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American Imago 58.4 (2001) 749-766

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Psychoanalysis and Aestheticism

Perry Meisel

Freud as Literature

Freud's influence--its nature, its history, its origins--is a complex affair. Michel Foucault, in his essay "What Is an Author?" (1969), describes it with extraordinary precision. Like Marx, he writes, Freud is the "initiator" of a "discursive practice":

Freud is not simply the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or of Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious and Marx is not simply the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both established the endless possibility of discourse. . . . In saying that Freud founded psychoanalysis, we do not simply mean that the concept of libido or the techniques of dream analysis reappear in the writing of Karl Abraham or Melanie Klein, but that he made possible a certain number of differences with respect to his books, concepts, and hypotheses, which all arise out of psychoanalytic discourse. (131-32)

Foucault's animosity toward Freud in the latter phase of his own career, particularly in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976), is itself an example of Freud's influence as Foucault describes it. Foucault is a Freudian because he cannot help it. Freud is part of the air we breathe; indeed, he is the air we breathe, whether we like it or not.

As Foucault suggests, Freud's customary stance as a narrator is really, to use a contemporary metaphor, an interactive one. He invites you to argue with him. He invites you, not to be persuaded, but to resist. It is not unlike the analytic situation. This rhetorical site is where the "truth" of psychoanalysis is, as [End Page 749] it were, performed--in the agreement between reader and writer, patient and analyst, to disagree about something that is, presumably, already there. This is why it is not, in the first or the last instance, a question of the empirical truth or falsehood of Freud's claims. What matters is the structure of Freudian reader-response that puts those claims into place. No wonder the perils of psychoanalytic treatment include ignoring physical causes for suffering. The nature of Freud's institutional misreading is often, to use a tired but true metaphor, religious, the result of treating the Founder's text as though it were Scripture. This is also why Freud, like the Bible, is literature. His texts are polysemous, but his interpreters, not being literary critics, don't simply fail to celebrate Freud's endless posibilties of meaning; they reduce Freud's texts to meaning one thing rather than another. Arguments with Freud's "truth," whether from Grünbaum's perspective (1984) or from Masson's (1984), fail to address this simple but decisive point. In so doing, such arguments also succeed, quite against their intentions, in actually promoting Freud's continued success. Disagreements with psychoanalysis maintain, rhetorically speaking, the disputable truth to which psychoanalysis does or does not properly refer. Indeed, the more disagreements the merrier. This is the situation that Foucault describes.

It is therefore the constitutive elements of Freud's writing and the ways in which they shape the world of psychoanalytic process that deserve our primary attention. Freud's method of handling us as readers is so familiar that we tend to overlook the devices that structure it. Chief among them is Freud's famous irony, although it is never simply a withering existential contempt. Indeed, Freud's tone and manner are always genuinely ironic, since they say one thing while meaning another. The narrator can engage, and even persuade, the reader by appealing to his or her presumably superior judgment when the narrator's judgment seems to be weak or foolhardy. The deliberate comparison of the case histories in Studies on Hysteria (1895) to "short stories" (160), for example, makes the reader think that Freud is selling himself short. The reader responds with an involuntary sympathy. The ironic later Freud earns the reader's generosity in a similar fashion: by appealing, [End Page 750] with extraordinary audacity, directly to the reader's unwillingness to accept his dark arguments, in Civilization and its Discontents...


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