- The Next Word (or something like it)
Das Nächste zu greifen ist offenbar schwer.—Rainer Nägele, Hölderlins Kritik der poetischen Vernunft
The Next Word (or something like it)
Reflecting on what it would mean to describe Paul Celan’s work as “Freudian,” Rainer Nägele suggests that some of his poems “speak syntactically, like a dream.”1 This brief simile encapsulates a host of complications. In Celan’s texts, the synthetic authority of the proposition or predicative judgment is confronted by signifying dynamics that cannot readily be assimilated to the standard paradigms of logic or grammar. If such verses are “like a dream,” it is because Freud’s study of the unconscious has revealed that the dream work forces a similar rethinking of our conceptions of language, representation, and experience. Of course, in aligning Celan—or any author—with Freud, we must remember that one of the central concerns of Freud’s theory of dreams is how juxtapositions of words, images, and ideas may produce constellations of relations that supplant or even negate the designs of the programs that first articulated them. Deeming Celan’s work “Freudian” potentially calls into question the legibility of [End Page 606] Freud’s own oeuvre as much as it helps us understand the singularity of Celan’s verse.
Ultimately, what is at stake is the nature of comparison itself. “Das Gleichwie,” argues Freud, makes its presence felt in dreams more than in any other discourse, meaning that to speak or write “like a dream” is to participate in a challenge to the authority of self-sameness that dreams undertake when they align different terms or elements with one another. What happens, then, when Freud privileges a particular simile as crucial to understanding the unique signifying forces of the unconscious? In the following essay, I will look at one of his favorite figures for explaining correspondences between the conscious and unconscious registers. The resulting insights, I will argue, offer us a new way of exploring a poem—or something “like” a poem—by Friedrich Hölderlin, an author whose works, like Celan’s, “speak syntactically, like a dream.”
At the start of the programmatic Chapter Six of the Traumdeutung, Freud famously declares: “Traumgedanken und Trauminhalt liegen vor uns wie zwei Darstellungen desselben Inhaltes in zwei verschiedenen Sprachen.”2 In this complex network of concepts—Gedanken, Inhalt, Darstellung, Sprache—it is the unassuming wie that stands out, casting a long shadow over both the immediate claim and the chapter as a whole as it reappears time and again to align different propositions and descriptions with one another. As Freud repeatedly likens psychic phenomena to various discursive modes and forms, it becomes increasingly difficult to regard the constant invocation of language as an accident. The correlations and resemblances threaten to become similes in name alone, as if they were perpetually about to cast off their figurative trappings and reveal themselves to be assertions of the near or total identity of psychic and linguistic dynamics. Still, it is by no means obvious precisely what notion of language predominates here, much less whether the different conceptualizations of writing and speech Freud presents are mutually compatible.
One simile is of particular interest. In a number of the texts he composed around the turn of the century, Freud stressed a methodological point that has since become a central part of the lay understanding of psychoanalysis, where it usually arises in discussions of “free association”: substantive connections or relationships hidden in the unconscious often manifest themselves in the simultaneous appearance of elements that seem to be only contingently related. [End Page 607] “In einer Psychoanalyse,” Freud writes, “lernt man die zeitliche Annäherung auf sachlichen Zusammenhang umdeuten; zwei Gedanken, die, anscheinend zusammenhanglos, unmittelbar aufeinander folgen, gehören zu einer Einheit, die zu erraten ist” (GW II–III: 253). The claim is echoed in the contemporaneous Dora case: “In der Technik der Psychoanalyse gilt es nämlich als Regel, daß sich ein innerer, aber noch verborgener Zusammenhang durch die Kontiguität, die zeitliche Nachbarschaft der Einfälle kundtut” (GW V: 198).
Each time Freud avers that what appears to be an instance of contingent contiguity is anything...