[Originally published as “When the Life Giver Dies, All Around Is Laid Waste: Structural Trauma and the Splitting of Time in Signal to Noise, A Graphic Novel” in Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 45, No. 5 (John Wiley and sons, 2012)]
In 1978, the narrative iconical subgenres witnessed the appearance of a work that helped define a new trend in the world of comic-book production. The work was Will Eisner’s masterpiece, A Contract with God, which the author described as a “graphic novel.” The use of this phrase marked the birth of a new orientation in the narratives of sequential art. Consciously or unconsciously, it is commonly accepted that Eisner inaugurated the contemporary subgenre of the graphic novel in English, a type of text that explores the narrative possibilities of visual language by means of complex narrative structures.
Among the many authors who have devoted their creative efforts to these narrative texts, Neil Gaiman stands out as one of the most prolific and celebrated graphic-novel writers. His magnum opus, The Sandman, revolutionised the comic-book mainstream during the eight years of its publication, reoriented the medium and established the foundations of the newborn graphic novel. With the graphic artist Dave McKean, Gaiman constituted a fully creative tandem that authored three groundbreaking graphic novels (Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, and The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch), outstanding illustrated novels (The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, The Wolves in the Walls), and the visually-astonishing feature film Mirror Mask.
MEMORY AND TIME
Their graphic novels show a recurrent concern with the role of memory and the subjective perception of time in the shaping of the adult subject’s identity. By recalling past events, these narratives display characters that seem to obsessively dwell on different events taking place simultaneously. Thus, in Violent Cases the present time of the autodiegetic narrator intertwines with his childhood memories of his meeting with Al Capone’s osteopath, and his problematic relationship with his parents. In a similar vein, the concept of time plays an essential role in Signal to Noise, as it affects the technical disposition of the narrative. And The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch portrays the traumatic events in the past of a character who recalls his childhood memories parallelly with the representation of a Punch-and-Judy puppet show.
Within the theoretical framework of Trauma Studies, the following pages will focus on Signal to Noise as a trauma narrative that explores the collapse of the fragile boundaries of temporal perception in the mind of a subject affected by traumatic experiences. Originally published in 1989, this graphic novel portrays the final moments of a forty-nine-year-old film director who is diagnosed with lung cancer. With only a few months of life expectancy, the protagonist secludes himself in his apartment, and starts questioning the meaning of his own life as both creator and human being. His trauma triggers off the harsh thought that everyday life is interrupted by a disturbing noise that prevents the individual from listening to important signals and relevant information. He realises that even his own creative worlds, his film productions, have been corrupted by noisy intermediaries, thus resulting in tainted messages, carrying different meanings from the ones he originally had in mind. Consequently, he decides to compose his last work, a film entitled Apocatastasis, inside the visual world of his own mind. This posthumous mental production will deal with the metaphysical fear of the apocalyptic end of the world that flooded European minds at the end of the first millennium. Still, as he feels the relentless approach of his impending death, the protagonist eventually writes the script of his film on paper as the last resort, for both his characters and himself, to survive the disintegration of their respective worlds.
Thus, this article aims to analyse Signal to Noise as a representation of the mental unease of a subject affected by a traumatic experience that inextricably leads to an in-depth examination of the significance of human existence. The following analysis will explore the shattering of the concept of time in the agonist protagonist’s mind, as it is perceived after the suffocating experience of what Dominick LaCapra labels “structural trauma” (82). It will be argued that the philosophical category of time splits into three different parallel representations, which become associated with three different conceptions of time: firstly, the protagonist’s everyday life, perceived as a linear and uniform time continuum, will be related to Henri Bergson’s ideas of measurable time, la durée réelle (41), and to Martin Heidegger’s concept of Jeweiligkeit (1999, 34). Secondly, coherent associations of the character’s memories of the past and his creative thinking for the production of Apocatastasis emphasise the importance of the subjective awareness of time and existence (Bergson’s la durée interne). And finally, a traumatic apprehension of unconnected and unmotivated images breaks the continuity of narrative time and disrupts the associations of the two previous perceptions. This shattered representation of time is to be understood as a projection of the character’s traumatic memory (in Pierre Janet’s terms), that has been created in his mind after the traumatic discovery of his inexorable death.
TRAUMA AND TRAUMA STUDIES
A definition of trauma according to Trauma Studies will prove helpful for the understanding of the subsequent argumentation. Cathy Caruth defines trauma as “an event that . . . is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known, and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor” (1996, 4). The shocking episode escapes the subject’s ability to understand and internalise the event. Hence, a traumatised individual is unable to translate into words the memories of the original traumatic situation, because, as Anne Whitehead affirms, “trauma comprises an event or experience which overwhelms the individual and resists language and representation” (3). After a traumatic experience, which may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the subject is deprived of the mental defences that normally allow the individual to arrange his or her memories of the past and provide him or her with a linear perception of life. The memories of the extreme event, thus, become dissociated and stored in the subject’s unconscious, where they remain blocked until another apparently unrelated happening brings them to the conscious. Characteristically, they return to haunt the patient in the shape of compulsive reenactments of the original trauma (fashioned as flashbacks, nightmares, recurrent imagery, or compulsive behaviour), although the traumatised individual cannot consciously comprehend the origin of these symptoms.
In Violent Cases, Gaiman and McKean’s first graphic novel, the narrator offered a short definition of what could be considered as dissociated memories. These “bits of one’s memory,” the narrator explains, “simply do not work —or do not work in relationship to the rest of it, anyway.”
NARRATIVE AND TRAUMATIC MEMORY
Aware of these dissociative processes through the analyses of neurosis and hysteria he carried out, in 1889, Pierre Janet distinguished two different types of memory in the traumatised mind, namely, “narrative memory” and “traumatic memory” (Van Der Kolk 158-182). Narrative memory allows remembrances of past events to be organised and arranged sequentially, thus granting a narrative, coherent sense of the passing of the subject’s time. By contrast, traumatic memories are the memories of extreme events which cannot be assimilated by the mind, and therefore, surface to the conscious as dissociated images which find no logical place in the lineal structure of the narrative memory. Drawing on these ideas, Maren Linett defines traumatic memories as “bits of images or memories that erupt inexplicably into consciousness . . . moments of mental dissonance [that] interrupt logical narration and so can be seen as subverting norms of coherence and unity” (444). Traumatic memories return unexpectedly to plague a traumatised mind that is not capable of integrating them within the structure of narrative memory. Hence, these fragmentary memories imply a destruction of the conception of time as a lineal continuum in the subject’s everyday life. As these memories “elude temporal placement” (450), we can positively affirm that trauma breaks “the mind’s experience of time” (Caruth 1996, 61), because the subject is unable to understand traumatic memories as past events as long as they return to the mind as unprocessed experiences which are continually lived and reenacted.
Additionally, a further consequence arises from this destruction of the linear, coherent perception of existence. These fragmented memories also shatter the concept of unity of identity of the self. Sheila Benhabib contends that identity is “a coherent narrative that stands as [the individual’s] life’s story” (161). This contention presupposes that the individual gives sense to his or her own identity by means of the meaningful narration of his or her existence, with the help of narrative memory, which stands as a lineal story of the subject’s life. This understanding of existence offers a comprehensible and comprehensive vision of life as a sequentially arranged narration, where past events are naturally included in the definition of the subject’s identity. Consequently, trauma and the subsequent traumatic memories destroy the perception of the subject as a coherent unity that moves forward in the lineal progression of time. The traumatised individual becomes shattered as his mind must come to terms with two different timelines: the lineal perception of narrative time, and the fragmented memories of traumatic time.
IDENTITY AND THE ENTRAILS OF THE MACHINERY OF MEMORY
In Signal to Noise, the film director’s identity shivers as he is forced to face the trauma of his relentless demise. As the narrator of his own story, he seems incapable of taking control of certain images which sharply break the continuity of his narration, making him anticipate his tragic end. Thus, his narration is clogged with symbols of death and time that reflect the imagery dissociated in his traumatic memory, as can be seen on pages 16 and 35. On page 35, we find representations of clocks and sundials that plague the director’s mind. These images break the continuity of his storytelling, undercutting unexpectedly the visual narrative. As mental reenacments of the traumatic moment when he learnt about his terminal illness, they reveal the narrator’s unconscious anxiety of a human being for whom mortality has moved from the realm of abstraction to that of suffocating truth. This awareness provokes an obsessive concern with the meaning of time itself and the human devices that try to control it by confining it within measurable segments.
Similarly, page 16 illustrates this collapse of the concept of time as a lineal, logical entity, revealing the entrails of the machinery of memory. At the moment when he feels the proximity of death, the notion of time seems to be shattered and deconstructed into minimal units, made not of seconds, minutes or hours, but of artificial mechanisms and metallic devices. Unable to verbalise the sensations produced by the clash of narrative and traumatic time, the narrator portrays clocks as mechanical artefacts immersing the subject in pure noise. Thus, clocks force the individual to centre his attention on themselves, instead of drawing his attention to the important signals of life.
THE IMAGE OF DEATH WITHIN EACH ONE OF US
The protagonist’s traumatic memory also expels images of death from the narrator’s unconscious mind. As portrayed on page 32, despite his efforts to evade himself while writing his last film on paper, aseptic X-ray images of skulls hover over his head, evoking the scene at the beginning of the story, when he remembered how he was diagnosed with lung cancer. These skulls, as the narrator had previously thought in a different context, are “the image of death that waits within each one of us” (29). Nevertheless, there is no logical reason why they should appear on this page. They break his train of thoughts and appear free from any kind of motivated association.
On this page, the splitting of the film director’s mind according to his three different perceptions of time is visually portrayed. On the one hand, we can see the background situation of the time of his narrative memory, with the film director sitting on a chair as he is creating Apocatastasis. On the other hand, superposed over this background, two panels of pictures portray his subjective creation and perception of time, as they depict two characters of Apocatastasis. Interestingly enough, these two panels behave as a visual frame for the page layout. And finally, imposing their presence over the film director and his creation, we discern traces of his traumatic memory in the form of X-ray images which break the continuity of the narrative and appear unmotivatedly to make him relive the traumatic truth in its own trauma time.
THE TRAGEDY OF EXISTENCE
A notable aspect of the dissociated images hiding in the film director’s traumatic memory is the fact that they do not refer to an extreme event that has already happened in the past. On the contrary, they point towards the suffocating future of his imminent death. His trauma does not come from an event that “is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known, and is therefore not available to consciousness,” as Caruth defined trauma (1996, 4), because he has not experienced the event yet. It is the news about his lung cancer and short life-expectancy that produces in the narrator an anxiety linked to the traumatising truth of human existence: that human life is axiomatically related to mortality. There is no possible human means to escape from this. The certainty of death awakens the urge not only to struggle for continuing alive, but also to distinguish the important signals from the noise surrounding the character’s life.
Since the tragedy of human life is one of the recurrent motifs in Gaiman and McKean’s graphic novels, it also appears in their third production, The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch. After considering photographs as tokens of past memories, the narrative voice concludes that “each image carries with it a sense of loss, even if the loss is tinged, no matter how faintly, with relief. Age carries strange burdens with it, and one of them, perhaps inevitably, is death” (Gaiman 1995, 10).
From the perspective of Trauma Studies, the film director’s case in Signal to Noise would be an illustrative example of what Dominick LaCapra has termed “structural trauma.” LaCapra, in Writing History, Writing Trauma, establishes an operative distinction between “historical traumas” and “structural traumas” (81). Historical traumas refer to the type of traumas that have been previously defined in this article in Cathy Caruth’s line. In terms of Greg Forter, who calls them “punctual traumas,” historical traumas are “historical events of such singularity, magnitude and horror that they can be read as shocks that disable the psychic system” (259). Characteristically, then, these traumas are inextricably connected with punctual events that happened in the past of the survivor, and which have not been assimilated into his or her narrative memory. Hence, LaCapra can affirm that “in historical trauma, it is possible (at least theoretically) to locate the traumatizing events” (81).
The narrator of Signal to Noise is traumatised not by a past event, but by the anxiety that arises from the recognition of his imminent death. This anxiety is precisely what Dominick LaCapra labels “structural trauma.” According to LaCapra, “structural trauma . . . is not an event but the anxiety-producing condition of possibility related to the potential for historical traumatization” (82). As the film director is confronted with the absolute certainty of death, he feels the anxiety coming from the natural human fear of the end of his own life.
MELANCHOLY AND ACTING OUT
The trauma of his illness, thus, reveals a deeper, structural distress that makes him stare at the mortal nature of human beings, leading to a deconstruction of the concept of time and the questioning of the meaning of existence. This plunges him into a melancholy process through which he secludes himself in his small apartment, as portrayed on page 17, in order to relive, in a compulsive acting out, the bits of images that are stored in his traumatic memory.
On this page, the protagonist of the graphic novel has secluded himself in his apartment, trying to avoid any human contact from the outside world. Hanging on the room’s walls, a number of photographs of nameless individuals impassively grin at him as he is yielding to the process of melancholy that the structural trauma provokes in him. These photographs portray single and simple visions of subjects frozen outside time and space. Hence, they represent the film director’s inner wish to escape from the implacable flow of time, and exist as an entity outside the boundaries of human reality.
The narrator’s structural trauma makes him wonder about the significance of human existence and time itself. Echoing the shattering of his mental defences, his own perception of time is also split and represented as fragmented in his narration. In this sense, Signal to Noise strongly recalls Patricia Moran’s contention that “the splitting of the narrative mirrors the dissociative thinking and patterns of depersonalization” (119) that trauma brings about. The graphic novel, by means of repetition and indirection, mimics structural trauma’s forms and symptoms, leading to a collapse of the categories of temporality and existence (Whitehead 3).
HENRI BERGSON’S LA DURÉE RÉELLE
Mirroring the traumatic experience in the subject’s mind, the reader is offered three parallel perceptions of time in this graphic novel. Firstly, the narrative presents the time of everyday reality in the narrator’s life. Through this conception, the protagonist interacts with other characters who share a lineal representation of existence divided into a structure of past, present and future time. Vyvyan Evans explains the function of this structure, arguing that “it serves to distinguish the present from the past, and allows us to anticipate the future” (25). This type of time helps the subject create a narrative memory of his or her own existence and, therefore, identity, in the shape of a lineal narration, where past events lead to the present state of being, and may anticipate a prediction of the future time to come. Time is, thus, perceived as a constantly uniform, homogeneous entity which can be positively measured and cut into sections.
This notion of time can be related to the ideas of two important philosophers. On the one hand, Henri Bergson’s conception of measurable time, la durée réelle (41), approaches time as an entity that can be measured in the objective units given by the clock. Consequently, a mathematical formula may give the individual a quantitative description of the amount of time elapsed during a precise event. Time would thus be understood as segments of elapsed time that can be conceived as small units of seconds, minutes and hours.
MARTIN HEIDEGGER’S JEWEILIGKEIT
On the other hand, this type of measurable time, which distinguishes between past and future from the perspective of the present, can be related to Martin Heidegger’s concept of Jeweiligkeit (1999, 34). According to this philosopher, the subject (which he calls the Dasein, as a combination of Sein, “being,” and Da, “there”), acquires absolute individuality of being in a precise instant of present time and existence. That moment of the present is arbitrarily established in contrast to the past and the future, in a conception of time where this category can be measured by the clock. In order to define the subject or human being as an absolute individuality that cannot be substituted, the Sein has to be placed in its particular place in time, becoming the Dasein, or “being there.” Therefore, in order to reach a full apprehension of the self, the individual has to establish his or her own definition in the present, as a result of the events of his or her linear past, while being aware, at the same time, of the disparate possibilities of change that may come from the future.
In Signal to Noise, the narrator shares his existence with two other characters in this measurable time of everyday life. This perception of time is emphasised by the narrative structure, though the introduction of three sections, entitled “Prelude,” “Interlude,” and “Postlude.” The structural arrangement of the text recalls the objective division of time as past, present and future. Thus, in these sections, it can be stated that the narrator faces his Jeweiligkeit, the moment when he is defined as a being in a precise objective time in connection to other beings, against which he defines his identity. Hence, this type of time perception helps him base his identity on the foundations of a narrative memory which plainly distinguishes between past, present, and future.
SUBJECTIVE TIME, LA DURÉE INTERNE
The second perception of time in Signal to Noise escapes the possibility of being measured in objective units. The subjective, internal perception of time, or la durée interne in Bergson’s philosophy (61), cannot be approached in terms of minutes or seconds, as time itself becomes part of the feelings and memories coming from the inside of the subject (mémoire intérieure 41). Through this perception, the associative processes of the mind distort the linearity of time by means of constant connections between present events and memories of the past. Consequently, time is not perceived as a lineal movement towards the future, but as a coherent present which significantly associates events with the past.
The distortion of the linearity of time may also affect the visual representation of memories. Thus, we relate our present with the past by means of reinterpreting those past events from the perspective of the current moment of time. In their first visual narrative, Violent Cases, Gaiman and McKean already explored this concept, as the physical aspect of Al Capone’s osteopath changes according to how the narrator remembers his physical description at different moments in time. Thus, the osteopath is first presented as a “Polish Red Indian chief;” then as an Albert Einstein-looking old man; and finally, “like Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Maltese Falcon” (29). Interestingly enough, the osteopath seems to have no physical reality outside the narrator’s mind and memories.
Although the film director in Signal to Noise does not represent remembrances of the past connected with his current situation in a lineal, coherent structure, he binds his present circumstances, his impending death, to other cultural references that come to his mind à la Proust through free association of ideas. On pages 44 to 47, the reader is offered visual and textual references to the Biblical end of the world, St John’s Revelations, which are directly associated with the present time of the character’s mind. Nevertheless, the most important influence that this subjective perception of time has for the narrator is the urge to compose and, eventually, write his last film. His creative thinking of Apocatastasis takes him to the writing of the script, thus consciously associating his looming demise with the disappearance of his characters’ world at the end of the first millennium. Significantly, the graphic novel divides the narration mostly between the lineal time of the director’s everyday life and the subjective time of the film that is being created in his mind. In this way, the form of the text seems to emphasise the fact that both perceptions of time are equally important for the development of the narration, as well as for the self-definition of its protagonist.
TRAUMA AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS
The urge to record his film on paper would be, according to Stef Craps’ conception of “story-telling as an existential necessity” for a traumatised person (2), an example of the attempt by the film director to come to terms with his trauma. With this idea in mind, we can introduce the third type of time perception to be considered in this essay: trauma time. Whereas measurable time and subjective time are related in the sense that the memories of subjective time are motivated by logical and coherent associations with lineal, measurable time, trauma time breaks the continuity and logic of narrative memory by introducing “fragmented components of frozen imagery and sensation that possess iconic, visual qualities” (Moran 5). These elements of traumatic memory destroy both lineal and subjective time, thus becoming what Fredric Jameson describes as “the derealization of the whole surrounding of everyday reality” (76) in the life of the film director.
As portrayed on page 19, the director’s perception of his everyday life is shattered into fragmentary and incoherent images and immersed in noise. On this page, Inanna, one of the narrator’s closest friends, tells him how sorry she is about the sad news of his cancer. Nevertheless, the narrator just perceives noise, as her words are no meaningful signals that might help him overcome his structural anxiety. In his own words: “Inanna [is] talking, saying things, she’s sorry, doctors make mistakes, she’s so sorry, new treatments every day, if there’s anything she can do, so very sorry, on and on, saying nothing at all. Just noise” (19).
The experience of structural trauma in the narrator’s mind brings about the collapse of the foundations of a meaningful existence. Visually, this page shows the destruction of the reality of everyday life, laying bare the machinery of what Fredric Jameson has described as the “photographic simulacrum” of reality (66). Since the protagonist suffers from structural trauma, he seems to realise that the social agreement on what constitutes reality is just an artificial simulacrum. As the perception and representation of lineal time burst into pieces, time loses its value as the basic unit for giving coherence to the memories of the past and the expectations of the future. This leaves the subject immersed in the continuous present of trauma time, where he is doomed to compulsively act out the scenes and images of his structural trauma in a never-ending, repetitive gesture (LaCapra 21).
The title of the graphic novel proves quite meaningful in these terms. Literally, the phrase “signal to noise” refers to a measurement employed in electrical engineering for evaluating the amount of noise in a sound signal. As Jerry C. Whitaker explains, “the amount of noise in a signal can be characterized by the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), which is the ratio of the power of the signal to the power of the noise” (1396). Hence, it might be stated that the narrator of the graphic novel has found the signal-to-noise ratio that helps him evaluate the amount of noise that is present in the signal of his life. The structural trauma of his imminent death has made him fall into the signal-to-noise ratio of his own existence. Therefore, his life, understood as a meaningful succession of events in a lineal conception of time and memory, has collapsed.
THE DISSOLUTION OF TIME AND LANGUAGE
Through this deconstruction of chronological time and the abolition of the notions of past and future, the narration falls into a continuous present, thus imitating the temporality of trauma narratives (Whitehead 9). Hence, conceiving trauma present as a verbal tense in which no past and no future can exist, we witness the dissolution of the essential category of time. According to Vyvyan Evans, time “provides a means of segmenting and so analysing experience, processing raw perceptual data into events and states, into change and stasis, experiences which can be encoded in language” (251). In other words, the concept of time as a progression from the past to the present models the understanding of the world and of human existence in community. As the subject is able to verbalise and share experiences of the past, he or she is also able to grant unifying coherence to his or her existence. As Martin Heidegger explained, language and the subsequent verbalisation of the understanding of time and experiences are two essential characteristics that help define the subject in a precise moment of existence. The subject is defined not only as a being in a concrete instant of time, the Dasein, but also as a being included in the community the individual is related with by means of language (191).
As we have seen, the unexpected surfacing to the conscious of fragments of a traumatic memory breaks the subject’s sense of coherent existence, which is essential for the definition of the self. These fragmentary memories not only destroy the conception of linear time, they also undermine the subject’s ability to arrange his memories into verbal expressions (narrative memory). Hence, language itself suffers a deep deconstruction. The protagonist of Signal to Noise realises that language is not an effective tool to express and explain his structural trauma. Pages 41 and 42 are an overt expression of the narrator’s frustration with language. On this double splash page, superposed on an incoherent background of letters and figures, we can read the following statement: “You know you can set fire to the capacity to say.” As these words suggest, the narrator is painfully conscious of the futility of words to express his structural trauma coherently. He cannot approach his death and face mortality by means of language, because words acquire meaning through their position in the linguistic chain and are, therefore, dependent on lineal progression, development and temporal sequence, and this is something that makes no sense in the stagnant reality of the traumatised character.
Thus, as Cathy Caruth affirms, “this failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organized on a somatosensory or iconic level: as somatic sensations, behavioral reenactments, nightmares and flashbacks” (1995, 172). At the same time, the structural anxiety that comes from the absolute certainty of death is reflected in the nightmares and icons of suffering that clog this graphic narrative. As we have seen, when language fails to reconcile the film director with the outside world, he is left speechless and incapable to make sense of other people’s words in the meaningless existence of noise. As portrayed on page 20, the structural trauma in his mind plunges the film maker into a speechless world, where words flee, giving way to visual sensations.
WRITING ONESELF INTO EXISTENCE
Speech, thus, becomes just a disruption of meaning, rather than a source of meaning. Words turn out to be void entities made of air which noisily interfere with the important signals of life. They stop being real in order to reveal the trim reckoning of the self-sustainable lie of reality, as Falstaff already recognised in the first part of Henry the Fourth (Act V, sc. 1, ll. 132-140). Thus, the film director remains as quiet as the photographs that hang in his flat’s walls, because his ability to establish a communication has been utterly deconstructed.
Nevertheless, his lack of verbal language for speech communication does not prevent him from writing his last film. Echoing Samuel Beckett’s characters, he feels the urge to express himself in some way in order to corroborate his existence. Hence, the narrator writes the story on paper in order to create a place for him to exist. The existentialist Angst of ceasing to be pushes the protagonist forward to create, in an indirect way, a parallel existence of words without noise where he can escape the structural trauma of human mortality. In this sense, it might be stated that writing Apocatastasis contains a healing principle for his structural trauma. The film director finds a way to work through the shocking news of his impending death by placing himself as a fictional character in a different ontology outside death’s reach. As Dominic LaCapra explains, “in post-traumatic situations in which one relives (or acts out) the past, distinctions tend to collapse, including the crucial distinction between then and now” (46). The concept of time in the protagonist’s real world has collapsed due to the acting out of his historical trauma. Still, his looming death makes him face the structural trauma of human mortality.
DEATH, MELANCHOLIA, AND ENDLESS MOURNING
Death, as Martin Heidegger affirmed, is the end of the subject in the world (267). The Dasein, as he called the subject, finds meaning as a unity in a precise moment of time, but it always has the potentiality of becoming something different in the future. There is, thus, a projection of the sense of being inside the horizon of time (269). The essence of the Dasein is constituted by the possibility of being in the time to come. Hence, death implies the end of the “being there” in time, as well as of not “being there in the world” (273). In other words, death is the final loss of the subject in his or her disappearance from existence.
When the narrator is forced to face the structural anxiety of human mortality, he falls into a melancholy process that makes him reject time and external reality. He secludes himself in his apartment, and considers the world as noise that distracts him from the important signals. Dominic LaCapra, in his analysis of structural and historical trauma, distinguishes two symptomatic processes that affect the traumatised subject: melancholia and mourning (65-66). As he explains, the loss involved in a historical (or punctual) trauma may lead to a compulsive acting out of the traumatic event. This acting out plunges the subject into a state of melancholia, thus becoming one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In order to overcome this situation, the traumatised subject has to undergo a process of working through, by means of which he or she is able to verbalise the fragmented traumatic memories into a coherent narrative, so that, eventually, melancholia changes into a state of mourning that can help the subject heal.
By contrast, structural trauma does not imply a loss. Rather, it is the product of “an anxiety-producing condition” (81) related to an absence. In the case of Signal to Noise, the structural trauma is the absence of time and the traumatic recognition of mortality. According to LaCapra, “when absence, approximated to loss, becomes the object of mourning, the mourning may (perhaps must) become impossible and turn continually back into endless melancholy” (68). Hence, the structural trauma will never lead on to the healing stage of mourning. The subject, thus, remains for ever in a stage of endless melancholy.
In spite of this fact, the narrative of Signal to Noise offers an optimistic alternative to the anxiety of existence, by presenting a possible escape from structural trauma. The narrator finds a way to work through the trauma of human mortality by means of creative writing. In the new reality of Apocatastasis, that he starts to create in his mind, the narrator will find a place to continue his own existence. Although, at first, he cannot consciously explain the reason for writing the story, as he declares on page 29: “Today I did something strange. I started to write. There can be no purpose in this. Still, I am writing,” it can be stated that he has found a path to triumph over death, not only for himself, but also for the villagers that live in that fictional world. Thus, in his new community, he may be capable of overcoming death and human mortality.
Nevertheless, before he is able to create his own new diegesis, he has to metaphorically destroy the ontology of his everyday life. Page 25 illustrates this moment of revelation in the subject’s existence. Feeling that his previous productions were corrupted by noisy intermediaries, the film director rebels against himself by breaking into pieces the symbols of his life (the film posters that were hanging on the walls of his flat). In this scene, he rips out the pages of his manuscripts. Still, superposed on the pictures of the page, the attentive reader can catch a glimpse of torn-out pieces of a different and meaningful script. The fragmented words on these pieces show the script of Signal to Noise, the graphic novel itself. Through this metafictional leap, the film director is willingly shattering his own existence in the diegesis of his real life, the diegesis of the graphic novel, in order to start creating his own existence in his last film.
THE AGONIST’S ARTISTIC REBELLION
Hence, the narrator becomes what Miguel de Unamuno referred to as an “agonist” character. In the prologue to Tres novelas ejemplares y un prólogo (1920), Unamuno differentiated between those characters showing voluntad (from Latin volo, meaning “will and volition”), and those defined by noluntad (from Latin nolo, meaning “lack of desire, strength and, therefore, will”). Those having voluntad are the central characters of the Spanish writer’s narrations; they become the agonistas (2000, 47), Greek term for “fighters,” as they wrestle for their own existence in the struggle between life and free will. Their willpower is such that they even come to rebel against the author himself, as in the case of Augusto Pérez, agonist protagonist of Niebla (1907), who, when shocked with the news about the author planning to kill him, begs the author to prolong his life in the following words: “Es que yo quiero vivir, don Miguel, quiero vivir, quiero vivir...” (1982, 283). This metafictional leap of ontologies portrays the traumatic reality of the subject’s struggle against mortality.
Similarly, the film director in Signal to Noise rebels against his own life by shattering the script of his own reality. He denies the possibility of his own death as he tears out his reality into deconstructed pieces of meaningless paper. By means of this destruction of ontologies, he finds a way to work through the structural trauma of his impending death. And this will result in his final overcome of the structural trauma of death, because he writes himself into immortal existence in Apocatastasis, his final production. Drawing on these ideas, we must consider here Roland Barthes’ quotation with which Gaiman and McKean introduce the graphic novel: “Everything has a meaning or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise” (Gaiman 1999, 1). Taken from the “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” included in Image, Music, Text (1977), Barthes’ words are telling for this reading of Signal to Noise: “Even were a detail [in a narrative] to appear irretrievably insignificant . . . it would nonetheless end up with precisely the meaning of absurdity or uselessness: everything has a meaning, or nothing has. To put it another way, one could say that art is without noise (as that term is employed in information theory): art is a system which is pure, no unit ever goes wasted” (89-90). Art, in contrast to real life, establishes a communication free from the noise that impregnates human existence. “Fuzzy communications” (89) can exist in art, but they do so as coded elements, and they become, therefore, imbued with meaning.
FROM APOCALYPSE TO APOCATASTASIS
Hence, in spite of the fact that, at the end of the narrative, he does not survive his lung cancer, the narrator of the graphic novel has created a different place, thus showing his voluntad to control his own fate. On the final panel of the graphic novel, the reader can see the film director as survivor of his traumatic death in the new diegesis of Apocatastasis, grinning hopefully at the horizon. The narrator seems to feel a relieving pride after having been able to control his existence after the non-existence that death implies.
In that new ontology, he has created a space for a continuous Heideggerian Jeweiligkeit, as he is in control of his own time, where he can meaningfully define his existence. Interestingly enough, his last film is entitled Apocatastasis, Greek word for “restoration.” Although it would have been quite predictable to use the term “apocalypse” for the title, since the film deals with the end of the world, the narrator realises that the collapse of his own world does not end up in an apocalypse, a revelation of the mortal nature of his tragic human condition. Wilfully, the protagonist transforms his apocalypse into an apocatastasis, into a restoration of the previous condition where he can defeat death and work through his structural trauma.
WORKING THROUGH TRAUMA
To conclude, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Signal to Noise depicts the extreme suffering of the subject affected by structural trauma. In his process of melancholia, the category of time in his mind splits into three different perceptions: firstly, measurable, objective time of the clock, which controls everyday life; secondly, memories and creative thinking that emerge parallely to the previous perception; and finally, trauma time which surfaces in the shape of recurrent imagery and flashbacks, and leads to the deconstruction of the basic foundations of human existence, to wit, time itself and language. In this sense, it can be stated that this graphic novel portrays the modernist worry about subjective perception of time, filtered through the postmodern ethos, which is reflected in a fragmented narrative that echoes the fragmentation of the self. Nevertheless, the text takes the form of trauma narratives, “characterised by repetition and indirection” (Whitehead 3), and mimics the forms and symptoms of trauma by depicting the contents of the protagonist’s traumatic memory.
This graphic novel offers an illustrative example of the process of working through structural trauma. The film director’s strong will plunges him into the creation of his own diegesis, thus breaking the fragile boundaries between fiction and reality. In that new world of Apocatastasis, the narrator overcomes mortality and glances at the horizon with hope.
Andrés Romero-Jódar is a writer an independent scholar based in Berlin (Germany). He holds a BA in English; an MA in English Cultural Studies; a BA in Hispanic Philology; an MA in Teaching Pedagogy; and a PhD in English Literature. For several years, he developed his career at the University of Zaragoza (Spain), where he carried out his research, as well as at the University of Northampton (UK), the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität of Munich (Germany), and the City University of New York (USA). His research on graphic novels, contemporary literature and trauma studies has been published in edited books (Routledge, Continuum, Winter) and academic journals such as the Journal of Popular Culture (Wiley), Studies in Comics (Intellect), Critical Engagements (Modern Contemporary Fiction Studies Network) and Atlantis (Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies). In 2017, his monograph, The Trauma Graphic Novel, will be published by Routledge in the series, Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies.
His blog can be read at: https://420wordsblog.wordpress.com
His publications can be found at:
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Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience. Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.
Craps, Stef. Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift. No Short-Cuts to Salvation. Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2005. Print.
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Gaiman, Neil and Dave McKean. Signal to Noise. 1989. London: VG Graphics, 1999. Print.
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LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.
Linett, Maren. “Fragmentation and Trauma in Jean Rhys.” Twentieth Century Literature 51. 4 (2005): 437-466. Print.
Moran, Patricia. Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. Print.
Romero-Jódar, Andrés. “The Quest for a Place in Culture: The Verbal-Iconical Production and the Evolution of Comic-Books towards Graphic Novels.” Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense 14 (2006): 93-110. Print.
Romero-Jódar, Andrés. “Comic Books and Graphic Novels in their Generic Context. Towards a Definition and Classification of Narrative Iconical Texts.” Atlantis: Journal of the Spanish Association of Anglo-American Studies 35.1 (2013): 117-35. Print.
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Unamuno, Miguel de. Tres novelas ejemplares y un prólogo. 1920. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 2000. Print.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel A. and Onno Van Der Hart. “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma.” Trauma. Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1995: 158-182. Print.
Whitaker, Jerry C., ed. The Electronics Handbook. Florida: CRC Press, 1996. Print.
Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction (A Selection). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Print.