Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday kicks off a 3-day conference hosted by the Lebanese American University entitled: Healing the Wounds of History: Addressing the Roots of Violence. I am here primarily to see Ziad, Moheiddine, and Assaad speak about their experiences during and after the war; but am curious to see what the rest of the conference will bring. I’m particularly interested to see how last week’s clash between opposing political groups on LAU’s campus is going to be incorporated into the day’s program. If ever there was a context for exploring where theory meets practice, it seems, this would be it.


The clashes are succinctly but sufficiently addressed in the keynote speech, but not mentioned thereafter. While some impulsive and intuitive part of me is disappointed that there hasn’t been a drastic and responsive reworking of the conference planning, the rest of me understands that this conference was organized months ago, and that its function is to be forward-thinking and global, not immediate and reactive. Perhaps artists have a hard time with suppressing that little impulsive voice, I muse, because we spend so much of our energy listening for it—intuitive response forms the heart of creativity.

I’m not the best at absorbing academic speeches. Most of the time the polysyllabic words kind of wash over me in a general marinade which I seep in, without really catching all of the facts and figures. What I come away with is more often an emotional sense of the thing than a practical and applicable point. But once in a while you get a zinger—someone whose ideas are at once familiar enough to engage you and new enough to excite you. Reina Sarkis is my zinger. A psychoanalyst doing a doctorate on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, Reina spends her fifteen minutes talking about human compulsive behavior in response to trauma, and how this manifests and is enacted on a larger scale by entire communities and societies who have suffered the trauma of war.

Reina’s talk is exciting because she assumes the parallel relationship between microcosm and macrocosm (by looking at patterns of individual psychology and applying them to understanding collective psychology), an assumption that a lot of my own thinking is based on. Recently, as I’ve read and learned more about psychology and trauma, I’ve come to understand the importance of storytelling in constructing a coherent narrative out of our experiences in order to build our sense of who we are and what we want. Experiences don’t happen for us in isolation, they happen to us in the context of a larger story, an arbitrary grouping of events that we have decided to give a specific significance to by placing them in relation to one another. These stories have builds and outcomes that allow us to see how our experiences have shaped us into new people with new expectations or characteristics or traits or desires. These stories are enormously powerful, because they determine how we feel and what we do next. And WE create them; in this way, we create ourselves.

Ever since my psychedelic teenage years, I’ve reflexively drawn connections between individuals and collectives, so of course all of my learning re: personal narrative has had me thinking about my career choice, and examining the role and responsibilities of theatre artists (as well as novelists, filmmakers, and all other storytellers) in constructing cultural narratives. Up until now I’ve seen our work as a conscious but somewhat organic process, giving quite a lot of trust over to that “intuitive” creative voice; putting impulse in the driver’s seat, if you will.

Reina says something that snaps me awake: “Following trauma, we engage in compulsive behavior, often recreating the traumatic event in an attempt to change the outcome. On an individual level we see this as people reconstruct the traumatic event again and again in their own lives and relationships. At a societal level we see this through politics, media, and in the arts…” Reina reminds us that coming to the same situation with the exact same tools we had at the point of trauma, with nothing new to add, and expecting a different outcome is literally pathological. Cycling through old stories. Reenacting the past. Compulsive. Impulsive. Hearing Reina’s talk, I gain a new appreciation for the premium that is put on originality in the arts—at writing new and original narratives, if you will. I also am forced to take a second look at my blind trust in “the creative impulse.” Impulses come from many places, not all of them transformative or even constructive.

I ran through my idea for a narrative structure of the writing piece with Sabine, and her response to my proposed ending was that it was cheesy. Cheesy means “overdone,” which to an artist spells unoriginality, so Sabine’s frank guidance had already forced me to look beyond the immediate and obvious. But Reina has just taught me why this search for new stories is so important.