The Trauma of A Lifetime

Upon recognizing some elements of tragedy within the exploration narrative, one may consider an abstract concept that further supplements the reality of Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition.  Due to the number of casualties within the group of explorers, it is suspected that trauma would play a large role in the aftermath—namely de Vaca’s personal narrative to the King.  While it is important to consider the audience of the narrative as well as the autobiographical acts, perhaps there is some significance in the reason de Vaca embraces the trauma of the expedition.  In many autobiographies, the concept of trauma, or scriptotherapy, can be witnessed through the author’s ability to describe (or avoid) potentially difficult times in their journey.  In this case, de Vaca doesn’t appear to shy away from the trauma of the narrative, but instead uses common language.  In many instances, he describes the battles in which people are often wounded or killed as plainly as he might describe the Florida landscape.  For example, chapter 5 of de Vaca’s narrative relays an event in which Juan Velazquez attempts to cross a great river on horseback, but is swept away and drowns.  De Vaca adds that “his death gave us much grief, because up to that point none of us had perished” (62).  Tragic as it may appear, Velazquez’s death seems only to be a milestone in the expedition, and is taken relatively lightly in relation to, for example, the discovery of a new tribe.  Just the same, chapter 7 of his narrative reveals de Vaca’s account of their arrival at a village after another explorer has been killed.  He writes, “when we arrived, we found all the people of the village gone and the houses burned” (69).  Such a charred sight to the eyes of an already battered group of travelers would no doubt induce additional trauma, or at the very least, mental distress.  Again, de Vaca describes the events with a seemingly indifferent perspective, perhaps intentionally avoiding the traumatic experiences in order to contain his own emotional reactions.  Perhaps he assumed that a mild indifference to tragedy would suppress the horror of its reality.  In support of this, he attempts to explain his reasoning to the King in chapter 9 as he writes, “I tell this briefly in this manner because I do not think there is need to tell in detail the miseries and hardships in which we found ourselves, since considering the place where we were and the little hope we had of survival, each one can imagine a great deal of what would happen there” (76).  De Vaca leaves the tragedy to one’s own imagination with hopes that he will neither need nor be required to retell many of them himself.

An image portrayed on the cover of his narrative

Modern science also supports this theory with research regarding the recording of traumatic experiences, or scriptotherapy.  Smith and Weston relay this in a chapter regarding autobiographical criticism.  They write that “trauma studies has consolidated itself as a field since the 1990s, as scholars study the humanistic disciplines work to theorize trauma and its aftereffects on survivors” (Smith and Watson 220).  The fact that de Vaca had previous military experience does not cancel out the possibility that he may have been and most likely was affected negatively by the events of the expedition.  The sight of so many deaths and disappointments may well be the reason he attempted to remain indifferent when it came to detailed descriptions of the events.  It comes as no surprise that de Vaca’s tactics may have been spot on.  Smith and Watson also assert that, according to recent studies,  “organized scenes of witness to the traumatic past may restage the violence” (Smith and Watson 284).  That is, the use of scriptotherapy may well continue to revive the traumatic events the victims were so intent on burying.  Perhaps, then, some of the first exploration narratives were written with the preconception that, if unacknowledged as tragic, the actual events would lessen their burden in the aftermath of the journey.  It is difficult to make any sort of assumption in this case, but de Vaca’s account is a good example of an attempt to cope with the tragedy that comes with discovery.  As such, an attention to trauma when it comes to reading narrative may help tremendously when considering the autobiographical “I” in itself.

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