Leo Bersani's contribution to the fields of psychoanalysis, aesthetics, and queer theory has recently received renewed attention. Relying upon Bersani's theory of the "aesthetic subject," my study reexamines Freud's infamous "psychoanalytic novel," Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood. After situating Freudian aesthetics in the context of current discussions art critics are having about art and its reception, I contend that Freud's text needs to be reevaluated as a distinctly modernist invention harboring the potential for new mappings of self and other. It is finally Melanie Klein's rereading of Freud's text that offers us a methodology premised upon a confluence of psychoanalysis and aesthetics useful for theorizing art's affective dimension. I conclude by turning to Leonardo da Vinci's own notion of fantasia, which has much to say about how psychoanalysis might begin to elucidate an aesthetic subject as opposed to a psychoanalytic subject when it approaches art.
"Before the problem of the [artist], analysis, must, alas lay down its arms" (SE XXI, 177).
What could there possibly be left to say about Freud's 1910 monograph Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood? Such a question presumes that the final verdict on Freud's now infamous text is in and that there is no reason to reopen discussion or debate. However, despite years of psychoanalytic and art historical research addressing Freud's text, the art historian Klaus Herding insists that such presumptions are premature. With only a few exceptions, argues Herding, scholarly readings of Leonardo have not progressed much beyond a concentrated focus on the psychoanalyst's projections onto and identification with the famous Renaissance artist.[i] To some degree this trend in scholarship is understandable given that Freud's own diagnosis of the artist's personality supersedes his close analysis of the paintings. Nevertheless, Freud had provocative insights into aesthetic form and the affect it generates both in the beholder and the creator. It is Freud's affect-related argument in relation to Leonardo's paintings that Herding invites scholars to reconsider.
In this essay, I seek to answer Herding's call in part by arguing that we reread Leonardo for the way Freud's self-proclaimed "psychoanalytic novel" belies its own theoretical speculations, not by revealing the pathology of a psychoanalytic subject-be that subject Freud or Leonardo-but instead by presenting us with an aesthetic subject. According to Leo Bersani, aesthetic subjects refer less to the subject as articulated by psychoanalysis than to a "relational mode of being"(164).[ii] I contend that Bersani's notion of art as both created and produced by an aesthetic subject has the potential to move us beyond readings that fixate solely on Freud and/or Leonardo da Vinci as purely psychoanalytic subjects.[iii] Furthermore, I suggest that we might think of aesthetic subjects as suffering from aesthetic symptoms as opposed to neurotic or hysterical symptoms. These aesthetic symptoms are physical in nature in the same way that a hysterical symptom is physical in nature. However, while a hysterical symptom, according to psychoanalysis, involves the return of the repressed and can be traced back to an earlier libidinal fixation on a specific object, an aesthetic symptom bears traces of an earlier libidinal attachment but is in no way limited to or by that attachment.
At stake in asking how art positions its beholders as aesthetic subjects rather than as psychoanalytic subjects is a new understanding of how psychoanalysis and art might speak to one another. If psychoanalysis has tended to insist on a projective and largely antagonistic relationship between self and world, art produces new modes of subjective relations, which, as Bersani elaborates, exceed individual subjectivities. If we attempt to understand the correspondences between self and world that Bersani suggests are put into circulation by art, and which I have asserted may manifest themselves in the form of aesthetic symptoms, then we can imagine and try to articulate relations between self and other that also exceed the adversarial constraints of the typical psychoanalytic narrative. …