Wednesday March 10, 2021

I wish I knew more about “Irma,” thinks the patient. Freud should be read alongside those he treated (like the poet H.D.!), just as André Breton’s Nadja ought to be read alongside the life of the woman on which the Nadja character is based. Nadja, the French Surrealist novel par excellence, is based on Breton’s encounter with a mysterious woman: Leona Camille Ghislane Delacourt, a mad patient of the French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. The Surrealists performed events. They embarked on walks and strolls among the cities of France. Art was for Breton and the other Surrealists a way of life. Guided by the Unconscious, they produced an immensity of objects: films, novels, sculptures, poems. They sought revolutionary change of a sort, attempting a brief alignment with Trotskyism in the 1930s. I wonder if I could include Nadja in my course “Rabbit Holes, Time Machines, and Doors in the Wall.” Might it work? The book begins with a question: “Who am I?” The “I” on the page introduces itself through a proverb, claiming to be a ghost of sorts. The “I” that speaks is a Catholic one, a distinctly French subjectivity organized by Catholicism and Descartes, haunted by images of ghosts and eternal torments. As readers, we’re made to wonder. Breton presents language as a site of self-inquiry: Ego in Search of Premise. After a break, the narrator launches into “university discourse”: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term for one of four possible formulations of the symbolic network: “Master, University, Hysteric, and Analyst.” The subject of “university discourse,” claims Lacan, is a castrated subject, barred from knowing the world except as it appears in language. Spacey mood, tonight, folks. Chasing after some occulted master signifier. Lacan remains a language. To converse with him, one must learn his terms. Same with Marx, same with Freud. And one never arrives: revelations promised go unrevealed. With Breton and the Surrealists, however, it’s all “sudden parallels, petrified coincidences…harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest” (19). Breton announces early in Nadja his conviction that “psychoanalysis is not qualified to deal with such phenomena” (24).

Sunday February 21, 2021

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.

Thursday February 18, 2021

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).

Tuesday February 16, 2021

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.

Friday February 5, 2021

Joanna Ruocco’s Dan is a book I read with students. Dan is a place and a state of mind, through which moves a perplexed, brilliant young woman, the book’s protagonist Melba Zuzzo. Melba travels via bicycle, accosted by men and townspeople, en route to and at her place of work, the town’s bakery. Her morning customers include Officer Greg, who suspects Melba of a crime, and Don Pond, a man who brings her back to his apartment on behalf of a conspiracy involving all of the town’s men. The apparent head of this conspiracy is the book’s villain, Dr. Buck. Melba suffered Buck’s hands. He touched her inappropriately and claimed to be her father when she visited his office about chronic congestion of her sinuses as a child. She remembers the event over the course of her day. Buck haunts her, in a sense. He gaslights Melba, using his status as expert and authority to call into question her ability to know. She lays quietly on a sheet of paper in his office by book’s end. Some of my students unfortunately begin the book siding unknowingly with Buck. The course is designed, though, to demonstrate harms done to women by male doctors. Patriarchal patterns of abuse appear, for instance, once Dan is read in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

Saturday January 30, 2021

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.

Tuesday December 1, 2020

Ishmael Reed chips away at Freud, portrays Herr Doktor as an “Atonist” in his brilliant 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. PaPa LaBas lectures about Freud in the book’s “Epilogue” — tells of his attempt to communicate with Freud, thwarted by the latter’s “entourage”: Freud’s “ego defenses,” his sycophants and followers. “Freud,” Reed writes, “whose real talent lies in the coinage of new terms for processes as old as the Ark,” reacted with revulsion upon encountering America’s racial diversity. He pitted his “Austrian” conception of civilization against “occultism,” or what in conversation with Carl Jung he called “The Black Tide of Mud” (208-209). The “Id” is Freud’s “boogeyman” — a denunciation of all that is Other: racially other, culturally other, religiously other. What does it matter now? Freud has receded in the culture’s memory, replaced by neuroscience. Or so it seems. Time, perhaps to listen to Stanislav Grof’s Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research, a seminar Grof recorded at Naropa in 2004. Change the channel, flip the script. Or as Gene Youngblood would say, “Secede from the broadcast.”

Monday October 19, 2020

I listened to an hour-long podcast on Welsh author Arthur Machen this afternoon, and not once was there mention of Machen’s membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. “An odd and unfortunate omission,” I think — though I concede that the podcast was otherwise quite informative. Why should it matter? Omissions of this sort are perhaps how the occult stays occult. I wonder, too, about Ishmael Reed, who includes Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Thoth in the multi-page “Partial Bibliography” at the end of his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Crowley’s book is a study of the Tarot. Reed mentions neither Crowley nor the Tarot elsewhere in Mumbo Jumbo. Yet The Book of Thoth — the mythic one, the one alleged to have been written by Thoth himself — is the “Text” sought by the warring secret societies in Reed’s novel. This is but one of many aspects of Mumbo Jumbo deserving further study. I wonder, too, for instance, about the novel’s critique of Sigmund Freud and the references to Freud’s protégé and rival, Carl Jung. Freud is said to have fainted on two occasions — and Jung was present both times. On the first occasion, Jung “spoke about being fascinated by some recent discoveries of ‘peat-bog corpses.'” Jung’s interest in the subject of mummies and corpses “got on Freud’s nerves,” causing the latter to faint in the midst of dinner. On the second occasion, Freud fainted during a discussion of a Karl Abraham paper, an Oedipal reading of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. (See Nausicaa Renner’s essay, “Freud Fainting.”) Reed focuses, though, not on the fainting but on Freud and Jung’s reactions to America. For Freud, the place was “a big mistake” — part of some monstrous “Black Tide of Mud.” Reed suggests that Freud was an Atonist. Jung, meanwhile, was more ambivalent about America. Like Freud, however, he viewed America as a place where Europeans would have to undergo a transformation to survive — a process Jung called “going Black” (Reed 209). Reed takes the additional step of celebrating this process, granting it agency and giving it the name “Jes Grew.”

Monday November 4, 2019

Freud imagined an inner class war of sorts between two competing principles, Reality and Pleasure. The bourgeois subject arises in the midst of this war and constitutes for itself a set of properties, the ownership and worth of which it then endlessly renegotiates through politically adjustable, rule-based, contract-bound transactions with fellow subjects. As such, this subject emerges compromised in its commitments from the start. Unlike Freud, however, the humanistic psychologists who succeeded him in the 1960s operated in a postwar context; for them, a settlement had been reached. The future was to be divided into time for Reality and time for Pleasure, each given their due, with reconciliation achieved through individual and collective quests to self-actualize. For someone like me, of course, living after the 1960s, during an era of global neoliberal domination, neither of these conceptions fits. I am neither the Freudian subject nor the humanistic subject. As a debtor, I live in a present of ongoing precarity, opportunities both for pleasure and self-actualization severely limited. Others share my predicament, the “scandal” of Debt. Yet what are we to do? Aside, that is, from sitting around listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing the Jerome Kern Songbook. I’d put word to the experience if I could. Horns with a bit of sass. Shimmering bells.

Monday October 14, 2019

Cars drive by as I sit at a picnic table in a neighborhood park. A house across the street from the park contains among its Halloween decorations a sign stating, “Eat More Veggies.” The letters appear painted in red beside a red hand, and beside the sign stand ghosts and tombstones. Appropriate seasonal attire, I think to myself, my mind drifting off to contemplate the coming holiday. There’s work to be done; the basement of our house remains an issue. I’m reminded of the old “base-superstructure” construct, hearing in it now, after all those years reading about it in grad school, a set of moral abstractions, a marriage of contraries equal in power to Freud’s reality and pleasure principles or Blake’s heaven and hell. As societies of both matter and mind, we can arrange ourselves in a variety of ways; we needn’t always be arboreal and hierarchical. Yet we do need to deal with capitalism and climate change, and their local, existential correlates.