Conceptualizing Trauma: Remembering, Acting-out, Working-through: The Case of Sarah Kofman

by Solange Leibovici

February 16, 2004


This article concentrates on the writing of a literary text which finds his origins in a traumatic experience and the role played by sublimation, repetition, acting out and working through. Comparing the autobiographical work of Primo Levi and that of the French philosopher Sarah Koffman, I come to a different conclusion than Rina Dudai did in her article "Primo Levi: Speaking from the Flames" (Psyart Journal 2002). In Primo Levi's case, the traumatic experience is repeated as a narrative and translated into the symbolic order, which causes a form of working through, while in the case of Sarah Kofman, the author doesn't succeed in leaving the illusionary order of the autobiographical mirror stage. What we discover in her book Rue Ordener Rue Labat is a repetition and acting out of the events she experienced as a child during World War II in Paris, and behind that, the reenactment of very early repressed conflicts with her mother.


Trauma is a kind of wound. When we call an event traumatic, we are borrowing the word from the Greek where it refers to a piercing of the skin, a breaking of the bodily envelope. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud uses the term to describe a painful event not inflicted to the body but to the mind: the physical breaking of defenses becomes thus a psychic one. According to Cathy Caruth, trauma is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality that is not otherwise available. Trauma is an event which breaks through the protecting shield and overwhelms existing defenses against anxiety in a form which also provides confirmation of those deepest anxieties.

The experience of trauma repeats itself, exactly and unremittingly, through the unknowing acts of the survivor and against his will. The experience that Freud calls "traumatic neurosis" is the repetition and reenactment of an event that cannot simply be left behind. Cathy Caruth points out that the repetitions of the traumatic event, which remains unavailable to consciousness, suggest a larger relation to the event that extends beyond what can simply be seen or what can be known, and is inextricably tied up with the belatedness and incomprehensibility that remain in the heart of this repetitive seeing. Trauma is not a simple memory: while the images of traumatic reenactment remain absolutely accurate and precise, they are largely inaccessible to conscious recall and control. As Freud, and before him Pierre Janet, emphasized, traumatic recall remains insistent and unchanged --unlike other memories -- because it has never been fully integrated into understanding.

In a convincing and inspiring paper, "Primo Levi: Speaking from the Flames," Rina Dudai (2002) asks the following questions: How can one comprehend the impossible that became reality? Can one process such an experience? Can it be represented in language in general, and in poetic language in particular? Rina Dudai's working hypothesis is that two opposite forces act simultaneously to convert traumatic experience into a poetic text: "This literary form gets its strength from the struggle between the urge to cry out from the burning core of traumatic experience on the one hand, and the drive to rationally construct the core of the trauma as a symbolic representation molded in language, thus keeping it at a safe distance." In other words, the writer gives us a text in which the traumatic experience is revived to a degree that permits its processing, because the trauma is relocated in a protected area, while at the same time defense mechanisms operate on the _expression of anxiety. For Rina Dudai, Levi's literary work is an example of the writer's struggle to position himself between those two opposite forces: "giving in to the pain by screaming it out loud, or controlling and disciplining it, by repressing it altogether." In Primo Levi's case, the scream is hardly heard, poetic devices are used in an attempt to repress it. Dudai writes that "his text never displays the poetic balance, which could have enabled him to work it through, rather than acting it out."

My paper will concentrate on two aspects: (1) the role played by defense mechanisms, especially that of sublimation, in writing a literary text which finds its origins in a traumatic experience, and (2) remembering, acting out and working though, for which I will use Freud's article "Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis: Remembering, repeating and working-through", written in 1914. My own question will be: How is it possible that some people succeed in creating a work of art that finds its roots in a traumatic experience? As an illustration of my ideas, I will present the case of the French philosopher Sarah Kofman (1934-1994). She was a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, she was known as a feminist and deconstructionist and she worked closely with Derrida. She is the writer of (among others) The Childhood of Art, Nietzsche and Metaphor, Quatre romans analytiques, L'énigme de la femme, and Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, a short autobiography (87 pages) named after two streets in the 18th precinct of Paris. In this book she tells for the first time about the traumatic events she experienced as a child during World War II.

In 1942, Sarah Kofman's father, who was a Polish rabbi, was arrested by the Gestapo in the family house in the Rue Ordener and put on a train to Auschwitz, where he was beaten to death by a camp guard. The children were sent to French families outside Paris, but Sarah wouldn't be separated from her mother so both sought refuge with a former neighbor who lived in the Rue Labat, a woman Sarah loved passionately. To protect the Jewish girl, as well as to turn her into her own daughter, the woman, who's name is not mentioned, transformed Sarah into a French girl: she changed her hair and gave her new clothes, she called her Suzanne and taught her to eat pork and steaks cooked in butter. The relationship with this woman alienated Sarah completely from her Yiddish speaking family and her religion. Sarah's real mother had great difficulties and pain in accepting the situation, but Sarah was happy and she adored her new mother, who used to kiss and cuddle her and give her presents, things she hadn't be used to in the strict, religious and also very poor family she was born into. After the war, there was a bitter fight between the two women because both wanted to keep the girl. Suzanne had to become Sarah again and go back to her own mother, who abused her and didn't want her to go to college, while the other woman always supported her wish to read and study. Sarah hated her mother and she tried on several occasions to run away and go back to the woman she called Mémé, which is a term of endearment used by children to call their grandmother, but also sounds like mamme or memme, the Yiddish word for mother.

Sarah Kofman seemed to have forgotten this episode of her life. She didn't. As part of her implicit memory the childhood trauma played a fundamental role in her scientific work, especially in her first book, The Childhood of Art, published in 1970, in which themes from her own childhood seem to lie underneath her analysis of Freud's "Leonardo da Vinci". According to Freud, young Leonardo had to choose between two mothers: his own and his father's new wife, who "without any doubt took his mother's place in his heart". Kofman describes the way Freud connects several of Leonardo's paintings by way of a chain of signifiers: the recurrent female smile, which refers to the mother's smile. Kofman is particularly interested in Freud's analysis of Leonardo's painting of Anna and Maria. Maria sits on her mother's lap and reaches for the little boy Jesus. Anna looks at the two other figures with a blissful smile. Both female figures seem to blend into one single mother figure. Freud writes that the two mothers of Leonardo's childhood become one mother, and that Anna's blissfully happy smile is meant to deny and cover up at the same time the jealousy the poor woman felt, when she had to give up her husband and later her son to a younger and more distinguished woman.

In a note, Freud compares this painting to a drawing with the same subject, where both figures are even more melted together: it seems that the two heads emerge from one body. Freud assumes that this sketch was an earlier version, a kind of dreamlike vision of the two women, and that Leonardo had a need to separate mother and daughter in the painting. This is the picture Kofman chose for the cover of her book, the one in which Anna's smile is hesitating, somewhat curious, and less serene than her smile in the painting. Also here Anna looks directly at the younger woman, as though her smile was meant for her only.

 Freud analyzes Leonardo's repressed memory, and analyzing Freud's text, Kofman seems to talk about her own repressed memory. This is what she writes, and it is slightly different from Freud's version: "Anna's 'blissful smile' is indeed the product of repression, of the artist's denial of his mother's suffering and the jealousy she felt when she had to give her son away to her rival. (...) Anna's smile refers to the smile of Mona Lisa, but it uncovers with even more power, in its relationship with Maria's smile and Leonardo's repressed, that the mother's smile never existed." The mother's smile never existed: unlike Leonardo, who was able to find an artistic form of reparation for the guilt he had felt about leaving his mother, Sarah Kofman cannot let her own mother smile. There is no reparation here, no working-through, but only a repetition of the representation of the two mothers, one smiling happily and the other not smiling and deeply unhappy. Illustrating what Freud wrote in "Remembering, repeating and working-through," Kofman doesn't reproduce the scene as a memory, but as an act; she repeats it without knowing that she is. There is no way for her to bring in what Freud calls the supremacy of the pleasure principle, to change something that was charged with displeasure and pain into a mental object of remembrance and psychic processing.

Is it possible to differentiate Primo Levi's and Sarah Kofman's way of coping with trauma? What we see in Rina Dudai's analysis of the work of Primo Levi, is that defense mechanisms like rationalization and distanciation operate on the _expression of anxiety. However, Rina Dudai writes that Primo Levi doesn't work through the trauma, but that he acts it out. I would like to suggest that there is indeed a form of working through, not in the form of a general break with a past, but in that of a cultural reinvention of the past by means of memory. The defense mechanism operating here could be that of sublimation.

The concept of sublimation is a problematic one, because it has never been developed by Freud into a real theory. In fact, though Freud wanted to produce a global theory of culture, a complete account of human existence, sublimation consists mostly of a number of loosely woven strands developed to varying degrees. Furthermore, sublimation is about the satisfaction of the drive, though this may be accounted for in different ways. Freud never presented sublimation as equivalent to sexual abstinence. The sexual drive is the raw material of culture, and as Freud writes in his Introductory Lectures, the impulses of the drive are "extraordinary plastic". Sublimation simply gives another aim to the drive, another satisfaction.

Could the concept of sublimation be related to the questions of trauma, memory and mourning usually invoked by theoretical work on the Holocaust? According to Freud, processes of working-through trauma or loss through the redistribution of libidinal investments (such as mourning) are sharply differentiated from the drive destinations, where the libido is channeled into symptoms or into cultural activity by sublimation. However a closer look reveals that both these moments in Freudian theory are governed by an identical problematic: that of discharge, of the safeguarding of "topographical" integrity against disruptive libidinal or mnemic excess. Psychoanalytically speaking, mourning is a healthy process that permits the subject to recover from a loss, while sublimation is a process that saves the subject from neurosis: both processes are aimed towards reparation of the subject. In other words, could we use the sublimation concept in the case of Primo Levi?

The concept of sublimation is essentially linked to culture. Rina Dudai stresses Primo Levi's references to the Bible, Greek mythology and Dante's Hell, which he seems to need to speak about the unspeakable. The French historian Léon Poliakoff once said, "Auschwitz can never be a literary theme," but Primo Levi wanted his book to be something more than the testimony of a man who witnessed the horror of daily life in the concentration camp. We are aware that Is This a Man is also a literary work, in so far as the meaning of a literary text must be found in the dynamic relationships between the different parts of the text, and also in intertextuality, the relationships between the text itself and other texts, to which it refers. This seems impossible in the case of Is This a Man, where the themes, the place and the action have nothing in common with existing literature. But maybe we can say that Is This a Man, without being a work of fiction, is still a literary work because of the use of literary and rhetoric techniques -- themes like the journey and the perverted city, references to literature, metaphors and style, but foremost because of the author's reflections about his place and role in what he is telling, about fiction and reality, levels of narration, space and time. Even as a witness, the author controls the text and manipulates the reader.

In Pour une psychanalyse de l'art et de la créativité, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel points out that creative impulses can be directed towards the reparation of the object, that has been destroyed by aggressive drives, but that true sublimation is aimed at reparation of the subject. According to Chasseguet-Smirgel, creativity is an instrument which is used to make up for faults made by others, and only then is there discharge and can we speak of sublimation. Creation by means of narratives as in Primo Levi's case, has a repairing, restoring function. It is a form of working-through, of reliving while trying to understand. As Primo Levi wrote to his German translator, "As prisoner number 174517, I would like to speak to the German people and say: 'I'm alive, and I want to understand you to be able to make a judgement about what you did.'" Repetition without working-through (and there are many examples of this in Sarah Kofman's work) seems to only aggravate the trauma.

Still, Sarah Kofman tried to make up with her mother in the underlying discourse of her scientific work but in a way that is rather an acting-out then a working-through. In part of her creative scientific work, we see a need towards reparation of the object, which has been injured by aggressive drives. Analyzing Freud on the libidinal relationships between mother and daughter in L'énigme de la femme, she defends the mother where Freud writes that the feelings of hatred the daughter feels for her mother are linked to early weaning and the feelings of displeasure caused by it. She insists that the fault comes not from the mother but from the child, whose desire is endless and causes feelings of frustration. What we see here are two other defense mechanisms: projection (in her analysis of Freud's analysis of Leonardo) and identification (the child who's desire is endless).

I do not believe Sarah Kofman wanted to turn the traumatic events of her childhood into a work of art, and I do not believe she could have. Why? That's a difficult question. The first answer could be that she was still a child during the war, while Primo Levi was a young man. When he came back to Italy, his whole family was there waiting for him, his house was still there, while Sarah Kofman lost her father and her childhood's home. Her book starts with what happened to him, but then she doesn't speak about him again. This is the part of the trauma she cannot talk about, but which is contained in the interaction between her and her mother.

Cathy Caruth stresses that the traumatic text is the product of a double telling, of two stories: the story about the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival. But the most important aspect is that the literary text originated by trauma, is created by the combined action of several components: the traumatic event becomes a narrative through the use of repetition, but also goes back to earlier traumatic moments of the child's development and the way in which the child succeeded in coping with them. The manner in which the adult is able to use defense mechanisms to make a coherent story out of what seems impossible to tell, is linked to the aptitudes he or she developed as a child. The trauma connects with earlier events which were never dealt with, so it is not only the external event that matters here, but the connection of external and internal danger, of present and past, of the fear of physical death and the fear of psychic death. There is a significant fragment in Rue Ordener Rue Labat, when Kofman writes about the anxiety she always felt while viewing Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. What is unbearable to her is the way the old lady's smiling face turns into a harsh, threatening mask: "The bad breast instead of the good breast, one totally separated from the other, one transforming into the other." In Sarah Kofman's autobiography, the trauma seems to reenact very early, repressed conflicts with the mother.

In Primo Levi's work, Auschwitz is recreated as a narrative (Dante's Hell) and translated into the symbolic order, by which the author creates a distance between the text and the uncontrolled chaos of his own unconscious emotions, while Sarah Kofman doesn't succeed in leaving the illusionary order of the autobiographical mirror stage. She may enter the symbolic in her scientific work, but in her own life the father is not there to free her from the imaginary world in which the mother (or mothers) seem almighty. Rue Ordener Rue Labat is the poignant story of a child who finally remembers, while the aging woman reacts with the feelings and the knowledge of a grown-up. But there is no reparation towards the mother nor towards herself, no sublimation or discharge, no love, no pleasure, no visible guilt, only never ending hatred and pain. I think in Sarah Kofman's case, the wound has never healed, while in Primo Levi's case, the wound slowly turned into a scar, that remained painful and visible, but also enabled him to write, maybe to live. His identity was threatened but survived, while Sarah Kofman's identity disintegrated.

Sarah Kofman never succeeded in bringing a symbolic smile to her mother's lips. These are the last words she wrote about her: "Between my mother and me there were terrible scenes during dinners. I often went on hunger strike and stole sugar. Early in the evening she would turn out the light in my room. I remember reading Jean-Paul Sartre's Les chemins de la liberté with a flashlight." And her last words about the woman she called mémé (which are also the last words of the book): "I wasn't able to go to her funeral. But I know that the priest said at her grave that she had saved a little Jewish girl during the war." Sarah's real mother would not let her become who she wanted to be, she wouldn't allow the separation from her and let her experience the ways of freedom, she would not even feed her properly, she turned out the light of warm motherly love. Mémé saved her as a person but at the same time she destroyed the identity of the "little Jewish girl". Which was the good breast after all, and which was the bad one? Shortly after publication of Rue Ordener Rue Labat, Sarah Kofman committed suicide.  

Works cited: 

Adams, P. ed. 2003. Art. Sublimation or Symptom. London/New York: Karnac Books.

Caruth, C. 1995. Trauma. Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Caruth, C. 1996. Unclaimed Experience. Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. 1971. Pour une psychanalyse de l'art et de la créativité. Paris: Payot.

Dudai, R. 2002. "Primo Levi: Speaking from the Flames", Psyart Journal,

Freud, S. 1914. "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psychoanalysis). Standard Edition, 12, 145-156.

Garland, C., ed. 2002. Understanding Trauma. A Psychoanalytical Approach. London/New York: Karnac Books.

Kofman, S. 1994. Rue Ordener Rue Labat. Paris: Galilée.

Kofman, S. (970. L'enfance de l'art. Paris: Galilée.

Thurston, L. 2003. "Meaning on Trial: Sublimation and The Reader, in Adams, P., Art. Sublimation or Symptom.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Solange Leibovici "Conceptualizing Trauma: Remembering, Acting-out, Working-through: The Case of Sarah Kofman". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 28, 2003, Published: February 16, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Solange Leibovici