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Victoria Cox

Contemporary Literary Theory


September 28, 2012

Trauma and Recurrence in Housekeeping


trauma victims, young and old, organize much of their lives around repetitive patterns of
reliving and warding off traumatic memories, reminders, and affects
- Kathleen J. Moroz, The Effects of Psychological Trauma on Children and
Adolescents
Storytelling is inherently dangerous. Consider a traumatic event in your life. Think about how
you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about
how you told it for the hundredth time. Its not the same thing. Most people think perspective
is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with
understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: its a reconstruction
with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.
- Charlie Kaufman
In Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, it is hard to ignore the ambivalence that
surrounds memory. In what is ostensibly a history, our narrator continually reminds us of the
fallibility and the futility of her account, of attempting to recount at all. This novel deals with
the way trauma points are subsumed and yet continue to warp all experience around them,
forcing reexamination and return, and the implications of this process when these points
continually threaten to repeat, but never to resolve. As the narrator's meditation on memory
verges on collapsing the narrative entirely, a second and more devastating thesis emerges: The
failure of language and memory to adequately document experience is also a kind of trauma,
and provokes a similar response. In finding a way to process such trauma, when the idea of
processing at all is its own trauma, Robinson outlines a theory of the abject that ultimately
pushes narrative as the answer to the impossibility, the destructive futility of narrative. 1
In The Death of the Author Barthes writes to us, maddeningly, that writing is the
destructionof every point of origin. In a sense, Housekeeping seeks to recreate the source of
the narrator's all-consuming isolation, and finds it erased in the process. Through the persistent
image of the lake that has swallowed Ruthie's family, we receive a piquant stand-in for the
narrativizing process itself. In her imagined history of drowning, Ruthie miraculously,
monstrously finds herself both surrounded and penetrated:
1. As Barthes says of Borges (!), it confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to
accomplish new human work. If this corresponds to what mystics doevery moment leaping into the infinite,
Kierkegaard says, and every moment falling surely back into the finiteits only one more aspect of that old
analogy. In homlier terms, its a matter of every moment throwing out the bathwater without for a moment losing
the baby. (from The Literature of Exhaustion)

And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our
thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock
us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantialif they had
weight and took up spacethey would sink or be carried away in the general
flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world.2
As the water has swallowed her family literally, so they have sunk into the void of memory,
ever present but untouchable in any whole or satisfying way. The only response to this illegible
situation is to return and try to sift them out, to recreate the experience even as one tries to
understand it and thus leave it in peace. This mirrors Derrida's rupture and redoubling in nearly
those same words; articulating the impossibility of a center, of a solid foundation, and the
destabilizing terror that comes with such an understanding. If the process of contextualizing
memory is also a process of distancing, if interpretation and narrativization also corrode the
original event, then indeed both language and reality function without a center and we are all
adrift, even abject, when we engage with them. As our narrator tells us, Memory is the sense
of loss, and loss pulls us after it.3
What are the implications once we have established within this text that reexamining an
event also reifys it in a way that both mirrors and distorts what factually happened? That to
wish for a hand on one's arm is all but to feel it?4 That Everything that falls upon the eye is
apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings?5 What, then, happens to a body
that keeps telling itself it is a ghost? Robinson spends a good deal of time dwelling on the idea
of haunting, as Sylvie and then Ruthie touch the world of the dead, and symbolically die and
enter it.6 As a sort of in-between spectre, they are uniquely able to witness the utter absurdity
of living in a world where language and memory cannot be assimilated with what they know to
be true. This knowledge is bound up with a need to accurately account and a profound
acknowledgment that an accurate account is beyond their reach. After Ruthie accepts Sylvie's
offer of a trip across the lake, traverses the world of the living to that of the dead and survives
and comes back, she experiences this inability to recount so viscerally that it thrusts her into a
new kind of bodily death: I wished very much, in fact, to tell Lucille exactly where I had
been, and it was precisely my sense of the importance of telling her this that put me to sleep. 7
As this account attests, Ruthie frequently encounters the heresy of paraphrase and as a result
rejects giving an account altogether. This rejection is repeated to the point of ubiquity: it
seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest,
memory, thought, track, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent.8
Rejecting illumination, rejecting memorythis isn't simply the contrary position that
Lucille sees, but rather the only reasonable/livable response to what they, they ghosts know. In
realizing the idea of a linear, narrativizible life to be fundamentally impossible, they become
unreasonable. The only survivable praxis is to burn the house down, to cross the lake without
touching it. This response is radical mostly in how far it succeeds. Sylvie and Ruthie escape
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

Robinson 163.
Robinson 194.
Robinson 153.
Robinson 116.
Robinson 118.
Robinson 174.
Robinson 116.

unnoticed and unpursued, they remain together. Derrida would testify to the impossibility of
surviving dropping out in this way:
We have no language-no syntax and no lexicon-which is alien to this history;
we cannot utter a single destructive proposition which has not already slipped
into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks
to contest.9
Luckily, Robinson brings us a way to subvert this inevitability, a bridge over the lake. Cixous
dwells on this too, as does Judith Butler (and perhaps this theory is a uniquely feminine one,
born from the daily unceasing praxis of embodying the impossible):
To say, as some do, that the self must be narrated, that only the narrated self can
be intelligible and survive, is to say that we cannot survive with an
unconscious...But this death, if it is a death, is only the death of a certain kind
of subject, one that was never possible to begin with, the death of a fantasy of
impossible mastery, and so a loss of what one never had. In other words, it is a
necessary grief...my effort at self-summarization fails, and fails necessarily10
In this way, the trauma of recounting ameliorates itself. We become ghosts because that is the
only way to satisfactorily witness the life you are living. Everything is impossible and so we
keep doing it. As the constraints of language and memory make accurate accounts impossible,
giving an inaccurate testimony contains a power to make the impossible extant. Thus we have
the train underwater, the derailment, too bizarre in itself to have either significance or
consequence11 that becomes so imbued, so drenched with meaning as to remain forever at the
center, the impossible center that doesn't exist:
Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out
of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to
continue across the bridge. The passengers would arrive, sounder than they
departed, accustomed to the depths, serene about their restoration to the light.12
And likewise, Every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance,
written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the
wanderers will find a way home...13 They will not, of course. But at least here, in this closed
circle where the dead and the not-dead can exist packed together, they persist. The thing that is
destroying you is also your best hope. I want to die. Good. That's the only way to get anything
done around here.

9 Structure, Sign and Play


10 Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
11 Robinson 40
12 Robinson 96
13 Robinson 195