Representing Trauma Pheasant-Kelly

Representing Trauma: Grief, Amnesia and Traumatic Memory in Nolan’s New Millennial Films

F.E. Pheasant-Kelly, University of Wolverhampton, UK

A defining characteristic of Christopher Nolan’s films is the psychological afflictions of their protagonists, who variously experience flashbacks, hallucinations, amnesia or hyper-vigilance. In short, they consistently display signs of trauma. Central to the latter is the unassimilated nature of the original event. As trauma theorist, Cathy Caruth explains, ‘trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on’ (1996: 4). Such inability to assimilate traumatic events causes the traumatic memory to replay repeatedly although in other cases, there may be complete avoidance of thoughts concerning the original trauma. Alternatively, trauma may manifest as being in a state of constant alertness (Luckhurst, 2008:1). This collection of symptoms forms the basis for diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a term formally adopted in 1980 by the American Psychological Association following the prevalence of such symptoms in Vietnam veterans. Thereafter, the study of trauma has taken place retrospectively in relation to a number of wars, conflicts and genocides (especially those of The Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia), the attention to such tragedies more recently including the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. Subsequently, the analysis of trauma has extended to examine the effects of 9/11 whilst, concurrently, films have displayed an increasing tendency for traumatised (mostly male) protagonists (as the latter end of a well-documented crisis in masculinity). Nolan’s films particularly engage with the theme of trauma. This paper examines Nolan’s new millennial films, including Memento (2000), Inception (2010) and the Batman trilogy (2005-2012), exploring their representations of grief, trauma and traumatic memory and contextualising these within a post-millennial milieu. Engaging theoretically with trauma studies, including those of Nigel Hunt (2010), Roger Luckhurst (2008; 2010), Richard McNally (2003) and Laurence Kirmayer et al (2007), the paper textually analyses the films in respect of their trauma content, and whilst acknowledging these aspects as indicative of Nolan as auteur, locates representations of trauma within discourses of terrorism and traumatic grief, as relevant to the films’ narratives and/or their post-9/11 contexts.




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