"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)




Woolf and Freud: The Kleinian Turn

by Perry Meisel

Woolf’s Journey from Freud to Klein

     Everyone knows the popular conception of Virginia Woolf’s relation to Freud. It is anecdotal, and it is, presumably, diagnostic. Newly settled in London in 1939, Freud presents Woolf with a narcissus when she and Leonard Woolf come to pay their respects at his home in Maresfield Gardens, now the Freud Museum in Hampstead (Bell 1972, 2: 209). This privileged glance into history, however, is not forensic. Freud presents Woolf, not with a diagnosis, but, through the agency of a flower, with a mirror. The narcissus was a reflection less of Freud’s belief that Woolf was self-absorbed than of his belief that they shared a common shop.
     What do Woolf and Freud hold in common? Woolf’s familiar denunciation of psycho-analysis in ‘Freudian Fiction’ in 1920 is an attack, not on Freud, but on Freud’s vulgar followers, for whom psycho-analysis is brittle and reductive:

Our complaint is rather that the new key is a patent key that opens every door. It simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches. The door swings open briskly enough, but the apartment to which we are admitted is a bare little room with no outlook whatever. (1920: 154)

     Freud’s own writing calls into question its assumptions. Full of reversals, which are often regulated by rhetorical questions, Freud’s prose resembles Woolf’s own, particularly her non-fiction. The dialogism common to them both is a conversation not only with the reader—each regularly provokes the reader and asks the reader to argue—but a conversation of the writing persona with itself, especially with its own conclusions as they stand and then are made to fall.
     These formal similarities are also thematic ones. Indeed, they are thematic to the extent that they are formal. Woolf and Freud’s dialogism doubles or, rather, instantiates their shared notion of psychical process. Psychical process—Woolf’s similarities to Freud as a novelist now also come into focus—is not only a narrative; it is also narratological. Its penchant for self-revision breaks down its own coherence in the act of seeking it. The psyche is always in such a perilous conversation. It is social, and it is public-spirited. The world is an interplay, not simply of reader and text, but of psyche and the pressures exerted upon it by the demands of the external world. These demands take the form of reality, or, rather, reality takes the form of these demands, chief among them the constraints upon what one is allowed to say and to think. Here one is faced with the audacity of both writers in a surprising way. For Woolf and Freud alike, reality is identical with the permission to speak, which is a function of rationality rather than of fantasy or imagination. The writer exercises imagination by virtue of bringing his fantasies into line with reality. The irony is hilarious. The conclusion is inescapable. Reality and superego are one and the same.
     This is because the exigencies of life, as Freud likes to call them, are identical with knowing when to hold one’s tongue. Woolf’s feminism allows her to see this very easily. Because survival is bound to the laws of language and its sovereign ceremonies, psychical process, always in the service of survival, is an endless negotiation between law and desire. That the negotiation must take place within language is what dooms it even before the negotiation begins. For Woolf, the laws of survival include a room of one’s own in the strict material sense—a place to hang one’s hat if, indeed, one wears a hat. Material survival, in other words, is bound up not only with the laws of signification, but with the laws of patriarchy.
     The psyche is not a private affair; it is an elaborate dance, not only with language, but with the symbolizations with which linguistic functioning is identical. Signifier and signified are reciprocal, mutually constitutive from the very beginnings of life, when the infant, striving for survival at the mother’s breast, is disappointed to find that the simple materiality of the food that the breast provides is bound up with the need to calculate the breast’s itinerary moment to moment, day by passing day. The breast’s availability and the mother’s schedule, particularly her absences, require the infant to imagine the breast as a symbol, available or not—part of a signifying chain—at the same time that it need not be imagined at all, when it is the pure presence and glory of nourishment and satiety. The breast, like all the elements of future experience, is both real and symbolic, symbolic because it is real, and real because it is symbolic. It occupies a place that is simultaneously both inside the psyche and outside it, in the external world.
     Freud’s assumption that the psyche is social—its lack of emphasis in Freud has drawn a tradition of complaint—is understood by different psycho-analytic traditions in different ways. In France, it is made possible by Saussure’s influence on Lacan. In the United States, it is won, less persuasively, by readings of Freud as different as those of Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, and by the ego psychology that flows from Anna Freud’s influence on the interpretation of her father’s work. In Britain, it is accomplished by Anna Freud’s chief rival, Melanie Klein, for whom the fundamental significance of the breast is well-known. Klein’s influence enables the pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, one of James Strachey’s first psycho-analytic patients, and the school of object relations theory to which it gives rise, particularly the work of W.R.D. Fairbairn and Wilfred Bion.
     On 14 May 1925, the Hogarth Press published both Mrs. Dalloway and the third volume of Freud’s Collected Papers, James and Alix Strachey’s translation of Freud’s case histories (Meisel and Kendrick 1985: 265n). In 1926, Melanie Klein arrived in London under the Stracheys’ sponsorship. A dramatic change in Woolf’s writing followed with the publication of To the Lighthouse by the Hogarth Press in 1927. Like the change in Woolf’s writing from Jacob’s Room (1922) to Mrs. Dalloway that derived from Woolf’s friendship with Katherine Mansfield, this change was the direct result of Woolf’s exposure to Klein’s ideas. Alix Strachey had begun to translate Klein’s papers into English, some given at the British Psycho-Analytic Society, and they, too, were published by the Hogarth Press, beginning in 1932 with The Psycho-Analysis of Children.
     Beyond the reasonable assumption that Woolf, as she regularly did, read all work published by the Hogarth Press, often in excruciating editorial detail (for the symptomatic exceptions, see Abel 1989: 14-5), no record exists of either the inevitable fact of Woolf and Klein’s conversations, or of their precise terms of endearment, only an entry in Woolf’s diary describing a dinner in 1939 (1984: 209). But the textual evidence alone makes Klein’s influence on Woolf a foregone conclusion. If Mansfield requires Woolf to pay more attention to concrete detail so as to gain a firmer verisimilitude in the rendering of psychical process—the difference between Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway is its chief evidence—then Klein’s influence, propped inevitably upon Mansfield’s own, leads Woolf to an even more exact focus on objects, and on objects of a very specific kind. They are not simply the objects of public or consumer life (the chimes of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway, or the sadness of Mansfield’s Rosabel, who lacks the sexual satisfaction associated with the possession of commodities). They are objects of a more bodily kind, which peregrinate the unstable threshold between what is inside the mind and what lies outside it.

Part-Objects in To the Lighthouse

     One has only to inspect the beginning of To the Lighthouse to see how Woolf takes the breast as her focus. What kind of symbolization can more readily serve Woolfian psychological realism at its most achieved? And what kind of symbolization can better serve to connect the mind of Woolf’s readers with the minds of her characters? Here what is not a mimetic but a dialogical kind of fiction takes its heightened turn, a Kleinian turn that allows reader and character to meet in a zone of symbolization common to them both and by means of whose vocabulary they can share.
     It is not, of course, Mrs. Ramsay’s breast that is Woolf’s focus. For all her fecundity, Mrs. Ramsay is not a particularly giving mother; she has the tendency to withdraw from those she loves, including her children (Dever 1998: 206-08). No, it is Mr. Ramsay’s ‘breast’ (Woolf 1927: 10), oddly enough, that draws the young James Ramsay’s attention. The choice of object is filled with irony. Although the breast is a property of the mother rather than of the father; James’s anger towards his father for always disappointing him is directed at this characteristically feminine ‘part-object’ (Klein, 1935). Though a natural enough anatomical place to be a target for his son’s anger, Mr. Ramsay’s ‘breast’ also has this ‘alien association’, to use Pater’s phrase (1889: 18), an attribute of the mother’s body displaced onto the father’s. It serves, strangely enough, as the object of James’s Oedipal rage rather than as a symbol for his dependence upon his mother and fear that she will depart. In Kleinian thought, the infant does indeed grow enraged at the breast as well as enamored of it, but this is because of its disappointment at the mother’s propensity for being absent as well as present. When the mother’s breast is absent, it is, concludes the infant, because the father has spirited her away. Thus the absent or ‘bad’ breast, as Klein calls it, citing Sándor Radó (Radó 1929: 420; Klein 1929: 204n1), is, in an unexpected but also real way, very much the father’s breast. No wonder it is the focus of James’s scorn. It allows him to conceptualise the bad breast at the level of cause.
     To make matters worse, by imagining a ‘poker’ in his father’s ‘breast’, James imagines his father’s penis, as Klein says the infant does (1928), inside the mother’s body. The phallic mother, as Lacan will call her, predominates. Mr. Ramsay, for all his kingly powers, is kingly only to the extent that he controls, or seems to control, the mother’s comings and goings. He does so by virtue of his complaints. He governs the mother’s first and most originary power of providing and sustaining life only because he wants it for his own. The Oedipus complex, in other words, is gynocentric—its power to make the mother present and absent rests with a father every bit as dependent on the mother as his son. The child believes the father to be powerful in his own right, even though he is powerful only as a relative agent in the mother’s travels. Either way, the father’s subjugation to the mother is clear. He is an infant, too. Mr. Ramsay, forever seeking pathos and the tragic status that presumably accompanies it, is only pathetic. The philological shift of the term ‘pathos’ from its Aristotelian to its vernacular meaning marks the shift from a world, like that of Jacob Flanders, in which educated men live, often in a double sense, according to Greek rules, to the colloquial world in which women, even educated women, also live. These two worlds are, from a psycho-analytic point of view, the world of fantasy and the world of reality.
     Woolf’s Oedipus complex, like Klein’s, is a feminist performance. Because James is, at the age of six, at the height of the classical Oedipal phase, he is also in the midst of a revival of the infant’s experience of the ‘depressive position’ (Klein, 1935)—the position of having to integrate the mother’s baleful comings and goings at the father’s presumable command into a single state of mind. No wonder Mrs. Ramsay dies in ‘Time Passes’. It is in order to make this kind of depression or melancholia the very condition of life itself in the novel’s concluding section. Mrs. Ramsay’s shadow, in the words Freud uses to describe melancholia, falls across everything, even ten years later, signifying a loss that no one can accept as real (Freud, 1917). Because Mrs. Ramsay remains idealised, her death leads, except perhaps for Lily, not to proper mourning, but to depression in both the Freudian and the Kleinian senses, and shows their common nature.
     This difficulty in distinguishing between external or real states such as death and internal or psychical states such as the status of feeling in relation to them is the boundary that the novel negotiates, and represents by doing so. In the novel’s third part, this mediation is still as difficult to accomplish as it is for James in the Oedipal position he occupies as a child at the novel’s beginning. Mrs. Ramsay remains a part-object even—indeed, especially—in death, and the novel’s characters grow more rather than less infantile as they grow older. Nor is Mrs. Ramsay alone a part-object. So, too, is Mr. Ramsay, though not in propria persona. Mr. Ramsay is, as a father, the ‘bad’ breast. That is what a father is. He is that element in the family romance required to account for the mother’s lack of attentiveness to the child, and remains so, unconsciously, in perpetuity. Mr. Ramsay embraces the role of the mother’s lover with renewed psychical gusto when he can no longer embrace his wife in point of fact.
     The novel’s Oedipal allegory is of a piece with its other allegories, which render additional foundational categories partial rather than absolute (Meisel, 1987). The novel’s epistemological allegory—Mr. Ramsay is a professional philosopher—deconstructs his positivism. Its aesthetic allegory deconstructs Lily’s expressive mimesis. As in the Oedipus complex, in which there is, properly speaking, no real father, only a symbolic one, there is neither ground in philosophy nor a stable original that art may be said to copy. Instead, there is only the transitional site common to them all as dubious shelters in a world at bay.
     One can only conclude that To the Lighthouse as a text is also a part-object. More keenly than most novels because of its focus on maternal loss, it is a heightened and calculated dialogue between what it withholds and what the reader desires, which is a state of completion that is foreclosed. As literary texts, Klein’s essays, too, are, in this sense, part-objects. Their limited focus on clinical detail leaves Klein’s reader perpetually unsatisfied. No whole theory emerges in Klein’s essays, which more often than not skip to case history as soon as they can. Like the recalcitrant milk of a reluctant mother—Klein’s intellectual modesty suffuses her writing and her biography—Klein withholds from her reader what her reader must go on to invent whole. Klein’s reader is always in search of what will provide a fully systematic Klein. Only those readers who have surmounted the frustrations of the ‘depressive position’ in which Klein places them can provide one. Juliet Mitchell remains the best example (1986). As a revision of Freud’s writing, Klein’s own is an ascesis, a curtailment of Freud’s expansive self-revision into a series of moments (see also Kristeva 2000: 197-99). Klein’s longest and most sustained piece of writing, the posthumous Narrative of a Child Analysis (1961), revisits Freud’s enabling case histories at their formal root, particularly the case of Little Hans (1909), and both recapitulates and revises them by being longer as narration and more withholding as theory. Unlike Freud, Klein provokes the reader, not to argue to gain a sense of wholeness and satisfaction, but to adjust to their lack.

Bloomsbury and the History of British Psycho-analysis

     Unlike Woolf’s characters, Woolf’s readers may return to real history whenever they wish. Bloomsbury’s horizons included, beginning in 1912, when James Strachey attended a meeting of the British Society for Psychical Research featuring a presentation on Freud, the wisdom of psycho-analysis. Navigated by the younger Strachey, British psycho-analysis eventually came to mediate between the two principal trends in Freudian thought that survived the death of Freud in London in 1939. Strachey was left to manage the rival legacies of Klein, which included those of Karl Abraham and Sándor Ferenczi, and of Anna Freud, and to steer ego psychology in an American direction, even though Anna Freud remained in England. Once object relations theory came to regard the world as Woolf does in To the Lighthouse, as a transitional site between psychical process and external things and events, the shape of British analysis, including why it was open to the influence of Lacan and Althusser later on, was complete. To put it this way, of course, is also to suggest an unlikely similarity between British psycho-analysis and British Marxism as it, too, slowly changed. Raymond Williams’s refreshed understanding of superstructure or ideology comes to represent what the tradition of Bloomsbury psycho-analysis had known all along (Williams, 1973)—the social structure of what John Maynard Keynes called the ‘states of mind’ (1949: 83) that Williams was to criticise as the unenviably privatised focus of Bloomsbury life and Bloomsbury ideas (1978). As in Althusser (1964), the world as a whole, in Bloomsbury, and in British psycho-analysis, becomes a site of ‘transition’—Winnicott’s term is appropriate here (1953)—between thinking and doing, inside and outside, wish and possibility.
     This history of ideas also has a more exact literary history than the indifferent prose of both British psycho-analysis and British Marxism might lead one to believe. Here, the tradition of British literary physicians from Browne to Locke and Hartley has a vivid return. This is the fiery history of reaction to Winnicott’s work by Winnicott’s most extraordinary disciple, R.D. Laing (Winnicott, 1960; Laing, 1960), and the anxious reaction to Laing a decade later by Oliver Sacks, beginning with Migraine in 1970.
     Laing’s imagination of madness as a ‘world’ whole and on its own is a way of negating Winnicott’s belief in a world made only of transitional objects, coaxed into coherence by the ego. For Laing, this world of truce is to be damned as insufficiently frank about its own shoddy moorings. Psychosis, particularly schizophrenia, is as reasonable an alternative to its equivocations as the collective neurosis to which it gives rise in the ideology of a middle-class society founded on part-objects. As a writer, Sacks, reacting to Laing, negates Laing’s negation of Winnicott by returning to the rationalist’s sphere with overcompensatory enthusiasm. Sacks revises the champion of madness by transforming the psychological into the neurological, the psychical into the physical, and Laing’s sympathy for the insane into a robust renewal of reason and a belief in health. Freud’s own prehistory as a neurologist gives Sacks’s achievement a precursor authority, although it is one to which Sacks also returns as a way of aborting Freud’s own subsequent transformation into a psychologist who took both physical and psychical factors into account in assessing culture and the minds it produces. The capaciousness of subsequent British neuropsychoanalysis (Solms andTurnbull, 2002) brings this literary history full circle by regarding the psychology of the mind and the histology of the brain dialectically, as Freud himself did.
     The topic of Woolf’s own presumable madness brings our discussion full circle, too. Woolf’s sexual abuse as a teenager by her Duckworth half-brothers does not wholly explain her alleged fear of her body, which experienced stress not only for reasons of psychological trauma, but also because of somatic factors such as headache, exhaustion, and the kind of derealization most familiar clinically, not as psychological, but as partial epilepsy. Woolf suffered not from what is today called somatization—the mind’s use of the body for the production of psychological states such as depression and what used to be called conversion hysteria—but from a more strictly somatic disorder. Unlike the Ramsays’, Woolf’s transitional zone lay, not between memory and desire, but between the reality of her body and the reality of the page.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth. 1989. Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. University of Chicago Press.

Althusser, Louis. 1964. ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’. In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, 127-86.

Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. 1972. Rpt. 2 vols. in one. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Dever, Carolyn. 1998. Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud. Cambridge University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1917. ‘Mourning and melancholia’. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-74. XIV: 243-58.

Keynes, John Maynard. 1949. ‘My early beliefs’. In Two Memoirs. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

Klein, Melanie. 1928. ‘Early stages of the Oedipus conflict and super-ego formation’. In The Psycho-Analysis of Children (1932). Trans. Alix Strachey. Rpt. New York: Delacorte Press, 1975. 123-48.

----- . 1929. ‘Personification in the play of children’. In Love, Guilt and Reparation & Other Works 1921-1945. Rpt. New York: Delacorte Press, 1975. 199-209.

----- . 1935. ‘A contribution to the psycho-genesis of manic-depressive states’. In Love, Guilt and Reparation & Other Works 1921-1945. Rpt. New York: Delacorte Press, 1975. 262-89.

Kristeva, Julia. 2000. Melanie Klein. Trans. Ross Guberman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Laing, R.D. 1960. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. London: Tavistock Publications.

Meisel, Perry, and Kendrick, Walter. Eds. 1985. Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924-25. New York: Basic Books.

Meisel, Perry. 1987. The Myth of the Modern: A Study in British Literature and Criticism after 1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mitchell, Juliet. 1986. ‘Introduction’. The Selected Melanie Klein. Ed. Juliet Mitchell. Rpt. New York: The Free Press, 1987. 9-32.

Pater, Walter. 1889. ‘Style’. In Appreciations. New Library Edition. 10 vols. London: Macmillan, 1910. 5-38.

Radó, Sándor. 1928. ‘The problem of melancholia’. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9: 420-38.

Sacks, Oliver. 1970. Migraine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Solms, Mark, and Turnbull, Oliver. 2002. The Brain and the Inner World. New York: Other Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1973. ‘Base and superstructure in Marxist critical theory’. In Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. London: Verso, 1980. 31-49.

----- . 1978. ‘The Bloomsbury fraction’. In Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. London: Verso, 1980. 148-69.

Winnicott, D.W. 1953. ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena’. In Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications, 1971. 1-30.

----- . 1960. ‘Ego distortions in terms of true and false self’. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. Ed. John D. Sutherland. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1965. 140-52.

Woolf, Virginia. 1920. ‘Freudian fiction’. In Contemporary Writers (1965). London: The Hogarth Press. 152-54.

----- . 1927. To the Lighthouse. Rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, n.d.

----- . 1984. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, V: 1936-44. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. London: The Hogarth Press.

 Originally published in Virginia Woolf in Context. Edited by Jane Goldman and Bryony Randall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.