Allegory and Psychoanalysis

By Johnson, Barbara E. | The Journal of African American History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Allegory and Psychoanalysis


Johnson, Barbara E., The Journal of African American History


As part of a celebration of the work of Claudia Tate, I am going to discuss the two terms that figure prominently in the titles of her books: allegory and psychoanalysis. How are these two terms related?

Almost a quarter-century ago, Roy Schafer created some ripples in psychoanalytic theory by protesting against what he called its "anthropomorphisms." In an essay called "The Mover of the Mental Apparatus," he wrote that "In this chapter I focus on the anthropomorphism that both pervades and artificially sustains Freudian metapsychology. I identify the manifestations of this anthropomorphism and argue that it is an inescapable consequence or correlate of Freud's mechanistic and organismic mode of theorizing." (1)

Protesting against the tendency to transfer agency away from the responsible subject to another psychic entity ("my unconscious made me do it"), Schafer sees such anthropomorphisms as "artificial" and "mechanical" abuses of rhetorical fictions.

Interestingly, these are the same qualities that led William Wordsworth to argue against the "gaudiness and inane phraseology" associated with the "personification of abstract ideas." In his 1802 Preface to his lyrical ballads, he wrote, "My purpose was to imitate, and, as far as possible, to adopt the very language of men; and assuredly such personifications do not make any natural or regular part of that language. They are, indeed, a figure of speech occasionally prompted by passion, and I have made use of them as such; but have endeavoured utterly to reject them as a mechanical device of style."

Wordsworth rejected personification as a mechanical device of style in his quest for the "real language of men." Schafer rejected anthropomorphism as a disavowal of agency in Freudian theory. In both cases, they find that an artifice of rhetoric has taken the place of, and obscured, the real.

Telling the truth about the real requires a stripping away of rhetoric similar to that called for by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. He writes:

We are compelled daily to turn more and more to a conscientious study of the phenomena of race-contact,--to a study frank and fair, and not falsified and colored by our wishes or our fears. And we have in the South as fine a field for such a study as the world affords.... What are the actual relations of whites and blacks in the South? and we must be answered, not by apology or fault-finding, but by a plain, unvarnished tale.

Du Bois thus undertakes to tell the truth about segregation at the start of the twentieth century. The tale will be "unvarnished" by wishes or fears--just the facts, Ma'am, neither embellished nor rhetorically skewed. Yet the word that promises a lack of rhetoric is itself a rhetorical marker: the word "unvarnished" is taken from Othello's explanation of his winning of Desdemona. Claiming that he is "rude of speech," he tells the Duke of Venice: "I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver."

But of course, lack of rhetoric is what is most powerfully simulated by both Othello and Du Bois--rhetorically. Both use lack of rhetoric as a consummate rhetorical move. "Unvarnished" is a varnish designed to be invisible, as of course the most effective varnishes try to be. A classical varnish calls attention to the painting it highlights, not to itself. What would the function of a varnish be that called attention to itself at the expense of what is depicted in the painting? A varnish can only be seen to the extent that it fails to disappear.

Some indication of the complexity of the task Du Bois has set for himself can be gleaned from his use of the word "colored": the study of race relations will not be "colored by our wishes and fears." But since the object of study is precisely the "color line," it seems that the object of study excludes itself. In studying color, one must strip away color. Color can only be studied by those who have neither wishes nor fears--that is, those who have no color.

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