- The Figure in the Carpet: Psychoanalysis and Ways of Reading
In an interview with Michael Neve in 1983 (Neve, 1992), Claire Winnicott discusses how her husband Donald went straight from university in Cambridge to working as the medical officer in charge on a destroyer in the Navy during the First World War. At one point she suggests that Winnicott, a first-year medical student at the time, may have known very little about the job and she confides almost as an aside: “[h]e had a lot of free time and read the novels of Henry James, as far as I can tell, most of the time. He had a lot of time for reading” (p. 179). It is not altogether surprising that the middle-class, well-educated Winnicott would have a lot of time for reading, but as psychoanalysts we might want to pause for a moment to imagine why he appears to have been drawn to a writer such as Henry James. Was it simply James’s supreme concern with the passage from innocence into adulthood and the painful and costly problems encountered on the path to emotional maturity? Certainly, as a psychoanalyst in the making, Winnicott was to develop this same theme in his theoretical writing throughout his life, charting in great and imaginative detail the infant’s journey from absolute dependence on maternal care to relative independence based on a hard-won capacity to be alone.
Be that as it may, the imaginative fiction of Henry James has often been considered a particular source of interest for psychoanalysts, with Rivkin (2007) pointing out that James, whilst a “genius of consciousness is also—and necessarily—the genius of the unconscious” (p. 59). James’s writing can be seen to index a preoccupation akin to Freud’s with a kind of “doubling” [End Page 517] of the mind; a fascination with how the mind’s surface or consciousness acts as barometer of that which remains unseen below. Like the early Freud, James was to become increasingly interested in the eloquence of the unsaid; the way not being able to notice, understand or speak about something can lend it additional psychic weight. In his well-known labyrinthine literary style and complex syntactical constructions conveying the most fine-grained and nuanced of meanings, James imbues his protagonists’ tendency to erasure and omission with enormous cumulative emotional force. Indeed, the phenomenology of a confused, partial, and limited understanding is frequently deployed by James as necessary foil to his authorial mastery of allusion, nuance, hint, and suggestion. It is surely not a coincidence that these are literary skills Winnicott was himself to adopt in his own, highly idiosyncratic way, nor that he became, like James, capable of provoking considerable exasperation in his readers. But whilst James’s endlessly proliferating clauses are often considered overly rarefied and abstruse, it is Winnicott’s enigmatic concision that usually frustrates and puzzles his readers. Indeed, Greenberg and Mitchell (1983) argue that Winnicott “entices, baffles and provokes his readers, valuing them highly but never confronting them directly” (p. 190).
If Winnicott valued his readers, so did James who claimed in 1908:
In every novel, the work is divided between the writer and the reader; but the writer makes the reader very much as he makes his characters […] When he makes him well, that is, makes him interested, then the reader does quite the labour.(p. 18)
“Making the reader” seems to involve the writer’s ability to incite a level of interest or curiosity that sets the reader off on the task of what Emerson, before James, once called “creative reading.” Creative, or close, attentive reading for James is central to an appreciation of his work and deemed interchangeable with what he calls the “supremely beneficent” art of literary criticism, something he thought demanded a “rare cluster of qualities”: curiosity, sympathy, and “perception at the pitch of [End Page 518] passion” (1893, p. 259–266). At its best, criticism for James implied the potential presence and attention of the kind of ideal reader he hoped his writing would produce. The Jamesian reader is one who above all has to do “quite the...