Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Beckett's Everyday Psychopathology: Reading Male Nervous Hysteria in Murphy

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Beckett's Everyday Psychopathology: Reading Male Nervous Hysteria in Murphy

Article excerpt

Psychotherapy is an artistic profession.

Samuel Beckett

"Psychology Notebooks"

On 23 January 1934, samuel beckett, then twenty-eight years old, moved from Dublin to London to undertake a course of psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic (Fehsenfeld 175). He complained of a series of "severe anxiety symptoms, which he described in his opening session: a bursting, apparently arrhythmic heart, night sweats, shudders, panic, breathlessness, and, when his condition was at its most severe, total paralysis" (Knowlson 169). His subsequent two-year course of therapy with Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, soon to make a career for himself as a leading psychoanalyst of shell shock during World War 11, allowed Beckett to work through anxieties that sprang from his relationship with his mother, his unwillingness to pursue an academic career, and his "arrogant superiority and isolation" (Ackerley and Gontarski 467). This therapy, perhaps surprisingly, was immensely successful: it turned the "arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic young man of the early 1930s" into the man "noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity, and almost saintly 'good works' " (Knowlson 173).

Conversely, from 1927 to 1930, the years preceding his therapy, Beckett came to be known as one of the foremost translators of surrealist poetry and prose. Some of his translations included Andre Breton and Louis Aragon's celebration of hysteria as a "supreme means of expression" (quoted in Albright 10) in "La Cinquantenaire de l'hysterie" (1928) and portions of Breton and Paul Eluard's L'lmmaculee conception (1930), a text which attempts to "simulate various mental illnesses, debilities and paralyses" (Albright 10). Beckett's involvement with surrealism, then, is closely linked to the characteristic avant-garde and surrealist impulse to reclaim mental illness, particularly hysteria, and critique the bourgeois medical professional project to cure the mentally ill and suppress their non-rational modes of expression.

These two early moments of Beckett's career--the later treatment of his own nervous health, the earlier access to an aesthetic of critique against those very therapeutic methods--seem at odds, perhaps irreconcilable. But during his psychotherapy, Beckett began to compose his first published full-length work, Murphy (1936), a novel that centres upon its title character's search for a "kindred" which he finds in a "hospital for the better class mentally deranged" (87), whose subject matter mirrors his direct experiences with therapeutic systems and whose criticism of those systems and its aesthetic of absurdity recall the surrealist aesthetic that Beckett encountered in Paris. This paper argues that Murphy places surrealism's aesthetic and formal critique of the psychoanalytic project in tension with the desire in psychoanalysis to understand the structure and content of the psychopathological mind. It is a question of surrealist treatment of form and psychoanalytic interest in structure and content. Hysteria is the diagnostic category effecting this tension, Beckett's simultaneous appropriation of both surrealist and psychoanalytic approaches to what Freud famously entitled "the psychopathology of everyday life." Murphy constitutes a key moment in the representation of male nervous illness in the 1930s and in the afterlife of hysteria. At this time, the legitimacy of male nervous illness was to some extent in question: Freud had relegated hysteria to the feminine, and Bion and the Tavistock Clinic would not reach prominence in their treatment of shell shock until the war. However, the tension in Murphy between the therapeutic and the aesthetic elements of hysteria suggests a continuous discourse of hysteria in a late-modernist moment. And this late-modernist moment is one expressed through a masculine hysterical aesthetic: Beckett deliberately departs from his experience of female nervous illness (his proximity to Lucia Joyce's breakdown) and his awareness of the feminization of hysteria in surrealist conceptions. …

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