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Maidan as a Symptom: Trauma, Wound, and Crypt

Maidan as a Symptom: Trauma, Wound, and Crypt

By Tamara Hundorova

Heroes of the Heaven’s Hundred are honored on Maidan

These days, Maidan leaves a macabre impression that blends shame with sorrow. More precisely, it is probably the effect of an open, festering, unhealed wound. Armed people in paramilitary outfits bustle around busily, although, it seems, there is no reason to rush, and people who have settled at Maidan and do not want to leave mill about the barricades covered with wilting flowers. Tourists take pictures against the barricades, scattered flowers or even an armored troop-carrier driven in from somewhere, while Kyivans sneak through the Independence Square on their way to work or home. A surge of shame at seeing bottles or boxes asking for cigarette money for the self-defense units: these are no church beggars, but EuroMaidan Heroes. The faces of those still living on Maidan sport questioning or accusatory expressions, as if asking, “How do you reward us, the heroes, today?” Trinket peddlers come to occupy Maidan, pushing back the protesters` tents. Independence Square itself became commodified a while ago, and now it is being slowly conquered by the peddlers of magnets, postcards, pictures of the burning Maidan, maybe even bullets as mementos. The bullets found during the stand-off are on display here for all to see, exactly like merchandise (which they might be).

What does it look like? Cinema’s the best guess. On the one hand, you have elements of those half-deserted sleepy towns on the American frontier, where the apparent apathy is just a front for the anticipation of a war coming. On the other hand, there are elements of those post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies where the modern urban space suddenly swells like a boil that bursts to uncover another world, like a medieval or an alien monster.

But to me, Maidan mostly looks like a wound. And this is real. The turbulent months of hope and suffering, mass euphoria and deadly battles that we have lived through left real wounds on bodies and in the hearts of many people. Therapists from all around talk about post-traumatic symptoms, people from all around talk about disillusionment. Russian military aggression added another symptom: bathetic patriotism. The explosive mixture of sentiments, real and phantom pains, lives broken and regained, caused a deep trauma localized in the very center of Kyiv: Maidan, the open, festering, unhealed wound.

All this is worth serious consideration. Coping with trauma and defining it is not only a Ukrainian issue. Trauma studies are one of the most notable challenges for contemporary philosophy, culture, psychology and literature. It is worth noting that the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries were marked by the growing interest and research in traumatic episodes. What is trauma? Some would say that for a newborn life itself is already a trauma, and she would be right. Some would note that, in terms of rational reasoning, trauma is a reaction to sudden social or personal changes. Once you change the circumstances, the risk of trauma disappears. Some would claim that, in psychoanalytic terms, trauma is a constant unconscious fear caused by explicit or implicit factors when psychological defense mechanisms simply do not work. However, everyone agrees that trauma has to be overcome, and not just rationally, but emotionally and physically, by memory and imagination as well.

In my book Transit Culture (out last year), I delved on post-traumatic imagination and memory, and analyzed the symptoms of post-colonial trauma: resentment, the generation gap, the phenomenon of the “sick body”, the mask of a loser, etc. What I see on Maidan today illustrates my theoretical concept. In my book, I looked for and talked about the symbolic symptoms which now became real. The Real has once again overcome the Lacanian Imaginary Order.

Nowadays trauma possesses us, absorbs us. The terrible becomes the routine, and Maidan becomes the locus of loss and retains the memory of the trauma. Of course, I should mention Sigmund Freud’s understanding of melancholy. Modern trauma studies are generally based on Freud’s notions of repression, repetition-compulsion and overcoming traumatic events. The patriarch of psychoanalysis maintained that losses which have traumatic effects can refer to any objects, including history, birthplaces, nations, and not just, as traditionally conceived, parents or loved ones.

Loss causes sorrow and can be cured by it. One has to severe the tie to the lost object rather than ceaselessly reiterate it. This should not be called shameful neglect or betrayal: rather, it signifies a willingness to live on with those memories, and to develop new projects, prospects, and plans, including the ones related to the lost object.
Obviously, we associate the incredible traumatic loss with the Heavenly Hundred (Nebesna Sotnia). But it is limited to it. The loss also refers to our hopes which are being dashed day by day. It is embodied in Maidan as the heart of Kyiv and of Ukraine. It is also embodied in the people who stay at Maidan and cling to the past, refusing to change and integrate themselves into the other post-Maidan world.

However, when sorrow does not heal loss, and the wound, gaping like a dug up grave of Shevchenko’s poem [an iconic image from the eponymous poem by Taras Shevchenko], hurts and festers, that is, when loss is larger than life and irreplaceable, it gets localized in memory, language and bodies of melancholic subjects. Moreover, the lost ideal (object) becomes part of this subject and continues to exist in him as the Other, producing split consciousness, confusion, or ambiguous ethical and cultural values. The dead object lives in the living, like a monster. As Jacques Derrida said, “Not having been taken back inside the self, digested, assimilated as in all “normal” mourning, the dead object remains like a living dead abscessed in a specific spot in the egо. It has its place, just like a crypt in a cemetery or a temple, surrounded by walls and all the rest. The dead object is incorporated in this crypt – the term “incorporated” signaling precisely that one has failed to digest or assimilate it totally, so that it remains there, forming a pocket in the mourning body” (Jacques Derrida, The Ear of The Other). Actually, today Maidan is transforming into such a “crypt,” located not at the cemetery but in the heart of Kyiv. Here the dead still live among the living, which explains the macabre nature of Maidan.

Traumatized mind, traumatized history, or traumatized body are not only repositories of new meanings, but also threats to minds, histories, or bodies. That is when traumatic neurosis appears, the normal perception of time disintegrates, and the past can no longer be assimilated into the present. Traumatic events return through symptoms, repeat in dreams, gestures, stigmas. Traumatic past is still transgressively present in the present; being vindictive, it victimizes, seizes and dominates the present instead of being forgotten. The present is fixated on the past, it cannot get rid of it, it is sick with the traumatic past. In order to emancipate the present from the traumatic past and to regain the capability to provide ethical and critical judgments about the past, we need to take special efforts, particularly to reflexively “work through” the memories. However, traumatic symptoms not only come from the past: they are propelled forward towards the future, which then becomes the already experienced past.

There are various ways of articulating and treating post-traumatic states, ranging from “post-traumatic memory” to “traumatic kitsch”. The memory of Maidan has already been replicated in numerous pictures, videos, and films: the reiterations are primarily visual, and I am sure that Ukrainian culture will be changed by Maidan. We are collecting the archive of post-traumatic memory: the quotidian memories of the witnesses and participants. The objects from Maidan become artifacts, and the huge installation which Maidan was becomes a museum, a form of post-memory.

There is another form of post-traumatic therapy: “traumatic kitsch.” Modernity resorts to it in order to protect itself from the redundancy of the horrible, which can not only enter into life, but also destroy it. And traumatic events of past history, such as the Holocaust, AIDS, Ground Zero in New York, or Independence Square in Kyiv naturally become mass-media performances, objects of mass consumption, and tourist commodities. It seems ominous, but has Maidan not been a battle stage as well as a theatrical stage from the very beginning? It is probable that no war or revolution had ever attracted tourists, but Maidan had. Finally, the deluge of souvenir shops and trinkets at Maidan on the very next morning after Hrushevsky street riots started demonstrates how quickly the Maidan kitsch was and is created. Thus, kitsch becomes a “crypt,” taking over the frozen melancholic emotions and post-traumatic phantom pains.

In Ukraine, where sacralization of the past was not only the vehicle but also the bane of national identity, it is especially important to go beyond the retroactive phantom pains which in the case of Maidan have become an open festering wound. Maidan should be transformed from “crypt” to “garden,” from “wound” to “scar” to allow us to think about the future and prepare for it. Are we ready for this?

From Ukrainian translated by Yana Sabliash; edited by Iaroslava Strikha.


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