Mairead Hanrahan Copenhagen repeating the unrepresentable in fiction

Doubling the Void: Fiction as the impossible repetition of the unrepresentable


Mairéad Hanrahan

The question of the unrepresentable is central to trauma studies, which constitute the most important mode by which psychoanalysis has influenced the humanities in recent years. Trauma is now generally understood not just as a distressing experience, but specifically as an experience so overwhelming as to resist any attempt at the time to symbolize or narrativize it, and capable only of achieving a symptomatic representation retroactively, when something happens to repeat it. This focus on a void within representation raises two principal questions concerning the link between trauma and writing. The first involves the relationship between trauma and creativity. Does creativity depend on the absence of trauma, as Freud initially thought (seeing in it a sublimation of the sexual instinct), or might it be rather a response to trauma? The other question concerns the extent to which the insights of trauma theory are generalizable to all creative endeavour. Especially, is fiction an impossible attempt to give form to an unrepresentable experience?

This paper will examine these questions in relation to the writing of Georges Perec (1936-82), a French Jewish writer whose parents were deported to Auschwitz while he was still a very young child, and whose work is haunted by the void their absence opened up. In particular, it will offer a reading of W or the Memory of Childhood [W ou le souvenir d’enfance] (1975), an extraordinary book which alternates between a relatively straightforward autobiographical account of Perec’s few memories of his mother, and an oneiric fantasy account of life in a strange sporting camp where arbitrary cruelty reigns. Focussing on the relation between the two sections, it will explore the extent to which a fictionalized account doubles rather than fills the void in which it originates.



Mairéad HANRAHAN is Professor of French at University College London. Publications include Lire Genet: Une poétique de la difference (1997), Genet (ed., 2004), Literature and the Mathematical (ed., 2007), Cixous, Derrida, Psychoanalysis (ed., with Mark Dawson and Eric Prenowitz, 2013), Francophone Communities (ed., with Charles Forsdick and Martin Munro, forthcoming 2014) and Cixous’s Semi-Fictions (forthcoming 2014). She is a member of the Editorial Board of Paragraph and current Vice-President of the Society for French Studies.