Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Barry Hannah's Anti-Myth Method: Anti-Freudian Plots and Fractured Fairy Tales

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Barry Hannah's Anti-Myth Method: Anti-Freudian Plots and Fractured Fairy Tales

Article excerpt

BARRY HANNAH'S DELIBERATELY NON-LINEAR fictions can be frustrating to readers who expect a familiarity with literary conventions to help them. According to Philip Beidler, they are often "protean" but "ungraspable," as if Hannah is particularly "fond of befuddling academic critics." (1) Hannah deliberately muddles the Oedipal plots and tropes that many readers have become comfortable with, delivering instead a carefully orchestrated mix of Oedipal jokes, myth-parodies, and vaguely misleading Freudian allusions. He not only parodies traditional individuation stories, but also undercuts their underpinnings in psychoanalytical readings of mythology. The range of human experience has become too broad to filter through a few analogies to other narratives, he implies. His anti-myth fictions suggest that attempts to fit the variety of individual experience into familiar forms--including psychoanalytical metanarratives--fail to grasp the complexity of the postmodern world.

The Oedipus myth and Freudian concepts, the linchpins between mythology and psychoanalytical explanations of the incest taboo and of castration, figure heavily in Hannah's stories. As Keen Butterworth indicates when he speculates about the Freudian tropes in Deliverance that James Dickey denied being aware of, perhaps Freud's theoretical structures have become so "embedded in modern thought" that they function at a subliminal level. (2) I would go just beyond that with Hannah's technique. Freudian plots have become so familiar to contemporary readers that they are among the predictable frameworks that Hannah wants to banish from fiction. Freudian metaphors are everywhere, right on the surface, denuded of depth and power; explanations of myth have themselves been absorbed into cultural myth. Confidence in cultural myth, including psychoanalytical metanarratives, becomes the butt of the joke. As if to ridicule the cleverness of Freudian interpretations, Hannah is not above including dreams and symbols that could hardly be less subtle. In "Repulsed," a typical tweaking of the Freudian plot, he first belabors the long phallic points of the detective's boots; and he repeatedly refers to a dream of a long, buttered loaf of French bread that comes floating out of curtains and into his enamorata's mouth. (3) Nevertheless, despite Hannah's almost relentless vulgarity and his apparent flippancy towards humanity's deluded attempts at self-knowledge, his texts do not dismiss the depth of the struggle.

Many, perhaps most, of Hannah's stories are coming-of-age stories in which a longing for transcendence, the death drive, and eros collide. In some of the rest, the adult males seem to be struggling with an identity crisis that requires a new resolution of an earlier adolescent confusion. Hannah's men are influenced by models from narratives describing manhood, which are laced with the mythology of male transcendence. This urge for transcendence, according to Freud, derives from a neurotic longing to rise above ordinary existence, often by establishing metaphysical significance or by achieving immortality. The desire for immortality as a form of transcendence, he explains, also figures into religious feeling. The contemporary young heroes in Hannah's fiction want to be more important, to be part of a greater plane than mundane reality. They often try to assert masculinity by mimicking larger-than-life, fearless, legendary figures such as Jeb Stuart (Airships), Hernando de Soto (Ray), and Geronimo (Geronimo Rex), although they typically appear clownish doing so. According to Freud, the drive of eros attempts to create something that will endure longer than the creator's lifetime. In contrast, the death-drive, thanatos, wants to complete--or at least end--such anxious struggles, which partially explains the suicidal sacrifice often required in hero tales. To this conflict Hannah adds a potent longing for "transcendence," that familiar wish for some other-worldly powers to override the frustration of ordinary existence. …

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