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  • The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious by Nidesh Lawtoo
  • Michael John Disanto (bio)
Nidesh Lawtoo. The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013. 366 pp. $29.95

This is an ambitious study of the relationship between mimesis and the ego that delineates a line of thought that begins with Friedrich Nietzsche and descends through Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, and Georges Bataille. During the journey Lawtoo draws in perspectives from schools of psychology, anthropology, and psychoanalysis and makes brief detours through the ideas of Gabriel Tarde, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, James Frazer, Trigant Burrow, Gustave Le Bon, Pierre Janet, Émile Durkheim, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jürgen Habermas, and Alexandre Kojève, among others. An extensive range of reading informs the book. My knowledge of Bataille’s work is limited, and I cannot assess the chapter devoted to his theories except to say that the erudition it reveals is comparable to those on Nietzsche and Lawrence. The chapter on Conrad, in comparison, is less impressive, for reasons I will articulate below. An addition to the “new modernist studies,” the book intends to displace Freud from a central place in the period by pushing aside his theories of the origins of the ego in repression in favour of Nietzsche’s theories of the origins of the ego in mimesis.

The Phantom of the Ego is complex and defies summary. It focuses on four figures that are seen as “introspective writers who are not only extremely sensitive to different forms of emotional contagion but also diagnose different symptoms of mimetic sickness with extreme clinical precision” (4). The purpose of the book is twofold: on the one hand it is an examination of the mimetic unconscious from Nietzsche to Bataille and on the other hand it is the development of a “method of reading that is as attentive to the logical structure of mimetic thought as to the affects that animate this thought” (6). The method has a “distinctive clinical dimension” that is formulated as “mimetic patho(-)logy – in the dual sense of mimetic sickness, and critical discourse (logos) on mimetic [End Page 135] affects (pathos)” (6, italics in original sources for all quotations). The author declares that his study is descended from Rene Girard in its exploration of “the theoretical potential of literary texts” and from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in its examination of “the literary dimension of theoretical texts” (10). At its conclusion, Lawtoo says that the clinical pathology of the book leads to the understanding that “the ego is an effect of mimesis, rather than its cause; there is no ego prior to imitation, but it is imitation that generates the ego” (283).

Very brief overviews of the chapters must suffice here. Between the introduction and the coda there are four chapters, each of which is divided into sections – numbering between three and six per chapter – which are divided into multiple subsections with headings marking the breaks.

The first chapter, “Nietzsche’s Mimetic Patho(-)logy: From Antiquity to Modernity,” examines the philosopher’s antagonism toward and identification with Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Plato by taking seriously his claims to being a physician of culture. Lawtoo claims that “all communication, for Nietzsche, is predicted on a mimetic principle and, thus, what he excoriates as a pathology is in reality a most normal, ordinary phenomenon” (39–40). For Nietzsche “mimesis is at the origin of subjectivity, communication, and culture” (40). An interesting section of the chapter is “Nietzsche’s Platonism,” a reconsideration of the German philosopher’s quarrel with his Greek nemesis that brings the key passages on mimesis in Ion and The Republic into contact with Nietzsche’s comments in a number of his works. Lawtoo argues “it is through Plato’s psychological account of mimetic impersonation that Nietzsche fights against Plato’s ontological devaluation of reality” (56).

In “D.H. Lawrence and the Dissolution of the Ego,” which is the third chapter, Lawtoo sets out to explore the “anthropological, metaphysical, and psychological” elements of Lawrence’s writings including the later novels (e.g. The Plumed Serpent), essays, travel books (e.g. Mornings in Mexico), and other critical...


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pp. 135-141
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