Thoreau demands that the good person, the ethical subject, refuse complicity with evil. In so doing, he reveals the nature of the bind in which we find ourselves: none of us able, it seems, to meet his demand. That’s why we’re here, trapped in this labyrinth of stuck desire. Rather than there, where lovers go as lovers do, and none are bound.
When the trance-script writes itself, it writes the following:
“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”
The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.
As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”
And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.
One version of the narrative begins with the Narrator rereading old trance-scripts, feeling unhappy with his former self’s negative self-image. He arrives to a realization of how much of an obstacle he was to his flourishing. The Narrator wonders: should I “burn the diaries,” as Canadian poet Moyra Davey recommends? Should I edit, revise, re-sequence events? Is that how one creates an Alter-Destiny?
All of us are feeling it, the sudden shift in mood and content from one day to the next. Here we are trying to react to this new present. I for one haven’t any words yet for this funk that leaves me driving around weeping to Martha Wainwright midday. I’m supposed to suffer through this, is what I gather from the day’s intel. I’m reliving an incident from my past. Time travel prompts a return of the repressed. I’m here to revisit an old knot of sorrow: a scene of fantasy that ended poorly when pursued in the past. The hope is that in my behaving differently this time, we can heal.
Friends, let us hold space and remember Cruel Optimism author Lauren Berlant upon word of their passing. “A relation of cruel optimism exists,” Berlant wrote, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). We are all in such relationships, are we not? “Speaking of grieving,” they wrote, it was in grieving French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that Berlant “first saw optimism as the thing that keeps the event open, for better or ill” (viii). How does one come to recognize that one’s optimisms have become “cruel”? What is it that moves us out of ourselves? “A satisfying something,” they whisper. “An intelligence beyond rational calculation” (2). And we are here, we are caught in this “scene of fantasy,” we are in the throes of it. ‘Tis our present, our contemporary moment. And this moment is what Berlant calls an “impasse”: “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward” (4). That is the genre of these trance-scripts, is it not? “The impasse is a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things” (4).
Rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the parent in me wants instantly to refute it. I want for my daughter something other than the Oedipus complex. I imagine a succession of heroines and goddesses. Why among all the characters of mythology does Freud opt for Oedipus and Electra? The latter, of course, has been reinvented in our time as a Marvel superhero. No longer daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, she wields a pair of sai. Electras loom large in the minds of at least two hideous men: Freud and Frank Miller. What if instead we imagine Oedipa Mass, the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49? While imagining Oedipa, imagine too the women in “Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“Embroided Earth’s Mantle”),” the Remedios Varo painting (middle part of a triptych, in fact) viewed by Oedipa at a key point in the novel.
The figures in each case are all still figures trapped in another’s tapestry. “Such a captive maiden,” writes Pynchon, “having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” This, too, is the dilemma faced by Melba Zuzzo, the heroine of Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. Next thing I know, I’m sending myself “Playing the Post Card: On Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49“ while scanning my shelves for H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. Having seen the Varo painting in an exhibit a year prior to writing the novel, Pynchon recalls it from memory. Oedipa sees in the painting what Pynchon wants her to see. If she’d looked closely, she’d have seen “La Huida (The Escape),” the third part of the triptych, where the girl and her lover flee to the mountains.
And at the center of the triptych, reading from a spell book and stirring a cauldron, a sorceress. Such figures of power and liberation are occulted by Pynchon’s imagining of a feminized Oedipus — a character “hailed,” “interpellated” as Althusser would say, in the novel’s opening sentence when named executor of the estate of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity. Principle among the items of Pierce’s estate is a stamp collection. LSD is a plot point in Pynchon’s novel. Perhaps we could read Pierce’s stamp collection as the equivalent of “blotter art.” It’s described as containing “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” and is delivered to Oedipa by “somebody named Metzger.” Readers might be forgiven for confusing “Metzger” with “Metzner,” as in the logic of a dream. As in “Ralph Metzner,” editor of Psychedelic Review and co-author, along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, of The Psychedelic Experience.
Awaiting a therapy session with a gestalt psychologist, I reflect upon psychoanalysis. Coleridge imports the Unconscious into English after study of German philosophy. Freud sets this concept at the center of his project, his newly-founded science, psychoanalysis. The latter attempts a secular-scientific grasping of the Unconscious. Freud had a practice. He was a therapist. He was paid by clients. He treated patients. Psychoanalysis is a technology of the self. The therapist is one who applies a treatment, a cure for individuals suffering new illnesses of modernity: neuroses and psychoses. Before psychoanalysis, treatment of mental illness was a duty performed by clergy, or by “madhouses,” institutions invented by the State. Freud’s “talking cure” is an attempt to heal individuals who, in other times, would have been handed one-way tickets to board Ships of Fools or subjected to some other means of solitude and confinement. Psychoanalysis happened: it was put to use as a state apparatus, it was absorbed into institutions, it became part of the technocratic machinery of Western modernity. The mid-twentieth century was the age of psychoanalysis. The latter shaped the way the century thought itself. Freud fed into the development of public relations and advertising, especially through the influence of his nephew, Edward Bernays. According to French Marxist Louis Althusser, however, these uses were all betrayals of Freud’s revolutionary discovery. “The fall into ideology,” he writes, “began…with the fall of psycho-analysis into biologism, psychologism, and sociologism” (“Freud and Lacan,” p. 191).
Dereliction of dung heap. Data-driven dumbwaiter at your service. Chronically correct I effect my own cause. Alpha Dog to Omega Man: can you read me? Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…Comes Around” saddens me, so I head outdoors. I gather sticks. I stand among the trees, finding in the sky above me the crescent moon. The night’s songs are sad ones: Dolly Pardon’s “Jolene” and Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity.” And just this morning arrived the words of artist-friend Irving Bleak, speaking of owls as characters in world mythology. Characters in the lives of children. Guardians, protectors. I think of the Tesseract from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Owls appear as a ‘theme’ or ‘motif’ throughout the evening. For work, meanwhile, I’ve had to reconsider Freud. Prep for an upcoming lecture. “Aggressiveness was not created by property,” he asserts in Civilization and Its Discontents. “It reigned almost without limit in primitive times, when property was still very scanty, and it already shows itself in the nursery almost before property has given up its primal, anal form. […]. If we were to remove this factor…by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there” (61). Aggression is for Freud an “indestructible feature of human nature.” Do those of us with children know otherwise? Freud is a cultural chauvinist, a bourgeois moralist, a critic of communism and an apologist for capitalist imperialism. I think now of his critics: Left Freudians like Herbert Marcuse, but also the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro. Most of all, though, I think of anticolonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. How might we put Freud to radical use today amid Black Radical critiques of Western subjectivity and the rise of psychedelic science? I’m reminded of the opening remarks in Slavoj Žižek’s book The Ticklish Subject. “A spectre is haunting Western academia,” he writes, “the spectre of the Cartesian subject. Deconstructionists and Habermasians, cognitive scientists and Heideggerians, feminists and New Age obscurantists — all are united in their hostility to it.” Žižek himself, however, defends the subject — from these and other of its critics. Ever the provocateur. I’m teaching a gen-ed lit course. My task is to introduce Freud to students new to him. Let us establish the subject before we critique it. During breaks from Freud I watch the new Adam Curtis series Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021) and read bits of Principia Discordia. In whatever book is finally written on acid’s arrival into history, there will be a chapter on Discordianism and Kerry Thornley, “Operation Mindfuck” figuring prominently therein. Colonization of the last free outpost, the human mind.
When thinking about Freud, we should think also of one of his most important successors, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was born in Martinique in 1925 and studied medicine in France, specializing in psychiatry. In books like Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he rewrites Freud, positing in place of the latter’s Western imperial Ego a black psyche: a diasporic, anti-colonialist Orphée Noir or “Black Orpheus,” as Sartre would say, seeking to liberate itself from a white world. Fanon is angered because the French Empire imposed upon him through colonial schooling the Master’s language, “the mother tongue,” the language of the core. The anticolonial subject takes possession of the language and talks back — though not, as he says, with fervor. Fanon tells us he doesn’t trust fervor. “Every time it has burst out somewhere,” he writes, “it has brought fire, famine, misery…And contempt for man. Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (Black Skin, White Masks, p. 9). What Fanon performs instead is a kind of radical psychiatry upon Western consciousness. His books are psychotherapeutic treatments for those whose heads have been shrunk.