Trauma and Tragedy

In his foreword to Levine’s book, Shaun McNiff writes that Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy is a  “bold, brilliant and imaginative re-visioning of the nature of emotional trauma
and its therapeutic treatments”. While I agree that we can interpret poesis on ”
our capacity to shape experience through imagination”, I remain unconvinced by
Levine’s conclusions for reasons that are personal.

In the fall of
1998, I wfitnessed the exhumation of corpses from the mass grave near Vukovar.
As readers may recall, Vukovar was a baroque and multi-cultural city on
Croatia’s eastern border. The Serbian Army razed it to the ground. The
experience of seeing so many corpses all at once left me traumatized. In order
to make sense of what I saw, I began to paint, sculpt and draw. This activity
was therapeutic. It allowed me to paint what words could not express.

My disappointment
with Levine’s analysis stems from my own experience of trauma. Levine believes
that “we are powerless before trauma”. This is not correct. In trying to make
sense of the traumatic, we have power over it. Unlike Levine, I do not see
trauma within the perspective of tragedy. The fictions of Greek tragedies are
not on the same level as real trauma. Yes, someone may provide yet another
reading of Oedipus or Electra, but in the end, the traumatic still happens. The
hopeless are not saved by the publication of another book on

Levine attempts to
“focus on the ways in which arts can come to terms with human suffering”. His
conclusion that Samuel Beckett’s work is exemplary in capturing the essence of
suffering is fine from a literary point of view but not from an existential

Levine does realize
that his work is “an impossible project” As he puts it, “it attempts to speak
about the unspeakable” and in doing so, “must necessarily fail” Of course, while
Levine’s logic may be correct, I do think that we can make sense of trauma and
suffering. After all, trauma and suffering have a human origin. It is not as if
some alien descended from the planet X and committed these atrocities
unexpectedly. Humans did these things because this is how humans choose to act.
As such, there is nothing mystical or unspeakable about suffering. We simply
assert- humans did this to their own kind.

I differ from
Levine in believing that trauma and suffering do not defy understanding. If they
did defy understanding, I would not have begun to paint. I would have sat down
like Job in a pile of ashes smoking Marlboros and eating apple pie. If trauma
defies understanding, then the obvious question to ask is, what role does the
therapist play in analyzing the so called “unspeakable”.

Levine argues, “in
suffering, the sense of the world disappears”. I believe the opposite to be
true; suffering is one way in which to sense the world. This also means that
trauma forces us to discover the core of joy that no amount of suffering and
sorrow can erode. This great truth emerged for me, out of the mass grave at

Levine believes
that “art aims to become effective, to have an effect on others”. Last week, I
looked at the collection of paintings that I finished during my time of trauma.
Over 200 pieces of work were completed. The works that I will never publicly
exhibit are foreign to me now. All that can be said, is the person who painted
these pieces was obviously suffering. The fact that I no longer recognize myself
in these works shows me that trauma does not remain, “a badge of identity”.

Art, as I see it,
is not surrender to death, but a struggle against it. Rilke may have loved life
so generously that he loved death too, but I no longer believe in Greco-Germanic
myths that have us surrender to our fate so that we may become

Levine’s brand of
Dionysian poesis, in my opinion fails to capture what is really at stake. For
example, he writes, “The only cultural act….which the West brought that was
meaningful to the besieged city of Sarajevo was Susan Sontag’s production of
Waiting for Godot“. Having lost friends in that conflict, my reply is
simply,  how wonderful of Susan Sontag to bring culture to a city that was one
of the most culturally developed capitals in Europe before this Europe allowed
it to be destroyed.

Levine sees Godot
as “a mimesis” of the Sarajevans “own reality. What the citizens of Sarajevo
desperately needed was not another staging of Waiting for Godot but the
arrival of a means of defense. As Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, such
beautiful souls fail to do what really needs to be done.  For those who lived
through the siege, the cultural act par excellence was the West
allowing the bombing to continue for so long when it clearly had the means to
stop it.  Godot in Sarajevo signals the catastrophe of modernity.

Levine writes,
“this is the groundless hope of a Dionysian philosophy that even in an abyssal
world, it is still possible to sing”. At the grave, I did not hear any singing.
Perhaps people sing after having seen Oedipus Rex staged. At the mass
grave, I heard only silence. It was a strange silence; very different from the
meditative silence found in Buddhist temples and university libraries. Here the
words of psychologist Rudolf Arnheim are poignant. He writes, “eyesight is

The insights I
gathered from my lived experiences run counter to Levine’s theoretical insights,
however well articulated and well referenced they are. Any theory of art therapy
will ultimately fail to capture the uniqueness of every singular experience.
This is why so many have not caught up with Derrida’s Franciscan insights as
they continue to read him through other filters. Theory is useless when one is
confronted with trauma.

When I saw the mass
grave, I did not think to myself, “You know, Beckett was right when he wrote,
“Nothing to be done” or Lacan was correct in his formulation of objet petit
as the basis of human lack. At the grave, I did not think of
Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body even though hundreds of stinking
corpses surrounded me. No, I recalled the children’s song, “Ashes, ashes, we all
fall down”, especially as I gazed upon the little skulls with bullet holes in

Levine would have
us “embrace our own chaos”. However, what does this exactly mean? He writes,
“Since we are chaotic, we can face the chaos of trauma without feeling that we
must expel it from our being”. Is it not the other way around? Since we are not
chaotic, we have such difficulty with trauma. If chaos were the essence of our
Heideggerian ground, then there would be no problem in dealing with trauma.
Trauma would be just another form of chaos that we already are. The experience
of trauma says otherwise.

Levine asks, “What
kind of art is adequate to the experience of trauma? To me, the answer is the
art of the terrible, the grotesque, and the ugly”. Here Levine cites the
paintings of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s work had a huge impact on me. I thought,
yes, this is it. I must take his work further into ugliness and darkness.
Therefore, I painted a la Bacon and then I had an epiphany.  What I was
painting was only giving strength to death, darkness and chaos. I then began to
paint landscapes and I think this is when I began to heal.Ten years after my
traumatic event, I realize that art cannot save us from anything. Art is not
salvific. It is not a salve or ointment. Returning to life is the grace that

Levine believes
that we must find a way to acknowledge all the pain and suffering in the world
and still say Yes! to our existence. This Nietzschean turn of phrase is very
poetic. Somehow, I would like to see an existence that is free from trauma. If
the Buddhists are correct, then such freedom can be found in the kitchen sink
while the dishes are being washed.

Levine contends
that ” the wildness of Dionysian revelry is the orgiastic coming of new life
from the grave of the dead”. At the mass grave, I did not see the Dionysian
things that ground Levine’s theorizing. To answer Yeats, the rough beast that
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born is a human made chimera that will be
celebrated by the Dionysian mob that never quite knew what thinking means. When
I hear a return to the Dionysian I am reminded of what Hulsenbeck, one of the
founding fathers of Dada said in Berlin in 1918: ” Life should hurt, there is
not enough cruelty”. This is the art that Paul Virillio calls “pitiless”.

Levine ends his
well-written book with an excellent reading of Derrida’s thought. I cannot
however agree with Levine’s final words: “And when the grave digger shows us our
grave, we will leap into it, both laughing and crying”. Here I am reminded of a
song by the Dave Matthews Band. Matthews sings, ” Gravedigger, when you
dig my grave, can you make it shallow, so I can feel the rain”. I wonder, why
all this negotiation with gravediggers who have forgotten what it means to be
alive. My son and daughter love life. They are reminders for me that any
philosophy that still traffics with death suffers from a negativity that
destroys life. Art is an attempt to overcome all graves. It is precisely the
grave that must be overcome. The Dionysian orgiastic is a thanatophilia
without resurrection.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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