Saturday, June 11, 2005
Fungoanalysis, or Gass on Freud, his Id, the Id and All Editors
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate linguistics major--who on account of the dismantling of the linguistics major at LSU, sought shelter in another department, English, with which his linguistics classes were cross-listed--I responded to an English professor’s question about how much “criticism” I had read with an energetic outburst about my undying devotion to William Gass. I was informed, brusquely, that that’s not at all what he meant by “criticism” and recommended, highly, that I hie my way into English 3024 and read myself some “Criticism.” Being the lover of systems all linguistics undergraduates are, I took to “Criticism” with the same vehemence I’d once adopted mud-riding, fungo-drilling and x-bar syntax. But my attraction to Gass never faltered, and for the past week or so I’ve found myself drawn again to Habitations of the Word. In particular, I’ve found myself thinking about “The Soul Inside the Sentence” as an example of an appropriation of Freudian thought that says something psychoanalytic about something other than psychoanalytic theory. “The Soul Inside the Sentence” presents a more attractive application of psychoanalytic theory because Gass grants it limited explanatory power:
Freud was certainly frank enough when he wrote at the beginning of his essay on Dostoevsky that “before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms."
By limiting the utility of psychoanalytic thought--by relegating it to the status of productive metaphor--Gass unburdens himself of the unwieldy psychoanalytic apparatus that demands accounting by virtue of its size and complexity. Gass pounces on Freudian metaphors without having to swallow the system whole, allowing him the freedom to discuss how Freud considers with his “customary unempirical daring the passage of such [unconscious] material into our awareness” (emphasis mine). Or, likewise,"by pulling at the one end offered us, how many silken scarves, like the tail of a kite so far away we cannot see it, can be drawn from the sleeve of this incredible magician?” Those things psychoanalytic thought illuminates it illuminates; those things it doesn’t, it doesn’t. (I take this to be the heart of Luther Blissett’s argument on the aforementioned thread.) If I could find some way to properly format the “exchange between the id and its editors"--in which Gass hilariously progresses from “I want the pleasure of playing with my genitals” to “All right. ‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways...’"--I would. Instead, I’ll move through Gass’ psychoanalytic account of literary production desk-by-desk, beginning with “our hero--Frank--[and his] desire struggling weakly for expression. I WANT MY MOMMY!”
First Desk: The Superego and its Wastebasket, the Unconscious.
“The desk of the first censor is occupied by Ma, Pa, several Step-Uncles, Foster Parents, God, the Orphanage, and Immanuel Kant. Its nays are categorical.” Frank’s desire for the breast of his mother, seventy-five, is denied by the superego, “that notorious dogmatist,” with a simple “no.” So, “with his id at his elbow, Frank tries again. He has noticed that his hostess, Carol Cozycott, has a gently rolling chest like the hills of Ohio and his dear mother of memory. Her hair is similarly long and dark, and her nose has a crease across it like a dog-eared page. She’d be a suitable substitute. I WANT CAROL!”
Second Desk: The Ego and its Wastebasket, the Preconscious.
“Carol is your best friend’s babysitter, the official at the second desk reminds Frank; you better not think about her now; perhaps another time in a quiet daydream, preferably in the tub or the john. So the thought ("I want Carol") is thurst into the preconscious like a dirty postcard in pants pocket.”
Third Desk: The Ego and Its Second Wastebasket, Discretion.
“But Frank still wants his mommy and Carol still has her cleavage. Her pie, Frank can’t help noticing, is treacly. No matter. His mother’s molasses pies were always treacly too. He’d better try to choke down another piece. The truth is, he probably doesn’t remember his mother’s molasses pie, and the identification of the two women remains obscure, but Frank has been well trained, and the censor at the third desk hardly has to raise his eyebrows, because Frank isn’t any more likely to say ‘Choke’ aloud than he’ll let out his canary. Instead, Frank says: ‘Carol dear, may I have a little more of your lovely pie, please?’”
At this point in Gass’ argument, Frank disappears, replaced by an actual writer far more likely to blink in the face of treacly molasses pie than Frank. “We notice,” says Gass, “that some writers throw bits away and begin again, some patch and piece, some pare but some accrete, so that if a sentence is wrong, a setting, or a scene, getting it right means making it longer, or scrubbing it clean, or starting over; just as when we have blundered socially, saying or doing the wrong thing, some of us must follow the foot in our mouth with its ankle, others blush furiously and fall silent, others deny having uttered the offending sentences, as if misquoted by their own ears, and produce new ones, more fashionable, more politic, amusing, or more daring.”
Fourth Desk: The Class Historian.
“We know how anecdotes are removed from storage like old clothes, spotted, brushed, and pressed, let out or taken in, and we carefully lace the sleeve of our personal history with lies, which really are revisions, until eventually a formula for the past is settled on which (flattering or not) somehow suits us by concealing our nature.”
Fifth Desk: The Town Crier.
“During stage five, the wish, acceptable to consciousness, is inspected and usually rewritten once more to satisfy the demands of public utterance.”
Sixth Desk: The Teacher’s.
“What we say when we speak in public won’t bear much writing down. We hem and haw, backtrack, repeat, use preformed phrases which have fallen out the mouths of radios or slid off screens, piece our speech together out of sentence fragments, and instead of punctuating pop our cheeks or suck our teeth or wiggle our eyebrows and sometimes fingers....Puppies still, we go to school to be paper trained.”
Seventh Desk: Editors, Publishers, the Public.
And now, after describing in detail how psychoanalytic theory leads to literary production, Gass hedges, saying “the complete child must come forth in the whole man or woman who invests and shapes a successful style, in a manner exactly contrary to the situation I described earlier in which an angry teasing child reduces the adult to another angry teasing threatening child, and this use of the earliest urges by the most sophisticated can be achieved only if the powers that be can be persuaded to pull back, approve and praise, because only then can forgiveness be received in the peace and blessing of the great lines; only then will the psyche believe that its impulses aren’t satanic, that all is not lost, that the self has not been left alone amid the debris of its own demolishment, the ashes of its anger.” In the end, then, Gass counters the psychoanalytic metaphors with metaphors of his own that deny the power of the “debris of [the psyche’s] own demolishment.” It’s not a logical or argumentative refutation, but a purely metaphorical one, and as such cannot itself be refuted. That’s the beauty and, as Rich Puchalsky pointed out, the problem with psychoanalysis. Fundamentally based on metaphors of mind, it requires of its opponents scientific refutation. Gass’ refutation--cite Freud saying “before the problem of the creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms” and present a counter-metaphor--is no real refutation at all, but it points to the limitations of defending psychoanalytic thought on any but metaphorical grounds.
[EDIT: New title. The old one was sub-par.]
Before anyone mistakes me for a one-trick pony beating a dead horse, let me say that this will be my last post on psychoanalysis for at least a week.
For the record, I’d like it to be known that its failure to generate responses notwithstanding, I’ve derived some new terminology from this entry. In the future, posts to which no one other than the poster bothers to respond land with “a Gassian thud.” Or they consist of nought but “fungoanalysis,” as in:
“Damn, did you read that fungoanalysis over at the Valve?”
“Sure did. That shit’s longer than it is dull!”
“What? That shit’s duller than it is long!”
“That’s it! It’s on!”
“What is it?”
“Dude, it’s on!”
There’s nothing wrong with the post itself, I thought it was quite interesting (though of course I may be biased by the fact that you linked to one of my comments.) But the problem is that it followed just after a long thread on psychoanalysis, in which each likely commenter had already trotted up their hobbyhorse and shot it in the head in front of everyone. It’s rather embarassing to have to resurrect one’s hobbyhorse only in order to execute it once again.