"The Feudal Unconscious:
Capitalism and the Family Romance"

October 159 (Winter 2017)
MIT Press

Now Available

Portuguese translation of THE MYTH OF POPULAR CULTURE (Blackwell Manifestos, 2010) now available from Tinta Negra (Rio de Janeiro, 2015)


O renomado crítico cultural americano Perry Meisel detona as noções convencionais sobre a divisão entre “alta” e “baixa” cultura.

O autor transita pela provocante teoria de que a cultura pop experimentou ritmos dialéticos. A hábil análise que o livro apresenta de três tradições culturais duradouras – o romance norte-americano, Hollywood, e o rock inglês e americano – nos leva a um ciclo histórico da cultura pop que tem Dante como ponto de partida e revisita ícones como Wahrol, Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Eisenstein, Benjamin, Scorsese e Sinatra.


The Myth of Popular Culture discusses the dialectic of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" in popular culture through an examination of literature, film, and popular music. With topics ranging from John Keats to John Ford, the book responds to Adorno's theory that popular culture is not dialectical by showing that it is.

Available as eBooks

COURSE IN GENERAL LINGUISTICS. Trans. Wade Baskin. Co-ed. with Haun Saussy. By Ferdinand de Saussure (Columbia University Press, 2011)

THE LITERARY FREUD (Routledge, 2007)




Trans(re)ference: The Nature of James Strachey's Discipleship

by Perry Meisel

Face a teacher with the image of the taught and the mirror breaks.
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

The unwillingness of psychoanalysis to account for itself is one of the more amusing ironies of modern intellectual history, especially since it is the precise signature of Freud's overwhelming influence upon us all. If, as Lacan long ago pointed out, the fate of the notion of repression is its own repression, then the repression of the inevitable dynamic of psychoanalytic history is to be expected, too - the Oedipal agon between influence and originality that is both the story Freud tells and the means by which he tells it. After all, if Freud's patients (and the Freud of the self-analysis) have chief among their complaints the Oedipus complex at the level of story or histoire, then Freud's narration or récit is likewise - in a reflexive mimicry of what he describes - also implicated in an Oedipal struggle with a complex variety of prior or precursor texts that number among the bewilderingly countless overdeterminations that engender his writing.

Discipleship as Transference

The Oedipal structure at both the empirical and narrational levels of psychoanalysis is also identical with another structure central to its discourse and one that has recently become a renewed focus of attention both clinically and theoretically, and, oddly enough, in both American and French Freud: the transference. Our present concern with it may in some way alleviate the usual neglect to attempt to discern why, as François Roustang puts it, psychoanalysis never lets go. At least we may find that the transference is the mechanism that analysis itself customarily uses to account for the trance of consent and illusion perpetrated by any production of power, or, to put it another way, the mode of formalizing and studying reader-response or faith within any institutional setting. Attending to the transference as a category, then, is the decided result of an increasing internal pressure within analysis to begin to talk about the nature of its own peculiar realities. The transference is, properly speaking, the reflexive category par excellence among the arsenal of terms invented by Freud. It is no less than the very structure of both the patient's inscription within the clinical narratology of analysis and the controlling dynamic of analysis itself as a procedure. Interrogating the transference by definition leads to some recognition of the nature of the mechanism of its own power - not the empirical kind but the self-engendering kind of rhetorical power psychoanalysis has as a science or religion. Of course, any such recognition also remains, from a scrupulously analytic point of view, nothing but a displacement, yet another symptom of our enduring inability to confront our collective discipleship to Freud himself.
The transference, in other words, must itself be analyzed. Now, however, especially after French Freud, our international group transference onto Freud at large is so dense and manifold that the layers of additional mediation that have been defensively imposed upon our originary transference onto Freud himself (for some of us, it may have been only Erikson, or Jung, or Lacan in the first instance) requires us to number among the first objects of a self-accounting inquiry the many discipleships to or readings of Freud that distance him even further from us. Thus the history of our fetishization of new apostles - from the early émigré renegades to the inescapable shade of Lacan - is symptomatic to an almost paradigmatic degree, since such a history is really a history of the most influential transferences onto the Founder. The enthusiasm with which we greet Lacanianism today, for example, may itself be described as the renewed expression or fulfillment of the wish still not to confront the father to whom Lacan famously claims to return. In fact, from a classical exegetical point of view, Lacan's is a typologically Christian articulation of the Oedipus complex or anxiety of influence by which he subordinates Freud rather than serves him, relegating Freud's Old Testament to the status of prophecy rather than maintaining it as revelation, thereby requiring its deepest truths to be available only at the moment of the son's - Lacan's - belated redemption of its real meaning. Freud, of course, had already put himself in such a situation at three stations in his own itinerary, as though to preempt any and all of his still wished-for future discipleships by playing the part of disciple to his own achievements during the course of his manifestly self-revisionary career - the originary self-revision of 1896-97, the metapsychological reflexivity of 1914-16, and the 1920-23 tripartition of the mind.
To begin, then, to solve the paradox of Freudian capture or discipleship, or at least to negotiate it, analysis must be turned upon its history, much as Freud did upon his own from time to time. Surely the recent acting out on the part of Masson, Sulloway, or even Balmary is in some measure victim to it. It is an avenue of non-escape, the result in such cases of a non-analytic personalization that reduces everything to quaint biography. That Masson in particular wishes simply to repress the precise moment of the invention of psychoanalysis is bald in its pathology. By contrast, the history of analysis, like Freud's own texts, should be read reflexively so as to break the thrall of authority that is supposedly Freud's historically revolutionary intent in the first place. A case in point is Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism as a projection of the disciples' collective fear of Freud's own authority or status as Führer, a nomenclature that is not incoincidentally contemporaneous with what may justly be called a fascization of the analytic movement around Freud's very body in the 1930s (hence, too, the fasc-ination with his decaying health), and one not, alas, unlike the procedures that characterized the simultaneous advent of fascism proper in the culture that had already produced psychoanalysis itself. Indeed, in the wake of Freud's own Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, it is reasonably easy to theorize that all identification or self-fashioning is structured like classical fascism to the extent that the introjection of consequential images is a function (using, in addition, Winnicott's reading of Lacan's mirror stage) of primitive transferences not recognized as such. The schismatic tendencies that elaborate rather than inhibit the history of analysis are likewise a sign of Freud's own transferential intent rather than a grossly Napoleonic ambition. Considered strategically, the maintenance of orthodoxy was not for Freud himself at all as straightforward as analytic history may make it seem, nor, of course, as naively fascist as an aggressive history could. Freud wished heresy. As the history of analysis goes on to attest, no single reading of Freud has ever - can ever - succeed in maintaining itself as wholly just or authoritative. The implication is plain that Freud's apparent willfulness during his lifetime to preserve a theoretical orthodoxy, no matter the personal cost nor the apparent expense in the repression of influences both local and international, disguises his arguably real desire to produce rival discipleships, a far more cunning means of securing immortality than mere assent, since it allowed for - indeed, required - the expression of schisms inherent in the Founder himself, and, in the process, disseminated his teachings at increasingly diffuse levels of debate.

English Freud

In the Anglophone world, of course, an exact problem defines the nature of our particular collective discipleship, shaped as it is by the fact of the Standard Edition. No inquiry into our relation to the English or Bloomsbury Freud that produced it - the originary transference that structures the relation of English readers to the Freudian original - would be complete without at least schematizing the nature of the action of the translation, and, even more, of the exemplary - and, from the point of view of analytic history, wholly repressed - discipleship that brought it about. It is with this specific problem that the remainder of the present essay is concerned, and to the extent that a reading of English Freud is largely absolute among non-German readers, it is, for better or worse, the very horizon of our already displaced relation to Freud himself. James Strachey, chief editor and translator of English Freud beginning unofficially as early as 1922 (Meisel and Kendrick 1985), was good enough to leave the implicit imprint of the structure of his discipleship in his classic essay on the transference, "The Nature of the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis" (1934). No stranger to its nuances, Strachey had already been strategic in noting the transferential advantages to be had in choosing as his own second analyst (the first, of course, had been Freud himself, from 1920 to 1922) a fellow member of the British Society, James Glover, with whom he began sessions in 1925 and continued until Glover's untimely death that year. (That James's wife Alix had also witnessed the death of her second analyst, Karl Abraham, the year before is particularly seductive for an account of the Stracheys' power as mediators and purveyors of the Father in their own right.) Younger brother of the psychoanalyst Edward Glover, James Glover thereby duplicated in his personal history a familial structure strikingly similar to Strachey's own. Both Jameses not only had older brothers whom they genuinely loved and who performed similar jobs (James Strachey was, like his older brother Lytton, a journalist early on); James Glover was at the same time also younger than James Strachey himself. That both also possessed the same Christian name likely made the promise of clinical efficiency additionally enticing.
As Strachey outlines it in his 1934 essay, the structure of transference lies in the double action produced by the bond between analyst and patient. Strachey focuses on the simultaneous or, as he puts it, "mutative" play between the patient's immediate relation to the analyst as a person in his or her own right and the patient's relation to the transferential status the analyst acquires during the analytic procedure. Such a play or relation, Strachey argues, is the very pivot of the action of the transference itself. The psychoanalytic narrative is, in other words, both about itself - the patient and analyst in their actual state - and about something else like it - the patient and analyst in transferential or mediate, not immediate, relation.
Hence trans(re)ference: the premise of the transference's motivating mobility of symbolizations on the part of the analyst is structurally analogous to that of reference itself: something is what it is because it is something else. Thanks to différance, a sign is, by definition, what it is by virtue of its ability to stand for what it is not. Authority - the analyst's, for example - is what it is by virtue of what it can be by contrast, in the symbolizations to which the analyst lends his or her plasticity. To the extent such symbolization stops - a function as it is of the relation between the two planes upon which the analysis has proceeded, the immediate and the transferential, very like the two planes of récit and histoire in narratology - the tension that drives the narrative of the analysis itself also stops. In other words, once the difference that allows symbolization to be maintained collapses, relations between patient and analyst grow normal; that is to say, the analysis is "completed."
Once récit recognizes itself as such - once the transferential symbolizations that produce an analytic histoire assigned to the patient's primary process comes to a halt, or at least to a cease-fire - its putative difference from the histoire it supposedly only recounts collapses, too, rendering the analytic scenario all that it had ever been anyway: the byplay of a series of récits and interruptions, all designed to evoke the always absent causality of the unconscious factors to which they appear to refer. To arrive, then, at the immediate - for Strachey, a figure meant to represent the fact of straightforward interlocution between consenting adults rather than the mediate symbolizations between them that reciprocally produce the roles of patient and analyst instead - is to arrive at the usually unthinkable terminus of an analysis. The transference, in other words, is what allows for the analytic production of primary-process material as an obviously direct function of the analyst's interference with the patient's discourse, whether by speech or silence. Transferential authority serves as a kind of marker around which, scene to scene, imago to imago, the patient is conducted into an associative and inferential realm of elaboration - both in his or her reactive speech and in the silence beyond the session that the analyst never hears - that situates, by definition and after the fact, the primariness its mutative play has succeeded in rearing. For Strachey, the trajectory of the transference increasingly dissolves its own authority as the very sign of its success.
We already know these narratological configurations particularly well in literature. Paradise Lost is probably the frankest instance in English of a text that freely admits how and why the putative immediacies that give its narration the aura of presence are the function of contrast or negation. The garden, innocent man and woman, all the poem's pre-linguistic primacies are, like Freud's unconscious, really the result of fallen - that is to say, belated - modes of narration. Heeding the conditions that Gabriel and Michael lay down (and that Joyce will later on overtly invert so as to clarify them in "The Dead"), Milton broadcasts his "erring" but necessary reversal of temporal priorities ("a new train of intermediate images," as Dr. Johnson puts it in the Life) in the very construction of the poem's histoire - the story it tells - by explicitly announcing, even exploiting, its retroactive production by means of its anthological récit. The mechanism of readerly belief in novels or any narrative is, of course, similar. David Copperfield, presaging the readerly metaphors that chart Pip's progress in the later Great Expectations, is thereby the novelization of the production of an author - a prior cause - that accounts for the earlier reality of David's life by means of a deferred account of it. The tension of narrative desire is, like the dissolution of the transference, released in closure by the collapse of the (only) functional difference between récit and histoire as each tale proceeds. Great Expectations concludes with stability because Pip has managed the same for himself.
If the structure of reference and the transference are very largely the same, then both in turn are structurally akin to the nature of psychoanalytic thought itself - that is, to the production of (the objects of) its knowledge.1 Much as the play between récit and histoire produces the illusion of an aesthetic world of whatever referential order in the structure of narrative proper, so the play between patient and analyst produces the very ground of the subject's interiority in tandem with its production of the analytic discourse it tautologically signifies. Like a literary text, the transference in analysis becomes in retrospect not just an instrument that works upon objects or states of mind it may come upon, but the self-engendering ground of its discursive scenario from the start. As we already know, Freud's various origins or primacies - the unconscious, the primary process, even the originary father - are produced as retroactive functions of their symptoms or effects - consciousness, the secondary process, the son. As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere (Meisel, "Freud," "Reflexive Realism"), the ineluctable modality of psychoanalytic knowledge is that of retrospection or, as Freud calls it in the celebrated case of the Wolf Man, deferred action or Nachträglichkeit. While it may appear at first that deferred action is the structure of the patient's memory alone, it is also evident that it is the structure of the analyst's knowledge of the patient as well - Freud's narration doubles rather than simply reports that of his patient. In fact, the two narrations are in the final instance inseparable. What comes later - Freud's récit - effectively puts into place what comes before it - the apparent quiddity of the Wolf Man's histoire. As the text of the case history graphically attests - especially if we are attentive to the almost comic revisions to which the primal scene is subject as the narrative unwinds - Freud's vaunted primacies are later constructions that suggest the very category of the primal scene to be, like screen memories, a (re)presentation after the fact of something that happened only because it was required to happen.
In a real sense, then, we can say that Freud is, like his famous patient, belated in relation to his own discoveries. While we may like to think that Freud characteristically finds the cause or original that accounts for its later symptomatic tokens - it is actually the other way around: the later, symptomatic tokens - whether neuroses, dreams, or slips - are the real motivation for the retroactive invention of prior causative categories (the unconscious paradigmatic among their permutations) that may be said to account for them. As Nietzsche remarks, we too often mistake consequence for cause, and in Freud's case the mistake is especially evident in the history of his normative reception, masking as it does the very pivot or fulcrum of his power as a mythographer and so allowing him to appear to be a mimetic phenomenologist - a scientist - rather than a poet on the heights.

Translation as Transference

Given such conditions, there is only one avenue of Freudian discipleship that is preconditionally identical with the structure of analysis itself, and that is the structure of translation. Among the many who tried it, from A. A. Brill to Joan Riviere, Strachey alone seems to have understood that the very project of translation redoubled the project of analysis as such. For, much as analysis itself produces its originals - the unconscious and its brother variations - as the belated effects of its narration of them, so too does translation as a project produce the simulacrum of an original behind it as the price of its success. Of course, weak translations - literal ones that believe in pedantic correspondence rather than imaginative equivalence - are victim, like vulgar analysis, to the notion that there really is an original - a fathering text, like a genuine primal scene - to which the belated translator or disciple must remain strictly faithful. By contrast, strong translation - the kind that reimagines and reinvents in the awesome shift from the signifying fields of one language and its history into another's - knows that the prior original or father-text is both in practice and effect only belatedly present once the translation has been accomplished. The Homeric original, for example, gains its authority precisely because we receive it belatedly in at least two ways, one inescapable even if the other is not. Without Greek, we receive it simply in translation; but even without translation, we receive it as the direct effect of a fall from the fullness of oral speech to the secondariness of writing. The secondariness of Homer's founding epics in relation to themselves is in fact the constitutive irony upon which their authority durably rests. And on the basis of such a decidedly secondary original - the kind of phenomenon that even in 1800 Wordsworth, for example, can only describe paradoxically as "originally derived" - we customarily bestow a phantom legitimacy upon the prior fullness to which it bears witness only rhetorically.
Given also the ways in which all texts - Freud's originals included - are profoundly unstable to begin with, semiotically porous, deconstructible, even an empirical attempt to maintain the fixed reality of the fathering origin of Freud's German is likely to end in the lessons in narratology such questioners as Bruno Bettelheim never had. In the case of translation as authoritative as the Standard Edition, matters are largely closed. That Bettelheim's outburst is a combination of nostalgia and resistance is clear. That strong translation is in fact agonistic is already clear to Wordsworth in his revised Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1802. "A translator," says the poet, "endeavours . . . to surpass his original, in order to make some amends for the general inferiority to which he feels he must submit." That translation is also transferential is equally clear: the translator, says Wordsworth in the same passage, actually "deems himself justified when he substitutes excellences of another kind for those which are unattainable by him." Even more, such a strong notion of translation (in contrast, say, to Arnold's in the 1861 lectures on translating Homer) depends upon a poetics of reading that does not in the first place grant the fathering text the status of stable essence or fixed original.2 Much as the unconscious is an ensemble of signs that when read later on belatedly gains the priority of cause, so too does the fact of a strong translation suggest that whatever original it reinvents is not in the first instance the given beginning it may appear to be. After all, the multiplicity of readings to which Freud is subject in German - or to which Homer is in Greek - already puts in question the absolute status of the father-text from the start. A genuinely effective poetics of translation presupposes, in short, that language, even that of an original or primary text, functions as a set of mutable relations, not as a lode of presence, rendering the origin the result of its own derivations in the first place.
As translator, then, Strachey's discipleship to Freud is therefore a special one, occupying a sphere entirely apart from the two most historically influential ones, Jung on the right, Lacan on the left. The real power of the translation thereby turns on an irony so strategic that it loses in glamor or fame what it gains in influence: anonymity vs. eponymity. While the terms Jungian or Lacanian are commonly used, the designation Stracheyesque is virtually never used. But despite Strachey's relative anonymity, his power or influence is in fact far more pervasive than that of any of the other disciples, even Jung or Lacan. One is even inclined to submit that Strachey alone of all the disciples resolved his relation to the psychoanalytic origin, to the Freud to whom we can never return, in a unique or successful way. Whether or not a real act of parricide is behind the subsequent totem by which Feud customarily assures us of the crime's prior reality - as though to answer affirmatively his own ambiguity as to the question of the reality of such primal scenes in the Wolf Man - Oedipus is, of course, always a question of how murderously the father is to be handled by the disciple anyway. In Strachey's case, the answer to the question, "Does the father, Freud, retain priority?" is a surprising one. For Strachey - and likely for Strachey alone among psychoanalysts - the answer is no. In a Christianization of the overcoming of totemism, Strachey as translator consumes the very corpus - the body or original of the father, Freud - by consuming the real body or corpus of his text, not the biographical body of Masson, Sulloway, or Balmary. (The metaphor of ingestion also turns out to be the very means by which Strachey tropes such a radical sublimation of the Oedipus complex in his other important essay, "Some Unconscious Factors in Reading" [1930].) Now the parentheses can be removed from trans(re)ference, too, since the nature of Strachey's discipleship in fact consumes Freud's original text entirely - consumes the original to which it refers, its own English referents entirely different from those of the text translated, which has been brought instead into the thickets of the history of the English usage that even Freud himself does not occupy - besetzt - himself.
The irritating history of justification, hesitation, and praise of the Standard Edition ignores the far plainer fact that, from the point of view of psychoanalysis itself, the Standard Edition is most significant as an instance of sublimated rather than repressed discipleship. It is no less than a disservice to history to use it as a means of engaging in the sullen, nonpsychoanalytic quibble that translation as an activity ought to be judged on the basis of the adequation of a later text to its prior original. Translation is instead reimagination within systematic limits. Though Strachey practiced analysis and was a believer in the faith, surely his quite real control of what Freud had to say made it equally plain to him that psychoanalysis fashions its very objects of inquiry by making their absence the inescapable mode of their presence. Such rhetorical irony could hardly have escaped Strachey, pacing the lawn of his brother's house at Ham Spray with Alix, and may be said to have led him to the kind of position in which he had already found himself as a successful translator, namely the position that psychoanalysis itself is altogether a tissue of language whose referents by definition disappear when invoked.
Hence the characteristically saving failure on Strachey's part not to fall into the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that distinguishes, or fails to distinguish, the nature of virtually all other discipleships to Freud, and that adds a component of vulgarity even to Lacan's. It is nothing less than the belief that Freud's texts are about something other than their own effects. Indeed, so constitutive is this paradox to psychoanalysis that we turn away from it as readily as we always have from the like notion of repression. Whether or not our negation thereby confirms the truth of what it denies is, of course, best left unresolved.


1. Strachey's model for the transference necessarily clarifies the structure of Bloomsbury's common project as well, and his older brother Lytton Strachey's neglected masterpieces in particular - Eminent Victorians, Queen Victoria, and Elizabeth and Essex, the last dedicated to James and Alix, and applauded by Freud, in a letter to Lytton, as "steeped in the spirit of psychoanalysis" (Meisel and Kendrick 1985, 332). There is, as one might expect, an exact match between the structure of Jamesian transference and Lyttonian historiography. Eminent Victorians, for example, reflects upon its own mode of text-production by virtue of narrating stories about the powerful negotiation of texts. It narrates itself by narrating something else that turns out to be like it, a procedure I have elsewhere termed reflexive realism (Meisel 1984, "Reflexive Realism"). In Queen Victoria and Elizabeth and Essex, Lytton even goes so far as to narrate quite directly the historical emergence of his own burlesqued psychological categories. Moreover, Jamesian transference not only formalizes Lytton's project but also suggests the degree to which psychoanalysis was - as Woolf by negation most famously reminds us - a significant part of the plainly collective achievement of Bloomsbury as a sensibility, which rotates the rhetoric of politics and privacy programmatically, whether in the texts of Woolf or Keynes or even G.E. Moore, and which finds its best slogan in James's psychoanalytic oxymoron, "psychic economy" (see Meisel 1987).

2. For a Stracheyesque correction of Arnold on translation, see Lytton Strachey.

Works Cited

Balmary, Marie. 1982. Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis: Freud and the Hidden Fault of the Father. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1983. Freud and Man's Soul. New York: Knopf.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P. and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953 - 74. All references and citations from Freud are from the Standard Edition and are noted in the text by volume and page number.

---. "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis." SE 17: 7 - 122.

---. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. SE 18: 69 - 143.

Masson, Jeffrey. 1984. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Meisel, Perry and Walter Kendrick, eds. 1985. Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924-25. New York: Basic Books.

Meisel, Perry. 1981. "Freud as Literature." Introduction to Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

---. "Freud's Reflexive Realism." October 28 (1984): 43 - 59.

---. 1987. The Myth of the Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reich, Wilhelm. 1946. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Trans. Theodore P. Wolfe. New York: Orgone Institute Press.

Roustang, François. 1983. Psychoanalysis Never Lets Go. Trans. Ned Lukacher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Strachey, James. "Some Unconscious Factors in Reading." International Journal of Psychoanalysis 11 (1930): 322-331.

---. "The Nature of the Therapeutic Action of Psychoanalysis." International Journal of Psychoanalysis 15 (1934): 127-159.

Strachey, Lytton. "A Victorian Critic." In Literary Essays. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Harcourt, n.d. 209 - 213.

Sulloway, Frank. 1979. Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. New York: Basic Books.

Winnicott, D.W. 1974. "Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development." Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth: Pelican. 130-138.

Originally published in University of Hartford Studies in Literature, Spring 1988