The Mystery of Wood is not that it burns, but that it Floats

By Richard Raubolt, Ph.D

Epigraph

“The mystery of wood is not that it burns, but that it floats”

are Bella’s last words to Jakob in  the film Fugitive Pieces. This line metaphorically

captures the paradox of trauma. Wood can be scorched, scarred, singed, or consumed by fire. The effects of trauma on the human spirit can be similar.

Trauma is about memory, painful and at times unbearable memories intruding and taking up residence in  the present. They, whatever they may be, for they are different for each of us, are beyond our control to digest, metabolize, integrate or work through. Traumatic memories leave scars; they never go away entirely. Perhaps this is what Imre Kertesz, the Noble Prize winner and Buchenwald survivor meant when he compared memories to mangy stray dogs. Such dogs encircle you, sniff you, lift their heads toward you barking, you extend your hand to stroke one on the head – and it bites you on the hand.

“Working through”, as we so often hear in our everyday, common discourse, is a term overused and misunderstood by the public and therapists alike. Working through does not  mean a brilliant  interpretation or snappy technique will lead to resolution and a disappearance of symptoms once and for all. Working through is actually a misnomer as there is no process to complete with trauma. We can’t erase the past but we can work with it/ at it/ around it and against it with the aim of living through it with more emotional freedom as a result. Trauma wounds but it need not cripple.

When we see Jakob as an adult in the film it looks like he has it all but he was still empty: he could not “introject” life or enough of it to provide himself psychic nourishment and growth. Introjection is a process of assimilation, enrichment and appropriation where there is emotional and intellectual modification and expansion. Jakob struggled to take hold and fill himself with the present. He had unfinished business with his past.

Complex trauma creates an internal black hole of shame, terror, regret and a deadening silence. A psychological crypt is formed where memories are entombed: often not forgotten but not remembered clearly either, they are instead veiled, gray images more felt than thought. Jakob could then say, without contradiction, “I long for a loss of memory” and “I did not witness the most important events in my life.”

With trauma memory is not neutral, it is drenched in pain and unrelenting aloneness. Jakob’s journals are written for himself. His “war” is now internalized: with and at himself. He says: “ My story is told by a blind man behind the wall from the underground.” His feelings are muted and yet while detached he is kind and thoughtful with Ben, Joseph’s son. Ben was also a “child of the Holocaust” for while his father survived he was “impenetrable.” This shared experience may have helped form a special bond that they both needed.  Still Jakob is suspended in “in between times.”

Some might describe Jakob as experiencing “survivors guilt” but this is a pop psych label that offers little of substance and would denigrate his suffering, which while multifaceted, was a homage to his dead parents and missing but in all likelihood dead sister, Bella. But to Jakob she wasn’t dead for sure, was she? With trauma of many kinds there is the additional torture of “what ifs.”

Jacob in a testimony to human resiliency and strength does manage to live with others thanks in large part to the loving guidance of Athos. He does teach and he does marry. Jakob’s first wife , Alex, is vivacious, daring and passionate. She moves into the moment and takes it over completely with her vitality. She loves Jakob but she does not understand him nor does he understand her. On completion of the book he had begun with Athos, Bearing False Witness, Alex was excited, hopeful and wanted to celebrate: “It’s good Jakob. It’s a new beginning.” But it can’t be as time keeps repeating itself and not being in the present Jakob experiences the central conflict between “sameness” or safety and desire.

Alex can’t rescue Jakob nor can she pull him into present moment. Her love is not enough and she is wounded, suffering a secondary trauma, in his rejection of her and his inability to acknowledge or recognize what she has been living through with him. Trauma wore the life out of them as a couple.

“The mystery of wood is not that it burns but that it floats. Go, Jakob.”

Wood floats even when waterlogged, pushed down it reemerges, it bobs with and is swept along with the currents. There is no resistance. Resistance has been replaced by surrender. Athos, who in Anne Michaels book specialized in studying waterlogged wood, might suggest that what is true for wood is true for people. Jakob’s surrender was with his second wife the lovely Michaela. To be clear surrender as I am using the word has nothing to do with defeat or hoisting the white flag. Rather it is letting go of defensive barriers technically defined as a “false self.” Surrender has a quality of liberation and expansion in and to life. Jakob says of Michaela that she “slowly undressed my spirit.” With her he could mourn and he could love. Michaela had a different presence, pace and history than Alex though I doubt Alex loved him any less. Michaela was more comfortable with quite spaces and she possessed an astute, gentle empathy and responsiveness. Jakob could develop a basic trust and face what was hidden saying of Michaela: “I know her memories.”

Michaela was not Athos, sister or his mother nor was she held outside his traumatic history. Reading his words, hearing his stories, feeling his touch and sharing his bed helped bring her through her own losses. Her mourning was quite but deep: her eyes reflected the peaceful stillness she gained in their interconnected and shared histories.

Jakob could then let the dead rest and realize Bella was close enough to push him back into the world so she could leave.

Coda

Poet Jakob Beer, who was also a translator of posthumous writing from the war, was struck and killed by a car in Athens in the spring of 1993, at age sixty. His wife had been standing with him on the sidewalk; she survived her husband by two days. They had no children.

Shortly before his death, Beer had begun to write his memoirs. “A man’s experience of war,” he once wrote, “never ends with the war. A man’s work, like his life, is never completed.”
Anne Michaels


Richard R. Raubolt, Ph.D. practices psychoanalytic psychotherapy and has written two books, Power Games (which was nominated for the 2007 Gradiva Award and Goethe Prize) and just released, Theaters of Trauma. Dr. Raubolt is a board member of IFPE and was 2008’s conference co-chair.

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