HAPPY LIKE NEUROTICS: ROLAND BARTHES, BEN LERNER, AND THE WRITING OF NEUROSIS.
Here I want to return to the unhappy fate of common happiness, in a deliberately minor key of literary theory and literature, to assess what might be articulated of common happiness out of the Benjaminian "wreckage" of modernity (Benjamin 1968, 257). Periods of happiness, GW. F. Hegel wrote, are "blank pages" in the history of the world (1956, 26). According to Hegel, these "periods of harmony" involve the suspension of the antithesis and so without this conflict allow no realization of freedom and leave no substantial traces (26). It appears that there is disjunction between history and happiness, between the possibility of writing or inscribing happiness within history. These pages remain, however, even if left blank. The great critical narratives of the twentieth century have cast doubt on whether even blank pages of happiness remain. Sigmund Freud, resonantly, described the aim of psychoanalysis as the transformation of "hysterical misery into common unhappiness" (1974, 393). Freud's tragic vision of humanity as riven by a constitutive dissatisfaction, one found within the sexual drive (1977, 258), suggested not only that happiness left no record but that happiness itself was impossible. This image of psychoanalysis is not strictly true. Freud, in his Introductory Lectures, defined successful analytic treatment as resulting in the "capacity for enjoyment and efficiency" (1973, 510). This has often been translated into a watered-down version of "love and work." In fact, Freud wrote "Genuss und Leistungsfahigkeit," which could be translated as enjoyment, or jouissance, and productive capability (Harari 2002, 109). Happiness returns, in an unstable form, at once linked to social production and reproduction but also potentially excessive to those limits.
Theodor Adorno violently rejected Freud's suggestion that happiness could be found in enjoyment and productive capability. For Adorno, psychoanalysis had fallen into producing an administered happiness that occluded the unhappiness of society as it is constituted. We live under the imperative, to use the resonant United Kingdom title of Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book, Smile or Die. Adorno is scornful of the situation when "the resolute proclamation of compulsive extravagance and champagne jollity, formerly reserved to attaches in Hungarian, is elevated in deadly earnest to a maxim of right living" (1974, 62). In this situation, the neurotic's repression and regression is a sign of reason, a sign of the attachment to remaining un-adapted to the compulsion to pleasure and happiness. For Adorno, happiness has a fugitive and negative existence, bound-up with the ways in which the subjection of society to exchange-value has made happiness a fetish. Here we find the limit-point of the attempt to extract some trace of happiness from the reigning unhappiness.
Adorno retained the image of a common happiness, although as a kind of vanishing point. Contemporary theory has tended to offer a different solution: adopting the Nietzschean stress on excessive joy, on Dionysiac excess, as the means to rupture with the "conformity" of everyday happiness. In The Gay Science Nietzsche defines "a new happiness" (2001, 7), which results from "constantly transforming all that we are into light and flame" (6). This is an experience reserved for a few, as Nietzsche's Zarathustra remarks: "Life is a fountain of delights but where the rabble drinks all wells are poisoned" (1961, 120). Nietzsche's aristocratic celebration of life as power of excess would become coordinated with jouissance, as extreme experience, notably via Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan, to generate a new disjunction of history and happiness. (2) Now happiness would often be condemned as commensurate with the everyday, the mass, the hapless consumer, and jouissance or excess celebrated as a new experience beyond the limits of historical inscription. This "aristocratism" of jouissance, while not actually faithful to the work of Bataille and Lacan, has become a common image. It risks denying the problem of common happiness in the celebration of excess only available to a few.
Here I want to trace this disjunction of history and happiness through the problem of the text and of textual pleasure. Central to my discussion will be Roland Barthes, who while programmatically opposing jouissance to pleasure (plaisir) also offers a sustained, if intermittent, reflection on happiness. It will be Barthes's probing of a necessary neurotic space, between jouissance and pleasure, which will suggest another image of happiness. This will be focused through the work of the contemporary poet and novelist Ben Lerner, as a writer who also tries to engage with the problem of happiness, precisely through a model of neurotic subjectivity. Lerner's reflexive, theoretically self-aware, and even self-involved fictions decrypt a strange image of happiness that surprises their neurotic narrators. The very fleeting and "minor" construction of such forms of happiness suggests a departure from the celebration of excess and jouissance as "true" pleasure, while also resisting the current "post-critical" celebration of chastened minor pleasures (Felski 2015, 116). In this case, happiness would offer the subversive inscription of something like a common good or common pleasure, which resists the aristocratic lure of excess and detachment.
THE LAST HAPPINESS
Barthes, in an early essay from 1958, proclaimed that Voltaire was "the last happy writer," and this is what divides us from him (1982, 151). The self-assurance of Voltaire derived from his historical position. Voltaire had the fortune to be struggling against a declining world in the name of the new ascendant forces of the bourgeoisie. This endowed him with the confidence of a critical position that would become successful, and in this instance "the writer was on history's side" (152). Karl Marx would note, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, that "Bourgeois revolutions, such as those of the eighteenth century, storm quickly from success to success. They outdo each other in dramatic effects; men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds and each day's spirit is ecstatic" (1973, 150). Although, as Marx notes, after this there is often a hangover (Katzenjammer), as these successes are absorbed. In the case of Voltaire his happiness is assured by the very vacuity of his opponents: "Jesuits, Jansenists, or parliaments, there were great frozen bodies, drained of all intelligence and filled with no more than a ferocity intolerable to the heart and the mind" (Barthes 1982, 152). Voltaire has won in advance, and rather than history being disjunctive to happiness, here the "flow" of history is what assures happiness.
For Barthes, the second element of Voltaire's happiness lies in his forgetting of history. The very confidence that goes with being in the flow of history results in an image of history that is, paradoxically, immobile: "if he has a philosophy, it is that of immobility" (1982, 153). Voltaire's deism left God as the creator, God as geometer, creating a world that then operated in his absence along ordered lines. In this ordered universe, according to Barthes, the only room left is that of the "game," "the very slight amplitude the constructor allows his pieces in which to move" (153). Voltaire's world is spatial, but the space of a journey that "has no density" (155). There is no alterity in Voltaire's journeying, we encounter no Others, but only the same human essence in "new habitations" (155). Happiness appears guaranteed by knowledge of everything before it has happened, a knowledge that appears historical but is, in fact, lacking all historicity. In Hegelian terms, this is knowledge that lacks negativity, a pure positivity that can only conform to a spatial mastery that abstracts from history.
Thirdly, Voltaire is a happy writer as he is an anti-systemic writer, one who dissociates intelligence and intellectuality (Barthes 1982, 156). The result is a policy of non-interference, what Barthes regards as a philosophy of liberalism, in which "the world is an order if we do not try too much to order it" (156). In this we could also find Voltaire's thinking strangely consonant with the modeling of happiness as flow, and with contemporary neo-liberal and theoretical doxa that stresses the undesirability and impossibility of planning contrasted with "spontaneous" and "organic" emergence. The spatial order of events is fixed, but fixed in such a way that guarantees confidence in the progress of history toward happiness. This is an unstable situation, however: "As a system of nonsystem, anti-intellectualism eludes and gains on both counts, perpetually ricocheting between bad faith and good conscience, between a pessimism of substance and a jig of form, between a proclaimed skepticism and a terrorist doubt" (157). Here Voltaire's happiness reveals its falsity, resulting in an oscillation that is the condition of its happiness at the expense of incoherence.
Barthes's lesson, unsurprising considering his commitment at this point to Brechtian and Marxist critique, is that: "We know that this simplicity and this happiness were bought at the price of an ablation of history and of an immobilization of the world" (1982, 157). Voltaire voids the negativity of history and the world, freezes them in place, to produce a happiness that cannot really go with the flow of a history that proceeds through negativity. Voltaire only offers the appearance of critique, one geared to the most obvious targets, one lacking substance. In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be the anti-Voltaire by insisting that humans are corrupted by society. Rousseau began the process of historical examination and movement, but left the legacy of "bad conscience" to the writer, the problem of a responsibility the writer cannot elude or honor (157). Unhappiness is returned to history, as its condition, but also as the only way to start to grasp happiness. To assume happiness from the beginning, to assume a consonance of happiness with history, is to deny that history and to evade critical responsibility.
This is why, we can speculate, Voltaire's happiness is not truly historical. The consonance with history is only a temporary condition and one structured by a false image of history. In contrast, Hegel had noted that world-historical individuals, the individuals who are most "at one" with history, experience this state as one of profound negativity:
Thus it was not happiness that they chose, but exertion, conflict, and labour in the service of their end. And even when they reached their goal, peaceful enjoyment and happiness were not their lot. Their actions are their entire being, and their whole nature and character are determined by their ruling passion. When their end is attained, they fall aside like empty husks. They may have undergone great difficulties in order to accomplish their purpose, but as soon as they have done so, they die early like Alexander, are murdered like Caesar, or deported like Napoleon. (Hegel 1956, 85)
In contrast, Voltaire lived in happiness, a state, according to Barthes, impossible for the modern writer living under the bloody experiences of the twentieth century. Barthes offers a critique of the ideological myth of happiness, in the style of his Mythologies, a critique geared to placing the writer back into history but also out of happiness.
If Barthes's early work took place under the sign of critique, notably under the influence of Brecht, he would then transit through structuralist "semiology" to a post-structuralist position. This is evident from his retrospective preface to Mythologies, written in 1970, where Barthes suggests that he would now move beyond the critique of petit-bourgeois culture and structuralism towards the "liberation of the signifier" (1973, 9). This attentiveness to the signifier, however, would still seem to leave happiness as an ideological category. It is Barthes's shift to post-structuralism that would embrace the body and pleasure, notably in The Pleasure of the Text. Now, Barthes is concerned with happiness and the problem of pleasure, displacing critique. Barthes announces that "hedonism has been repressed by nearly every philosophy; we find it defended only by marginal figures, Sade, Fourier; for Nietzsche, hedonism is a pessimism" (1975, 57). In line with the return to the "materialism" of the signifier, Barthes will try to recover a hedonism that does not succumb to the preference for "strong, noble values," including that counter-value of "Desire" (57),'
The Pleasure of the Text is well-known for one of Barthes's many programmatic binaries: plaisir/jouissance. (4) This appears to be a classic statement of the search for an excessive "enjoyment" that is a "true" pleasure beyond the constraints of bourgeois morality and bourgeois textuality, as well as beyond the "moralism" of political readings. In Barthes's pithy fragment: "The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father" (1975, 53; emphasis in original). For Barthes, both right and left have regarded the notion of pleasure as profoundly disturbing. This dismissal, in the case of the left, is "because of morality (forgetting Marx's and Brecht's cigars), one suspects and disdains any 'residue of hedonism'" (22). Barthes radicalizes the "residue of hedonism" as the effect of jouissance. This is achieved through the contrast between the text of pleasure, "the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria," and the text of jouissance, "the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts" (14). While constantly cutting between the two concepts Barthes also does not want to weaken the opposition so much that we have a merely "pacified" history (20). The antagonism of the intensive difference has to be retained, or the result is a pluralism that leaves no traction for pleasure.
Despite this, Barthes also tries to deconstruct this binary, to suggest that instead of an opposition we have an intensive continuum. It is not so much we can align a text of pleasure (Zola, Balzac, Dickens, or Tolstoy) against a text of jouissance (Bataille, Artaud, Sollers, or Burroughs), but rather explore the internal "cut" or "edge" which produces these different forms of pleasure (Barthes 1975, 20). Hence the contemporaneous S/Z, first published in 1970, would excavate a text of jouissance out of the "realism" of Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." The result, in Pleasure of the Text, is a fragmentary negotiation that tries to retain the "edge" of this distinction while all the same putting it under pressure. While ostensibly remaining within the framework of celebrating jouissance as an excessive force--one that remains, according to Barthes, "unspeakable" (1975, 21)--Barthes also pushes at the integration of this jouissance into pleasure (qua plaisir) and writing.
Perhaps the most striking moment of this desire to produce an integrated concept of pleasure and, we could suggest, happiness (as a radicalized hedonism), is Barthes's brief rehabilitation of the concept of neurosis. Of all the mental "disorders" neurosis has, perhaps, got the worst name, lacking the "glamour" and excess of hysteria, (5) psychosis, and perversion. Lacan, in his seventh seminar of 1959-1960 The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, suggests the ethic of psychoanalysis as one of not giving way on one's desire, while we could then characterize the neurotic as the one who does give way on their desire (1992, 314). The neurotic, we could vulgarly say, is the one who does not go all the way. This would be a misreading of Lacan, but one that remains persistent in the "heroic" reading of jouissance. (6) Barthes, who notes a suspicion of "insidious heroism" in our language (1975, 30; emphasis in original)--he has in mind Bataille--suggests the necessity of neurosis. The writer against neurosis, again Bataille is Barthes's subject of discussion, requires "that bit of neurosis" to engage the reader and to produce the text (5-6). This would be contrary to the "heroic" anti-neuroticism on a certain strain of writing. Along with Bataille, we could consider Artaud and, after them, Deleuze and Guattari. It is Deleuze and Guattari who announce, in Anti-Oedipus, that: "A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch" (1983, 2). They also insist, in their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, that neurosis is a "a desire that is already submissive and searching to communicate its own submission" (1986, 10; emphasis in original). In contrast, Barthes, with whatever reluctance, seems to admit the necessity of a constitutive neurosis. He notes: "Thus every writer's motto reads: mad I cannot be, sane I deign not to be, neurotic I am" (1975, 6; emphasis in original). The promise of jouissance finds itself only articulable in a neurotic fashion, which suggests a "reduction" of jouissance but one that would not simply correspond to plaisir. Neurosis opens a path in between, scrambling the division between jouissance and plaisir, and it is this path that can be pursued to think common happiness.
Barthes leaves the concept of neurosis unclarified. The clarification of the concept of neurosis is therefore crucial to substantiating my argument that neurosis might form another path of the consideration of collective happiness. This clarification is particularly difficult because, as Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis note in their entry on "Neurosis" in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, neurosis presented itself as an "original amalgam" that grouped together disorders we would differentiate as psychosomatic, neurological, and neurosis "proper" (1973, 267). Freud's own work involved attempting to differentiate this "amalgam" in various ways, but Laplanche and Pontalis conclude:
The task of trying to define neurosis, as revealed by clinical experience, in terms of the comprehension of the concept of neurosis, tends to become indistinguishable from the psycho-analytic theory itself, in that this theory was basically constituted as a theory of neurotic conflict and its modes. (Laplanche and Pontalis 1988, 269; emphasis in original)
The reconstruction of the concept of neurosis would seem to require the reconstruction of the history of psychoanalysis.
To narrow this problem, we can return to Freud's own explicit engagement with defining neurosis. In an early text, titled "The Neuroses of Defence (A Christmas Fairy Tale)," originally sent to Wilhelm Fleiss on January 1, 1896, Freud outlined his concept of neurosis in terms of psychic structure and symptoms. For Freud the development of the structure of neurosis involved, first, a sexual experience which is traumatic and premature. This would then be repressed and undergo a successful defense in which the experience would appear to disappear. Then, however, the repressed experience would return, due to the impact of a more recent traumatic experience. This resulted in the repressed experience overcoming the ego and "recovery with a malformation" (Freud 2001, 222). Neurosis would be this malformed recovery, in which the reactivated early sexual trauma now lodges within the psyche. Freud also identified a typology of different symptoms associated with neurosis, linking hysteria with conflict and obsessional neurosis with self-reproach (220). Freud retained the structural definition of neurosis as an instance of the "return of the repressed," in his 1913 text "The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis," suggesting that "the failure of repression and the return of the repressed ...are peculiar to the mechanism of neurosis" (1979a, 141).
The structure of neurosis involves the return of a traumatic sexual moment that is reactivated. This is the structure of "deferred action" (Nachtralichkeit), which as Laplanche and Pontalis suggest, following Lacan, invokes a different temporal experience for understanding subjectivity (1988, 112). The reactivation of a "past" trauma by a more recent event scrambles a linear temporality of psychic determination, in which we progress or fail to progress from infantile traumas to adult maturity suggesting, instead, a complex "play" of determinations that is exemplified in the mechanism of neurosis (112). The condition of neurosis would, therefore, indicate not so much a common state of humanity or a "normal" form of psychic disorder, but would unlock the determinations of subjectivity as a complex and fractured temporal process. In this way, we can give weight to Barthes's passing suggestion by recognizing that neurosis involves a pattern of sexual trauma and an experience of jouissance, but one which is experience through return and delay The "heroism" of "pure" jouissance is disrupted, and we can suggest that the fragmentary and repetitive form of The Pleasure of the Text pays homage, whether consciously or not, to this "return of the repressed" and the resulting "recovery with a malformation." In this sense, it would not so much be a neurotic text, but rather a text that was conditioned by neurosis as a necessary condition to engage with jouissance.
Similarly to this temporal disorientation, neurosis is also a structure that produces certain forms of spatial disorientation. This is evident in Freud's case study of obsessional neurosis that commonly goes by the title "The Rat Man." While the most famous element of this case is the story told to the Rat Man of the Chinese torture by rats, in which a basket of rats is attached to the victim's buttocks and they then burrow into his anus, what is also striking is the spatial disorientation resulting from obsessional neurosis. The Rat Man breaks his pince-nez and orders another pair. He then has to pay the fee on the delivery of the pince-nez, but as they are picked-up by one of his fellow soldiers the Rat Man devises a complex scheme of travel to return the money (Freud 1979b, 48-50). In fact, it turns out, he could pay the money directly to the girl at the train station, but instead the Rat Man embarks on an increasingly complex series of journeys by train and foot to return the money. These maneuvers are so complex that a map is provided to help us understand and Freud remarks that "It would not surprise me to hear at this point the reader has ceased to be able to follow" (50). In contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's "schizophrenic out for a walk," with a seeming unmediated access to jouissance, it may be that the "a neurotic on a train journey" is a better model on the twisted path between pleasure and jouissance.
The neurotic, whose symptom is what Freud called a "compromise formation" (1973, 404), can unlock for us this situation of conflict, both temporal and spatial, which is the condition of jouissance and can also unlock a different thinking of happiness in this space. Freud remarks that the neurotic symptom is "the outcome of a conflict which arises over a new method of satisfying the libido" (404-05). The symptom, which is an expression of suffering, is also a mode of satisfaction and pleasure; this is the twisted "paths of the formation of the symptom," as Freud entitles Lecture 23 of his Introductory Lectures (404). In his account of the "Rat Man" case Freud records that "I remarked that it was well known to us that patients derived a certain satisfaction from their sufferings, so that in reality they all resisted their recovery to some extent" (1979b, 64). This is also why Slavoj Zizek is astute when he titles one of his books Enjoy Tour Symptom! Lacan's concept of jouissance is precisely useful as it combines the form of pleasure with suffering. This is why, contrary to the invocations of "pure jouissance," we could argue the twisted path of the neurotic is more revealing of the fact that jouissance emerges out of this compromise formation and not despite of it.
While the neurotic experiences pleasure as a mode of suffering, if we read this neurotic condition alongside Barthes's remark about the necessity of neurosis it is possible to offer a different reading. The neurotic condition is not merely a turn inward to a pathology that takes enjoyment in delay but also a condition that undermines the alternative between "safe" pleasure and "dangerous" jouissance. As I have suggested this is one way in which to re-read The Pleasure of the Text, which would not simply be a text straining toward jouissance, but also a text exploring the neurotic entanglement that results and through this trying to suggest a mode of hedonism and happiness that would not be heroic. This would not require that we remain neurotic or celebrate neurosis as a mode of suffering. Instead it becomes possible to envisage the condition of neurosis as a condition by which this other form of experience can be indicated. This other form, of collective happiness, is retained as the horizon for the neurotic condition.
It is notable how much the literary canon is defined by an unhappy consciousness. The standard line, blunted by repetition, is Leo Tolstoy's opening line from Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (2000, 1). Perhaps it is telling that in the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel has constant resort to literature, as Allan Speight has explored, to describe the various travails of consciousness and "the problems of agency" (2001). The neurotic condition I have explored can therefore find its expression in literature and so also, as I have suggested, offer a reflection on forms of common happiness. To develop such a reading, I will examine the neurotic condition in two contemporary novels that appear to have neurotic narrators: Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, narrated by "Adam Gordon," and 10.04, narrated by "Ben." Lerner himself describes the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station as "highly neurotic" (quoted in Wayne 2011), and as "a neurotic version of my already quite neurotic self (quoted in Witt 2015). Daniel Katz prefers "passably neurotic" as his description for the narrators of both novels (2017, 316). (7) Certainly, at the level of the fictional symptom, both narrators inhabit a discourse of self-reproach, a significant sign of the obsessional neurotic. This descriptive use of neurosis by Lerner and his critics is not sufficient to identify this "enormously self-conscious and theoretically inquisitive writer" as neurotic (315). It is, however, precisely due to this reflexivity and self-awareness that we can read these texts as inhabiting a "neurotic condition" and as insistently indicating the horizon of common happiness.
It is not only neurosis that makes Lerner's novels relevant, but also their concern with the politics of collective happiness, and the potential of writing as a site of articulation for new political possibilities. Leaving the Atocha Station is narrated by Adam Gordon, an American poet on a fellowship in Madrid at the time of the 2004 Madrid bombings in which 192 people were killed. One of the targets of the bombing was the Atocha station. In the wake of the bombings mass demonstrations occurred as a result of the Spanish government's attempt to blame the Basque separatist movement ETA for the attacks, which were actually carried out by al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists. Gordon's daily routine is composed of smoking dope, taking drugs for anxiety, failing to write the poetic work he has the fellowship for, and proving embarrassingly inept at social situations. It is the narrator's attempt to engage with the collective political moment of protest and his attempt to finish his own poetic work on the Spanish Civil War, which form the basis for a fraught negotiation with collective happiness. Similarly, 10.04, narrated by Ben, is about his attempts to write a novel after having secured a lucrative book contract in the New York of the Occupy Wall Street, between Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, which is to say between 2011 and 2012. The narrator, often wryly, locates himself within this time, remarking that he "tended to figure the global apocalyptically" (Lerner 2015, 14). In this case, the Occupy movement and the implications of climate change form the context for the writer's attempts at political engagement.
Freud remarked that "An artist is once more in rudiments an introvert, not far removed from neurosis" (1973, 423). This proximity of art and neurosis is, however, deceptive. Artists are close to neurosis, but distant from it as they have the capacity for sublimation--"satisfaction without repression," as Lacan calls it (1992, 293). While the neurotic is defined by repression, the artist overcomes it through sublimation. Lacan states that Freud formulates sublimation as "the possibility of [the artist] making his [sic] desires tradeable or salable in the form of products," a formulation whose "frankness and even cynicism" has, in Lacan's eyes, "a great merit" (293). Certainly, Lerner's novels can be considered as successful acts of sublimation and have certainly rendered his "desires tradeable and salable." In fact, especially in 10.04, this issue of the trading and selling of fiction is insistently thematized indicating, again, the self-consciousness of the novel. What we have are sublimations that trade on neurosis and it is just this fact that makes them sites in which we can read the neurotic condition as a problem.
If neurosis is a self-reflexive condition then these works also seem to further the narcissism and introversion of contemporary subjectivity. Rather than raising the problem of agency the novels could render that problem in a particular and false form, as Elaine Blair argues:
Ben and Adam can seem to be iterations of a collective character we've met in other novels of the last twenty years. As nineteenth-century Russians fight duels and gamble, late twentieth and twenty-first-century Americans confess to episodes of excruciating, sexually themed embarrassment. They cryptically acknowledge their morally compromised positions near the top of an unfair social system, and at the same time register and lament a loss of status. (Blair 2015, 25)
This is the moment of neurotic narcissism, on inwardness, of an anguish that speaks only to itself or about itself. In this case neurosis would fall under the usual critical judgement of being merely a self-lamenting claim that justifies wider structural oppressions by rendering them merely personal.
Lerner's novels, with their studied considerations of personal and social fraudulence, inhabit this problem. Adam, in Leaving the Atocha Station, asks "could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology!?]" (Lerner 2013, 164). The "project," however, could merely be another turn of the neurotic screw, to imply a benefit to the self out of this fraudulence. This is evident in Adam's Adornonian mediation: "Who wasn't squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said T; who wasn't a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life?" (101). This renders the situation collective, as we are all in these "prefabricated subject positions," but in doing so can be seen as another instance of self-excusing behavior. In contrast, Katz suggests that the "conceptualizations of displacement, deferral, and incompletion" in this novel open a "virtual" place for reconceptualizing such relations (2017, 319). While I am suggesting these novels can open such a reconceptualization, via neurosis, I am also aware of their profoundly equivocal form, both in relation to Lerner's own "project" and in relation to the contemporary realities that they attempt to grasp.
In the case of Leaving the Atocha Station the problem of fraudulence falls, particularly and typically for the tradition of modernism, on the problem of language (Josipovici 2010). This is thematized in Adam's inability to speak Spanish. At a party Adam's Spanish friend Isabel tells a traumatic story. Due to the fixed smile Adam has adopted, and his inability to change expression because of his lack of understanding, Adam is punched in the face by someone else at the party. Isabel goes to look after him and retells the story, which Adam hears as
something about a home, but whether she meant a household or literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. (Lerner 2013, 14)
Adam reflects that he has "to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of the excluded middle while listening to Spanish" (14). Yet, before this scene, Isabel has told him "Your Spanish is good" (13). Later, after they have become a couple, Adam claims he finds it difficult to express himself in Spanish and Isabel replies "You are fluent in Spanish, Adan" (III).
The problem of language is not a problem or only a problem for a relatively short time. Here the neurotic symptom appears as the indulgence of the privileged individual, which of course becomes a further part of the problem. Adam's ruminative reflections on his own failings means that he joins those who engage in what Aaron Schuster calls the "troubled pleasure" of complaint (2016,1-25). This is a pleasure taken in the act of complaining or, in this case, in the act of ruminating. The delays and prevarications become, although painful, a pleasurable activity. The neurotic condition is present, but only at the level of character and symptom. It is present in a form which is stylized as the limit of communication.
This neurotic circuit is only broken by the bombing and the subsequent protests against the government's attempt to instrumentalize them for political gain. Adam reflects that by being near the bombing "I'd been contacted by History" (Lerner 2013, 150). As in Barthes's analysis of Voltaire, proximity to the flow of history seems to be the condition for happiness and collectivity. Yet, of course, Adam is still at a distance from this "contact" and collectivity. He remains outside of the demonstrations and of the calls for political poetry. The disjunction of history and happiness, as Barthes suggests, is adopted as the condition for the writer. The novel ends with a moment of happiness and collectivity. This is at the launch of Adam's chapbook, translated by his friend Teresa. The chapbook is beautiful; Adam realizes he speaks Spanish without an American accent; the gallery is overflowing with people; the woman from the foundation that has granted the fellowship is warm; he does not want to take a tranquilizer before reading; and, the novel ends before the actual reading. It is, of course, a limited collective, one which revolves around Adam. The possibility realized is the success of Adam's "project" and the sense of fraudulence itself seems a fraud. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, discussing a range of modernist "arts of impoverishment," remark that such an art of failure can be seen as "a fancy theoretical pose" due to the fact they succeed in expressing failure (1993, 1). Leaving the Atocha Station compounds this by suggesting the fraudulence of the pose of fraudulence and here the pose of failure is explicitly undone by success.
10.04 makes these tensions even more explicit by making the issue of political collectivity more central while being, again, "another novel about fraudulence" (Lerner 2015, 119). The novel tells a literary story, not only in its focus on the business of being a writer and a series of meditations on fake and fraudulent writing, but also in the transition from "private" anguish to collective engagement. At the start of the book this collective engagement is articulated in a style of "mock" grandiosity: "I'll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid" (4). Lerner would be the contemporary Whitman who has absorbed multitudes now in the mode of individual irony. If this is the collective dimension, the book is also, in classical modernist fashion, if we think of Joyce, preoccupied with paternity. The narrator has a friend Alex, who has suggested that he be father of her child by artificial insemination. Ben is also tutoring Roberto, a young Salvadorian child. The issue of the future, which preoccupies the novel, is figured through the capacity for reproduction and raising a child. At the same time this future is under threat. This is not only due to anthropogenic climate change, but also Ben is suffering from the genetic disorder Marfan, which could lead to a fatal tearing of the aorta. These tensions are made explicit in one of Ben's ruminations, which occurs while he has allowed an Occupy protestor to use his apartment bathroom:
What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit. (Lerner 2015, 47)
This "branching out" does not happen. It remains an absent possibility, torn between irony and sincerity, in the injunction that is not enacted.
Instead, it is the question of offspring that focus the neurotic condition, both in terms of the novel we are reading and the thematization within the text. This is particularly true of Ben's involvement in the process of artificial insemination for his friend Alex. Finding the receptionist attractive at the medical center, Ben is plunged into blushing as he knows he will go to masturbate and "use" the image of the receptionist. The actual act of masturbation becomes fraught with anxiety or, as Ben puts it, an "increasingly Beckettian drama" (Lerner 2015, 89). Here modernist paternity is deflated into everyday bathos, a bathos that mocks even the banal ephiphanies of the Joycean everyday or Beckett's anguished vision. Imagining a dialogue with his future child, that future child questions Ben: "you've exchanged a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the marker for the fantasy of coeval readership?" (93). The issue of paternity turns also to the issue of collectivity, this time in the figure of the audience as "coeval." Again, we have the contraction of collectivity to the level of readership.
In parallel with Leaving the Atocha Station, 10.04 ends on a series of successes, most obviously the book we are reading but also Alex's successful pregnancy and Ben's ability to form a relationship with Roberto. It would appear that both novels render the passage beyond neurosis and into successful sublimation at the level of the individual or through collectivities of tradeable desires. In this sense that would be the rejoinder to the claims I have been outlining for the neurotic condition. The earnestness of the claim to neurosis is undone through the bathos of the "successful" neurotic. The "project" of Lerner can also be read, inversely, as probing "the often hysterical and symptomatic grounding of the formation of lyric subjectivity" (Katz 2017, 319). In this case neurosis would be a condition that forms these impasses, reversals, and sublimations. Deleuze and Guattari, trying to rescue Kafka from the charge of neurosis, suggest he presents us with an "exaggerated Oedipus," one blown-up to the point of opening out the Oedipal "triangle" (1986, 9-15). It is possible to similarly read Lerner as offering an "exaggerated neurosis," which indicates the limits of neurotic subjectivity and pushes toward a "beyond."
This "choice," however, seems to limit the neurotic condition. Instead, it is possible to read the explicit thematization of neurosis and the problems of deferral in regard to collective political activity as ways to inhabit this condition. Therefore it would not be a matter of damning or rescuing these texts, but instead working within them as forms which express the lack of congruence with the "flow" of history and so lack of "happiness." Rather than a rewriting in the style of Deleuze and Guattari, which would suggest that we re-read any signs of neurosis and failure as expressions of a superior affirmation, my suggestion is that these signs must be taken seriously as signs of blockage and limit. Instead of the "cruel optimism" (Berlant 2011) of remaining attached to promises of happiness that block our achievement of happiness it may be through a traversal of the condition of neurosis that we can think another possibility of collective happiness.
LONG LIVE NEUROSIS
In his "Letter to a Harsh Critic," published in 1973 in response to Michel Cressole, Gilles Deleuze reflected on the fate of his work, especially Anti-Oedipus. In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari had celebrated the revolutionary possibilities of the "schiz," which was not to be confused with the empirical schizophrenic. For Deleuze and Guattari: "Someone asked us if we had ever seen a schizophrenic-no, no, we have never seen one" (1983, 380). In the letter to Cressole, Deleuze remarks that this is his "favorite sentence" in Anti-Oedipus (1995, 12). Accused by Cressole of merely tailing the experiences of others, Deleuze replies: "Real and pretend schizophrenics are giving me such a hard time that I'm starting to see the attractions of paranoia. Long live paranoia" (3). Deleuze's anti-neurotic tendency remains intact; he is only willing to suggest the power of paranoia. We have to take seriously the contention of Deleuze and Guattari that the neurotic is one who limits their desire, who forms exactly the kind of narcissistic subjectivity that can be found in a critical reading of Lerner's novel. Yet, it is also possible and necessary to return to this neurotic condition that is denied in the passage to affirmation. While not simply suggesting that we remain in neurosis, a tarrying with the neurotic condition might offer ways in which we can grasp the tensions of subjectivity in the time of the waning of the promise of collective happiness.
Such a return to neurosis has been suggested by Aaron Schuster. In his The Trouble with Pleasure, devoted to rereading Deleuze with Lacan, Schuster not only suggests a more psychoanalytic reading of Deleuze but also the possibilities of neurosis. For Schuster the neurotic is the figure of maladaptation, but one who in the act of complaint figures the maladapted nature of human existence in relation to political, economic, and philosophical frameworks: "Neurosis is the name for the crack in these frameworks, the protest that stems from their internal fissures and inconsistencies--the neurotic is somehow both a sad and heroic figure, the reject of civilization and the embodiment of its explosive dynamism" (2016, 22). Schuster tends to give this maladaptation an ontological weight, as the neurotic's complaint is related to the situation of being born, of the human being forced into existence with no way out, as even suicide cannot erase the fact of being born. While this ontological insight then produces an ontic resistance to various "frameworks," we might want to suggest a more historicized vision of this "ontological dilemma."
This can be found in Adorno's Minima Moralia. Contemplating neurosis as a sign of "healthy" maladaptation, compared to "pathic health, infantilism raised to a norm," Adorno suggests a deeper truth of neurosis, even beyond neurosis (1974, 22). Treating the "healthy" character of capitalism as a deformation, Adorno argues "no science has yet explored the inferno in which were forged the deformations that later emerge to daylight as cheerfulness, openness, sociability, successful adaptation to the inevitable, an equable, practical frame of mind" (59). These traits are formed, according to Adorno, at an even earlier phase of childhood than the neuroses. They are the result of a "prehistorical surgical intervention" (59), a deep wound, while neuroses is a later formation of conflict. While this, again, would seem to point to the erasure of the possibility of happiness, which Adorno suggests, he also holds on to this historical and psychic wound as the possibility of critique and, however fleeting, as the indicator of collective happiness.
In his essay "Notes on Kafka," Adorno remarks that: "Instead of curing neurosis, he [Kafka] seeks in it itself the healing force, that of knowledge: the wounds with which, society brands the individual are seen by the latter as ciphers of the social untruth, as the negative of truth" (1983, 252). Neurosis has the function of being a "healing force" due to the fact that it registers "the negative of truth." In Adorno's scattered reflections we see the insistence on neurosis as registering a historical trauma, one that is not simply original but shaped and formed, or deformed, through the emergence and solidification of capitalism. Adorno finds in maladaptation the truth of the lack of collective happiness.
This is what I have explored, through Barthes and Lerner, as the neurotic condition. It registers a certain transcendental or ontological effect of neurosis, in the sense of a condition of writing, but also the historical emergence of that condition through the fractures of contemporary capitalism. It is in and through this condition that we can experience the possibility of collective happiness as one that remains a possibility while also remaining damaged through the situation of modernity What the work of Barthes suggests is the emergence of a form of pleasure that is not simply dictated by the alternative of pleasure and jouissance, and I have taken this as a possibility of happiness. The fiction of Lerner, which courts Adornonian reflection, if in a comic mode, also indicates the emergence of collective happiness in the impasses of subjectivity. The risk I am running, however, is of rehabilitating neurosis as a damaged form of subjectivity, and so celebrating failure and remaining in irresolution. This would be to leave common happiness as chimerical and fall foul of Hegel's analysis of the "beautiful soul": the one who projects their disorder onto the world and so falls into madness due to their own inability to accede to action (1977, 400). Again, such a rehabilitation of inaction has been seen as part of the modernist project, especially in the work of Beckett (Milne 2002). If Adorno represents the anguished attempt to hold together Hegel and Beckett, to not simply accede to the attractions of the beautiful soul while also preserving a function of distance and inaction as a sign of truth, Lerner's fiction treats this problem in a more comic register, deflating modernist difficulty for that "fantasy of coeval authorship."
Out of this conflict, these opposing forces, this neurotic situation, I have suggested a notion of common happiness is indicated. Even Lerner's arch references to "transpersonal revolutionary subjectivity" as the solution to "squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital," still retain this suggestion. In fact, one way to read Lerner's texts is as a phenomenology of the contemporary "beautiful soul," precisely to regard the privileges and possibilities of this form of life as not only a dilemma of privilege, but also as indicating, in the negative, the limits of that privilege. The rehabilitation of neuroses is not a rehabilitation of failure, or a return to modernist tropes, but a return to neuroses as the mapping of these impasses, restrictions, and possibilities. In this mapping, however "negative," the force of collective happiness emerges out of these impasses. It is appropriate that collective happiness should emerge as the truth of fraudulence, as the truth of neurosis.
(1) One of the few exceptions amongst contemporary theorists who continues to think about the problem of happiness, and collective happiness, is Giorgio Agamben. This may seem surprising, considering the common agreement that Agamben is a deeply pessimistic thinker, who argues the concentration camp is the "biopolitical paradigm of the modern" in Homo Sacer (1998, 166). In the same book, however, Agamben argues that it may be possible to rethink and politicize the "natural sweetness" of bare life in a way that accesses an experience of happiness (11). This is made clearer in Means Without Ends, where Agamben insists that "A political life, that is, a life directed toward the idea of happiness and cohesive with a form-of-life, is thinkable only starting from the emancipation from such a division, with the irrevocable exodus from any sovereignty" (2000, 8). While this possibility is left rather empty, Agamben, inspired by Aristotle and Guy Debord, could be reread as a thinker of common happiness.
(2) Roberto Harari warns of the "serious error made by some neo-Lacanians" who "confuse jouissance with the pursuit of death or masochism" (2002, no). It would not be difficult to extend such a remark to many readers of Bataille.
(3) In an interesting retention of his previous critical style Barthes briefly suggests that: "Odd, this philosophical permanence of Desire (insofar as it is never satisfied): doesn't the word itself denote a 'class notion? (A rather crude presumption of proof, and yet noteworthy: the 'populace' does not know Desire--only pleasures)" (1975, 58).
(4) Due to the familiar problem of translation in regard to jouissance, I take the common practice of retaining the French, correcting the translator's choice of "bliss," with its overtones of theology and satiation, which are problematic.
(5) While hysteria is classified by Freud as a neurosis, if not the neurotic disorder, the very theatricality of its form, attested to by Charcot's demonstrations of hysteria, and the relative decline of the disorder in this form lends it a celebrated form as a site of resistance (see Cixous and Clement, 1985). Adorno had also noted that "Even in Ibsen's time most of the women who had gained some standing in bourgeois society were ready to turn and rend their hysterical sisters who undertook, in their stead, the hopeless attempt to break out of the social prison which so emphatically turned its four walls to them all" (1974, 93).
(6) Stuart Schniederman points out, "Acting in accord with one's desire does not mean doing whatever one feels whenever one feels like it. If the analysand is to assume anything from psychoanalysis it should be the notion of responsibility for his [sic] words and actions" (1986, 2). The "heroic" reading would be one that conforms to the "tragic-heroic paradigm" of thought (Critchley, 1999) and denies the comic dimension of subjectivity, insisted upon by Lacan (Lacan 1992, 313-14; Zupancic 2008).
(7) Further references to Lerner's narrators as neurotic can be found in Preston (2015), Blair (2015), and Kunzru (2014).
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BENJAMIN NOYS is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Chichester. He is the author of Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (2000), The Culture of Death (2005), The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Theory (2010), Malign Velocities: Accelerationism if Capitalism (2014), and editor of Communization and Its Discontents (2011). He is currently writing Uncanny Life, a critical discussion of the problems of the vital and vitalism in contemporary theory.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2018|
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