Freud’s “On Transience” and the Eternal Wounds of War

Isolde Keilhofer, LP

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In this paper the trauma of the wounds of war will be explored starting with Freud’s “On Transience” and as found, and lost, in the periphery of literature and in recurring imagery. The work of Bion and Eigen offer reverberations, bearings, and starting points.


As a preamble, I look to Rilke’s extended lyrical meditation on the theme of transience and permanence, the Duino Elegies, and begin by quoting some lines from the Ninth Elegy:

And we also once, Never again. But this having been

once, although only once, to have been of the earth,

seems irrevocable.

And from a further stanza:


Here is the time for the unutterable, here, its country.

Speak and acknowledge it.

(Or as another translator has it, “Speak, and be witness.” (A.S. Kline))


Freud wrote “On Transience in the Land of Goethe,” as is the full translation of the German title, in 1916 shortly after writing “Mourning and Melancholia.” It was written at the invitation of the Berlin Goethe Society and begins with Freud’s description of a countryside stroll with two companions, one silent and the other a melancholic poet sorrowfully unable to enjoy the world’s offering of beauty due to the perish-ability of all things. As an aside, some historians conjecture that the poet that Freud walked with was Rilke, and the silent companion, Lou Andreas-Salomé, but no hard evidence exists. At the heart of this brief, concise, essay Freud points to the destructiveness of war, the destruction of civilization, the very ground that we stand on, as the grimmest example of loss. The Great War, the war from 1914-1918, as World War I was then called, was an explosion of carnage that juxtaposed harshly with enlightened ideals: blowing Goethe’s achievement, so to speak, to smithereens. Freud writes: “…it [war] revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed forever by centuries of continuous education by the noblest minds.”   Yet, Freud ends the essay on an optimistic note: “When once the mourning is over … We shall build up all that the war has destroyed.” (Freud, 1916)


In melancholia loss cannot be overcome, the lost object cannot be relinquished. This potential failure of mourning disrupts the ongoing cycle, the back and forth experience, of the life-long fort/da game. Trauma is being stuck in time. Rilke, for example, was conscripted into the war and afterward suffered depression and did not, or could not, write for many years. As W.H. Auden puts it: “For Rilke those four years were a negative and numbing horror that froze his poetic impulse, a suspension of the intelligible.” (Auden, 1940) The traumas of war, shell shock, also called neurasthenia, today called post-traumatic stress disorder, in part led Freud to his theory of the death instinct.


While the sixty year old Freud could view the “Great War” from a relative distance during his walk in 1916, real or fictional, just a year or so later, in 1917, the nineteen-year old Wilfred R. Bion entered the war zone, shortly to be made a tank unit commander and made to experience this carnage firsthand. Bion came out of the war, with honors, but he has often written that he died in it; he wore the armour of traumatized deadness. Explosions also reverberate throughout his writing. “Blood, everywhere.” (Bion, 1992) To paraphrase Michael Eigen: hyper arousal and shut down are both together, a double paralysis, immobilized doubly, explosion and nothingness all at once. (Eigen, 1995)


Writing about trauma, like sitting with trauma in a session, in a session lifeboat, can be debilitating. As I sat to write about these frozen states and capacities, I of course, sat frozen, for long stretches, endless stretches, in front of my iMac screen in inexplicable wordless agony. Words can be a lifeline. One of the words that caught my ear from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy was “irrevocable.” Our wounds are irrevocable, eternal, and so much of trauma is unspeakable, unknowable, like Bollas’ ‘un-thought known.’ When writing of trauma Eigen cites frozen moments of rupture, holes in our being, trauma clots, and trauma globs awaiting processing. (Eigen, 2011a)


Words can be a lifeline. Poets, like Rilke, use words to invoke wordless realities. Eigen writes:


“Of course, words are not isolated, but occur in relation to other words, … But it adds to a sense of our condition to realize how much goes on in a single word, how much a word mediates and holds together.” (Eigen, 2011)


Words can be trauma containers. For example, many years ago I was walking with a friend and her daughter of stroller age, when my friend spotted something and made a beeline towards one of those old fashioned pay phones down the street. When I caught up with them, I saw that it had an advertisement on its side for something or other with a picture of a beautiful, smiling woman. Someone had graffitied the word rape across her face. My friend, as if in a trance, was trying to wipe off that word rape with the sleeve of her shirt. I never knew her well enough to ask, but this wordless gesture, this attempt of wiping away irrevocable violence against women, wiping away this word from her daughter’s pre-verbal gaze, was heart-breaking.


As wounded healers it is essential to be open to the silent gestures and screams, the invisible and visible scars, the ghosts, that come into our consulting rooms including our own unspoken, perhaps encapsulated, traumas that are inevitably disturbed. Is it possible to sense tiny quivers, tiny signals of disaster distress? Davoine and Gaudilliere in their brilliant book, History Beyond Trauma, (2004) about the wordless transmission of inter-generational trauma, social displacement and broken narratives, state that we must “listen for its echo.” Hopefully, I convey what is at the heart of my paper, a call for sensitivity and respect for the damage we harbor in so many guises and a call for learning to be radically open, “open to the unknowable,” as Bion’s technique demands, paying attention to gaps, pauses, caesuras. Theodore Reik’s notion of listening with the third ear is also applicable here; like an instrument, our psyche’s sensitivity is in constant need of tuning and repair. (Reik, 1948)


Words can be a lifeline, but words can also be a weapon, intentionally or not. I think it important to draw attention to the role of the analyst, or even the presenter, as potential traumatizer. Psychoanalytic words can be “haven or tinder.” (Davoine and Gaudilliere, 2004). We work with combustible material. The analyst’s resistance to trauma can collapse the space needed to reverberate those faint echoes. Empathy and understanding, too, can easily foreclose. Bion and Eigen write of the emotional storms of analytic encounters, and Eigen especially about developing the capacity for coming through, coming through together.


The capacity to make contact with the unbearable can be tended through exploring the work of the musicians, artists, writers who can communicate the trauma warps of time. But, before plunging, briefly, into the work of Virginia Woolf, to amplify, a bit of social background. Woolf, considered a lyrical novelist by some, was also a public intellectual, a keen observer of life and a civilian living through the fallout in England of World War I and also World War II. In 1916, she was thirty-four. A look at the hard numbers from the Great War that impacted the lives and theories of Freud, Woolf and especially Bion is staggering. Military and civilian casualties totaled 37 million. Of the 17 million deaths, 7 million were civilian. In the British armed forces alone, 41,000 men lost limbs in this heavily mechanized war. (Wikipedia) The social upheaval was tremendous. Explosions are real. War is real, and seemingly eternal, casualties continue to amass through current worldwide conflicts. Combatants and civilians are still blown to shreds, now with added precision technology, and veterans still return to find there is no place to metabolize, if that is even possible, their war trauma.


The iconoclastic image of the tattered soldier emerging from the fog of battle figures into one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known novels, Mrs. Dalloway. The thoughts, hallucinations and suicide of a displaced World War I veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, are interspersed in this novel that follows a jaunty day in the life of Mrs. Richard Dalloway, once Clarissa, a woman of high standing as she prepares for her evening’s party. The novel is an astonishing blend of interior monologues and shifting perspectives, all accomplished through cascades of language, and beginning with Clarissa’s ‘plunge’ into her day. Septimus Warren Smith is haunted by hallucinations of his dead friend and officer, Evan; he is lost in time. “I have been dead, and am yet now alive.” He was one of the first to volunteer for war, but is unable to acclimate to peacetime: “…it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning…” he thinks. To escape involuntary hospitalization, a type of conscription perhaps, he ‘plunges’ to his death from a Bloomsbury window, impaling himself on an arrowhead railing. At the party, vague news of this suicide becomes a mere morsel of party chatter. There is no place for war trauma. (Woolf, 1925)


Much more is to be said about this rich novel, that time, or perhaps my frozen state, does not allow for, just now, such as the link between Clarissa and Septimus, he being a dark double, and an elaboration of Woolf’s very sensitive inside-out depiction of shell shock. Bion partially describes this state in his autobiographical, The Long Weekend, he writes of sitting in a tank, a target, in the midst of darkness and warfare waiting for the hit: “…I gave up thinking about it, thus taking shelter instinctively in mindlessness.” (Bion, 1982)


This then is a last theme I would like to highlight, simply put, how hard it is just to think about experience, how hard ‘to speak and acknowledge it.’ This theme runs through Woolf’s last published novel, The Years, as well. As an aside, it is another one of her works that reels with stunning verbal cinematography. Eleanor wonders: “Why must I think? … Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream? But the misery of the world, she thought, forces me to think.” (Woolf, 1937) Eleanor is often befuddled, forgetful and words are just out of her reach. The marginalized traumas, the unspeakable, presented in the early chapters of The Years are the patriarch’s missing fingers, his war wound, out of place in the drawing room, and a little girl’s lonely and shocking encounter with a flasher; these events do not become part of the spoken fabric of their Victorian family life. The missed communications also reflect adult self distance from child self trauma, so strongly present but so strangely unrecognized. Therein too lies a link between the experience of war trauma and the experience of sexual trauma, both quite often marginalized and its bearers ostracized. Woolf captures the painful disjointedness of our being. To which I add, our being steeped in irrevocable loss.


“Had everyone gone mad?” is a question Bion put into his journal in 1917. (Bion, 1917) Freud writes of the “evil spirits within us” let loose. (Freud, 1916) Eigen is most explicit: we grow out of a psychotic core. With Bion we learn to perceive, to note, to state the obvious. (Bion, 1990) With Eigen we learn to sit with it. To acknowledge, but first to make space, for the echoes of trauma, is to begin the arduous task of digesting bits of our mad experiences, bits of our mad selves. Bion through his theories of thinking developed a faith in O, the unknowable, endless transformations. Eigen writes of wounds that never heal meeting the fire, the faith, that never goes out. Words, like faith, can be a lifeline.





Auden, W.H. “Rilke in Wartime” July 8, 1940, New Republic.

Bion, W.R. (1967). Notes on memory and desire. Psychoanalytic Forum, 2, 271-280.

Bion, W.R. (1982). The Long Weekend. Fleetwood Press.

Bion, W.R. (1990). Brazilian lectures: 1973 Sao Paulo, 1974 Rio De Janeiro/Sao Paulo. London: Karnac.

Bion, WR (1992). Cogitations, Bion F, editor. London: Karnac.

Bion, WR (1997). War memoirs 1917-1919, Bion F, editor. London: Karnac.

Davoine, F., & Gaudillieère, J. (2004). History beyond trauma: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent. New York: Other Press.

Eigen, M. (1995). Psychic Deadness: Freud. Contemp. Psychoanal., 31:277

Eigen, M. (2006). Feeling Matters. London: Karnac.

Eigen, M. (2009). Flames from the Unconscious: Trauma, Madness and Faith. London: Karnac Books.

Eigen, M. (2011). Contact with the Depths. Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.

Eigen, M. (2011a). Eigen in Seoul: Volume 2. Karnac Books. Kindle Edition.

Freud, S. (1916). On Transience. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916), 303-307.

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916), 237-258

Racker, H. (1957). The Meanings and Uses of Countertransference. Psychoanal Q., 26:303-357.

Reik, T. 1948 Listening with the Third Ear: The inner experience of a psychoanalyst. New York: Grove Press.

Rilke, R.M. (2001). The Duino Elegies: Bilingual Edition, translated by C. F. MacIntyre, University of California Press.

Woolf, V. (1925). Mrs. Dalloway, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London.

Woolf, V. (1937). The Years, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London.

Woolf, V. (1976). A sketch of the past, in Moments of Being, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London (1939).

World War One. n.d. Accessed October 15, 2013.




Isolde Keilhofer, LP

412 Sixth Avenue, #605

New York, NY 10011




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