Ben W. Fletcher

Tortured Time


In the aftermath of a traumatic event, people redefine their relationship to time and temporal structures, charting new courses into the future and into the past. Trauma casts a heavy shadow, creates a rupture, carves an abyss in the normal continuity. The moment of traumatic rupture asserts division and separation: the breaking apart of the continuous flow of time, a new past-before-rupture and a past-after-rupture complement the present and the future. What had previously been a flood of the same substance breaks apart and trauma dams time’s flowing river. The dammed course is no longer continuous, and isn’t properly traversable. In memory, when moving backwards, one cannot easily cross the dam; in crafting narrative, the dam reconfigures and confuses time and the relationship of before and after. In his work on nostalgia in the 18th century, Peter Fritzsche identified this new historical and temporal angle, born out of the conflagrations of the French Revolution, as the essence of the modern temporal organization, an organization “in which differences over time assumed overriding importance” and the nostalgia characteristic of that vision, which imagines “history as catastrophe.”

Periodization, as a historical project, seems partially born out of a modern drive to insert, interpret, and define such dams into a continuous past and in so doing to give that past a meaningful temporal geography composed of times of different qualities in distinct pools adjacent to but not commingling with each other. Fritszche correlates the rise of such an historical urge in the early 19th century with a rising consciousness of the past as a lost moment, totally different from the present and the future. But such a sorting, and the differentiation between past and future involved, also limits the future and the present as times defined by their dissimilarity from the past: in the new progressive or evolutionary timescale, the past is precisely what the present and the future cannot be. The future (and, more complicatedly, the present) acquire meaning from their not being similar to the past; as Fritszche writes (following Reinhart Koselleck) that, “today had once been commensurate with yesterday, but it was ‘no longer’.” In this way, the past is lost in a more total and more novel way, characterized by a “disconnection from remembered life-worlds, the exhaustion of tradition, an irretrievable sense of loss, a fleeting experience of the present, and an often-ominous anticipation of the future” that allows for and demands nostalgia.”

Nostalgia’s uniqueness and its difference from other sorts of memory or tradition lies in its ability to acknowledge the object of its memorial desire as irretrievable. Such an acknowledgement requires a new conception of historical continuity, like the one suggested above, that sees the past as cut off from the present in some fundamental way. Nostalgia remembers a lost past and the impossible lost presents that such a past might have created: “What the ghostly remains of other pasts recall is the fact of other presents and other possibilities. It makes sense, then, to reconsider nostalgia not as blindness but as sightfulness, which completes the modern experience of time with its insistent perception of disaster and its empathy to strangers stranded in the present.” For the exiled individual, born in the time before catastrophe, nostalgia soothes the scars of a disjunctive transition and allows the lost world to be remembered and honored despite the impossibility of its revival.

Joseph Roth, survivor of World War One and the Habsburg Empire, Galician Jew, alcoholic exile, troubled journalist, prolific novelist, illustrates trauma’s potential to intervene on and destroy time structures in The Radetzky March, his novel of Austria-Hungary before the war. The Radetzky March is essentially nostalgic: it imagines a remembered time that is defined by its separation from the present by a traumatic event, and ruminates on the impossibility of that time’s return. In the novel, an expansive portrayal of the inaccessible and unrepeatable environment of the author’s youth, Roth’s protagonist Carl Josef experiences his own personal temporal ruptures, dislocations and confusions, but all time in the novel bends towards the impending collective reality of trauma-disrupted time, as the war threatens to arrive and destroy the novel’s setting and bruise the temporal regime of a whole generation.

Roth claims at two different points that “the years”, in the pre-war Habsburg empire, “rolled by, one by one, like peaceful uniform wheels”. It would be wrong to believe this description uncritically, for the novel hardly describes the experience of time in a uniform or orderly fashion. Instead, events and personal experience cause time to pool, distort, and eventually to reach a catastrophic end: before time’s great cataclysm on the battlefield, Carl Josef experiences the death of his first lover as the creation of a massive, horrible distance between his (recent) memories and his present. He recalls a time-space made distant not by time’s passage but by a traumatic death: Those afternoons seemed buried behind many decades. Death overshadowed and concealed them, Death stood between then and now, inserting his entire timeless darkness between past and present. And yet, the golden stroke of the clock was still unchanged… Time and memory are totally changed by the lover’s permanent and transformative absence – her death – but chronos cruelly churns on in the world. Continuity and memory are shattered, but horrible time continues to pass exactly the same. It can’t be time of the same sort, but must be a qualitative different era, cut off from the present by Death, which cuts an abyss in memory, dividing the past around the horrible event and rendering the farther past unreachable. Yet, Carl Josef continues to exist and move forward despite this continuity shattering dislocation. Carl Josef, then, watches his own temporal experience break in two: a time before her death, and a separate time after. He lives in the shadow of that moment until his own death, it informs his new relationships, and recolors and transforms his memory of her. It’s not so long until Carl Josef transfers to Galicia and starts drinking.

Much later in the novel, the same shocking dislocation and disruption of temporal structure, Roth contends, intervenes on Europe through the First World War. A new temporal structure is created, replacing an old order.

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

Before the war, there was a temporal flow and an order to the experience of time: like homes in a residential neighborhood. The houses exist in a row beside a road where a moving figure walks in one direction, perceiving them in turn. They are spatialized markers of temporal movement: maybe not the same size, or shape, or the same color or style, but each the same in form (a lot). In the pre-war past, the loss of one of these sequential markers caused a gap in continuous experience and intervened on memory. It took a long time for the sequence to be restored, for time to keep moving as it should, and the house was remembered as the gap was slowly repaired. It stuck around, as a memory, beyond its life. It wasn’t replaceable.

The war destroyed this organic, slow, systematic temporality. Now, houses disappear and new ones appear immediately. This acceleration of replacement was already occurring and can’t be solely reduced to the war, as industrial capitalism crept into Austrian life, but the war magnified that temporal transformation, and extended the replaceability of objects to the replaceability of people. There is no memory of the past, because there is no time between, no mourning because there is no gap. As a result, things pass away into the abyss, replaced by new things with no rootedness. The “timeless darkness between past and present” that Carl Josef experienced on the death of his lover finds its destruction in the massive annihilation of the First World War. Such a feeling of temporal disjunction and unrootedness, banished from the individual experience, is made into the general experience of post-war Europe, attempting to mourn a lost structure of social and temporal organization. The scale of transformation precludes normal, individual mourning: the lost object was not just a single person, a single home, or single monarch, but a total way of life. Cut loose from a shared temporal world that now exists only in nostalgic memories of a time before mass death, the interwar period of exile and dark premonition is reconstructed as a time of frustrated memories of lost time structures, and a difficult or impossible mourning for a world that can never be again.

The Radetzky March, often interpreted as an historical novel, is more properly read as a memorial episode, a self-aware effort to respond to the disruption of millions of lives; a nostalgic attempt at recreating the time system of the deceased and inaccessible past. But it is frustrated by the very trauma at its own center, for this past has been redefined into a teleological narrative, comprehensible only in its finitude and inaccessibility. The war, a future event for the novel’s characters, rules their actions, governs their fates, and provides the novel with its purpose and meaning. Characters see it coming, the reader knows it is coming, and Roth as narrator comments on this impending doom incessantly. If Habsburg time indeed had “peaceful, uniform wheels,” Roth doesn’t represent that ordered regularity to his post-war readers, for whom, indeed, such order has no real meaning except as something lost and distant. The trauma of the war itself destroys the possibility of a memory of the time before as anything but prelude to destruction. Thus, Roth seems to place the wheels of Habsburg time on a track, and makes them spin faster and faster as they approach the war-as-abyss: the pre-war time system remade as an accelerating, doomed train, about to fly off a cliff.

Indeed, it is trauma’s transformative power over narrative that gives it the power to remake temporalities: if we imagine time as a narrative structure flowing in a single direction, the traumatic moment reorders those structures, imposes meaning on them, and sometimes breaks them apart. Causation, normally understood to work as something before causing something after, gets tangled by the intensity of the traumatic moment. Every event is reinterpreted as the harbinger of the great, dominant, future apocalypse. In this way, Roth remakes the Austrian Empire as a place and a time awaiting its own end, presented as an anachronism in its own time by the anachronic logic of nostalgia for an irretrievable time. The Radetsky March is wholly “history as catastrophe,” despite the fact that the war doesn’t arrive until the novel’s last pages. The war has annexed the Empire’s narrative, and Roth shows the war as the anticipated telos of a slow burning catastrophic history.