Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering

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What Levine has done with Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy is an enormous gift to the literature on the psychology of trauma, and it lays the foundation for careful and productive new studies.

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Part I. From Trauma to Tragedy. Mimetic Wounds: From Trauma to Tragedy. Part II. Chaos Into Form.

Is Order Enough? Is Chaos too Much? Chapter 9. Researching Information - Imagining Research. A Fragmented Totality? An Interview. Part III. Poiesis After Post-Modernism. Poiesis and Praxis: Between Art and Action. Be Like Jacques: Mimesis with a Difference. Related Titles. Stay Informed.

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Can trauma be represented? In what way? All experience resists representation, trauma perhaps most of all. How can we possibly find a way to represent the unrepresentable, to place an experience that overwhelms us into a delimited form? How, above all, to transform terror into beauty, since all art strives after beauty?

We need to re- imagine trauma in order to understand the role that the imagination plays in the experience of human suffering. But we cannot stop there — we must also look at successful ways of shaping traumatic experience imaginatively. We must study the art of trauma. And we must, as well, look at those modes of practice, both psychological and artistic, that bring an imaginative perspective to bear. We must not only criticize the past; we must also look forward to a possible future.

In a way, this book is an impossible project. It attempts to speak about the unspeakable, and so must necessarily fail in this attempt. Suffering cannot be mastered through understanding; nor, for that matter, can joy. But awareness of our ultimate inability to subject existence to thought does not relieve us of the obligation to think, to attempt to come as close as we can to understanding our experience.


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Failure to do so means that we will continue to think in unexamined ways, limiting our practice and perhaps even harming those we hope to help. The book is an essay — in the sense of an attempt, a trial. It is not a scholarly work that tries to do justice to the vast literature on trauma today. Nor is the book a work based primarily on clinical practice.

Rather it is a philosophical attempt to think about that which defies understanding. The kind of thinking which the comprehension of trauma requires must itself incorporate the experience of chaos and fragmentation. It cannot therefore take the form of a system of knowledge but rather must consist of a series of inquiries linked by an underlying concern, inquiries that proceed circuitously along different pathways but nevertheless attempt to arrive at the same destination.

The disparate writings contained herein are focused on certain key concepts that recur again and again in different contexts, particularly the concepts of poiesis making, especially art-making and mimesis imitation or representation. This repetition is apropos: trauma repeats itself, and a discourse that attempts to come to terms with trauma will have to find a form of representation in which repetition can coincide with difference.

Finally, I hope that readers will find this kind of thinking challenging enough to motivate them to engage in a similar quest for understanding, a quest which can, perhaps, give rise to new forms of imaginative practice, both therapeutic and artistic, that are adequate to our experience of the suffering which is part of human life.

The reflections that follow, first written in the form of journal entries over a number of years, attempt to probe the philosophical foundations of the arts therapies, the basic concepts and principles that underlie the practice of a field which claims that art can be an adequate response to suffering. The writing points to the fact that ultimately the ground of our work is not psychology, the theoretical understanding of the mind, but poiesis, the human capacity to respond to and change the world through the act of shaping what is given to us.

I have kept the entries close to their original form, in order to give the reader the sense of a thinking in process of development, struggling with ideas, trying to reach its own ground. On the foundations of expressive arts therapy We often talk about having a phenomenological basis for our field. What is a phenomenon? That which shows itself to us. What is our proper relation to it? To pay attention. If we pay careful attention, it will reveal itself. How can we say what shows itself, name it, point it out, describe it, tell it?

We need to let the phenomenon speak, help it to name itself, to tell its story. But perhaps there is more than one story?

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Perhaps there are multiple stories, many. There are different ways of telling stories; one of them is through poiesis, making or shaping. We know something by shaping it, by giving it a form. In so doing, we let the truth of what the work points to show itself.

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When it does, we have the experience of beauty. Beauty is the phenomenon par excellence.

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It is what happens when we are able to let that which we experience show itself as it is in itself. This explains the power of the arts in our lives as well as in the therapeutic space. The proper response to such a showing would be awe.

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Heidegger , p. It is the faith of our therapeutic work that this beauty can be found in chaos as well as in order, in suffering as well as in joy. How can we understand this? Psychotherapy, then, is an attending to the showing of the psyche or soul. James Hillman , pp. How does it do this? Through the image.


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Soul shows itself through images, through the imagination. Psychology articulates itself in concepts, but the psyche needs the image in order to come forth, whatever form the image may come to take, whether in pictures, words, sounds, movements or scenes. The image allows the psyche to reveal itself in ways that transcend the order produced by rational discourse.

One of these ways is through the manifestation of suffering; the most chaotic parts of the psyche can be grasped only by means of the imagination, not by conceptual thought. The therapist attends to the suffering of the soul, its psycho-pathology. The therapist attends to its suffering, pays attention to it and helps it to show itself, to present itself, to become present.

This is hard to hold onto; we want to eliminate the pain, but perhaps the pain is part of the gift — if we could find a way to hold it, a way to be with it and not run away from it. We show ourselves most clearly when we are in crisis, when everything else falls away. Karl Jaspers , p. It is, he says, an experience of shipwreck, in which we have lost our anchor and gone aground.