Obscured beginnings in personal narratives of sexual jealousy and trauma

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Author: Mark E. Workman
Date: Oct. 2004
From: Narrative(Vol. 12, Issue 3)
Publisher: Ohio State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,425 words

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As long ago as Aristotle a well-constructed narrative was defined as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. And yet, not all narratives conform to this norm. There are those that don't by virtue of the incompetence of their performers. But there are also those that don't by virtue of the fact that their would-be performers do not have access to the full range of experience that a complete mimetic narrative purports to represent. In what follows I am particularly interested in exploring personal experience narratives with imperfect beginnings, imperfect not because their performers do not know how to craft a well-told story but because they are not able, for one reason or another, to adequately retrieve the moment in which their narratives have their inception. I am interested, in other words, in narrators who--unlike their omniscient third-person counterparts--lack essential information and who thus are doomed to produce a type of narrative that I identify as "flawed" because of the narrator's awareness of and preoccupation with an originary event that the narrator strives to envelop within her story but that lies beyond her narratival grasp. I turn first to narratives derived from the experience of sexual jealousy and proceed from there to a discussion of narratives of trauma. I conclude by generalizing about the role of secrets in the construction of stories. What I hope to demonstrate is that some of the most interesting stories are those that allude to obscured beginnings and that are thus destined thereafter to approach their subjects in a manner that can best be described, to invoke Emily Dickinson, as necessarily "aslant the truth."


Attempting to recall the first occasion of physical intimacy between himself and his fiancee, so powerful as to have obliterated his consciousness of the event, the narrator of Peter Nadas's remarkable novel A Book of Memories observes that "memory cannot retain what the body had not been aware of" (74). Somewhat modified, this comment provides a useful point of entry into an understanding of the relationship between sexual jealousy and memory. In the case of sexual jealousy, I would suggest, the governing principle is not that memory is unable to retain what was originally insufficiently registered, but that, to paraphrase Nadas, memory cannot attain what the body had not experienced in the first place. And yet, it is precisely that attainment--impossible as its realization might be--which sexual jealousy dooms its victims to pursue. Sexual jealousy and memory are therefore inextricably bound together, albeit negatively so. Memory, otherwise a potential reservoir of identity and meaning, is in the case of sexual jealousy its perverse other: for where memory exists, jealousy does not, whereas in memory's absence, jealousy thrives. If memories are predicated upon experience, then sexual jealousy arises because of its victims' failure to have participated in those occasions that, as they recognize only belatedly, they are most eager to preserve in their recollections of the past. Furthermore, in its most interesting instances, such missed opportunities are hardly...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A123366650