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Traumatic Suffering and Superegoic Demand: Ota Yoko’s Hiroshima Testimony
Linda Belau

January 2010

In the first of his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud tells his audience during a discussion of Josef Breuer’s Anna O case study that “hysteric patients suffer from reminiscences.”  Specifically, he notes, their suffering and their symptoms “are residues and mnemic symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences” (XI: 16).   For instance, while under the care of Breuer, Bertha Pappenheim’s (The real name of Anna O.) farsightedness and convergent squint were relieved when she and Breuer came to the realization that the form of her specific suffering stemmed from an episode when she was attending her dying father the previous year.  It turns out that she was silently crying at her father’s bedside when he suddenly asked her the time.  Not wanting her father to see that tears that clouded her vision, she needed to bring the watch close to her eyes and squint to correctly read the time.  Because the symptoms she portrayed to Breuer were inconsistent to her present state and because affect was severed from sense, Anna O.’s symptoms were consistent with Freud’s notion of psychical trauma.     

Freud claims that we can gain a greater understanding of these neurotic nmemic symbols if we compare them with other nmemic symbols like the monuments and memorials that one finds in London.  Concerning these monuments, Freud mentions a 13th-century English king who had the body of his beautiful Queen Eleanor buried in Westminster.  For her funeral procession and as a sign of his profound mourning, he order a richly carved gothic cross to be installed at every stage at which the coffin rested along the way.  Charing Cross, whose name derives from the French chere reine, Dear Queen, is a replica of the last original column to stand.  In this lecture, Freud also refers to The Monument, another memorial in London, not far from the London Bridge, which memorializes the great Fire of 1666.  These types of monuments, Freud tells us, resemble the usual process of mourning where an event is registered—either in the social body as in the case of monuments, or in the psyche, as in the case of the individual—as a painful memory.  “But,” Freud asks, “what should we think of a Londoner who paused today in a deep melancholy before the memorial of Queen Eleanor’s funeral instead of going about his business in the hurry that modern working conditions demand or instead of feeling the joy over the youthful queen of his own heart?” and “What should we think of a Londoner who sheds tears before the Monument that commemorates the reduction of his beloved metropolis to ashes although it has long since risen again in far greater brilliance?” (XI: 17).   With these questions, Freud indicates how the memorialization that is proper to hysterical symptoms resembles monuments in the fact that both a monument and a symptom are nmemic symbols.  Freud’s point is to show how every single neurotic behaves like these two “unpractical” Londoners.  Neurotics not only remember painful experiences from the past, but they still cling to them emotionally.  Since they stay absorbed to the past, according to Freud, they neglect what is real and immediate, and their symptom marks a gap in memory.  For Freud, this fixation of mental life to pathogenic traumas, this abnormal attachment to the past, is one of the most significant and practically important characteristics of neurosis (XI: 17-18).

But a question emerges:  “Are those who have experienced atrocity neurotic in living in the past?” (Minear 134).  Speaking of the writer-survivors of the Holocaust, Lawrence Langer argues:

The neurosis may actually represent only a more honest if more painful encounter with the heritage of atrocity.  Retaining a portion of that heritage, meeting it and expressing it imaginatively, accepting the constricted life that confrontation with the Holocaust sometimes imposes, may be a normal response to an experience that is mocked by the idea of renewal.  The emptiness and despair that accompany what the psychiatrist clinically defines as psychic numbing […] may not signify a retreat from truth but a simple acknowledgment of how extermination has invaded our lives. (14-15)

A survivor of atrocity, it seems, may take on the same type of fixations as a neurotic, but for the former, this psychic numbness, to use Langer’s term, is more a testament about reality than any kind of fleeing from reality.  So, even though all civilization more or less united in condemning the Holocaust, the writer-survivors still cling to an experience that is “mocked by the idea of renewal.”

The same could be said about others who have experienced an atrocity of profound dimension, an atrocity like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  After the United States government dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II, a number of civilian survivors remained who took the responsibility upon themselves to record the experience of this event.  These authors, commonly referred to as atomic bomb writers, risked their very freedom as they defied the censorship of the American military that occupied Japan after the war.  Although very little was known about the bomb, these writers nevertheless used their craft to attempt to understand the devastating event that had changed their lives and their country so profoundly.   Ota Yoko’s City of Corpses is one of the most extensive and riveting of these memoirs.  Through a harrowing and gruesome autobiographical account of her experience of the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima, Ota bears witness to an event that completely shatters her intellectual frame of reference.   During the entire eighteen years Ota lived after surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, according to Richar Minear, the shadow of the atomic bomb hung over her.  In fact, once Ota penned her testimonial narrative, she pretty much became, Minear tells us, “the A-bomb writer” in Japan.  Not only did she always think her writing was a duty, but she considered herself to be the conscience of the age:  “It was not merely that she worried about her health, nor that people quickly came to label her, often disparagingly, the ‘atomic bomb writer.’  But in the early years the experience of the atomic bomb left her unable to write on other subjects” (123-124).  Ota herself comments on this peculiar type of writer’s block herself in a later preface to City of Corpses:

The reverberations continue to this day. […] I tried to write other works.  I tried to write other works unrelated to the atomic bomb, different works.  But the image of my hometown that Hiroshima branded onto my mind drove away the vision of other works. […] I had witnessed with my eyes and my heart and listened to people talk about the reality of the destruction of Hiroshima and the annihilation   of people.  And that reality produced a vision of a concrete piece of writing that […] crippled my zest for writing other works. (150)

Ota mentions how when writing City of Corpses she doubted whether writers should attempt to write at a distance from their emotions.  Robert Lifton argues that her compulsion to write about the A-bomb was intensified by the later deaths of other prominent A-bomb writers, by the sense that she was the only one left.  “These deaths,” Lifton argues, “in effect, created repetitions of her A-bomb survival.  Continued ‘survival priority,’ along with whatever satisfaction she derived from becoming the uncontested dean of A-bomb writers, gave further impetus […] to her sense of mission” (404).  But Ota’s literary fixation on this personal and historical atrocity had hysterical consequences.  Concerning her fixation, Ota writes, “if I try to write about the Hiroshima of the summer of 1945, I am tormented, of course, by the accumulated memories and fragments of memories I have collected.  I gaze fixedly at these events I have called up from memory in order to write, and I become ill; I become nauseated; my stomach starts to throb with pain” (124).

Even though Ota’s emotional and literary fixation to a past atrocity parallels the same fixation that characterizes many Holocaust testimonials, the haunting that conditions Ota’s writing may be present in an additional way.  Langer insists how Holocaust survivor-writers remain almost neurotically fixated on the past even though all civilization united in condemning the Holocaust.  With Hiroshima, there was only scattered condemnation of the dropping of the atomic bombs, and the new super powers continued to build up their atomic arsenals.  Throughout Ota’s post war life, she often suffered from emotional and nervous paralysis, which she herself attributed ultimately to the trauma of the bombing because her symptoms were severely aggravated by the possible use of the nuclear weapons during the Korean War.

Aggravating her nervous illness even more may be the fact that Ota’s A-bomb novels were consistently critical failures.  But, more than the critics, Ota was aware that the literary writing about the A-bomb was not a particularly skillful enterprise.  Although she often wished to be more than an A-bomb writer, she felt caught in a particular bind, which she felt came with the identity struggle of surviving.  Lifton argues that “her dilemma was made worse by what she viewed as the impossible demands of the subject matter” and what, according to Lifton, Ota calls “her survivor’s sense of ‘sacred historical truth’” (404).  In the Preface to her memoir, Ota herself writes,

It [the atomic bombing of Hiroshima] is outside the category of literature. […] With ordinary fiction, there are patterns and categories—children’s literature, romantic stories, and so on.  But there is no pattern and no category for the atomic bomb experience.  The experience was so strong, so great, so powerful, that one can find no words to describe it. […] As a subject for fiction it is very difficult. […] I don’t want to write fictitious things—I just want to write the truth—to describe it as it was without exaggeration. […] Fiction is usually a mixture of truth and lies.  But I don’t want to write lies about the A-bomb the way some others have. (404)

Finding a balance between narrating and dramatizing the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima haunts all of Ota’s A-bomb literature precisely because she realized there was no patterned approach that would help her symbolize such singular subject matter.

Ota wrote her testimonial narrative City of Corpses in the few months following August 6, 1945.  Leaving Hiroshima a few days after the bombing, like many refugees from the contaminated city, she settled in Kujima, twenty kilometers to the north to give into her “writer’s itch” (Minear 243).  Living in the country amongst the rest of the Hiroshima refugees, Ota witnesses, according to her testimonial, people whose condition is no different than her own die every day.  People who looked no different from herself suddenly and without warning began to vomit up pitch-black blood, lose all their hair, and become covered with purple spots.  In the first page of her text she wonders when her turn to die will come:  “Any number of times each day I tug at my hair and count the strands that pull out.  Terrified of the spots that may appear suddenly, at any moment, I examine the skin of my arms and legs a dozen times, squinting with the effort.  Small red mosquito bites I mark with ink; when, with time, the red bites fade, I am relieved they were bites and not spots” (153).  Atomic bomb sickness suffocates the autumn in the countryside, where Ota always wanted to spend her leisure time.  It is under this threat—a threat that according to Ota provides more fear and anxiety than the bomb itself—this living between two deaths amongst the living dead that allows Ota to finally write about the actual corpses she witnessed everywhere on the streets of Hiroshima in the days following August 6.

Speaking about the impossibility of her attempt to represent what happened in Hiroshima without recourse to familiar concepts that she would later have to discard, Ota argues,

It would probably have been a simple matter if one were able to express the bitterness of that experience in terms of that ready-made concept ‘hell,’ whose existence I did not acknowledge.  I was absolutely unable to depict the truth without first creating a new terminology. […] Try as one might to depict that in writing, it cannot be done. (148-9) 

Beginning the account of her impossible experience would be no easy task for Ota, especially since she must write her story without recourse to familiar concepts or existing paradigms of understanding.  Paradoxically enough, after acknowledging the impossibility to dramatize or even report the events of August 6, Ota explains the spookiness of it all by reviewing what newspaper clippings about the atrocity she has managed to acquire.  First she offers the statistical information concerning the carnage of the bombing:  21,125 males dead, 21,277 females dead, 3,773 gendered unknown dead, 8,554 males missing, 8,875 females missing, 19,691 severely injured, 44,979 slightly injured, 235,657 homeless, etc.  Following this grim yet almost completely depersonalized data, Ota outlines a report on post August 6 recovery-worker radiation poisoning by a Professor Fujiwara of Hiroshima University.  After quoting the Professor’s findings on atomic bomb sickness extensively, Ota points out that no matter how thorough the Professor’s study is, much like the newspaper statistics, “it still leaves us groping about in the dark” (173).  Next, Ota further avoids her testimony by offering the reader another rather extended study, this time Tokyo University physicist Dr. Tsuzuki’s test results on the amount of heat produced by uranium.  Following several pages of verbatim reproduction of the physicist’s conclusions, Ota cites his phrase “still unknown” as the seemingly only valuable piece of information provided by Dr. Tsuzuki.  “I myself am taken with this phrase ‘still unknown’” she writes.  “It may be because of the conceptual mystique of this phrase that I am setting this informal talk down faithfully” (174). 

Although Ota does not appear in any way insulted by these non-humanized accounts of the atomic bombing of her hometown, she claims that no amount of information, however reliable, would abate the uneasiness of those survivors who need tending to their, as she puts it, “spiritual wounds” (177).  Even when Ota continues her narrative by giving a fairly detailed account of the history and geography of Hiroshima, the reader is liable to think that Ota, at this point in her testimony, is suffering from either an oddly productive form of writer’s block or an inability to face the horror of her memories of August 6.  But her incessant attention to details may actually be symptomatic of an epistemological conundrum.  She herself even mentions how all these scientific and psuedo-scientific studies of the bombsite have resulted from the fact that an event such as this has never happened before.  But she claims even more:  “A special quality of the damage the atomic bomb inflicts lies in the extreme unease it generates, unease because the truth is not likely to be known for many years” (177).  Although Ota here alludes to the possibility that the truth of the event could be possibly known some time in the future, her own incessant writing and lifelong obsession with the bombing of Hiroshima signifies a different story.

Many times throughout Ota’s memoir, including her ostensibly gross attention to newspaper details mentioned earlier, she alludes to the utter inadequacy of language and narrative to give an adequate representation of the terrible effects of the atomic bomb.  She mentions how in the days following August 6 those who survived the initial effects of the bomb groped around in the dark after possible explanations, explanations ranging from conventional bombing, mustard gas or poison gas to fire inexplicably falling from the sky.  No explanation could, however, account for both the architectural damage to the city and the almost universal burning of its inhabitants.  Because those who survived had no clear idea what happened, Ota remarks, “we talked nonsense” (195).  Ota also complains how no authorities came to relieve the survivors from their terrible curiosity:

But yesterday morning, after the catastrophe, no one told us anything.  Not a single person showed up—not the head of the ward association, not the air raid wardens.  Before, if they so much as saw a dim light during a blackout, they would get all worked up, rise up on their hind legs to search out its source, and then turn to the neighbors and call out “Traitor!” or put you in prison.  But where were those leaders yesterday morning? (201)

In the end, however, Ota seems, at least symbolically, most personally devastated by the complete destruction of Hiroshima Castle, the symbolic landmark of authority. 

John Whittier Treat argues that Ota’s uncertainty, confusion, and difficulty in writing about the atomic bombing stems from the “complicated assortment of personal and public tasks seldom associated with the duties of novelists” that her new work now requires (200).  Her writing must walk a narrow tightrope of accurately conveying to the public the effects of the atomic devastation in a manner that will not let the public appropriate it as their own, even in a commodified form.  She must somehow, through her testimonials, help the public understand without making the experience a common trauma.  Although Treat’s argument is persuasive on the level of narrative analysis, there seems to be something more structural and visceral to Ota’s dilemma beyond mere technical narrative mastery.  Even if Ota thinks so, she doesn’t become obsessed with writing atomic literature for the rest of her life because she’s passionately searching for the proper narrative format.  Again, her impasse seems to be more structural than stylistic.  She does manage to write the testimonial City of Corpses in the months following the bombing; she does manage to write the documentary novel Human Rags by 1951; she does manage to write the dramatic novel Half-Human in 1954.  But the use of multiple genres may only signify the inadequacy of them all.  Revising Treat’s argument, perhaps they are all suitable in their utter inadequacy.

Upon their initial appearance, most of Ota’s writings were highly criticized for their lack of organization.  But, this lack of organization obviously stems from and is, perhaps, the best articulation of the devastating effect of seeing and feeling the destroyed Hiroshima Castle and the loss of symbolized authority.  This effect, which is really an affect, comes to haunt her future writing as the shattering of identity that accompanied her trauma disrupts and negates her cognitive function.  According to Darian Leader, “the pain of something lost is often explained as evoking a gap in the psyche itself” (196). Leader argues that a compromise formation must emerge for representation.  At the “point where words are lacking,” then, “the only way to deal with what is lacking is by focusing on the details that mark its edges, its contours,” Leader continues (196).  Therefore, when Ota begins her testimony with detailed accounts of physical, geological, historical, and statistical minutia from newspaper reports, she is behaving much like the friend who does not truly mourn a lost loved one until visiting the loved one’s dwelling place after the funeral.  Only when one is amongst the everyday banal objects—furniture, books, appliances, knickknacks—that made up the life of the loved one, can the mourner truly feel the loss.  These details of the loved one’s existence are akin to the “contours” that are the only point of access to the loss.

This process of feeling the loss through details, Leader explains, is similar to Freud’s psychoanalytic notion of working through.  But as Freud was adamant to point out, working through is something peculiar to the analytic process:

The working-through of the resistances may in practice turn out to be an arduous task for the subject of the analysis and a trial of patience for the analyst. Nevertheless it is a part of the work which effects the greatest changes in the patient and which distinguishes analytic treatment from any kind of treatment by suggestion. (XII: 155-56)

Distinguishing analytic treatment, with its focus on the compulsion to repeat, acting out, and the patient’s resistances, from earlier modes of treatment, such as hypnosis which allows for no abreaction, Freud maintains that any overcoming of a traumatic memory must necessarily be engaged in the dynamic process of analysis.  Such an approach, her tells us, moves the patient well beyond the more descriptive and suggestive intervention that hypnosis provides.  Without analysis, then, one can only mourn; one cannot readily distinguish between the meaning and the use of a symptom.  Leader makes a similar point in his analysis of Freud, underscoring the difference between two elemental psychoanalytic notions, working through and melancholia:

In working through, a basic conception is subjected to a logical treatment, generating contradictions and inconsistencies, until a new perspective emerges as a result of symbolic work.  It is perhaps this confrontation with contradictions and inconsistencies which is one of the factors separating a mourning from a real working through. (199)

Of course, a mourning that is never completed, that is never worked out or abreacted, persists in the form of melancholy. 

And this is why Ota’s writing—her attempt to represent her trauma—should be read as a mourning bordering on melancholy.  Working through allows one to make the past present, but Ota’s writing appears to be stuck in the past.  But, one must ask, doesn’t Ota’s very desire or drive to write and account for her trauma, as a duty to be the conscience of her age, signify that she’s not entirely riveted to the past?  It seems, rather, that there is more than just a simple fixation to past events for Ota.  How, then, can we explain her insistence on writing as something that directs her gaze from the past to the present?  In order to understand the drive to memorialize, we must consider the force of the superego and the possibility of sublimation.

Psychoanalysis maintains that suffering, including traumatic suffering, is like a kind of sacrificial offering, an offering to the superego.  Our conscience preys on our pain.  And most likely Ota’s need to be the conscience of her age was the result of some sort of survivor’s guilt owed to the superego.  But if Ota could not escape this guilt for the rest of her life, writing, as a form of sublimation, offered her a way to modify her painful relation to the superego. 

Psychoanalysis, Leader tells us, has always compared the superego to a kind of psychic policeman.  In his analysis of Edmund Bergler, the now little read psychoanalyst from the ‘40s and ‘50s, Leader argues that if this psychoanalytic analogy is to be taken seriously, one has to work out what kind of policeman the superego most resembles.  Following Bergler, Leader points out that cops come in a variety of types, as he compares the superego with both a Tsarist police officer and a Swiss police officer.  While the Tsarist police are cruel and corruptible, the Swiss police are tough but incorruptible.  This distinction makes the Tsarist police more approachable, since they can be approached by bribes in the form of suffering.  But if the superego can be made Swiss and incorruptible, Leader continues in his analysis, it will be just as severe, but it will no longer operate in the old corrupt manner; it will no longer demand one’s suffering to pay off one’s guilt.  Instead, the Swiss superego will require its dues in the form of sublimations.  The superego remains more or less the same; one method of torture has been exchanged for another.  But, according to Leader, the Swiss cop offers a bit more space to get on with things (211-12) and, this, of course, is what is at stake for Ota as a writer, and, particularly, as one who considers herself the conscience of the age.

When Ota intimates that the truth of surviving Hiroshima “is not likely to be known for many years (177),” she seems to indicate some faith in a scientific form of knowledge where truth is both immanent and accessible to some proper measure of our life world, even if it will take time and modernized techno-knowledge to fully understand this truth.  But, the very fact that Ota offers actual scientific reports when pointing out the confusion of it all is very telling.  All scientific and even ethical understanding aside, Ota, at one point in her testimony, complains that “no one seemed interested in understanding the psychology of the victims” (177).  And as her life testifies, the psychology of the victims is not likely to be known even for many years.  Therefore, Ota’s atomic bomb literature demands to be read less as a suffering and more as sublimation paid to the Swiss police officer.  Unlike a scientific knowledge that holds the truth as both immanent and accessible, or even religious knowledge that holds truth to be transcendent and inaccessible, Ota’s postwar literary works, like art itself, are based on the presupposition that the truth is indeed immanent but nonetheless inaccessible to our historical space.  With their sublimatory potential, Ota’s writings are able to access a more subjective truth, the psychic gap, of the survivor’s experience.             


Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.  24 vols.  Ed. and Trans. James Strachey.  London: Hogarth, 1966.          

Langer, Lawrence L. Versions of Survival. Albany: SUNY, 1982.

Leader, Darian. Promises Lovers Make When it Gets Late. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Minear, Richard, ed.  Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

Treat, John Whittier. Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1995.

Yoko, Ota. City of Corpses. Minear 143-273.


Linda Belau is Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas-Pan American.  She is the author of several articles on psychoanalytic theory, co-editor of Topologies of Trauma: Essays on the Limits of Knowledge and Memory, and currently completing a book entitled Encountering Jouissance: Trauma, Psychosis, Psychoanalysis.


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