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Narrative Imagination and Catharsis

The Letter, Issue 65, Summer 2017, Pages 63 - 72


Richard Kearney

Bill was a beautiful man. He was a wise, deep, elegant, curious, brilliant, scrupulous, angry, chivalrous, tormented, honest, kind, stubborn, inspiring, funny, loving, beautiful man. Above all he was a teacher. That is what Bill Richardson loved to do. To teach and write, write and teach, for sixty years of his academic life, mentoring and forming over three generations of students. And during all those years of masterful pedagogy, Bill was as challenging as he was inspiring. For every time he commented NG (no good) or MA (what do the Medievals say?) in the margins of an essay, he invariably added: ‘You can do it – encore!’

Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.


How are we to ‘interpret’ psychic traumas which seem to defy meaning and language? Traumatic wounds are by definition unspeakable. Yet from the earliest of literatures, we find tales of primal trauma which testify to a certain catharsis through storytelling. And we witness a special role played in such tales by figures called ‘wounded healers’. By way of exploring the cathartic paradox of telling the untellable, I will look at some examples drawn from both classical mythology and contemporary literature (including, James Joyce and Holocaust testimony).

My basic hypothesis is this: while traumatic wounds cannot be cured, they may at times be healed – and such healing may take place through a therapy of narrative catharsis. In short, healing by word. A transformation of incurable wounds into healable scars.

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