonist that is a professional psychoanalyst, Erik, it is also the work that most deeply reverberates and illustrates the implications of Freud's metaphor.
The personalities of Sorrows explore both their the histories of their families and the ambiguities of their present. Her characters regularly express a confusion as to the exact nature of themselves and of their peers. For instance, in one scene, in which Erik finds himself alone with the Miranda, a woman he has lusted after for the past two-hundred pages, there are intimations of ambiguity no less than three times. At first, Miranda explains to Erik that when she was young, "I always wanted to be a boy, the son my father didn't have."17 Here, Miranda evokes a certain indistinction of gender that forms a motif through the novel. Just one page later she remarks to Erik that, "I've seen the way you look at me. I know that you like me, but I've sometimes wondered if it's really me you like." Again, Husvedt offers her reader a depiction of a fragmented, mercurial self. Finally, on the following page, as Erik holds Miranda, he thinks to himself (and to Husvedt's readers) "I was playing the mother, after all, not the lover. I had finally taken hold on what Laura had called my 'fantasy object,' a woman I had lusted after for months, only to find a child in my arms."18 Combined, these instances reveal how mental wounds reflect and refract a diverse and vacillating self.
Such an emphasis on this multiplicity in also made evident by Husvedt by the familial "ghosts" that haunt her characters. Though in some ways it may seem that these characters remain unchanged throughout the book, by returning home, solving mysteries, and confronting repressed memories, Husvedt's depicted individuals converse with these specters, and eventually make peace with them. When, at the end of the book, Erik, who has neurotically repeated "I'm so lonely" to himself throughout the whole of the narrative surmises that "there is no loneliness," we understand that to dwell with one's ghosts, indeed, one's traumatic losses, is to eventually find company, not sadness in them. According to Sorrows, we may only "reconfigure that vague country we refer to as the future, a place inhabited exclusively by fears and wishes,"19 by fully inhabiting "different selves over the course of a life, but even all at once"20 and coming to terms with the pains that this incites.
If, as we have seen, trauma remains in our memory and our selves, and it is only through confronting it that we may move forward, then perhaps this too have evolutionary consequences. Dennett described evolution as a continual process of divergence and then eventual convergence. These four authors show us that traumatic loss-of physical characteristics, of beliefs, of culture and of family-are what serve to divide us from each other, we diverge depending on how and what trauma we experience. However, if the only way to "reconfigure the future," or to productively propel our own evolution is to confront these losses, then perhaps we converge through the reconciliation of these bereavements.
-Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Texts, 2003.
-Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
-Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition. Ed. Joslyn T. Pine. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007.
-Hustvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York: Picador, 2008.
1 Freud, Sigmund. "A Note on the Mystic Writing Pad." Deconstruction: a Reader. Ed. Martin McQuillan. New York: Routedlge, 2001
2 Ibid, pg. 52
3 Ibid, pg. 53 (emphasis original).
4 Ibid, pg. 52
5 James, William.
6 Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Texts, 2003.
7 Ibid, pg. 96
8 Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.
9 Husvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York: Picador, 2008. Pg. 24
10 Darwin, Charles. Pg. 98
11 Ibid, pg. 97
12 Dennett, Daniel. Pg. 5
13 Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition. Ed. Joslyn T. Pine. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007.
14 At least in my own understanding. Certainly avant-garde and postmodern texts have attempted to detach meaning from language, or to present the "raw" unconscious to its audience. However, I contend that at least on the receiving end, the use of conventional language always already signals the presence of some kind of mimetic relationship to the world.
15 Whitman, Walt. Pg. 54
16 Husvedt, Siri. The Sorrows of an American. New York: Picador, 2008.
17 Ibid, pg. 274
18 Ibid, pg. 276
19 Ibid, pg. 278
20 Ibid, pg. 253