The word “trauma” is etymologically linked to the Greek word “wound”. It is derived from the verb which means to pierce. Something that comes from outside, tears the skin. What is significant here in wound?
In piercing, something comes to the body from outside the shield of protection. There is something that punctures the protective shield. Wounds have long lasting effects on organism. Puncturing leaves a mark on the organism. Basic psychoanalytical meaning of the trauma is that, it is an event, defined by first of all its intensity, secondly the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it. Thirdly, trauma leaves long lasting effects on psychic life of the subject.
In the earlier stages of Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, trauma was basically seen as excessive influx of excitations (which is related to the economic theory of Freud, when excitation is very much, there is the traumatic effect). Trauma is a kind of breach, puncturing. Ego acts something like a layer, shield that protects the psyche from external stimuli, letting only right amounts. When the shield breaks, too much excitation comes in so general level of the circulation of the energy should be restored or reduced in order to restore the pleasure principle. This is the basics of the traumatic theory or neurosis in the early Freud. In trauma, a pathological defense is settled; in the normal state of things when the psyche is threatened by excitation, healthy ego redirects the attention to something else. When organism cannot deal with it, the ego develops a pathological defense: Repression. The ego represses the excitation and this creates neurosis. For Freud, in this early stage, 1895-1900, this is basically the traumatic theory of neurosis. Freud considers trauma as a triggering factor in neurosis. Besides, he considers it as essentially sexual terms; overflow of the libidinal energy that the organism cannot bear. Emphasis on the external effects isn’t that strong in his theory; well, something happens for sure but the real trauma is inside the psyche. For example, a sexual scene, seduction by adult become traumatic only later when something that reminds the subject occurs, and becomes invested with all fear, anxiety which the event elicited in the subject. Eventually, that scene becomes the cause of neurosis. Freud asserts that hysterics basically suffer from reminiscences, memory. It is the memory that makes the event hysterical. Let us say that the child is exposed to something, the initial event is something the child represses without reacting to it and even experiencing anxiety, fear. Hence, one can conclude that the event which causes the trauma, happened, but at the same time not happened.
Freud emphasizes fantasies triggered by traumas rather than the trauma itself. He mainly sees trauma as a supporting factor to neurosis. Additionally and more importantly, Freud later considers trauma with its relation to the disposition of the subject. What lead him change his theoretical approach is that he reconsidered trauma as a form of neurosis; when analyzing another kind of traumatic event, “traumas of the war” during the First World War. Freud begins to think about “traumatic neurosis” in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920). First, he argues that trauma is connected to “repetition compulsion”. He observes the compulsion to repeat in the victims of trauma in two forms. 1) He is informed about the repeated dreams about the traumatic events. Soldiers constantly dream about the war front, wounding, and killing. This is something in need of explanation for Freud because this is a counter example for Freud’s theory of dreams; “dreams are wish-fulfillments”. 2) Many victims unconsciously tend to recreate conditions, scenes of their traumas. For example, a child abused by his father, dreams a man like him and the abuse continues.
Especially in dreams, there is a wish to return to traumas; not because they give pleasure but trauma is an event that occurs to which subject cannot respond. Because of its intensity, you cannot respond to it. That’s difficult to live with since it means that something happened to you drastically, but also hasn’t happened because you cannot really think of it as you experienced it. It is an experience which no one can claim as his or her own. It is an event that cannot be “integrated into self”. So, on the one hand, you are filled with horror and you do repress some aspects of it, but you also want to return so that you can respond, do better, dominate, master the experience. By repeating it, you aim to dominate it, to understand it, to see it. The event has dominated you before; yours is an attempt to master an event that has dominated you. This experience is a disturbance in one’s life, not just because of the interruption of the pleasure principle but it destroys the conditions that work for the pleasure principle. Eventually, it shakes the wholeness of the subject.
In Freud’s dealing with trauma, there is a kind of tension. Freud is bothered by the idea that this kind of trauma is perceived as different from libidinal trauma. Freud confesses that it is difficult, nearly impossible to connect war traumas to early childhood experiences. He doesn’t say they cannot be connected. After Freud, especially in Lacan, what motivated to return to trauma isn’t Freud’s idea of libidinal connections, but another one: that it is an event fundamentally impossible to integrate into one’s sense of selfhood, identity. The notion and the studies of trauma has been expanded from the individuals’ experiences to collective kinds; collective traumas.
In Lacan, especially in his essay on Hamlet, the notion of trauma is used very frequently, also in relation to literature. In Lacanian terms, trauma can be defined as the loss of unity with the mother, intrusion of language in the symbolic order, loss of phallus; fear of castration is the original trauma for Lacan. It is something that shapes, marks the subject forever. It is also something that the subject doesn’t experience. In Lacan’s theory, trauma is in the origin of the subject. The whole processes of desire, substitution, objet petit a, fantasies, could be seen as repetition compulsion for Lacan. All these experiences are not mastered by the subject, but they produce the subject. In this regard, one’s whole life can be considered as repetition compulsion. Again, there is the tension: on the one hand, trauma is the universal element of psychoanalytical theory of the subject. On the other hand, specific kinds of trauma that threatens normal functioning of the psyche, and which result in more drastic symptoms, difficulties becomes more interesting focuses of attention; especially in the collective forms of trauma.