“Who knows how it started?” : Baroque Melancholia in Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age

by Barbara Kowalczuk

October 28, 2013


The essay argues that The Nuclear Age metabolizes indirect traumata, apprehensions and ambivalences provoked by the burden of post-memory, while pointing out the impossibility of a singular pre-history devoid of dead objects. Using Freud’s and Benjamin’s philosophies on mourning and melancholia, Derrida’s concepts of trace and “archive fever”, as well as recent theories on vicarious witnessing, the discussion is organized around three propositions: post-memory can be considered as an object-loss; the subject’s loyalty towards the lost object reflects a narcissistic self-love and an existential terror of universal death; working through the surface and the depth of post-memory operates as a psychological detachment which transcends the loss. The Nuclear Age is less the expression of a post-modern demise of faith than the textual embodiment of baroque melancholia which, through the narrative’s anxious exuberance, stages a deprivation of that which was never one’s own.



by Barbara Kowalczuk
University of Bordeaux IV








IUT Bordeaux-Montesquieu

Université Montesquieu?Bordeaux IV

Département GEA

35 Avenue Abadie

33072 Bordeaux









Dig. Nuclear war.

If you’re sane, you don’t fuck with the obvious. [...] True or false: The world can end. (O’Brien 199)

Here, underground, the flashes

are back, filaments of history

that light the tunnels

beneath the mind


Remember this

as though in backflash:

A bomb.

A village burning.

We destroyed this house

to save it. (O’Brien 198-199)




1968, it’s as though it all occurred in some other dimension, a mixture of what had happened and what would happen. Like hide-and-go seek—the future curves toward the past, then folds back again, seamlessly, and we are locked forever in the ongoing present. And where am I? Just digging. (O’Brien 121)

Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age traces back a retrenchment, a katabasis into the legacy of postmemory. At age 49, former anti-Vietnam War activist William Cowling, who spent years digging for uranium, is now determined to escape from an age of jeopardy marked by the looming image of the atomic cloud and the devastating desertion of faith. Panoptic recollections of calamities that for the most part preceded his birth crisscross his narrative account and meet apocalyptic memories of unlived events set in the future. Though it is fictitious, the ominous pre-memory which assails Cowling becomes as haunting as postmemory.[1] As he digs a fallout shelter in his backyard, he fully experiences the shockwave of what Derrida views as a “[b]reaching [frayage], the tracing of a trail,” that “opens up a conducting path.” The breaching, Derrida adds, “presupposes a certain violence and a certain resistance to effraction. The path is broken, cracked, fracta, breached” (Derrida 1967: 252).[2] To soften the impact of pre-memory and postmemory, Cowling indulges in melancholic contemplations during which he edits “vivid home movies of the world-as-it-should-be” (O’Brien 69).

I propose to explore the significance of the dialogic interaction of postmemory and pre-memory. Using Hirsch’s concept of postmemory as a starting point, I also base my reading on Caruth’s contention that the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the advent of a “technological image-making power” (Caruth 2008, 9). This power has become a threatening reminder of the unconceivable, that is, the absolute annihilation of past and future history. LaCapra’s theoretical concepts (2001), more specifically his post-Freudian distinction between melancholia and mourning, are helpful to analyze a narrative which expresses a sense of finitude and anxiety. In LaCapra’s view, “acting-out” betrays the impossibility to metabolize a painful past, thus causing a resistance to reengagement in life. Conversely, “working-through” denotes a transcending reinvestment in life. His theory on the repetition compulsion and the articulation of affect and representation constitute stirring foundations for my study. In concluding these preliminary remarks, I would like to add that the baroqueness which results from the interplay of alternative memories within the novel’s melancholic folds reveals the terrible remnants of history and their relentless old clickety-clack echoing back” (O’Brien 65). The novel is marked by the loss of a stable historical referent and by the fragile balance between, on the one hand, reality and fantasy, and, on the other hand, exuberance and anguish. Thus, the novel’s baroqueness is apprehended against the backdrop of an anxious, utterly emotional narrative which reflects impending doom and conveys a surplus of psychological malaise, as well as a fixation on death and catastrophe. The nuclear age, symbolized by multiple references to the bomb, clearly exacerbates angst and provokes overwhelming phantasmagorias. For all these reasons, I use the terms “baroque” and “baroqueness” in reference to the expressive, bizarre dissonances and the excessive memento mori motif which dominate the narrator’s graphic account of existence and survival in the atomic age.

With what LaCapra would define as an excessive “fidelity to trauma” (22), Cowling stands as a melancholic figure that will not let go of an appaling inherited past. He vicariously experiences the most dreadful historical events through amplified affectivity. In his case, postmemory has been unintentionally transmitted, and the shock that is provoked by the imaginative investment bears an acute resemblance to the psychic effect a traumatic episode may have. Cowling is in fact torn by a double bind. His sense of duty is stimulated and drives him to pay tribute to the victims of historical catastrophes. While he insists on the postgeneration’s moral obligation to remember the horror, terrible visions of American Indian Wars, extermination camps and atomic bombings pop up in his mind and are intensively experienced as if they were his own memories. Yet, postmemory is also a grueling burden which he tries to keep at bay to avoid being confronted to the distressing projections. Although the substitute memory is never akin to memory as such, just like pre-memory, its psychological impression supersedes biographical gaps and unlived experiences. An overriding sense of loss is experienced in a present which implodes, trapped as it is between fetishized, impressive memories. It is precisely the symptomatic possession by past and imaginary forthcoming traumatic events, along with the incomplete pre-knowledge of a future history of violence that “has not yet been fully known” (Caruth 1996, 6), which establish The Nuclear Age as a narrative encompassing extreme bonds with death’s haunting ghosts. At the same time, it should be pointed out that the assault by postmemory and pre-memory betrays nostalgia for an equilibrium that not only never was but will also never be. As a child, Cowling experiences visions of war and apocalypse, harboured by Cold War massive anxiety and photographs of H-bombs in magazines. His attempts to fathom the origin of his abysmal feeling of transience expose a more deeply inscribed crack, an existential fear of entropy: “Or maybe it was rooted deep inside me. In my own inherited fears, in the genes, in a coded conviction that the world wasn’t safe for human life” (O’Brien 9). He narcissistically stages himself in dreadful mental Armageddon snapshots as a firsthand witness, most of the time a target, who not only foresees but also remembers beforehand colossal destruction. I contend that Cowling puts himself in the position of a superstes, which Agamben (1999) defines in his work on the concept of post-concentration camp witnessing as a survivor, that is, a person who has outlived a dreadful experience and is therefore entitled to testify. Not only does Cowling’s remarkable ubiquity within pre-memory’s horrendous sequences reveal idiosyncratic narcissism, but it also exposes an obsession with the self-attributed survivor status. Accordingly, the state of suspension that leaves him off balance utterly defies rationality and plainly short-circuits the spatiotemporal linearity in the most disruptive manner:

Somewhere out there, just beyond the range of normal vision, there was a bomb with my name on it. […] In the distance, a mile away, a trillion miles, I could hear the sizzle of a lighted fuse. I could smell hot bacon. Then suddenly the sky was full of pigeons, millions, every pigeon on earth—screeches and wings and glowing eyes. [...] The planet tilted. Kansas was burning. Hot lava flowed down the streets of Chicago. It was all there, each detail: Manhattan sank into the sea, New Mexico flared and vanished. […] There were dinosaurs. The graveyards opened. Marble churches burned like kindling. New species evolved and perished in split seconds. (O’Brien 29-30)

The close-ups and freeze-frames of future catastrophes and phobic prophecies[3] zoom onto a subject haunted by a pre-knowledge that metamorphoses into a memory of fear. Elsewhere, Cowling proceeds to high-angle shots and exposes distorted, shocking visions of carnages. The latter open onto what Benjamin has suitably described as the “‘Hippocratic countenance’ of history as a petrified, primordial landscape” (166). Following a process of disidentification, Cowling fabricates pre-memory and conceives it as a mental heterotopia,[4] a transitional time-space of imaginary memories which allow for uncanny montages of incompatible historical sites and moments. The sustained violence of pre-memory results from the visions of a future history which augur a ravaged forthcoming no man’s land. The promised wasteland looms so intensely that it psyches Cowling out and disrupts his own sequential itinerary. It also reveals, as though in a concave mirror, the un-representable, namely, overlapping telescopic views of traumatic direct and indirect memories which emerge in Cowling’s inner darkroom and lend a photographic syntax to the account: “There was horror of course, but it was seductive horror, even beautiful, pastels bleeding into primaries, the radioactive ions twinkling blue and purple, the pink and silver flashes, charm mixing with childhood” (O’Brien 188). The account is contaminated by ghastly flash-forwards, but the saturation of vivid premonitions attempts to perform inoculation and trauma dilution. By composing his own trauma stories and by endorsing the role of the doom-watcher, Cowling substitutes re-enacting for acting-out to soften the density of previous breakings and disperses the historical trauma all over the account. The traumatic knowledge is diluted “into a smaller unit that ‘lets memory work less hard’” (Schank and Abelson 42, qtd. in Klein 65). This dissemination takes place in an achronological storyline within which time does not flow smoothly but swirls and causes memory disorders. The alarm clock is constantly re-programmed forwards: the worst being always impending, Cowling is constantly revisiting and crossing the threshold of a future déjà vu[5] thanks to imaginarization, which is made possible by the symbolization of a make-believe trauma chronotope.[6] He is both in and out of the hall of mirrors, at once the photographer and the subject framed in a placeless place which juxtaposes accuracy and simulacrum and triggers a rite of passage into a phantasmagoric labyrinth. The latter entraps the superabundance of postmemory’s afterimages, which rotate unceasingly, leaving glowing contours within a photogenic account that comes to highlight other traumatic events through baroque, oxymoronic juxtapositions.



I have seen my share of buffalo. And you folks—you ice folks have not seen shit. Understand me? You have not seen shit. (O’Brien 177)

Notre temps a inventé le devoir de mémoire. (Rémond 766)[7]


Accordingly, narrating vicarious witnessing turns into an act of magic, where, thanks to a self-timer, the I can be here and there, alive and dead, marching in a liminal locus where then is before and after all at once and the déjà vu coincides with the not-yet. One perceives through the atomic chiaroscuro a fissured panorama encompassed by a gaze filled to excess with harrowing visualizations of total erasure. The self-narrative keeps unfolding the melancholic creases of “post-ness.”[8] The ambivalent relation to received biographical memory points out that the subject does indeed contain a multitude of private but also collective historical particles. Among them, there exists a pre-history which precedes Cowling’s own history and which inevitably forces its remnants upon his consciousness. The historical leftovers are hardly metabolized by his body and his mind; both are affected by the oppressive loyalty to memory and the awareness that in an age where monstrosity has become absolutely total, the individual is deprived of any possibility to disengage himself from horrendous knowledge. Insomnia and constipation are the two afflictions that upset Cowling most intensely. He is trapped in an insurgent body that refuses to let go the excessive archivization produced by the discharge of traumatizing emanations and nuke fever. The constricted body becomes symbolically enwrapped in a diegetic origami—a “fold all-over.”[9] The maze contains the merciless re-inscription of historical traumata and vicarious witnessing, with, most notably, the recurring mentions of the Little Big Horn massacre, re-enacted every summer in Cowling’s hometown, the scalping of his father, who played Custer and “always died so beautifully” (O’Brien 247),[10] the unspeakable experience of Auschwitz, the shadows on the walls in Hiroshima and finally, the insanity of Vietnam. Indirect trauma keeps being added up onto private trauma, forming gaps and stopgaps all together in a narrative that refills doses of traumatizing horror and shock as Cowling goes deeper into the catacombs of history: “and I’m digging, and I see sharpshooters and a burning safe house and the grotesque reality of the human carcass. The dead won’t stop dying […] they die in multiples, they can’t call it quits” (O’Brien 98).[11] If postmemory only gives a semblance of the traumatic events, its tangible impression nevertheless conjures up ghostlike figures and causes secondary traumatization for the self-proclaimed superstes: “Beneath the surface, however, premonition was evolving toward history. I was a witness. Like déjà vu in reverse, lots of backspins” (O’Brien 73). Cowling undergoes a shattering revelation, he is penetrated and arrested by a foundational experience which causes a Medusa effect and leads him to suddenly face the singularity of the traumatic events and the monstrous memories he has upheld in his mind. As I stated earlier, this entails a double bind and melancholic duplicity:[12]  the loyalty to remembrance clashes with the craving for relief. The collages of postmemory’s snapshots do not merely establish a photo album of graphic vignettes, neither do they inaugurate an index of appalling visualizations. Both the burden and the possible erasure of postmemory are dreadfully experienced as a traumatic epiphany, a full-frontal encounter with a reality that is felt in a phenomenological way. This confirms the predicament evoked in Nora’s work on memory and history: “Self-consciousness emerges under the sign of that which has already happened, as the fulfillment of something always already begun. We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left” (7, my emphasis). Apart from being a doom-watcher, Cowling is also a gatekeeper of memory who objects desperately to collective amnesia and mourning. His vociferations call for a duty of remembrance because the erasure of distressful memory betrays the dead and amounts to abandoning them.

There is no doubt that postmemory first arises in the trauma narrative (muthos tou traumatos) as hurting affliction. Nevertheless, the return[13] of afterimages and their symbolical mediation are paradoxically metabolized in discourse, creating a narrative-remedy (traumatikos muthos) as symbolization makes its own sense of the chaos and the spleen that result from an overflow of excess and loss. Consequently, the dual regime saturates the narrative, thereby recalling the liability of those who remain after the dead and come to “bleed inwardly”[14] as they experience the violation “à hauteur de mort”—“carried up through death” (Bataille 28):

I believe it. The dead, perhaps, live in memory, but when memory goes, so go the dead.

There is no remembering when there is no one to remember. Hence no history, hence no future. (O’Brien 241)

The text vacillates from attachment to detachment, from overdoses of traumatizing received history to cacophonic litanies that warn the postgeneration against misremembering and forgetting the past. A deafening soundtrack impregnates the appalling recollection: “Voices, too—people shouting […]. I saw burning villages. I saw the dead and maimed. I saw it. I was not out of my mind. I was in my mind; I was a mind’s eyewitness to atrocity by airmail.” (O’Brien 71). In truth, baroque melancholia materializes behind the loud voice over and unveils an archive fever resulting from the fear of erasure, or worse, the absolute vacuum, the erasure of erasure itself.[15] To Benjamin, “19th-century melancholy has a different trait than in the 17th century. The key figure of the latter’s allegory is the cadaver. The key figure of the former is remembrance. Remembrance is like a schema of transformation of merchandise into an object of collection” (Benjamin, qtd in Buci-Glucksmann 72, my emphasis). In The Nuclear Age, late 20th-century melancholia is embodied by the morbid key figure of cadaveric memory and disengagement, which Cowling sees as a retreat possibly caused by entropy and from which there is no turning back. Yet, in a movement of seminal appropriation, Cowling bears the cadavers within himself, he detaches the wounds from the psychic barbed wire and then presents compensatory melancholic imprints to actually further incise, with his authority, the lacerations caused by vicarious witnessing. An oxymoronic trace is etched, it takes the form of an engram that embraces both absence and presence while deconstructing linearity.[16] It comprises but also compensates for the dread of complete erasure. Through imaginarization, Cowling tries to exhaust the throbbing pain, possibly to re-capture and mold with his own authorship the impression left on the bloody soil by the macabre dance of the dead. His testimony leaves a post-traumatic imprint which, just like the Uroborus, devours and nurtures itself, absorbs other traces while being metamorphosed by the latter. The narrative historically unfolds before, after and beyond the ashes of memory, yet it is epistemologically about a trauma which is fully Cowling’s. The fetishistic, quasi choreographic relation to memory and the eschatological impulses encapsulate transience and “the non-relation to another history” (Comay 90).[17] This is enhanced by the massive exterminations of an age of barbarism:

Everything is combustible […] Faith burns. Trust burns. Everything burns to nothing and even nothing burns. There are no footprints—the footprints burn. There are no messages in the bottles, because the bottles burn, and there is no posterity, because posterity burns […] Memory burns, and with it the past, all that ever was. The reasons for burning burn. (O’Brien 303).



The question is simple. In this age, at this late hour, how do I make a happy ending? (O’Brien 297)

Sadness. It can actually kill people. (O’Brien 51)


Cowling’s account is a history of violence, one that sustains an ambivalent foreplay not only with postmemory, but also with the failure to sustain the duty of remembrance. It figures a “schizophrenic ‘stemming’”[18] uncontained within a porous temporal and spatial pattern which designs a baroque textual quilt that is relentlessly folded, unfolded and then re-folded as if it were magnetized from all parts. The syndrome of repetition compulsion is notably emblematic in Cowling’s dreams and Janusian fictions directed toward a past continuous—postmemory—and a future perfect—pre-memory. The novel’s baroque essence and folds of melancholy stem from the discharge of “subjective emotional energy” (Panofsky 80) and the interference of assumed memories. Thus, the archives of demon-history are disclosed in trauma chronotopes which overlap in non-teleological directions:

The fucking Ping-Pong table, I said. The flashes and missiles and sirens, and the fucking war, the fucking draft, the bombs and shrapnel and guns and artillery and all the shit, the fucking sun, it would fucking fry us, I said, or we’d get fried by the fucking physicists, or else the silos and submarines and fly-boys and button-pushers—all the assholes out to kill other assholes—fucking Nixon, fucking Brezhnev [...] and Hitler and Crazy Horse and Custer, my father, too, yes, my father, the way he died out at the fairgrounds every summer, just died and died, how he wouldn’t stop dying, every fucking summer, all the heroes and corpses, the fucking Alamo, fucking Hiroshima and Auschwitz—No survivors!—everybody killing everybody else— […] (O’Brien 234)

However, what becomes astonishingly visible from this recollection is the multiplexing of minute details, each of them being an atom in the global picture. Among all the images of monstrosity, human carcasses, agonizing people and napalmed corpses, stands the lonely figure of a little child, hiding under his Ping Pong table, pretending to be a corpse or eating up his cotton candy while his father is getting scalped, again and again. And then, the terrible confession: “but I also wanted slaughter […] terror mixed with fascination: I craved bloodshed, yet I craved the miracle of a happy ending” (O’Brien 11). The swaying movements between the prophetic knowledge of horror and the desire for innocence bear “the discontent and exuberance of the baroque […] the sense of the finitude and limitlessness of the human condition, anxiety and a sense of alienation which is inseparable from pleasure and fulfilment” (Dimakopoulou 75-76). Imagining inconceivable scripts compensates for loss and surplus. The symbolic transfer from muthos tou traumatos (a trauma narrative) to traumatikos muthos (a narrative-remedy, i.e., a salutary narrative which will be effective against wounds) allows storytelling to mitigate the aching caused by the un-representable[19] and defers a present time-frame engrossed with past and future catastrophes.

If the narrative’s “insistent grammar of sight” (Caruth 1996, 29) seems to testify to the side-effects of shock and the paroxysm of an inexpungible past continuous, storytelling’s defiance of the un-representability of others’ traumata, as well as its chronic efforts to block up perforations in memory, alleviate the existential crisis of survival that looms behind the expressed baroque melancholia. As a vicarious eyewitness of transgenerational trauma, Cowling comes to probe the ontological significance of his own subsistence after, within and before a history of violence and trauma. If the imaginary hyper-remembering transcends time and sustains his relation to such history, the omnipresent act of foreseeing is incorporated within a textual patchwork crafted to defy the nuclear age’s propensity for self-destruction and to dress an ineffaceable ancestral wound caused by the only unfailing, though mysterious, evidence: the inevitability of one’s own extinction. That the world can end remains indeed more than highly probable in this era of vulnerability. But eventually, the only certain knowledge is that the subject will neither be able to verbalize his own death nor will he have the possibility to outlast his passing away. In any case, the predicament of absolute erasure and its untellability is supplanted by the completed traumatikos muthos which stands as a remedial trace, an antidote to the exclusive unconceivable (both unthinkable and infeasible) account of the world’s obliteration and of one’s annihilation.

The Nuclear Age should thus be read less as the expression of a loss of faith than as the symbolic quintessence of baroque post-traumatic melancholia. The narrator’s metalepses betray a traumatizing awareness that, at some point, postgenerations might forget the past and live on with the comfort of ahistorical knowledge. His account questions the status and the responsibility of those who were spared the horrors of history. By folding one trauma narrative over another, the baroque logic twists the symptom and the remedy together. The infinite and ever-changing time markers conjugate death (thereby emphasizing its inexorability) in a composition, or rather a contra-position, of past, present and future tenses:

Again there was that time-space slippage […] and all around me, inside me, there was those powdery neural flashes lashing out like heat lightning […] and even then, even now, there was still the glowing afterimage, the indelible imprint of things to come. (O’Brien 191, my emphasis)

The baroque vision of damnation prefigures “death in the present, like an ongoing movement, that one does not wait for, but rather ‘accompanies’” (Buci-Glucksman 97).[20] As a matter of fact, if Cowling, as the narrative’s subject, does the splits between hypertrophied pre- and postmemories, as its agent, he stands histrionically towards the narratee, enjoining the latter in buoyant contrapposto. He anticipates the impact of his stories and the way they will surface in yet another heterotopian dwelling, that of the addressee’s mental space. For what undoubtedly drives this self-proclaimed vicarious witness to proceed to testimony is undeniably the other’s reception and, hopefully, not just an interpretation, but most vitally, the acknowledgement, the recognition of a post-traumatic monumental, uncontainable subjectivity. Thus, the spatiotemporal yo-yoing that is articulated within Cowling’s melancholic compositions eventually leaves the reader psychologically off balance as he embarks on pursuing (and tracing back) traumata and losses of his own. He may be clinging as best he can to the shredded threads of the narrative, in any case, he engages in the infinite labyrinthine hall of mirrors of what Jonathan Culler terms “double reading.” Here, however, the twofold reading is itself doubled up, multiplied, revised and then grounded down by the dizzying, baroque explorations that will wind back and forth impressionistic non-sense, manifold responses. If, as Jonathan Culler puts it, “[w]e read events forward […] and meaning backward” (Culler, qtd. in Martin 127), we also erase the possibility of any definite sense as we move onwards and backwards, dragging within ourselves peculiar frayages and sense-impressions. In other terms, we mentally play with our private own mystic Writing-Pad.[21] This is all the more true when reading The Nuclear Age, for ill-defined and extremely precise emotional responses to the narrative’s baroqueness simultaneously strike the account’s recipient as he is confronted to the unrepresentable. This requires from the reader what I call receptionability, that is, the capacity to receive, perceive and recognize the monumentality?the outstanding significance?of the tormented visions that emerge from Cowling’s expressive melancholy fixation.

In the narrative, the future, even in its most fictive and imaginarized form, is synchronously a temporal and a spatial (permeable) inception. Time, in the narrative, is not reversed, it is out of joint. This symbolizes the psychic disorders caused by trauma. And because trauma is not nomadic, it entails a fixed abode where it can take place. The crafted future is a pathbreaking landmark, it embodies a “view-finder” (Iser 279) of what has already happened but has not been properly and beneficially unwound yet. In other terms, it epitomizes the starting point, not the final one, as it actually informs the past. More specifically, it also provides the addressee with a spatiotemporal configuration which interplays with postmemory. An unlimited hermeneutics of the latter may be conjured up while the dynamic polycentrism of post-traumatic storytelling is simultaneously experienced. The productive act of reading is deeply influenced by “the process of anticipation and retrospection” (Iser 290), which occasions the supplanting of radical linearity and the suppression of precise angles. Uncontained memories overflow the intra- and extra- diegetic frames: working-through ultimately facilitates a detachment in the Benjaminian sense of the term, that is, a reiterated re-presentation of emptiness, which transcends melancholy and gives it some full signification. It embodies through shocking and gloomy images a loss, “but a loss which has a potential, albeit partial, for recuperation” (Ferber 70). Baroque melancholy conveys a passion (suffering and desire) for loss and indeterminacy. Still, the mediation between the artistic and aesthetic happenings provides transfiguration within the creative crossroads, through poetic spacing and deferment. Storytelling, like Freud’s Wunderblock, preserves a trace that reflects other traces, bygone and upcoming ones, while enclosing as well “a dialectic of ‘canonicity and breach’” (Bruner 11). Together, they twist the palimpsest of traumatic memories through baroque amplifications, leading the symbolic poiesis to alleviate the burden of pre-determined storylines. Within the polysemantic space of the trauma narrative, this poiesis unbolts the valves of time so that new perspectives will allow a rewriting of the past, a working-through to undo deterministic pre-histories and permit the imaginarization of an original, self-made genesis, one that will “open up new, different histories, in which we are no longer a prey to the mechanisms of repression and symptomatic return of the repressed” (Seeburger). The trauma narrative interacts with the reader’s biography and the indeterminacies it expresses and generates allow for the creation of yet another heterotopia, a transitional place for the reader’s self-poiesis.

Finally, as Bruner puts it “to be worth telling, a tale must be about how an implicit canonical script has been breached, violated, or deviated from in a manner to do violence to [its] ‘legitimacy’” (11). In O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age, trauma narrative is converted into a mode for architectonic disclosure and a production of aletheia [unconcealedness] by means of visual superabundance. In the diegesis’ post-traumatic and melancholic baroqueness, the safe house where trauma has settled must indeed be demolished in order to be saved. The aftermath of this shattering establishes artistic and aesthetic authority. In the end—but is there really any end?—baroque imaginarization passes through melancholia’s antechamber, unlocks memory’s trapdoors and enters a post-melancholy dimension, which highlights an origami-like trauma self-narrative that can be envisioned as a narcissistic act of resistance and—who knows?— fleeting deliverance.

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[1] In her conceptualization of postmemory, Hirsch defines the latter as a “trans-generational transmission of traumatic knowledge” which may be personal, collective, and/or cultural and which is inherited by a postgeneration (Hirsch 105-109). For a counter-argument, see Van Alphen 485-486. I have coined the term pre-memory in reference to the “remembrances” of future events which are conjured up by Cowling. Although they are fictional memories, Cowling experiences them as if they were really his.

[2] The French word frayage is a translation of Bahnung, used by Freud in Project for a scientific psychology (1895). It has been variously translated in English, “pathing,”  “pathbreaking” and “breaching” being the most used terms.

[3] “Folded in forever like the fossils. I don’t want it but I can see it, as always the imprints in rock, the walls shadows at Hiroshima, leaves and grass […] Immutable, metamorphic, welded forever by the stresses of our age. We will become the planet. We will become the world-as-it-should-be.” (O’Brien 302)

[4] In “Des Espaces Autres” (“Of Other Spaces”), Foucault introduces his discussion on heterotopias, which he views as countersites, by the following remark: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world. […] We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (1984).

[5] This trend is opposite that usually observed in traumatized subjects: “[T]raumatic belatedness is perpetually siphoned off to the next moment; perpetual foreplay seeks to recapture, immobilize and thereby retroactively construct the moment before the traumatic encounter – to forestall disaster by deferring it to a chronically receding horizon. I turn back the clock so as to forever relive the very last flicker of an imaginary innocent anticipation: the worst is forever in abeyance, I am permanently on this side of danger – I reassure myself with the fantasy of a permanent not-yet.” (Comay 15)

[6] To Bakhtin, chronotopes are invariant cognitive strategies and in “the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history” (84). Not only do chronotopes structure divergent semantic elements, but they also interact. In The Nuclear Age, the interaction remains dialogic, even though the alternation between chronotopes of equilibrium and chronotopes of conflict is clearly unbalanced.

[7] “Our time has invented the duty of memory” (my translation).

[8] On “post-ness,” as an outcome of “[t]he formative events of the twentieth century,” and “the powerful but mediated forms of knowledge that have followed from it,” see Hoffman 25.

[9] Originally, a “pli all-over” (Deleuze 166).

[10] Cowling is obsessed by this childhood memory: “a dazzling historical pageant, blood and drama, the culmination of Custer Days. Up in the grandstand, among neighbors, my mother and I would eat ice cream and cotton candy while my father led the U.S. Seventh Cavalry to its annual reckoning at the Little Bighorn.” (O’Brien 10)

[11] A vision echoed later in the account: “I see Robert Kennedy’s wide-open eyes, a twitch, a flash, […] sharpshooters and a burning safe house and the grotesque, inexpungible reality of the human carcass” (O’Brien 121).

[12] Buci-Glucksmann interestingly defines it as “desiring, while blocking the way to desire” (“désirer, tout en barrant la route au désir.”) (214).

[13] Amfreville uses the French term “revenance” (15), which is more evocative of the sense-impression caused by the unexpected returning of unlived memories popping in the mind: “Haunting memory […] a nightmare, but first and foremost like the awareness of being inhabited, assailed by a memory which can be mine only by interposition” (“La hantise […] un cauchemar mais avant tout comme la conscience d’être habité, assiégé par une mémoire qui ne peut être la mienne que par interposition”, my translation). Laplanche writes that “[f]ar from being my kernel, it is the other implanted in me, the metabolized product of the other in me: forever an ‘internal foreign body’” (256).

[14] Georges Bataille, on the power of images (qtd. by Didi-Huberman in Potte-Bonneville, Zaoui).

[15] For a discussion on erasure, Derrida’s “Archive fever” and “the absolute desire for memory,” see Caruth 2011.

[16] This recalls the Deleuzian image of a baroque labyrinth (83), “which forms a frame of time that embraces all possibilities” (“qui forme une trame de temps embrassant toutes les possibilities”).

[17] On the legacy of trauma, see Comay 90: “If every relation to history is always at some level a non-relation to another history – a missed encounter with the other’s lack and as such a traumatic relation to the other’s trauma – history itself would be defined by the recursive or reflexive pressure of a loss recognizable only in its own effacement.”

[18] Originally, “‘bourrage’ schizophrénique” (Deleuze 166).

[19] “According to Barsalou (1988), memories of previous events provide the basis for making sense of later ones. Understanding an event requires the retrieval of relevant generic knowledge that lets people understand what has occurred so far, predict what may happen next, and determine appropriate responses to the event. Eventually, memory for a particular experience becomes integrated with generic knowledge and with the specific episodes needed to understand it […]. It is the expectancy violation that produces the emotional reaction associated with stressful experiences […]. Foa and Riggs (1994) argue that recovery from a traumatic event requires organizing and streamlining the traumatic memory.” (Klein 63) See bibliography for references to Barsalou, Foa and Riggs.

[20] Originally, “la mort au présent, comme un mouvement en train de se faire, et qu’on n’attend pas, mais qu’on ‘accompagne.’”

[21] I allude to Freud’s “A Note upon the “Mystic Writing Pad” (1925).

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Barbara Kowalczuk "“Who knows how it started?” : Baroque Melancholia in Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/kowalczuk-who_knows_how_it_started_baroque_melanch. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 4, 2013, Published: October 28, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Kowalczuk