Redefining Trauma Post 9/11: Freud’s Talking Cure and Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Abstract: In this essay, I argue that there is a valuable aspect in Freudian psychoanalysis that does not so much relate to its discourse of therapy and healing but to its specific approach to trauma. It is epitomized in its method of the talking cure, and is best explained by Freud’s interpretation of dreams. Challenging contemporary trauma theory and its emphasis on the ‘excesses of the Real,’ I claim that Freudian psychoanalysis is concerned with the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’: Its object of analysis is the construction of trauma in the (Lacanian) Symbolic rather than its inscription in the Real. Demonstrating that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the first novels to deal directly with the trauma of September 11, can function as a Freudian talking cure, I argue that a psychoanalytic perception of trauma can reinforce the value we attach to language and literature in the process of handling traumatic events. It is Extremely Loud’s experimental form that exposes the complexity of trauma and engages the reader in the process of understanding traumatic experiences such as September 11. The active participation of the reader in ‘connecting the dots’ of the novel and the novel’s temporal form can open up a space for (indirect) witnessing. Extremely Loud, the bestselling novel by one of the main representatives of a new generation of American fiction writers, thus serves to illustrate the value of a psychoanalytic notion of trauma for the process and problem of the representation of trauma in the Symbolic.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, caused such shock and devastation that they have already been called the defining tragedy of our time (Versluys, “9/11” 65). As Slavoj Žižek notes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the terrorist attacks were immediately seen as dispelling the illusory haze of security in which many Americans had been living (16). Marita Sturken argues that the US lost their innocence at the moment of the collapse (311). Moreover, Richard Stamelman points out that the term ‘Ground Zero,’ which originally referred to complete nuclear destruction, suggests a new starting point: a “tabula rasa” (13). These observations underline the notion that the world was radically altered by the events of September 11. The fall of the Twin Towers seems to have caused an abrupt plunge into the Real. It is this obsession with a return to reality—which I link to the Lacanian Real—that characterizes the response to the events of September 11 and provides the starting point for this essay’s analysis.

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