"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Psychology and Modern Literature

by Perry Meisel

As Michel Foucault has shown (1961), among the first great shifts to accompany the demise of religion and the emergence against it of Enlightenment rationality was the division of reason, not from religion, but from madness. A nosological shift – the creation of a new descriptive field available to medical diagnosis – was also an epistemological one: the mind was no longer partitioned into good and evil, but into the rational and the irrational. The religious antinomies that precede it historically shadow this new pairing, but its consequences are different. Reason’s domain was necessarily psychological. Reason was now the guardian of a soul that was by definition self-divided, turning the self into its first, and chief, object of scrutiny. So began, to use Christopher Lasch’s phrase, the culture of narcissism. The conventional critical emphasis upon madness in modern literature is a durable way of showing how clearly modernism descends from the Enlightenment split that Foucault describes (Gilbert and Gubar 1979; Valentine 2003). But modern literature’s transgressive energies and liminal orientations – Virginia Woolf is its locus classicus – merely heighten what is already at work in the comparatively stable if neurasthenic world of the later novels of Henry James: an emphasis on the self, and the difference between self-knowledge and self-regard.

James and James

This shift in the history of modern literature is nowhere more evident than in the shift from James’s own early fiction to his later phase. It is a shift that has served generations of critics as an organizing assumption about the history of the novel as a whole. In fiction before James, the world predominates; in fiction after James, the mind predominates. Compare the opening sentence of The American (1877) with that of The Ambassadors (1903). The shift from outside to inside is manifest. The American begins with James’s fashionable hero in a pose of aestheticist lassitude that borders not only on exhibitionism but also on pretension: “On a brilliant day in May, in the year 1868, a gentleman was reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the center of the Salon Carré, in the Museum of the Louvre” (James 1877: 1). It is the pose that is ambiguous, not the man. Whether or not a doubleness invades the soul of Christopher Newman we have as yet no idea. We do not know if he is as ambivalent about his mannerisms as the morally impatient reader of James may be about him. How different is the beginning of The Ambassadors. Once again the focus is on James’s hero, but the terms have changed, perhaps only slightly, but with enormous differences in implication: “Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted” (James 1903: 17). By the end of the sentence we are firmly established within Strether’s mind, even to the point of feeling his ambivalence about his friend’s absence (“not wholly disconcerted”). Strether is, it appears, relieved to have some time to himself despite missing his friend’s expected company. Nor are we asked merely to identify with Strether. This is free indirect discourse, with the narrator shaping the construction of Strether’s thoughts for our consideration as well as simply presenting them to us for the purpose of sympathy. What differences contribute to Strether’s ambivalence? If we are asked to know Christopher Newman where he does not know himself, we are asked to know Strether where he presumes to know more about himself than he really does.
It is often to Henry’s brother, William, author of Principles of Psychology (1890), that historians turn to find terms to describe Henry’s prose. Here is an influential passage from the Principles: “Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. . . . It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life” (William James 1890, I: 239). Despite the combination of “comparison” and “suppression” (288) required to constitute an object’s “fringe” (258), as James puts it, or, in a splendid phrase, its “theatre of simultaneous possibilities” (288), James regards this process as one of “consciousness,” or, in the decisive assumption, “voluntary thinking” (259). Although the mind organizes “tendencies” (254) of thought rather than real perceptions, its agreements with other minds is considered an agreement about “the same object,” he concludes, making “thought cognitive of an outer reality” (272).
James’s descriptions of consciousness hardly do justice to the psychical processes that his brother’s novels both describe and provoke. William’s “consciousness” is too limited notionally to account for them. No wonder historians invoke Henri Bergson’s work to account for the techniques of modern fiction in more detail. Says Bergson in a passage from An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889): “I do not see how . . . differences of sensation would be interpreted by our consciousness as differences of quantity unless we connected them with the reactions which usually accompany them, and which are more or less extended and more or less important” (Bergson 1889: 37–8). As in The Ambassadors, the transposition of the self’s fluctuating impressions by language into social myth or ideology is the Essay’s real subject. Unlike brother Henry, however, even Bergson cannot describe the state of perilous epistemological twilight in which Strether exists. It is because he cannot give up the idea of “consciousness” any more than brother William can. Nor can either give up the notion that the world is simply given.
Neither Bergson nor brother William will do to describe brother Henry’s fiction. The Ambassadors – and The American, too, for that matter – deal with states and data quite precisely not given to consciousness. Whether or not they eventually enter consciousness is the ethical drama that James’s novels customarily play out. Like Bergson, what brother William cannot describe in brother Henry’s prose is the unconscious – that which exceeds the grasp of any sense of awareness based on the presumption that one can see objectively, without the biases that make us, unconsciously, who and what we are.
Formulating the unconscious is the province of European psychology in the nineteenth century, the product of myriad influences reaching back to the Enlightenment. It is just this history that American clinical psychology, following brother William, represses; it is its enabling negation. This repressed history leads not to academic psychology, but to Freud and psychoanalysis. The tradition of the unconscious is what joins modern literature with psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, in a variety of ways, and not just as cause to effect, or even as mere parallelism. So rich is Freud’s own achievement that the different trends in modern literature actually unpack different trends in Freud himself. It is no surprise because Freud summarizes and reconfigures the numerous influences that overdetermine him.


“The effect of Freud upon literature”, wrote Lionel Trilling in 1950, “has been no greater than the effect of literature upon Freud” (1950: 32). By the literature Freud had influenced, Trilling meant modern literature; by the literature that had influenced Freud, Trilling meant Romanticism and its Enlightenment antecedents. Here Freud’s own widest influences assemble both science and literature (Ellenberger 1970) and, with them, the influences that produce the psychology of modernism as a whole. Unlike English and French Romanticism, German Romanticism, which precedes them both, included Novalis, a doctor; British Romanticism counted a professional apothecary surgeon, Keats, among its chief poets, and among its intellectual sources the associationist psychology of David Hartley, medical doctor as well as philosopher. Indeed, the hard division between science and poetry that emerged in the early twentieth century with the rise of technical research (Whitehead 1925) was not yet in place when Fechner began a second career in the 1860s as Doctor Mises, journalist, spiritualist, and literary entrepreneur. Psychology’s earliest modern terrain is not science but philosophy, especially the sensationalism of John Locke, which prefigures Hartley’s associationism by more than a century. Psychology’s presumably intimate relation to idealism is already a problem in Locke, for whom sensory experience builds the mind as well as the body.
The simple division between idealist and materialist never structures the history of modern psychology in the first place. Contemporary with Hartley is the development of interest in the brain and nervous system (Richardson 2001). Brain science is the link between the sensory philosophy of Locke and Hartley and the materialism of a literary tradition from Keats to Pater that takes body and brain to be continuous rather than at odds. By 1820, phrenology, despite its notorious future as a cult practice and locus of popular assumption about intelligence, had emerged as the first attempt to map the brain. Its background is the discovery in 1781 of “animal electricity” by Galvani and the notion that mental activity could be broken down into component parts and actually studied. The anatomy of the soul had replaced its salvation. In the hands of a physiological philosopher like Hartley, the notion of “association” therefore included the physiology that underlay the mind’s psychology. Like Galvani’s electricity, Hartley’s “vibrations,” as he called them in his 1749 Observations, strove to connect physical stimulation with events in the mind using the “association” as the mediator among sensation, ideation, and feeling. Erasmus Darwin, in Zoonomia (1794-6), gives us the term “sensorium” to describe a connectedness of brain and perception that is no longer simply ideal. Franz Joseph Gall in turn gives us the notion of the brain itself as a systematic organ. The emergence of the brain as the biological source of thought, feeling, and sensation therefore complicates the otherwise idealist air of Romanticism, British Romanticism in particular, and likens the neural atmosphere that surrounded Romanticism with the neurological atmosphere later in the century that surrounded the birth of psychoanalysis. Like Hartley, brain science had already made both Romanticism and psychology materialist affairs, not by becoming mechanistic, but by situating ideas in a relation to the “sensorium.” Keats’s hands-on involvement with the sciences of the body has produced generations of scholarship preoccupied by the connection between his emphasis on sensation and his experiences as a surgeon actually touching the material of his own metaphors.
Out of the cauldron of Romantic science and philosophy emerged in turn the distinct disciplines of neurology, psychology, and psychoanalysis; psychiatry, ironically enough, emerges, like psychoanalysis, as a late-nineteenth century response to neurology, although also as a response to the new psychoanalysis, with which it is largely contemporaneous. Here the descriptive insouciance of psychiatry as a discipline finds its own root – and literary – cause. Emil Kraepelin’s profuse nosographies of psychiatric disorders, like the more exacting ones of C. G. Jung’s chief at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich, Eugen Bleuler, functioned as the scrim upon which Freud painted a far richer specificity of mind, due in large part to the literary and philosophical reading that had spurred his own mind beyond the conventions of a purely descriptive medicine.
Freud’s teacher Ernst Brücke, in whose laboratory Freud worked as a young neurologist from March 1881 to July 1882, was the contemporary of Hermann Hemholtz, who had borrowed the term “conservation of energy” from mechanical physics to describe a regulatory principle in the nervous system in 1845 (Sulloway 1979: 66). Working under these assumptions in Brücke’s Physiological Institute as he dissected everything from crayfish to the nervous systems, including the brains, of human cadavers, the young Freud was taught to regard neurological processes as reflexive discharge, the body’s way of relieving buildups of tension.
For Gustav Fechner of Leipzig, however, William James’s great rival, Hemholtz’s “conservation” was not a process of reflex or discharge but of “constancy.” The organism seeks equilibrium through absorption rather than through discharge, which, for Fechner, unlike Hemholtz, is a pathogenic state. The body expunges stimulation rather than absorbs it only when stimulation is toxic or inassimilable. But even more is at stake in Fechner’s recasting of “conservation” than the change from discharge to absorption. It is the old question of mind and body. Fechner moots the problem of a difference between mind and body – between idealism and materialism, psyche and soma – by regarding them as continuous. Sense perception and the internal production of images in memory or in fantasy are – as they were in Hartley and will be in Fechner’s disciple Freud – interdependent. What is their mediator? It is a “residuum” (Bergson 1889: 64), to use Bergson’s description of Fechner’s idea, of memory and assumption. It is what Freud will call the unconscious. Propped on the brain in a recapitulation of its development, the mind, says Fechner, is also a part of the body as a whole.
The birth of psychoanalysis is customarily assigned to the moment that Freud abandoned his “seduction theory” in 1897 in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, moving within and discovering “psychical reality.” But this is not to say that Freud’s inwardness was ideal.
I will confide in you at once the great secret that has been slowly dawning on me in the last few months. I no longer believe in my neurotica. . . . In every case the father, not excluding my own, had to be blamed as a pervert – the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, in which the same determinant is invariably established, though such a wide spread extent of perversity towards children is, after all, not very probable. . . . There are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between the truth and fiction that is cathected with affect. (Freud 1950 [1897]: 1, 259–60)
Like the shift from early to late James, the shift here is from the external to the internal, from the real, presumably, to the ideal, from events to representations. But this is to simplify matters.
The difference between abreaction or catharsis – and between hypnosis and psychoanalysis proper – was precisely the difference between Hemholtz’s “discharge” and Fechner’s “constancy.” For Hemholtz, the nervous system could be expunged, or “swept clean,” to use the vocabulary of Anna O., Breuer’s first psychoanalytic patient. For Fechner, by contrast, discharge and catharsis do not function transparently. Real or not, thought leaves a trace of itself behind. Discharge never sweeps clean because a residue, or memory, whether physical in the case of reflex, or ideational in the case of the mind, is required to give a person a history, a mode of being in the world. For Freud the conclusion was plain. One had to assume a residue or trace – a memory –in, or, indeed, as the unconscious. Here emerges another key difference, the difference between neurology and psychology themselves, and the nature of Freud’s passage from the first to the second. Freud’s own terms in the posthumously published Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950 [1895]) are the clearest. It is the difference between a mere “quantity” of stimulation (by which we traditionally mean the “physical”) and the emergence, propped upon it, of “qualities,” or ideas (by which we traditionally mean the “psychological”). This vocabulary suffuses the period from Bergson to Pater. The difference is well stated by the subtitle of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (1885) – the difference between “sensations” (“quantity”) and “ideas” (“quality”). Only in the passage from quantity to quality does an organism achieve what we call personality – the quality, as it were, of having ideas as well as sensations.
Freud not only well represents the numerous elements that constitute the prehistory of modern psychology, but actually links all of these histories up in a way that makes psychoanalysis their veritable sepulcher. Psychoanalysis’s picture of the mind is also a picture of its own emergence as a discourse and of the ways it solves the problems it inherits from its precursors. This is the surest way of regarding Freud’s own achievement as a properly literary one. Its reflexivity – the exactitude with which récit and histoire coincide – is without precedent in the history of writing (see Derrida 1967). The more efficient grows Freud’s view of the mental apparatus, the more efficient grows the mental apparatus that psychoanalysis describes. When psychoanalysis gazes at itself in “On Narcissism” (1914), Freud sees that, like the infant child, it still requires the supplement of a theory of images, or, more precisely, of image-acquisition – of identifications, as they will soon be called – to people the mind with “ideas.” With Group Psychology (1921), the notion of “identification” coordinates this movement of “ideas” in the individual. The ego is given its determinations by the images produced by social interaction, beginning with the infant’s first moments of life. Here symbolization and primary process – “idea” and “sensation” – begin their work together.
To facilitate the shift from sensation to idea, Freud’s work contains three distinct notions of the unconscious, each a function of the three principal stages through which psychoanalysis passes in its conceptual development, and each an overturning of the one before it. Each is also a function of strands in the historical overdeterminations that structure Freud as a thinker. How does Freud’s notion of the unconscious evolve? The early period, beginning with the Project and Studies on Hysteria and cresting with The Interpretation of Dreams, regards the unconscious for the most part as “topographical,” as Freud calls this first model of mind – a seething landscape of repressed instincts within us. James Strachey, editor of the Standard Edition of Freud (1953–74), translates the German “Trieb” as “instinct” rather than as “drive” – a notorious point of contention in debates about Strachey’s translation – because it designates the “frontier,” as Freud puts it, “between the mental and the somatic”; it is the “psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind” (Freud 1915: 122).
Here enters a related strand in the crowded cultural history that Freud inherits. This is the discourse of race of which nineteenth-century science is a product and against which it is a reaction. Simultaneously among the direct progenitors of psychoanalysis and among its targets, theories of racial difference and valuation, often tied to the emergence after 1870 of an organic rather than a liberal notion of nationalism, abounded in both Europe and the United States. Weir Mitchell’s Western rest cures for East Coast neurasthenics were the consumer counterparts of decisive scholarly texts on the subject, the most popular and influential of which was Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), a comprehensive description of the causal relation between skull types and degenerate personalities, posture and sexual predisposition, facial features and morals. This form of thought has a familiar destiny in the discourse of Nazi eugenics (Gilman 1993; Mosse 1964).
The doctrinal decade – the first decade of the century – saw the exemplification of psychoanalytic theory in clinical studies such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuallity (1905). But in the next decade, this attempt to offer universal proof for psychoanalytic investigation led to a metaphor for the unconscious different from the instinctual ones of the early phase – the metaphor of primitive myth. Now the focus was on image rather than instinct, on the “representative,” to use Bergson’s terms, rather than on the “affect.” Here Totem and Taboo (1912) is the key text, with its view of the father as a rival to his sons. Drawing on the Cambridge anthropologists James Frazer, Jane Harrison, and E. B. Tylor, Freud found myth to be the universal reflection of unconscious process. This is also the version of the unconscious that most appealed to Freud’s disciple Jung, who rejected the libidinal theory of the instincts in precisely the year that Totem and Taboo was published. He goes on to produce an influential psychoanalysis of his own with a doggedly mythical rather than instinctual unconscious whose popular heirs include Joseph Campbell. Whatever shape it may take – the Greek, the Indic, the African – “myth is,” as Thomas Mann put it in “Freud and the Future” (1930), “the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious” (422).
Freud’s own reimagination of the unconscious during the metapsychological phase (1915–17) is what allows his third model of the unconscious to emerge with the amplitude that it does. In “On Narcissism,” Freud discovers that the child must find an image to connect to autoerotism in order to enter the human order. This is how the child constructs a relation between “sensations” and “ideas” (see also Laqueur 2004). A retroactive relation between body and mind is produced which is not there at the start of life. The temporality of this relation is precisely what Bergson cannot imagine in the Essay, and the reason he cannot solve the problem of the advent of “ideas” as Freud can. This temporal relationship is what Freud means by the unconscious. This unconscious is neither material nor ideal, but both at the same time. The mind that Freud goes on to describe in The Ego and the Id in 1923 is a history and partition of his own three views of the unconscious: “id” is “instinct”; “superego” is myth; “ego” is the attempt to manage the difference between them – between “sensations” and “ideas.”

The Three Modernisms

Modern literature inherits these three trends or tendencies in Freud in separate and distinct ways, which helps us to divide it into three versions or modes: the “instinctual” modernism of D. H. Lawrence and its gross materialism; the “mythic” modernism of T. S. Eliot and its crude idealism; and the “material” modernism of Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf, with its notion of the unconscious as that which links the “instinctual” and the “mythic” – “sensations” and “ideas” – the way that the later Freud does: through language and society, particularly through the medium of identification. The work of Joyce forms an instructive double pathway between mythic and material modernism.
Nordau’s exorbitant physicalism finds no better literary exponent than D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, at least in his conventional profile as prophet of liberation through the “instincts,” is in search of what he calls in the posthumous “Study of Thomas Hardy” (1936) “the primal soil” (417), “the unfathomable womb,” “the powerful, eternal origin” (418). Although he uses the term “consciousness,” Lawrence, unlike William James, has in mind a core of being that far exceeds awareness. Indeed, Birkin’s labor in Women in Love (1921) rests on making conscious this deep instinctual core as a path towards human salvation. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921a) lays out the doctrine behind Women and Love, and links it explicitly to a reading of Freud that emphasizes, to the exclusion of other factors in psychoanalysis, Freud’s focus on instinctual life. “We are,” says Lawrence, “too mentally domesticated” (Lawrence 1921a: 21): “We must discover, if we can, the true unconscious, where our life bubbles up in us, prior to any mentality. The first bubbling life in us, which is innocent to any mental alteration, this is the unconscious. It is pristine, not in any way ideal. It is the spontaneous origin from which it behooves us to live” (1921a: 13).
To be sure, Lawrence’s great trilogy – Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), and Women in Love (1921) – exhibits technically what Lawrence describes as a “criticism” of its own “system of morality” (1936: 476) – a debate about Lawrentian doctrine among Lawrence’s characters. In a generous reading, the trilogy is not doctrinal but dialogical and reader-directed, measuring response, as do many of Freud’s own texts, rather than imposing doctrine. Lawrence’s poems are similarly self-correcting by virtue of their endless revision of earlier tropes (Chaudhuri 2002). Less articulated novels such as Aaron’s Rod (1922) or Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928/32) garner no such dispensation. But a doctrine of the instincts leaves a heaviness behind, even in the great trilogy. Lawrence’s notion of the “star” “equilibrium” of the love-relation, as Birkin calls it (Lawrence 1921b: 139), is his version of the Mitchell rest cure from stress, the redemption from moral degeneration unavailable in Nordau. Birkin’s “star” “equilibrium” is idealist to the extent that the “being” it discovers is material and, in Lawrence’s self-frustrating epistemology, therefore distinct from it. Even awareness must die in Lawrence to vouchsafe the truth of the material to which it must, redemptively, submit. Sensations are valuable when they become ideas. But once they become ideas, they lose the Bergsonian purity that made them valuable. The “pure balance” (139) that Birkin wishes to achieve with those he loves is therefore the only qualified one within the novel’s story. For Lawrence, such a balance is achieved by the novel itself, which suspends in equipoise Birkin’s impassioned voice and the more conventional novelistic diction to which it is polemically – and constitutively –opposed. As a writer, Lawrence benefits from the very alienation that assails his characters. The gap between their lives and their self-understanding is, as it is in James, his very subject.
T. S. Eliot’s influential review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in The Dial in 1923, discovers in Joyce’s novel what Eliot called the “mythical method” (Eliot 1923). Based on the Odyssey, Ulysses, by Joyce’s own testimony, is serious about what Eliot described as its mythical correspondences, from the manifest parallelism between the novel’s organization and that of Homer’s epic to the less obvious mythic alignments produced by Joyce’s naming techniques and his use of puns. “In using the myth,” says Eliot, “in manipulating the continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him” (Eliot 1923: 177). For Eliot, the “mythical method” is the sine qua non of modern literature because it allows the embattled present to find roots in the deeper strata of the Indo-European past – in its “mythic” unconscious. Eliot’s is, however, a somewhat restricted view of universality from a global perspective; not all civilizations, even ancient ones, are created equal.
Eliot’s polemical animus as poet and critic alike – what Christopher Ricks views as a strategy of provocation designed to engage the reader to wrestle with him (Ricks 1988) – has as its justification his belief in a beneficent mythical undertow to human experience. Its clearest psychoanalytic counterpart (if that is what it is) in Jung’s “anima” – that part of the mind filled with vital, procreative energy. R. F. C. Hull, Jung’s translator, frequently translates Jung’s “Seele” as “soul,” unlike Strachey’s rendering of Freud’s use of the same term as “psyche.” Jung’s, like Eliot’s, is a religious version of the unconscious. Anima, for Jung and for later disciples such as Joseph Campbell, is given expression in ancient myth and ritual of the kind described by Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890–1915), and by Jessie L. Weston, in a book that influenced Eliot deeply, From Ritual to Romance (1920). Jung elevates the mythic side of the Freudian unconscious in order to free himself from the doctrine of unconscious libido. Eliot elevates the mythic side of the unconscious in order to stem the tide of history.
That Eliot had studied Sanskrit while a student at Harvard is emblematic of the assumption about cultural value with which his work is allied: that it is timeless and presumably universal. For Harvard students, learning Sanskrit was cultural capital. Sanskrit was the “original” Indo-European, “Aryan” language, a “pure” ancient language from which all others derived. The Semitic or the varieties of African or Asian languages were, by contrast, inferior, as were the skulls of their speakers, by phrenological standards. Myths, like the Hindu ones that Eliot equates with those of Greece and Rome in The Waste Land, are the instrument of this timeless purity, its emanations, as it were, in historical time. Allied with Eliot’s mythic fascination with the Vedas – the projective and compensatory aspect of Eliot’s colonialism – are the more manifestly idealist philosophical preoccupations exhibited by Eliot’s interest in the work of F. H. Bradley.
This is also the program of Eliot’s poetry. Like Lawrence, he is doctrinal, although in a different way. He is, like Lawrence, also dialogical, and thereby provokes not only agreement with his program but also gives his program its own immanent critique. The Waste Land’s extraordinary suppleness as a poem is challenged by its rude impositions of mythic doxa upon its shifting materials. “A poem that is to contain all myths,” wrote F. R. Leavis, memorably, in 1932, “cannot construct itself upon one” (Leavis 1932: 81). The poem tries to recontain its polysemy by means of the “mythical method,” but the flooding of its mythic correspondences and their unmooring are the poem’s chief activities. Eliot separates dialects in value even as he mingles them in the poem’s narrative flow. The equivalences do not hold when the candidates are bourgeois or black. The poem becomes a site of contention rather than a movement toward the harmonization of its plural voices. Nor is the contention only political; it invades all the poem’s topoi. The nightingale in “A Game of Chess” is a universal symbol for “inviolable voice” (line 101), as in Keats, although it is precisely Keats’s use of the nightingale for rather more specifically ambivalent effects that makes Eliot nervous about the bird’s presumable universalism. The “reverberation” (line 326) of memory, as Eliot calls it in “What the Thunder Said,” is at one and the same time what allows the correspondences to be invoked, and what washes away or unseats the parallels they wish to stabilize. Indeed, the poem’s own constant movement corresponds rather exactly to the structure of the shift from sensations to ideas in Freud: the shift from difference to metalanguage, from dialogue to dialectic.
Real history, alas, interferes, as in Joyce, with the neatness of a “continuous” mythic history. Ulysses, despite Eliot’s review, regularly interrogates just this use of myth. Eliot, whose ultimately medieval and agrarian program grows clearer and clearer in his later criticism, can follow his hero Joyce only so far. While Joyce shares with Eliot’s classicist modernism a use of myth, he departs from Eliot in focusing on myth’s displacement in real time by ideology, much as our third mode of modernism will do. No wonder, then, Eliot’s lament at the end of The Waste Land that his myths are but piecemeal attempts to defend against the complexities of the real history he abjures: “These fragments,” he writes, “I have shored against my ruins” (line 431). Does a dialogical modernism ever take precedence over its rivals?
There is indeed a third kind of modernism that is not only resolutely dialogical but that takes its dialogism from a sense of life that corresponds to Freud’s third and most elaborated notion of the unconscious, the material and social unconscious. This third modernism, one emphasizing not only social interaction but also symbolization, is also a feminist modernism. Its tradition can be traced from Katherine Mansfield, émigrée New Zealander, through both Willa Cather in New York and Mansfield’s close friend Virginia Woolf in London. Cather’s essay on Mansfield shows how Mansfield’s particular focus is on what Cather calls the “double life” that everyone leads: “Even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another – secret and passionate and intense – which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends” (Cather 1936: 109). It is as though Mansfield – and Cather – have actually made James a novelist of the Freudian unconscious. Here is a theory of images and the way they connect sensations and ideas through the identifications that the social life of the family provides. The “double life” is the Freudian unconscious in its most mature form: “the material and social investiture,” as Cather puts it in “The Novel Démeublé” (1922: 40), out of which the self emerges as such.
An emphasis on Mansfield’s influence upon Cather and Woolf not only suggests a new way of mapping the history of modern fiction, particularly a sound relationship between British and American modernism. It also suggests that neither psychoanalysis nor the techniques of literary modernism are an extension of idealism either as a philosophy of mind or as an aesthetic practice. An aestheticist regard for inwardness is not at odds with the social sphere to which its concerns are presumably opposed. Mansfield, Woolf, and Cather draw common inspiration from Walter Pater. But neither is Pater an idealist; his sense of perception is resolutely material, especially in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (1873), where the vocabulary is very often a scientific one. Indeed, the materialism of Mansfield, Cather, and Woolf evidences a continuity with the materialist Romanticism of Hartley, Keats, and Pater all alike, a Romanticism from which the quite distinct careers of Lawrence and Eliot have led us astray.
Mansfield’s influence is key to showing us what Cather and Woolf share. The material and social “investiture” of the self is represented in Mansfield’s own stories as early as “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (1908) and as late as “Bliss” (1918) and “Prelude” (1918). Mansfield’s world is the shifting boundary between sensations and ideas, often among children, and the social identifications that allow children and adults alike to protect themselves against the very social order from which they are in symptomatic flight. For Cather and Woolf, this “investiture” is played out in different national settings and under the weight of different suns – for Cather the relation between country and city, for Woolf that between the normative and the transgressive. But the focus of representation is a common one that highlights the relation between sensations and ideas, as it does for Mansfield herself. For Cather, this relation is best studied in the young person’s inscription into the protocols of local community that may or may not be adequate to her. Some of Cather’s heroes simply change their surroundings like Thea Kronborg or Lucy Gayheart; others reinvent local community by recasting its terms, like Jim Burden or Tom Outland. Only in an active relation to landscape, as in the focus on farming in O Pioneers! (1913), or to ideology, as in the focus on business law in A Lost Lady (1923), can the self’s materiality and sociality come into being. A Lost Lady even provides the psychosexual grounds upon which these later modes of social inscription are propped. For Woolf, “investiture” is best studied in Clarissa Dalloway’s ambivalence, or Mrs. Ramsay’s fluctuation between Victorian hostess and Paterian aesthete. The striking of London’s clocks in an inexact relation to the strokes of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is a fine emblem for the way in which the self’s particularity is a function of the separate peace it makes with the social order. As in Freud, this proceeds in Woolf’s novels through identification, with Jacob’s Room (1922) inaugurating this tendency in Woolf’s classic phase by regarding idealization as the source of depression, much as Freud himself does in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). This is the exact focus of To the Lighthouse (1927).
Mrs. Dalloway and the first volume of Freud’s Collected Papers in English were published by the Hogarth Press on the same day – May 14, 1925. Lytton Strachey’s younger brother, James, had begun his career as Freud’s chief translator and editor of what would become the Standard Edition of Freud’s works. Strachey’s career was carried out at the very center of the Bloomsbury Group’s daily life. Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen was also a psychoanalyst, as were other Bloomsbury habitués like Joan Rivière, who served as first translator of both “Mourning and Melancholia” and The Ego and the Id. That the material production of English Freud was a physical labor of Woolf’s immediate circle of friends is the last and best historical instance of the very real relation between modernist literature and psychology.

References and Further Reading

Bergson, Henri (1889). Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L Pogson. Rpt. New York: Dover, 2001.

Cather, Willa (1922). “The Novel Démeublé.” In Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Cather, Willa (1936). “Katherine Mansfield.” In Willa Cather on Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Chaudhuri, Amit (2003). D. H. Lawrence and “Difference.” Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1967). “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” In Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Eliot, T. S. (1922). Collected Poems 1963. Rpt. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970.

Eliot, T. S. (1923). “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1975.

Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund (1897). Letter to Wilhelm Fliess. September 21, 1897 (no. 69). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 1: 259–60.

Freud, Sigmund (1915). “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 14: 111–40.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

James, Henry (1877). The American. Rpt. New York: Holt, 1967.

James, Henry (1903). The Ambassadors. Rpt. Cambridge: Riverside, 1960.

James, William (1890). Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1950.

Laqueur, Thomas W. (2003). Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone Books.

Lawrence, D. H. (1921a). Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawrence, D. H. (1921b). Women in Love. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1966.

Lawrence, D. H. (1936). “Study of Thomas Hardy.” In Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. Rpt. New York: Viking, 1980.

Leavis, F. R. (1932). New Bearings in English Poetry. Rpt. London: Penguin, 1967.

Mann, Thomas (1930). “Freud and the Future.” In Essays of Three Decades, trans. H. Lowe-Porter. New York: Knopf, 1947.

Nordau, Max (1892). Degeneration. Rpt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Richardson, Alan (2001). British Romanticism and the Science of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricks, Christopher (1988). T. S. Eliot and Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sulloway, Frank (1979). Freud: Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Trilling, Lionel (1950). “Freud and literature.” In The Liberal Imagination. Rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1953.

Valentine, Kylie (2003). Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry, and Modern Literature. New York: Palgrave.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1925). Science and the Modern World. Rpt. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Originally published in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, edited by David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.