The Repetition of Unrecognized Desire: An Analysis of the Traumatized Subject in Joyce Carol Oates’s Son of the Morning

by Anthony D. Zias

October 2, 2011


This essay utilizes Lacanian psychoanalysis to challenge assumptions, derived from research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), concerning the treatment of traumatized subjects.  Nathan Vickery, the protagonist of Joyce Carol Oates’s Son of the Morning, exemplifies the traumatized subject.  PTSD therapy encourages the subject to recall the original traumatic event; remembering supposedly frees the subject from repeating the trauma.  However, Lacan emphasizes how the subject’s memories reveal the relationship the subject desires to have with the Other, the parental authority.  To discover the source of his lifelong angst, Nathan recalls the traumatic events that repeat throughout his life, beginning with his mother injuring him accidently as she fed him during his infancy.  Despite his remembrances, Nathan cannot acknowledge that he still unconsciously desires to remain starved by his mother, the Other.  This essay explicates Lacan’s view that traumatic repetitions originate in the subject’s encounter with and interpretation of the Other’s desire.


The Repetition of Unrecognized Desire: An Analysis of the Traumatized Subject in Joyce Carol Oates’s Son of the Morning

An infant, Nathan Vickery, is poked in the eye while being fed by his mother, Elsa who nearly blinds him.  Elsa, who cannot accept her identity as a young, single mother, later abandons her child and leaves him in his grandparents’ care.  Grandmother Opal introduces Nathan, at age five, to a variety of Protestant Christian churches, and Nathan begins experiencing spiritual visions in which he converses with Jesus Christ.  These visions propel Nathan to a successful career as an evangelist who eventually establishes his own nationwide church.  However, these visions become horrible scenes in which Jesus condemns Nathan to hell.  To earn Jesus’ favor, Nathan develops an ascetic, Manichean-style religion that promotes constant fasting and denial of all bodily pleasures.  Nathan’s self-denial culminates with his gouging out his own eye, a disturbing repetition of his memory of Elsa.  Nothing, in the end, can satisfy God’s demands, and Nathan, to change his self-destructive behaviors, leaves his own church to become a vagabond.    

            Nathan’s retelling of his life story, the subject of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1978 novel, Son of the Morning, makes an interesting case study of the traumatized subject.  The psychological community defines trauma as any event during which a subject experiences or witnesses physical or sexual abuse or life-threatening circumstances.1 A consensus exists within the psychological community regarding not only how trauma affects people but also how to help such people.  Subjects repress, partially or completely, their memories of or feelings associated with the trauma but re-experience the trauma in dreams, flashbacks, or re-enactments of the original traumatic situation that could involve subjects harming themselves.2  Through repetitions, the subject tries to acquire control over her emotional reactions to the trauma that she lacked when first experiencing the trauma.3  The subject can overcome these trauma-caused disruptions by recovering her memories and retelling the traumatic events to others.4          

This approach to treating trauma emerges formally during the 1970s and 1980s when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was established as an outgrowth to political movements to defend military veterans and abused women from public derision.  PTSD research asserted such groups were victims of horrible circumstances beyond their choosing.  Soon researchers applied this approach to others, such as those who experienced natural disasters or child abuse.  

Although this research has benefited many victims of trauma, defining the relationship between subjects and disastrous, horrific situations in psychological terms has created cultural assumptions that foreclose other approaches to the problem of trauma.  Lawrence Langer believes that alleviating the pain Holocaust survivors experience would demean the significance of their memories.  “Painful memories are not always disabling, and narratives about them [. . .] rarely ‘liberate’ witnesses from a past they cannot and do not wish to escape.  For them, forgetting would be the ultimate desecration, a ‘cure’ the ultimate illusion” (54-55).  Edward Linenthal recounts the legions of mental health professionals who flocked to Oklahoma City after the Timothy McVeigh bombing.  Local citizens, however, felt uneasy about or even rejected being categorized as victims of PTSD because the label promoted a helpless sensibility that hindered their attempts to rebuild their lives (89-97).  Arthur Kleinman claims that the medical redefinition of people who may be victims of political struggles into PTSD sufferers extracts from their lives any moral and political dimensions.  “[T]hat is one of our chief complaints about PTSD: it medicalizes problems as psychiatric conditions that elsewhere and for much of human history in the West have been appreciated as religious or social problems” (181).  Arthur and Joan Kleinman add that this transformation strips such people of political agency: 

Their memories [. . .] of violation are made over into trauma stories. [. . .] And in

 what way does the imagery of victimization as the pathology of an individual

alter the experience – collective as well as individual – so that its lived meaning

as moral and political memory, perhaps even resistance, is lost and is replaced by

“guilt,” “paranoia,” and a “failure to cope”? (10)

Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman are also concerned by our culture’s growing tendency to describe events that have political origins with psychological terms. 

When witnesses testify publicly to the plight of the Palestinian people on the basis

of cases reported by psychologists, how are the representation of their situation

and the defense of their cause affected?  When more credence is given to a

medical certificate attesting to post-traumatic stress than to the word of an asylum

seeker, what conception of the law and of the subject is operating? (8)

They describe this turn to trauma as an emerging ideology: “the idea of trauma is thus becoming established as a commonplace of the contemporary world, a shared truth” (2).5      

Redefining human events in traumatic terms has become commonplace because this perspective is built upon assumptions that we hold about both the serious nature of psychological disturbances and the most effective means to resolve these disturbances. These assumptions derive from the concepts and treatments that PTSD researchers and the larger psychological community have developed to deal with our mental and emotional problems.  My term, “trauma logic,” refers to these problematic assumptions we have about the nature of trauma and the treatment of it.  The assumptions of trauma logic are the following: People are defined as subjects infected with traumatic memories that prevent them from living normally.  Traumatic memories are always caused by some unexpected past occurrence that has harmed subjects.  Subjects desire to rid themselves of their mental infections through a prescribed therapy in which subjects recount their memories; the retelling cures subjects by draining their memories of any negative emotional associations forged when they were originally harmed. 

In criticizing trauma logic, Langer and others cited above raise questions about subjects’ desires: Some subjects refuse the label of traumatized victim because that label ignores their desires to protest, remember, or rebuild.  However, since these critics eschew psychoanalysis, they do not pursue the ramifications of trauma logic’s inability to account for subjects’ desires.  These ramifications can affect therapeutic practice.  I contend that trauma logic inadequately understands subjects’ (unconscious) desires and how those desires influence individuals’ diverse reactions to traumatic events.  Trauma logic defines the subject’s desires rigidly: the traumatized subject only desires to get well and resume normal living.6 I examine how subjects relate to their traumas through the filter of their various desires by using the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.  Lacanian psychoanalysis is an ideal perspective through which to investigate subjects’ reactions to trauma since Lacan’s praxis makes subjects investigate constantly their own (unconscious) desires.  My Lacanian analysis challenges the following tenets of trauma logic:

  • that subjects desire to maintain a veneer of normality by keeping their traumas secret and acts of recounting the trauma are inherently therapeutic,
  • that recollections and reenactments of the traumatic event are expressions of subjects’ desires to achieve, retrospectively, emotional mastery over the original trauma, 
  • that retelling the traumatic memory and relinquishing the repetition of trauma demonstrate that subjects desire to (and are prepared to) resume normal lives.

             Son of the Morning helps explicate the Lacanian response to trauma.  As already indicated, Oates’s novel covers all the key elements of trauma logic; however, the novel possesses several unique literary features undermining that logic.  First, Nathan does not withhold his trauma but vividly recalls the occasion of his abuse from his mother, but these recollections are fabrications.  Nevertheless, these fabrications express Nathan’s unconscious desires.  Next, Nathan does inflict upon himself the kind of abuse he (believes he) originally received from his mother, but these repetitions are not attempts for Nathan to control retrospectively his memories of his mother’s original abuse.  These repetitions are displays of the relationship he unconsciously desires to have with his mother.  Finally, at the novel’s end, Nathan seems to recover some normalcy by breaking his self-abusive habits when he forsakes his Manichean religion; however, his attempt at recovery continues to express his traumatic, unconscious desires.

            My examination has two related aims concerning the response to trauma. I agree that the concepts comprising trauma logic have been applied, with dubious results, to political unrest. I extend this argument by proposing in my conclusion that government initiatives are also increasingly promoted using trauma logic as a tactic to stifle public debate and, thus, to conceal the purposes, effectiveness, and cost of these initiatives.  Initiatives are cloaked as treatments for traumas of which various constituencies desire to be cured.  This desire to cure suffering cannot be questioned within civil debate, and our unwillingness to debate such initiatives derives from our automatic acceptance of trauma logic.  However, my larger goal is not to provide a Lacanian interpretation of victims of political upheaval7 but to show, by analyzing Oates’s novel, that the politicization of PTSD research prevents therapeutic methods based on this research’s logic from perceiving the complexity within the desires of traumatized subjects.                

Previous Assessments of Son of the Morning

Given Son’s preoccupation with trauma and its lifelong psychological ramifications, past critical work on the novel has curiously neglected this interpretative focus.  In his reading of the novel, Samuel Chase Coale argues that Nathan’s spiritual visions, Manichean beliefs, and self-directed violence, which are at odds with his public role as a church leader, symbolize America’s societal split between public and private life; Nathan’s fall from his public role into his private obsession with his missing God is Oates’s tragic solution to that split (130-132).  For Joanne Creighton, Son is Oates’s argument that one’s quest for “the luring attractiveness of mystical transcendence” is a “futile [. . .] self-destructive pursuit” (111).  Watanabe claims that “[Nathan] misconstrues humanity as a boundary between himself and God” (98); this misunderstanding breaks Nathan’s relationships both with others and God.

The above readings emphasize Oates’s engagement with religion and understand Nathan to be representing Oates’s contemplation of the philosophical relationship between humanity and transcendence.  These interpretations ignore the importance of psychology to Oates and her use of psychology in her fiction.  In an interview given at the time of Son’s release, Oates describes her approach to religion: 

Having completed a novel [Son] that is saturated with what Jung calls the God-

experience, I find that I know less than ever about myself and my own beliefs.

[. . .] These elements [comprising the God-experience] then coalesce again into

something seemingly unified.  But it’s a human predilection, isn’t it?—our

tendency to see, and to wish to see, what we’ve projected outward upon the

universe from our own souls? (“Joyce” 76)

Her references to Jung and projection reveal that Oates views religion in Son through a psychological lens.  Oates adds that she has “a great deal of faith in the process and the wisdom of the unconscious” (“Joyce” 84).  In an essay published four years before Son, Oates writes that “the human ego has too long imagined itself the supreme form of consciousness in the universe.  When that delusion is taken from it, it suffers.  Suffering, it projects its emotions outward onto everything, everyone, into the universe itself” (“Out” 260).  These references to the ego and the unconscious demonstrate that psychoanalytic theory had exerted some influence upon Oates when she wrote Son.  In a 1973 letter, Oates declares,

It is certainly appropriate for a psychoanalyst to approach a “fictional”character as

if he were real, for a serious author deals only with “real” experiences and “real”

emotions, though they are usually assigned to people with fictitious names. [. . .]

Thus the recurring “theme” or “plot” in a writer’s work must have the analogous

function of the recurring dream: something demands to be raised to

consciousness, to be comprehended by the ego, but for some reason the ego

resists or refuses to understand. (51)

While one could quibble with Oates’s universal assessment of serious fiction, she agrees, implicitly at least, with a psychoanalytic reading of her work.  Furthermore, her analogy of a novel’s theme with some knowledge that the ego refuses to recognize dovetails with both Son’s structure and my focus on psychological trauma.8   

Remembered Trauma, Unrecognized Desires

            As stated previously, therapists working from a trauma logic framework assume memories of the traumatic scene are repressed and must be coaxed from the sufferer. Judith Herman claims that trauma victims are caught between the desire to tell their stories and the desire to keep them secret:

The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim

them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.  People who have

survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and

fragmented manner which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the

twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy. (1)

However, for Herman, “far too often secrecy prevails” (1).  Furthermore, Herman characterizes the victim’s revelation of trauma as an arduous task: “The reconstruction of trauma places great demands on the courage of both patient and therapist” (175).  Once the patient recounts the facts of the trauma, the patient must then also experience the emotions she associates with that traumatic event (Herman 177).  Only then can the patient integrate that trauma into her conscious identity and regain normalcy (Herman 195).

While secrecy may characterize many traumatized patients, other analysts describe victims who relate to their traumas differently. In his work with traumatized political refugees, Richard Mollica assumed they would be unwilling to describe past horrors; however, he was surprised by their eagerness to share, causing him to discard his “Western bias that victims don’t want to talk about their experiences” (21).  In his review of Freud’s analyses of traumatized war veterans, Lacan also erroneously assumed that these sufferers would be in a “subjectifying homeostasis,” such that they would avoid explaining their traumas to the analyst to maintain emotional equilibrium.  Instead, Lacan discovered that “trauma reappears, in effect, frequently unveiled” (Four 51, 55).  Lacan observes that Freud’s earliest patients tried to impress Freud by telling their biographies with encyclopedic detail: “[F]or the benefit of him [Freud] who takes the place of the father, one remembered things right down to the dregs” (Four 50).   

Like Mollica’s refugees, Nathan Vickery in Son of the Morning is open, even eager, to describe his trauma’s source.  The source is not a secret that Nathan withholds from the reader but one that he reveals within the novel’s first eighty pages.  Nathan’s trauma originates during his infancy when his mother, Elsa, tries to feed him.

She held the spoon a few inches from his wet, anxious mouth and it crossed her

mind that his face had no shape at all but was just a kind of squashed-together

mass of skin with the beady little eyes poked into it, and the little nose, and the

mouth: it was terrifying, that face.  It had put itself together out of parts of her, her

blood and flesh and even her bones, and still it wanted more of her, always more.

[. . .] “What do you want?  Why are you so greedy?  What the hurry? Where are

you going?” [. . .] A hot wave of sheer sensation coursed through her.  Her voice

rose shrilly and began to quaver.  “So you’re hungry again?  Always hungry!

Greedy! Where do you think you’re going, kicking those legs a mile a minute like

that? – You’re going nowhere, little noise-box.”  Trembling, she held the tiny

spoon an inch or so from his face, near his eye. [. . .] If he jerked forward in his

greed, he might jab himself in the eye – and whose fault would that be?  Such a

silly arrogant little noise-box, such a maddening little pig! (73-74)

Elsa’s thoughts foreshadow her actions, as she jabs Nathan’s eye a moment later.  Although we will consider how this trauma affects Nathan, we should initially observe that the memory is told, as is most of the novel, from the perspective of a third person, omniscient narrator.

            The novel’s guiding voice, however, is not a disembodied narrator but Nathan who narrates his life retrospectively to discover why God’s presence has left him.  Nathan breaks the third person narrative at various points to offer prayers, in first person, to God.  After recounting the feeding incident, Nathan moves into a prayer monologue, in which he alludes to his reduced vision: “My vision, O Lord, is greatly reduced, but I am far from blind, and there are days – mornings, especially – when my right eye is fairly strong, and I experience a painful sense of hope.  It does not last, it does not last for more than a few minutes, but I am grateful for all such gifts and pray only that You will see fit to return to me” (75).   This prayer moves to a search for a reason for God’s abandonment: “And why do You keep Yourself from me, despite my ceaseless prayer?  Is Your loathing for me a measurement of my sin?” (75).   In the narrative movement from Nathan’s presentation of his mother’s desires to his prayer of thanksgiving for his faltering eyesight to his self-questioning, Nathan does not make the explicit connection that his mother’s injuring of him is as unjust and perplexing as God’s abandonment, that both his mother and God are unwilling to provide him either physical or spiritual nourishment.  Nathan’s perspective is divided: while Nathan possesses limited knowledge of his own sin, he is also the novel’s narrator who claims to remember events from his own infancy with exact, omniscient detail.9    

            Nathan’s account includes a reconstruction of family memories that precede his own birth.  The novel opens with Ashton (Nathan’s eventual uncle) hunting a pack of wild dogs that is troubling the community.  These dogs are described as “not even animals any longer but simply coils of intestines about which matted fur grew[,]” and they became a wild pack because “[t]hey were all abandoned dogs, [. . .] some of them had been pets belonging to Yewville residents who hadn’t wanted them any longer” (17, 16).  In the next narrative section, Ashton’s sister Elsa is attacked and raped by a group of mountain men who are not part of the Yewville community and who are implicitly compared to a pack of wild dogs:  “Three or four of them surrounded [Elsa] now.  And still another came running with long strides up from the river, where there was a small campfire.  Elsa smelled gutted fish, burned flesh, tobacco, beer, whiskey” (26).  The third person, omniscient presentation of these moments gives the impression that Nathan can offer a comprehensive account of his family’s history; however, just as we must question the accuracy of his infancy narrative, we must assume he could not have witnessed events prior to his birth. 

            Nathan’s approach to his trauma confounds the assumptions of trauma logic.  Not only does Nathan explore his trauma vividly but he also describes, through his prayerful asides to God, the anguish related to his trauma.  Beyond that, Nathan’s account is a series of fabricated scenes that cannot be completely true. How can we understand both Nathan’s desire to recount minutely his trauma and his inability to recover from that trauma?    

In contrast to Herman and other like-minded therapists, Lacan questions the therapeutic value of having the subject recount the past to uncover the trauma.  Lacan points out the fact “that the subject relives, comes to remember [. . .] the formative events of his existence, is not in itself so very important” (Freud’s 13).  Lacan even challenges the notion that the subject must re-experience the emotions associated with his trauma: “that the subject remembers something as truly belonging to him, as having truly been lived through, with which he communicates, and which he adopts – we have the most explicit indication in Freud’s writings that that is not what is essential” (Freud’s 14).  Freud’s analysis of the Rat Man shows Lacan how the subject, in fact, resists therapeutic interventions by telling stories of his past.  “[Freud] later changes tack abruptly when he sees that [. . .] the resistance is serving to keep the dialogue at the level of a conversation in which the [Rat Man] tries to continue seducing the analyst by slipping beyond his reach” (“Function” 241).  Resistance can take the form of what Lacan calls “empty” speech “in which the subject seems to speak in vain about someone who – even if he were such a dead ringer for him that you might confuse them – will never join him in the assumption of his desire” (“Function” 211). 

Nathan’s account of his family’s history, his infancy, and even his trauma is “empty speech” in which he repeatedly announces his unconscious desire to be (made) hungry and to be abandoned.10   The split in the novel’s perspective corresponds with the split inherent in “empty speech”: Nathan tells his life story as if it happened to another person, a “dead ringer” for Nathan. Rather than being therapeutic, these fabricated details reveal the truth about Nathan’s unconscious desires. Nathan examines his life and prays to God because he desires to know why his life has become so unhappy, but his desire to know is frustrated, just like those who enter therapy when they cannot satisfy their desires (Fink 8).  Lacan prioritizes the examination of the subject’s desires, declaring that “desire is the essence of man” (Four 275). 

Why is desire so crucial and so complicated within Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory?  For Lacan, “[m]an’s desire is the desire of the Other” (Four 235).  The infant subject’s parental authorities initially play the Other’s role (Lacan, “Subversion” 688).  So, the subject models her own desires upon the desires of the parental Other.  The subject asks herself “[w]hat does he [the Other] want from me?” and her life becomes an attempt to interpret and satisfy the parental Other’s desires.  (Lacan, “Subversion” 683, 690).  Even  if the subject grows up to dislike her parents, abhors what her parents want, and consciously chooses alternative ideals for which to strive, she will unconsciously pay obeisance to her parents’ desires.  One of Freud’s famous cases, the female homosexual, exemplifies the rift between conscious and unconscious desires.  The female homosexual thought that desiring women would “defy” her father’s wishes for her to have a traditional heterosexual relationship.  However, unconsciously, she desired in the same manner as the Other:  she wanted her father to acknowledge that she was, like him, “devoted to the service of a lady” (Lacan, Four 38-39).  When the father refused to acknowledge her identification with his desires, she committed suicide.  While the split between conscious and unconscious desires need not have such horrible consequences, the split can cause suffering to the subject; Lacanian analysis makes the subject aware of this split within her desires.

            The split within Nathan’s narrative reveals the split between his conscious desire and his unconscious desire, which is his interpretation of what the Other desires.  The subject’s interpretation of the Other’s desire is one of Lacan’s definitions for the subject’s unconscious (Four 130).  Unconscious desires reveal themselves through “slips of tongue or pen” since the unconscious is “the sum of the effects of speech on a subject” (Four 130, 126).  So, in Nathan’s construction of his traumatic feeding during infancy, Elsa accuses him of being always hungry and greedy.  She expresses anxiety over her biological connection to the infant formed from her body.  Nathan imbues Elsa, the mOther, with the desires to starve him and to separate from him. Nathan has constructed a traumatic memory of his mOther; this memory is his interpretation of what she wants of him, an interpretation that has shaped the desires unconsciously guiding his life: the desires to be hungry and abandoned.11   These Other desires are seen in their thematic effects elsewhere in the novel: Nathan feels abandoned by God; the wild dogs were abandoned and left to starve; the mountain men hungered for Elsa as they hungered for their campfire meal.  Nathan can write (of) the Other’s desire and express anguish over the Other’s desire when praying to God, another embodiment of the Other; nonetheless, he resists leaving his trauma behind.  Nathan cannot name these desires as his.  Nathan’s speech, which has the conscious purpose of remembering his life to determine the source of his unhappiness, remains incompatible with his unconscious desires (Lacan, “Direction” 535).          

            While Nathan recounts his trauma and feels the anguish from it, neither the retelling nor the emotional experience prove therapeutic, as trauma logic maintains. As the novel progresses, Nathan moves from his fabricated memories to events in which he did participate.  In these events, he repeatedly recreates the trauma his mother (supposedly) inflicted upon him.  These recreations are attempts to establish a relationship that he unconsciously desires with his mother and God, who both play the Other’s role for Nathan.      

Repetitious Relationship with the Other

            Therapists who accept the tenets of trauma logic believe that traumatized subjects create scenarios that repeat their original traumas.  The most accepted explanation of repetition is that the subject tries to master the original trauma retrospectively.  Freud’s earliest explanation posits that the subject, who “experienced the trauma passively, now repeats it actively in a weakened version, in the hope of being able [. . .] to direct its course” (Inhibitions 167).  Pierre Janet claims that the subject, who felt helpless during the traumatic moment, tries to assume autonomy and power over the moment through repetition (603).  Mardi Horowitz postulates that a subject repeats a previous trauma to better understand that trauma by reinterpreting it with new information the subject has since learned (93-94).  Herman observes that subjects repeat a cycle where moments of vividly reliving the trauma alternate with amnesic moments; the subject attempts, through this cycle, to achieve a “satisfactory balance” between these mental extremes (47).  In their study of a woman who survived a 1942 nightclub fire and relived the trauma forty years later, Bessel A. van der Kolk and William Kadish explain that her therapy consisted in having her gradually establish mental mastery over the trauma.  The therapist assisted the patient by affirming that she is only experiencing memories of the trauma (188). 

In contrast to the idea of retrospective mastery, repetition is, for Lacan, an expression of the relationships into which each child is born.   Lacan asserts that children easily perceive the nature of those relationships: “We thus know that a child perceives certain affective situations – for example, the particular bond between two individuals in a group” (“Beyond” 71).  The child identifies with the nature of those relationships or, as Lacan says, “the current situation in which the parent [. . .] found himself when the [child’s] identification occurred – for example, in a situation of conflict or of inferiority in the married couple.” Thus, children reenact “the drama of their [parents’] conflicts” (“Beyond” 72). 

Lacan later adds to his theory a key element: language.  Language becomes so important that he declares, “Repetition is fundamentally the insistence of speech” (Psychoses 242).  Why does language figure prominently in subjects’ compulsion to repeat?  Simply put, parents describe their relationships with words; children are introduced to these relationships that structure their world through their parents’ discourse.  As Lacan states,

It is the discourse of my father for instance, in so far as my father made mistakes

which I am absolutely condemned to reproduce [. . .].  I am condemned to

reproduce them because I am obliged to pick up again the discourse he

bequeathed to me, not simply because I am his son, but because one can’t stop the

chain of discourse, and it is precisely my duty to transmit it in its aberrant form to

someone else. (Ego 89)

Although the parents are discussing their conflicts – revealing their desires as well –  children misinterpret this discourse as explanations of their own existence and as clues for what the parental Others want from them (Lacan, Four 214).  This discourse, which describes the Other’s desires, forms the subject’s unconscious fantasy, and fantasy determines how the subject will behave even as an adult (Lacan, “Subversion” 698). 

Nathan’s strange, violent behavior throughout Son demonstrates a desire to repeat the Other’s discourse. As previously mentioned, Nathan provides us with his mOther’s discourse as she tries to feed him. Elsa describes her relationship to the infant Nathan as based in hunger: she fears he is greedily devouring her.  “It had put itself together out of parts of her, her blood and flesh and even her bones, and still it wanted more of her, always more. [. . .] ‘What do you want?  Why are you so greedy?’” (73-74).   She then pokes Nathan in the eye with a spoon.  Nathan has (mis)interpreted her discourse and her action as the mOther’s desire to punish him for eating.  He repeats this relationship with the Other throughout his life. 

For instance, when Nathan is twelve years old, he is a popular child preacher in a Baptist church.  To prepare for an upcoming sermon, he fasts and prays as he memorizes extensive passages of the Bible.  Due to this intense activity, Nathan “sensed himself on the brink of an extraordinary experience” (156).  Nathan has a vision of Christ, who denounces him, "You are guilty of the sin of pride [. . .] thinking to set yourself apart from your brothers and sisters . . .  imagining yourself superior . . . fasting, and prayer, and overzealousness in going about my Father’s business” (161).  Nathan feels Christ gripping his neck and forcing him into a nearby chicken coop.  Nathan takes a chicken and bites off its head.  Nathan thinks, “It could not be [. . .] that Christ wished to humiliate him in this way: it could not be that Christ wished to destroy him.  Yet it was so” (162).  As he completes this gruesome task, Nathan feels as if “[h]e would vomit up his very soul” (163).  Nathan’s vision and actions repeat the relationship he presumes the Other wants.  He attempts to enmesh himself with Christ through fasting, prayer, and Biblical study only to have Christ accuse him of being spiritually greedy.  By biting the chicken, Nathan empties his own stomach: he punishes himself by making himself hungry.    

Six years later, Nathan has become a valued assistant preacher within the ministry of Reverend Miles Beloff, a popular religious leader of the region.  Despite his success, Nathan is plagued with sexual desire for Beloff’s daughter, Leonie.  During a picnic with Leonie, Nathan thinks, “If only he needn’t gaze upon this young woman . . . if only he needn’t stare at her.  For she entered him, pierced him, through his eyes: at the point where he was weakest” (202).  Despite his struggle with lust, Nathan grows more prominent within Beloff’s ministry and is asked to give the sermon for a televised Good Friday service.  Prior to Good Friday, Nathan experiences another vision.  He offers a passing description of the vision:

Had it to do with the passion of Jesus Christ, with His agony on the cross; had it

to do with Nathan’s own sense of himself as befouled; had it to do merely with

the chill of early spring, the procession of sunless weeping days . . . ?  Great dark

wings struggled to unfold, and he did not resist, did not dare resist.  He was given

over to it: to God. (229)

Nathan quickly reviews his interpretation of the vision’s instructions.  “I am the door. . . . Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. . . . I am the way, the truth, and the life. . . . If thine eye offend thee. . . .” (231).   The elliptical statement of “if thine eye offend thee” references Jesus’s declaration, “if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (New International Version, Matt. 18.9), which Nathan follows.  He stabs his own eye during his sermon to the congregation’s horror. 

Nathan’s self-mutilation repeats his relationship with the mOther.  He hungers for a connection with Leonie, who fills his eyes, so to speak.  However, Nathan punishes himself for his (sexual) hunger as Elsa punished his hunger as an infant.  Although the repetition of punishment is explicitly clear, nowhere in the novel does Nathan connect the two incidents.  His fantasy of the mOther’s desire remains unconscious.  Nathan feels compelled by God to punish himself; he does not express a desire for punishment.  But he also states no desire to avoid punishment: “O God have mercy on me, [Nathan] had cried, but he did not expect mercy and did not really desire it” (229).  If Nathan had no desire for mercy, then, perhaps, Nathan wants the punishment.  However, this desire remains unstated within Nathan’s discourse.  Lacan observes that due to the symbolic nature of language, the subject can hide from his consciousness his desire to repeat his relation with the Other even as his own behavior recreates that relation:  “The world of the symbol, the very foundation of which is the phenomenon of repetitive insistence, is alienating for the subject, or more exactly it causes the subject to always realize himself elsewhere, and causes his truth to be always in some part veiled from him” (Ego 210).        

            Therapists who accept the tenets of trauma logic assume repetition starts with a discrete traumatic event from the subject’s past that the subject tries to master emotionally in the present.  For Lacan, repetition originates with the young subject’s encounter with the Other’s desire and with the subject’s attempts to interpret that desire using her (incomplete) understanding of the Other’s discourse.  The contrast between therapy based in trauma logic and a Lacanian approach can lead to significant differences in how to interpret and treat repetition compulsion in individual subjects.  Let us recall the woman who suffered through the 1942 nightclub fire.  Although the patient’s therapy focuses on her memories of the fire, van der Kolk and Kadish admit that “[i]n our patient, there was a serious, early disturbance in interpersonal relationships that almost certainly predisposed her to be vulnerable to subsequent trauma” (186).  The patient’s mother forced her to change her name after the patient survived a childhood bout of polio while her father remained indifferent (van der Kolk and Kadish 177-178).  Although she later lived through the 1942 fire, she did not experience any disturbing memories or display aberrant behavior until 1981.  The symptoms of repetition then started when she began to care for her aging father.  She become increasingly aggravated with him as his health deteriorated to the point where she attacked him.  She explained, “I tried to save my father from drowning, but he wouldn’t let me.”  After being admitted to a mental care institution, she would gather the other patients and tried to lead them out.  She declared, “We’re all moving out today and I’m going to be the last one out, to make sure everyone gets out.  All the doors are coming off today.  No more doors!” On other occasions, she questioned other patients, “How many women did you save from the fire?  How many did you carry out?” (van der Kolk and Kadish 175-176).

 These incidents are repetitions of the nightclub fire, but they originate when she confronts the physical weakness of her father, who embodies the parental Other. Her reenactments of the nightclub fire transform her into a heroine, saving others from disaster.  This transformation expresses her desire for a relationship with the Other in which she wins the approval he had never shown her when she was a child.  In therapy, the patient stated, “I haven’t mourned my father’s death” and “I lost my body.  I’ve lost my physical identity” (van der Kolk and Kadish 179).  Her therapist incorrectly assumed these complaints related to the patient’s brush with death in the nightclub fire, and her therapy stalled until she connected those statements both to her memories of her childhood illness and to her belief that the Other subsequently dismissed her identity (van der Kolk and Kadish 180).  For Lacan, repetition is a phenomena that everyone exhibits, as we are all subjected to the language bequeathed from our parents.  However, reenactments of traumatic events are especially significant because the memories of these past events can cause subjects to ask, “Why is this happening to me?”  Subjects will answer this existential angst with what they unconsciously believe the Other desires from them.12

 According to trauma logic, subjects repeat their past traumas as a means to master the feelings associated with those traumas.  However, within the Lacanian perspective, the subject subsumes the traumatic experience into his fantasmic relationship with the Other; the subject’s reenactments are expressions of this relationship that the subject unconsciously desires.  In Nathan, Oates presents a character reenacting his trauma not to acquire control over it but to reassert his relation to the Other.  At the novel’s conclusion, Nathan quits the cycle of self-abuse; although the repetition compulsion dissolves, Nathan remains connected to the Other.      

Emptiness with Enjoyment

            As with previous episodes, once Nathan reaches a spiritual high, he undergoes a fall.  After leaving Beloff, Nathan develops his own church, the Seekers for Christ, which establishes communities in major cities across the United States.  Despite his growing fame and wealth, Nathan is consumed with becoming more intimate with God: “Eating, drinking, bathing, dressing and undressing, going to bed – these activities were performed for him by the fleshly creature he inhabited, done mechanically, effortlessly, while his spirit brooded over Your design and had only the most slender attachment to the exterior world” (358).    Nathan’s spiritual ascendency climaxes when he survives an assassination attempt.  As a result of these events, Nathan embarks upon a national preaching tour.  While at a rally in Patagonia Springs, Nathan has a final, direct vision into God’s essence; this essence is a “great mouth” sucking in all the people at the rally. (362).   Immediately Nathan interprets the vision as an announcement that “You [God] allowed [Nathan] to know that Your love for him was at an end” (361).

Nathan’s life changes dramatically after this vision.  First, he resigns as his church’s leader and goes into seclusion (372).  He returns to New England to revisit places important to his childhood and re-baptizes himself with a new identity, William Vickery (373).  In contrast to his previous aloofness, Nathan relates better to others; he helps neighbors pack and move and shares a bottle of wine with them (367-368).   He is no longer visited by visions of God nor feels compelled to reenact traumatic scenarios of self-mutilation.  With wry humor, Nathan reads news interviews of members of his former church that claim that he remains the leader by holding clandestine worship services for a cabal of elite Seekers (379-381).  

             These developments could be seen, from the perspective of trauma logic, as positive signs that Nathan is moving past the trauma.  For Herman, therapy’s goal is for the patient to achieve “some understanding of the person she used to be and of the damage done to that person by the traumatic event.  Her task now is to become the person she wants to be.  [. . . S]he creates a new self, both ideally and in actuality” (202).  Nathan’s adoption of a new name, William, may signal the “re-creation of an ideal self,” which is “the active exercise of imagination and fantasy.”  Where once the patient’s “fantasy life was dominated by repetitions of the trauma,” imagination is no longer “limited by a sense of helplessness and futility” (Herman 202).  Nathan’s leaving of his church and his ending of both the visions and traumatic repetitions seem to match with Herman’s description of the recovering patient who “repudiate[s] those aspects of the self that were imposed by the trauma” (203).  Nathan’s interaction with his neighbors may indicate that he is beginning what Herman calls the “restoration of social bonds,” which is the final stage of healing (215).  Although Gavin Cologne-Brookes focuses on the existential angst Nathan feels throughout his life, he concurs that, at the novel’s conclusion, Nathan is overcoming the problems that have plagued him:  “The ‘riddle’ of self and other in which he nearly drowned has been discarded like a waterlogged coat, as has the quest for ultimate meaning.  He is left content to enjoy life’s motion, rather than to seek metaphysical answers” (87).    

            Cologne-Brookes’s assessment is accurate only if one considers Nathan’s actions and ignores Nathan’s discourse.  Nathan does not speak of new beginnings, of a fresh interest in others, or of enjoying life; his discourse remains marked by “helplessness and futility.” Of his baptism, Nathan says, “Nathanael that was, was no more; William that had never been, was now come into existence,” but of his last name, he adds “Vickery was a dead man’s name but all he had” (373).  Nathan insists that the ceremony was not witnessed by God and repeats this phrase: “Your [God’s] absence was palpable” (373, 374).  Instead of focusing on a new start in life, Nathan assumes a “dead,” empty identity, which reflects God’s absence that he feels most keenly.  When he meets his neighbors, Nathan begins his recollection by saying: “My downstairs neighbors have moved away” (367).  Even as Nathan interacts with them, he has characterized them as already absent.  When Nathan reads the tabloids’ accounts of his secret church leadership, he feels disconnected to his images that are captured by old photographs.  “I held the newspaper close to my face. [. . .] And after a long moment I saw that the preacher was myself.  Or Brother Nathan.  Yet we looked in no way alike. It was not even possible that we were brothers” (379-380).  While he acknowledges that the man photographed is him, Nathan determines that his past is another absence that does not belong to him but to another man.  Nathan ends the novel speaking of the emptiness he feels from God’s absence in his life:  “Will You not whisper unto my soul, as You once did, I am thy salvation[? . . .] So I wait for You, and will wait the rest of my life” (381-382).    

Even after Nathan discards his former life as a religious leader and the visions that compelled his self-torture, his discourse of emptiness has not changed from the novel’s beginning.  In fact, Nathan’s sacrifice of his profession and habits can be interpreted as another attempt to repeat his relationship with the Other in which he is emptied. To explain why the subject cannot relinquish his fantasy of the Other even after dissolving his symptoms, Lacan moved from the concept of empty speech to a description of the subject’s discourse as filled with “enjoy-meant” (Television 10).  With this neologism, Lacan conceptualizes the possibility that the subject’s speech (what the subject “meant” to say) contains an intense pleasure that Lacan refers to as jouissance, translated into English as “enjoyment.”  Although jouissance is pleasurable, it causes the subject to suffer (Lacan, Ethics 184).  Jouissance causes suffering in that it undermines the subject’s conscious identity.13   Enjoyment occurs whenever the intentions of the subject’s speech are exceeded by alternative meanings.  This heteroglossic discourse causes both suffering and pleasure for the subject; as the subject’s consciousness is displaced, the subject’s unconscious fantasy – the relationship the subject wants to have with the Other –  appears.14   Although Nathan intends to restart his life, his enjoyment of being emptied by the Other exceeds his conscious intentions.      

            Over time, Lacan’s orientation changes towards the subject’s discourse.  He initially saw the subject’s empty speech as a denial of his real desires; Lacan later develops the view that the subject’s statements are filled with an enjoyment that subverts his identity.  I highlight this change because it reinforces my larger argument about the complexity of the traumatized subject’s desires.  For therapists working within trauma logic, the subject only desires to be cured of his psychological problems and resume normal living.  To point out any other desire, for Herman, amounts to a “crude social judgment that [trauma] survivors ‘ask for’ abuse” even though she must admit that “[s]ome survivors do report sexual arousal or pleasure in abusive situations” and that “early scenes of abuse may be frankly eroticized and compulsively reenacted” (112).  I agree with Herman that subjects do not deserve repeated abuse, but I disagree with her dismissal of subjects’ complex desires.  From a Lacanian view, the subject may not consciously want to repeat the traumatic experience, but the subject must recognize that repetition feels compelled because the unconscious is expressing enjoy-meant through the traumatic repetition. 

The Victim’s Desire(s)

            With Son of the Morning, Oates provides a complicated psychological portrait of a traumatized subject that undermines trauma logic.  Nathan’s story offers us the primal trauma: his mother poking his eye with a spoon meant for feeding him.  Trauma logic would accept Nathan’s act of recollection as a therapeutic advance toward resolving his suffering, yet we must realize that his primal scene is a lie.  However, this lie reveals the truth of Nathan’s desire not to get well but to remain the starved child of the mOther. Nathan also tells us when God forced him to vomit and to gouge out his eye.  Trauma logic would emphasize the similarities between these moments and Nathan’s primal scene.  However, Nathan tells us that these moments occur as he reaches a more intimate relationship with God.  These repetitions express not Nathan’s desire to master his primal trauma but his desire to be punished by God (the Other) for his hunger for intimacy.  Finally, Nathan escapes the church he founds and begins life anew.  Nathan’s changes would affirm his desire to cure himself, according to trauma logic.  However, his speech contains an unacknowledged enjoyment at being God’s empty vessel.  Even as Nathan consciously desires the answer to his angst, his unconscious desires undermine his intentions throughout the novel.

I began this essay reviewing criticisms against the assumptions of trauma logic.  These criticisms allege that the redefinition of the subject as a victim of psychological disturbances de-emphasizes the political and social conditions that create subjects’ suffering.  However, PTSD research began as a political and social crusade.  Allen Young historicizes PTSD’s development as an accepted syndrome to ameliorate the prejudice, growing throughout the 1970s, against Vietnam war veterans as “angry, violent, and emotionally unstable” (107-114).  Herman recalls the debate within the psychological community during the 1980s over the validity of the PTSD diagnosis.  PTSD’s acceptance was an extension of the feminist movement, which affirmed PTSD as an acknowledgment that many women were innocent victims of domestic abuse (116-118).  These social campaigns “marked the end of searching for the causes [of suffering] in the unconscious of the victim” and defined trauma as “solely attributable to an unfortunate encounter between an ordinary person and an extraordinary event” (Fassin and Rechtman 87).  This new definition was instituted without any supporting psychological data (Fassin and Rechtman 87n24).        

            Advocates of PTSD have changed our perception of both war veterans and battered women; however, their success has had far-reaching ramifications upon our political discourse.  PTSD research has filtered into our political discourse as a trauma logic that assumes that the victim’s desire is an unequivocal, “pure” authority to which we, as a society, must respond.  Victims, we assume, only desire to get well and to overcome extraordinary circumstances through an efficient, step-by-step, therapeutic program.15   Society, we believe, should affirm victims’ traumatic stories  and support such victims with a government initiative, as a therapist would affirm her patient.16   For example, Senator Hillary Clinton, to gain federal money for New York City’s relief program for emergency workers and to insure that “those suffering health effects as a result of their service at Ground Zero receive the treatment they need,” told the story of Cesar Borja, a city police officer.  Clinton portrayed Borja as a victim who contracted and died from pulmonary fibrosis by working long shifts at the 9/11 Ground Zero site (States).  The story gained the sympathy of President Bush who allocated the extra funding for the relief program.   However, Borja’s story was falsified.  Borja worked at Ground Zero months after the debris and dust had been cleared and only worked at the site for seventeen days.  His lifelong habit of chain-smoking likely caused his disease (Chan and Baker A1).  Clinton’s portrayal of Borja acquired its authenticity and urgency because she made his story fit within the logic of trauma.  Clinton cast Borja as one of many traumatized victims “still sacrificing, still suffering” from a disastrous event (States).  To treat these victims who only want to overcome their suffering, taxpayers’ money was quickly shifted, with little public scrutiny, to a program that received no federal evaluation concerning its purposes, procedures, or effectiveness.

My analysis of Son of the Morning and discussion of the Lacanian approach to trauma disputes trauma logic’s simplification of both the victim’s desire and the means to alleviate the victim’s symptoms.  We should attend to the complex, unconscious desires of the traumatized subject to improve therapeutic methods.  An awareness of the limitations within the logic of trauma should also encourage us to question political directives that purport to be treatments for an increasingly traumatized society.

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1 My discussion of trauma and its effects utilizes research done on post-traumatic stress disorder.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes a traumatic event as “an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others” where the subject’s “response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror” (467).  Trauma-causing events include “wars, concentration camp experiences, rape, civilian disasters, and child abuse” (van der Kolk, “Psychological” 2).

2 See Herman 2, 108-109; Joseph, Williams, and Yule 83; Khantzian and Albanese 11; Terr 13; van der Kolk, “Psychological” 3.

3 See Freud, Introductory 275, Beyond 32, Inhibitions 166-167; van der Kolk and Kadish 188.

4 See Herman 175-176; Greenberg and van der Kolk 191; Mollica 37.

5 According to Young, this ideology assumes that trauma has always been an inherent aspect of human existence; however, our current notions of trauma have a historical origin.

The [current ideology] represents the traumatic memory as a found object, a thing

indifferent to history. [. . .] I have argued for something else: the traumatic

memory is a man-made object.  It originates in the scientific and clinical

discourses of the nineteenth century; before that time, there is unhappiness,

despair, and disturbing recollections, but no traumatic memory, in the sense that

we know it today. (141)

6 For example, Mollica argues that traumatized victims desire to heal themselves (26).  Herman insists that victims want “empowerment” and “renewed connections with other people” (134).  Psychoanalytic practice – which grounds Mollica’s and Herman’s work – assumes that subjects can express a desire to remain traumatized.  As Freud says, “[Subjects] complain of their illness but exploit it with all their strength; and if someone tries to take it away from them they defend it like the proverbial lioness with her young” (Question 222). 

7 For such research see Davoine and Gaudillière.  My essay contains a general introduction to Lacan’s interpretation of trauma. 

8 My analysis of trauma within literature has a precedent in Kali Tal’s Worlds of Hurt.   Tal demands that the literary critic “must expand her horizons and move into the realms of psychology and sociology” to validate the perspective that “[l]iterature of trauma is written from the need to tell and retell the story of traumatic experience, to make it ‘real’ both to the victim and to the community” (117, 21).  While Tal accepts uncritically several aspects of trauma logic, I explicate how that perspective forecloses other ways subjects relate to their traumas.

9 Dean notes Nathan’s subjective split, but instead of exploring his psychic economy, she argues that the split perspective is an analogy for Oates’s artistic technique, allowing her to compare religious faith to the process of art:  “The art product can become a part of reality, but since it depends on readers seeing and re-seeing it, it must remain always in process.  Nathanael/Nathan/William Vickery cannot stop his narrative prayer [. . .] signaling the continuation of a process rather than the end of a narrative” (145).  Although this claim may explain Oates’s artistic process, it does not address Nathan’s inability to reflect psychologically on his life while producing a detailed life narrative.

Nathan’s name changes twice during the novel, but I call him “Nathan” throughout this essay for clarity.

10 Many critics of Son point to the themes of hunger and abandonment. Glendenning observes that “there is throughout the novel a harping on the huge, crude hungriness of nature, the vicious circle of hunter and hunted” (45).  Friedman declares that the novel “speaks of hunger” (196).  Dean states that “a rich motif of abandonment, or casting off, [. . .] runs through the novel” (141).

11 Lacan states that “trauma is an extremely ambiguous concept, since it would seem that, according to all the clinical evidence, its fantasy-aspect is infinitely more important than its event-aspect” (Freud’s 34).  Fantasy determines the way the subject lives out desires that must remain unconscious as they may disturb or horrify him if they became conscious (Lacan, “Direction” 532-533).  So, the veracity of the subject’s account of his trauma is not as important as how that account reveals what the subject unconsciously desires. 

12 In their Lacanian-influenced treatments of subjects traumatized by war and natural disasters, Davoine and Gaudillière assert that “what the destruction [of the traumatic event] actually affects in these patients is the very precarious Other of good faith.”  To avoid a complete mental and existential dissolution, such patients must reassert or rebuild a relation with an Other “to guarantee truth once again” (78).  Similarly, in repeating a horrifying event, the subject expresses his relation to the Other, which is truth’s guarantee.

13 Lacan associates jouissance with orgasm, an experience that strips subjects of conscious self-control (“Signification” 576).  

14 Miller calls fantasy, “a phrase that is enjoyed, a ciphered message that harbors jouissance” (6).

15 Goodman observes that the American cultural response to suffering is to resolve it quickly:  “The American way of dealing with [grieving] however has turned grieving into a set process with rules, stages, and of course deadlines. [. . .] We expect, maybe insist upon an end to grief.  Trauma, pain, detachment, acceptance in a year – time’s up” (pars. 11-12).

16 Zizek describes this governing style of modern, capitalist nations as “post-political” where political institutions divide the populace into “subgroups” and apply a “vast legal-psychological-sociological network of measures” to “rectify the wrong” from which each group suffers (203).  


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Anthony D. Zias "The Repetition of Unrecognized Desire: An Analysis of the Traumatized Subject in Joyce Carol Oates’s Son of the Morning". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 17, 2011, Published: October 2, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Anthony D. Zias