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Speaking the Unspeakable: Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher as a Response to Trauma

By Heidi James.

All images from Michael Haneke’s film adaptation of The Piano Teacher 


Given the way that the twentieth century has often understood itself in terms of repeated traumatic events, frequently on a mass scale, and also by way of individual or “human” experience of the historical conflicts, crises and shifts throughout the past century, it is not surprising that the subject of trauma and its effects would become a focus for many writers, physicians and theorists.  Indeed, it could be conceived that the conception and study of trauma theory is a framing narrative of the whole twentieth century, which relentlessly underscores its own traumatic history. The study of trauma, as a troubled and troubling subject, constitutes an attempt to put in question the effects of trauma on individual survivors as well as the nature in which it is represented in the wider political and cultural domains.  Ultimately, what is at stake throughout the considerable corpus of work on trauma is authenticity: the ability of the victims of trauma to attest to the veracity of their testimonies, flagging the omnipresence of the law and its insistence on truthful representations of events even in private, therapeutic or confessional/cathartic situations.

It could well be said that the memory of a traumatic event is that which remains hidden, resisting the light of knowledge and interpretation, especially at the moment we attempt to name and categorise this traumatic event.  Shying away from the light of Christendom, of patriarchy, or of diagnosis, trauma is the darkness of forgetting, perhaps a way of not being named as victim; it clings to the safety of shadows, preferring a nomadic existence across fields of belonging. Oedipus staggered into the light and uncovered the horrific truth of his origins; but in the darkness of ignorance he was content.  What you don’t know can’t hurt you.  However, for most trauma theorists, this “unknowing” is not as simple as a self-protective forgetting or a wilful denial of victimhood, but instead a speechless horror that divides and reconfigures identity, requiring the aid of a psychoanalyst to affect an abreactive cure.  This way of thinking reveals itself as teleological and fundamentally theological in its determination that human life is progressive, inclined to absolute cure and open to salvation from a final, unspeakable horror.

This essay considers that the only “proper” address to trauma is literature—and specifically: the novel. Operating as both an explication and a wound—performing an exploratory examination/incision on the practice and production of the text—this metatext and the narrative it describes (against itself) must respond idiomatically to the disorder of the text because it is itself wounded and wounding. (I shall explore this in more depth when I turn to the mimetic model of trauma theory, wherein the aggressor is not exterior to the victim). This piece will briefly survey the broad scope of trauma studies and then go on to discuss the auto-fictive work of Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, particularly her novel The Piano Teacher (1983). My examination of Jelinek’s novel will consider how trauma is represented, despite language’s limitations and dominant culture’s pathologisation of trauma; in doing so, I will look closely at what form of expression this traumatised (and traumatic) telling takes.


I would suggest that the most significant problem in much of the psychoanalytic theory on trauma is the blight of interpretation.  This entails an insistence on translating neurosis, along with the symptoms and consequences of trauma, into a narrative that adheres to a “truth”: a founding paradigm designed to bring about health and a secular form of exorcism. This model recommends the rendering of personal and singular responses to extreme (and possibly forgotten) experiences into symbols and affects that are comprehensible principally to the analyst (priest).  Translating or interpreting “this” as “that” employs the weary tropes of similitude and representation that Jacques Derrida (amongst others) has denounced as ontotheological.  Applying a violent hermeneutics, aggressively interpreting behavioural phenomena, roughly tossing aside the “manifest content” in order to seek the “latent content,” interpretation is thus concerned with finding an equivalence, a metaphorical glisse (or Derridean sliding) that implies essence and transcendent forms and structures. This essay will further develop this problem of interpretation in the next section, with regard to the literature of trauma.

In Trauma: A Genealogy, Ruth Leys points to the inherent tensions in the Freudian abreactive model of trauma, highlighting the aporetic nature of mimesis and antimimesis, with the seemingly perpetual (and inevitable) collapse of one into the other.  Leys demonstrates that a mimetic suggestibility in the victims of trauma calls into question the veracity of trauma as reported by the victims, leading to the possibility of “false memories.”   She goes on to consider the implications of the trauma memory which is “literal,” uncontaminated by ”the subjective, unconscious-symbolic or fictive” as based on a dichotomy between the absolute exterior and the absolute interior—a dichotomy that reinforces the opposition between aggressor and victim.  As such, the economy of this situation renders the mimetic turn (and the negation of memory proper) nonviable.  For Leys: “The understandable but misplaced desire to resolve the mimetic-antimimetic oscillations means discussions of trauma are characteristically polarised between each of which can be maintained in its exclusiveness only at the price of falling into contradiction or incoherence.”

Similarly, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen rejects the notion of the unconscious, along with mimetic dissociation and libinally repressed traumatic memories, in favour of lucid simulation. In his book, Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification, Borch-Jacobsen suggests that there is not a genuine traumatic mnemonic lapse or gap created by the mimetic performance. Instead, he emphasises the subject’s complicity in the subsequent re-enaction, rendering hypnosis and hypnotic treatments as little more than simulated performances of so-called “repressed” or mimetic memory.

And yet despite the work of Leys, Borch-Jacobsen and others who interrogate this mimetic model of trauma and its attendant complications, mimetic theories of trauma and selective amnesia are still evident in the post-Holocaust, post-Vietnam writings of literary trauma theorists Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman and Lawrence Langer, and in the work of physician Bessel A. van de Kolk and psychotherapist Dori Laub.

For Caruth, “trauma stands outside representation altogether,” thus putting into question the abreactive split between experience and representation and maintaining the explanation of the traumatic episode as fixed in time, unrepresented as a past event, and re-encountered, whole, in a dissociated present. Caruth argues that “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on.”  This notion of trauma as a haunting or a returning is further supported by Langer’s work,: he reports that witnesses of the Holocaust claim to be possessed by traumatic events rather than simply remembering them. Traumatic events, then, are described in uncanny terms, resembling a daemon or parasite that resides in the host body, a body that is held hostage by a history that is entirely unassimilated, one that is absolutely other, creating a metaphysical/supernatural trope from a valid response to an empirically documented incident.


Van de Kolk’s work seems to support this concept of a “timeless” memory, albeit via a return to the somatic origins of trauma studies.  Indeed, Caruth and van der Kolk’s work often intersect at the level of citation and cross-referencing. For van de Kolk and his associates, traumatic memory can be explained in neurobiological terms, suggesting that the memory of the original event is encoded by the brain in a different way than usual memory processes.  This leaves a “reality imprint,” a pristine, literal record of the event that eludes symbolisation and representation, structured as it is as the “black hole” of traumatic memory.Van der Kolk suggests that these “imprints” could be described as “procedural memories”” “memories of skills and habits, emotional responses, reflexive actions and classically conditioned responses.”  Key to his theory is that all trauma memories are “mute” or “iconic,” severed as they are from linguistic-semantic organisation.  In an essay cited by Caruth in Unclaimed Experience, van der Kolk and his colleague, Mark S. Greenberg, describe this hypothesis as follows:

 Amnesia can occur when traumatic experiences are encoded in sensorimotor or iconic form and therefore cannot be easily translated into the symbolic language necessary for linguistic retrieval. It is plausible that in situations of terror, the experience does not get processed in the symbolic/linguistic forms, but tends to be organised on a sensorimotor of iconic level – as horrific images, visceral sensations, or fight/flight reactions…. The essence of the trauma experience is that it leaves people in a state of “unspeakable terror”….  These various cognitive formulations provide a model for the pathologies of memory associated with psychological trauma without resorting to the psychoanalytic notions of motivated forgetting, censorship, and repression.

Thus, what is negated is any kind of verbal representation leading to a cure. Indeed, further on in the essay both authors prescribe a “painting cure” in which the patient—through painting or drawing—may be able to represent and thus access the dissociated memory. This appears to suggest that visual images are non-symbolic and unrelated to linguistic representation. (One might recall, here, those passages in “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” where Derrida highlights the way in which the psychic apparatus is, for Freud, pictographically scripted.) Like Freud before him, van der Kolk appears to contradict his own findings. Reporting patients’ responses to questions posed regarding their traumatic memories, he states:

All of our subjects reported that they initially had no narrative memories for          the events; they could not tell a story about what had happened, regardless of    whether they always knew that the traumas had happened [...] All these    subjects … claimed that they initially “remembered” the trauma in the form of      somatosensory flashback experiences [...] As the trauma came into consciousness with greater intensity, more sensory modalities were activated,   and the subjects’ capacity to tell themselves and other what actually happened emerged over time.

This study [...] supports the idea that the very nature of a traumatic memory is to be dissociated, and to be stored initially as sensory fragments that have no linguistic components.  All of the subjects in this study claimed that they only came to develop a narrative of their trauma over time.

This assertion implies that, while victims they are initially severed from the speech act—and consequently reduced to the function of a recording device or medium through which the original scene (above all as a visual representation) is faithfully reproduced via flashback and/or re-enactments—nevertheless, over time, the victim of trauma would eventually be able to construct a narrative representation of their traumatic experience.  This yet again illustrates the aporia inherent in dominant trauma theory. For while there are detailed formulae and descriptions of the process of how and why the survivor “unremembers,” there is little written to relate the somatic (or otherwise) process of remembering to the original traumatic event and subsequent representations of it.  How does the subject suddenly “unlock” this repressed memory of the primary trauma? Does this not undermine the original account of Freudian trauma theory, precisely because the original trauma is said to be unavailable to memory and therefore unrepresentable?  The lack of explanations about the actual process of remembering causes many theorists to hide behind psychoanalytic concepts, ones that promise to unlock the hidden recesses of memory; however, these are offered without an accompanying description of the methods used or of the mechanics employed by the psyche, despite a detailed corresponding explanation for the original process of forgetting.

Correspondingly, the Freudian/abreactive model of trauma implies a universal reaction to trauma: that dissociation is the only available response to overwhelming terror or irrecuperable shock.  This model posits that trauma is hermeneutically impenetrable, but still considers that transmission is possible eventually, and that in this transmission the unspeakable is spoken. But one wonders how this can be considered as trauma proper according to the terms proffered by the Freudian model: the unspeakable becomes speakable; the disremembered, literal experience is remembered and assimilated; what was once absolutely “other” is now “self.”   Not only are such contradictions blantantly apparent in such theoretical discourse, but this universalist application also problematically denies personal and singular responses to trauma, experiences influenced by diverse cultural, social and historical influences.


The universality of traumatic experience is a theme that is articulated and developed further by both Felman and Caruth.  For these two thinkers, trauma could be considered contagious, a pathogen psychically passed on from one generation to the next by way of transhistorical acts of narration, either written or verbal. Caruth states that trauma “is never simply one’s own [...] [but] precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas.”

These concepts of intergenerational contagion, appropriation of trauma by witnesses to testimony, trauma ontogenesis, and so on, require that the traumatised speak and adequately convey the horror of their experiences; but, as I previously discussed, most trauma theorists view this act of self-diegesis as virtually impossible: trauma is unspeakable, unrepresentable.  This paradox maintains the mystique of authenticity at the heart of trauma studies.  What appears to be neglected in this assertion of “unspeakability” is the cultural value ascribed to the traumatic experience and the way in which society influences what constitutes a permissible narrative. Psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer writes:

Registration, rehearsal, and recall [of traumatic events] are governed by social contexts and cultural models for memories, narratives, and life stories. Such cultural models influence what is viewed as salient, how it is interpreted and encoded at the time of registration, and, most important for long-term memories that serve autobiographical functions, what is socially possible to speak of and what must remain hidden and unacknowledged.

The sheer volume of trauma testimonials—from the Yale tapes of Holocaust survivors, autobiography, so called misery memoir through to fictive representations—demonstrates that trauma is not necessarily unspeakable; instead, it may be too difficult and uncomfortable to listen to. It also requires an adequate medium through which it can be expressed. If language is the ultimate repository for memory, then representations of trauma must utilise pre-existing symbolic and linguistic devices. In this case, then, it is language itself that determines what is unspeakable.  Trauma narratives are rendered incomplete or chaotic and fragmented as they stand,  perhaps not due to the limitations of the survivor, but to the limitations of language to adequately convey the experiences.

In Worlds of Hurt, Kali Tal describes bearing witness to one’s trauma as an “aggressive act,” one “born out of a refusal to bow to outside pressure to revise or to repress experience, a decision to embrace conflict rather than conformity, to endure a lifetime of anger and pain rather than to submit to the seductive pull of revision and repression.” If a survivor’s testimony can be undermined by questions of authenticity, the struggle to be heard is lost before the first utterance can occur; also, this battle is not over an authentic narrativisation, but has to do with a network of interrelated utterances all speaking the same experience in different words, and all wanting to be heard. In these terms, it might be considered that psychoanalytic models of trauma are attempts at a mastery that represses the difficult testimonies of survivors and maintains the dominant modes of social and political structure.

If psychoanalytic understanding and interpretation are constituted as attempts at identification, or impositions of a “stable identity,” we might then ask: what is the proper address to trauma? Perhaps an inviolate understanding is to not attempt to know, but to acknowledge and experience the unknowing, demanding a paradoxical movement, an understanding not to understand. This might entail a commitment to avoid taxonomic verb/noun structures (e.g., there is “a” truth) and use instead the conjunction “and,” or to place the question “and then?” at narrative points to allow the story to be told without scrutiny, with all its messy, temporal and inauthentic misrememberings. In The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading, critic Barbara Johnson contends that “unification and simplification are fantasies of domination, not understanding.” If the trope of trauma exceeds symbolic exchange, it is because the speaker has survived the unspeakable and lives on to tell the impossible tale.

Literature as Response; or, The Case of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher

Literature is committed to examining the complex relation between knowing and not knowing, both focusing on subject matter that both demands and defies understanding. As Jacques Lacan tells reminds us: “‘reading in no way obliges us to understand.”’ Likewise, as we’ve I have discussed above, psychoanalysis may not provide clarity or a satisfying recuperative interpretation or understanding of trauma.  From this perspective, Gilles Deleuze offers a way method of reading that asks not what something means, but what it does.  What effects does the text produce?  How does the text operate in a “system of relations”?  In other words, how does the author write the impossible: how does she write trauma?

In light of the violence previously perpetrated against the victim (real or otherwise), it befits any consideration of trauma narratives to adopt a reading process that does not perpetuate a hermeneutic violence by asking what something means—or demanding veracity, lucidity or sense as such—but to ask what effects of reading bear on the reader.  This avoidance of “interpretosis” —according to Deleuze, significance and interpretosis are the two diseases of the earth, the pair of despot and priest—is an inoculation, if you will, against the hegemony of the “Il y’a,” (to follow Hélène Cixous’s conjugation of the verb “to be”) the pronouncement of identity and meaning, working instead towards the conjunction “and,”where meaning is constructed from linkage, accretion and accrual. This will enable readers to pursue those connections and associations that open the text to multiple discourses which may surface in individual reading practices. This drawing towards the text aims to unsettle and loosen the narrative without imposing an authoritative interpretation. In terms of trauma narratives, the statement “there either is or there is not trauma,” should be replaced by the analysis of how is trauma conveyed and articulated.  How are episodes of temporal extremity, physical brutality, repetition and memory expressed in a literary piece, and to what effect? How does the author convey the most painful and difficult of experiences in a fictive way?

Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher describes the life of Erika K, a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory.  Still living with her mother, with whom she has an interdependent and oedipal relationship (her father loomingly absent), Erika finds solace and release in repeated acts of self-harm, cutting into her flesh with a razor that she keeps in “an intricate package” and “takes everywhere.” At night, Erika indulges in voyeurism: spying on lovers in the park; watching women perform on stage in peepshows and on the screen in porn films.  Consumed by a self-destructive impulse, she falls in love with her student, Walter Klemmer, and invites him to beat her in a brutal and psychologically complex scene of sadomasochism. However, enraged by her request to violate her, Walter in effect subverts the scene and actually does rape and beat Erika whilst her mother screams outside a barricaded room.  The narrative culminates in Erika stabbing herself after a final rejection from Walter. This complication and harrowing novel can be approached via multiple linkages and connections—e.g., national guilt and mimetic behaviours, feminist theory, post modernism, expenditure via Georges Bataille and various rhetorical devices spring to mind as I read and re-read this text. However, I will focus on Erika’s use of auto-trauma (self-harm) as a mode of expressing the inexpressible.


The fictional protagonist in Jelinek’s text functions according to a specific, singular experience of trauma connected to her culture and ideology.  Whilst she could be read as a metonym of post-World War II Austrian national guilt and an expression of collective trauma—thereby offering a mimetic and historical function to fiction—I want instead to focus on the specificity of her trauma and its representation. It is precisely the gap between text and experience that makes fiction the more reliable representation of trauma, I would argue, since by eschewing the simple demand for authenticity, that is to say by privileging feeling over fact, one may acknowledge that the “trauma story” engages in larger, and always open, assemblages of meaning/reference—much more so than closed discursive systems of testimonial expectation, effectively evading what Félix Guattari calls an “ontological homogeneity of referents.” Such an approach lends itself more readily to the myriad experiences of trauma and the heterogeneous modes of figuring those experiences, relying not so much on the meaning of the language and syntax appropriated by the writer, but on the aesthetic function of the text itself.  This allows for meaningful representations that embrace difficulty, untruths, fantasy and the unknowable quality of another’s suffering.

Virginia Woolf notes the inability of language to adequately represent pain and suffering when she writes:

English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache [….] The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

Thus pain actively eludes or even destroys language and linguistic expression.  This brings us back to the question: how does one express trauma, pain and suffering?   Ultimately the emphasis is on “shareability” and the choice of a medium that allows one to convey moments of our consciousnesses that shatter language—indeed, a conveyance that is anterior to language altogether.

The literary cultural trope of auto-trauma or self-mutilation is hardly new. In Leviticus 19:28, one finds the prohibition: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead nor put marks upon you. For I am the Lord.” This ritualistic marking for the dead refers to the ancient practice of mourning in which cutting the flesh and rubbing the ashes of the deceased into the wound was a sign of showing respect.  This literal incorporation of the dead into the mourning body is an impassioned violence that is purported to offend the Judeo-Christian God with its idolatry. Its prohibition encompasses all acts of self-harm (including tattoos) as a transgression of the body’s sanctity, a God-given body that must remain intact (and in His image) in order to gain entry to the Kingdom of Heaven.  This law had particular significance for Jews incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps, and whose bodies where defiled by the tattooing of an identification number on the skin of the wrist, even though the Shulhan Arukh (the sixteenth-century code of Jewish law) makes it clear that those whose flesh is marked against their will are “blameless.”

Erika K. expresses her trauma via the gesture of auto-trauma, a self-imposed transgression against her body, a transvaluation “otherwise” of the pain, shame and humiliation that she feels.  It is a highly complex and ambivalent gesture constituting both resistance and submission; a gesture that could be seen to comment on the profound violence against the laws of a community subordinated and decimated by a generation of her fellow Austrians and Germans.

This transgression might be seen to operate as a function of desire: a desire to communicate, to liberate herself from the apron strings of mother and state, and, perhaps, as a desire to atone for the sins of her forbears.  Auto-trauma, as a mode of communication irreducible to speech, is the mode through which Erika struggles to reveal and describe her longings in an almost inscrutable language—that of self-harm—which is at once the language of a resistant self and also the language used by the very milieu that calls for resistance in the first place. But if transgression is the natural corollary of desire pushed to its limits, then the law of desire is the lawlessness of negating limits and boundaries,;and, of course, there can be no lawlessness within such a context. The limits and boundaries are maintained and the law vehemently reinforced by so-called transgressive incursions.  Thus, Erika’s acts of rebellion reinscribe the very law she seeks to eradicate. Yet, paradoxically, to peek behind the law, to take an unwitnessed step beyond the law is to discover that it casts no shadow, that its flimsy, human construction is a diaphanous screen behind which there are no gods, no spectators vocalizing their displeasure. Rebellion is a means of being seen, of asking that another human being bear witness to one’s actions; indeed, because of this, rebellion provides the essential constituents of the law, just as, for Erika, her mother “maintains the eye of the law.” This construct requires another in order to exist.  To step beyond the law without witness, alone, is to encounter the horror of the void, the horror of a world revealed to be in a state of chaos, without the imposition of human order and logic: a world without and beyond all reason.


For Jelinek’s protagonist, Erika K, her mother is the law: “She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognised as Mother by the State and by the Family.”  Erika has internalised her mother’s laws and injunctions, effectively replacing her mother as bestower of justice by enacting her mother’s punitive practices on herself, thereby becoming ensnared in the paradox of conscience which Freud described as absolutely determining: the crueller the command the stricter one obeys it.  Erika no longer needs her mother to instil discipline via corporal punishment; she will administer the retribution herself.

Jelinek writes: “By not encouraging injuries, a mother avoids having to close wounds later on.  Erika’s mother prefers inflicting injuries herself, then supervising the therapy.” Constituting the mother as the law legitimises and stabilises the mother’s infliction of punishment, injury and rehabilitation, thereby setting the stage for Erika to use methods of self-harm to transgress the mother’s law and order, not to mention a necessary severance from her mother’s influence as the keeper of the law. Michel Foucault describes the structures of discipline as “observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded…” Therefore, Erika makes a decision to circumnavigate the auspices of her mother’s power: she inflicts her own wounds as an assertion of her own power, proving her desire to pursue lawlessness.

In Sigrid Berka’s essay “D(e)addyfication,” she considers Erika K’s masochism as both allied to the mother and to a larger account of sadomasochism as the only pleasurable response in the age of the Adornoean culture industry. Berka’s essay describes how Deleuze places masochism directly under the auspices of the mother, rejecting the classic depiction of the dominus as phallic or father figure. The three types of mother figures encountered in Deleuze’s maternal scene are the Oral, the Uterine and the Oedipal.  The Oral mother is perceived as nurturing and providing nourishment (in the Lacanian imaginary scene of reading, text and reader could be said to constitute a maternal unity); the Uterine mother describes a prostituted or public sexuality that is available to all; and the Oedipal mother is perceived as the didactical disciplinarian. In the masochistic scene, however, for both Deleuze and Berka, the mother partakes (naturally) in the qualities associated with both the Uterine and the Oedipal mother figures. I would argue against this placement of the masochistic scene with regard to Erika K.  Instead, placing the auto-traumatic scene under the aegis of the Oral mother, thereby subverting the symbolic order, and allowing the imaginary to exist in repetition, in the haven of pre-oedipal access to the mother’s body.

The maternal body is whole in the pre-oedipal phase, shorn of all lack, immune to desire and wholly satisfying to the child. The relationship sates both mother and child, yet still follows a dominant-versus-dominated paradigm.  While there is infinite plenitude, there is only the mother, as dominant authority figure, to permit it. The “good” child receives solace from the “good” and benevolent mother, whose selfless generosity is necessarily bound up with its opposite. This, then, is to place the gesture of auto-trauma within the realm of the prelinguistic, pre-oedipal bond, or, to put it in simplistic terms, Erika K. is inflicting wounds upon herself and is acting as a mother to herself, re-experiencing the lack of all lack, a utopia where language and the symbolic order are redundant, polluting. Only Erika herself can provide the solace she seeks by mimicking her mother’s treatment of her.


In Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi suggests that:

If the subject is always already inserted into the symbolic Order, how can such an implacably authoritarian structure be broken up? It obviously cannot happen through a straightforward rejection of the symbolic, since such a total failure would, in Lacanian terms, make us psychotic.  We have to accept our position as inserted into an order that precedes us and from which there is no escape.  There is no other space from which we can speak: if we are able to speak at all, it will have to be within the framework of symbolic language.

It is this impossibility of speaking beyond the established framework of the Symbolic that makes necessary Erika K’s affirmation of self via auto-trauma: the infliction of traumatic harm upon one’s own body. Jelinek’s text implies that the infant Erika K. did not experience the sanctity of the pre-oedipal unit since “the baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage.  Her father promptly left, passing the torch onto his daughter.” With her father’s abandonment, Erika was immediately indoctrinated into language of the Symbolic realm; she has become her father’s replacement, a substitute husband for her mother, father to herself, the silent yet stoic instrument of language and representation. There can be no return to an idyll she never experienced. The sadomasochistic scene in the novel discussed above will, however, offer no succour as it requires a return to a state of passivity and nurturing Erika has never experienced. Later in the novel she writes a letter directing her young student-lover, Klemmer, to physically and sexually dominate her.  With his “natural” phallic dominance affronted by her spoken masochistic desires, Erika’s attempt to control and direct the scene fails: he brutalises Erika in excess of her requests.  The “fantasy scene” has failed and devolved into a real rape scene. Hence Erika’s only recourse is to her “hobby” of self-harm, by means of which she seeks to attain ultimate control over the experience of the traumatic event of the rape. In the act of self-harm, the actor is both the doer and the-done-to, instigating a collapse of subject/object relations (which had hitherto been nothing but damaging).  For Deleuze, the word sadomasochistic itself is inaccurate, conjuring a false intersubstitutibility of the two terms,  “sadism” and “masochism.”  Deleuze insists that the two are not interchangeable.  Therefore, the sadist is not a masochist assuming a brutal posture,  but a distinct, desiring machine.  For Erika K., this implies that she is a sadist, with herself as victim; she projects outwards the masochistic part of herself that suffers at the hands of her own sadism. This is in effect the “use” she makes of Klemmer: writing the letter and asking him to violate her, to brutalize her, is her attempt to externalize her feelings of sadism with regard to herself: Klemmer, much like Erika is for her mother, a substitute father figure at whose hands she wants both to suffer and at the same time rebel.

And yet, perhaps it is possible that Erika’s compulsion to self-harm can be explained by Jonathan Dollimore’s contention: “From the earliest times, death has held out the promise of a release not just from desire but from something inseparable from it, namely the pain of being individuated (separate, differentiated, alone) and the form of self-consciousness which goes with that.” Separated from her mother by language, bereft of the pre-oedipal caesura, it could be read that Erika’s gestures of auto-trauma are manifestations of the death drive, a longing to return to the multitudinous chaos of molecular prefiguration, the safety of non-entity becoming, to achieve jouissance even if that means self-annihilation.

Despite this, Erika’s mother stands for the law, and Erika must obey that law until the moment when it can be subverted; it seems, then, that auto-trauma substitutes for the punitive action of the mother, interrupting the filial power relation, yet in a way that, as Kaja Silverman writes, “is always organised to some degree by what it subverts.” In Deleuze’s terms, Erika “attacks the law on another flank.”  From Deleuze’s perspective, this manoeuvre creates the very conditions that makes her forbidden autonomy a possibility.  It overthrows the mother’s law, banishing the mother from her superego, As Deleuze writes:

The beating woman…also transforms the superego into the recipient of the beating, the essential victim…The ego triumphs, and asserts its autonomy in pain, the parthenogenetic rebirth from pain, pain being experienced as inflicted upon the superego.

Speaking from one’s self to one’s self, a parenthetical gesture if you will, is auto-trauma. The gesture is offered to the self and therefore, bracketed off, self-reliant and self-fulfilling: it is parenthetical. A contract individually constructed, purely imaginary, a return to the pre-oedipal space of intimacy sans desire, of infinite fulfilment as opposed to the institution of the Sadean crime: utterly impersonal; absolutely impartial.  Auto-trauma is a silence, seen but never heard; it does not enter into any “scene”. The dialectics of presence/absence, thought/speech, and self/other are effaced with a bold self-encounter, a gesture without recourse to an absolute other, which, paradoxically, in turning away from the other entirely, creates a full circle and is thus an absolute expression of a turning towards the other.


I would contend that this expression or gesture works in a similar manner to a  “minor literature,” as described by Deleuze and Guattari, in their work Kafka: “A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.” It is, as it were, a deterritorialisation of the major language; a destabilisation of the dominant discursive practices—not by imposing another language, but by pushing the dominant mode to its extreme and causing it to ”stutter.”

Delueze and Guattari go on to write: “And if the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility.” What Deleuze and Guattari term the (minor) literary endeavor is a process of communication and connection between minor communities or individuals forced to speak the language of the majority. For Deleuze, the question of how a community inaugurates a minor literature from a major language is not just a problem for the obviously oppressed, but for almost everyone: be they a trauma victim, an immigrant, a feminist, a transgendered individual, the proletariat or a member of any kind of group that has traditionally been not so much silenced, but forced to speak in a tongue that is not their own. This new minor language, undone from sense and non-representative, is one not so much spoken as stuttered: it moves towards its extreme or limit and takes the speaker to the margins of the already flawed system of language.

The minorisation of language and its necessary unsettling of the “major” discursive system is vital to the writer of trauma literature, in order to represent or convey that which cannot (or which should not) be represented.  Erika K. utilises self-harm as a syntactical expression, in that her cuts and wounds are her only means to communicate the horror of her trauma, where language fails utterly. The corporeal plane violently intersects with the discursive plane, throwing into disarray the notion of the adequate mimetic function of language.  Further, this interruption and eruption of language is also present throughout the whole narrative of The Piano Teacher, its own prose idiomatically reflecting and refracting the notion of trauma and its representability. The narrative opens and closes like a healing wound, sometimes connecting with the reader and allowing penetration, and at other moments the syntax snaps shut, sealing the reader either in or out: “Erika Kohut encloses only herself, nobody else.”

Here, Jelinek seems to describe in one person a hyper-individualisation and inscription of absolute difference. Auto-trauma as a parenthetical gesture is an expression that does not seek to explain or resist; it is a Deleuzean “becoming,” a phantasm in its own right, undoing the dichotomous “logic” between passivity and activity, reception and delivery, and even silence and speech. It rescinds the traditional hierarchy of doer and done-to, reader and writer, mother and daughter, dominant and submissive; it is a deconstruction of filial power relations, augmented by allusions to Austrian national guilt and a kind of cultural desire toward auto-trauma. It demands retaining power over oneself—“and now Erika hands it, like a runner’s staff to Walter Klemmer…Erika is using her love to make this boy her master…Klemmer will be her slave completely…”—which can then be passed on to a lover in order to subvert control. Paradoxically, by handing power over with specific instructions on how and when to pantomine power over her, which for Erika is an action doomed in the text to fail, Klemmer’s initial refusal to be controlled by Erika is something she has not considered: he then takes absolute power, not just by abusing her according to her letter, but by abusing her in a manner not stipulated by her whatsoever.

With evident affiliations to auto-immunity, this collapse of meaning, reception and delivery via self-harm becomes the parenthetical gesture—which is to say, it is a fleshy anacoluthon that perpetrates an obscene grammaticality of flesh and language. It becomes a  representation of personal trauma and torment, via a “minor” gesture that transgresses and exceeds language, and the enshrined sanctity of the body. Nor does this gesture seek to define, contain or limit. An encounter with the self via a gesture eradicates that encounter.  Erika’s body is a palimpsest of punishments, both self- and Mater-inflicted.  Her body is the medium through which she expresses the inexpressible, a body that records traumas that defy just as they destroy language.  Aporetic, singular, yet molar; caught in dialectical reverberation, bouncing back and forth, transgression and restoration, attack and conciliation—Erika is all things to herself: abuser, victim, nurse and lover. By demonstrating her suffering, she makes visible that which previously could not be verified or shared with others.

Jelinek’s excessive and ostentatious textual production resists hermeneutic penetration, doubling the violence of what is read and what is written. The language froths and foams, denying any fixed meaning. The text erases itself, contradicting and subverting various literary tropes.  Erika is described as both a woman in her “late thirties” and as her mother’s “little whirlwind… the child can be an absolute speed demon” within the same paragraph.  Narrative point-of-view switches mid-sentence, from omniscient to close third-person allied to either Erika or Walter, preventing a stable point-of-view coalescing; and the narrative goes on to violently implicate the reader: “after allowing ourselves a short breather, Klemmer wants to list all the things a woman shouldn’t do to such a man” (emphasis added). The reader here is as much the one traumatizing Erika as is Klemmer.  In an interview, Jelinek instructed her readers to consider the characters that appear in her texts as representational constructs and so to avoid discussing them in terms of psychological progression or development. This dismissal and effacement of her characters as subjects of enquiry proves such a deterritorial excess of her text.


The text has much in common with Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” in which “Utilizing the nervous magnetism of man, to transgress the ordinary limits of art and speech in order to realize actively, that is magically, in real terms, a kind of total creation.” For Artaud, the object was to lose the constraints of narrative and verbal signs, favouring nonverbal gestures such as the scream and the “tortured body.”  Foucault described these gestures as returning language to the “materiality of thought.” Perhaps the gestures of self-harm are Erika K’s return to the materiality of thought, from silence to speech, a pure articulation that needs no answer and no interpretation that language can offer.

Idiomatically reflecting the power relations of sadomasochism, The Piano Teacher destabilizes the culturally-sanctioned hierarchy which attributes the reader supremacy over the text. Constructing a negative domination, rather like the play in BDSM scenes in which the masochist is actually the author of the action (to bring Foucault’s work on fisting to mind), the author of this text inflicts the cuts, resists penetration and accosts the reader.  This transgression of the reading encounter mimics the text’s equivocal depictions of victim and perpetrator.  In opening up to the reading process and willing the text to perform and satisfy like the oral mother, it is revealed to the reader how this text spurns, or, worse, is impassive, obscene, utterly beyond the law of representation: wholly impervious to hermeneutic violence; immune to the allegory of reading as a discourse of power.  The text requires, indeed insists on, a proximity of reading that does not capitulate to the temptation to understand, to interpret and to master.  It is a proximity that demands the “shudder of thought,” a mode of thinking described by Kierkegaard in which an attempt at comprehension leads to “virtual annihilation.”

This incomprehensibility, a setting apart, in terms of the other, the distance insisted upon by the text (and by auto-trauma) is of course a drawing towards the other absolutely—in the absolute violence of spurning the other, we forge an untenable connection with the other. And yet, this other is not alterior in merely negative or positional terms such as non-self, but is always in the process of becoming an opening:

She sits alone in her room, isolated from the crowd […] She jostles no one. From an intricate package, she carefully unwraps a razor blade.  She always takes it everywhere.  The blade smiles like a bridegroom at a bride.  She gingerly tests the edge: it is razor-sharp.  Then she presses the blade into the back of her hand several times…

What is so striking about this passage, apart from the clear expression of isolation and self-enclosure, is the metonymy under erasure; that the substance of the razor is so absolute it cannot be substituted with a metaphor.  The razor is razor-sharp. The infliction of her wounds cannot be administered by a substitute other figure.  Rejecting tropes of similitude, the narrative continues to open itself to the stutter, the and, and, and, not requiring the clarity of identification or ontological comparison.  The razor is razor-sharp.

Added to this, Erika is mourning the loss of her father, his lack and the mandate of her having to take his place as husband and breadwinner; she therefore longs for the restitution of the Symbolic order.  In her mourning she marks him, creates a space for him on her body, literally incorporating him into her flesh: “A single ejaculation killed desire and created a space for the daughter.  Father killed two birds with one stone.  And killed himself with the same stroke.”


Thus, her father is dead and Erika is expected to fill his place, to remark on his absence by her substitutional presence. For Erika, guilt enters the scene here; she is born with burden of unending guilt.  Hedwig Appelt’s Lacanian analysis of Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher considers how Erika’s quest for her symbolic meaning as a woman (as the substitute phallus for her mother) causes an ambivalence that is acted out as auto-aggression—in other words, Erika punishes herself for her lack as female. From this position it might be considered that Erika affirms an incorporation and union with the father’s body: emphatically not the body of the same—the mother, the law maker—but the father. She inscribes her father on her body, both to punish herself and to memorialize him. In her highly, but hidden, eroticised mourning of the father, Erika mourns her lack of infancy and the lack of afiliation with her mother, to which she responds by marking her own flesh.  She demarcates a space for the father. She is literally “marking herself for the dead.”

But another way of reading this act, another view of these marks, these scars, is as a deeper narcissistic humiliation, namely,  her castration.  If cutting into her own flesh is an act of self-castration as Annegret Mahler-Bungers argues, it could be read that the opening of wounds, dissolving the exteriority of the body as exterior, surface and unified, works to translate the interiority of desire for distance from her mother as a replacement for her father, into an excess of femininity, via a condition of hyper –submissiveness. The multiple openings she creates in her flesh refute any possible possession of the father’s phallus; auto-trauma is therefore mourning and also an attempt to absolve familial guilt for the father’s death. Erika is not, cannot be, the heir to her father’s phallus; she demonstrates via auto-trauma that she is excessively female.

Erika is positioned in the narrative as an oedipal figure, both killing her father and replacing him as her mother’s object of desire; for this she must atone by wielding a razor blade against herself, and with this act of atonement, she simultaneously reminds herself of her debt and her guilt.  This account, however, can never be settled.  Nietzsche describes the intergenerational guilt-account in On the Genealogy of Morals, in which succeeding generations accumulate the debt of existence to their ancestors.  This “bestiality of thought,” “a madness of the will which is absolutely unexampled: the will of man to find himself guilty and reprehensible to a degree that can never be atoned for” is a pathology of guilt not just for our existence but for the guilt for our own father’s sins. However, the notion of suffering as penance for guilt is corrupted once that penance and suffering has become a consolation. For Erika K.: “In its supreme form, pain is a variety of pleasure.” The very limits of this expenditure extend to the excesses of guilt and pleasure, suffering and atonement, negating any boundaries between them and therefore the carnal economy must collapse under these limitless rotations and oscillations.

To come back to the debt of guilt accruing for the parent’s sins, perhaps it ought to be recalled once again that Erika K’s Austrian parents are from the generation debased by Hitler’s fascism.  More importantly, Jelinek’s father was Jewish. Are Erika’s self-inflicted wounds a marking to remind, or re-marking to remark on the ultimate violence: the Holocaust? Punishing the body for its shameful collusion by merely being alive, having been born to the generation that perpetrated such crimes? Including her Catholic Austrian mother’s crimes against her Jewish father? Is this an example of intergenerational guilt as previously discussed and as theorised by Felman, and others?  Perhaps; perhaps not. Any intergenerational guilt is self-acquired, chosen rather than passed on as a contagion across the permeable boundary of filial and social relations.

Jelinek uses image and text to “force language outside its customary furrows, they make it delirious”—and take it to its extreme limits: a limit not outside language, but the outside of language. Nietzsche writes that the poet, the philosopher, and the artist are never sick individuals, nor the patient, but always the “physician of culture” to which Deleuze agrees. Writers diagnose the pathology of their epoch and their literary practice creates “an enterprise of health.” In order to accomplish this greater health, it may be necessary to subvert the reactionary and primitive ideal of health and to dis-organ-ize the body. Deleuze writes of the ‘body without organs’ as something to be emancipated from the application of value and meaning by the ideal organism. He develops the idea from Artaud who, in his 1947 radio play To Be Done with the Judgement of God, declares:

Man is sick because he is badly constructed. / We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to / scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally, / God, / and with God / his organs. / For you can tie me up if you wish, / but there is nothing more useless than an organ. / When you will have made him a body without organs, / then you will have delivered him from all his automatic / reactions and restored him to his true freedom.

Like Deleuze, Foucault also plays with the idea of a new corporeality via the creation of “anarchy within the body” so that “its hierarchies, its localizations and designations, its organicity, if you will, is in the process of disintegrating” and the body becomes far more plastic: “something that opens itself, that tightens, that throbs, that beats, that gapes.”

The enterprise of liberating this greater health is expressed via literature, a literature that invents and invokes a time and a people to come; not as a transcendent utopia, but as what Deleuze calls an “immanent utopia,” i.e.. one that already exists in the connections between us.  Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher describes a distorted world populated by abject and lonely characters.  Her writing eschews virile heroics that stride over frailty only to offer a false recovery of health, thereby echoing the pathologising discourses of trauma and the need to enforce recovery so the victim can once again become a viable subject in the world of the culture industry.  Jelinek writes a responsible philosophy here in which Erika encounters an impossible choice of redemption that is only allowed, within the limitations of language, to speak with an affirmatory: I bleed. “Erika is!”

So what remains once one has taken language to its own external limit? Perhaps only gesture and finally—silence. Deleuze writes:

When a language is so strained that it starts to stutter, or to murmur or stammer … then language in its entirety reaches the limit that marks its outside and makes it confront silence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heidi James’s novel Wounding was published by Bluemoose Books in April, 2014. She was a finalist for the Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (Apis Books) was launched in July 2007 and will be re-released by Neon Press in October 2014. Her novella Carbon was published by Blatt in October 09 and is published in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre. Carbon is currently being made into a film by British film company, Institute for Eyes. Her most recent collaboration with Gwyneth Herbert, The Sea Cabinet, attracted outstanding reviews from The Guardian, Vogue and The FT, among others. Her essays, poetry and short stories have appeared in various publications and anthologies including Dazed and Confused, Next Level, Flux, Brand, Mslexia, Another Magazine, Undercurrent, 3:AM London, New York, Paris, Dreams That Money Can Buy, Neon, Pulp.net etc. She has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English Literature.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 14th, 2014.