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  • On Not Reading Freud:Amateurism, Expertise, and the “Pristine Unconscious” in D.H. Lawrence

“All the best part of knowledge is inconceivable.”

—D. H. Lawrence

In the opening section of his 1921 essay, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, D. H. Lawrence stages a highly theatrical parody of Freud’s narrative of the unconscious:

With dilated hearts we watched Freud disappearing into the cavern of darkness, which is sleep and unconsciousness to us, darkness which issues in the foam of all consciousness. He was making for the origins. We watched his ideal candle flutter and go small …

But sweet heaven, what merchandise! What dreams, dear heart! What was there in the cave? Alas that we ever looked! Nothing but a huge slimy serpent of sex, and heaps of excrement, and a myriad repulsive little horrors spawned between sex and excrement.

Is it true? Does the great unknown of sleep contain nothing else? … Imagine the unspeakable horror of the repressions Freud brought home to us. Gagged, bound, maniacal repressions, sexual complexes, fecal inhibitions, dream monsters. We tried to repudiate them. But no, they were there, demonstrable. These were the horrid things that ate our souls and caused our helpless neurosis.1

It is impossible to minimize, first and foremost, the extremity of this caricature, particularly in its rapid transition from the melodramatic to the grotesque. Lawrence revels in his satirical [End Page 89] description of this primal scene, as he accumulates a series of explicit images to shock his reader. With rhetorical flourish, Lawrence adopts the melodramatic exclamations of a squeamish and feminized observer—“Sweet heaven,” “dear heart!” “Alas that we ever looked!”—in order to underscore the shocking and offensive nature of Freud’s discoveries—the “heaps of excrement,” “slimy serpent of sex,” and “myriad repulsive little horrors”—figures rendered even more lascivious by their sibilance. However exaggerated, the caricature provides a window into Lawrence’s view of the Freudian unconscious, full of dream monsters and maniacal repressions; it is a hellish underworld of “repulsive horrors” so extreme they are “unspeakable.” While satirizing these horrors, Lawrence suggests that “they were there, demonstrable,” as if Freud’s narrative were not only irresistible, but potentially true. And here we note a peculiar irony: Lawrence satirizes psychoanalysis and points up its horrors, while simultaneously acknowledging, even performing, its seductive qualities for the reader. It is as if Lawrence is not only participant in, but also producer of, the manifold pleasures of Freudian forms of knowledge.

Of course, Lawrence does not affirm Freud’s interpretation of the unconscious; he goes on to suggest that we moderns have planted our monsters ourselves: that “the mind acts as incubus and procreator of its own horrors.”2 Lawrence argues that rather than discover the contents of the unconscious, psychoanalysis has found what it was trained to suspect lurked in the dark places of the soul—the complexes, conflicts, and repressed sexual secrets of which it was most afraid. Lawrence draws on Plato’s allegory of the cave and offers the image of Freud’s “ideal candle” to suggest a type of knowledge that is not generated from subjective experience, but is imposed deductively from without: “idealism” becomes his rhetorical shorthand for the epistemological methods that he sees and opposes in Freud—the imposition of external ideas onto lived categories of experience.3 While attempting to shatter the epistemological sleight of hand that he equates with psychoanalysis, Lawrence articulates his own model of knowledge-seeking, one that is intuitive, subjective, and based in states of bodily experience. He develops a revisionary account of Freud’s unconscious to articulate a counterdiscourse that provides an extended metaphor for such forms of knowledge. Lawrence’s efforts to repudiate Freud, and to offer an alternative psychological system to oppose what he saw as the reductive hermeneutical practices of psychoanalysis, ironically enhanced the status of an emergent discourse that Lawrence, at least ostensibly, was trying to discredit.

To locate the discursive rivalries between Lawrence and Freud, I refer to Lawrence’s essays deemed eccentric if not downright embarrassing by critics both then and now: Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), his two published polemics on psychoanalysis. At...


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pp. 89-105
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