"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)




Let a Hundred Isms Blossom

by Perry Meisel

Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. The revolution in criticism is over. Departments of literature are no longer in disarray. In the late 1970's and early 80's, of course, there was a lot of blood on the tracks, the price an earlier generation had to pay for today's intellectual abundance and sometimes perplexing freedoms. The old boys, particularly the biographers, took very badly to anything with a French name or an ''-ology'' attached to it. You had to watch your flank. But by the mid-80's, you could say ''Jacques Derrida'' or ''Harold Bloom'' at dinner and your colleagues didn't get heartburn; they got hip. They hired the onetime offenders.
In fact, literary study in America has never been in better shape. Enriched by a variety of European methodologies since the early 70's, it has grown into a vast, synthetic enterprise characterized by powerful continuities rather than by disjunctions. Feminism, deconstruction, ''reader-response,'' ''New Historicism,'' ''postcolonialism'' – all share similar ends and similar ways of getting there in a momentous collaboration.
The story begins in Paris, with the publication of Roland Barthes's essay ''The Death of the Author'' in 1968. A witty, Wildean performer, Barthes wasn't really dumb enough to believe that there weren't people writing the books that carried their names (Woolf, Shakespeare, Kathy Acker). He meant that writers labor unconsciously, and that larger forces shape them and their work. Michel Foucault's 1969 essay ''What Is an Author?'' took Barthes's structuralist argument a step farther by showing how whole periods of history are given their imaginative space through certain key texts that define those periods and their assumptions.
But the French influence shouldn't be overestimated. American criticism has its own history. It's an open secret within the ranks that even before structuralism, deconstruction and Lacanian psychoanalysis had become the fashion, three books of enormous influence, all of them written in the 70's, had already paved the way: Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence (1973). The terrain they map out is actually a common one, despite what you may hear around the Fiji cooler or at Starbucks.
Fish's book, a collection of essays in the reader-response mode, does what Barthes's essay does, although in a more systematic way. Fish's famous question is a dramatic instance of the American realization that there are obstacles to ''objective'' vision in the act of reading itself. The reader reads, or misreads, with his or her standards and assumptions, usually without even knowing it. Nor does the reader go it alone. He or she is always a member of what Fish calls an ''interpretive community,'' which governs one's very place in the world.
The implications of Fish's method are ontological as well as political. What inhibits the self also enables it. The paradox is a deconstructive one. Fish's description of the reader of Paradise Lost in his 1967 book, Surprised by Sin, is a good example. Eve's ''wanton . . . tresses'' and ''coy submission'' are wholly inappropriate in the Garden of Eden. Nobody could have been ''coy'' or ''wanton'' then. And yet the irony is just the point: Like the poet, but unlike Adam and Eve, the reader is impure, postlapsarian. Neither he nor Milton has any other way of imagining the situation.
If Fish empowered the reader, Edward Said empowered ''the other'' – the marginalized, the oppressed – with Orientalism, the father text, if I may be a little ironic, of postcolonialism. The reach of Orientalism has been vast, and it has, well, colonized and consolidated a whole new field of study. The interests of postcolonial studies are nonetheless familiar, especially its view of the self. Adding psychoanalysis to Said's perspective, the critic Homi Bhabha has shown that, like Fish's reader, the ''colonial subject,'' or self, is ''constructed'' – in this case, through a series of psychological ''identifications'' supplied by the slick hand of political oppression, whose ideology is often more effective than its rifle butts. The politically oppressed are a traumatic version of an interpretive community, a captive audience, so to speak.
Feminism and African-American criticism took the same lead even earlier. Both study oppression where it really lives – in the secret languages of the heart. Long before ''theory,'' W. E. B. Du Bois's notion of African-American ''double-consciousness'' – this sense,'' as he described it in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), ''of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others'' – had required critics like Robert Stepto and Houston Baker Jr. to formulate a model of the self as split at its very origin.
Like colonial identity, gender is also governed by a split introduced into the child's very being, this time as a consequence of its inevitable ambivalence toward its parents, who both nourish the child and frustrate and disappoint it. As Juliet Mitchell was among the first to point out for English readers in Psychoanalysis and Feminism in 1974, the family isn't just a private affair, but a microcosm of the larger social forces that divide the self in the act of creating it.
We already have a name for this notion of the self in the brooding Anglophone poetic tradition, a tradition that is also political, even to the point of beheading a king more than a century before the French. This name is Romanticism, and its principal critical exponent since T. S. Eliot tried to obscure its real nature has been Harold Bloom. Bloom renames Romanticism ''the anxiety of influence'' and locates its beginnings with Milton, secretary to Cromwell as well as the visionary seer of Paradise Lost. Dr. Johnson later feared Milton because, as Johnson put it, he was a church of one. But the Romantic ''one'' is really a split self, too – a self that is divided, like Milton's Satan, at its origin, part the spitting image of a prior authority, part the self-creating desperado seeking freedom from its determinations. Like ''the death of the author'' or ''is there a text in this class?,'' ''the anxiety of influence'' is a trope for how the presumable originality or uniqueness of a given author is really the byproduct of the repression of prior authors – their ''misreading'' – who both serve and compromise the later writer in a murderous intrigue. Like Milton's Satan, we are all colonial subjects seeking to overcome the anxiety of influence of the interpretive communities that enable us.
If a synthetic academic criticism has so many tools at its disposal, why isn't everybody happy? In part, rivalries are simply inevitable, and some critics persist in denying the obvious continuities. Foucault's immediate American child, the New Historicism, lost some of its respectability in 1997 when Stephen Greenblatt, one of its inventors, refused to engage Suzanne Gearhart's challenge to talk about Foucault's complex and repressed relation to Freud. There is some irony in this, since New Historicists are supposed to be groovy and politically correct.
The desire to stake out new territory is particularly obvious in Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995), as synthetic a work of scholarship as you will find, and yet one that aspires to an originality that's impossible now that the battle it fights has already been won. McClintock's conclusions are unassailable, and therefore no longer avant-garde. She combines Lacanian feminism with postcolonialism and Foucauldian close reading to show how, in the metaphors of Victorian novels as well as those of Victorian science, imperialism ''sexualized,'' as she puts it, the objects of its conquests, both human and geographical. That's what made dominion so attractive.
Ironically, a generation of critics who believe that the artist is neither independent nor solemn is having a hard time applying the same wisdom to itself. Many critics make routine conceptualizations difficult because they wish to purvey a culture of the expert rather than celebrate a climate of common sense and clarity. You could even say that the only problem with postrevolutionary critics is that they don't know a good thing when they see it.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 2000

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The Definitive Hipster

by Perry Meisel

Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs. Edited and with an introduction by James Grauerholz. 273 pp. New York: Grove Press. $25.

With his canes, suits and absurd fedoras, William S. Burroughs was the dandy manqué who invented geek chic and made modernism available to the hippie masses. The last of the major Beats, Burroughs succumbed to heart failure in 1997 at 83. Though he is still best known for Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs's later experiments in narrative technique earned him a place in classrooms. His aura earned him vast hosts of fans and the role of high priest and soothsayer that he always believed was his birthright.
Born in St. Louis in 1914, Burroughs was the grandson of the man who invented the adding machine. The Burroughs Corporation ultimately merged with the Sperry Corporation to create Unisys, although Burroughs himself failed to profit from the sale (his family had sold its stock in the company many years before). After graduating from Harvard, Burroughs eventually moved to New York and settled, with his parents' financial support, into the world of his real education, the world of boys, heroin and small-time grifters. The definitive hipster was sustained by his privileged background. As a writer, he was dependent on the High Moderns, particularly T. S. Eliot, without whose example he could not have purchased his own curious originality. The contradictions never bothered Burroughs; his arrogance thrived on them. In 1983, after sojourns in New York, London, Paris and Tangier, Burroughs retired to the university town of Lawrence, Kan., a sign, perhaps, of mellowing, even though his fun included frequent target practice with handguns and rifles. His hobbies were also star-crossed: he had killed his wife, Joan, with a pistol during a failed William Tell experiment in Mexico in 1951.
Now that Burroughs's ''final journals'' have been published, edited by his companion and literary executor, James Grauerholz, a comprehensive sense of the man and his achievement, for better and for worse, is at last available. Grauerholz's introduction and notes are a fine mixture of fact and feeling, and make Last Words a synthetic whole. Burroughs published only one full-scale journal previously, The Retreat Diaries (1976), the record of two weeks of Buddhist meditation, but that is a deliberate performance compared with this one. Moreover, ''final journals'' is something of a misnomer, since, as Grauerholz notes in his introduction, Burroughs had always used index cards for jotting down thoughts and dreams. He began composing a formal diary only in the last years of his life, after his ability to use both cards and his typewriter had diminished with the onset of physical difficulties and Grauerholz and other friends had made him a present of some bound blank notebooks. Burroughs eventually filled eight such volumes.
Burroughs's characteristic froideur has given way to a love of cats, if nothing else, in the face of death. At 83, he has become ''a kindly ruin,'' as one young pilgrim to the house in Lawrence describes him. With ''the stage . . . darker,'' a Shakespearean Burroughs says, he takes his inspiration for dying from his recently deceased friends, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Their last words on the occasions of their own imminent deaths form a kind of litany. ''I thought I would be terrified,'' Ginsberg says to Burroughs; ''instead I am exhilarated.'' Leary, who videotaped his own demise, says, ''Why not?''
But unlike many literary diaries, Last Words is rarely personal, even though the journals are an exploration in depth, and in sum, of Burroughs's personality and creative preoccupations. We learn very little that is new about the Beats or about Burroughs's habits in these last years of his life. Instead, we witness the rich repetition, with variations, of a string of half-conscious fancies, scenarios and literary allusions. The elements should be familiar enough to any reader of Burroughs: drugs, federal agents, international conspiracies, guns, murder, the Mafia, the Old West, spaceships, aliens and the witness protection program. The literary preoccupations, however, are surprising because they juxtapose appreciations of writers as different, or as seemingly different, as Joseph Conrad and Mario Puzo. Here is the text in action:

No one is perfect.

No, but by the flaws in the picture the truth will emerge.

Any[way] – last night, vague dream I was somewhere, couldn't stay long – I packed laundry sack with drawstring . . . .

What else?

The lake, a Moroccan, Jewish, German slum.

So I must let everything all the way in, a vast wind to blow everything that doesn't belong away.

(I am transparent.)
The frequent bubbling-up of lines from ''The Waste Land'' recalls the surest source of Burroughs's inspiration as an artist, and the inevitable site to which he returns in the shadow of death:

I feel chilly and grown old.

I feel like Tiresias,

"[a] fortnight dead, and the waves

pick his bones in whispers"

– the old, old words.

The sharp jump-cutting, short sentence to short sentence, quotation to quotation, creates the same effect that Burroughs creates in his novels. The journals are built out of such ''fragments,'' as Burroughs calls them, or, to use his old word for such modular writing, ''cut-ups.'' All literary work, Burroughs maintains, is really the rearrangement of bits and pieces of writing. The cut-up method shows just how easy it is to produce and manipulate literary response: by shifting the context in which something appears and altering the chains of association that give it meaning.
But Last Words is more than a primer in Burroughs's technique. It also presents fresh clues to the larger design of his imagination, and a means of gaining a renewed perspective on his work. When Burroughs confesses that he has become addicted to writing in his new notebooks, the metaphor is decisive. It is the key to a pattern that brings to light a parallel between writing and junk, and between writing and crime, especially murder. Nor is it because of the existential bravado that joins the writer and the punk. Far from it. Writing, drugs and murder come from the same shop because they are all forms of discipline. ''The gunfight,'' Burroughs writes, ''was a spiritual exercise.'' Being addicted to junk is both a spiritual exercise and a management concern, an enterprise that, like writing, requires organization and discipline. Each is a ''métier,'' a ''profession.'' The focus and scrupulosity of the addict, the gunslinger and the hit man render all of them disciples of form. The addict lays out his or her kit the way the crew lays out equipment in Conrad's romances of the sea. No wonder Burroughs's prose is excessive and minimalist at the same time. The simple presentation of what is weird or disgusting is the perfect instrument for showing the form in what is presumably formless.
It is Burroughs's priceless fascination with Mario Puzo's Last Don and Puzo's estimation of criminality that brings everything together. Burroughs chuckles as Don Clericuzio indulges his ''bloody mouth'' hit-man grandson until, finally, he has had enough: ''Bad form,'' as Burroughs describes the Don's attitude toward murder, ''not to like it as a job well done – but when it comes to rutting around in it like a dog rolls in carrion, The Family draws a strict line.'' Then, a few pages later: ''A hit man has to be cool. It's just a job.'' The lesson is clear. Like the equipoise of violence and form – of violence as form – in Burroughs's own work, the hit man is obliged to be a perfect balance of passion and order. Like the writer, he or she is, like Conrad's captains, the epitome of the dedicated professional.
Burroughs, however, never fully heeded his own advice. The ideas are compelling, but their execution is lazy and shallow. Without enough drugs in his reader's system, Burroughs's prose falls flat on its face. The reader must supply the labor – and the good will – required to bring his writing to the level of fullness to which it aspires. This is too much to demand in the way of collaboration. Like geek chic, Burroughs is too hard to read. There was a time when men really did wear hats.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 2000


Postcards From the Edge

by Perry Meisel

Friends and Apostles: The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey, 1905-1914. Edited by Keith Hale. Illustrated. 304 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press. $35.

Rupert Brooke is remembered less for his poems than for his good looks and less for his good looks than for the way he abused his friends with them. On the receiving end first and longest among the men and the women Brooke loved before his death from blood poisoning en route to the Turkish front at Gallipoli in 1915 was James Strachey, the younger brother of Lytton Strachey and the future translator and editor of Freud. Although Brooke's correspondence was published in 1968, the exchange of letters between Brooke and Strachey was excluded by its editor, Geoffrey Keynes, one of Brooke's moralizing Cambridge friends. Now Keith Hale, an assistant professor of English at the University of Guam, has edited and introduced the correspondence with skill and thoroughness. It is almost impossible to read it without sensing Brooke's and Strachey's vivid feeling for each other and the extent to which the bond between them structured their lives. It will no longer be possible to speak of either one separately.
Brooke and Strachey met at Hillbrow School in 1897 when each was 10. They were extraordinarily competitive. In 1901, Brooke returned to Rugby, where his father was a housemaster; Strachey returned to his large family in London, where he became a day boy at St. Paul's. As Strachey had ardently hoped, he and Brooke were reunited at Cambridge in the autumn of 1906. There they made the passage from being precocious, overeducated English schoolboys to being self-impressed Cambridge undergraduates who did not even consider the question of their own identities until their election to the Apostles, or Cambridge Conversazione Society, the secret organization that had been created at midcentury to counter Oxford's control of English taste, and that now included Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes among its principal members.
These are love letters as well as missives of two Apostolic friends (indeed, the relation between lust and friendship was often among the topics of Apostolic discussion), and they flesh out, often in rough-and-tumble detail, what was regarded as a perfectly open way of life, even when both turned to the pursuit of women. While Strachey is ordinarily cool and rationalistic, he is, as a lover, fervent and passionate. And while Brooke is customarily ardent and passionate, he is, as a lover, demure and condescending. ''It's your soul that I long for,'' Strachey writes in 1909. ''We will not be sentimental about anything,'' Brooke replies, ''except nobility.'' The sadism lasts until the end, even though Strachey grows more relaxed and secure. Brooke, however, grows more and more unsettled, quarreling with Bloomsbury and wandering in America and the Pacific. ''I've loved you all the time,'' Strachey writes in 1913. A month later, Brooke replies, ''You'd better go on hating me.''
Despite Hale's exhaustive editorial work, his volume sheds little new light on Brooke as a poet. Like most critics, Hale believes that the jingoistic masterstrokes of Brooke's famous war sonnets represent a turn away from the ''decadent stance'' of Brooke's youth, even though their sharp relation to death and exile also makes them continuous with High Romantic schoolboy poems like ''The Bastille.'' Nor does Hale deal with Strachey's work. Translating Freud meant exchanging his older brother's authority for that of an even greater ironist, and letting fresh air of his own into Bloomsbury's pantry. Psychoanalysis gave Strachey an escape from English tradition that Brooke could not find, allowing him to reinvent its Romantic premises rather than trying to reimagine them.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1999


Scenes From an Unusual Marriage

by Perry Meisel

You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles. By Millicent Dillon. Illustrated. 340 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press. $27.50.

Paul Bowles is the bridge between the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation, even though his work exceeds Beat fiction in technical interest and even though he, as Norman Mailer was among the first to point out, was quick to foresee the craftiness inherent in any unvarnished stance. Now 87 years old, Bowles has lived in Morocco for more than 50 years. Like his wife, the novelist Jane Bowles (who suffered a stroke in Morocco in 1957 and died at a sanitarium in Spain in 1973), Paul Bowles emerged out of the New York art and social scene of the 1930's; he gained his own earliest reputation as a composer before rewarding himself with expatriation in the 1940's.
Millicent Dillon's biography of Bowles, You Are Not I (the title comes from one of Bowles's short stories), is not an attempt to narrate the events of Bowles's life or the histories of his influence; that has already been done in two earlier biographies and a documentary film. Dillon, the author of a life of Jane Bowles, is also a novelist and believes in evocation, not reduction. With implications well beyond what she intends, her new book is a strange and uncanny success. Using the atmosphere of Tangier to advantage, Dillon lights the chilly Bowles from a number of angles; she eschews even portraiture in favor of a dramatic strategy based on her many conversations with him in his Tangier apartment beginning in 1977. Bowles's sadness and the sense of opportunities lost suffuse Dillon's narrative and weigh it with emotion.
Beneath the tea and sympathy, however, beats a deeper purpose. Despite her impressionism, Dillon wishes to find a classical way to understand both Bowles's work and his relation to others. As Jane Bowles's biographer, she is particularly fascinated by the dialectic of the Bowleses' marriage and work. Why the contrast between the contempt and humiliation served up to opposite-sex characters in their novels and their love and respect for each other in real life? (Dillon is understandably preoccupied with the absurd rape sequences in Bowles's 1949 best seller, ''The Sheltering Sky,'' although she fails to press him about them.) How did these two homosexuals find sexual happiness in each other before Paul twice struck Jane and destroyed their intimacy forever? And why was it not until after Jane had asked Paul to edit the manuscript of her first novel in 1941 that he, too, decided to make prose fiction his primary metier? Was this a heightened dialogue between them or a form of violence and usurpation?
Primal scenes tumble forth from the ordinarily reticent Bowles, who sits, befogged by kif, as he and Dillon explore the relation between art and experience. Bowles's father was a dentist in Jamaica, Queens, who wanted to be a violinist and who regularly hit his son on the back of the legs when the child did not move up the stairs fast enough. Paul was often left home alone at a very young age, too, growing so lonely that he tried to make friends with mosquitoes. He even recalls seeing his father in bed with his aunt while his mother stood alongside laughing.
But the links between Bowles's life and art remain, like all else in Tangier, elusive. You Are Not I makes us reimagine the relation between life and art, and between art and its explanation. The book abounds with new notions if we look and listen, especially when Bowles's friend Mohammed Mrabet appears. He is a Moroccan storyteller whose ''performances,'' as Dillon calls them, force the realization that there is little difference between life and its narratives, no cause in the one for the other; they commingle. Both are performances. Given Bowles's influence on her, it is as if he had, as Dillon realizes, written his own biography. To be sure, Dillon brings insufficient material to the performance from her own life and desires. She has left her side of the dialogue out. Is she letting Jane Bowles do the talking for her? Or is she simply being too modest about finding in Bowles himself an unexpected quality of feeling?

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1998


Attention Must be Paid For

by Perry Meisel

Truth Games: Lies, Money, and Psychoanalysis. By John Forrester. 210 pp. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. $22.95.

Although some New Wave Freud historians – most recently Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen – have fallen off the psychoanalytic hayride despite their theoretical sophistication, John Forrester remains securely on it. The author of three books on psychoanalysis, co-author of another and a former editor of Jacques Lacan's published seminars, Forrester, who teaches the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, combines the stance of the Lacanian professional with that of the professional historian and leavens them both with the relaxed prose of the English man of letters. While at first glance grandiose, Truth Games (the title comes from Wittgenstein) is the odd but largely happy result of 20 years' research designed to produce an inquiry into two questions: whether psychoanalysis can really uncover a truth about the self; and whether one can speak with any imagination about the currency that secures the bond between analyst and patient, the bond – let us be frank about it, Forrester says – of money.
The book is divided into two essays, each of which demonstrates how psychoanalysis is historically unique among the arts, sciences and religions because it ''transcends,'' as Forrester puts it, the customary patterns within which truth and debt take on their respective meanings. Truth as both a notion and a belief, Forrester tells us in his first essay, "Truth Games," is as a rule understood in much the same way from Augustine to Kant – as residing ''behind'' appearances, much as ''the liar conceals the truth in his heart.'' With Nietzsche, however, this way of thinking changes; the role of lying also changes. Truth becomes an effect of lying. ''Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions,'' Nietzsche says, ''coins which have been effaced and which from then on are taken to be, not pieces of money, but metal.'' ''To be truthful,'' he continues, ''means to employ the usual metaphors.'' Hence Nietzsche's vaunted continuity with Freud: psychoanalysis is ''the only science,'' Forrester writes, ''that does not find the prospect that the 'object' of its inquiry may intentionally deceive the scientific investigator subversive of its pretensions to truth.'' Indeed, it presupposes deception in the form of repression.
Forrester's history of symbolic exchange in his second essay, ''Gift, Money, and Debt'' – an ''insufficiently examined'' terrain, he says – serves a larger purpose: to connect Lacan's notion of the Oedipus complex with the status of money in analytic treatment. By means of an argument both too complex and too oblique to summarize (he does not organize his ideas well), drawing on Lacan and Derrida, Forrester contends that money is a system of signs that gives the psychoanalyst an instrument capable of addressing the patient's existential ''double bind.'' The self is understood as a function of a shared belief system or social currency – the ''Symbolic,'' to use Lacan's term – that acquires its values by means of the father's ''gift'' of language. But a gift by its nature is paradoxical; Forrester's point is that while you can pay your analyst, you can never pay back your father. On this uneasy ground, psychoanalysis constructs a perspective on the human condition.
This is perhaps too good to be true. Forrester's view of the analytic setting sometimes sounds rather like a dental hygiene brochure: ''The well-regulated analysis will, then, manage to match the transference with the analytic fee in an equilibrated system where obligation, reciprocation and service are perfectly aligned.'' Forrester's language is defensive. It is actually an appreciation of psychoanalysis for what it is – an esthetic procedure, as Forrester himself described it in his last book, Dispatches From the Freud Wars, designed, as he put it there, ''to render'' the patient's life ''a work of art.'' Forrester's honest exuberance for his subject here is, like his allusions to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, well taken. He has the knack, like Freud's literary critics, for valuing psychoanalysis for its defining interest in the fictive world of wishes and dreams that its bashers take as evidence of its unworthiness. We should regard Freud's legacy as a literary one, and recognize Freud himself without embarrassment as the mythic hero he wished to be.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998


The Unanalyzable

by Perry Meisel

Jacques Lacan. By Elisabeth Roudinesco. Translated by Barbara Bray. Illustrated. 574 pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $36.95.

A generation of yuppie avant-gardists has grown more bleary-eyed than usual from perusing – first with diligence, then with lagging attention, irritation and in some cases pure rage – the dazzling but often incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo of the flamboyant and influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. First published in France in 1993, Elisabeth Roudinesco's definitive biography, Jacques Lacan, is neither hagiographic nor vindictive; Ms. Roudinesco, a psychoanalyst based in Paris and the author of two previous books on the history of psychoanalysis in France, employs the wise strategy of the pre-emptive strike – she acknowledges Lacan's personal absurdity and literary extravagance while simultaneously showing why and how he matters. Although Lacan's technical shenanigans (shortening the length of the therapeutic session to a few minutes, for example, or analyzing patients in taxicabs) led to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1963, Ms. Roudinesco reminds us that he is now an indisputable part of the psychoanalytic firmament, the bookend to Carl Jung in the structure of psychoanalytic thought. Most of all, as Ms. Roudinesco points out, he combined a reading of Freud and a reading of philosophy that had startling consequences for psychoanalysis and philosophy alike.
Born in Paris in 1901 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family of vinegar merchants, Lacan had a temperament and demeanor that reflected the source of his ancestors' rise to position. The missing limbs and dazed faces of World War I veterans that he saw as a schoolboy made him want to be a doctor, but he had, as a teen-ager, also begun to despise his family, and, as Ms. Roudinesco puts it, dress ''like a dandy.'' As a young psychiatrist, Lacan fell under the sway of Salvador Dali and by 1931 began to synthesize psychiatry, psychoanalysis and Surrealism. The result was his medical dissertation in 1932, the case history of a provincial woman, a postal worker, who had criminally assaulted a well-known actress with a knife. Although Ms. Roudinesco characterizes as brutal his effort to impose upon his patient his own system of delusional needs (Lacan's own analysis did not begin until 1932, and his analyst, Rudolph Loewenstein, eventually pronounced him ''unanalyzable''), the case nonetheless illustrated Lacan's belief in the determination of the self by unconscious social rather than biological forces. Lacan was thrust into the limelight not only for the turn he gave to medical psychiatry, but also for the social interpretation he gave to Freud, whose work after 1920 seemed to return to the biologism of his youth. By the 1960's, Lacan's performance seminars had become major weekly events in Paris, and a published version of his work was in great demand. But he remained reluctant to publish in any systematic form, requiring considerable hand holding by his editor while he assembled his Écrits in 1966. He died in 1981.
Accounts of Lacan's ideas tend to be either too simple or too elaborate; Ms. Roudinesco takes a middle course, focusing on the insuperable gap between image and desire as the basis for Lacan's notion of the psyche. Lacan's key concept, the stade du miroir or ''mirror stage'' of human development, was first presented at the 1936 psychoanalytic association congress in Marienbad in a paper that well describes his stance. The talk was cut off in the middle by Ernest Jones, who found it too outrageous. Lacan never recovered from that trauma, and was heartbroken a quarter century later when he was expelled from the association.
Combining Freud's concepts of narcissism and the ''specular'' ego with the observation that infants are fascinated by their own image in the mirror (an observation that Lacan stole, Ms. Roudinesco suggests, from one of his teachers, Henri Wallon), Lacan rooted the origin of selfhood in the ''mirror stage'': one is the image of oneself, with which one tries, like a perpetual child, to catch up. The shocking méconnaissance or ''misrecognition'' of another in the mirror that produces the self (or the ''subject,'' as Lacan calls it) is soon complicated by the Oedipus complex, which requires that the self also conform to the social laws of patriarchy and the family. This passage from what Lacan calls the ''Imaginary'' to the ''Symbolic'' also gives people their sexual identities, which become functions of conscious and unconscious customs and images rather than of innate characteristics.
Freud's idea of the unconscious had always been incompatible with classical assumptions about the rule of reason; Lacan gave the problem a whole new slant. As Ms. Roudinesco notes, Lacan's work ''was the only corpus in the world that provided Freudianism with a genuine philosophical framework.'' The ''mirror stage'' shows that alienation is not a condition that the self can overcome, even with the best therapy, but part of what fashions it from the ground up. The only other French thinker – despite his running squabbles with Lacan – to make this kind of connection between Freud and philosophy is Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction. As he puts it in his most recent meditation on Freud, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago, 1996), The Other is the condition for the One. The idea of the Other that the two men share reflects the long shadow of Martin Heidegger, but Ms. Roudinesco rejects the notion that Lacan also appropriated the way the young Jean-Paul Sartre used Heidegger's vocabulary to arrive at elements of his own system. Although she returns again and again to Lacan's obsession with plagiarism throughout his career and devotes an entire chapter to rivalry with Sartre in particular, she does not compare their writings to see just how much Sartre himself questions the freedom of the self he seems to champion. Still, she raises the fascinating possibility that intellectual history, like literary history, is structured by the same ''misreadings'' that structure personality – an especially real possibility if, as the Lacanian formula has it, ''the unconscious is structured like a language.''
Lacan went even further, finding a persuasive link between Freud and Marx. ''You are the first thinker who has assumed the theoretical responsibility of giving to Freud veritable concepts worthy of him,'' Louis Althusser, the late French Communist philosopher who in the 1970's broke notably with Soviet Communism, wrote to Lacan in 1963. The esteem was mutual. ''I am quite honored,'' replied Lacan. The first night they had dinner together, they walked through the streets of Paris into the small hours of the morning, talking. Althusser's writings on psychoanalysis have now been collected in a single volume in English, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (Columbia University Press, 1997), that includes his legendary 1964 essay, ''Freud and Lacan,'' as well as two additional essays, some speeches and a selection of his correspondence with Lacan. For Althusser, the unconscious is (to put it perhaps too crudely) not unlike ideology in Marx's sense of the word – the false ideas that people have about social structures. Lacan gives social relations a place deep within the Freudian psyche, Althusser argues, and gives the psyche an active role in the perpetuation of social relations.
Lacan remains significant, then, because he provides an extraordinarily exact way of measuring our sanctimonies and our desires. This is likely why the ''structuralist'' legacy of which he is a part – the legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – is still too hot to handle. New sanctimonies have replaced older ones. Assessments of sexual identity, ethnicity and, indeed, identity itself that see all three as social fictions rather than as natural facts upset the very constituencies they were designed to address. Ms. Roudinesco captures the freshness of the intellectual world in which Lacan's developing notions were concocted, before the parochialism of his heirs rendered Lacanian thinking monolithic and humorless. Irony and dissonance are central to Lacan's achievement, even if the higher ironies of clarity never appealed to him. How to deal with an authority that asks you only to ''misread'' him remains an exasperating question. Ms. Roudinesco's biography, solidly translated by Barbara Bray, is a welcome aid to keeping him in perspective.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1997

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In League With the Bandits

by Perry Meisel

Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons: The Unconscious Meanings of Crime and Punishment. By Martha Grace Duncan. 272 pp. New York: New York University Press. $29.95.

Why did so many New Yorkers make a hero out of the subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz? Why did some inmates of Siberian prison camps find a boon in their confinement? Why does Charles Dickens's Pip turn away from his old friend and benefactor, the convict Magwitch, in Great Expectations, or Shakespeare's Prince Hal turn away from old Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2?
These are not the same questions but they raise similar issues, and provide Martha Grace Duncan a fresh way of organizing and addressing them in her book on the unconscious meanings of crime and punishment. Ms. Duncan, a professor of law at Emory University, wishes to ''undermine'' customary legal and criminological assumptions about her subject, particularly the assumption that the law simply protects us from crime, and she does so with the aid of a psychoanalytic approach. Crime and punishment, criminality and noncriminality are really ''dyads,'' Ms. Duncan argues, an ''unforeseen partnership'' that cops and robbers, criminals and prosecutors, lawbreaker and citizen unconsciously – and uncannily – share. A complex web of repression, resistance and reaction-formation, she maintains, keeps the partnership hidden from us, and her book is an attempt to set us straight about our buried love-hate relation to prisons, crime and the metaphors of filth and slime with which we typically – and in vituperative accents – describe criminals and criminal behavior.
While Ms. Duncan's topic is legal and her perspective psychoanalytic, literature is her chief focus and principal source. Although one wishes that she had spent more time analyzing the rhetoric of American case law than she does, she insists on her literary ground, which dominates her discussion well into the analysis of metaphor in the third and concluding section of Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons. The literary focus, however, conveys her points with only mixed results as she moves through prison memoirs in the first part of her book before focusing more exclusively on literature in the second.
The love of some prisoners for their imprisonment, Ms. Duncan argues, represents our yearning for the infantile, particularly the maternal (one of Ms. Duncan's prison memoirists describes herself as ''curled up in a little ball . . . immersed in dreaming fantasies''), while our repressed admiration for outlaws represents our desire for the kind of ''somatic'' freedom of movement that we also associate with childhood, notably our desire to flee from authority, especially the authority of the father. (This psychological distinction between mother and father is, however, only implicit; sometimes Ms. Duncan makes it; sometimes she does not.) With Dostoyevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn among her witnesses, Ms. Duncan's conclusions about prison are often persuasive enough; they even have an authority, she reminds us, in Freud's essay ''Dostoyevsky and Parricide.'' They are nonetheless also dull by their very nature, and Ms. Duncan impedes the dramatic progress of her book by beginning it with a meditation on the unlikely glamour of the cloister.
Literature, by contrast, provides Ms. Duncan a rich field in which to explore our ''reluctant,'' ''rationalized,'' sometimes outright ''admiration'' for the ''noble bandit.'' The romantic outlaw has a long and familiar history, and one shrouded by misapprehension. Like Bernhard Goetz, even the legendary Robin Hood is a hero, alas, not because he helps the cause of justice but because he, too, is really breaking the law under the guise of a higher moral imperative. Indeed, from Moll Flanders to Long John Silver, such criminals represent a freedom of the body in the face of parental constraint, and prefigure their latter-day American counterparts like Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. Shakespeare's Falstaff, of course, is Ms. Duncan's inevitable centerpiece here, since he is the childhood exuberance that his onetime companion, the youthful Prince Hal, must repress once he becomes King Henry V.
When Ms. Duncan turns to the examination of metaphor in the last portion of her book, she finds ample evidence in literature and history alike to show that we use images of ''filth,'' ''slime'' and ''scum'' to describe the criminal because these words express what it is we unconsciously prize about him. To call the criminal ''filth'' and to separate him from us, Ms. Duncan argues, is not only to affirm our own adulthood but also to maintain at the level of linguistic usage the criminal's particular allure, which is infantile. Slime is fecal, a childhood gift, a token of fun and freedom as well as an instance of soil and an occasion for the parent's intervention. This is why Dickens's Magwitch, for example, hides on the fetid moor, and why Victor Hugo's obsessive Inspector Javert chases Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables. Here Shakespeare's Macbeth is Ms. Duncan's literary centerpiece, and Macbeth's preoccupation with washing is part of the way the play's ''predominant image,'' as she puts it, ''changes from darkness to slime.''
The real drama of Ms. Duncan's discussion of metaphor, however, comes with the vivid historical pictograph that gives her book a stirring climax and its most persuasive and summary piece of argumentation. In 1786, the British Government created a penal colony at Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia, an experiment so curious that no one has ever been able to make much sense of it. Why deal with the ''urgent problem'' of criminals with the ''slow'' and ''expensive'' alternative of transporting them to the other side of the globe? Ms. Duncan readily solves the mystery by showing us how Botany Bay's incoherence as both a policy and a practice can be made sense of once we see it as an ''archetypal story, re-enacting with real people and real places an epic drama of self-purification through banishment of the filthy.'' Its bizarre sociological purpose obscured the deeper, psychological function it performed instead. Noncriminals, says Ms. Duncan, needed ''to use this Australian prison as a symbol of hell.'' England was ridding itself of its criminals as if they were ''a sort of excrementitious mass,'' as Jeremy Bentham (who objected to the policy) described it in 1812. Ms. Duncan's attentiveness to language seals her point here more than anywhere else in her book. Col. Godfrey Mundy, an official visitor to Australia in the mid-19th century, titled his three-volume account of his trip there ''Our Antipodes'' for a simple unconscious reason: ''our antipodes'' is a metaphor that identifies Australia's location in relation to England and that of one's anus in relation to the rest of one's body.
But while Ms. Duncan's psychoanalytic perspective is her book's chief strength, it is also its chief weakness. Her failure to distinguish clearly between mother and father in childhood is the sign of a more fundamental flaw in the structure of her approach. What Ms. Duncan means by childhood itself is generally left vague, leaving us to wonder how a psychoanalytic perspective could describe it as blissful. Perhaps Ms. Duncan's insufficient discriminations are symptomatic. Is her notion of psychoanalysis as a system designed to ''transform'' the ''black and white'' distinctions required of legal discourse ''into gray'' the expression of another wish – an intellectual version of infantile yearning in relation to the adult stipulations of the law? Like literature, psychoanalysis has its ironies, and the practitioner, like the buyer, need beware.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1997

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The Mad, Mad World of R.D. Laing

by Perry Meisel

The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing. By Daniel Burston. 275 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. $35.

By the time he collapsed and died of a heart attack while playing tennis in August 1989, R. D. Laing had devolved from one of the most compelling intellectual heroes of the 1960's into a gruesome purveyor of pop mysticism and bad poetry. Once the charismatic power behind a community of radical therapists and the influential author of several provocative books, the Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had broken down the barriers between sanity and madness – in theory, in practice and even in the swagger of his own personality – had become ''yesterday's icon,'' as Daniel Burston describes Laing's last years in The Wing of Madness. Laing's impact is still with us, but what it was – and how seriously we are to entertain it – remain questions that Mr. Burston's comprehensive and extraordinarily readable study of Laing's life and work is designed to answer. Mr. Burston, who teaches psychology at Duquesne University and who previously wrote The Legacy of Erich Fromm, displays the kind of sympathetic generosity one expects from a biographer, although such sympathy is sometimes a questionable virtue when it comes to estimating the real nature and status of Laing's achievement.
Born in Glasgow in 1927, Laing was the only child of ''a quiet Presbyterian couple,'' as Mr. Burston calls them, whose behavior was anything but quiet. Laing's father and grandfather had ''brutal physical scenes in the parlor,'' while his mother was wont to burn the family's trash inside the apartment so as to conceal its contents from the neighbors and regularly destroyed her son's toys. Even in old age, she was ''sticking pins into an effigy of her son, called a 'Ronald doll,' with the express intention of inducing a heart attack.'' Laing was ''not a wanted child,'' Mr. Burston observes, and he is by no means hesitant to suggest the extent to which Laing's childhood prefigured his later professional focus on the actual social or ''interpersonal'' world in which people grow up. Both ''introverted'' and ''rebellious,'' Laing was, as Mr. Burston puts it, a product of ''complex tensions.'' As a schoolboy, Laing excelled at classics and dabbled in evangelical Christianity; he also maintained a schedule of reading that, by the time he was 15, included Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche and, of course, Freud.
As a young British Army psychiatrist in the early 1950's, Laing was already trying out his ''interpersonal'' approach (it derives, Mr. Burston reminds us, from Harry Stack Sullivan) by sitting with schizophrenics ''quietly . . . in their padded cells, a move assumed by his superiors to be dedicated research.'' It was. Like Freud, Laing questioned the traditional neurobiological view of schizophrenia and other disorders, but, like Sullivan, he was looking for sources in real rather than in fantasized quarters. In 1953, Laing set up the ''Rumpus Room,'' a day room for schizophrenic patients in a hospital near Glasgow that allowed them some possibility for social interaction. Later that year, he found the case that confirmed his views on the relation between brain and mind, neurology and psychiatry.
Nan, a 15-year-old girl with severe head injuries, had changed her personality after recovering from a coma. Before her accident, she had been a promising young hausfrau; now, Mr. Burston writes, she was a ''coquette.'' Although to the neurologists Nan's first attempts at speech and movement were incoherent, to the rest of the hospital staff ''they were construed . . . as deliberate humor,'' leading to the rewards of ''sweets and caresses.'' Laing ascribed the change to an interpersonal factor – ''the new 'Nan,' '' as he himself put it, ''began as a construction of the others.''
The Rumpus Room experiment brought Laing to the attention of J. D. Sutherland at the Tavistock Institute, and in 1956 Sutherland and his psychoanalytic colleagues John Bowlby and Charles Rycroft invited Laing to join them in London. Laing became a training candidate at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis in London, but was interested less in the doctrinal struggles between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud than in pursuing his own work. D. W. Winnicott was one of Laing's clinical supervisors, and he was warm in his response to Laing's first book, The Divided Self (1959), which he read in manuscript. To the vocabulary of the interpersonal, Laing had added the vocabulary of the existential. Emotional misery, he argued, has its roots in experiences with others, usually in the family, as he would go on to argue (with Aaron Esterson) in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964). Falling ill is the first step in a ''self-cure,'' a process Laing later called ''metanoia,'' ''a term used in the Greek New Testament for atonement.'' Metanoia, especially in its schizophrenic form, is an existential journey, Laing argued; with safe surroundings, it can actually be a route toward recovery based on choice. ''Laing, like Sartre,'' Mr. Burston writes, ''construed the mad (or nearly mad) person as an active agent in the creation and perpetuation of his own misery, who must choose, finally, to abandon his schizoid isolation in favor of authentic relatedness to others in order to regain his sanity.''
Laing's attempt to put these notions into the radical practice that made him famous came with the establishment in 1964 of Kingsley Hall, the controversial therapeutic community in London's East End in which staff and patients often exchanged roles. Laing's ''therapeutic utopia,'' as Mr. Burston amusingly describes it, was ''anarchic,'' and its legendary characters included Mary Barnes, the middle-aged Roman Catholic nurse who attracted wide attention after writing a book about her regression and recovery. Kingsley Hall was dissolved in 1970, at the beginning of the next phase of Laing's career, a showier phase frankly intended to cash in on his notoriety as a guru (Laing's money problems were endless) and to explore newer interests like the relation between shamanism and psychotherapy. Laing periodically sank under the task. Despite the Philadelphia Association – the umbrella organization he had helped to found in 1965, which was stocked with disciples who loosely oversaw a group of therapeutic communities – Laing's clinical movement also lost steam toward the end of the decade. By the 1980's, Laing was in decline. In 1987, he even lost his license to practice medicine in Britain because a patient alleged he had been ''intoxicated and unprofessional'' on two occasions. At the end, Mr. Burston writes, Laing was ''a once-famous man with no profession, no fixed address and no funds.''
Mr. Burston intends not to bury Laing but to assess him. Laing's personal and intellectual agony betokens an exemplary role in the cultural history of the century, but for reasons different from the sometimes grandiose ones that Mr. Burston gives to make his case. Laing cannot, for example, be given credit for reconciling Freud and Sartre. As a good intellectual historian, Mr. Burston should acknowledge that this achievement belongs instead to Jacques Lacan, for whom the interpersonal raises a question that Laing (unlike Sullivan) always hesitated to ask: whether or not self and other even exist except in their relation. Despite his attentiveness to the structuring role of contrasts in the formation of identity, Mr. Burston's tired reliance on notions of the self's ''authenticity,'' garnered from Laing's own often tawdry rhetoric, suggests that, like Laing, he is unable, or unwilling, to integrate this paradox into his thinking. Nor does Laing rank in originality with Freud, or even Jung, as Mr. Burston shockingly proposes, because Laing grandly capitulated to influence – Freud's or Sartre's – rather than overcoming or skillfully rearticulating it.
In retrospect, Laing's charismatic vexation derives from acting out his overdetermination (to use Freud's terms) as a thinker instead of working it through. Laing was a real and significant sufferer because he took tensions to the limit without managing to resolve them. ''If I could tell you,'' he wrote at the close of The Politics of Experience (1967), ''I would let you know.'' A crucible for the century's own overdeterminations, Laing's sorrows are a kind of sacrifice for our wider understanding after him – and in many ways because of him.

Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 1996.

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The Form of Politics

by Perry Meisel


It is, of course, a deconstructive commonplace to observe that the singular or the unique is the function or the effect of a relation. And yet a political and intellectual climate like ours in America today – a New Sanctimony, if you will, a recall of transcendental categories by Left and Right alike – too often propounds the singular as a value in itself, whether it is ethnicity, gender, or oppression as such. Our climate needs to be reminded of this deconstructive commonplace, not only to explain to Neo-conservatives why and how deconstructive relativism is actually very systematic indeed, but also to distinguish deconstruction from the neo-centrisms of the Left (a self-contradictory description that is itself an example of the problem). These latter impulses, astonishingly enough, reconstitute the binarisms of black/white, male/female, power/oppression that gird tyranny, and that are under presumable siege as categories.
What is perennially misconceived about deconstruction (Harold Bloom's term "weak misreading" well accounts for the surprisingly literal response to Derrida that we all know) is that its procedure for deracinating essences, absolutes, transcendental categories of all kinds is not in the service of an anarchic play of signifiers. Nor is it designed to prioritize the historically repressed or marginalized side of an opposition. Deconstruction is a highly exact mode of reading designed, not to throw texts or the world into chaos, but to show how the world we think we find only gets – and has gotten – made in the shapes and terms that we take for granted as given, self-evident, natural.
American criticism may perhaps wake from its dogmatic slumbers by remembering what Anselm Haverkamp states in his introduction to this conference – that America is difference. This is the crucial tie between deconstruction and America despite deconstruction's French (and Germanic) ground of philosophical emergence (here, too, though, we should recall that both America and deconstruction share, after all, a place in the tradition of the Enlightenment despite a difference in the epistemological deposition of the subject that Enlightenment Romanticism was invented to sustain following the first death of God).
As Jonathan Culler points out, the performative or constitutive nature of discourse, together with its chiastic ground-making, is particularly plain in American life; indeed, it is American life's singular virtue. If marginal America constructs itself as a difference from dominant America, we should remember that dominant America constructed itself as an enabling difference from Europe, thereby preparing a common and originary ground for American life at large, based, not on European – read logocentric – notions of identity or sameness, but, in principle if not always or altogether in practice, on difference. This common epistemology of American life ironically guarantees freedom by requiring everyone to deal with influence.
Hence the ease with which we allow ourselves to be swayed by the language of the singular – of the essentiality of the ethnic, the gendered, the this, the that – is precisely what a deconstructive reassessment of the political asks us to question. Without aesthetic theory – I use these terms with Kant in mind – and without a deconstructive reimagination of the categories involved, a dangerous epistemological lassitude will continue despite the need for its correction.
Consider, for example, the category of the ethnic. What is its status as a notion? In 1992, the Poetics Institute of New York University and the Cardozo School of Law sponsored a conference with Jacques Derrida that allowed me to address the problem then. The Greek ethnos, I argued at that time, emerges in the Septuagint as a means of translating the Hebrew goyim, which has the sense of "heathen" – those who do not believe in the Jewish God. Only in the nineteenth century does the word gain the more specific sense of race with which we associate it still in this century. This way of reading ethnos as designating biosemiotic traits, sometimes derived iconically through or from the language a person speaks, well suited nineteenth-century ideological needs, particularly those of nationalism. The less-than-various array of ethnic nationalisms, from Mazzini to Herzl, sought a justifying physicalism familiar in nineteenth-century reasoning from phrenology to ethnography. Ethnography and ethnology alike emerge as disciplines of study contemporary with the growth of nationalist feeling, the first in 1834, the second in 1842. Lexicons record a hazy relation between ethnos and ethos, too, the latter meaning custom, although the nature of the relation is unclear. This muddy proximity is the very nature of the relation, which motivates what is merely customary among people by divining a mystic bond among them and elevating it, that is, reducing it, to the status of an innate rather than a derived characteristic.
The ethnic as a trope, then, rests, or fails to do so, on a paradox whose structure is a familiar deconstructive site constituted by the play between inclusion and exclusion. That which is without value – those who do not believe, those who are goyim or heathen – becomes precisely that which is of, that which is, value – the inherent, often racially construed trait that assigns and defines one at a presumably fundamental level. The ethnic or racial – that denigration or impropriety that defines goyim – is also the trope designed to signify the pure, the essential, the very opposite of the unclean or the improper that it originarily signifies in the history of its usage. It should be noted, too, that ethnos also originarily signifies the notion of "one's own" – of what is, properly speaking, proper to one – a notion whose like paradoxical structure has also long been familiar to us. Curiously enough, then, the otherness that structures the heathen or the unruly – the excluded – is also the properness, the inherence that structures what is included.
If a narrative were to be constructed from this play of the trope's senses, it would find its telos in the scientific racism and eugenics of the Nazi era, even if it might also find an epistemological counterpart in soil-Zionism, African-American separatism, or feminism of the essentialist variety. Democratic thinking, by contrast, describes the truth of the universality it declares by virtue of its erasure. Freedom of worship, for example, has as its implication that which guarantees the possibility of its emergence: a constitutional indifference to the very religions it frees.
Any contemporary articulation of the ethnic rolls and rocks on the lip of this paradox. Its negation is the repressed that returns late in the twentieth century with the revalorization of those ethnic categories that the century's civil and human rights revolutions, especially in the United States, supposedly put in question. The rise of multiculturalism in the United States and the end of the socialist ideal in the Soviet Union are, from this point of view, similar reactions against and repressions of the non-ethnic ideals of both political constructions.

Any deconstructive reassessment of the political depends today, then, on a series of new assumptions about both society and subjectivity. Here deconstruction maintains its historical relation to psychoanalysis and Marxism alike, although by now these relations are so implicit that the crucial term in each case remains largely silent throughout the conference.
The unconscious is the conference's enabling notional secret, an Althusserian notion of the unconscious that understands subjects and ideology, texts and their reception, in reciprocal rather than exclusive terms. Avital Ronell's "testing" is a superb psychoanalytical representation of the subject. "Testing" suggests what the ego and any shape at all have in common – the doing and undoing of frames, edges, outlines, borders. "We exist in sway," says Ronell, linking Kant with Freud and Lacan, and linking epistemology with psychoanalysis.
The conference's second chief notion, ideology, is well described by Barbara Johnson without being named. By asking "what speaks?" rather than "who speaks?," Johnson efficiently points out the dynamic and constitutive relation between ideology and the unconscious, and the way in which this relation fashions the ground of self and society alike. When Judith Butler asks, "Why do words wound?," the answer is that the unconscious is structured like a language.

In order to elaborate a deconstructive reassessment of the political, let us read a familiar and even topical text at some length. No twentieth-century text is more alluring for its presumable gender allegory than Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). And yet no twentieth-century text is also more strategically plain about its own deconstructive rather than irreducible notion of gender than Orlando is. Everyone knows the popular conception of Orlando – even the movies attest to it: an allegory about how perfect a human being would be could s/he combine the qualities of both genders. The emblem for Orlando's apparently synthetic project is the book's hommage to androgyny, borrowed from Coleridge's picture of a harmonious imagination in the Biographia Literaria (1817). Woolf literalizes, or so it seems, Coleridge's idealizing descriptions of rich imaginative figures such as Shakespeare by switching Orlando's gender about halfway through the book. Woolf thus simultaneously preserves and changes Orlando's character as the rival demands of soul and history struggle beneath the full-throated ease of both the plot and Woolf's seamless use of language.
Culler's notion of performativity is dazzlingly evident as Woolf's text provides a virtual object lesson in how semiosis makes subjects from the ground up. What language brings into being in Orlando is gender as such. Even to call it "as such" is, of course, problematic, since gender's suchness or givenness is the function of a difference or a relation. Under the pressure of Woolf's language, Orlando's presumably central notion of gender splits its husk.
The key to the novel, as the saying goes, lies in the sometimes odd structure of Woolf's prose, which as a rule is so well sutured that the means of its production slips by. In the novel's third chapter, the narrator announces, with an apparent straight face, that "everything, in fact, was something else" (143).1 How can what is "in fact" be "something else"? By definition, a "fact" is what it is – just the fax, ma'am – but here, quite ironically, the self-evidence ordinarily associated with "fact" is also taken away from it by virtue of how its self-evidence is represented – as "something else."
This kind of rhetorical oddness occurs again and again in the texture of the book's language, often structuring sentences in uncannily similar – and equally disturbing ways. "Everything was different," says the narrator early on (27), trying to give us a picture of the Elizabethan past by negation, even in a catalogue of vegetables, climates, and poets. How can a statement of nonidentity be a properly representational or descriptive one? "The arras" in "the hall" at Orlando's ancestral home "moved always" (45) – "moved always" is an oxymoron. Or, says the narrator, meditating on Orlando's future in the book's first chapter and thinking vaguely of official roles for him, he "was cut out for precisely some such career" (15). How can what is "precisely" also be "some such"? Similarly, if "openness . . . was the soul" of Orlando's "nature" (189), as the narrator says it is, then the outside – "openness" – and the inside – "soul" – are perilously and curiously identified.
The seeming imprecision in Woolf's language is, in fact, a rhetorical pattern – a principal one throughout the novel, and the way the novel itself goes about estimating as well as representing oppositions such as fact and fiction, text and world, and, of course, one gender and another.
The rhetorical pattern has as its counterpart the novel's larger structural pattern, which requires a similar transgression of the reader's assumptions once they have been put in place. Much as Woolf's sentences ask the reader to believe opposing or different kinds of propositions simultaneously, so, too, does the structure of the novel's fundamental illusionism. Orlando is at one and the same time the same person despite her change of sex midway through the book – her subjectivity is essential behind even gender. And yet Orlando is also a function of history, changing as she does in accord with the changes through which she lives. To define and represent gender, Orlando – and Orlando – both invoke history and deny it.
Rather than a problem, such structural irreconcilability is a strategy or device. Time must be invoked to describe something as timeless – Orlando's personality, for example – since the timeless can only be conceived of in its relation – its nonrelation – to time. And history can be thought of only in relation to a timelessness that is its foil or counterpart. In Orlando, everything, then – and remember, everything is something else – is as a rule put in place by its transgression. This strategy or device, both rhetorical and structural, I shall call Woolf's cross-writing – the transgression or crossing over of assumptions even as they are put in place.
Woolf theorizes cross-writing in Orlando by telling us that Orlando's own mind works in "violent see-saws" (46), not unlike Woolf's own clashing metaphors, "stopping at nothing," she says, "in between" (46). Sounding like Saussure (and Keats), Woolf gives cross-writing a differential model: "Nothing thicker than a knife's blade separates happiness from melancholy" (45). Of course not: to know one means to know its difference from the other. To accent this relativist or relational semiotics, Woolf uses the same metaphor that she uses in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) to show how difference works to constitute sameness: the clocks in London are off line, each ringing the same hour a bit differently from the others (1925, 60 - 61).2 Woolf's description of Shakespeare early in the novel also matches the structure of her cross-writing: "his mind was . . . a welter of opposites" (22). Queen Elizabeth, too, is drawn according to the same plan: qualities such as "innocence" and "simplicity" were "all the more dear to her for the dark background she set them against" (23).
Woolf tells us in the book's preface to be prepared for this double rhythm or movement. "The book," she says, "will inevitably wake expectations in the reader which the book itself can only disappoint" (viii). Expectation and disappointment, disappointment and expectation – this is a fair estimate of the semiotic rhythm the novel employs to have its way with us. The play of expectation and disappointment on the reader's part is necessary for any horizon or circumference – any edge or margin or frame that situates an object as such, whether animate or inanimate – to emerge at all, and as a function of compounding, of difference. Readers know, says Woolf, how to "make . . . up from bare hints dropped here and there the whole boundary and circumference of a living person; can hear in what we only whisper a living voice; can see, often what we say nothing about, exactly what he looked like, and know without a word to guide them precisely what he thought" (73).
Woolf reminds us of the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand at work here by calling our attention to it and its mechanisms. "The most poetic" kind of "conversation," she says, "is precisely that which cannot be written down" (253). This creates not simply awe at the depth of the conversation in question (a conversation between Orlando and her nineteenth-century lover, Shelmerdine), but also awe at the fact that such "repletion" or fullness, as Woolf puts it (253), can be the effect of "a great blank here" (253). Even the opposition between life and literature is handled – is simultaneously established and undone – by crossover rhetoric. While life and literature are on the one hand distinct ("Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another" [17]), on the other hand, the Queen "read him" – Orlando – "like a page" (25).
When Orlando's change of gender comes, the way in which Woolf represents it, rhetorically at least, slides over us without a hitch. "He was a woman" (137). The fictional illusion succeeds despite – perhaps because of – the rhetorical impossibility. This is, as it turns out, simply a hyperbolic instance of the mixed metaphors that Woolf uses to describe practically everything. Even the novel's plot is made, ironically, out of transformation.
Far, then, from being a self-evident singularity, gender – like ethnicity, or like subjectivity itself – is always already the function of a relation in Orlando. A commonplace of structural feminism, it is interesting to see it rehearsed as early as 1928. Even androgyny is not fusion, but a structure of difference. One doesn't fuse the genders by crossing them – one puts them in place that way, and always has. To be fused, the genders must be different. Gender is a difference, not an essential characteristic, an elementary semiotic activity in all cultures that, in one way or another, is part of the basis upon which a given culture's world, and its subjects, are formed. Gender is pure difference, a "pure performative," as Barbara Vinken puts it, whose role is merely paradigmatic, structuring a fundamental difference out of a formal necessity that is also necessarily political. As Orlando's confirmation of her new gender in the mirror suggests (138), form is itself always already political. The equivalence of politics and form is among the most provocative of the notions to which a deconstructive reassessment of the political leads. What is a politics of form?


1. All references are to Virginia Woolf, Orlando, rpt. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1973).

2. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, rpt. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1953).
Originally published in Deconstruction is/in America: A New Sense of the Political, ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York: New York University Press, 1995).


Introduction to The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels

by Perry Meisel

The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. By Henry James. New York: Signet Classics, 1995.

Henry James's short novels provide a representative account of James's career as a whole, and serve as an excellent introduction to the peculiar unity of his singular imagination. Although the difference between James's early and later fiction is alone striking – simply compare the opening paragraphs of The American (1877) and The Ambassadors (1903) to see the movement from Victorian realism to the modern psychological realism of which James is the acknowledged master – it is probably more accurate to say that James's career is one of continuity and refinement rather than one of abrupt changes. Whether in his long novels or his shorter ones – nouvelles, as he liked to call the latter, six of which are collected in the pages that follow – James's fiction is always concerned with the play of impressions upon the mind and heart. While a gradual shift in perspective over the years heightens point of view and diminishes the description of faces, objects, and scenes at which the early James grudgingly excels, James's focus remains the extraordinarily specific circumstances that structure the self, and the ways in which the structure of experience and the structure of narrative are very often the same.
In the autumn of 1897, the year before The Turn of the Screw was first published, James had moved into Lamb House, Rye, after more than twenty years of residence in London. James had settled in England in 1876 (he became a British subject in 1915, the year before his death), and soon achieved critical triumph within the same English tradition that had once burdened him as a young American writer. The influence of James's own writing upon twentieth-century fiction is, of course, inestimable. James's psychological realism remains so influential even today that it is, to use James's own description of the success of the fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern in The Aspern Papers (1888), "part of the light by which we walk." Almost every modern writer of fiction in English carries the scars of James's influence, and almost every major English and American novelist in the generation following James's own – E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, even Hemingway and Fitzgerald – can be measured by their respective turns from a strength at once enabling and potentially fatal in the decisiveness with which it reinvents the writing of fiction.
Why is James so influential? What is the nature of his power? The short novels collected here allow us to see what it is in efficient and delicious miniature. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is James's most famous and widely read short novel. Despite its unique extravagance, it contains the principal elements of James's customary world both early and late: interpretative uncertainty and an uncannily vivid sense of solitary and reflective human sadness. The Turn of the Screw shows us a writer fully at home with his powers, and one consciously concerned with central questions about the imagination and its determinations. Bly, the tale's country house, is a haunted house, and the tale a haunted tale. But haunted by what? Are the former governess and the former valet who loom as apparitions fantastic projections of the new governess's imagination? Or are they genuine ghosts, spirits of a past day? Ghosts represent both the past and a past way of thinking in as decisively secular a world as James's is. Surely the ironic brother of the philosopher William James, notorious freethinker and pragmatist, little fancied ghosts as such. Why, then, are we afraid? By means of what power does the tale promote the shudders that it does? We are afraid not only because James has the powers of illusion to do with us whatever he likes, but also because he has the power to do so while suspending all judgment as to what these witnesses of his power may mean. Testimony to James's audacity as a writer, the tale is poised between a series of interpretative alternatives that raise more questions than James thinks it right to answer. The Turn of the Screw is the turn, as it were, that reveals the archaeology or the unconscious of James's own sense of himself as a writer.
As a literary allegory, the tale is also poised between two very real alternatives as it mediates upon questions of imaginative priority. Is James's writing merely a ghost of past writing, or is it testimony to the splendid originality of his own imagination? As a writer of fiction who began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, James had to control Romanticism itself. Like his unnamed governess-narrator (what, by the way, is the status of gender in James?), James is tormented by Romanticism's representatives. Who are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? They are strangely familiar figures; he is the Romantic male in the visionary tower and she the house-haunting madwoman, whose only place of repose seems to be the attic. Leon Edel, James's biographer, notes the indirect allusions to Jane Eyre in The Turn of the Screw, and the narrator herself wonders out loud whether "an insane, an unmentionable relative" is being "kept in unsuspected confinement." As the governess's fear and malaise attest, however, James himself is interested in neither figure; these Romantic counterparts represent ghostly and offensive burdens that his own fiction will circumvent in favor of a new kind of literary character based upon figures like the depressive governess-narrator here or the scholar-narrator of The Aspern Papers ten years earlier, milder figures for whom vision and madness alike are unacceptable, even unavailable alternatives. Life is after all too sedentary an affair for prose realism to give the glamor of either stance any credibility.
What is left, then, for the novelist to do? Uncertainty and its causes and effects are the major and unifying concerns of James's career, and his use of them as materials allows him to link style and subject, form and theme in dauntingly clear ways. What James's other short novels share with The Turn of the Screw is the pressure of situations and the overriding question within them of what the truth in each case may be. Of course, what the truth is in James's world is a legal or juridical question – a question of evidence, argument, and negotiation among alternatives – not a metaphysical one.
In The Aspern Papers (1888), the question of what the truth may be is the narrative's overt theme. Are the poet Aspern's papers hidden in the Missess Bordereau's house in Venice or not? What is the effect of each move planned by the now shrewd, now bumbling narrator as he tries to extract the truth from the situation? Toward the possession of what objects, as he himself wonders, are these feints directed? The very components of the story sound like the techniques involved in writing one. What frustrates the narrator thickens the illusion for the reader. It is the wonder that the story itself creates – the secret that it puts in place by not disclosing – that is both its motive force and its very subject. Concealing a secret is proof that there must be one. The sense of a fugitive truth gives the narrative and the lives of the characters within it goals that structure and organize both alike whether or not either receives a proper resolution. Tita Bordereau's admission at tale's end that she burned the papers after her aunt's death is part of the mystery, not an answer to it.
If James's career is one of continuity and refinement, then even the early Daisy Miller (1878) – the book that made James famous – must, like Daisy herself, be far less plain and innocent than it seems to be. Here the early James is already exploring the interior as he paints a world presumably external to private states of mind, a world to which characters seem only to react. But the legendary split between an omniscient early James and an entirely subjective later James is partly a myth. Like all of James's work, Daisy Miller is a moral tale. Its lesson is that form does indeed matter; its nonobservance can lead, quite literally, to death. Daisy's flouting of the customs of Rome results in her dying from malaria. But this experiential moral is of a piece with the epistemological lesson that the story also presents, the kind of lesson we tend to associate only with the James of the late phase. With the "ruin" and "inscriptions" of Rome's archaeology serving as the story's site, James shows that "the common forms," as he calls them in The Aspern Papers, are essential to everyone's interior life, the shared assumptions or "pretexts," as he calls them in Daisy Miller, that are one's unconscious connection to the external world. There is some irony in the fact that even solitude and loneliness are made up of social materials (how do I measure myself, for example, except in relation to others?), but it is also this kind of irony that makes James so inconsolable and his world often so torpid.
An International Episode (1878), as early a work as Daisy Miller, is by contrast a tale of ambiguity and questioning despite its fierce realism. What happens between the lovers at tale's end? It is hard to tell; many explanations are implied, but none confirmed. Ten years before The Aspern Papers, James is already writing a kind of interactive fiction, asking the reader to get involved in construing the story itself even though the reader may feel that he or she is simply observing it. However politically incorrect, one reacts, says James, according to one's "preconceptions." Thus "reference," he says, speaking technically of his use of language in the tale, is "reference to a fund of associations," "associations" or "preconceptions" that implicate the reader in the same network of assumption (the figure of the web or mesh is among James's favorite metaphors in his criticism) as the text and its characters.
While The Altar of the Dead (1895) is likely James's most moribund tale of human loneliness and uncertainty, it is also among his frankest, since it provides an undisguised model for what narrative and subjectivity actually share. In the process, James's fiction also comes to discover the nature of its own technique, and dramatizes it with even greater clarity than usual. Its key is temporality, and it is the structure of temporality that identifies experience and narrative so exactly. When George Stransom, James's dubious hero, realizes that his female friend has been grieving for the old mutual friend who did him an unspecified wrong many years before, the shock of belated recognition changes his perspective, requiring him to drop her. "It had been all right so long as she didn't know," reflects Stransom, "and it was only now that she knew too much." The slightest difference can make an enormous one. Belated knowledge that alters one's view of the past is the crucial link between the structure of experience and the structure of narrative. Let Stansom explain:
There were subtle and complex relations, a scheme of cross reference. . . . In this way, he arrived at a conception of the total, the ideal.
Whether it is the self, a story, or an idea, if the parts shift their relation to one another, the whole shifts, although one sees it all only "afterward," as James describes it. So efficient is James that story and technique coincide with remarkable ease. The structure of Jamesian subjectivity is identical with the structure of Jamesian narration, and with the structure of the Jamesian sentence in particular. Like the relations among the elements in a character's life or among those in a porous Jamesian story, the components of a Jamesian sentence don't make entire sense or show surpassing beauty until the reader completes them. James's style and the effect of impressions upon the mind are structured the same way. This is James's reflexive realism, a realism whose representation of the self is at one with the active logic of the writing that describes it.
If an early tale like Daisy Miller is epistemological as well as moral, a late one like The Beast in the Jungle (1903) is moral as well as epistemological. Indeed, The Beast in the Jungle joins the two, showing how the later James really is the refinement of the identity between narrative and experience, between the reflexive and the realistic, the formal and the thematic. The belatedness of John Marcher's shock of recognition is its primary characteristic, and the source of both the story's sadness and Marcher's own. What is the beast, the secret that Marcher fruitlessly awaits his whole life long? That there is no secret, that all is as blank as the face of a grave? Or is there also another, plainer meaning? Like Stransom (François Truffaut combines The Beast in the Jungle and The Altar of the Dead in his film The Green Room), Marcher has also grown old with a friend and companion without having the brains or the nerve to see that there is a durable love between them. "She," says James, "was what he had missed." Marcher is "fit indeed," says James in his postscripted preface to The Altar of the Dead in the complete edition of his works, "to mate with Stransom." The story shows us that Marcher is, in his own words, "an ass." Like the luster of the Jamesian sentence, the shock of Jamesian recognition comes only after the fact, securing some shard of memory and desire, but leaving behind forever, as the price of knowing it, the possibility of ever having actually held it. Even the most painful cases offer the sole and ironic compensation of belated appreciation for the losses involved. "Belated," writes James, "the pain . . . at least . . . had something of the taste of life."