Modern Australian

or, the case against trigger warnings

  • Written by Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

It was an ordinary lecture to first-year students, on “Women Writers and Modernism.” My brief was to introduce the different ways men and women responded to the social, intellectual and artistic challenges of the modernist movement.

This is a subject about the literature of the early 20th century, but it tackles some difficult social questions too. While men were facing the horrors of war, the challenges of industrialisation and the disruption of many familiar intellectual and social hierarchies, women were gaining access to education, greater participation in the democratic process, and fuller employment.

I told the students that several days ago on talkback radio, where the topic was sexual and domestic violence against women, I had heard a caller say that many men felt threatened by women’s increasing participation in the workforce. These were complicated issues, I said, but it did seem that we were still rehearsing arguments that were current over a hundred years ago, and that these patterns of anxiety were part of broader systemic patterns associated with patriarchy and capitalism.

or, the case against trigger warnings A 1917 portrait of Hilda Doolittle. Wikimedia Commons

But it was time to turn to my women writers. I began with Hilda Doolittle (re-named “H.D.” by Ezra Pound), and talked about the way many women writers re-wrote classical stories from a woman’s perspective. I clicked on to my next slide, part of her poem written in 1916, Eurydice.

I stopped. Silence fell around me, and I could not speak. I tried again, but could not get out a word. I had been in full rhetorical flight in front of several hundred students, but suddenly felt an awful silence spreading, as my students realised first that something was wrong, and then as they realised why I had stopped.

The elegant and unusual name Eurydice — and the awful death through sexual violence of a young woman, less than a kilometre north of our campus, less than two months ago — was resonating powerfully in the lecture theatre.

Unable to speak, I felt a moment’s panic and shame, fearing the students would think I had staged the whole thing for dramatic effect. For surely I could not be surprised by my own choice of text.

I gathered myself together, reminded the students of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (abducted by Hades into the Underworld and released into Orpheus’ care on condition he not look back until he leads her into the sunlight), and read these lines.

So you have swept me back,I who could have walked with the live soulsabove the earth,I who could have slept among the live flowersat last;

so for your arroganceand your ruthlessnessI am swept backwhere dead lichens dripdead cinders upon moss of ash;

so for your arroganceI am broken at last,I who had lived unconscious,who was almost forgot;

if you had let me waitI had grown from listlessness into peace,if you had let me rest with the dead,I had forgot youand the past.

or, the case against trigger warnings Eurydice Dixon. AAP

The students were still and silent as I read. Hearing this voice of a dead woman from the mythical past called up the presence — I think we all felt it — of the young woman whose story we all knew. For those few moments, we held vigil for Eurydice Dixon.

This is what it feels like to be “triggered” by literature, to have a fictional incident or even a name suddenly ambush you from your train of thought, your narrative curiosity, and your readerly pleasure. Literature can take your breath away, even when the trauma it recalls is a communal one, not a personal tragedy.

And yet I only half-heartedly, and only occasionally give “trigger warnings,” advising students that they may encounter violence and trauma of various kinds in literary texts. The best argument for such warnings is not that students can then refuse to read, but that students suffering post-traumatic stress may prepare themselves for the confronting business of discussing literary texts in classes: the emotional engagement with others in a public setting.

or, the case against trigger warnings Titian’s Orpheus and Eurydice, painted circa 1508. Wikimedia Commons

Such warnings testify to the very real power of literary texts to challenge and confront us, often in ways we cannot anticipate.

But this incident also reveals the impossibility of such warnings. There was no way I could have known I would be taken so deeply by surprise at my own response; no way I would ever have warned students that a poem about a mythical abduction to the Underworld might trigger this awful feeling.

Literature works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. This episode reminds us of its astonishing capacity to strike emotional chords and resonances. Such moments can make us feel awful, and uncomfortable, and can disrupt our carefully managed public and professional performances of the self, but they can also generate strong emotional connections between people, across time and different cultures. Of course I can’t be sure what all the students were thinking, though an unusual number of them came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the lecture.

Moreover, if literature produces this sting, it also produces the cure. Seeing H.D.’s beautiful poem on my screen gave me the courage to go on, and to do justice to her work. The poem gave me the words to say next. Reading that poem — finding structure and pattern in its cadences; and finding a voice in its lyrical core — produced poetic order out of emotional chaos.

Authors: Stephanie Trigg, Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of English Literature, University of Melbourne

Read more http://theconversation.com/when-literature-takes-you-by-surprise-or-the-case-against-trigger-warnings-101251

NEWS

Albanese promises a 'productivity project' in an economic vision statement harking back to Hawke and Keating

Anthony Albanese puts a “productivity project” at the centre of his economic agenda in the second of his “vision statements”, which seeks to further distance him from the Shorten era.“Productivity...

Friday essay: George Eliot 200 years on

A portrait of George Eliot at 30 by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade. Her masterpiece Middlemarch is often claimed to be the greatest novel in the English language.Wikimedia CommonsMary Ann Evans took...

Vital Signs. Untaxing childcare is a bold idea that seems unfair, but might benefit us all

Win-win? No-one would be worse off under the UNSW proposal. Over time it should pay for itselfShutterstockAustralia’s system of childcare support is pretty good. It ensures high-quality care is provided...

Five ways parents can help their kids take risks – and why it’s good for them

Have real conversations with your kids about what they're doing, and the potential consequences of their actions.from shutterstock.comMany parents and educators agree children need to take risks. In one US...

a short, shaky history of curing with vibrations

Vibration devices have been used to treat everything from 'hysteria' to hair loss. So Marie Kondo's tuning forks and crystals are nothing new.from www.shutterstock.comYou might remember how Gwyneth Paltrow’s health...

These young Muslim Australians want to meet Islamophobes and change their minds. And it's working

While most research participants believe in the power of contact, dialogue and exchange to transform negative attitudes. ShutterstockThe political influence of the far-right, along with a more salient national security...

Smoke haze hurts financial markets as well as the environment

Sydney is currently blanketed by smoke haze from severe bushfires that have burned through New South Wales. Air pollution levels on Thursday reached hazardous levels for the second time in...

How 1 bright light in a bleak social housing policy landscape could shine more brightly

In the year since the Australian government created the National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC), its bond aggregator, AHBA, has raised funds for affordable housing providers, allowing them...

why does wood crackle in a fire?

If you've ever put wet wood on to a fire, you may have noticed it makes a lot more noise than dry wood. ShutterstockWhy does wood crackle in a fire? –...

Scott Morrison will go into 2020 with a challenging cluster of policy loose ends

Scott Morrison’s government is heading to the end of 2019 amid a debate about its economic judgement and with a number of substantial policy moves started but not completed.Morrison this...

New report shows the world is awash with fossil fuels. It's time to cut off supply

Australia's coal production is expected to jump by 34% to 2030, undercutting our climate efforts.Nikki Short/AAPA new United Nations report shows the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries, including Australia...

Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy

Hydrogen infrastructure in the right places is key to a cleaner, cheaper energy future.ARENAThe possibilities presented by hydrogen are the subject of excited discussion across the world – and across...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

4 Tips to Prepare for a Home Meditation RetreatWhy You Should Hit the Gym This SpringSaving History One VHS Tape At A Time4 Vaccines Your Teens Should Be GettingStrength Training Tips To Make Your Workout EffectiveTop Fashion Secrets To Look Stylish No Matter The Occasion  How to save money on major home repairsCan I Do Something About My Sensitive Teeth?Climbing Out of a Creative Rut – Strategies for Photographers5 Digital Free Holidays: Take a trek and get back to nature8 Things You’ll Need for a Positive Breast Surgery RecoveryThe Best Sites and Events to See in Melbourne Everything You Wanted To Know About Air CompressorsWhat to Consider When Buying a Home With KidsPlaces to visit on your first trip to North America