"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)




Psychoanalysis and Aestheticism

by Perry Meisel

Freud as Literature

Freud's influence—its nature, its history, its origins—is a complex affair. Michel Foucault, in his essay “What Is an Author?” (1969), describes it with extraordinary precision. Like Marx, he writes, Freud is the “initiator” of a “discursive practice”:
Freud is not simply the author of The Interpretation of Dreams or of Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious and Marx is not simply the author of the Communist Manifesto or Capital: they both established the endless possibility of discourse.… In saying that Freud founded psychoanalysis, we do not simply mean that the concept of libido or the techniques of dream analysis reappear in the writing of Karl Abraham or Melanie Klein, but that he made possible a certain number of differences with respect to his books, concepts, and hypotheses, which all arise out of psychoanalytic discourse. (131-32)
Foucault's animosity toward Freud in the latter phase of his own career, particularly in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976), is itself an example of Freud's influence as Foucault describes it. Foucault is a Freudian because he cannot help it. Freud is part of the air we breathe; indeed, he is the air we breathe, whether we like it or not.
As Foucault suggests, Freud's customary stance as a narrator is really, to use a contemporary metaphor, an interactive one. He invites you to argue with him. He invites you, not to be persuaded, but to resist. It is not unlike the analytic situation. This rhetorical site is where the “truth” of psychoanalysis is, as it were, performed—in the agreement between reader and writer, patient and analyst, to disagree about something that is, presumably, already there. This is why it is not, in the first or the last instance, a question of the empirical truth or falsehood of Freud's claims. What matters is the structure of Freudian reader-response that puts those claims into place. No wonder the perils of psychoanalytic treatment include ignoring physical causes for suffering. The nature of Freud's institutional misreading is often, to use a tired but true metaphor, religious, the result of treating the Founder's text as though it were Scripture. This is also why Freud, like the Bible, is literature. His texts are polysemous, but his interpreters, not being literary critics, don't simply fail to celebrate Freud's endless posibilties of meaning; they reduce Freud's texts to meaning one thing rather than another. Arguments with Freud's “truth,” whether from Grünbaum's perspective (1984) or from Masson's (1984), fail to address this simple but decisive point. In so doing, such arguments also succeed, quite against their intentions, in actually promoting Freud's continued success. Disagreements with psychoanalysis maintain, rhetorically speaking, the disputable truth to which psychoanalysis does or does not properly refer. Indeed, the more disagreements the merrier. This is the situation that Foucault describes.
It is therefore the constitutive elements of Freud's writing and the ways in which they shape the world of psychoanalytic process that deserve our primary attention. Freud's method of handling us as readers is so familiar that we tend to overlook the devices that structure it. Chief among them is Freud's famous irony, although it is never simply a withering existential contempt. Indeed, Freud's tone and manner are always genuinely ironic, since they say one thing while meaning another. The narrator can engage, and even persuade, the reader by appealing to his or her presumably superior judgment when the narrator's judgment seems to be weak or foolhardy. The deliberate comparison of the case histories in Studies on Hysteria (1895) to “short stories” (160), for example, makes the reader think that Freud is selling himself short. The reader responds with an involuntary sympathy. The ironic later Freud earns the reader's generosity in a similar fashion: by appealing, with extraordinary audacity, directly to the reader's unwillingness to accept his dark arguments, in Civilization and its Discontents (1930), for example, or in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938). The reader responds with a heightened sense of his or her own argumentative courage and fullness of heart. Such writing is, as we sometimes call it today, following Mikhail Bakhtin, dialogical, rich with contending tongues and defined by their collision. Nor is such a volatile kind of writing without its startling implications.
If, as Foucault maintains, the key to Freud's texts is that they produce the endless possibility of argument with them, then, to use Harold Bloom's term, their “misreading” becomes their only and outrageous rule. This is not just the structure of your reading of Freud or mine; it is also, as Foucault notes, the institutional structure of psychoanalytic history itself, which, like our contemporary skirmishes, is defined by disagreement and debate.
Transference, of course, is the clinical trope for this mode of relation, and it regulates the economy of Freud studies as well as of Freudian practice. We see this aspect at its most charming in the Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, the brief series of lectures that Freud delivered at Clark University in 1909, with a marketing purpose in mind. We see this aspect of Freud at its most pugnacious in The Question of Lay Analysis (1926), as Freud, with a mercilessness reserved for questions that fall, properly speaking, outside the realm of psychoanalytic theory, takes his reader through a series of breakdance confrontations that require a continuous reexamination of one's assumptions simply in order to keep one's feet. Here confrontation serves not to antagonize but to stabilize the reader in a new, wider field of reference and feeling that the presumed antagonism has actually created. Freud is a dialectician, provoking his reader to bring an entire trail of beliefs and assumptions into play—positively, negatively, or in between. Nor is transference the only mechanism that thickens the Freudian plot. There is also overdetermination. How can there be a “single” reading of a Freudian text—I emphasize the dubious status of the “single” in psychoanalysis by placing it in quotation marks—even when a “single” subject attempts one? There are too many vicissitudes at work in text and subject alike to vouchsafe it.
Rich similitudes between text and phenomenon don't just crop up in Freud. They positively structure his work. I have elsewhere (1984) called this dimension of Freud's texts Freud's “reflexive realism”—the way in which they tend to double the objects they describe. Freud's psychical mechanisms resemble the mechanisms of his text, and the mechanisms of his text resemble the mechanisms of his psychical apparatus. There are any number of doublings to discuss in addition to the reader's transferential relation to Freud's writing and the overdeterminations that condition it. Roman Jakobson's identification of condensation and displacement with metaphor and metonymy is perhaps the most well-known (1956). More recently, Donald Spence (1982) and Peter Brooks (1985, 1994) have elaborated the details that link the narrative mechanisms of the psychical apparatus, those of the ego in particular, with those of narrative as such, giving the final touches to a long tradition of regarding Freud's writing as literary that begins with Kenneth Burke and John Crowe Ransom (see Meisel 1981).
Nor is allegory absent. The argumentative agons of Freud's writing often mirror their theoretical concerns. Narcissism is the central category of psychoanalysis during the intense self-scrutiny that characterizes Freud's metapsychological phase, much as Freud's concern with the authority of the new psychoanalytic model of mind in The Ego and the Id (1923) is bound up with a defense of the Oedipus complex. Indeed, as Harold Bloom has noted (1978), Freud's career is structured like a poetic quest-romance, with its movements guided by the trope of deferred action. Each major text overtly revises the one before it as we move from Studies on Hysteria to the dream book, from the dream book to the occlusions of the metapsychological phase, and from the metapsychology to the high ground of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), by which time Freud's system has been well enough refined to sustain shocks of any kind.

“Constancy” and Chiasmus

Let me, however, focus on only two doublings or similitudes here, with the aim of drawing out an additional relation between Freud and literature. The first is the “principle of constancy,” a notion that the young Freud borrowed from the German empirical psychologist and philosopher Gustav Fechner, and one that turns out to be a principle of Freud's writing as well as of his theory.1 Fechner's “principle of constancy” (or “principle of stability”) plays a role in Freud's attempt to imagine the psychical apparatus as early as 1895, in both Studies on Hysteria and the Project for a Scientific Psychology. In an 1892 letter to Breuer, Freud refers to it as “the theorem concerning the constancy of the sum of excitation” (147). Breuer, who admired Fechner second only to Goethe (Jones 1953, 23), describes the mechanism three years later in his theoretical section of Studies on Hysteria, giving credit to Freud for the newer, psychoanalytic variation: “Here for the first time,” writes Breuer, “we meet the fact that there exists in the organism a ‘tendency to keep intracerebral excitation constant’ (Freud)” (Freud and Breuer 185, 197; Breuer's italics). In the Project, the principle of constancy is called “the principle of neuronal inertia: that neurones,” as Freud puts it there, “tend to divest themselves of quantity” (1895, 296). Freud gives credit for the idea to Fechner, however, only in 1920, when he quotes him directly in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
“In so far as conscious impulses always have some relation to pleasure or unpleasure, pleasure and unpleasure too can be regarded as having a psychophysical relation to conditions of stability and instability . . . . Every psycho-physical motion . . . approximates to complete stability, and is attended by unpleasure in proportion as, beyond a certain limit, it deviates from complete stability.” (Fechner 1873; qtd. in Freud 1920, 8)
Although Fechner allowed Freud to solve a major theoretical problem, his influence provoked anxiety. No wonder Freud for many years would not show exactly what he had taken from him. The principle of constancy is a way of explaining why “abreaction” or the “cathartic method” won't do in Studies on Hysteria. The mind cannot simply “talk” away its losses or seek discharge from tensions in pleasure; it must learn to absorb them. Abreaction is not sufficient to obtain a state of constancy or inertia. An increased sense of the mind's ability to act as a sponge for stimulation is necessary. This is the change that Beyond the Pleasure Principle brings to Freud's thinking.
“Discharge,” as it turns out, is always incomplete. A residue of stimulation always remains behind, whether from within or without, as a material token of the self's experience. In this sense, memory has a physical dimension. “Constancy” must have more than “discharge” at its service.2 Otherwise, it would threaten to spill out the contents of the very self it means to protect. Thus, its central role in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and, later, in The Ego and the Id. Here, we already have a good sense of the new structural model of mind that Freud formalizes in 1923, and of the way it solves problems that the earlier topographical model, relying on the discharge of stimulation to keep consciousness clean or constant, could not. It can represent the psychical apparatus as a machine designed to store influence and stimulation rather than to discharge or expel them. Consciousness can never be swept clean; its boundaries are open to question, even in the midst of full functioning. Pleasure, the grander version of what the early Freud calls simply wish-fulfillment, is no longer the organism's chief motivation in life. Survival is, or at least appears to be. Indeed, to invoke the “organism” rather than the self or subject is to measure what else has changed in Freud's theory: a shift away from the early focus not just on the ego, but on consciousness (see also Solms 1997). Freud's concern now is less with “consciousness,” and even psychical life, and more, to use Virginia Woolf's phrase, with “life itself” (1919, 107). Survival depends upon the existence of an organism stable enough as such to be an entity differentiated from the rest of the world. What does one struggle against in order to survive? The desire to rest, to be at one with an otherwise antagonistic alterity. This is the death instinct. Hence, constancy is not the discharge of stimulation in the release once known as pleasure. Constancy is the endless absorption of alterity, despite the fact that being has as its premise a distinctness from what it is not.
If we look closely at Fechner's role in Freud's early thinking, it is already the possibility of a structural model of mind that interests him. Excess or discharge was even then to be regarded as symptomatic rather than as purgative. Another notion was required to give “constancy” a means of facilitation and representation. In The Interpretation of Dreams, “the great Fechner,” as Freud there calls him (1900, 536), provides him with it: the concept of psychical locality. Even in the book's first chapter, the latter concept allows Freud to imagine “a mental apparatus built up of a number of agencies arranged in a series one behind the other” (49; Freud's italics). The mental apparatus is, in other words, built for storage. This notion leads Freud in Chapter 7 to propose a model of mind that already moves beyond the topography of consciousness and the unconscious that is presumably dominant in The Interpretation of Dreams, and that intimates the later structural model of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id. Its metaphoricity is that of inside and outside, not of surface and depth. The operative term is “series,” as Freud gives us a psychical “apparatus” rather than a psychical archeology:
I shall carefully avoid the temptation to determine psychical locality in any anatomical fashion. I shall remain upon psychological ground, and I propose simply to follow the suggestion that we should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope or a photographic apparatus, or something of the kind. On that basis, psychical locality will correspond to a point inside the apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. . . . The components . . . we will give the name of “agencies,” or (for the sake of greater clarity) “systems.”
(1900, 536-37)
These “agencies” or “systems” transact stimulation between the inside and the outside, preserving balance or constancy in the system as a whole—between, that is, inside and outside as such—by using psychical localities as a “series” of storehouses, some closer to the surface than others. The path of Freud's career after 1900 is a path towards a model of the mind that will fulfill the requirements of the principle of constancy, not only as a principle of harmonious Freudian psyche, but also as a principle of coherent Freudian textuality. The psychical apparatus is a compensatory one designed to maintain the principle of constancy in relation to both past and present stimulation, just as Freud's text, through all the phases of his career, is a compensatory apparatus designed to maintain its own power and coherence in relation to the literary and scientific influences that threaten it—Helmholtz and Brücke's, for example, or, for that matter, Fechner's own—and to the potential for incoherence in the system itself. From a reflexive or literary point of view, constancy is the principle of each text's coherence, and of Freud's career as a whole as it moves forward.
Not unlike “constancy” in its reflexive or literary implications is the second doubling I wish to discuss. It is based upon the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, which Jean Laplanche (1970, vii) has identified as characteristic of both Freud's writing and his theory, although with an intent different from mine. Chiasmus is a loop or a crossing over—“the pleasure of art,” for example, and “the art of pleasure.” We see it often in writing, as a way of noting interdependence and, sometimes, paradox. My argument in this essay, for example, may be put chiastically: if we can read literature psychoanalytically, we can also read psychoanalysis literarily. Lionel Trilling likewise describes what he calls the “reciprocal” relation between Freud and literature through the use of chiasmus: “the effect of Freud upon literature,” he writes, “has been no greater than the effect of literature upon Freud” (1940, 32). On a clinical plane, chiasmus is sometimes the structure of psychical defense. The privileged kid becomes a delinquent in order to maintain his or her sense of difference or distinction. Chiasmus is also the structure of the analytic situation. In order to proceed with life, the patient falls ill. In order to fall ill, the patient in the meantime identifies, however symptomatically, all that he or she wishes to repress by producing symptoms. Chiasmus is also key to the conversation with the reader that Freud's writing inspires. Reader and text cross over one another constantly, thereby bringing the play of psychoanalytic discourse into being. Between them, they also mimic or simulate the structure of the Freudian subject. If as a reader one is always at odds with Freud's texts, the Freudian subject is constitutively at odds with itself. According to Freud's second, structural theory, one is likewise constitutively at odds with the world, as an organic precondition for hatching or nurturing the ability to be self-divided psychologically. The figure of chiasmus, in other words, structures both the phenomenology and the ontology of the Freudian subject. Chiasmus is, in effect, the rhetorical structure of the principle of constancy. The efficiency of Freud's reflexivity—the doubling or similitude between the themes and structure of his writing—is almost enough to lull us into a merely aesthetic appreciation of psychoanalysis as literature.

Psychoanalysis and Aestheticism

Of course, that depends upon what we mean by “aesthetic.” Aesthesis means “perception,” and the originator of “aesthetic” criticism, the Oxford don Walter Pater, took as his own focus the structure of human apprehension. Like Fechner, although beginning some twenty-five years later, Pater had a wide appeal. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance, published in 1873, vaulted him into instant, if controversial, fame. The book divided its readers into two camps: those who agreed with Pater's endorsement of pleasure as the chief value in art and life alike; and those who, like Virginia Woolf's father, Lesile Stephen (1875), found it necessary to mount a moralistic counteroffensive. The rigors of Pater's presumably soft “impressionism,” however, are a perpetual surprise. Like psychoanalysis, aestheticism is a discourse of and about stability, transgression, and overdetermination; like psychoanalysis, it is also a discourse that searches out the nature and the origin of the boundaries that make up subjectivity as we know it. Not only that. The similarities between psychoanalysis and aestheticism lead to an unsettling question: How new is Freud's revolutionary formulation of subjectivity? Within his own fields of reference—neurology, oneirocriticism, empircial psychology—Freud is, given his formidable skills as a tendentious bibliographer, without peer. Juxtaposed with Pater, however, Freud finds a surprising double or mirror image. It is also Pater's disciples, the Bloomsbury Group, who will, quite literally, translate and publish Freud in English beginning in 1922 (see Meisel and Kendrick 1985).
Freud's friendliness toward Pater is manifest in his 1910 study of Leonardo, in which he discusses Pater's essay on Leonardo in The Renaissance no fewer than four times (68n1, 110, 111, 115). Freud is especially impressed by the Englishman's ability to see in the Mona Lisa's smile the “sinister menace,” as Freud puts it, adopting Pater's language, of the “unbounded tenderness” of Leonardo's mother (45). As with Freud, Pater's emphasis is on “brain-building” (1878, 173), or self, and the influences that shape it, particularly the deferred action that fashions the self through retrospection (see Meisel 1987). Pater's prefiguration of Freud emerges in an even wider light in his essay on Wordsworth (1874), which estimates the poet's strength by focusing on his understanding of melancholy. Like the heroes of Pater's own imaginary portraits, Wordsworth's heroes suffer from reminiscences that shatter the ego and that often take on, despite the beauty of the language that renders them, an almost crudely material form. Wordsworth represents the cause of grief through apostrophe—in charged sites of mourning, real and psychological, such as the churchyard in “The White Doe of Rylstone,” or, on a grander scale, in the animation of natural landscape by the poet's own eye in “Tintern Abbey” or The Prelude. All apostrophe has mourning at its root. The churchyard, and even one's childhood home, are examples of what Pater calls “that pitiful awe and care for the perishing human clay, of which relic-worship is but the corruption” (1874, 49-50).
Brooding on death, however, has its uses. Like Pater's Marius the Epicurean, rearranging with his hands the encrypted bones of his ancestors, Wordsworth's heroes, especially the poet himself, thereby succeed in moving beyond melancholy by virtue of its exaggerated exercise. This also allows Wordsworth to redistribute the pain he represents by evoking pathos in his reader.3 Nor is it a “discharge” or cathartic model that informs this kind of Romantic pleasure. It is, rather, a model of “constancy,” as it were, since this mode of reading raises and enlarges the reader's appreciation rather than asks the reader to judge. It is a magic or “religious” (Pater 1874, 49) kind of melancholy, culturally productive rather than symptomatic. It allows the reader to see more.
But the most far-reaching similarity between Freud and Pater is to be found in a comparison of the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance and Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Pater's views are already Freud's, from both a rhetorical and a phenomenological point of view. Pater's “Conclusion” contains an implicitly Freudian portrait of the psyche in a state of willful undress:
Let us begin with that which is without—our physical life. Fix upon it in one of its more exquisite intervals, the moment, for instance, of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat. What is the whole physical life in that moment but a combination of natural elements to which science gives their names? But these elements, phosphorous and lime and delicate fibres, are present not in the human body alone: we detect them in places most remote from it. Our physical life is a perpetual motion of them—the passage of blood, the wasting and repairing of the lenses of the eye, the modification of the tissues of the brain by every ray of light and sound. (1873, 233-34)
Where the line falls between self and world, inside and outside, is difficult to ascertain; it changes moment to moment in its effort to maintain a state of constancy in subject and object alike. As in Freud, the self is also construed, first and foremost, as a physical or material self, even though, in both writers, materiality is infinitely porous: “That clear, perpetual outline of face and limb is but an image of ours, under which we group them—a design in a web, the actual threads of which pass out beyond it” (234). Nor is Pater lacking Freud's ambivalence. The self's very separation from the world is both a triumph and a defeat. “In the narrow chamber of the individual mind,” says Pater, there is, for the most part, only “isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.” Pater's solution to such melancholy is to recognize it, like a good Freudian, for what it is—a tissue of images and illusions: “When reflexion begins to play upon those objects they are dissipated under its influence; the cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic; each object is loosed into a group of impressions—colour, odor, texture—in the mind of the observer” (234-35). To “be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite,” says Pater, is “success in life.” “Our failure,” he warns, is “to form habits” (236).
Pater's scientific metaphors—“lenses,” “tissues”—are surprising, especially the way in which he uses them to break down the presumed division between the physical and the psychical, and to regard them as reciprocal categories. They form a chiasmus, or a crossing over; their play, or the lack thereof, is structured by a principle of constancy.
Pater, as it turns out, not only prefigures Freud; he also recalls Fechner. As far as we can tell, Pater did not read Fechner (see Inman, 1981, 1990), although their similarities, like Pater's with Freud himself, are abundant. Indeed, the first volume of Fechner's Elements of Psychophysics presents a model for the relation of body and mind that is an aesthetic as well as a psychoanalytic one. Much as the inner and the outer are, for Pater, interdependent perspectives, the inner and the outer are, for Fechner, “reciprocal” (1860, 59). “Kinetic energy,” Fechner says, “can be developed in a system through the mutual interaction of its parts.” Its “fluid media,” in a delectable phrase, are governed by structures of “mutual influence” (22). The “magnitudes” of given “stimuli are … representative of the extent of physical activities that are related to sensations dependent on them in some manner” (19). “Psychophysics” is not an oxymoron; it is a chiasmus. “We find on closer examination that in their most general and ultimate sense,” writes Fechner, “psychical measures are based on the fact that an equal number of equally strong psychical impressions are due to an equal number of equally large physical causes” (51). For a moment, Fechner intimates Pater with uncanny accuracy: “The number of these psychical units is determined by the number of psychical impressions, where the magnitude of the cause of the single impression, or any multiple thereof, serves as a unit” (51). Even the return to a purely scientific vocabulary, however, cannot keep the deep structure of Fechner's prose from changing: “Thus, just as we can make physical measurements only on the basis of the relationship of the physical to the psychological, so we can, according to our principle, derive psychical measures on the basis of the same relationship, only applying it in reverse” (51).
Fechner's repeatedly chiasmatic figurations are in the service of a representation of organic systematicity whose structure is itself chiasmatic. It is also a structure regulated by a principle of constancy. Implicitly distinguishing his use of the term “conservation” from Helmholtz's, Fechner describes a system for which stability rather than discharge is the keyword: “The law of the conservation of kinetic energy then does not prevent the energy either of a system or of a part of the infinite system of the universe from temporarily changing, increasing, or diminishing, nor from changing permanently” (1860, 29-30). Fechner's idealism is manifest. In the first part of the sentence, his focus is on “the infinite system of the universe,” although, as his focus returns to change and measurement, his positivism also returns, as it does in the sentence following: “Only one thing is certain: the energy is restored when after any amount of preceding impulses, the parts of the system return to their original positions under the influence of their inner forces” (27). No wonder the notion of the “threshold” becomes useful (199ff.). As an empirical category, it is a representation of the condition for stability. As a rhetorical figure, it represents a site constituted by crossings—the vocabularies of Hegel and Helmholtz, for example—and regulated, like its empirical counterpart, by intensities of only a more or less bound kind. Fechner has solved the body/mind problem by reading each category as a function of the other.
Here, meanwhile, is a Paterian Freud, describing the birth of consciousness in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
What consciousness yields consists essentially of perceptions of excitations coming from the external world and of feelings of pleasure and unpleasure which can only arise from the mental apparatus; it is therefore possible to assign the system Pcpt.-Cs. a position in space. It must lie on the borderline between outside and inside; it must be turned towards the external world and must envelop the other psychical systems. It will be seen that there is nothing daringly new in these assumptions; we have merely adopted the views on localization held by cerebral anatomy, which locates the “seat” of consciousness in the cerebral cortex—the outermost, enveloping layer of the central organ. (1920, 24)
This “borderline” is the site of a chiasmatic crossing of Fechner and Pater, although Freud has widened the terrain and deepened the focus. Freud is no longer much interested in consciousness. He is, like Fechner and Pater before him, interested in the formation of the “threshold” between mind as such, especially in its unconscious functioning, and the world of sense to which it is constitutively opposed. Nor is this model topographical; it is structural and dynamic. It is the full-blown elaboration of the “series” model of The Interpretation of Dreams, dramatized in living terms.
Like Fechner and Pater, too, Freud uses the traditions of idealism and positivism dialectically—mind and sense are reciprocal or supplemental rather than at odds. But Freud also wishes to go further. He wishes to widen his view to account for the very origin of animate life as we know it:
Let us picture a living organism in its most simplified possible form as an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation. Then the surface turned towards the external world will from its very situation be differentiated and will serve as an organ for receiving stimuli. Indeed embryology, in its capacity as a recapitulation of developmental history, actually shows us that the central nervous system originates from the ectoderm. (1920, 26)
Then one of Freud's greatest perorations, all the more moving because, as in aestheticism, its materials are of a grossly material kind: “A crust would thus be formed which would at last have been so thoroughly ‘baked through’ by stimulation that it would present the most favorable possible conditions for the reception of stimuli and become incapable of any further modification” (26).
The similarity with Pater's description of consciousness is not only dramatic; it also reminds us, in startlingly physical terms, that the principle of constancy and the structure of chiasmus are, in Freud, Pater, and Fechner alike, one and the same. Experience has the form of a specific trope, and a specific trope is, in turn, the very shape of experience in the world. The psyche is, by definition, an achieved balance between inside and outside; indeed, it invents this very difference in order to become itself. It no longer has to seek “discharge,” as it did in the Project or Studies on Hysteria. Now the form of self-realization is one that absorbs and expunges stimulation in a reciprocal rhythm. Beyond the Pleasure Principle also allows Freud to restructure his relation to intellectual history. Without his skill as a Paterian surfer, the waves of overdetermination might capsize his navigation of endless cross-disciplinary sites. Freud's originality outlasts the opposition by keeping it talking deep into the night. The new model of the psychical apparatus in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is, as one might expect, itself an instance of this new combination of sensitivity and absorptiveness. The distinction between inside and outside to which the response to stimulation of organic matter gives rise is a model for the retention of influences without the danger of debilitation by any among them.
But Freud and Pater are not, it is also clear, of a single mind. Freud seems to champion the very “habit” towards which Pater casts a wary, drifter's eye. Pater is caught up, at least in the “Conclusion,” with the pleasure principle alone, while Freud has, presumably, moved “beyond the pleasure principle.” Are Pater and Freud at a crossroads? Certainly not. By moving “beyond pleasure,” Freud is not seeking to impose “habit” upong “flux”; he is, like Pater, seeking out what “flux” there may be in “habit” itself. Stability is, strictly speaking, a borderline condition. If the psychoanalytic component of aestheticism gives it a heightened precision of thought, the aesthetic component of psychoanalysis gives it a heightened poeticity. Each lends the other a supplement to sharpen the terms of its appeal.
Other questions, however, are near; they are of a more practical kind. Are there problems of influence regarding Freud that are left over in our account? Fechner's place in Freud's thinking is often clear, particularly the roles that psychical locality and the principle of constancy play in it. Fechner is inescapable. Freud shares with him the common shop of “German science.” But the question of Pater's influence upon Freud must also be raised. If Freud's relation to Fechner is motivated by the anxiety of influence, his relation to aestheticism, by contrast, is one not quite of parallelism or of congruence, but of overlap. Freud's relation to Pater, unlike his relation to Fechner, about whom he retains more “consciousness,” resembles the self's relation to the world in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: one in which the absorption of stimulation or “influence” becomes automatic or “unconscious.” It triggers no conflicts; it produces no symptoms. Pater is one of a series of impressions that Freud has absorbed. In contrast to the case of Fechner, there is no “scientific protocol,” however strategically it may be deployed, that requires him to use his name. Freud uses Pater's name for the sheer pleasure of doing so.


1. Fechner, despite more than three years of illness and seclusion from 1840 to 1843—well before the publication of his epochal Elements of Psychophysics in 1860—maintained both a devoted scholarly audience and, as a pamphleteer, a devoted popular one. Fechner occupied the borderline between Romantic science and an emergent positivism; he crossed the vocabulary of Kant and Hegel with physical experimentation and quantification. In his popular work, a “spiritualist” orientation often predominated. Frank J. Sulloway (1979), citing a history of scholarship (65ff.), underplays the difference between positivism and Romantic science, althought he does so in some measure to resist the influence of his strongest precursor, Henri Ellenberger (1970), who puts the distinction very securely in place (241, 431, 535-36; see also Ellenberger 1956).

2. Here is the point at which Freud abandons the “discharge” vocabulary of his official teachers, the positivist physiologists Helmholtz and Brücke, and exchanges it for Fechner's vocabulary. Although Fechner (1860) gives proper credit for “the great principle of the so-called conservation of energy” to Helmholtz (29), “constancy,” unlike the “conservation” in Helmholtz's mechanical metaphors, does not need to let out steam to function. See also Peter Amacher (1965) on Freud's teacher Meynert, who mediates between Brücke and Fechner as influences upon Freud by imagining reflex or discharge as implicity in the service of a principle of stability (36, 41).

3. It is also worth asking whether this is the origin, too, of the allure of the photographic image, whose “ontology,” as André Bazin (1945) famously described it, is based on the metaphor of embalming the human body. The photographic image measures a gap between what was once present or alive and is now absent or dead, a structure identical with that of Wordsworthian melancholy and the pathos that it evokes.


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Originally published in American Imago 58, Winter, 2001.