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March 20, 2012

Museum Fleuri

I attended the Louise Bourgeois day conference last weekend at the Courtauld Institute of Art organized by the Freud Museum in London to accompany its current exhibition: Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, curated by Phillip Larratt-Smith. http://www.freud.org.uk/exhibitions/74492/louise-bourgeois-the-return-of-the-repressed-/

Mignon Nixon, professor of Art History at Courtauld read a paper which explored, among other works, Bourgeois’ 1968 Bronze sculpture Janus Fleuri. Her talk entitled, “Freud Fleuri”, discussed the installation of Bourgeois’ sculpture over the Freud’s treatment couch in the Freud museum.

Janus Fleuri

Louise Bourgeois's bronze JANUS FLEURI (1968)
suspended over Freud's couch at The Freud Museum London.
Courtesy The Easton Foundation
Photo: Ollie Harrop, © Louise Bourgeois Trust


The bronze sculpture, Janus Fleuri, has been interpreted as having a midsection that symbolizes vaginal folds, and two protrusions growing off either side of it that can be read either as penis heads, clitorises or both. Indeed, the Greek god Janus, who presides over beginnings, crossroads, bridges and entrances, faces both ways. His inclusion in the appellation of this sculpture suggests a bi-gendered reading. Might it be hermaphroditic, including both genitals in one, or gender dialectical, holding the tension between the two separate genders?

One of the functions of the recent conference was to report on Bourgeois’ revelation that she underwent a full course of psychoanalysis and to discuss the contents of her memoirs from that time. It is now known that much of Bourgeois’ art was made while she was in analysis. This Janus-like glance back to her life history will allow for art historians to re-interpret new meaning in her art in light of her revelation.

Curator Philip Larratt-Smith’s decision to hang Janus Fleuri over Freud’s treatment couch was, according to Museum director Carol Seigel, relatively last minute. He had originally considered hanging it over the Egyptian mummy head that stands next to the couch in Freud’s office, but in what must have been a moment of great insight, decided to hang it over the couch. Mignon Nixon, in her paper, reads this installation’s significance from the point of view of the gaze of the analyst and analysand. The mise-en-scene of the couch in Freud’s Viennese treatment office kept the analyst and the analysand separate: their gaze directed towards different objects. Nixon suggests that Freud’s gaze probably rested on the many pieces of art that he had packed into his office. The analysand, however, had only her thoughts, afloat in free association over the couch, to gaze at. Nixon sees Janus Fleuri, hovering over the couch at the museum as standing for Bourgeois’ thoughts as they hovered over her on the couch of her own analyst, Henry Lowenfeld.

I want to suggest that this installation, Janus Fleuri over Freud’s Couch, is itself a work of art and the artist is curator Philip Larratt-Smith. It is different than the typical museum installation, in which a work of art might be installed in a frame, on a plinth, or in some other setting. In this case, the setting, especially Freud’s couch, interacts with Bourgeois’ sculpture. The components of Larratt-Smith’s art installation are historically significant materials from the history of art and psychoanalysis and they both lend significance to whole. Freud’s couch was given to him by a grateful patient, Madame Benvenisti, in 1890. Standing today in the Freud Museum in London, it carries in it the crystallized labour power of the Viennese worker who made it, the accumulated pressure of Freud’s patients who laid on it as they opened up their lives to the founder of psychoanalysis, the anxiety of flight and ransom from the Nazis, and its current status as a synecdoche for psychoanalysis. Janus Fleuri, flying over the couch, suspended by a wire, carries in it Louis Bourgeois’ artistic labour power, the meaning that it had for her as she made it and its place in art history. These two objects both unite and clash. They unite insofar as they both speak of psychoanalysis and self-discovery; they clash insofar as they may take up opposing places at the barricades of feminism. The couch is a space where female genitals are subsumed under the weight of a theory that views them as representing lack; the sculpture is a place where they have grown wings and now fly, insistently announcing their presence. Philip Larratt-Smith has given visitors to the Freud museum a significant installation—a powerful work of art—that can serve to interrogate the relationship of psychoanalysis, art and feminism.


March 13, 2012

Is there a critical theory of dramatic comedy in psychoanalytical literary criticism?

In the Spring of 1912, Sigmund Freud was correcting some proofs for one of his books when he was suddenly struck by the idea that there was a connection between the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice, the three daughters in King Lear, and the three goddesses in The Judgement of Paris. He immediately wrote to Karl Abraham and Salvador Ferenczi, pressed Otto Rank and Hanns Sachs into service researching the mythological material and, in a couple of days, had a complete account of his conclusions. The resulting essay, “Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl”, was published in Imago in 1913. It was then translated into English by C.J.M. Hubback as “The Theme of the Three Caskets”, and published in Freud’s Collected Papers in 1925 and in the Standard Edition in 1958.

In this essay, Freud holds that the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice stand for three women. A casket as a box can represent a woman in psychoanalytic symbology. Freud noticed that wherever he saw a line-up of three women in literature, the third one was the most beautiful or the best choice. King Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, turns out to be the best of the three sisters. Psyche in Apuleius’s Golden Ass is the most beautiful and Cinderella was the prince’s choice. Both of them had two sisters. Aphrodite wins the contest of the fairest against her two divine competitors in the Judgement of Paris. Freud also noticed that the third woman in the line-up is also somehow muted. Cordelia can’t find the words to flatter her father and is exiled. Cinderella is treated unjustly and has come to stand for one whose attributes are unrecognized. Psyche is persecuted by Aphrodite and is not allowed to know who her lover is. Freud’s reason for placing Aphrodite in the category of the woman who is muted is less understandable until one considers the source in which Freud read the story of the Judgement of Paris. It is in Offenbach’s libretto La Belle Hélène, which includes the lines, “La troisième, ah! la troisième…La troisième ne dit rien. Elle eut le prix tout de même.” (The third one said nothing, and yet won the prize). From the symbol of silence Freud makes another interpretive step. The beautiful, good, silent third woman ultimately represents death.

Death is the work of the third fate, the ineluctable Atropos and it is her, not Portia, that Bassanio chooses when he selects the third casket. About the lead casket he says, “thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (3.2.106). Yet Freud’s reading does not make sense with the plot of the play. Bassanio clearly states that he is choosing Portia because she is fair and rich and because winning her will help the prodigal Bassanio to become financially solvent. None of those reasons have anything to do with death. At its core, the play has a typical comedic structure to it. The hero, Bassanio, has a goal, marriage to a beautiful rich lady. He has to overcome obstacles, raising the money and handling the deadly fallout from that act, before he can achieve his goal. He does so with some help from his male admirer, Antonio, and his disguised, cross-dressed heroine, Portia. There is a final complication with the ring trick, but he successfully navigates that and walks off the stage into Portia’s bedroom and her arms. However, according to Freud, this is merely what happens on the surface of the play. Underneath that surface, Bassanio is seeking his fate with Atropos.

Freud reads characters in Shakespeare’s plays the way he reads his analysands. For him, Bassanio’s conscious dialogue is a defense against his unconscious wishes. Since he is scared of his unconscious wish for death, he uses reaction formation, thoughts and actions diametrically opposed to a repressed wish, to cover it up. Instead of acknowledging that he desires the third woman, death, Bassanio claims that he desires the fair Portia. The origin of this psychological tension lies within the author himself. Freud holds that creative writers construct stories that depict their own psychological struggles and that literary popularity results from having penned a story that depicts the psychological struggles of its audience. The play works because it depicts neurotic characters written by a neurotic author for a neurotic audience. Freud’s Shakespeare must have also had an unconscious desire for death when he wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Whether one agrees with Freud’s interpretation of Merchant or not (for the record, I do not) the Kästchenwahl essay is important in an exploration of psychoanalytic literary theory for at least two reasons. First it shows that Freud was actively working out his theory of the death instinct long before it was named in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The roots of his thinking on the issue can be found in his, then unpublished, 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, and the Kästchenwahl essay can serve as a bridge between the 1895 and the 1920 texts. Secondly, it hints at a possible psychoanalytic theory of dramatic comedy in which all comedy can be read with a depth analysis that sees unconscious motives underlying its surface plot.

I have written about Karl Marx reading the tragic underside of Shakespeare’s comedies and how this deepens one’s understanding of those plays. Could Freud’s reading be similarly useful as a critical theory that peers into the depth under the surface? I will be writing a paper about this for a psychoanalytic conference in June. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on this subject.


March 06, 2012

Shakespeare and the Hero

 photo by xion

One day in 1862 in the city of Vienna, a young mother was attempting to convince her six year old son that humans are made of dust and therefore must return to dust. To prove her point, she rubbed her palms together until black scales of epidermis—the dust—appeared. Her son was astonished and confused, but he acquiesced. A couple of years later, the boy, who was quite precocious, began reading Shakespeare’s plays. In Henry IV, part one, he came across Hal’s lines to Falstaff, who had just faked his death to survive the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death” (5.1.126). The boy misread the lines (or misremembered them in his recounting of this episode) as, “Thou owest Nature a death”. Suddenly, by his account, his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson made sense to him.

Eight years later, the boy complained, in a letter to a friend, of his first amorous crush. He had fallen in love with a girl named Gisela, but couldn’t muster the courage to speak to her due to his “unsinniges Hamlettum” (ridiculous Hamletdom). When he grew to be a man and finally found his romantic courage, he wooed his fiancé with Shakespearean quotes. He wrote to his beloved Martha that her voice “was ever so soft, gentle and low – an excellent thing in a woman. Mein Cordelia-Marthchen.” Complaining that he couldn’t see his fiancé during a Jewish holy day he wrote:

Just because years ago at this season (owing to a miscalculation) Jerusalem had been destroyed I was to be prevented from speaking to my girl on the last day of my stay. “But what’s Hecuba to me?” Jerusalem is destroyed and Marty and I are alive and happy.

This astonished boy, this infatuated adolescent, this loving man was Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s relationship with Shakespeare’s plays began early in his life and continued until his death in 1939. He read the plays in German, French and English. He occasionally saw them in theatre, although, like Goethe, he preferred to read them so that he could experience them with an inner sense instead of an external vision. He quoted from or alluded to the plays in ninety-nine different places in his writings. Sometimes he simply alluded to a character or a line in order to make a point. Sometimes, he used a Shakespearean character or situation as a sustained conceit that stood for one of his theories. This he did with Lady Macbeth as an example of one who is ruined by success, and Bassanio as an example of one whose conscious choices are a reaction formation against his unconscious wishes. Freud’s two central theoretical constructions, the death instinct and the Oedipus Complex are partially built upon Shakespearean situations. Freud uses Bassanio’s casket choice to develop his theory of the death instinct seven years before he gave that theory a name. Shakespeare’s plays, in these cases, can be seen as having a formative influence on Freud. His use of Hamlet has a place in history as being one of the most significant uses of literature by a developing theory.

Freud’s monumental book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, includes, among many theories, the first presentation of the Oedipus Complex. While Freud borrows the name for the theory from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he pairs the Classical play with Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the explanation. The Interpretation of Dreams is the result not only of Freud’s theoretical development but also of the first analysis that he ever performed—the analysis of himself. He wrote details of this analysis in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, which were not revealed to the public until after he died. In the letters, Freud can be seen using Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice to make sense of his discoveries about his childhood. (I will blog more specifically about these influences in weeks to come.)

Freud quotes or alludes to Hamlet forty-six times in his writings, making up forty-five percent of his total instances of Shakespearean quotations. Freud’s first allusions to the play were offered as support for his newly developing Oedipus theory. Freud rejected the Romantic reading that Hamlet was too sensitive for the job of revenge. He held, instead, that the prince’s hesitation arose from his guilt about the fact that Claudius did what Hamlet wanted to do—kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Conceits from Hamlet pervade Freud’s writings. He wrote in 1914:

After exercising so much self-restraint in not coming to blows with opponents outside analysis, I now see myself compelled to take up arms against its former followers or people who still like to call themselves its followers. I have no choice in the matter, however; only indolence or cowardice could lead one to keep silence, and silence would cause more harm than a frank revelation of the harms that already exist.

When the Oedipus theory found its place at the centre of the new science, psychoanalysis, Freud used Hamlet as proof of its validity. He held that if Shakespeare wrote it in Hamlet, then it must be true. He also used Hamlet to support his discovery of the unconscious in a 1922 essay as “one of the things between heaven and earth which philosophy refuses to dream of”, and he exclaimed in many essays that there was “method in the madness” of psychoanalysis. As the attacks on psychoanalysis grew, Freud turned to Shakespeare more and more. Shakespeare went from being an influence on Freud’s writings to being an assurance that they were correct. Freud saw himself as a hero, fighting the enemies of psychoanalysis, and, like all Classical heroes, Freud needed a god to help on his quest. Odysseus had Athena, Heracles had Helios, and Freud had Shakespeare.

But…the story does not end there, for Freud soon defected from William Shakespeare of Stratford, and that’s grist for another blog.

 Young Freud


February 19, 2011

Analyzing the Great Man

Biography is a central tool in my research. In order to show that William Shakespeare had an influence on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s work, I must first understand Marx and Freud’s engagement with the plays. The bulk of my work consists of close readings and intertextual analysis, but those techniques need a biographical context for clarification. How were Marx and Freud introduced to Shakespeare’s plays? Where did they read them or see them? In what language did they access them? What did they think of them? These are crucial questions whose answers form a foundation for my intertextual work. Inevitably, biographical research leads to a doorway which, if the researcher chooses to pass through, enrols him in the project of analyzing the Great Man.

Theoretical distinctions and skirmishes are constructed by the researcher’s decision at the threshold. New Criticism refused to enter into the biographical project. According to these critics, the literature spoke for itself. New Historicists, on the other hand, chided anyone who chose not to cross that threshold. Without biography, they hold, one could not grasp the situational intentions of the writer in his socio-historical context. For them, the literature held only half the story in its lines. The other half could be discovered from biography and history. Today, a synthesis of these two positions guides most literary critics. Close readings sit comfortably with contextual analysis in most contemporary criticism.

However, there is another character who speaks on this issue – the target of the biographical analysis, the writer himself. Since I am a humanistic therapist as well as a literary critic, I must respect that person’s position. In my therapy practice, I can only analyze someone if he allows me to. I can only work with what he tells me, or displays to me in some fashion – verbally, emotionally, or physically. Similarly, literary criticisms’ analytic targets, the great men of literature and philosophy differ in their openness to being analyzed. By regarding the men I research as I do my therapy clients, I discover an effective measure for knowing if I should cross the threshold into biographical analysis. If the writer has left no autobiography, no letters, no discussion of why he wrote, how he wrote or who he wrote for, then he doesn’t want to be analyzed. And I must respect that or end up in conjecture that is unanchored to any reality. If the writer does write transparently and publicly about himself, then he has invited me into his biography and I will take the opportunity to analyze him.

William Shakespeare wrote nothing about himself. He left no autobiographical writings, no letters, and very few hints about his life. The hints he did inadvertently leave are mostly about his business dealings, not about his writing life. Shakespeare did not, unlike his contemporary Ben Johnson, even leave a collection of his writings. The collection had to be painstakingly pieced together from many sources by people working after Shakespeare died. I do not, therefore, have Shakespeare as a client. He eschews my therapy chair. I can analyze his characters and the tantalizing narrator of his sonnets, but, alas, not the writer himself.

Karl Marx also did not write anything autobiographical. He rarely spoke about himself in his writings. When he did write about something in which he was involved, it was about his organizations – newspapers, journals, and worker’s groups. Through writings such as Herr Vogt and The Communist Manifesto, we can learn what he thought about the work of the organizations in which he participated, but not about himself as a writer or man. Marx did write copious amounts of letters. He wrote to his family, friends, colleagues and enemies. While Marx did not intend for us to read his letters, we are justified in taking some biographical facts from them by his historical importance. We will never know all the facts that we would like to know about Marx because some of his letters were destroyed by his daughter in an effort to keep a potentially distasteful picture of his character hidden from the public.

Marx’s letters about his attempts to write his economics provide me with a useful tool for analysis of his process. Read side-by-side with the drafts of his economics, I can see how he struggled to understand the history of the systems of production and distribution and how he worked through the writings of political economists to formulate a critique of their work. David McLellan’s highly useful biography, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, gives the reader an account of Marx’s intellectual odyssey through a synthesis of information from Marx’s writings, letters, and the letters of others who wrote to or about Marx.

In my research, I used McLellan’s biography alongside a close reading and timeline of all of Marx’s quotes from and allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. A picture emerged about which plays Marx was reading, when he read them and how he used them. For example, it is clear that Marx had The Merchant of Venice and King Lear on his mind in the early 1840s. During these years, he used them more than any other Shakespearean play, quoting from or referring to them nine times. Questions of moral justice weighed heavily on Marx’s mind in those days when he wrote against the injustices he saw in Europe. It is significant to see that The Merchant of Venice shows up prominently again in Marx’s most mature work, Capital Vol. 1. He uses quotes from the play to emphasize the suffering of humans under the yoke of capitalism. Marx, in his late writings, clearly had not abandoned his commitment to the oppressed subject as some writers claim that he had. Next, the play that faithfully accompanied Marx through his years of wrangling with the economics was Timon of Athens. Marx quoted from it first in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. He used lines from that play in all of the subsequent drafts of his economic theory and they hold a prominent spot in Marx’s chapter about money in Capital Vol. 1. Throughout his economics, we can see Marx flinging handfuls of curses lifted from world literature at the de-humanizing system – capitalism. Marx quotes from the Bible, Sophocles, Virgil, Goethe, Shakespeare and a handful of minor poets who wrote against the effects of money on their world.

My most cooperative client is Sigmund Freud. We not only have access to his collected works and his letters (although he did try to suppress the letters to Wilhelm Fliess), but Freud is, in his theoretical writings, transparent about many aspects of his self. In the Interpretation of Dreams Freud opens the door to his unconscious by publishing and analyzing his own dreams. He writes autobiographically about himself and is, on many occasions, his first analysand. I take this as an agreement between him and me to place him in my client chair.

The third chapter of my research tests the influence of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on Freud’s writings about the death instinct. I use Freud’s essay, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, along with his autobiographical revelations in The Interpretation of Dreams to demonstrate Shakespeare’s influence. It is widely believed that Freud’s theory of the death instinct had been first developed and named in his 1920 book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Writers are tempted to place this book in its post-WWI historical context and posit that a certain amount of disillusionment with humanity drove Freud to construct an explanatory death instinct. However, the discovery of Freud’s letters to Fliess and his Project for a Scientific Psychology, both written in the 1890s, has become evidence for some writers to posit that Freud constructed the theoretical foundations for the death instinct early in his career. When his 1913 essay about Bassanio’s casket choice in The Merchant of Venice, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, is brought into the discussion, it forms a bridge between the foundational death instinct theory in the 1895 Project and the 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud holds that Bassanio’s choice of the lead casket is his reaction formation against his unconscious death instinct wishes. When Freud’s writings are set into a biographical context, it becomes clear that the death instinct has its roots deep in the history of Freud’s unconscious.

Through his self-analysis, both in letters and his theoretical writings, Freud has made it possible, and, I argue, given us permission, to analyze the origins of his theories in his biography. He first came into contact with death when his brother was born. In a letter to Fliess, Freud reports that he wished for his brother’s death, and that his brother died soon after. Freud was aware that he felt guilty about this all of his life. Then, when he was two and a half years old, his mother went to the hospital to have her next child and, at the same time, his nurse, with whom he was very close, was arrested for theft. He lost both of his mothers in one fell swoop and asked his brother where they were. The older brother told him that the nursemaid was eigenkastelt, boxed in, imprisoned. Little Sigismund then ran around the house opening all of the Kästen, cupboards, looking for his mothers. I suggest -- with all the gentleness of a therapist -- that the word Kästen figures into Freud’s thoughts about Bassanio’s casket choice. This word was firmly tied to the imagery of death in Freud’s unconscious.

It was, by Freud’s own admission, Shakespeare who helped him resolve his feelings about death. In 1872, when Freud was 6 years old, his mother told him that people come from dust and return to dust when they die. He did not believe her, so she rubbed her hands together vigorously and showed him the dirt and skin that had accumulated in her palm. In his 1899 Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes this story and reveals that he finally understood what his mother meant when, at eight years old, he read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. In the play, Prince Hal tells Falstaff, after the cowardly knight feigned death on the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death”. Freud curiously misread the line as, “Thou owest nature a death”, and used it to make sense of his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson. While Freud consciously used Shakespeare’s plays to develop his theories, the plays also worked on his unconscious. As a researcher, I can make a link between the plays and Freud’s conscious and unconscious, because Freud himself has made that link transparent in his writings.


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