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Biography 25.3 (2002) 493-504

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Sketches From Life

Counter-transference in Reading Autobiography:
The Case of Kathryn Harrison's the Kiss

David Parker

I really should call this paper "Reading David Parker reading critics reading Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss." The paper is in two parts. There is a central section about how I read The Kiss in relation to certain critics, some of them sympathetic and some unsympathetic to the memoir. The rest of the paper is a sort of metadiscursive frame that focuses on the question of why I read it in that way, and why I agree with some critics and disagree with others. In this section I engage explicitly with questions of counter-transference in reading, and the interpretation of interpretation.

As will soon be evident, in focusing on the why question I will be mirroring the alleged narcissism of my chosen text by putting my own work center stage—something I find both unprofessional and a little bit exhilarating. And why I find thewhyquestion like this is itself part of thewhyquestion. As will also become evident, this part of the paper keeps threatening to slip into a mise en abîme of reflections on reflections that goes all the way down, potentially relativizing the discipline of literary criticism itself. I shall return to this issue at the very end.

The question of why I read The Kiss as I do necessarily involves any general theory of reading I hold. As it turns out, counter-transference is a significant part of that theory, though I have never called it that. In my book Ethics, Theory and the Novel, I attempted to account for the greatness of the very greatest novels, such as Anna Karenina, in terms of their moral vision. I argued that what distinguishes such novels is that no character, no matter [End Page 493] how limited or evil, is beyond the pale of the author's sympathetic understanding. In other words, the author's implicit or explicit judgments of the characters are nonjudgmental. In saying that, I was using the word "judgmental" in a special sense, which I defined in a chapter called "The judgmental unconscious" (43-52).

The story I used to define the meaning of this term was the story in the gospel of St John, chapter 8, of the woman taken in adultery. I quoted the story there, and would quote it again here, so great is my attachment to it. But I shall assume its familiarity to readers, and simply draw out what I see as its defining features. The turning point in the story comes when Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Up till then, they have been in the grip of a rigid binary code. They are within the Law, they are the righteous; the woman is a sinner, and therefore outside, Other, forfeiting her claim to membership in the tribe. This rigid binarism is what I mean by the word "judgmental." Jesus's words call this binarism into question. The woman's accusers are forced to look into their own consciences and to admit that they are not simply "different" from her; they look within themselves and find an element of similarity to her, which presumably convinces them that they don't belong to another moral universe after all. The point needs to be underlined that Jesus isn't refusing to make judgments per se: the woman is still guilty of this serious sin, which presumably the Pharisees are not. What he is implicitly objecting to is an ethic of difference that obliterates any sense of common humanity. It's this element of commonness, the fact they are sinners too, that the Pharisees, in the grip of their rigid binary code, appear to have forgotten.

Judgmentalism, in short, is a form of unconsciousness, of moral obliviousness. Carl Jung would go further and argue that the Pharisees are externalizing their psychic "shadow"—that is, the darker side of themselves that resists the...