restricted access Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative (review)
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Reviewed by
Esther Rashkin. Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. xiii $ 206 pp. $19.95.

In a bold new approach to literary criticism that integrates the concerns of character analysis with those of psychoanalysis, Esther Rashkin brings the work of French psychoanalysts Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok to bear on five works of short fiction. As she moves from Conrad's The Secret Sharer to Villiers de I'Isle-Adams's L'Intersigne and Balzac's Facino Cane, James's The Jolly Corner, and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Rashkin seeks in each text the inscription of a particular kind of secret. She is interested in the literary presence of the clinical configuration (discovered by Nicolas Abraham in certain of his patients) called a phantom: an unspeakable secret (having to do with a shameful family drama) silently transmitted to someone else, in whom it subsequently lodges.

Using Abraham and Torok's theories of the phantom, cryptonomy (the shrouding of lexical relationships), symbolic operation (the retracing of displaced symbol fragments), trauma, (an ego-threatening event that compels the individual simultaneously to hide and reveal the source of the threat) and anasemia (the analytic methodology that entails moving "back up toward" sources of signification that are increasingly beyond perception)—theories that she explicates in a substantial initial chapter—Rashkin rereads an entire genre usually associated with the "uncanny" from the perspective of a "transgenerational haunting." A review of this length can with facility form the names of the secrets uncovered (they include murder, adultery, illegitimacy, a father's Judaism, and rape); it can less easily convey Rashkin's provocative unveiling of the intricate linguistic and rhetorical means by which each text conceals within itself its secret life—that is, the veiled event that constitutes the text's generative force.

In passing and in order at least to evoke the texture of Rashkin's method, we can turn to her rhetorical deciphering of Balzac's Facino Cane. The eponymous protagonist's passion for gold—a passion inherited from his mother—suggests, through the generational reference, the potential presence of a phantom in the text, a presence further supported by an allusion to the Livre d'or, a book of noble genealogy in which the names of Cane's ancestors are inscribed. Next, the proliferating allusions to various languages throughout the text provides the impetus to reread the key word or (French for "gold") as the aurally identical Hebrew OR, "light," a word first used in the book of Genesis, a book about origins and, once again, genealogy. Additional allusions in the text to the Rothschild family's riches and to the biblical psalm Super flumina Babylonis (in which there is a reference to the Jews' captivity in Babylon) suggest, Rashkin argues, that the secret concerns Judaism, while the passion for gold—French or identically pronounced but reconceptualized as Hebrew OR—can be reread as a search for light, for enlightenment. Therefore the inherited goldlust may be reinterpreted as a quest for origins merely couched in a passion for gold. It is in this context that Facino Cane's eventual blindness must be understood, Rashkin contends; his origins must remain in the dark because of the intense shame attached to his birth. The secret, Rashkin suggests, [End Page 206] is that his biological father was a Jew. While my necessarily schematic rendering of the complex linguistic trace followed by these analyses cannot reproduce the richness of the wordplay and the energy of the quest for meaning, it may succeed in sketching the nature of the methodology: its various allegiances to structuralism, to rhetorical and psychoanalytic processes, and to narratology. It may also point toward the textual bounds of Family Secrets, and, correctively, to some of the limitations of this linguistically lush and very clearly written series of analyses.

Each of these chapters owes its existence to an intensely reflexive style and method. The author indicates the desirability and even at times the necessity of intertextual corroboration, expansion, and enlightenment, yet she merely gestures in this direction. Similarly, although introduction and conclusion alike pose as relevant and important the question of why a significant...


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