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Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan's Atonement

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Through an analysis of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement (2001), this essay considers the potentialities and limitations of narrative, and of representation more generally, as means of capturing and conveying the accelerated and intensely traumatic character of mechanized warfare. I show how the unflinchingly detailed depictions of mutilated bodies that feature in the novel's re-creation of the German Blitzkrieg go some way toward evoking a traumatic encounter with the realm of pure, volatile materiality that Jacques Lacan terms the "real." I note, though, that for Lacan and other theorists it is a characteristic of the most overwhelming experiences that they are not experienced directly, but rather outstrip the capacity of the subject to apprehend and assimilate them as they occur. As Paul Virilio's analysis of twentieth-century warfare makes clear, such events were produced on an unprecedentedly massive scale during the Second World War. I argue that in Atonement these conditions are most effectively evoked when the text relinquishes its aspirations to pure, contemporaneous presence and instead employs tactics of evasion, elision, and belatedness. I conclude by suggesting that, under certain circumstances, McEwan's novel may not merely evoke a traumatic encounter but may also be productive of symptoms associated with this experience in their actuality.


Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/174321907780031061

Publication date: March 1, 2007

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