In “Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History” (later published as Fixed Ideas) Joan Didion represents the Bush Administration’s justification for what future generations will call the Giant Mess O’Potamia as follows:
"I made up my mind,” [Bush] had said in April, “that Saddam needs to go.” This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I’ve made up my mind, I’ve said in speech after speech, I’ve made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason: “Given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity for regime change in Iraq,” James R. Schlesinger, who is now a member of Richard Perle’s Defense Policy Board, told The Washington Post in July, “our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place."
Ouch. Didion goes on to discuss the “fixed ideas” responsible for those repeated statements, but that’s not where I’m headed: what I want to do is align academic psychoanalytic thinkers with the Bush administration because it’s 1) counter-intuitive, 2) highly inflammatory and 3) in this extremely limited respect, arguably true.
For the sake of clarity, I should say that I’m talking about the citation of prominent psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic thinkers as authorities and not, for example, scholars who talk about the influence of Freudian thought on American literature in the ‘50s or ‘60s. The latter scholar points to a historical reality; the former to an unverifiable, unscientific explanation for human behavior. But I’m not interested in writing another anti-psychoanalysis broadside. I want to know why, as Frederick Crews argues, “the academic humanities” are one of the “three arenas in which flawed but once modish ideas, secure from the menace of rigorous testing, can be kept indefinitely in play.”
Why would otherwise intelligent people persist in straining their thought through this particular “epistemic sieve”? One answer, as Didion says, may be that “repeated statements become their own reason.” One can easily imagine scholars who have staked reputations to books and articles founded on psychoanalytic principles saying “Given all I have said as a leading figure in this field...” This not only applies to first-order academic psychoanalysts, i.e. those who cite Freud, Lacan, etc. directly; it also applies to second-, third- and fourth-order academic psychoanalysts, i.e those who cite Althusser, Fanon, Butler, etc. Logic would seem to dictate that if Freud’s anathema, then so is Lacan; if Lacan’s anathema, so is Althusser, etc. And if the investment in what’s been said determines what will be said ad infinitum, well, you see where I’m headed: the year 7,349 R.D.E., in which radical academic brains, born in jars and entombed in robotic exoskeletons, discuss the oedipalization issues raised by the latest libro-amniotic sensation. “I.N.T. 9017240-94189 clearly suffers from organic body envy, defined by Freud of the Embodied Era of Eventual and Inevitable Death as...”
Now, because this isn’t a broadside, I’m not interested in flogging the Freudians/Lacanians/etc. for their continued allegiance to one of the available psychoanalytic methods. I’d rather estimate the value of the psychoanalysis as a pure analytic--divorced from Popperian claims to science--one which produces more or less insightful readings of literary texts. As you can tell, I’m inclined to say that for all their complexities these psychoanalytic methods lead to gross oversimplifications of whatever they’re applied to. Then again, I could be wrong.
That may be too abstract: What I want to know is whether you think psychoanalysis produces knowledge about literature or only about psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic interpretations of literature. If it’s the former, I’d want to grade the quality of the literary knowledge produced. (Before you ask, “quality” is indeed about as loaded as a word can get without endangering innocent bystanders.) If it’s the latter, I’d be indebted to anyone who could justify the value of perpetuating knowledge about psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic interpretations of literature.
If you’d rather discuss a couple of specific essays that use psychoanalysis in entirely different ways, I could do that too. Here are some examples drawn from recent articles on Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner" (available through Project Muse):
1. Eric Savoy’s “The Queer Subject of ‘The Jolly Corner.’" Savoy aims to explicate “the psychoanalytic dimensions of Spencer Brydon’s monstrous other, his prosopopoeia-come-to-life...within the theories of gender regulation and identity formation advanced by Sedgwick and Judith Butler. I want to chart a particular intersection between Sedgwick’s work on homosexual panic and Butler’s exploration of the melancholia of gender which bears on the figurative operations of prosopopoeia, the master-trope of haunting that is crucial in the discursive production of the other in paranoid gothic texts.” The article concludes with this ringer: “the allegorical case history of ‘The Jolly Corner’ demonstrates the strange lucidities of a not-so-jolly coroner when backed into a not-so-jolly corner.”
2. Mark Goble’s “Delirious Henry James: a Small Boy and New York." Goble argues that “in A Small Boy and Others that James wants desperately to recall--’reckless almost to extravagance’--a different class of American spectacle, along with the urban modernity that it inspires. We might say James is after a modernity that is still at low pitch, still capable of sounding the ‘tone of time,’ like Cornelia herself, and her ‘small sallow carte-de-visite photographs, faithfully framed but spectrally faded’ ("Crapy Cornelia” 839). I am interested in how James makes history out of these artifacts of the modern. A Small Boy and Others seems an ideal place to begin understanding this particular alchemy, because James’s fond and lavish reconstruction of ‘old New York’ seems less an excursion into the past, and more an excavation of the city’s delirious future.”
3. Shalyn Claggett’s “Narcissim and the Conditions of Self-knowledge in James’s ‘The Jolly Corner.’" Claggett contends that “‘The Jolly Corner’ is a Narcissus narrative with an important difference: Narcissus comprehends his image and dies; Brydon denies his image and survives. Just before encountering the image, Brydon realizes the dangerous nature of the knowledge such a meeting would impart, thinking it ‘would send him straight about to the window he had left open, and by that window . . . he saw himself uncontrollably insanely fatally take his way to the street’ (753). Knowing this, Brydon attempts to avoid his other self at the last moment, and when he cannot help encountering it, he denies it to be him as the only possible means of psychic escape. In so doing, he enables himself to fulfill Narcissus’s alternative fate of living to a ‘well-ripened age’ (347). But James does more than offer a complementary version of the Narcissus myth—he dramatizes the complexities of this dilemma—death or self-knowledge—as fundamental in the subject’s formation of a cohesive self.”