Trauma, Displacement and Derrida’s Erasure: Purposeful (Non-)Remembering of the Exilic Gap

Longing is a scar inside the heart and a country’s fingerprint on the body. But no one longs for his wound, no one longs for pain or nightmare, but for what was before. For a time when there was no pain except of primary pleasures that melts time, like a sugar cube in a cup of tea, and for a time of heavenly images.[1]

Erasure illustration example heidegger derrida philosophyThe “exilic gap” refers to a period of time between the fall of Judah and the return from Babylon when the historical texts and materials available to us are silent. Historians and theorists have tried to account for this silence in memory but have failed to come to a consensus on what the gap means and why it may have occurred. Theories include having limited or lost evidence (Momigliano) or that any evidence related to the period is ahistorical and overly creative; however, these have been dismissed as they not only fail to account for the numerous texts available before and after the gap, but also fail to account for why this “creativity” did not extend into the exilic period as well. That being said, other scholars have postulated that the silence itself is a form of creative and intentional inculcation to produce a collective memory for ideological reasons. In a comparative examination of “gaps”, Katherine Stott follows this line of thinking and puts forth a functionalist understanding for the gap among the ancient Israelites. Prior to this, however, Stott, dismisses the possibility of accounting for the gap in terms of trauma by misunderstanding the effect of trauma (particularly spatial trauma) on collective memory. Using spatial and trauma theory, the concept of Derrida’s erasure, and in reference to the work of Ehud Ben Zvi, I will show how the creation of the narrative gap was, indeed, purposeful for ideological reasons, but was also a narrative technique that allowed the trauma from displacement and place-destruction (felt by returnees and remainees alike) to give meaning to the post-exilic period.[2]

In studying the exilic gap, most scholars overlook the primacy of place in impacting the narrative told and accepted by the community after the return(s).[3] In his illuminating essay “Wisdom Sits on Places”, Keith Basso looks at the connection between place and text-building as an integrative process. Just as dwelling in a place stimulates the self-conscious experience of it in the subject, so too does the place become “a product and expression of the self whose experience it is” (Basso 55), and thus, places come to “generate their own fields of meaning” (56). In this reciprocal, mutually-defining process, there is the possibility of it being a private affair; however, as Basso points out, “tangible representations of it are commonly made available for public consumption”(Ibid). In sum, historiographical texts, rituals, myth, and other cultural expressions end up (at their core) as representations of “where and how [we] dwell” (57).

When we apply this understanding of cultural texts to the biblical accounts of exile in the book(s) of Ezra (and Nehemiah), the importance of place in understanding the gap comes to the fore. This can be fully understood by looking at the relationship between displacement, trauma and memory. Katherine Stott’s treatment of the effect of trauma on memory is cursory, at best, and ill-informed at worst.[4] While she notes that “amnesia” is allegedly a common method of coping with trauma and that this can be extended to collective remembering, she ends her refutation of the trauma theory with a poorly formed question, asking why then “memory of this experience [exile] was not completely expunged”(Stott 52). Lacking the adequate space here, I will simply note that there are numerous scientific studies that are published annually on how trauma imprints memory – many with admittedly conflicting conclusions, including the fact that amnesia is not the only response nor the most common, particularly in mass, communal trauma. The only thing known for sure is that everyone deals with trauma differently and it is imprinted in ways that are impossible to predict.[5] Additionally, the definition of trauma itself is something not agreed upon and it does not always take the form of “unspeakable horror”, as some authours hypothesize.[6]

Now, some scholars would go so far as to question the level of trauma that could have possibly been experienced in the exile, citing the few exilic documents that point to good experiences in Babylon and the fact that not everyone returned as evidence. Others claim that because of the common grammar of a hopeful future memory of return and restoration, the Israelites could not have been traumatized but might even have accepted exile enthusiastically. These are gross underestimations of the power that place holds over self-definition and memory formation. Displacement, depopulation and destruction (all visible forms of violent change in the landscape) would have been a significant enough affront to the Israelite self-understanding as to cause a rupture in social memory as wide as the gap itself.[7] For those who remained, bearing witness to this destruction and displacement would constitute its own form of trauma as well.[8]

Am I proposing that the gap is amnesiac in nature due to trauma? Absolutely not. Amnesia implies unconscious forgetting for the purposes of survival and is not a mutually-exclusive term with trauma. Unconscious forgetting is not what happened in post-exilic Judah. Instead, I might call it purposeful non-remembering as a response to the trauma of displacement. In a point that is left unexplored by Stott, she notes that the identity of the Israelites was “based on a connection to the homeland…” (55). While she incorrectly, assumes that this results in a shortening or deemphasis of past events in which the bond between the people and the land was broken, I am going to put forth the idea that the exilic gap actually functions as an erasure (sous rature) in the Derridan form, emphasizing the magnitude of displacement, its effect on the Israelites and the importance of social reconstruction through text-building once the people and land were reunited.[9] For this, I invoke Ben Zvi who argued that the concepts of “total exile” and “empty land” were put forth by the returnees and accepted by the remainees (for whom it was a counterfactual narrative) because they represented a continuation of common metaphors and grammars with which the community identified itself.[10] Presumably, this comforted anxieties about identity that had arisen in the period of exile by offering an identifying link to their collective past. While this functionalist approach is correct on one level and offers us insight into the process of community re-building as the land was repopulated and the temple was rebuilt, it doesn’t give us enough insight to what function an exilic gap might serve. Rather than, like Stott, trying to account for how the gap happened (eg. lost documents or amnesia), we need to continue the functionalist approach and look at it as its own narrative technique. What purpose did it serve and why was it used? The concept of the erasure is apt here, particularly when we consider that the post-exilic period was a literal (re)writing of the community narrative that took place upon return. Erasures function as words crossed out above other words, whose meanings are not exact but are necessary to fully comprehend what is written. In this construction, the gap or absence facilitates an understanding of the return or presence in a manner that would be less meaningful without it. The significance of the return could not be understood without knowledge of the exile, but the exile could not, in itself, be made present; its absence attests to the presence of return.

Much work remains to be done, particularly on a closer textual level, but the theoretical framework is made a lot clearer at this point. Instead of abandoning the inevitable trauma that displacement might have brought forth in those who were exiled and those who remained, it can be used to better understand a functionalist framework of text-(re)writing upon return, particularly when the form of the narrative crafted on return is considered at face value. Future points of contention that must be addressed are the transfer of traumatic story-telling from those exiled to the next generations of those returned (as they were, undoubtedly, not the same people), trauma of the remainees and how this problematized self-identification, and how counter-narratives that have surfaced might fit into this understanding. This will have to be discussed at another time.

 

Appendix A

Basso, Keith H “Wisdom Sits on Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape” in Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001; 53-98.

Brace, Catherine, Adrian R. Bailey, and David C. Harvey. “Religion, Place and Space : A Framework for Investigating Historical Geographies of Religious Identities and Communities” in Progress in Human Geography Vol. 30:1, 2006; 28-43.

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reforming Pilgrimage : Cultures in Motion. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; 115-130.

Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “In Search of Place.” In To Take Place. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987; 1-23.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Here, There, and Anywhere.” In Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004; 323-339.

Tweed, Thomas A. “Crossing: The Kinetics of Itinerancy” in Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006; 123-163.

Works Cited and Referenced

Anderson, Nicole. Derrida: Ethics Under Erasure. Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy. 2012.

Basso, Keith H “Wisdom Sits on Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape” in Senses of Place. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, eds. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2001; 53-98.

Ben Zvi, Ehud. “Total Exile, Empty Land and the General Intellectual Discourse in Yehud” in The Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and its Historical Contexts. E. Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin, eds. Berlin/NY: de Gruyter, 2010, pp 155-168.

Carr, David M. “Reading into the Gap: Refractions of Trauma in Israelite Prophecy” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p295 -307.

Darwish, Mahmoud. In the Presence of Absence. Poem XIV. Sinan Antoon, trans. Archipelago Books: Brooklyn, NY, 2011.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Garber, David G. “A Vocabulary of Trauma in Exilic Writings” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 309-22.

New International Version Study Bible. Ed. Kenneth L. Barker. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Online. http://www.biblegateway.com

Kirmayer, Laurence. “Landscapes of Memory : Trauma, Narrative and Dissociation” in Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, eds. Routledge: New York, 1996; 173-198.

LaCapra, Dominick. “Trauma, Absence, Loss” in Critical Inquiry. Summer 1999: 25, pp 696-727.

McNally, Richard J. “Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory” in Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Nov 2005: 13, pp 817-22.

Rumfelt, Janet L. “Reversing Fortune: War, Psychic Trauma and the Promise of Narrative Repair” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 323-42.

 

Stott, Katherine. “A Comparative Study of the Exilic Gap in Ancient Israelite, Messenian and Zionist Collective Memory” in Community Identity in Judean Historiography: Biblical and Comparative Perspectives. G.N.Knoppers and K.A Ristau, eds. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbraums, 2009, pp 41-58.

 

Trigg, Dylan. “The Place of Trauma: Memory, Hauntings and the Temporality of Ruins” in Memory Studies. January 2009: 2, pp 87-101.

 

Van Der Kolk, Bessel, and Onno Van Der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth, ed. John Hopkins U

[1] Darwish, Mahmoud. In the Presence of Absence. Poem XIV. Sinan Antoon, trans. Archipelago Books: Brooklyn, NY, 2011, p 111.

[2] It should be noted that for the purposes of space, I will assume the reader’s familiarity with many of the concepts in this analysis and will make use of citations for clarification where necessary.

[3] For a list of what I consider to be helpful sources regarding the primacy of place/space, please see appendix A.

[4] This is, in part due to her lack of exploration of key questions when the modern concept of trauma is applied theoretically and retrospectively to the ancient Judean community. An excellent negotiation of this anachronistic but provocative critical approach (especially from a linguistic perspective) is found in David G. Garber’s article “A Vocabulary of Trauma in Exilic Writings” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 309-22.

[5] For further information, please see: McNally, Richard J. “Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory” in Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Nov 2005: 13, pp 817-22. ; Van Der Kolk, Bessel, and Onno Van Der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Cathy Caruth, ed. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1995; 158-82.

[6] See: Carr, David M. “Reading into the Gap: Refractions of Trauma in Israelite Prophecy” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, p295 -307.

[7] For a deeper (but not without controversy) analysis of the multi-layered trauma of displacement in this specific context, please see Rumfelt, Janet L. “Reversing Fortune: War, Psychic Trauma and the Promise of Narrative Repair” in Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts, Brad Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, Jacob Wright, Eds. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp 323-42.

[8] An interesting assessment of the effect of place, particularly ruins, on traumatic memory can be found here: Trigg, Dylan. “The Place of Trauma: Memory, Hauntings and the Temporality of Ruins” in Memory Studies. January 2009: 2, pp 87-101.

[9] Please see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967.

[10] For the complete argument, please see Ben Zvi, Ehud. “Total Exile, Empty Land and the General Intellectual Discourse in Yehud” in The Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and its Historical Contexts. E. Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin, eds. Berlin/NY: de Gruyter, 2010, pp 155-168.

 

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