Time, Memory, and the "Uncertain I": Transtemporal Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen's Short Fiction

Article excerpt

Key to the psychological realism of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction is her insight into human subjectivity via depictions of what I term "transtemporal subjectivity": the destabilized "I" as existing in a fluid realm comprised simultaneously of past (memory), present (experience), and future (expectation), accessed both consciously and unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual. Bowen's fiction thus imaginatively enacts and extends visions of subjectivity explored in the concept of nachträglichkeit or "deferred action" as established by Freud and developed by psychoanalytic theorists Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and literary critic Peter Nicholls. Drawing on this psychological concept, as well as on Abraham and Torok's metapsychological discussion of Reality versus reality, this essay argues that Bowen's psychological realism and representations of transtemporal subjectivity comprise a vision of the human subject that, though not necessarily comfortable, offers increased scope for human agency in a radically destabilized social world.

keywords: nachträglichkeit, Freud, Abraham and Torok, subjectivity, Elizabeth Bowen, psychological realism

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2008_birrer01.shtml

The dream of human agency, of the transcendent subject whose personhood precedes-even exceeds-history, society, language: a dream that dies hard. However much we are or feel bounded by social forces external yet somehow internal to our "selves," however often we are or feel determined by an inexorable logic of cause and effect set in motion by an indeterminate past, we may yet act in the world as if we are indeed people and not merely subjects: people who can take action, make choices, play an integral part in the construction of our own subjectivities, write the narratives of our own lives. The rhetoric of the myriad self-help books that flood contemporary bookstore shelves-such books surely a more widely read genre than postmodern deconstructions of the self-everywhere implies this potential: to "find yourself." The self is lost. It has become, in Elizabeth Bowen's evocative phrase, the "uncertain I" (MT 98). That the "I" is destabilized in part by external forces is everywhere clear in Bowen's fiction, from her depictions (to give just two representative examples) of the terrible impact of world war, to her engagements with the troubles/Troubles of Irish national history. And certainly, despite significant shifts in critical attention (most strikingly in the case of Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle), it has been through attention to the classic realist aspects of her novels and stories that Bowen's insights into the relationship between individuals and the social realities of the material world most often have been framed.1

Key also to Bowen's insight into human subjectivity, however, is her non-material vision of temporality: for Bowen, time is not linear, but a realm of simultaneously existing past and present-at times, even future-accessed both consciously and unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual. Such a vision makes for a complex relationship between human subjectivity and lived experience, for while a subject moves through the material world, or what I'll still call reality, in what feels like a temporally linear and empirical fashion, the human mind allows for a much freer movement through time, particularly through such mechanisms as memory and expectation. While this often considerable and pervasive disjunction between the physical experiences and details of, for example, a lived day versus where one's mind is in time at any given moment may seem self-evident (even granting the existence of those with more single-minded focus), theorists such as Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and Ricoeur in Time and Narrative have explored the complexity of this temporal instability as it dramatically affects our experiences of history, of narrative, and indeed of reality itself. …