Global Perspectives, Trauma, and the Global Novel: Ferrante’s Poetics Between Storytelling, Uncanny Realism and Dissolving Margins

Excerpt from: de Rogatis, Tiziana. “Global Perspectives, Trauma, and the Global Novel: Ferrante’s Poetics between Storytelling, Uncanny Realism, and Dissolving Margins.” MLN 136:1 (2021), 6-9. © 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press.  Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Read the Introduction to “Elena Ferrante in a Global Context,” the special issue of Modern Language Notes 136:1 (2021), whose table of contents and introduction we published as an exclusive preview for Anglophone readers.

By Tiziana de Rogatis

Translated by Evie Elliott

My article is divided into four sections. In the first section, I will identify the link between globalization and trauma by examining various aspects of the coronavirus crisis − the event set to become the trauma of this new millennium − and its repercussions on the very concept of globalization. In the second section, I will briefly introduce the salient features of the globalized imaginary that emerge in relation to the global novel and other genres of writing. In the third, I will outline several characteristic features of the global novel and its “traumatic realism” (Foster 130) and “planetary realism” (Ganguly, Catastrophic 422). Finally, in the fourth section, I will identify the global features of Ferrante’s poetics, discussing these in relation to the ideas presented in the preceding sections.

Section One: Writing Within the Trauma

This article was written at the intersection between two different phases of globalization: before and after the coronavirus crisis. I first presented an early version of this paper as a keynote speaker at the Elena Ferrante in a Global Context conference held in Durham on 7th June 2019 and I have since reworked it for publication between April and May 2020, during the long worldwide lockdown period imposed to contain the spread of the virus. In short, this reworking has taken place in the midst of a tragedy that has scarred both Italy, where I was living, and the rest of the world. In the process of reworking the paper, I was struck by just how many of the contemporary novels that I reference − Ferrante’s tetralogy included − had captured the age of trauma that has been so acutely exposed to us by the pandemic. In particular, the global novel has brought into central focus the relationship between individual histories, collective histories and “traumatic realism” (Foster 130), which materializes as a “tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma” (ibid. 168). Indeed, so coherent and so intense are the fictional protagonists of the global novel that the reader immediately discerns the critical nature of the contemporary crises (concerning, for example, the environment, terrorism, gender violence and inequality) that infiltrate their lives and shape their destinies.

And yet, despite this critical and prophetic capacity of the works with which I was engaging, the lockdown period has for me also been a time filled with disillusion with regard to literature. During this period, an obscure sense of betrayal has often led me to perceive a certain weakness in the power of storytelling, which I discuss at length in this article. However, I gradually came to realize that this sense of betrayal was concealing a more complex emotional response. Like many other people during the lockdown, I was afraid of distancing myself from reality, of freeing myself from it, of surrendering myself in search of a fictional world that was perhaps no less arduous nor horrific than the real one, merely different. Reflecting on this anxiety, I realized − like many other insomniacs in that long period of isolation − that I could not afford to lose sight of the world around me. Overwhelmed by a looming, widespread sense of danger, I firmly grounded myself in reality out of the fear of losing touch with it, of losing my ability to decode it. This was a particularly frightening prospect when, all of a sudden, one cold Sunday morning at the end of February (following the announcement on the news of an irrefutable transmission of the virus in Italy), reality had become so unpredictable, unfathomable, incomprehensible. My anxiety was the trauma – or rather, one of its many symptoms.

As Laplanche points out, psychic trauma (etymologically derived from the Greek word for “wound” or “injury”) consists of two different moments: the first is the “implantation of something coming from outside” and only after this can “the internal reviviscence of this memory” occur (see Caruth Interview 1). The traumatic event, Caruth emphasizes, “is its future” (Introduction 8): psychic trauma occurs when the traumatic event cannot be processed or integrated into the pre-existing functioning of the fabric of psychic and social life. Coined by The American Psychiatric Association in 1980, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) further highlights this nucleus of belated and dislocated temporalities that drive trauma. The trauma continually returns as a “deferred action” (Freud 356), manifesting itself in the form of a ghost, an apparition, a nagging spirit that leads the individual or a community to walk down the hidden track of the original event, forcing them to constantly relive the countless symptoms and manifestations of that fear, helplessness, coercion, disorientation – through itself or through others. In a similar way, as we will see in the fourth section of my paper, texts that depict trauma − as Ferrante’s tetralogy does − also mimic, on a formal level, the workings of trauma by constructing similarly labyrinthine and dislocated structures (Nadal-Calvo 8).

And so, I wish to take trauma as my point of departure. Revising what I had already written in this paper from the perspective of this new period in history ushered in by the coronavirus involved not only being aware of writing about trauma but of writing from within a trauma, both personal and collective. Indeed, with every hour and day that passes, the current backdrop of trauma is redefining the historical categories and concepts that I discuss in this paper. In this introductory section, it is therefore important to try to bring into focus the ongoing metamorphosis taking place, particularly with regard to globalization. Like infinite refractions, always identical and yet varied both in quantity and quality, we have, during this pandemic, witnessed many nations repeating the same mistakes, many nations inspiring the same acts of withdrawal and dissociation from reality among their citizens, many nations reporting the same shortages of healthcare workers and key medical supplies. This cumulative phenomenon has been characteristic of many phases of the pandemic and its spread, made traumatic not − or not exclusively − by the gravity of the original event, but above all because, as Arundhati Roy has pointed out, the real consequences of trauma are accentuated when our minds refuse to “acknowledge the rupture” (Roy). But − Roy goes on to say − “the rupture exists” (ibid.). It would be trite to say that the rupture of trauma exposes a darker side of globalisation that has, until now, been undetectable. Quite the opposite is true: trauma exposes an underlying and antecedent trauma.

The trauma of this trauma lies in discovering that a virus can spread between globalised societies at such an unprecedented rate. The virus was capable of triggering a pandemic and causing so many deaths because neither politicians nor the global collective imaginary were capable of comprehending the fundamental trauma of globalisation: the fact that it functions − in a more profound way than ever before in human history, and increasingly so − as a network and chain of geo-political interdependence that links not only the destinies of distant and diverse individuals, but also the human and non-human (Wuhan’s patient-zero and the bat, for example), all living beings and the environment. The trauma of this trauma lies in coming to terms with the fact that globalised, neoliberal societies increase the reserves of their financial institutions while inversely depleting welfare and public health reserves, consequently leaving many nations ill-equipped to handle the situation (Hartford). The trauma of this trauma lies in realising that outsourcing the manufacture of all types of products is the cornerstone of globalised neoliberal societies. Overnight (though impacting different nations at different points, depending on the timeline of the pandemic), the invisible trauma of globalisation has become apparent in the most widespread and tangible vulnerability of this global crisis: the lack, not only − or rather, not primarily − of a bastion of technology and science (a vaccine or curative treatment), but also of the most basic medical equipment needed to fight the virus. The very equipment that any pre-globalised society would have been able to supply: face masks, antibacterial products, reagents required for swab analysis (Ramonet).

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