- Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race
Claudia Tate’s intriguing new book can be read as a reply to a question once posed by Hortense Spillers: “Is the Freudian landscape an applicable text (to say nothing of appropriate) to social and historical situations that do not replicate moments of its own historic origins and involvement?” 1 Tate responds by demonstrating how psychoanalysis can broaden our understanding [End Page 161] of the African American literary tradition. Taking critics to task for their tendency to privilege black texts that “emphatically focus on the political aspirations of racial equality,” she argues that they have “circumscribed black subjectivity and black textuality by a reductive understanding of racial difference” (12, 179). As a counter to this critical failing, Tate suggests that the desires that define the core neuroses of the subject offer a seldom explored yet fruitful object of inquiry for African American literary criticism.
The study deploys several theoretical paradigms: Freud’s model of the subject’s primal repression of erotic longing for the mother or the father; Jacques Lacan’s interpretation of the “mirror stage” in which the essence of human desire is equated with the vexed longing to become one’s own reflection; Melanie Klein’s charting of the subject’s constitutive sadomasochistic relationship with the imago of the mother. More than an attempt to analyze discrete characters as subjects, however, the study seeks to read the unconscious implications of desire that are “cryptically inscribed in the novel’s rhetorical expressions and plotting structure” (13). While Tate recognizes that “combining different schools of psychoanalysis may be problematic,” she is most invested in showing how “psychoanalysis can illuminate aspects of desire not otherwise examined” in a climate in which critics privilege racial politics (13).
Tate presents readers with two versions of her thesis, and one finds both the promise and the shortcomings of her study in the distinction between these formulations. The chapters focusing on W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess, A Romance (1928) and Richard Wright’s Savage Holiday (1954) make especially powerful arguments that demonstrate the relationship between these authors’ political vision and their investment in the recuperation or compulsive destruction of the mother. The Du Bois chapter explodes the critical portrait of his novel as an incoherent political protest. Arguing that the text’s eroticized racial politics are produced by a textual and biographical desire to recuperate the mother, Tate offers an illuminating revision of Du Bois’s political agenda. Equally compelling is Tate’s suggestion that an “urtext” of “matricidal desire” forms the narrative skeleton in Wright’s protest fiction (96). Through solid archival research, subtle intervention in literary debates, and compelling analytical readings, these two chapters illustrate how psychoanalysis provides an expansive interpretive framework for politically motivated fiction.
A second version of Tate’s thesis is convincing. In this case desire figures as an emotive excess that is “external to racial and/or social narratives and generate[s] serious logical problems for the novels” (182). Whereas in the first formulation desire facilitates the articulation of propaganda, in the second desire is a “surplus” that disrupts the logical unfolding of a racial protest agenda (13). Tate’s deployment of desire as a subversive term is a contradiction in her argument and the source of the book’s more strained claims. For instance, in an otherwise compelling exploration of Richard Wright’s investment in psychoanalysis, Tate argues both that matricidal fantasies constitute an enabling narrative structure in his protest fiction and that matricidal desire is an emotive force exterior to racial protest. By according undue influence to desire as something alien to political propaganda, Tate detracts from her more intriguing illustration of how desire is coextensive with politics.
Tate’s impulse to see desire as something alien to political propaganda lies at the root of another problem in her argument. She asserts that desire is subversive because it is irrational or not easily reconciled with a narrative of political protest. The chapter on...