Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race

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Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race: New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. xv, 238.

Author: Claudia Tate

Black psychologists' evaluations of the relevance of psychodynamic concepts to the Black experience have been mixed. On the one hand, Nalim Akbar has labeled Freudian theories "Eurocentric" while, on the other hand, A.H. Jenkins has employed Freud's "dialectical" concept of defense to explain "an important mode by which Blacks have sustained their sense of competence". Freud's status has generated controversy among white academics, also. Jeffry M. Masson's assault on Freud is legendary and partially responsible for Jonathan Lear's recent and vigorous defense of psychoanalysis.

In her new book, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, Claudia Tate employs psychoanalytic theories to deconstruct the theme of "desire". Relying upon Freud's formulations of latent (underlying but censored) and manifest (remembered) content, Tate composes a multifaceted discourse of classical Freudian, Lacanian, and object relations (Kleinian) theories. She has chosen five other novels whose themes are unexpected and untraditional. These novels are not texts of racial oppression. Tate assesses each work's heterogeneous content, mining their conflicts with psychodynamic tools.

Tate labels Emma Dunham Kelley's novel, Meqda, a Traceless work" leading author and reader to inquire, "What constitutes a Black text?". Tate argues that "feminist and racial paradigms" are not sufficient models for the analysis of Mecfda, a novel about "evangelical optimism, idealized domesticity, and reticent racial context" (p. 23). Tate employs, instead, Freudian templates to investigate the latent content of the novel's meanings.

The second novel discussed is Dark Princess, A Romance, by W.E.B. DuBois. This text "substitutes erotic pleasure for the achievement of racial justice" (p. 50) and proposes one of DuBois' "hermeneutic equations"--"propoganda=art=erotic desire". Tate's strengths are most evident in this chapter. Her treatment of this text compares well to an analyst's case study, and the author's interpretation of DuBois' psyche is cogent and intimate. According to Tate, DuBois' practice of politics was a sensual act, consummated in part through his self-absorption and maternal ambivalence. Both DuBois and his novel are sexually repressed, veiling anxiety and conflict which Tate explores.

Savage Holiday by author Richard Wright, is a "marginalized" Black novel because of its emphasis upon a murderous act committed out of unresolved oedipal impulses. According to Tate, "In Savage Holiday textual pleasure resides not only in the inscriptions of the lost mother but also in the restaging of the fantasy of masculine phallic power." (p. 89). Tate argues that this novel represents Wright's own compulsive tendencies and his fantasies of matricide, countering James Baldwin's claim that violence in Wright represents racial rage". In this chapter, Tate might have explored the question, "What does racial rage stand for psychologically?" and might have utilized this opportunity to analyze humans' aggressive motivations, a topic central to Freud's theory.

Tate analyzes "sadomasochistic gratification" in Nella Larsen's novel, Ouicksand. According to Tate, "the text does not represent [the protagonist's] desire as female sexuality under social repression or ultimately under the control of her husband but as a wild internal compulsion like `rank weeds' that repeatedly overpowers her" (p. 123). Again, Tate finds feminist paradigms and models of racial oppression inadequate for the novel's heterogeneous structure. Tare practices an "analysis of textual desire" to elucidate the protagonist's metaphorical suicide. Similar to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Ouicksand tells the story of an impulsive bourgeois woman whose vulnerable identity transcends the boundaries of race and class. …