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Literature in the Ashes of History

, 144 pages
November 2013



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Literature in the Ashes of History

Outstanding Academic Title, Choice

Cathy Caruth juxtaposes the writings of psychoanalysts, literary and political theorists, and literary authors who write in a century faced by a new kind of history, one that is made up of events that seem to undo, rather than produce, their own remembrance. At the heart of each chapter is the enigma of a history that, in its very unfolding, seems to be slipping away before our grasp.

What does it mean for history to disappear? And what does it mean to speak of a history that disappears? These questions, Caruth suggests, lie at the center of the psychoanalytic texts that frame this book, as well as the haunting stories and theoretical arguments that resonate with each other in profound and surprising ways. In the writings of Honoré de Balzac, Hannah Arendt, Ariel Dorfman, Wilhelm Jensen, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida, we encounter, across different stakes and different languages, a variety of narratives that bear witness not simply to the past but also to the pasts we have not known and that repeatedly return us to a future that remains beyond imagination.

These stories of trauma cannot be limited to the catastrophes they name, and the theory of catastrophic history may ultimately be written in a language that already lingers in a time that comes to us from the other side of the disaster.

Cathy Caruth is a leading figure in psychoanalytically informed literary theory and humanistic approaches to trauma. She is the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University, with appointments in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature. Her books include Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud; Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History; and Trauma: Explorations in Memory, all published by Johns Hopkins.

"It is rewarding and immensely exciting to follow the twists and turns of Caruth’s brilliant and endlessly surprising arguments."

"In these captivating analyses, Cathy Caruth again breaks new ground for literary and trauma studies. Literary, philosophical, and psychoanalytical texts from Balzac via Freud and Arendt to Dorfman and Derrida are illuminated by Caruth's brilliant and subtle readings to reveal their stunning historical and political relevance for our twenty-first-century world in which war veterans and torture victims still return from the dead and in which pervasive deliberate deception in politics acquires the weight of actions that violently erase memory in creating new 'events.' Caruth's analyses call for nothing less than a 'rethinking of the very nature of history around the possibility of its erasure'—a most urgent appeal in our days."

"Of immense significance to scholars in multiple disciplines, including history, literature and literary theory, cultural studies, and psychoanalysis, this book will set the tone for future discussion... Essential."

"Caruth, then, presents a "new kind" of history: a history that is itself under erasure and that calls for an urgent reimagining of the way we think of—and write about—the past."

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