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  • "Families make the best enemies": Paradoxes of Narcissistic Identification in Toni Morrison's Love
  • James M. Mellard (bio)

There are many significant features in the underappreciated Love (2003), Toni Morrison's eighth novel. 1 A feature that both connects it to, and distinguishes it from, each of her previous novels (a ninth, A Mercy, was published in November 2008) is its particular expression of the psychological phenomenon of identification. Conceptually, identification seems relatively uncomplicated in its basic Freudian premise. As one technical dictionary puts it, it is the "psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides." The first such other, model, or "object," is the mother, and in typical psychological development, new ones will follow. Thus, "[i]t is by means of a series of identifications that the personality is constituted and specified" (Laplanche and Pontalis 205). But in clinical theory and practice, as well as in the literary criticism they foster, identification is a complex and essentially contested concept generating competing viewpoints. Representing "two [main] lines of descent," the two come primarily, as Jean Wyatt suggests in Risking Difference, "from Freud's two major paradigms of identification" (9). The paradigms are descended from the dual myths, the Oedipus and the Narcissus, that in "The Neurotic's Individual Myth" Jacques Lacan posits as the basic ones operating in the construction and functioning of subjectivity.

It is here where a reading of Toni Morrison's novel through the theoretical lens of the sometimes controversial Slavoj Žižek becomes pivotal in understanding the intricacies of the concept of identification. For in Love, in the relation between two young girls who grow into a conflictual adulthood and who, despite age and social change and change of fortune and outbreaks of destructive violence, never outgrow their attachment to each other, Morrison constructs not the more common oedipal but what must be regarded as a narcissistic identification whose paradoxical expressions readily, if complexly, avail themselves to analysis through Žižek's mediation of Freudian and Lacanian ideas. Thus, I shall turn predominantly though not exclusively to Žižek, a prolific social, political, and psychoanalytic theorist whose integration of Freud and Lacan has been so influential. 2 While there surely are other essays on the richly rewarding Love one could write on oedipalization, and fathers, I eventually shall focus upon narcissistic identification, with its emphasis on maternal relations.

First, however, because of the reservations many African Americanists harbor regarding psychoanalytic theory vis-à-vis African American identity, culture, or cultural expressions (including literature), there are two major issues to which I must attend that complicate the stakes in any application of psychoanalysis, whether Freudian or otherwise, to the development of black subjectivity in America. The more general one is whether traditional—meaning Freudian or neo-Freudian—psychoanalysis even applies. 3 Among scholars and critics addressing African American literature, reservations are such that in her Psychoanalysis and Black Novels Claudia Tate suggests that many feel there is something illicit in using the approach. To do so constitutes, Tate wittily notes, a sort of "'roll in the hay' with Freud and company" (5). Of such applications, the main critiques are cultural and historical. That is, given that [End Page 699] Freud extrapolated his theory of the unconscious and its relation to constitution and functioning of subjectivity at a particular historical moment (the late nineteenth and early twentieth century), within a specific (western European) culture, and amid the ideological domination of the patriarchal nuclear family, we may reasonably ask whether oedipal determinations of gender and identity can be assumed as universal or if not universal can be—even with modification—made applicable to subjects from cultural or racial backgrounds different from that of the discipline's founder. 4 Obviously, Tate's book—which as the author rightly contends uses psychoanalysis to "tell us much about the complicated social workings of race in the United States and the representations of these workings in the literature of African Americans" (5)—is itself a practical response to such African Americanist misgivings.

But to features of psychoanalysis and of identification in particular there are theoretical responses...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-6182
Print ISSN
1062-4783
Pages
pp. 699-712
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-28
Open Access
No
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