- Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis by Alicia Mireles Christoff
At the end of The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud reminds his readers that dreams link past, present and future through the representation of desire. By this measure, Alicia Christoff's Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis (2019) is a dream of a book, linking the past (Victorian Novels), the present (British Object Relations), and the future (conceptions of interpretive possibilities). In a boldly imaginative and brilliantly realized display of interdisciplinary psychoanalytic criticism, Novel Relations interweaves close reading of Victorian Novels by Thomas Hardy and George Eliot with masterful summaries and uses of major British Object Relations theorists to show how the novels can be understood through the theories that they often anticipate and helped to create.
Although the recognition of Winnicott's importance for literary interpretation began some half century ago, Christoff expands the theoretical field to include Balint, Bion, Betty Joseph, Paula Heimann, Masud Kahn and more contemporary writers such as Thomas Ogden, Adam Phillips and Christopher Bollas. She presents her book as "at its base a work of literary theory and criticism" (2019, p. 16) and amply displays her engagement in and mastery of the trends and debates within Victorian Studies, but her phenomenology of the reading experience also teaches us how post-Kleinian theories can be illuminated by close listening to the voices and stylistic music of the novels. With equal emphasis on both words in her title, [End Page 185] the process of fluently working through variations of interrelations among novels, readers, critics and theorists, Novel Relations creates an original and very promising form of psychoanalytic interpretive writing, one which can be of lasting benefit to both literary scholars and psychoanalytic clinicians.
Alicia Christoff's book exemplifies the interdisciplinary aims of American Imago, and in the review essay that follows, Christine Maksimowicz captures the essence and unique value of Novel Relations.
Some months back while searching the web for something that I now can't recall, I stumbled upon an interesting conversation between Paul Holdengräber and Adam Phillips about writing. Holdengräber, a generous and thoughtful reader, reminding me a bit of Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm fame, was taken by the particular ways in which Phillips uses quotations and epigraphs in his books, and asked Phillips about his relation to other writers. In response, Phillips entered into something of a reverie state, reflecting on a handful of writers with whom he described having an elective affinity—Emerson, Whitman and Melville, among them. Yet it was not the specificities of Phillips' affinity with these American writers that stuck so powerfully with me weeks after listening to this conversation. Rather the thing that took hold were Phillips' thoughts about the powerful feelings that may be engendered when encountering writing that strikes a resonant chord within us. Writing that does more than elicit our keenest interests, but also expresses things that we've thought or might have thought, but have never quite been able to articulate.
One's response to this kind of writing is often powerful…and complicated, sometimes conflictual. Drawing upon his psychoanalytic vocabulary, Phillips described the "happily dependent" part of ourselves as responding with gratitude for this other writer that we experience as "speaking," in a sense, on our own behalf. "How wonderful it is," and here I'm paraphrasing Phillips' sentiments, "to live in a world in which other people express thoughts and feelings in ways that we could not have done ourselves." But of course, our feelings are rarely so unequivocally felt. Phillips then went on to say that there also exists the "unhappily dependent" part of ourselves, the part that [End Page 186] in encountering a text that expresses something resonant with our deepest convictions feels something other than pleasure. The experience elicits envy and a sense of our own inadequacy for not being able to do what this other writer has accomplished with such eloquence and intelligence—or whatever qualities we most wish for our own writing. "Shit," Phillips described the...