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MLN 117.5 (2002) 943-970
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Involuntary Narration, Narrating Involition:
Proust on Death, Repetition and Self-Becoming
Leo Bersani has suggestively identified a redemptive, "mortuary aesthetic" as the organizing principle of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu: the "program in La Recherche," Bersani writes, is to achieve an artwork in which "the particular is resurrected as the individual . . . truth liberated from phenomena." 1 To be redeemed of one's phenomenal insufficiency, or desire, is to sacrifice oneself as a subject of desire in order that one may be resurrected as transcendently self-sufficient. Thus Bersani writes that "in Proust, art simultaneously erases, repeats, and redeems life. Literary repetition is an annihilating salvation" (CR 11). 2 Yet, countervailing this mortuary aesthetic, Bersani also finds in A la recherche du temps perdu—prominently in the discussion of the narrator's grandmother's death in "les intermittences du cœur"—"the model for a circular, or nonnarrative, criticism" (CR 14) that recognizes "repetition as the occasion for revising the terms of our interest in the objects of our interpretations" (CR 15). Bersani claims that such passages evoke death not to resurrect the truth of the individual out of the corpse of his desire, but to rehearse just that sublimating strategy itself, only now without bringing it to any redemptive, symbolic closure. Such passages do not pretend to liberate the individual from desire so much as they give free play to the diffuse, surplus jouissance that remains when the quest [End Page 943] for such liberation is suspended: death becomes an instance of a "sublimation [that] describe[s] the fate of sexual energies detached from sexual desires" (CR 18). "No longer a corrective replay of anxious fantasy," Proust's nonnarrative revision expresses "a mode of excitement that, far from investing objects with symbolic significance, would enhance their specificity and thereby fortify their resistance to the violence of symbolic intent" (CR 28).
Jean Laplanche offers a reading of Sigmund Freud's theory of the death drive that both parallels and significantly breaks with Bersani's reading of Proust's mortuary aesthetic. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud postulates the death drive in an attempt to explain the repetitious traumatic war neurosis he witnesses in the wake of WWI. But with respect to the development of psychoanalysis this hypothesis can be seen as a traumatic repetition unto itself. For this hypothesis returns to natural law to explain psychic phenomena in a manner not unlike the cathartic theory psychoanalysis had repudiated: whereas the law of thermodynamics held sway over the theory of catharsis, the death drive represents a law, if not of the physical universe, at least of all organic life. Like Proust's mortuary aesthetic, Freud's theory "simultaneously erases, repeats, and redeems life," for it ostensibly redeems the theorist's capacity to stand above and name the truth of phenomenal experience precisely by reducing it to a function of transcendent law: by violently denying his subjection to phenomenality as such, in other words, and thereby "acting out," reaffirming, that very subjection. In this way, the death drive may be seen as the ultimate "involuntary memory:" the registering within organic life of its deepest inorganic origins. Like Proust, by pretending to go back to the beginning, to discover the originary source of things, Freud achieves both epistemological victory over phenomenal contingency and his own removal from phenomenal existence; i.e., death. The theory of the death drive is thus itself an iteration of the death drive, yet it is one that appears to resurrect the theorist on a plane other than that of phenomenal experience upon which the iterations of the death drive transpire. The mortuary aesthetic holds sway over claims to artistic self-legislation and scientific law-naming alike.
According to Laplanche, however, Freud's audacious nomothetic gesture should itself be understood according to the "fundamental rule of psychoanalysis"; i.e., as asserting "the sovereign freedom" to think in defiance of all censoring authorities, "to philosophize and to dream." 3 That is, by "acting out" this repetition Freud may...