The Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought, Goldsmiths University of London

Research Centre based in Sociology and run jointly with the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University, London

Daniel Katz (Warwick), “Real Ruins: Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics” (Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, 18 March 2017)

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The following text was first presented at Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present, a workshop organized by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys at CPCT on 18 March 2017.  


Real Ruins: Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics

Daniel Katz (Warwick)

Note: This talk is a preliminary sketch which forms part of a longer work in progress. Please do not cite it directly. If you want to know more about where there is going, I’d be delighted to hear from you at Thanks, Dan

It should surprise no one that after months if not years of feeling unheard and unhearable, of being certain I had an important intellectual position to which no one would listen, that as soon as Ben and I had successfully organised this event, when I sat down to write out my talk on the importance of neurosis, I was confronted with an intractable writer’s block; convinced that, now that I had the audience, I had absolutely nothing to say. I could not speak, paralyzed by the very removal of the obstacle in the face of my desire. My thoughts turned to that very early apparition of a first-person narrator in The Waste Land, when the unnamed figure facing the hyacinth girl loses the track of his desire and freezes— freezes before the inadequacy of any object to that desire:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

The question to be thought about today is the political potential of that moment, those moments, all moments that resemble them: the moments of loss and remainder, and the relationship of poetry to them. Along with the possibility that valorising such moments might be the only way out of a Nietzschean cycle of ressentiment, disappointment, violent displacements and disastrous forms of acting out, as we rage for plenitude. Indeed, if modernist poetry in English in fact begins with Eliot—as was so often said through so much of the 20th century we’ve largely forgotten it now—it could be suggested that modernist poetry begins with neurosis: not only the catalogue of symptoms, mostly hysteric, seen in The Waste Land, but even more, the neurotic monologue of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which equates everyday middle-class unhappiness, mostly sexual, with the poetic itself. And it could also be suggested that the ultimate stances of the heroic heterosexual white male American modernist poets can very largely be read as reaction-formations against the neurotic core of early modernism, each offering its own form of compensatory plenitude: here I think of the older Eliot’s reactionary, nostalgic vision of an ethnically and religiously- based social totality; of Pound’s paranoid murderous anti-Semitic rage against the unpayable mortgage placed on the earthly paradise; of Stevens’ totalising postulations of aestheticist transcendence, based on the tyranny of a universal subject of which he is the ultimate model; and of Williams’ liberal democratic pluralism, which only survives through a barrier against adequate thought on structural inequalities, and the eroticisation of all forms of social exchange (though I might suggest that Williams maintains the most authentic relationship to his neurosis, as despite itself most of his poetry screams that in fact there can be no sexual relation). For The Waste Land, its famous notes notwithstanding, Frazer’s Golden Bough is probably not most crucial in its references to over-stressed “fertility rituals.” Rather, as the title of the poem’s first section makes clear, where Frazer enters most decisively is with regard to “The Burial of the Dead,” that is, all attempts to make them stay that way, to quench the ambivalence triggered by the jubilation over the brutal narcissistic fact that however much we loved them we’re glad it’s them that died and not us. The Waste Land is most definitely a ghost story. And more than 100 years since “Prufrock,” and closing in on The Waste Land’s centenary, an unlaid modernist ghost is haunting modernist theory: neurosis.

In some ways, at least, that is the reading provided by one of the mid-century’s crucial texts on poetics, Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, and it is not for nothing that it’s a queer poet writing on a woman who offers this analysis. For Duncan, modernist poetry as a repressive, anti-neurotic movement (and therefore a catastrophically symptomatic one) goes back to its origins in Pound’s imagism and then The Waste Land. Even in the latter, according to Duncan, the real transgressive possibilities already struggle unsuccessfully against the means of their containment. The Waste Land’s real problem, Duncan argues, was the insistence of Eliot and Pound that it succeed as a poem:

The poem suffered in its very success. It had been cut and reorganised to succeed, and had lost in its conscious form whatever unconscious form had made for the confusion of sequence, the “miscellaneous pieces” that did not seem to fit. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Out of whatever real ruin that threatened, Pound and Eliot had agreed finally upon the monumental artifice of a ruin, a ruin with an outline. (225)

For Duncan, the true promise of The Waste Land can only be fulfilled 25 years later with Pound’s Pisan Cantos, where the catastrophe is uncontainable (this comes close to the paradigm of a heroic madness to be opposed to the minor form of neurosis, which Benjamin Noys has discussed in his introduction to this event). But as much as The Waste Land, the entire imagist project for Duncan was an exercise in containment, not least of a feminine and queer element which were excessive almost by definition. In his narrative of H. D.’s writing life, then, for Duncan it is very much the turn to Freud which frees H. D. from the limitations imposed by Pound:

It was Freud’s role in H.D.’s second initiation to bring her from the formative prohibitions that had given rise to the modern style, from the stage which Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” represents, into a work which involved exactly those prohibited areas— repetition, remplissage, or sentiment. Associations must here not be cut away, dismissed, paraphrased or omitted, but dealt with, searched out until they yielded under new orders their meanings. Where the modern artist had sought a clean, vital, energetic, ascetic form—repression and compression—Freud sought the profound, delving in unclean thoughts, depressions, neuroses, voluptuous dreams. The Freudian permission or command saw form as a swarming ground. (384)

What Duncan outlines here, very clearly, is not a poetry of “health.” On the contrary, the need to lay claim to that sort of “health” is the very basis of the catastrophic pseudo- Nietzschean reactionary positions of Lawrence and Pound, if not Eliot. Nor is it a poetry of liberation strictly speaking, as might be implied by some of the above. As Duncan writes later: “Free association, it was once called; but Freudian analyses have shown that associations are not free but binding. In the process of personation the events about us are transformed into knots, possibility is tied to possibility until a net is woven writhing with the psychic energies that before had been oceanic” (608). No association is free to the analyst who wants to do a good job, one might say, or the poet. And meanwhile, if Duncan asserts that neuroses must be “permitted,” as he states above, “neurosis” itself is not allowed to stand as a simply positive or transgressive term for Duncan, though everywhere he does assume a somewhat Adornian valorisation of maladaptation, madness and unhappiness as important signs of resistance, as opposed to the normative “sanity” he attributes to Stevens and Eliot. Rather, for Duncan the neurotic element is a dialectical negativity which is in this way bound to the creation of poetry. Duncan defines the “gifted” poet literally: she is above all the poet who is willing to receive the gift, as he puts it; to make herself a “host” for the essential otherness of poetry. On the other hand, the “neurotic” (Duncan’s term) is she or he who “cannot and will not receive” (386). Yet for Duncan, this “no” which refuses and resists “is as important in the etiology of the artist as that which receives: the will to distinction, toward the self-containment of the work of art” (386). Neurosis, then, as the need to leave a trace of one’s own—the indispensable narcissistic supplement, without which none of us would be here, in this room, today, at all.

But if Duncan stresses a poetry of Freudian “permission” and neurosis, this does not lead him to valorise a poetry that would be based on the self-expression of the lived experience of the neurotic individual. For Duncan, the Freudian “permission” which includes neurosis leads to the recusal of the postulation of the lyric “I” as a centre around which neurotic poetry must turn, and this in a manner with clear political implications. Duncan writes:

But self-expression and likewise self-possession in verse would set up an “I” that is the private property of the writer in the place of the “I” in which all men may participate. (559)

“Self-possession”: two alienations go hand in here— that of the misrecognition integral to locating mastery in the authority of the conscious ego, and that of the auto-reification which comes from thinking of the self in terms of ownership and property. A truly communal writing can only come from beyond them both, as the “I” belongs to the unconscious on one side and the community on the other. But note also the specificity of Duncan’s language: as opposed to the self as “private property” Duncan proposes not the I as enlightenment universal, but rather the I as common property, as offered to the communal project—the hysterical gift of the dispossessed self, one in which the poetic body of the text might be shared by all, in a new version of the totem feast. For Duncan, then, “self-possession” in the psychological sense—the reification of the coherent ego, the firm policing of its boundaries—is inherently allied to the conception of one’s self as a possession, to be bartered for personal gain on the literary market-place, and whose value might actually be increased by a little bit of neurotic spice. This opposition to the self and writing as private property is found in one of Duncan’s most powerful evocations of the role of the poet:

The poet, too, is a worker, for the language, even as the field and the factory, belongs to the productive orders and means in which the communal good lies. All that is unjust, all that has been taken over for private exploitation from the commune, leaves us restless with time, divorced from the eternal. If I had come under the orders of poetry, I saw too that those orders would come into their full volition only when poetry was no longer taken to be a profession and when the poet would be seen to share in the daily labor toward the common need. (67)

Duncan, then, stresses a way of thinking neurosis beyond its status as the private affair of the individual, or as a supplemental attribute of the commodified “I.” It is not only the language, but the so-called expressive self that must belong to the commune.

I’ve dwelt on Duncan as he works these problems out in the early 60s because that period coincides with the heyday of another group of poets who could be seen as following a similar path in their revival of an early-modernist neurosis that High and Heroic modernism militated against or repressed. These, of course, are the so-called confessional poets, who foreground neurosis in a different way: certainly not as a threat to be warded off, denied, or disavowed, but rather as a chronic condition to be managed and contained in a dramatic process of considerable literary interest. What the confessionals reflect above all is the institutionalisation of neurosis as a form of normality; the crucial moment, perhaps, when capitalism looks at the lack it produces as something to be managed on a large-scale, or even as another source of profit in and of itself. If, as many different critics have made clear, confessional poetry is massively informed by both the discourse of psychoanalysis and the institutional practice of psycho-therapy, it is for the most part starkly removed from the mythopoetic, or consideration of foundational collective structures, or investigations into the relationship between the unconscious and the production of language. There is a lot of guilt, but little abjection; desires are insistent and inconvenient, but not fundamentally unbinding or perverse; there is rarely any deep connection made between the political and the personal, and the paradigmatic stance is that of the frustrated and unhappy ego trying rationally and with varying degrees of irony and success to reassert its sovereignty and buck itself up narcissistically. Most ironically, perhaps, to a large extent confessional poetry is indeed interesting symptomatically, but less for the symptomatology of neurosis than for that of the impasse of ego-psychology. Much confessional poetry is a relentless confirmation of Adorno’s critique of “revisionist” psychoanalyts: “For all they endlessly speak of the influence of society on the individual, they forget that not only the individual but the category of individuality itself is a product of society.” Which leads to the endless banality of a psychoanalytic thought unable to distinguish the reality principle from the super-ego. And hand in hand with this is the inability to think of the ego as a production of the unconscious, rather than the foundational seat of self, making Lacan’s criticism of ego psychology just as apt: “I won’t go back over the function of my ‘mirror stage’ here, the first strategic point I developed as an objection to the supposedly ‘autonomous ego’ in favor in psychoanalytic theory, whose academic restoration justified the mistaken proposal to strengthen the ego in a type of treatment diverted thereafter toward successful adaptation—a phenomenon of mental abdication tied to. . . the reduction of an eminent practice to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval attesting to its suitability to the “American way of life.” (684-5). These limitations, in fact, go a long way to explaining the widespread critical disapproval which greeted one of the most compelling poems associated with the confessional movement. I speak here of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” a poem which is scandalous, from this perspective, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the allegory of a speaking subject in “Daddy” is not the embattled ego doing its best, but rather an enraged and jubilantly regressive subject which makes no gestures towards its own censure. There is no moment of closure and distancing that would allow one to look at the poem as an explosive exercise in catharsis—it is “through” with that position as much as with “Daddy.” Likewise, the regressively infantile position, stressed by the nursery-rhyme-like formal structure, is also explicitly and unrepentantly sexual, if unhappily so; there is no postulation of an adaptative adult “healthy” sexuality that could be separated from this. Even more, the comparisons between patriarchy and Nazism blast the division between the regulatory social order and the individual neurosis on which “adaptative” ego psychology relied, while the line “Every woman adores a fascist” reveals the adaptative norm for women as inherently masochistic in and of itself. Objections to “Daddy” on the grounds that it is less a “work of art” than a “symptom” disregard it for its very achievement, which is not only to resist the pathologisation of justified unhappiness in the great feminist tradition, but also to challenge the acceptable boundaries for artistic neurosis. In other words, for many of her critics, the problem with Plath is not that she’s neurotic, but that she’s neurotic in the wrong way. This can be seen in the crucial manner in which the poem assumes incompatible affective positions in turn. For example, the speaker’s identification with Jewish victims of Nazism prior to her affirmation that every woman adores a fascist is often read by Plath’s critics as a syllogism that implies the poem is suggesting that in some way the Jews “adored” their murderers. But I don’t think that’s the way the poem actually works. Rather, it moves through different positions in different fantasy scenarios, trying out all of them, without reconciling or synthesizing them. The murdered Jew and the adoring sub do not occupy the same place or fulfill the same function, nor do the teacher at the blackboard, the Nazi, and the Vampire. “Daddy” is a tour-de-force tour of the scenography of unconscious fantasy, rather than a dramatic monologue of the ego’s rationalizing discourse of fragile secondary revisions. It is, to cite Duncan again, a “delving into unclean thoughts, depressions, neuroses, voluptuous dreams.” And critics who dismiss it as being too “personal” or for an unseemly mixing of the “personal” and the “historical” miss the point: their hostility towards the poem derives from its unveiling of the impersonal structures from which neurosis—and poetry—emerge.

Of course, the “impersonal” is a foundational term and idea in the aesthetics of T. S. Eliot, the influence of which it is impossible to over-state. There is no space here to examine how “Tradition and the Individual Talent” constantly pulls the idea of impersonality in two directions—one massively normative in relation to a reified tradition which is the ultimate legislator of value in the sayable, the other powerfully heterodox in its suggestion that poetry comes from a constantly shifting space of structural alterity to which the poet must sacrifice her “self-possession,” to use Duncan’s term. But I would like to stress how different both these versions of impersonality are from the economics of Eliot’s equally famous “objective correlative,” which falls back more fully into the expressivist paradigm, if a complicated one. To conclude, however, I want to briefly consider how “impersonality” reappears in Samo Tomsic’s recent book, The Capitalist Unconscious. Tomsic recuses the vision of the unconscious as a “sphere of strictly private life” and a “retreat from the social,” arguing instead that the Freudian unconscious abolishes divisions such as subjective/social and private/public, not “in the sense of the slogan ‘the personal is the political’ but in the sense that the existence and the formal mechanisms of the unconscious depend on the same structures which determine the functioning of social links” (79). This implies that the subject of politics is the subject of the unconscious rather than the subject of the cognition, with the further conclusion that for both Freud and Marx, according to Tomsic, we need this slogan: “the impersonal is the political—namely the impersonal core of the personal” (80). Certainly, since Language Poetry at least, our leftwing poets as political poets are searching for both an impersonalised lyric, as well as a historicised, non-transcendental impersonality. As if they had found Eliot’s “tradition” standing on its head, and were attempting to stand it on its feet again. At the same time, these projects are often deployed in service of the ideal of an improved subject of cognition, and as Tomsic argues quite powerfully, we must not psychologize. The question then would be to think an impersonal neurosis, without reducing the latter to the status of a manifestation of capitalism or the symptom of a political disorder (“false consciousness” or “ideology”). What neurosis might then allow us to think—perhaps in the poetic form of ruins without outlines, or the equally neurotic shape of outlines for non- existent ruins—is the construction of a progressive social order that would take as its grounding neither unobtainable plenitude nor rage-inducing renunciation. For now, “neurosis” is one name for the refusal to accept capitalistic reification, or either of those two alternatives to it. Or to put it another way, if the subject of cognition cannot be the subject of politics, then the subject of neurosis must be.

Works cited

Duncan, Robert. The H. D. Book. University of California Press, 2011.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: The First Complete English Edition. Translated by Bruce Fink. W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Tomsic, Samo. The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. Verso, London, 2015.

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