Departing toward Survival: Reconsidering the Language of Trauma in Cathy Caruth, Ingeborg Bachmann and W. G. Sebald


Little has been said in trauma studies about the ability or inability of traumatized characters de-picted by traumatized writers to recover accounts of self from the aseptic reiterations of a language unable to articulate the unspeakable event of trauma. This paper argues that Cathy Caruth’s recent emphasis upon a “language of ashes”—derived from a “language of the life drive” departing from a “language of the death drive”—provides a framework for examining the extent to which traumatized textualities are able to apprehend their seeming enervating repetitions of the death drive as textual constructs able to be written on and read. I posit that the literary characters in the fictions of Ingeborg Bachmann and W. G. Sebald occupy opposing ends of the ambit of the life and death drives, and aver that the contrasting ways they perform the repetitiveness of personal and/or national trauma come close to enacting, respectively, the languages of the “death drive” and the “life drive”. I demonstrate the extent to which they are able to extricate the language used from their singular historical experiences of trauma. In this way, I argue that Caruth’s attempt to identify the site within history where trauma can be creatively animated sets a productive framework for examining how trauma can either metabolize an individual into foreclosing the world, or create a continuing dialogue with loss for the unfolding of a world-in-becoming.

Share and Cite:

Ong, K. (2014) Departing toward Survival: Reconsidering the Language of Trauma in Cathy Caruth, Ingeborg Bachmann and W. G. Sebald. Advances in Literary Study, 2, 100-112. doi: 10.4236/als.2014.24017.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Bachmann, I. (1999a). Malina (P. Boehm, Trans.). Teaneck: Homes & Meier Publishers. (Original Work Published 1971)
[2] Bachmann, I. (1999b). The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann (P. Filkins Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. (Original Work Published 1995)
[3] Billias, N., Ed. (2008). Territories of Evil. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
[4] Caruth, C. (1996). Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
[5] Caruth, C. (2013). Literature in the Ashes of History. Johns Hopkins University Press.
[6] Freud, S. (1999). “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. (Original work Published 1920)
[7] G?ttsche, D. (2011). Research on Ingeborg Bachmann: Quo Vadis? The Modern Language Review, 106, 495-501.
[8] Kochhar-Lindgren, G. (2002). Charcoal: The Phantom Traces of W. G. Sebald’s Novel-Memoirs. Monatshefte, 94, 368-380.
[9] Koschel, C., & Weidenbaum, I., Eds. (1983). Ingeborg Bahmann: Wir müssen wahre S?tze finden. Gespr?che und Interviews. Munich: Piper.
[10] Santner, E. (2006). On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[11] Sebald, W. G. (2011). Austerlitz (A. Bell Trans.). New York: Modern Library.
[12] Whitehead, A. (2004). Trauma Fictions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Copyright © 2023 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.