Conceptualizing Trauma: Trauma and Homeostasis: Commentary on Paper by Solange Leibovici

by Rina Dudai

February 19, 2004



In her paper, " Remembering, Acting out, Working-through: The case of Sarah Kofman." Solange Leibovici focuses on two aspects of response to trauma:

  1. Defense mechanisms, particularly sublimation, in the context of writing about traumatic experience.
  2. Acting-out and working-through in the context of the poetic text that reconstructs traumatic experience.

Leibovici considers sublimation as a defense mechanism that is subordinated to the act of working-through in a poetic text that stems from traumatic experience. 

In the course of her discussion, Leibovici conflates the terms sublimation, mourning and working-through, and shows, by comparing the work of Sara Kofman and Primo Levi, that Levi succeeds in achieving working-through and mourning by using sublimation as a defense mechanism. 

In the following I will refer to two major points:

  1. The role of poetic language in the context of writing about trauma.
  2. The role of homeostasis in poetic language in general, and in writing about trauma in poetic language in particular.

In view of the above I will characterize Primo Levi's writing. 

Poetic language functions in the liminial zone on the interface of the real and the symbolic order (Kristeva, 1974/ 1984). On the one hand, this language can shatter the symbolic order, forming cracks from which the real, the world of chaos, emerges. On the other hand, this language can establish the chaotic world while extracting new meaning from it. Poetic language constrains the uncontrollability of the unconscious elements of horror, despair and pain, without paying the price of crossing the line into madness. 

In my view, poetic language attempts to achieve homeostasis of the psyche in response to opposing forces: nearness and distance; exposure and concealable; semiotic and symbolic. This quest for homeostasis serves as an urge to avoid the loss of integrity while facing an extreme emotional experience like trauma. I am borrowing the term homeostasis from the field of physiology where it is referred to as: "the maintenance of steady state(s) by a system in the face of change" (Dudai, Y, 2002, 117).  

Claude Bernard (1865) named the environment inside of an organism as "the internal milieu". His insight was that in order for independent life to go on, the internal milieu had to be kept stable. Early in the twentieth century, W.B. Cannon carried these ideas further on by speaking about a physiological function he termed homeostasis, which he described as, "the coordinated physiological reactions which maintain most of the steady states of the body ...and which are so peculiar to the living organism" (cited in Damasio, 1999, 138). Homeostasis describes the automatic regulation of attributes such as temperature, oxygen concentration or pH. 

Damasio (1999) pushed this term a step further by proposing that homeostasis is not only an automatic mechanism, but rather, "a key to the biology of consciousness" (40). He argues that relative stability is required at all levels of processing from the simplest to the most complex. "Relative stability" he says "supports continuity of reference and is thus a requisite for the self" (135). In his view, consciousness is valuable because "it introduces a new means of achieving homeostasis" (303). 

I would like to take this term even further and argue that homeostasis is needed even in poetic language, where in the face of an extreme change, the writer attempts to cope with the trauma and the loss of integrity. The poetic text, as I have shown in my previous article (Dudai, 2002), is the space in which traumatic experience can be revived to a degree that permits its processing. It relocates the trauma in a protected arena, and permits _expression of the worse-of-all, yet contains it without being engulfed and overwhelmed by it. In a poetic text the author's experience is assumed to retain some of the uncontrolled and terrible essence of the trauma, yet the text creates an aesthetic, manageable distance from it. Like rites, ceremonies and some types of psychotherapy, literary work can expose the most terrifying events, yet observe them in relative safety. As in the myth of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa, whoever stares at the monster is petrified, but whoever uses a mirror survives.

In his poetic work, Primo Levi attempted to conceptualize his experience, but he did so at the expense of omitting unconscious affects. Throughout his life Levi maintained a strong sense of this need to recruit intellectual power to discipline the world, and kept refusing to recognize the need for the reverse emotional movement, the movement towards expressing the intensity of his feelings regarding the abyss, chaos, trauma and death. Levi repressed not only feelings of happiness and grief, but also emotions of guilt, shame, humiliation and anger. He may have refused to process or indulge in feelings of hate. He explained that he had consciously adopted aloofness, the transparent sober language of the witness. This is why he would not let himself "weep in the desert," as he said (1985/1989). Therefore I regard Primo Levi's writing on the Holocaust trauma as a defense mechanism of rationalization rather than sublimation, as Leibovici suggests. Levi's avoidances are indeed the traces of an acting-out process. The defense mechanism of rationalization is an acting-out response, not a working-through one. In this respect even the circumstances of his death do not seem to fit Lebovici's view: "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."

Perhaps, in writing about extreme traumatic experience like the Holocaust, it is impossible to reach an end to working-through or redemption, not even in the most poetic language. 


Bernard, C. 1865. Introduction a l'etude de la medecine experimentale. Paris: J.B. Bailliere et fils.

Cannon, W.B. 1932. The wisdom of the body. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Damasio, A. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. Harvest. New York.

Dudai, R. 2002. Primo Levi: Speaking From the Flames. Psyart. Article number: 020127.

Dudai, Y. 2002. Memory from A to Z. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Freud, S. 1914a. Remembering, repeating and working-through. S.E.12.145-156.

Freud, S. 1917. "Mourning and Melancholia." S.E.14.237-260.

Kristeva, J. 1974/1984. Revolution in Poetic Language. trans. M, Waller. NY: Columbia Press.

Levi, P. 1985/1989. On Obscure Writing in Other People's Trades. trans. Rosenthal, Michael Joseph. London.  

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Rina Dudai "Conceptualizing Trauma: Trauma and Homeostasis: Commentary on Paper by Solange Leibovici". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available October 14, 2015 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 28, 2003, Published: February 19, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Rina Dudai