Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Psychoanalysis and the Corpse

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Psychoanalysis and the Corpse

Article excerpt

PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORY assumes that in "recovering" the past we recast it so as to collapse the temporal distinctions between past, present, and future. The concept of chronology is itself a construction that falters under scrutiny: in the practice of psychoanalysis, this is both a working assumption and a felt experience. For the analysand, the past is reconstructed as an exercise in the future anterior, that is, the hermeneutic act retrospectively alters the future of the past, conjoining it reciprocally and unsequentially to the present. (1) From a poststructuralist perspective, language itself is slippery, precluding the possibility that "reality," however it may be fantasized, can be captured in temporally fixed and unitary representations. In both its therapeutic practices and critical applications, then, psychoanalytical theory negotiates the multilayered, protean dimensions of time and language, resisting--partially and imperfectly to be sure--the categorical boundaries of the symbolic order.

My own recent book, conducted in accordance with these assumptions, focused on representations of the corpse in the religious discourse of medieval and early modern England, and on "impersonations" of the corpse on the English public stage. (2) I chose to study the corpse because of its visible, material challenge, in any epoch, to concepts of unitary fixity. If the body itself can be said to serve as hermeneutic matrix for the subject's construction of borders (outer and inner, visible and invisible, determinant and indeterminate), then the putrefying corpse constitutes a direct and apprehensible challenge to such constructions. As an entity that slips between categorical signifiers, the putrefying corpse represents the ultimate border problem.

What I would like to do here is explore the status of the corpse in early modern Christianity in terms of Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection--a linkage that heretofore I have considered only briefly. I will end with a speculation about how Kristeva's reconfiguration of the Freudian death-drive--and in particular her triangulation of sex, leprosy, and death--resonates tellingly with the indeterminate ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

In Powers of Horror, Kristeva addresses the signification of the corpse as part of a larger speculation concerning pre-symbolic, "semiotic" experience in the development of the subject. (3) Kristeva's revisionist project has a double action: in making her case for the biopsychical forces at work in the infant prior to Lacan's Imaginary, or mirror stage, Kristeva simultaneously collapses the binaries in Freud's discussion of the death drive (organic/inorganic, animate/ inanimate). (4) As I see it, Kristeva's venture into the "semiotic" is an attempt to reconfigure the properties and potentialities of the material body, or, stated more broadly, to address the conundrum of materiality itself. I would suggest that a similar conundrum is inscribed in the anthropomorphism of medieval Christianity, and that the Reformation condemnation of the material idol (and by direct and indirect inference, of the material corpse), represents an intensely focused attempt to dissociate materiality and generative power. To state the issue somewhat differently, it might be said that the ontological status of the material body, its status as determinate (dead) or indeterminate (generative) roils the ideological foundations of both psychoanalysis and Christianity.

The linchpin of Christianity is, of course, the mystery of an incarnated deity, a man/god, who undergoes bodily sacrifice in order to earn for ordinary beings the right to transcend mortality, that is, death and putrefaction. The body of the dead Christ does not putrefy: Christ himself resurrects and transfigures his body as a model for that of the redeemed believer, whose own putrefied remains will undergo a lesser kind of metamorphosis into an eternally changeless state. Further, at least for medieval Christians, it was (literally) the body and blood of Christ, re-sacrificed throughout time in the sacrament of the Eucharist, that enabled an inversion, as it were, of the Incarnation: the ingestion (or "sacramental cannibalism") (5) of the god/man, the divine corporeal, in the corruptible bodies of the faithful. …

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