"Let the Impressions Come": H.D., Illness, and Remembrance of the Traumatic Past

Article excerpt

abstract

One frequently finds that identity - personal, social, national - is built on the idea that histories and narratives constitute an entity of Self such a postulation drives much of the current memoir market along with the scandalous nature of its falsification, as well as the recent return to "official" national histories in more totalitarian states. [1] This particular use of memory often aims to locate the self within a historical continuum, frequently employing a chronological narrative as a means of explaining history and identity. Through poetry and memoir, American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., aims to break that understanding of the narrative self-construct. Her memoir, Tribute to Freud, developed from her analytic sessions with Freud from 1933-1934, most forcefully iterates her belief. "I do not want to become involved in a historical sequence," she writes in the memoir "Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own sequence." This article offers an analysis of H.D.'s non-narrative, non-chronological construction of identity as she works through trauma, history, and Freudian notions of memory work. Through these efforts, she develops a strain of psychoanalytically inflected semi-autobiographical poetry that would help shape the course of the more fully autobiographical writers to come.

I do not want to become involved in a historical sequence. . .

Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own sequence.

-H.D., Tribute to Freud

In her 1956 memoir, Tribute to Freud, author, poet, intellectual adventurer Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., explores the difficult terrain of war, trauma, memorial, and tribute as cast onto her own mindscape during the period of her psychoanalytic sessions with Sigmund Freud in 1933-1934. H.D. turned to Freud while still grappling with the horrors of World War I, and a sense of the oncoming disasters of World War II left her in danger of breaking down while at the same time blocking her from writing. Her work with Freud allowed H.D. to explore her mind; as Richard Terdiman notes in his work Present Past, "memory is the heart" of psychoanalysis (241), and that joint exploration became a journey into H.D.'s fractured, fragmented memory. In order to better understand the role psychoanalytic theory played in freeing H.D.'s creative process, one can follow Freud's theories which most affected H.D.'s conception of her own illness and treatment, and then trace that influence as it works through H.D.'s artistic production. While one must acknowledge the wealth of material on mourning and loss that follows Freud, the focus here remains on information available to H.D., and known to her as a serious scholar of psychoanalytic theory and participant in its early practice. The memoir represents much of what H.D. has learned - along with some teachings she has rejected. Tribute to Freud stresses the importance of memory and dreams in H.D.'s personal and poetic life, and links dreams and prophesy to H.D.'s sense of history itself. This sense of history manifests as either palimpsest or a cycle of repetition and reenactment. Freud, in their analytic sessions and in his theory, most relevantly set forth in the 1914 essay "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through," considers H.D.'s repetition cycle as a symptom of repression. H.D. agrees with this view, and sets out to recover repressed material, lost memories, and fragmented thoughts.

As she blurs the distinction between action, image, and memory, H.D. builds a monument to loss and death that reinstantiates her lost loved ones in the present moment through these poetic memorials. The idea of the memorial gains precedence in H.D.'s work, with this "Tribute" one part of her monument-building. In outlining the original goal of her sessions with Freud, H.D. writes, "I wanted to free myself of repetitive thoughts and experiences, my own and those of my contemporaries" (H. …