Conceptualizing Trauma: Reply to Rina Dudai

by Solange Leibovici

February 20, 2004


In her response to my paper, Rina Dudai stresses the concept of homeostasis, the purpose of which is to maintain the internal equilibrium of the body at the moment it is threatened by extreme emotions or severe danger. This happens in what Damasio calls "proto-self", an collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism at multiple levels of the brain, and of which we are not conscious. Homeostasis is a normal biological process that takes place when traumatic events threaten the physical and psychological integrity of the subject. But can homeostasis occur when the danger is not real, but relived in fantasy? If this is possible, how come it does not work in the case of phobia, or hypochondria, or psychosis, where a person also thinks of himself facing extreme danger and is absolutely incapable of coping with it? What is the relation between homeostasis, autobiographical self and memory? If homeostasis is an unconscious (and the word "unconscious" has a different meaning in neuroscience than it has in psychoanalysis), biological, physiological process, how can it play a role in the writing of literary texts?

I am far more interested in the concept of sublimation, which was never developed by Freud into a whole theory, but is now at the core of a discussion about sublimation, culture, art and ethics. See Parveen Adams, Art. Sublimation or Symptom, and the work of the Belgian scholars Antoine Vergote and Paul Moyaert. In my view, poetic writing is not linked to homeostasis, but to defense-mechanisms operating on painful events that become the core of cognitive processing. As Paul Ricoeur notes, art does not only have only a reproductive function, but it also has a productive function: creation of a sense of identity, pride about the result, communication with the reader. The main reason why I use the concept of sublimation, is because sublimation can only occur when there is a transformation of drive activity. We recognize this transformation in the feeling of joy an artist can feel about his work, even if this is only temporary. In the case of Levi's If this is a Man, this feeling may be limited for the reader, but it doesn't mean the writer did not experience some of it. As I wrote in my paper, If this is a Man is not only a testimony; it is also a literary work. This is particularly true in the case of The Reawakening, which in Italian was called La Tregua, "The Truce". As Philip Roth points out in an interview with Primo Levi, the story which might "have understandably been marked by a mood of mourning and inconsolable despair," is one of exuberance and reconciliation with life. It was If This is a Man and the success the book achieved that gave Primo Levi the idea he could have a future as a writer. In his own words, when he wrote the sequel La Tregua, he "aimed at having fun in writing and at amusing [his] prospective readers".

Rina Dudai writes that "in his poetic work, Primo Levi attempted to conceptualize his experience at the expense of omitting unconscious affects." If this is true, how can we explain that Primo Levis' poetry is so different from his other work? According to his biographer Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi himself saw his urge to write poems as a "sickness," and his poems are filled with feelings of despair, rage and hate we do not find in his autobiographical work. Here Primo Levi doesn't seem to repress feelings of grief and anger, nor does he refuse to "process or indulge feelings of hate." I think we can speak about a form of working-through (and not only acting-out) because here the emotional distance disappears and the events are relived, with all the feelings of pain, fear and anger they bring back into consciousness. This is why one might suggest that mourning (working-through) could be related to sublimation, as both are governed by an identical dynamic process, that of discharge.

We can only speculate about Primo Levi's death, and suicide has always many different causes. In my view, the most important of them was that Primo Levi began to forget his experience of the Lager. To remember he even had to reread his own books. Because of this, his creativity became sterile, he could no longer write and experience the joy of literary creation. This is the reason I wrote that he lived with a scar which remained painful and visible, but which was also the sign of his identity and uniqueness as a writer.  


Adams, P., ed. 2003. Art. Sublimation or Symptom. New York:Other Press.

Anissimov, M. 1996. Primo Levi ou la tragédie d'un optimiste. Paris:Lattès.

Damasio, A. 1999. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Roth, P. 2002. Shop Talk. London:Vintage.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Solange Leibovici "Conceptualizing Trauma: Reply to Rina Dudai ". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available February 20, 2004 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: December 30, 2003, Published: February 20, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Solange Leibovici