Who speaks? Who listens?: The problem of address in two Nigerian trauma novels

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Author: Amy Novak
Date: Spring-Summer 2008
From: Studies in the Novel(Vol. 40, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,571 words
Lexile Measure: 1330L

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Its hero, Tancred, unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial he makes his way into a strange magic forest which strikes the Crusaders' army with terror. He slashes with his sword at a tall tree; but blood streams from the cut and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he has wounded his beloved once again.

Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud refers to this moment in Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered as an example of the unconscious repetition of trauma. Tancred's unknowing killing of his beloved not just once, but twice, illustrates for Freud a passive compulsion to repeat that makes up part of the dynamics of trauma (16). In Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth expands upon Freud's reading of this moment by drawing attention "to a voice that is paradoxically released through the wound" (2-3). Doing so, she reads this scene as an illustration of the latency of trauma and the ethical address delivered through this belated knowing: "The figure of Tancred addressed by the speaking wound constitutes, in other words, not only a parable of trauma and of its uncanny repetition but, more generally, a parable of psychoanalytic theory itself as it listens to a voice that it cannot fully know but to which it nonetheless bears witness" (9).

Freud's and Caruth's readings of this tale illustrate the difficulty of using trauma theory to read the experience of the colonized Other. One dilemma with these readings is that they rewrite one woman's bodily experience of trauma as the trauma of the male consciousness. In Caruth's analysis, Tancred is both the traumatized subject and the witness to an enigmatic otherness. Although Caruth's formulation draws attention to and attempts to listen to the voice of the Other, it is Tancred who remains "psychoanalytic theory itself." But Tancred does not experience the trauma; Clorinda does. (1) And the voice that cries out from the wound is not a universal voice, nor is it a generic female voice: it is the female voice of black Africa.

This episode in Jerusalem Delivered tells of the death of the woman warrior Clorinda who fights against the Christian crusaders led by Tancred. She is the white daughter of the black Christian King and Queen of Ethiopia. Because of Clorinda's color and fear of the King's reprisal, the Queen gives Clorinda away at birth to a pagan Eunuch to raise. Only at the moment of her first death does Clorinda ask for a Christian baptism. Thus, already in Tasso's story, Clorinda has been whitened and Christianized to make her an acceptable lover for his hero. In this act, we witness an early European discursive encounter with a racial and religious Other, a representation that is repeated in Freud's and Caruth's readings of Tancred not as the perpetrator of trauma but as the victim of it.

I draw attention...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A183316160