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  • Fragile ReadersTextual Contagion in Kristeva and Duras
  • Abby Kluchin

"I have often discussed Duras' writing with my female students. Do you know how they respond to them? They respond with a sense of loyalty and a sense of fear. They dread reading her texts, especially when they feel weak [quand elles sont fragiles], because they are afraid of being caught up in her world. They feel imprisoned by the truth Duras reveals."

—Julia Kristeva, "Melancholy and Creation"

"We now understand why Duras' books should not be put into the hands of oversensitive readers."

—Julia Kristeva, Black Sun

Affect and Analysis

As early as 1893, with the theory and practice of psychoanalysis still in its infancy, Sigmund Freud was forced to acknowledge that "recollection without affect almost invariably produces no result" (Studies on Hysteria, 6). Here Freud grants a peculiarly privileged status to the moment when the patient's truth bubbles up to the body's surfaces, usually unbidden, and by definition previously unknown, whether in physical symptoms or in words: when the patient's body begins to mean, to signify. As the analyst listens closely as these affects make their way to the surface of the skin or cross the threshold of the mouth, to signify in flesh or word, a distinctive truth can emerge. These irruptions of meaning, Freud begins to suspect, are not mere symptoms of illness; rather, [End Page 39] they are artifacts of the therapeutic process. In Freud's early view, the task of the analyst is to decipher these curious artifacts and thereby alleviate the patient's symptoms. However, by the time he publishes The Interpretation of Dreams seven years later, Freud has had ample clinical encounters to provide him with empirical evidence that it is not enough to simply tell patients what is wrong with them and expect results. In other words, intellectual understanding is not enough for an analysis to "take." He chides his earlier self:

It was my view at that time (though I have since recognized it as a wrong one) that my task was fulfilled when I had informed a patient of the hidden meaning of his symptoms: I considered that I was not responsible for whether he accepted the solution or not.…


Freud here suggests that successful psychoanalysis involves work in two interrelated registers, intellectual and affective, and that therapeutic efficacy requires activating both. Words alone are not enough to effect psychic change, even if the interpretation of symptoms is accurate. The patient has to emotionally attach to the interpretation for its meaning to become, as it were, meaningful. But what is the character of this attachment, which can be activated by words but is not reducible to them? What is the nature of a malady that produces symptoms that carry meaning, but which resists being cured by the extraction and exhaustion of that meaning?

The precise term (which first appears in the Studies) for the affective investment under discussion is what Freud calls Besetzung, a common German noun that means "occupation" or "investment." It is now typically rendered in English as "cathexis," following James Strachey, who coined the word for the Standard Edition. In French, Besetzung becomes investissement, and some English translations prefer "investment" as well. This is quite appropriate, for cathexis denotes the investment of psychic energy into an object, whether a person, a physical object, an occasion, a memory, an image, etc. When one falls in love, for example, the beloved is the cathected object. The sense of "occupation" is also noteworthy; there is a reason Freud frequently deployed military metaphors. A host of recognizable experiences present themselves as examples: a memory one simply can't shake; a feeling one can't will away; a relationship one repeatedly fails to end; the sense that one's psychic terrain is being taken up against one's will. Plato might have criticized these scenarios as passion triumphing over reason, but for Freud and many of his heirs, cathexis is a more elegant, and more accurate, explanation. It is an investment that accrues interest, for better or for worse.

If cathexis binds—often well beyond an individual's desire—catharsis, on the other hand, releases...


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pp. 39-58
Launched on MUSE
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