Psychic Trauma and the Impaired Recontextualization of Memory

Clinical observation leads to the unmistakable conclusion that psychological trauma may result in a failure to recate-gorize or recontextualize memory. The inability to recontex-tualize memory determines whether a given experience will prove to be traumatic. As we have different methods at our disposal with which to recategorize memory, individuals will react to trauma in their own particular way, so the effect of a given environmental trauma is variable and unpredictable. When there is an inability to recontextualize memory, the experience of the present, the here and now, will be pervaded by memories of the past. In this fashion, trauma will constrict the complexity of consciousness.

The process of the retrieval of traumatic memories gives further support to the hypothesis that an unconscious meta-phoric process is operative in the waking state. As the critic and novelist Cynthia Ozick writes, "Metaphor [like the Delphic oracle] is also a priest of interpretation, but what it interprets is memory" (1991). When metaphor is the interpreter of traumatic memories, it interprets with the aid of metonymy (a part substituting for the whole), and meta-phoric memorial categories are evoked by metonymic associations. But trauma can be self-sustaining, as trauma will degrade the metaphoric process: here the metaphoric process transfers meaning from the past to the present without transformation, and as a consequence imagination is constricted. The past becomes a template for the present, creat ing a loss of ambiguity in the experience of the here and now; there is an absence of the customary play of similarity and difference. In experiential terms, this means that the present is conflated with the past.

In an example I used in my book Other Times, Other Realities (1990), a patient reported the following incident: Because his airline went out on strike, my patient was stranded in a distant city and unable to return home. He did everything possible to obtain passage on another airline: he cajoled and pleaded with the functionaries of other airlines, all to no avail. Although my patient was usually not unduly anxious and was in fact a highly experienced traveler who in the past remained calm under circumstances that would frighten many people, in this particular situation he experienced an overwhelming and generalized panic. He felt as if the unyielding airline representatives were like Nazis and that the underground passages of the airline terminal resembled a concentration camp. The helplessness of not being able to return home, combined with the institutional intransigence of the authorities, evoked the following memory, which had been unconscious.

When this man was three years old, he and his parents were residents of a central European country and, as Jews, were desperately attempting to escape from the Nazis. They did in fact manage to obtain an airline passage to freedom, but until that point, the outcome was very much in doubt. Although my patient did not recall his affective state at that time, his parents reported that he seemed cheerful and unaffected by their anxiety. In this example, his helpless inability to leave a foreign city, combined with the intransigence of the authorities, evoked a specific affect category that remained as a potential memory of an unassimilated past experience. In this example, an unconscious memory was metaphorically interpreted with the help of a metonymic association. His helpless inability to leave a foreign city combined with the intransigence of the authorities served as a metonymic trigger. It would appear that the affective gestalt consisting of his helpless inability to leave plus the intransigence of the authorities was a metaphoric categorical equivalent of the earlier trauma. This metaphorical correspondence triggered a global response in which the differences between the domains of past and present were obliterated and, accordingly, he became intensely frightened. In this example, I believe that an unconscious meta-phoric process interpreted a salient emotional unconscious memory, which was then transferred onto present experience. The traumatic memory of his childhood remained intact, as it had not been recontextualized as a result of later experience.

Here is a further example. A patient reported that when he was about two or three years old, his mother had a spontaneous miscarriage. He was able to reconstruct that in all probability his mother became "hysterical" and was emotionally distraught for an undetermined period of time. As a witness to these events, he felt as if his mother had gone crazy. As an adult, he was very tolerant of craziness in women if he was not emotionally attached to them, but any sign of irrational thinking on the part of a woman upon whom he was dependent, such as his wife, made him extremely anxious. The metaphoric process created an unconscious affect category—that of irrationality in women upon whom he was dependent. This affective memory was activated and recreated in real time by means of a metonymic association. When he was responding to his wife's "irrational" behavior, the distinction between past and present was obliterated, as in the previous example. The past invaded the present.

If we return to the definition of metaphor as the transfer of meaning between dissimilar domains, the domains here are that of past and present time. An unconscious meta-phoric process resulted in the transfer of meaning between the here and now and the memorialized past. Unlike the examples of mathematical imagination that I presented earlier in this chapter, where metaphor led to new combinations of thought, in these cases of trauma, the metaphoric process resulted in the transfer of meaning from the past to the present, but without such transformations. It can be said that the metaphoric process was foreclosed or frozen.

The body image suffers a similar fate when there is an absence of perceptual inputs, leading to a failure of recon-textualization. This is evident in phantom-limb phenomenon, where there is a failure to update the image of the body due to the absence of sensory inputs from the missing limb (Ramachandran and Blakeslee 1998). The neurologist Rama-chandran devised an ingenious method for treating phantom limbs. He restored the absent sensory inputs through an arrangement of mirrors in which an image of the patient's intact limb was substituted for the one that was lost. In some cases the illusion of the phantom limb disappeared because of a recontextualization of the body image.

In Other Times, Other Realities (Modell 1990), I referred to the concept of affect categories. I was attempting to find a new way of understanding the old psychoanalytic notion of "complexes." A "complex" can be defined as an organized group of ideas and memories of great affective force that are either partly or totally unconscious. I believe that metaphor organizes emotional memory. Inasmuch as category formation is an aspect of memory, metaphor provides the link between emotional memory and current perceptions. I have suggested that a similarity based on a metaphoric correspondence is the means through which emotional categories are formed. Unconscious emotional memories exist as potential categories, which, in the process of retrieval, are associatively linked to events in the here and now by means of metaphor and metonymy. As consciousness is at all times primarily a selecting agency (James 1890), metaphor and metonymy play a salient role.

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