Trauma, Death, Resurrection: A Russian-American Conversation

Collective trauma needs to be held in a dialogue of emotional understanding.

Posted May 02, 2012

(A conversation between myself [RDS] and Russian social philosopher and journalist Sergei Roganov [SR].)

RDS: You were kind enough to contact me after reading my article, "The Meaning and the Rhetoric of Evil" in the Russian Journal in which an article of yours was also published. Drawing on ideas first elaborated in my book, Trauma and Human Existence (, I claimed that the essence of emotional trauma, individual or collective, lies in the shattering of what I called the "absolutisms of everyday life," the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats.

You have written about collapse, irreversible trauma, and social death. Do you see a connection between your ideas about these phenomena and my conception of a traumatic shattering of an emotional world?

SR: Certainly, I do see a deep connection between my concepts of death and mortal being and your interpretation of trauma. Collapse of the USSR was a self-inflicted Holocaust, which absolutely destroyed "absolutisms of everyday life". I claim that "collapse" of the state/superpower means annihilation: irreversible loss of "absolutisms". But irreversible annihilation means one thing — death. Until now one could use "death" only as metaphor or symbol, because it has been thought that only a biological organism may die, not history, societies--the world of psyche and consciousness. But now, modern biotechnologies, aging studies, and bioethics establish an absolutely new image of human death and human mortality. It is the loss of consciousness/psyche that now becomes the main criterion of death. Societal "collapse" means not only collapse of social and governmental institutions but of mind itself--of the ability to think, feel, or function. Such inabilities are the main characteristics of the "death of consciousness" criterion! That is why my essay, "USSR's collapse through the eyes of Trisha Marshall [a brain- dead pregnant woman whose life was maintained by artificial methods until her child was born]" ( ), provides readers with an interdisciplinary approach, combining traditional collapse studies with American bioethics metaphors.

In line with this modern meaning of death, do you think your idea of "ideological resurrection" now gets a deeper meaning?

RDS: I very much like your idea of irreversible trauma being a form of death. Your idea brings to mind Heidegger's crucial distinction in Being and Time between death as an event, which he calls "demise," and death as an existential structure, a possibility that determines how we understand ourselves in our futurity and our finitude. When we own up to death as a constitutive possibility that defines our temporal existence, Heidegger claims, we experience existential anxiety--the significance of our everyday world collapses and we feel homeless. I have contended that these two features — collapse of significance and homelessness — are central to the experience of trauma, individual or collective. When a nation or society collapses, as happened with the USSR, a world of human significance and sense-making collapses along with it. For Heidegger, such world-collapse is existential death. You, Heidegger, and I are in harmony here.

Now I will add something controversial, with which you might agree. It is my contention that all trauma, in its essence, is irreversible. Innocence lost can never be regained. In my new book, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (, I claimed that "trauma recovery" is an oxymoron; human finitude with its traumatizing impact is not an illness from which one can recover. "Recovery" is a misnomer for the constitution of an expanded emotional world that coexists alongside the absence of the one that has been shattered by trauma. The expanded world and the absent shattered world may be more or less integrated or dissociated, depending on the degree to which the unbearable emotional pain evoked by the traumatic shattering has become integrated or remains dissociated defensively, which depends in turn on the extent to which such pain found a context of human understanding in which it could be held.

When their worlds have collapsed, especially when there is no "relational home" for their emotional pain, traumatized people often try to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I have called "resurrective ideology." This brings me to your question, because if the traumatic collapse of a world is irreversible, a form of existential death, then attempts to resurrect it can only be illusory, as was illustrated dramatically in post-9/11 America.

The terrorist attack of 9/11 was a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered Americans' collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. In the wake of such shattering, Americans became much more susceptible to resurrective ideologies that promised to restore the grandiose illusions that have been lost.

Following 9/11, the Bush administration declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating existential vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike.

Tragically, every effort to actualize such ideological illusions inflicts collective trauma on those who are attacked, and they respond with an intensification of their resurrective ideologies. It is this dialectic of traumatic collapse and ideological resurrection that fuels the lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history.

Did you witness similar instances of a rise of resurrective ideology following the collapse of the USSR?

SR: First, I'd like to return to your important idea concerning American resurrective ideology: "feel great, powerful, and godlike". "Godlike" — a key image! Let me remind you of Dostoevsky's hero/oxymoron Kirillov — the "man-god," of Nietzsche's "overman," and of Nicolay Bukharin's slogan, "Communism is a collective man-god!" "Godlike" is a crucial theme for understanding symbolic resurrection's pervasiveness in superstates. Several years ago I wrote an article, "Two Worlds--One System" (, in which I compared the USSR and USA. My first trip to the USA was like returning to the USSR of the 60s. It is their "godlike" ideology that unites the two seemingly opposite cultures and political systems.

As to your "resurrective ideology," all of Russia's relations to its closest neighbors manifest such ideology. Moreover, any political programs, national projects, or international relations of Russia are based on "resurrective ideology". This applies to opposition, ruling party, and elites. First and foremost, our prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is an apostle of resurrection. If you read attentively the texts of his speeches and notes, you'll find profound Soviet rhetoric there: for him the fall of the USSR was the worst catastrophe. But neither Putin nor Russian elites and society are able to declare or realize a "holy crusade." That is the core problem: the reality of our society's collective trauma/death after USSR's collapse. The same is true for any post-Soviet states: there is a crucial inability to realize any new steps together and gain fruitful results. Instead we have godlike power attributed to one person.

Certainly, it is absolutely impossible to restore/resurrect the former USSR, and, for post-Soviet generations, that impossibility is a profound existential death, a collapse of their everyday world. Look attentively at the current status of the former socialist world and you'll find many manifestations of resurrective right-wing rhetoric and pro-fascist politics and public persons--in Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and so on. But that does not mean any real possibility for establishing totalitarian fascist or communist institutions. Societies are not able to communicate and collaborate, and signs of totalitarian rhetoric mean only one thing: paradoxical resurrective ideology that, truly speaking, is not "ideology" at all. Dead societies display a symbolic modern Danse Macambre and nothing more (see review of my article, "Putin's System Represents the Triumph of the 1970s Generation": ). Putin and his close circle in reality have established a "mortal God," a Leviathan "to secure the State monopoly of power, with top priority in time and resources" (Daniel Thürer, "The Failed State and International Law," International Review of the Red Cross, No. 836).

So, the logic of post-collapse trauma understanding is constituted by: 1) collective man-god, 2) death of God/USSR, 3) mortal God (Leviathan), and 4) ideological resurrection. The irreversibility of trauma/death sets a very narrow way not only for inhabitants of former socialist states, but for millions of migrants too. So psychotherapy for such people seems doomed to collapse, and here we may need to start rethinking our methods and ways of therapy.

"Collapse" can mean a potentially reversible state of society and individuals. But irreversible trauma after collapse means: "death of consciousness, will, psyche". How is it possible for experts to combine these two incompatible visions of reality for rebuilding states and social institutions? You wrote, "'trauma recovery' is an oxymoron," and here I absolutely agree with you. But, what can we propose to those who suffer? People want real assistance. What would you advise?

RDS: Over the course of the 20 years that have followed the death of my late wife — a world-shattering trauma for me — I have focused my efforts on the understanding of, and the therapeutic approach to, the experience of emotional trauma. From the vantage point of emotionality, trauma is an experience of unbearable emotional pain. I have claimed in my last two books on trauma that the intolerability of an emotional state cannot be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis of the quantity or intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious event. Painful emotional experiences become unendurable, i.e., traumatic, when the emotional understanding we need to help us bear such pain is profoundly absent. Psychoanalytic therapy with traumatized people begins by establishing just such a "relational home" of human understanding, within which traumatized states can evolve into painful emotional experiences that can be more fully felt, lived-in, better tolerated, brought into language and conversation, and eventually better integrated (but never reversed).

How can such therapeutic principles be extended beyond the narrow confines of the consulting room? Imagine a world in which providing deep understanding of others' existential vulnerability and emotional pain — that is, of the potentially traumatizing emotional impact of our finiteness — has become a shared ethical principle. In such a world, human beings would be much more capable of living in their existential vulnerability, rather than having to revert to the defensive, destructive ideological evasions of it that have been so characteristic of human history. A new form of individual identity would become possible, based on owning rather than covering up our existential vulnerability. Vulnerability and pain that find a hospitable and understanding home could be seamlessly woven into the fabric of whom we experience ourselves as being. A new form of human solidarity would also become possible, rooted not in shared ideological illusion but in shared recognition of and respect for our common human limitedness. If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light, as finite human beings, finitely bonded to one another.

Do you think the wonderful conversation we are having might be a tiny step toward that goal?

SR: "A new form of individual identity" — I agree with you, and that is the main issue of my research and writings. I think, now in a world of globalization, a world in which not only states but branches of industry are collapsing, and a world of terrorism and wars of biotechnologies, we should think about a new image of man as Homo Mortalis, who knows and understands the limits of his thoughts and action and is aware of the finiteness of human existence.

I am very glad to talk with you and hope our conversation will continue.

Copyright Robert Stolorow and Sergei Roganov

About the Author

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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