From Septimus Smith to September 11

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In the final installment of Penn’s 60-Second Lecture series for the 2014-15 academic year, associate professor of English Paul K. Saint-Amour peered at Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway through lenses colored with Homeland Security terror alerts and tinted by the recent uprising in Ferguson, Missouri.


Who here has read Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway? Do you remember the scene where a car backfires along a busy London shopping street, causing the pedestrians nearby to jump? And how one of them, a young Great War veteran named Septimus Smith, whose hazel eyes “had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive,” thinks to himself, “The world has raised its whip. Where will it descend?”

If we agree with scholars of Mrs Dalloway that Septimus suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder—indeed that he is one of the first literary characters afflicted with PTSD—then how are we to understand his apprehension? His sense of terrible suspense in the face of the raised whip of the world. If his disorder is post-traumatic, why is Septimus so keyed up in relation to imminent violence? Is anxiety about violence to come just an expression of this young man’s traumatization by the recent war? Or do we need to supplement our understanding of post-trauma with the notion of pre-traumatic stress: A syndrome set in motion not by the event of realized violence, but by the eventuality of future violence?

Woolf’s character is a soldier, but could a civilian suffer from pre-traumatic stress as well? Who better? If you were a Londoner during World War I, and lived through the first aerial bombardments of that city by German airships, what could you tell us about apprehension? During wartime, would you wait in suspense for the next raid? And during peacetime, would you wait in suspense for the next war? Between the raids, between the wars, would you and your fellow civilians undergo what Lewis Mumford called in 1938 “a collective psychosis” of anticipation, a form of mass traumatization we have yet to understand?

What aspects of our contemporary world might this concept of a pre-traumatic syndrome bring into sharper focus? Have you ever lived in a nuclear target city? Yes. Have you watched the color-coded threat levels of Homeland Security’s terrorism advisory system rise based on intelligence to which you had no access? Have you ever lived in a place routinely overflown by lethal, pilotless aircraft whose intentions towards you are illegible? Or in a city whose culture of racist police violence places a severe daily psychic and cognitive load on the communities it targets more than protects? Are we living inside a pre-traumatic syndrome, albeit one as unevenly distributed as wealth? Are we already experts, without knowing it, on the geopolitics of suspense?

How do states produce docility in their enemies by keeping the world’s whip perennially raised? How do states produce docility in their citizens by raising and raising again the whip of the world? When will it descend?

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