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Reviewed by:
Michael G. Levine. Writing Through Repression: Literature, Censorship, Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 220 pp.

The absence of conjunctions in the subtitle of Levine’s book announces what is at stake in his reading of psychoanalytic, literary, and critical texts: a rethinking of the relationship between theory and literature, a relationship in which psychoanalytic theory is characteristically used as a key to unlocking the hidden meaning of literature. Through readings of works by Heine, Freud, Benjamin, Baudelaire, Ovid, and Kafka, Levine proposes an alternative understanding of the relation between literature and psychoanalysis. When brought into dialogue with one another, psychoanalytic and literary texts, according to Levine, mutually displace the terms and structure of their relationship. Shoshana Felman’s writing about this issue serves as a point of departure for Levine’s thinking about the concept of displacement, as does the work of Samuel Weber.

Levine’s first step in reconceptualizing the relation between psychoanalysis and literature is to examine Freud’s discussions of censorship. Focusing on The Interpretation of Dreams, Levine demonstrates how the concept of censorship, in many ways the cornerstone of Freud’s theory of dreams “is a complex of incompatible pressures and opposing tendencies” (26). As such, censorship, under Levine’s analytic [End Page 250] scrutiny, comes to resemble the psychical process of dream displacement. The force of this analogy resides in the fact that displacement is not simply an inhibiting and distorting phenomenon but also a means employed by the elements of the dream thoughts to evade censorship and hence to find expression. Likewise censorship, according to Levine, cannot be conceived of strictly as an instrument of repression; it is also an enabling “double agency with affiliations both to the repressing and to the repressed.”

Levine’s skillful discovery of the ambivalence at the heart of Freud’s notion of censorship leads him to produce readings of texts by authors attempting to write under various conditions of censorship, both external and internal. In his chapter on Heinrich Heine, Levine focuses on an aspect of the author’s struggles with censorship that has been all but neglected: self-censorship. Levine traces in Heine’s From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelwopski a double-edged dynamic of self-censorship in which the theme of excommunication and the stuttering structure of Heine’s text lead to questions concerning the author’s relation to Jewish tradition. In his chapter on Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” Levine focuses on Benjamin’s reading of the position of shock in Baudelaire’s work. He demonstrates how shock is a figure inhabiting the writing process, one that establishes an “original relation to the other” (the language is Derrida’s).

A consistent theme running through Levine’s study is the status of borders—discursive, disciplinary, inter- and intrasubjective. The chapter on Freud’s Totem and Taboo teases out the principle of “infectious” communicability underlying Freud’s thinking about cultural transmissibility. In a fascinating analysis Levine reveals how infection is as much a linguistic and temporal as a tactile phenomenon. In this context Levine is able to establish that narcissism is a Freudian concept “out of sync with itself” because it involves modes of repetition and transference that are tied to the temporal dimension of touching. The final chapter on Kafka and Ovid extends the discussion of borders and their transgression. In a nuanced, original reading of The Metamorphosis Levine tracks the gestures of dislocation, distortion, and disorientation in Kafka’s text, gestures that have the effect both of opening onto new spaces of (non)meaning and destabilizing traditional hermeneutic supports. [End Page 251]

In my opinion, Levine’s book represents the best kind of theoretically informed literary criticism. Levine is a thorough and intelligent reader of deconstruction and psychoanalysis who uses his training intelligently. He avoids subsuming the theoretical and literary texts he studies under any unifying master narrative. By the end of this study the concept of censorship has itself undergone a productive metamorphosis. Rather than being reduced to any monological definition, censorship emerges as an unstable interplay of conflictual forces whose dynamic is specific to...

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pp. 250-252
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