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Key Papers in Literature and Psychoanalysis

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Since Freud invoked the Oedipus story to exemplify and verify his findings with patients and in analyzing his own dreams, psychoanalysis and literature have had a fruitful if often distrusting relationship. Literature and theory have increased enormously in range. Education no longer insists upon classics of Western literature as building blocks for understanding. Yet the tie between psychoanalysis and imaginative literature remains vital, and the two disciplines can interact vibrantly, as these selected essays of recent years from the International Journal of Psychoanalysis handsomely show. They explore overlaps of literary experience and psychoanalytic process, both of which activate our capacity to 'see feelingly', which is to say, provide occasion for a structured richness of knowing with a felt tie to truth. Both enhance consciousness, expand the emotions, undermine unconscious closures, and provoke thought; and it is those very qualities that inform their illustrative and explanatory usefulness to one another.

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CHAPTER ONE: Italo Svevo and the first psychoanalytic novel

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Aaron Esman

The first fictional work that used psychoanalysis as a central plot device was La coscienza di Zeno [Confessions of Zeno], published in 1923 by Ettore Schmitz, a Triestino Jewish businessman who wrote under the pseudonym ofItalo Svevo. This paper describes Svevo’s background, his relations with such important literary figures as James Joyce and with such central figures in Italian psychoanalysis as Dr Edoardo Weiss. It seeks to demonstrate to the anglophone reader the particular psychoanalytic elements in the novel and to relate them to Svevo’s personal experience (including his indirect contacts with Freud) and to the intellectual currents of the period in a city which had, until the aftermath of the First World War, been a crossroads of European culture.

Some time in 1914, a feckless middle-aged, upper-middle-class Jewish idler named Zeno Cosini consults a psychoanalyst in Trieste, his home town, seeking a cure for a variety of neurotic and psychosomatic symptoms and, in particular, his unshakeable addiction to cigarettes. The analyst, Dr S, suggests to him that, in addition to his daily sessions, he write an autobiography as “a good preparation for the treatment.”Zeno, in his characteristic passive–aggressive way, complies, and in a series of often hilarious chapters describes in intimate detail the history of his addiction, his reactions to the illness and death of his father, his marriage and his taking a mistress, and his dazzlingly unsuccessful attempts at a business partnership. His self-descriptions oscillate between penetrating self-observation and massive self-deception, the latter founded on copious use of such defences as denial, projection, and rationalization. Finally, in angry response to Dr S’s insistent interpretation of Oedipal conflicts, he abruptly breaks off the analysis. In revenge, Dr S arranges for the publication of Zeno’s memoirs, and thus is born the first psychoanalytic novel, La coscienza di Zeno, published in 1923 and issued in English translation in 1930 with the somewhat inaccurate title of Confessions of Zeno.

 

CHAPTER TWO: A father’s abdication: Lear’s retreat from “aesthetic conflict”

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James V. Fisher

The author explores the potential contribution of Shakespeare’s King Lear to psychoanalytic thinking, linking a reading of the play focused on the emotional tensions inherent in the parental function of endowing (heriting) the next generation with the developmental struggle characterized by Donald Meltzer as theaesthetic conflict. Following Meltzer’s definition of passion as theconsortiumof Bion’s emotional links, love, hate, and the urge to know (L, H, and K), the author develops an understanding ofaesthetic conflictlinked with the tension inherent in that constellation. It is suggested that L and H split off from each other and from K become attempts to possess and control, while K split off from L and H becomes an attack on dreaded emotional links, oscillating between attempting to ignore them and attempting to overcome them. The author suggests an affinity between Bion’s K-link and what in King Lear is pictured as a capacity tosee feelinglyin the context of the struggle to give the object its freedom. This way of characterizingaesthetic conflictis linked with a fresh look at weaning as a lifelong developmental process, which in turn leads to a reconsideration of the psychoanalytic models of the dynamics of mourning.

 

CHAPTER THREE: “The music of what happens” in poetry and psychoanalysis

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Thomas H. Ogden

The author presents a close reading of a Frost poem and a detailed discussion of an analytic session. Using specific examples from the poem and from the analytic session, he then offers some thoughts concerning the relationship between the way he listens to the language of the poem and the way he and his patient speak with and listen to one another. The author illustrates in this reading of the poem and in the way he speaks to his patient that he is not primarily engaged in an effort to unearth what liesbehindthe poem’s words and symbols orbeneaththe patient’s report of a dream or of a life event. Instead (or perhaps more accurately, in addition), he attempts to listen to the sound and feel ofwhat’s going on, to themusic of what happens. This is achieved to significant degree in the analytic setting by means of the analyst’s attending to his own reverie experience.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
(Heaney, “Song", 1979)

 

CHAPTER FOUR: From symbols to flesh: the polymorphous destiny of narration

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Julia Kristeva

The author analyses certain aspects of the narration of a generally taciturn hysterico-phobic obsessional patient as they appear in the transference relationship, pinpointing its phallic mastery and the sadistic impact of the domination over the audience/analyst that underlies this mode of discourse. She examines them in relation to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, discussing the place of perversion in analytic listening and interpretation. She then outlines some of the key structuralist and formalist views of narration as a form of syntactic structure expanded by the resolution of an enigma via a hero’s ordeal, arguing that if syntactic structure exists, it consists neither of affirmation nor of negation but rather of interrogation. The author notes that what makes psychoanalytic theory radically different from other interpretive theories is the co-presence of sexuality and thought: psychoanalysis reinforces the formal description of a signifying act by the unconscious psychosexual conditions of its possibility. She then discusses the poetic narrative of Nerval and also that of Proust, which is dominated by the acting out of perverse fantasy, the resulting polyphony of various psychosexual registers, its philosophical and metaphysical impact and its relevance to the analyst’s own interpretive acts when formulating stories within the countertransference relationship.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: “It seemed to have to do with something else … ” : Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and Bion’s theory of thinking

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Sasha Brookes

This article argues that what Maisie knew, as conveyed to readers of James’s novel, can fruitfully be considered and interpreted in terms of Bion’s theory of thinking, and especially his concepts of K and –K and the container/ contained relationship. It is shown that James describes a containing relationship that Maisie, the child protagonist, has with her nurse, and the gradual growth of such a relationship in Maisie’s own psyche, leading to her capacity to learn from experience. James’s text is shown to contain striking instances of the creation and the destruction of meaning (K and –K) by the adults close to Maisie. It is argued that Maisie’s own choice to make links and to desire knowledge is made through her complex experience of the Oedipal situation, which gives her opportunities to see herself inthe third position(Britton, 1998). Maisie’s eventual decision about her life, made by herself in the absence of any adequate parent, is based on the unconscious knowledge that destruction of meaning poisons the mind, and she must do her best to avoid it.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Some thoughts on the essence of the tragic

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K.I. Arvanitakis

An attempt is made to define the essence of the tragic through an examination of Euripides’s The Bacchae, a tragedy that deals with the origins of tragedy itself. The action here culminates in the dismemberment of Pentheus by his mother. It is proposed that the tragic may be related to the earliest phases of differentiation of the subject as a separate entity breaking off from the original mother–infant unit. Tragedy, in this view, could be regarded as the enactment of a primal phantasy of the birth of theIas the result of an archaic act of violence. The process of mourning for the loss of the original unity is central to this development. Pentheus’s tragic flaw consists in his repudiation of contradictory dualities and his inability to mourn. The integrative function of logos, both in tragedy and in the analytic process, is underlined. It is suggested that logos aims to generate meaning not by eliminating contradiction but by embodying the foundational human paradox.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Negation in Borges’s “The secret miracle”: writing the Shoah

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Beatriz Priel

The author presents a psychoanalytic reading of Borges’sThe secret miracle(1943), a short story about the Shoah, for which Freud’s concept of negation (Verneinen) and recent psychoanalytic approaches to symbol-ization and the functions of fiction form the theoretical background. She argues that the effects of negation, present in literary fiction, become forcefully magnified in the fiction of the Shoah, because of its specific inversion of the relations between life and art. This magnification increases the perplexing effect that is characteristic of Borges’s heterotopies. The story is read as a metaphor of transformative processes that closely follow Freud’s dual conceptualization of negation as a defence and as allowing the repressed a way into consciousness. This study illuminates the conservation of the relations between external and internal realities as a basic difference between negation and related concepts such as disavowal (Verleugnung), and repression, in relation to creative imagination. The author relates the story’s perplexing effect to its subversion of fundamental axioms such as temporality, questioning the existence of sense itself and suggests that the malaise the story produces may stem from the way in which its narrative structure negates time, the fabric from which narratives—and life—are woven.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Killing the angel in the house: creativity, femininity, and aggression

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Rozsika Parker

The author brings to bear an art historical perspective on the psychoanalytic understanding of creativity as an object relationship, proposing that the creative endeavour is determined by a wider, more complex network of internal and external object relationships than is usually assumed. The workings of tradition, language, contemporary practices, methods, and materials are explored. Creative block is considered in the context of the determining relationships, with particular reference to the role of aggression. The position of the latter within psychoanalytic theories of creativity is surveyed and it is proposed that aggression has a pivotal place not primarily in instituting sublimation, reparation or reaction formation but simply because the processes of creativity demand it. Virginia Woolf’s image of Killing the angel in the house is analysed and used to track the implications of gender, focusing on the concept of the muse. It is pointed out that traditionally, the fear, guilt, and anxiety associated with aggressive creativity has been mediated by the muse, which is compared to the internal good object. Drawing on art history, artists’ statements, and clinical material, the author illustrates the disparate means by which the presence ofmusecan be internalized to infuse the relationships that constitute creativity.

 

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