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  • Mourning and SubjectivityFrom Bersani to Proust, Klein, and Freud
  • L. Scott Lerner (bio)

Near the end of his recent essay “Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject,” Leo Bersani makes an unexpected conceptual turn, briefly adopting a vocabulary of “human destiny” [174]. Jacques Derrida made a similar move in 2003 when he dropped his guard, abandoning the language of critical exposition to point out, with uncharacteristic bluntness (“de façon plus crue” [18]), the relevance of autobiography—his experience as a Jewish boy in Algeria—to the development of deconstruction.1 In both instances, one senses a desire for intellectual self-exposure,2 to discover the relation of real-world experience and intellectual—critical, aesthetic, psychic—practices. For Bersani, not only the phrase but the essay as a whole signals the culmination of a decades-long inquiry into the relation of human subjectivity and a “solidarity of being” both among subjects and with the world [“Psychoanalysis” 161].

If there is an affirmation of a universal human condition in Bersani’s work—and his reference to human destiny indicates that there is—then it is perhaps best defined as the inclination of human subjects to seek the annihilation of others as a prerequisite for subjectivity. In this state of affairs, where subjectivity encounters the external realm of human and nonhuman objects, Bersani has long been concerned with two chief protagonists: psychoanalysis and art. He has repeatedly shown, ever by new means, that both can be complicitous with the worst inclinations of human subjectivity, just as both can also uniquely provide the means by which human subjects may exceed their own subjectivity [161]. Psychoanalysis, in Bersani’s view, provides the language and conceptual framework to describe how and why subjects go about appropriating and annihilating objects. Psychoanalysis has been misdirected, however, toward two areas of relatively limited value: depth psychology and object relations [“Psychoanalysis” 161, 163; “Sociality” 647], while the main contribution of psychoanalysis, the discovery of the unconscious, has not been adequately exploited as a means of reconceptualizing subjects in solidarity, rather than antagonism, with objects [“Psychoanalysis” 161–64].

By the same token, much of great art, literature especially, has served what Bersani calls the “culture of redemption,” promoting the misconception that experience is damaged or worthless and must be repaired via the work of art [Culture of Redemption 1]. [End Page 41] In psychoanalysis, the counterpart of the culture of redemption is located not, in fact, in the areas that Bersani devalorizes (depth psychology, object relations), but rather with the core exploration of unconscious subjectivity. The literary achievement that is paradigmatic of the culture of redemption is Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), whose theorizing narrator depicts experience, history, the real, as lost to us, damaged, fallen, and in need of repair—redemption—through art.3 The best illustration of the counterpart in psychoanalysis is the work of Melanie Klein. By portraying our relations with others as repetitions of dynamics already played out in unconscious fantasy, Kleinian theory, in Bersani’s view, similarly casts real relations as subordinate to and determined by the (unconscious) imagination. No sooner has Bersani exposed these dominant tendencies in Proust and Klein, however, than he redeems both from the sins of redemptiveness. At the periphery of each writer’s work he uncovers a radically alternative—and, implicitly, ethically superior—representation of the subject in the world. Bersani devoted a seminal essay to these two writers: “The Culture of Redemption: Marcel Proust and Melanie Klein,” reprinted as the first chapter of The Culture of Redemption (1990). In subsequent essays in this volume, he applied this same bifocal approach—consisting in condemnation of a dominant tendency and affirmation of a seemingly marginal one—to Freud, Flaubert, Melville, and others.

If The Culture of Redemption thus aimed not only to expose the distortions created by the culture of redemption but also to promote an alternative vision, then the title assigned to the collection told only half the story. Three years later, Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit set out, as it were, to tell the other half. They brought together the work of three artists—a novelist and playwright, a painter, and a filmmaker...