Psychoanalysis for Poets

By Phillips, Adam | Salmagundi, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalysis for Poets


Phillips, Adam, Salmagundi


"...the physical is important as well as the spiritual and I don't doubt that a thousand derangements are the result of our misunderstanding of the physical. Freud says his object is to substitute a conscious for an unconscious - a normal for a pathogenic conflict and we must do this if we can. A knowledge of abnormal conditions is a help in understanding normal conditions..."

-Marianne Moore to Bryher, April 18,1921

"Ezra has written me and speaks most disrespectfully of America. Defiance being a form of dependence according to Freud, we perhaps should be honoured."

- Marianne Moore to Bryher, May 9,1921

Writing on Jean Cocteau in The New English Weekly in 1935 Ezra Pound reports that Pirandello was "concerned" (in italics), "while Cocteau was writing Oedipe, for Cocteau's danger of tackling that subject without a plop into Freud, or it may have been only a passing thought that floated up over the luncheon table, in brief conversation, but it ended with the Italian's shrug: 'no, on the whole no, he won't fall into the Freudian mess. Il est trop bon poete.'" Which, Pound adds, "is emphatically true." Cocteau was too good a poet to fall into the Freudian mess; the danger of tackling Oedipus without a plop into Freud may have been a passing thought over lunch, a mess being a meal, a muddle and a soiling and a "company of persons eating together." To be in Freud's company when writing about Oedipus threatens to spoil something; as though Freud has turned the Oedipus myth into something one could fall into. Whatever Freud had done to it, in Pound's view he had spoiled it for poets. What do you have to do to do that? "In an age beset with cranks we have I suppose heard of Freud," Pound wrote in 1937 reviewing the Jefferson-Adams letters; a bit rich perhaps coming from him. But Pound was more than convinced that Freud was unconvincing, a crank, someone no-one should be taken in by. "yr / Freud all bunk," he wrote to H.D. in 1954, after her Tribute To Freud, "... instead of sticking to reading list left by Dante /... You got into the wrong pig stye ma chere. But not too late to climb out."

It may be useful to think of reading lists as being the right or wrong pig stye; but Freud in Pound's view - and he is characteristically drastic though not unrepresentative of the first generation of Anglo-American modernist poets - needed to be discredited as a pernicious influence. Freud was a crank who narrowed the mind and distracted attention from what really mattered: "for every man with an anxiety state due to sex," Pound writes, "there are nine and ninety with an anxiety state due to lack of purchasing power, or anticipation of same": we should not use sexuality as a distraction or a refuge from the real anxiety which is economic. "It is typical of a bewildered society," Pound goes on, "that it should erect a pathology into a system." With this erection, as with the plops, Pound wittingly or unwittingly writes in a suggestively Freudian way in casting aspersions on Freud; as though Freud was contagious, in Auden's words, "a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our different lives" whether we want to or not. So psychoanalysis, which is about how things get in under our radar, itself gets in under our radar; it comes to represent, among other things, language we may not be able to protect ourselves from, a language unduly contagious. But Freud was not, in the generations eager to make it new, part of the right version of the new; his work, and those who were impressed by it, were symptoms of the bewildered society, not a way of addressing this bewilderment. Psychoanalysis pre-empted the realer engagements, was actually, itself, a form of repression. In a London Letter for the Dial in August 1922 Eliot had written that the conclusion of May Sinclair's novel, The Life and Death of Harriet Frean,

extracts as much pity and terror as can be extracted from the materials; but because the material is so clearly defined (the soul of man under psychoanalysis) there is no possibility of tapping the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed and which psychoanalysis has not yet analysed. …

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