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"Remember me": Psychoanalysis, Cinema, and the Crisis of Modernity

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 2, Summer 2002
pp. 181-200 | 10.1353/shq.2002.0025

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Shakespeare Quarterly 53.2 (2002) 181-200


Emerging at the same historical moment, psychoanalysis and cinema followed similar paths: invention at the end of the nineteenth century, development at the turn of the century, and then immense change and expansion at the time of the First World War. They have influenced one another ever since. Both played major roles in the formation of modern thought and modes of perception, while confronting the crisis of modernity in the wake of World War I. Ultimately, they prefigured postmodernism by questioning the boundaries of the modern subject and decentering its position in the world. And, significantly, underlying the theoretical foundations and historical trajectories of both psychoanalysis and cinema was Shakespeare. It was Hamlet—specifically Hamlet on the silent screen—that figured most prominently at the crucial juncture of psychoanalysis and cinema following the First World War, signaling the end of romantic notions of civilization and progress. The Great War catalyzed that shift, as the horror of mechanized warfare confirmed the achievement ofWestern technology while exposing its horrific potential. On screen, Hamlet came to manifest this duality.

Traces of Hamlet: Freud and the Problem of Memory

Singular in its influence, Hamlet embodied both the thought and culture of the new twentieth century. Sigmund Freud turned to the tragedy when developing his theories of memory, repression, and the unconscious. In this way Hamlet informed the very foundations of psychoanalysis, just as psychoanalysis ended up determining and shaping modern interpretations and performances of Hamlet later in the century. Initially, Freud's interpretation of Hamlet's Oedipus complex led him to argue that, as Western society "progressed" into "higher" stages of civilization, it grew to repress its own primal desires and anxieties—indeed, to repress its own "savage" past—which would return to haunt future generations, particularly his own. Freud demonstrated this connection by constructing a teleological model from nineteenth-century archaeology and evolutionary biology, one that assumed a positivistic narrative of progress and European superiority.

Trapped in its own fixed sense of time, however, the model did not allow for the return of the repressed, which entails a dynamic rather than static relationship between the past and the present. In order to represent it, Freud shifted from the archaeological model to one of memory-as-writing and linked them in the metaphor of the "mystic writing pad"—memory as a trace of the past that remains on the unconscious mind within the moment of the present. As with the mystic writing pad, Freud conceived of the unconscious/conscious mind as multilayered, each layer constituting a different relationship to time and memory within subjective experience.

Freud referred to the surface layer of consciousness as the Perception-Consciousness (abbreviated by Freud as "Pcpt.-Cs."). Bombarded with perceptions, the subject's perception-consciousness encounters fleeting moments; the impressions it forms are transient. Traumatic experiences that penetrate the perception-consciousness layer are stored in the unconscious—which exists outside time, thereby providing the subject with a stable space in which memory is stored. Thus, in Freud's view, the subject is split into two conflicting but interconnected layers—one caught up in the transient present, the other bound to a timeless past. Freud's notion of this divided subjectivity, wherein the unconscious constantly destabilizes the conscious mind, radically undermined inherited notions of selfhood. His use of premodern drama, particularly Hamlet, provided him with a model for both nonlinear history and nonmodern subjectivity, primarily through the return of the repressed. Freud saw the command of Hamlet's dead father, "Remember me," as a metaphor for this return. Freud also derived from Hamlet's vow to rewrite his impressions the idea of writing-as-memory in two ways: the collective memory of the early modern theater and the individual recording of time and memory via writing. Freud was thus able to move beyond nineteenth-century science to what Philip Armstrong has called "a spectacular theatre of vision," in which Freud's theory of memory is combined with a virtually cinematic revisioning of time.

Screen Memories: Modernity and the Moving Image

Although much of Freud's theory of memory is based on premodern drama, it is clearly a product of...

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