Friday, June 3, 2011

Patriarch or Old Clothes Dealer?

In an earlier post I brooded on how the end of literary transference is represented in and as a literary moment.  The child turns to the parent for comfort, but the parent cannot offer that comfort.  The need for comfort is what I (elsewhere) once described as literary need, the kind of thing one goes to literature for when there is nowhere else to go.

One thing I was thinking about there, but didn't explore, was the difference between turning to a parent, or to a spouse or erotic partner, or to a child.  Dante and, really, Achilles, turn to parents, whose fragility they see and mourn; what they mourn is that the parents aren't their parents.  Virgil is like a mother ("quale"); Priam in his frailty and need reminds Achilles of his own father.  Of course the scene will often involve "real" parents as well: Isaac, the burning child, Griffin's child.  But that last example shows that the real parents are turning into non-parents: Griffin's child is replaced (in Turn of the Screw) by Miles and Flora, whose parents are dead, whose uncle has absolutely foresworn all contact with them, and whose only quasi-parental protection is to be sought from the Governess, or from the ghosts.

The ghosts: the same is true in Hamlet as well: he does not know who his father is, who the dilapidated king of shreds and patches turns out to be.

That's the sadness of the Freudian transference: we transfer onto others because our own parents are no longer parental figures for us.  The transference, Freud says, is a tribute to what they once were for us.  But are no longer.

So in Gertrude's closet, the only scene in Shakespeare* (as Neil Hertz once pointed out) to show the nuclear family whole and alone - father, mother, child - the family romance is entirely mangled: the father is a ghost, while a real father lies dead behind the arras; the son may be insane; the mother has no inkling that the father may be there; the son has no idea what his father wants from him, but nevertheless senses the ghost's powerlessness, and therefore the erosion of the ghost's comforting authority to demand that Hamlet set justice right.  The scene is itself the echt-tragic scene of the end of the family romance: and of course if Claudius is Hamlet's father, he too has become risible by now.  (Kafka's "The Judgment" is a kind of redo of this scene, or of Hamlet, though maybe in reverse order.)

Dante, or rather the place where will and act are one, replaces Virgil with Beatrice, the erotic object, whose power over him Dante felt first as a child, then as now "sister and mother and diviner love," since in both cases she replaces the lost mother.  Likewise Albertine, her kiss, explicitly replaces the narrator's mother as the latter morphs more and more into her own mother, his dead grandmother, which means his mother is now in the frail and mortal role of his grandmother whose death has been so devastating a part of the book.

Transference on to a suitable erotic object (Albertine, Beatrice, the King of France, Ferdinand) is the way it's supposed to work, according to Freud.  In poetic terms such a (relatively) good outcome is what Harold Bloom means by poetic election: the love you learned from elsewhere, in imitation and in awe, becomes a love you make your own.  Milton's Sonnet 23 has something of this, despite its sadness.  His late espoused Saint comes back to him, inclines towards him even as she leaves him, and his need for her when she's gone is the occasion of his poetry, the delineation of all our woe.  Notice that she too is a maternal figure: she being mortal of her child has died, and so comes to him washed from spot of childbed taint - comes to him as the dead and purified mother, not another Eve ("I waked to find her or forever to deplore her loss," says Adam, and he does find her), but another Calliope ("nor could the Muse defend her son").  Another Calliope. The dead mother as spouse, the dead spouse as mother: for Milton that's what the muse or origin of poetry is. Adam is not a poet.

For Freud a successful transference (on to an appropriate erotic object) and the end of transference are the same.  Psychoanalysis seeks a successful end to the transference, that is to say it seeks to give the analysand the capacity for successful erotic transference. For the elegist, transference and its ending are the same too, but in a darker key.  Poetry is what's left when the erotic object is just as gone as the parent is.

But what happens when the turn is to the child? That's what happens in the dream of the burning child, in Wordsworth's greatest sonnet, "Surprised by Joy", or in Ben Jonson's elegy on his son, what you could imagine (as Kafka does, as Kierkegaard sort of does) in "another Abraham."  This is what Freud calls the defeat of parental narcissism, and what we could call, in the context of literary vocation, the defeat of that vocation.  The poem is not worth the candle.

Stephen Dedalus's reading of Hamlet: which is about Shakespeare's desperate wish that he were the ghost, whom he played, and that his dead son Hamlet or Hamnet had survived him, might go some way towards a reading of the play as attempting to save literary vocation as a supreme fiction in which the young can still believe: Joyce wants Stephen to believe; the ghost wants Hamlet to have a vocation, even if the only one he can come up with is violent revenge.

These are all cases, you might say, of poetic dis-election, what Wordsworth is already noticing, though in gladness, in "Resolution and Independence":
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
He's ready for this, ready for the glad confrontation with mortality and loss, rejoicing in his own power to face the utter loss of his power.  That's what transference and poetic election is: choosing to give it all up for love, being able to make that choice for the poetic power it creates (like Thamuris in Balaustion's last adventure), which is a rearticulation of the gladness in Wordsworth's poem.  He's ready for it too in that great earlier sonnet about the arbitrary joy of transference or election:
WITH Ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,
Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;
Some lying fast at anchor in the road,
Some veering up and down, one knew not why.
A goodly Vessel did I then espy
Come like a giant from a haven broad;
And lustily along the bay she strode,
Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.
This Ship was nought to me, nor I to her,
Yet I pursued her with a Lover's look;
This Ship to all the rest did I prefer:
When will she turn, and whither? She will brook
No tarrying; where She comes the winds must stir:
On went She, and due north her journey took.
His soul is mistress of its choice, and chooses this big boat, the right one, it is clear, since she goes due north.  But of course due north is towards cold and death, despondency and madness.  But where else would a poet like Wordsworth seek to travel, with his earthly freight?

It's when the utter loss of power comes that you wake up to the dead child, carried away by a muse infinitely more exigent than the Rumpelstiltskins of our childhoods.

All of this was prompted by reading a great poem by Franz Wright in this week's New Yorker, "Recurring Awakening" (you need to be a subscriber: you can google the title and author for some messed-up versions of the poem, but it's worth it to go buy the issue).  The title's a kind of summary of Lacan's thoughts on the dream of the burning child.  The poem is addressed by its mortal speaker to a dead friend, or lover, or parent, or self.  (Wright volunteers, a lot, at a center for teenagers who have lost their parents.)  The poem ends with his dream of the person he's dreaming of
sideways in time
to some slow stately dance
hand in hand
with the handless
in their identical absence
of affect, lips moving in unison.
I can't hear a thing, but it's said
the instant of being aware we are sleeping
and the instant of waking are one
and the same--and thus, against delusion
we possess this defense.
Only if you refuse
to respond, if I can only write you,
and write on black wind-blurred water, what's the use?
"I turned to share the transport": that's the moment of poetic inspiration.  But the despondency comes when the only question that remains is Wright's: "what's the use?"

Nothing sadder than this: read it while you're young and can still take pure joy in it.

* Well there's one trivial exception, in Richard II, and probably it's an interpolation.

"An indescribable joy always rushes out of great books, even when they speak of ugly, hopeless, or terrifying things." --Deleuze, when young.  He committed suicide at 70.


  1. A friend emails:

    "I'm wondering if it's only when the poem is not worth the candle that the poem is worth anything at all."

    And I reply: Yes! But don't tell the young. Or rather do - that's part of the pleasure they'll get from it. Perhaps we could say, that unlike what Simmel says about trade, in literature each gives more than he gets, but what he gets is that very fact.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. In response to a deleted comment, which more or less celebrated the fact which I too celebrate, that the transference never ends -- well, "Our moods don't believe in each other," as Emerson says. And that's true too.

    But when you're in the mood in which it looks like the transference ends: well what I tried to do was describe that mood.

    This is a blog, so it's about moods.