Speaking out: dialogue and the literary unconscious.
An early strategy of psychoanalytic literary critics was to treat the text as the author's dream and attempt to find repressed material by reading the text against the author's biography. More recently, reader-response critics such as Norman Holland have invited the reader to free associate to the text. In contrast, Peter Brooks distinguishes the unconscious of the text from that of the author or the reader. Brooks treats the relationship between the narrator and the reader as a version of the transference between analyst and analysand:
The text conceived as transference should allow us to illuminate and work through that which is at issue in the situation of the speaker, or the story of the narrator, that is, what must be rethought, reordered, interpreted from his discourse. (345)
Like the analyst, the reader must develop "hypotheses of construal," which are "valuable when they produce more text, when they create in the text previously unperceived networks of relation and significance, finding confirmation in the extension of the narrative and semantic web" (Brooks 346). Instead of associating to the text, the reader must associate in the text. Thus, the reader is limited to the associations textual "networks" support. Nonexplicit links between explicit passages become the source of latent content. I To speak of the unconscious of the text is to allow all its elements to count as manifest content and to allow links among any of them to count as latent content.
If the unconscious in literary interpretation belongs to the text, how can we interpret it? A literary text is the product of codes of generic conventions that affect every formal structure - plot, character, narration, description, and diction. All these elements can be overdetermined, but dialogue is an especially rich site at which to seek unconscious meaning. Like the patient's speech in an analytic session, dialogue is governed by social conventions that provide the unconscious with a ready-made disguise. Since my reasoning is based on linguistic analyses of conversation and dialogue and their relation to the unconscious, the strategy I propose should be valid in any narrative or dramatic work to the extent that dialogue represents social usage. To illustrate the interpretive value of this claim, I have chosen two texts that express homosexual desire in contrasting ways - latently, in Henry James's story "The Beast in the Jungle" and manifestly, in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.(2)
Although Freud emphasizes the importance of the individual's own associations to the elements of a dream, he also recognizes that certain symbols have common meanings. As Michel Arrive notes in Linguistics and Psychoanalysis, Freud affirms not only the capacity of the unconscious to create its own symbols, but also its ingenuity in expressing itself in preexisting, that is, conventional forms. While Freud explicitly rejects theories that posit a fixed relation between a symbol in a dream and a particular meaning, he nevertheless depends on the meaning of the dream-symbol that is, as Arrive says, "'always already there,' like the words of language, for the dreamer as for the interpreter of the dream. And it is precisely this which makes it possible for the dream to be interpreted, despite the silence which the person under analysis . . . maintains about it" (83). Thus, conventional symbols are essential to psychoanalytic practice. In response to Freud's question as to "how we in fact come to know the meaning of these dream-symbols, upon which the dreamer himself gives us insufficient information or none at all" (SE XV: 158), Arrive cites Freud's answer:
My reply is that we learn it from very different sources - from fairy tales and myths, from buffoonery and jokes, from folklore (that is, from knowledge about popular manners and customs, sayings and songs) and from poetic and colloquial linguistic usage. In all these directions we come upon the same symbolism, and in some of them we can understand it without further instruction.
(SE XV: 158-59; Arrive 67-68)
Like Freud, literary critics recognize conventional symbols yet focus on innovative forms as expressions of the unconscious. To avoid a Jungian dictionary of symbols, critics emphasize the ways the unconscious seems to generate original forms, but they often neglect the ways familiar phrases can be overdetermined. We tend to think of the more idiosyncratic language of narration as a better place to seek unconscious meanings because its distinctive style illustrates Freud's primary contribution, his insistence on the significance of individual associations. But both Freud's discussion of conventional symbols and Lacan's more radical conception of the unconscious as the product of cultural codes justify an alternative strategy. Ordinarily, dialogue attempts to represent usage, and usage depends on a specific social context. Since dialogue is usually closer to vernacular forms than narrative passages are, it allows the text to express unconscious wishes under cover of idiomatic speech.
In contrast to the dream books Freud criticizes (SE IV: 98), Lacan's claim that the subject - including the subject's unconscious - is the product of cultural codes justifies study of the most common codes. By positing an unconscious that is not unique for each person, Lacan helps resolve the inconsistency between psychoanalytic theory and practice as well as the parallel dilemma that psychoanalytic critics have faced. Lacan's work provides a foundation for seeking the unconscious in conventional symbols without being reductive.
Much of Lacan's revision of Freud uses linguistics as a lens to magnify the common patterns Freud observed. Lacan's claim that "the unconscious of the subject is the discourse of the other" (Ecrits 55) depends on the common language of a community, and speech is commoner than other forms of discourse. Through its capacity for substitution, language constitutes the subject as an individual and allows the unconscious to emerge.(3) As a symbolic system, language makes it possible, Lacan writes, "precisely in so far as I have this language in common with other subjects, that is to say, in so far as it exists as a language, to use it in order to signify something quite other than what it says" (Ecrits 155).
Explaining overdetermination as the product of systematic substitution, Lacan contends that the aim of The Interpretation of Dreams is to serve as a demonstration of "the superposed significations of a material signifier" (Freud's Papers 244). He urges analysts to listen to the "letter" of a patient's speech to detect unconscious desire. He writes, "[d]esire always becomes manifest at the joint of speech. . . . Desire emerges just as it becomes embodied in speech, it emerges with symbolism" (The Ego 234). This process of desire emerging in speech through symbolism is the mechanism of the dream work as both Freud and Lacan describe it. The conventionality of an utterance makes it an ideal vehicle for unconscious meanings, because it allows them to slip through the barrier of repression.
In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud explains why language in general and speech in particular can be overdetermined. The unconscious prefers concrete terms, because "in consequence of the history of their development, [they] are richer in associations than conceptual ones" (SE V: 340). In seeking "verbal transformations for the individual thoughts" (SE V: 340), the dreamer seeks succinctness and ambiguity: "Words, since they are the nodal points of numerous ideas, may be regarded as predestined to ambiguity" (SE V: 340). Beyond this general point about words, Freud observes, "In view of the part played by jokes, quotations, songs and proverbs in the mental life of educated people, it would fully agree with our expectations if disguises of such kinds were used with extreme frequency for representing dream-thoughts" (SE V: 345). Like these popular forms, dialogue requires conventional usage rather than originality.
Henry James serves as a test case because his fiction appears to resist my hypothesis that dialogue is an important place to seek the unconscious of the text. Developing an original narrative technique to render subjectivity, he often uses dialogue to demonstrate the disparity between characters' thoughts and words. When his elaborately constructed sentences portray a character's mind, they seem to represent the unconscious, but in saying so much they make manifest what might have remained latent. Like Joyce and Proust, James rivals psychoanalysis in his attempt to articulate hidden thoughts and feelings.(4) To the extent that his texts make a character's unconscious explicit, however, they function like the manifest content of a dream. In contrast, dialogue leaves more unsaid and thus allows access to the unconscious of the text.
Linguistic analyses of speech suggest some reasons why the unconscious might so frequently use the ready-made forms Freud mentions. Sociolinguists have specified the differences between conversation and written discourse and between dialogue and narration in texts. Wallace Chafe and Jane Danielewicz, for example, point out that conversationalists
employ a relatively limited vocabulary, and they are inclined to hedge their lexical choices and to be referentially inexplicit. They make considerable use of colloquial words and phrases. They create relatively brief intonation units, which they chain together, stopping every so often to make a sentence boundary which is not always well justified in terms of topical coherence. (110-11)
All these characteristics allow speech to convey multiple meanings, both conscious and unconscious.
In addition, M. A. K. Halliday contradicts the assumption that speech is simpler than written discourse. Dialogue in fiction is usually grammatically simpler than narration, but Halliday corrects this literary image of speech. He notes that while speech uses a limited vocabulary, it employs complex grammatical structures:
Written language tends to be lexically dense, but grammatically simple; spoken language tends to be grammatically intricate, but lexically sparse. But these buts should really be ands, because the paired properties are complementary, not counterexpectative. (66)
Halliday's observation about the grammar of conversation is especially pertinent to Henry James's late style. Although James's dialogue may seem stilted, it follows Halliday's description of the typical grammar of conversation. James's qualifications, self-corrections, hesitations, and interjections simulate conversation as Halliday describes it.
Recognizing that dialogue is an artificially constructed representation of speech, whether in fiction or drama, other linguists have analyzed the differences between transcribed conversation and constructed dialogue in a text. In "Hearing Voices in Conversation, Fiction, and Mixed Genres," Deborah Tannen points out the many differences between them, yet she emphasizes what they share: particularity, ordinary diction, and familiar colloquial linguistic patterns (92, 101). She argues that these features stimulate a cognitive process: by providing less information than narration, dialogue demands more work from the reader to make sense of an exchange. Because the reader must construct meaning from the cues in familiar speech, this process elicits an emotional response: "Particularity allows the audience to imagine a scene, and this participation in sense-making is emotionally moving. Generality does not trigger this process and therefore leaves audiences unmoved" (92). For the same reasons, the particularity and familiarity of dialogue can provide an opportunity for readers to perceive unconscious wishes in the text.
Since fiction represents the narrator's voice as well as characters' speech, the contrast between them allows dialogue to be interpreted as social usage. Often dialogue employs repetitions, ambiguities, and emphases that do not appear in the narration. In "Control and Conflict: Dialogue in Prose Fiction," Susan Yell proposes that dialogue seems more or less natural to the degree it differs from the narrator's style.(5) Her estimate of James's narrators is that the "narrator's and characters' discourses are distinct but not very different," and the narrator's information tends to "open up the ambiguities in the text" (144).(6) Thus the subtlety of the distinctions between dialogue and narration in James's fiction makes the dialogue seem less natural than social usage.
The stylized speech of James's characters may seem artificial, but it represents a leisured class that is privileged to indulge in minute analysis of behavior and to refine or qualify any statement until the speaker is satisfied. This style is not an impediment to the plot, but instead replaces external action with a representation of the conscious mind. Employing the cliches of their class, these characters conceal and reveal their desire. Attempting to convey the tone as well as the form of speech by using inverted commas and italics liberally to indicate the inflection he intends, James calls attention to the ambiguity of language by inserting markers to limit it.
"The Beast in the Jungle" illustrates the value of direct discourse for psychoanalytic interpretation, even when the contrast between dialogue and narration is slight. The protagonist, John Marcher, believes that he is destined for a special fate. This conviction attracts the interest of a young woman, May Bartram, who hopes that his fate includes her. He persuades her that he cannot marry until his destiny overtakes him, until the "beast" appears. As his name suggests, Marcher is stuck in a lockstep of motion without development.
To be able to focus on dialogue, I will take advantage of James M. Mellard's elucidation of the Lacanian themes in the story. Mellard analyzes both the protagonist and the plot in relation to the developmental model of the Lacanian subject. Mellard argues that Marcher is fixated in an Imaginary identification with May, whom he casts as the all-knowing phallic mother. May's willingness to play "the role of the mother who permits the child to believe that he is all to or for her" suggests Freud's classic analysis of homosexuality in the Schreber case (Mellard 120). Marcher's fear of a tiger springing on him recalls Schreber's fear of a wolf eating him, both tiger and wolf symbolizing a feared phallic power.
Mellard interprets the story as an obsessive avoidance of castration: Marcher avoids "the structure of alienation" by living in the "fullness of the eyes of the (m)other - here represented by May" (118). Figured in James's text as the "loss of Marcher's obsession, his 'poor old thing'" (119), castration represents "the subject's recognition not of its own lack, but the mother's lack" (129). The "beast," which symbolizes the Lacanian phallus, represents the primal lost object:
Protecting himself from the spectre of the Oedipus and castration, [Marcher] thus, in a complex transformation, turns May into the phallic mother who needs his protection. . . . Turning the "it" into a thing dangerous to May herself, he can now be a hero in protecting her from it. (124)
Only after May's death does Marcher reach the Symbolic stage and the resolution of the Oedipus complex. At her tomb, Marcher finds that the face of a grief-stricken stranger makes him understand that his destiny was to live without passion or pain. His deficiency was his inability to "feel lack" (132).
Mellard not only analyzes characters, but also discusses the unconscious meanings form conveys. He perceives the "incredible redundancy" of the plot as a model of the inherent stasis of mirror-stage identification in the constitution of subjectivity in general (111). The oscillation between rapturous identification with the other person and aggressive alienation from her in the mirror stage characterizes the relationship between Marcher and May Bartram. It does not develop, but it allows Marcher to acquire an Imaginary ego. When she dies, she gives birth to him as an individual who for the first time feels distinct and able to feel pain.
Apart from Mellard's, my interest lies in the ways the dialogue between John Marcher and May Bartram expresses these issues. Indeed, the initiating incident of the story is a type of unconscious speech: "What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters, being probably but some words spoken by himself quite without intention - spoken as they lingered and slowly moved together after their renewal of acquaintance" (61). Marcher soon discovers that he also spoke without intention when he confided his belief in his fate at their first meeting. His words spoken "without intention" conform to the psychoanalytic assumption that speech can be "determined" by the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. With this added thematic warrant, I will examine a few key exchanges as reservoirs of unconscious meaning.
May reminds Marcher of his words, "'You said you had . . . the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you'" (71). The passivity of being "kept," awaiting something feared and desired, introduces the theme of his impotence. Transforming something "prodigious and terrible" into a distinction that is "rare and strange" is a defensive strategy. Knowing in his "bones" is a cliche, but it still suggests that the event has a physical dimension that may "overwhelm" him. This combination of psychic and physical terms suits the issues of the castration complex.
Both Marcher and May specify conscious referents for the beast. It is to be neither something he will do nor something he will suffer, but, he tells her:
"Well, say to wait for - to have to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in my life; possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating me; possibly, on the other hand, only altering everything, striking at the root of all my world and leaving me to the consequences, however they shape themselves." (72)
Appositive phrases convey his uncertainty and his effort to describe the ineffable. He does not know whether to fear annihilation of himself or his world. Veering between subjective and objective destruction, he sees no escape. The emphasis on seeing ("to meet, to face, to see") emphasizes his fixation in an Imaginary register. Speaking of inner disorganization as "annihilation" and external disorder as "striking at the root" reverses conventional usage. Ordinarily, "root" suggests an inner quality and "annihilation" a physical destruction. Here Marcher's inner being feels threatened and finds physical symbols.
In response to Marcher's disclosure, May suggests that the "beast" may be a sexual relationship:
"Isn't what you describe perhaps but the expectation - or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people - of falling in love?" (72)
Trying to defuse the dread in his anticipation, she recodes it as an exciting expectation. The danger of passion, she implies, is pleasant. Her cliche, "at any rate" makes economic exchange a metaphor for the emotional substitution of pleasure for dread.
Marcher answers her with another question: "'Did you ask me that before?'" (72). His fear that he forgot a similar conversation suggests that love is a topic he knows he avoids. His evasive response indicates that he is locked into an Imaginary stasis where repetition blocks development. Rejecting her interpretation, he contrasts what he awaits with love. He believes that he has been in love, but has never felt the "overwhelming" experience he awaits. He explains:
"I don't think of it as - when it does come - necessarily violent. I only think of it as natural and as of course above all unmistakeable. I think of it simply as the thing. The thing will of itself appear natural." (73)
He agrees with May's conception that love is dangerous, adding that it is also violent, but what he expects will not be violent. Marcher's "thing" is as natural and unmistakable as the normal entry into the Symbolic register of the Oedipal period, acquisition of language, and resolution of the threat of castration. Repeating the phrase "the thing," Marcher keeps his expectation vague, but by now it also functions as a euphemism for the penis as the primary unnamed thing and invokes the Symbolic phallus.
James forces a contrast between the kind of love May mentions, a heterosexual romantic attraction, and a bond that proves as durable yet lacks sexual consummation. The desires that sustain their relationship must be elsewhere. When Marcher refuses her as a wife, she assumes the role of the phallic mother. Entry into the Symbolic register requires a rupture of the Imaginary identification with the mother that brings both gain and loss. Thus, sometimes Marcher characterizes the event he awaits as natural and not violent. Behaving as if his expectation corresponds to some reality that could transform him, Marcher hopes for this event. On the other hand, he dreads it as a loss of consciousness that would annihilate him. At this level, he regards it as an obsession. His ambivalence is paralyzing, and he asks May if she thinks him a lunatic:
"You mean you feel how my obsession - poor old thing! - may correspond to some possible reality?" (74)
Marcher refers to his obsession, in an interjection, as a "poor old thing," recalling earlier phallic references. No longer the eagerly anticipated "thing" that is natural and unmistakable, the "poor old thing" is pitiable and flaccid. Calling it an "obsession," Marcher acknowledges the repetitive and conscious quality of his fantasy.
As May gradually assumes the Lacanian position of "the one who knows," Marcher depends on her superiority. He says, "'You know what's to happen. . . . You know, and you're afraid to tell me. It's so bad that you're afraid I'll find out.'" She answers without reassuring him: "You'll never find out" (88-89). Establishing May as the phallic mother who possesses knowledge, this conversation indicates May's acceptance of Marcher's lack of knowledge and her willingness to continue the relationship anyway. Even Marcher wonders why she continues it. Her response is rich in possibilities: "'If you've had your woman, I've had,' she said, 'my man'" (91). The narrator's interruption suggests that she hesitates before saying what she has had as if she is considering alternatives or repressing the first thought that occurs to her. The pause allows the reader to imagine such substitutes as "boy" or "nothing" for "man."
Although she's speaking of the social forms they have upheld for each other, "had" operates ironically in the sexual sense as well. Marcher admits:
"You help me to pass for a man like another. So if I am, as I understand you, you're not compromised." (92)
To be a man like any other means first to be free of the obsession that a special fate awaits him; in his society it also means that he be heterosexual. By appearing to be his mistress, May sacrifices her reputation to maintain his. He sees her pretense as a sacrifice and accepts it. Hiding his homosexual desire in a conventionally illicit relationship, Marcher can "pass for a man like another."
Trying to persuade May to tell him his fate, Marcher is reduced to guessing:
"It might have been that we couldn't talk?"
"Well" - she did her best for him - "not from this side. This you see," she said, "is the other side." (112)
The deictic "this" links the exchange of knowledge with the exchange of positions. He cannot talk of it, but she can. May's side is the side that knows. But the words themselves suggest another kind of inversion:
"It does us the good that it isn't here. It's past. It's behind" said May Bartram. "Before - "but her voice dropped. (112)
Then she completes the thought: "'Before, you see, it was always to come. That kept it present'" (112). This passage is pivotal.
As May speaks his desire, the conjunction of "the other side," "behind," and "to come" carries associations of anal intercourse. In addition, her name combines the permission of "may" with a phallic "bar" and "ram." These signs of unintended sexual desire constitute an unconscious subtext. Failing to identify with the Name-of-the-Father, Marcher lacks any sense of individuality. He can neither act nor speak his desire himself. May articulates Marcher's desire to be penetrated from behind. Just as she speaks for him from the beginning, reminding him that he confided his special destiny to her, she utters what his unconscious wants. The psychoanalytic rule that what is manifest is never unconscious requires the critic to treat Marcher's fear of emotion as a screen for an unconscious wish. The figure of the "beast" annihilating him represents a conscious fear of emotional experience and an unconscious desire for anal penetration. Watching for his "beast," therefore, Marcher enacts the scoptophilia Lacan links to homosexuality. Marcher illustrates the narcissistic phase of "ambivalence proper to the 'partial drives' of scoptophilia, sadomasochism, and homosexuality, as well as the stereotyped, ceremonial formalism of the aggressivity that is manifested in them" (Ecrits 25). Regressing to the Imaginary bond of identification between mother and child, Marcher delays entry into the Symbolic realm of identification with the father because he cannot overcome the threat of castration.
He spends his life waiting for the "beast" to emerge in the jungle, in his own feminized lap. Passively waiting, he does not experience phallic separation from the Imaginary bond with the mother until he sees another man mourning his own loss. The narrator's diction supports my interpretation of the previous dialogue by describing this sight in highly charged terms as an "assault": "This face . . . looked into Marcher's own, at the cemetery, with an expression like the cut of a blade. He felt it, that is, so deep down that he winced at the steady thrust" (122).(7) A castrating and penetrating blade is attributed to the sexualized "steady thrust" of the middle-aged man. The man's "steady thrust" makes Marcher's own ache begin to "bleed" (122), and Marcher asks himself, "What had the man had, to make him by the loss of it so bleed and yet live?" (124). As James's language suggests, Marcher occupies a feminine role in this figure of emotional defloration. At the manifest level, what he discovers is that it is possible to love another without losing oneself, that accepting lack (castration) is necessary to feel post-Oedipal desire. What occurs at the latent level is that the other man's "steady thrust" marks the entry of the long-awaited beast into Marcher's jungle. Retroactively naming May the Beast (126), he attempts to conceal his jubilation with a show of guilt and mourning for having allowed May to wait with him.
If homosexual desire is latent in "The Beast in the Jungle," what happens in a text when it is manifest? Tony Kushner's Angels in America addresses many psychoanalytic issues explicitly, but even a psychoanalytically informed text can be overdetermined. In Kushner's text, latent meanings also depend on nonexplicit links in the text. At the manifest level, the play portrays homosexuals as America's community of latter-day saints whose suffering gives them spiritual insight, yet the play also expresses unconscious anxiety related to homosexuality. Although Kushner portrays many social consequences of homosexuality, he avoids questions of etiology. The orthodox Freudian account of homosexuality as a pathological response to fear of castration is one social burden that the play does not address, but it is latent in the textual unconscious.
The play presents a gay couple and a heterosexual couple as foils. Louis Ironson and Prior Walter have lived together four and a half years, but when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS, Louis leaves him. Harper and Joe Pitt have been married several years, but when Joe admits his homosexuality, Harper leaves him: Louis and Joe escape from the failure of these relationships by becoming lovers. The play complicates their relationship by making Joe a protege of Roy Cohn, ruthless power broker and closeted homosexual. In Kushner's play, as in James's novella, unconscious meaning is latent in the most conventional usage. The overdetermined recurrence, for example, of the signifiers "hole," "whole," and "hold" reinforced by echoes of the phoneme /o/, conveys one unconscious meaning. Using the multi-line telephone as his weapon of choice, Roy Cohn makes "Hold" his battlecry. When he is in the hospital dying of AIDS, the phone becomes an extension of his body: "And get me a real phone, with a hold button, I mean look at this, it's just one little line, how am I supposed to perform basic bodily functions on this?" (I:31). In dialogue such as this, a network of meanings associated with holes establishes an unconscious subtext that connects homosexuality to fear of castration.
From a Lacanian point of view, the lack or "hole" that splits the subject cannot be overcome. Fear of castration constitutes subjectivity in general, but failure to resolve it, Lacan suggests, causes homosexuality. Lacan articulates the relation between lack and woman in the Oedipus complex: "The female sex is characterized by an absence, a void, a hole, which means that it happens to be less desirable than is the male sex for what he has that is provocative, and that an essential dissymmetry appears" (Psychoses: 176). Summarizing the orthodox Freudian account of homosexuality, Lacan writes: "We say that the meaning of the homosexual relation tends to emerge in the inverted Oedipus complex. . . . We look for its cause, which we define as the fear of castration" (Psychoses: 196-97). Such a concept of homosexuality as inversion, so pervasive in our culture, forms the unconscious of Kushner's text.
Kushner's dialogue shifts between street language and poetic reverie, that is, between conventional and original usage. Its effect is comic, but the dialogue forces us to hear the metaphors buried in vernacular speech. One of Harper's speeches, for example, illustrates this shift and provides an entry into the network of latent meanings. She tells Joe: "I heard on the radio how to give a blowjob," and a few lines later switches from the colloquial to the poetic: "Then they went on to a program about holes in the ozone layer. Over Antarctica. Skin burns, birds go blind, icebergs melt. The world's coming to an end" (I:27-28). Here, the phoneme/o/begins to function as a signifier when it recurs in "radio" "blowjob" "program," "holes" "ozone," and "Joe." It also echoes throughout the play in "asshole," "homosexual" "home," and most emphatically as Roy Cohn's tag line - his first and last words in the play - "Hold." Like rhyme, this echo establishes an aural pattern that becomes semantically and kinesthetically significant.
The motif of holes - and the long o that emphasizes it - begins with the opening scene at a graveside funeral for Louis's grandmother. Louis explains the meaning of shoveling dirt on the coffin after it is lowered into the ground: "It's an old Jewish custom to express love. Here, Grandma, have a shovelful. Latecomers run the risk of finding the grave completely filled" (I:19). Not the act itself but Louis's description links filling a hole in the ground to expressing love, filling a grave to filling an orifice, and thus death to sex. His words also express his fear that he will not be able to fill the hole, that it is already full. This fear suggests the child's dread of the phallic mother who seems complete without him. The pattern continues with Joe's last name, Pitt, another word for hole, and links two relationships that Louis cannot fulfill. Even the Angel contributes to this pattern when she designates Prior her Prophet and places him in the "Universe of Wounds" (II:46), language that again suggests life-threatening holes in the body.
The antithesis between the homophones "hole" and "whole" becomes significant when Louis berates himself for not being the ideal mate who would "never, never have prayed to God, please let him die if he can't return to me whole and healthy and able to live a normal life" (I:52). Despite the play's manifest celebration of homosexuality, the contrast between whole meaning healthy and normal and hole meaning unhealthy and abnormal suggests an unconscious fear of castration related to a horror of the woman's "wound."
Indeed, most of the women in the play are themselves either deeply wounded or wounding. Harper is one of the wounded. She fantasizes escaping to Antarctica, which she calls the "bottommost part of the world" (I:101), a phrase recalling the earlier anal imagery in "asshole." In one hallucination, she imagines giving birth, but her words suggest that her wish for a child is a wish to be a cared-for child herself. Harper is not a woman who can give birth, but is a child who needs to be warmed, who wants to crawl into a womb-like pouch:
Maybe I'll give birth to a baby covered with thick white fur, and that way she won't be cold. My breasts will be full of hot cocoa so she doesn't get chilly. And if it gets really cold, she'll have a pouch I can crawl into. Like a marsupial. We'll mend together. That's what we'll do; we'll mend. (I:103)
Her image of healing is one's becoming "whole" inside a "hole."
Hannah Pitt, Joe's mother, is one of the wounding. She is so threatening that Joe leaves Utah to get away from her (II:96). When he tells her he is gay, she refuses to acknowledge his declaration: "You're old enough to understand that your father didn't love you without being ridiculous about it" (I:76). To deny her son's desire, she obliterates what Lacan would call the paternal function, the father's role in breaking the Imaginary bond between mother and child. She enacts another aspect of the phallic mother when she experiences "an enormous orgasm" with the female Angel (II:118), demonstrating that her desire requires neither husband nor son. She and Joe never reconcile, but by the end of the play, she cares for Prior as a substitute son. She affirms his vision of redemption at the Millennium and endorses Louis's idea of "Interconnectedness" (II: 144)
The most wounding castrating mother belongs to Roy Cohn. He blames her for a scar on his nose: "When I was three months old, there was a bony spur, she made them operate, shave it off. They said I was too young for surgery, I'd outgrow it but she insisted. I figure she wanted to toughen me up. And it worked" (II:81). The conventional displacement from penis to nose barely conceals a castration anxiety that becomes comic when Cohn says, just before he dies, "Next time around: I don't want to be a man. I wanna be an octopus" (II: 114). Eight appendages leave plenty to spare.(8) Because of his rage at his mother, Ethel Rosenberg becomes Cohn's victim: "That sweet unprepossessing woman, two kids, boo-hoo-hoo, reminded us all of our little Jewish mamas - she came this close to getting life" (I:108). Roy gloats: "If it wasn't for me, Joe, Ethel Rosenberg would be alive today, writing some personal-advice column for Ms." (I:107). The substitution of Ethel for his mother occurs again when Roy is dying. Although she protests, "I'm not your mother, Roy," she nevertheless pities him in his pain and sings him a Yiddish lullaby (II:113).
Both as historical figure and as dramatic character, Roy Cohn illustrates Lacan's analysis of what "happens if a certain lack occurs in the formative function of the father" (Psychoses 204). Since the Name-of-the-Father is not functioning at the Symbolic level, Lacan explains, the son is "left with the image the paternal function is reduced to" (Psychoses 204). As a result, "The subject will have to bear the weight of this real, primitive dispossession of the signifier and adopt compensation for it, at length, over the course of his life, through a series of purely conformist identifications with characters who will give him the feeling for what one has to do to be a man" (Psychoses 205). This analysis fits Roy Cohn. Cohn's failure to form a reciprocal relation with any other person makes him reject all social values as well. He is an opportunist who uses hyper-masculine rhetoric to overplay a role. His "conformist identifications" with the powerful men who advance his career culminate in an attempt to make Joe Pitt his own "son." In a pivotal speech analyzing the structure of power, he critiques the signifier "homosexuality":
Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call, who owes me favors. (I:45)
Putting people on hold is a sign of his power over them. It pushes them away yet keeps them under control, as he keeps his own desire on hold by concealing it. Displacing sexual issues onto power relations, he illustrates the "primitive dispossession of the signifier" that Lacan considers a symptom of the failure to accept the Name-of-the-Father. Cohn is the "bottommost" figure in the play, the "hole"-iest, the most seriously "holed." "Hold" is the command he issues to others, but at an unconscious level it describes what's wrong with him.
To mend, to make whole, to fix the hole and make it holy, is a task for angels. The play explicitly celebrates a kind of openness that is not a hole. The Angel's beating wings balance the blind birds of Antarctica. In contrast to the latent opposition between "whole" and "hole," the Angel offers "openness" as a positive alternative to the negative meanings of hole. Longing to be one of the saints, Joe wants to pass as "someone cheerful and strong. Those who love God with an open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles" (I:54). The angelic voice Prior hears provides a counterpart to the hole in the ozone when it announces: "Prepare for the parting of the air" (I:62). Ethel Rosenberg heralds the Angel: "History is about to crack wide open. Millennium approaches" (I: 112), and Prior awaits the Angel: "Tonight she arrives! Right through the roof!" (I:113). Although the Angel appears at the moment of death, this moment is deferred to allow for the possibility of deliverance. Prior seems to be on his deathbed at the end of Part I, but in Part II he observes that he lived with AIDS longer than he lived with Louis (II: 144). All these images of openness as a hole that is not a wound are manifest expressions of hope that function as alternatives for the latent horror of holes. Thus while Angels in America strenuously tries to transform the undesirable social consequences of homosexuality, such as vulnerability to disease and discrimination, into stigmata of spiritual transcendence, it nevertheless reveals unconscious anxiety hovering between its lines.
By juxtaposing a text in which homosexual desire is latent with one in which it is manifest, I hope to emphasize that the psychoanalytic themes in a work must not be conflated with its unconscious. In "The Beast in the Jungle" the scandal of a heterosexual affair screens homosexual desire, whereas the open homosexual relationships in Angels in America screen castration anxiety. Distracted by verisimilitude, we can easily forget that whatever is manifest cannot be unconscious. Focusing on dialogue to detect latent meanings may seem formulaic, but this strategy has the practical advantage that dialogue is easy to identify, and analysis of it has theoretical support from both psychoanalysis and linguistics. On the one hand, Freud's dependence on conventional symbols and Lacan's claim that the unconscious is formed by cultural codes make speech a node of overdetermined meanings, and, on the other, linguists account for the special capacity of dialogue to bear multiple meanings. Thus, dialogue offers literary critics access to the textual unconscious.
My interpretation of these passages of dialogue depends on the presence of Lacanian models of the unconscious in both texts. No reading can depend on extracts of dialogue alone. The rest of the work - plot, narration, characterization, description - provides a context analogous to a patient's free association. If the text is the product of a culture that forms author and reader, as well as narrator and characters, a network of meanings can skip from one of these figures to another. Seeking patterns among all these elements, wherever they appear in the text, the critic can construct a psychoanalytic reading, that is, a reading that seeks the unconscious in the text - not the author's, not the reader's, not the character's, but the text's unconscious.
1 In support of Brooks's model of a textual unconscious, Michael Riffaterre argues that since verbal patterns do not advance the plot, they are the product of a repetition compulsion in the text, whether the author's or the narrator's, and these patterns can point to an intertext (381). Riffaterre also conceives the intertext as an absent text that can be known by our inferring its characteristics from what is explicit in the text. He postulates that the intertext represents the unconscious:
In other words, literary signs point to the unconscious inasmuch as they repress a meaning in the process of conveying one. This dual action of the sign is best described as intertextuality: the perception that our reading of a text or textual component (paragraph, sentence, phrase, or word) is complete or satisfactory only if it constrains us to refer to or to cancel out its homologue in the intertext. . . . Intertextuality, in short, is tantamount to a mimesis of repression. (373-74)
2 I am indebted to the members of the Interdisciplinary Seminar on Psychoanalysis and Literature at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, Illinois, for many discussions, including sessions on both these texts.
3 Language and other symbolic systems are structures that allow substitution of one element for another. Since any noun can be the subject of the verb, for example, an unconscious wish can displace a speaker's conscious intention. In this sense, "what the psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious is the whole structure of language" (Ecrits 147). The task of the analyst and the psychoanalytic critic is to detect this "other" signification, but while the analyst asks the patient to use his or her own speech as the starting point for free association the critic is limited to the text.
4 I owe this point to my colleague Jeffrey Librett.
5 Arguing that dialogue in fiction and drama is thoroughly constructed, Ryan Bishop tries to illustrate points on a continuum of "naturalness." He views James as an extreme instance of the narrative voice overshadowing dialogue: "James's characters always sound to my ear how I imagine James talking to himself would have sounded" (65). Bishop considers this voice unnatural because it is unfamiliar to his ear, but his objection implies that James's dialogue is at least faithful to James's own social context.
6 Despite James's attention to narrative form, his fiction is often used to illustrate the function of dialogue. In The Dialect of the Tribe, Margery Sabin contrasts the French contempt for the familiar phrase as cliche with the English confidence in the energy of the natural phrase or idiom: "If cliche is the emblem of personality abdicating its authority to convention, idiom is the emblem of the subversive life possible, and even strengthened, within and through convention" (41). She traces this preference to Wordsworth, and she illustrates it in Joyce, Lawrence, Beckett and, surprisingly, Henry James. James uses common language to increase the ambiguity of his text. What Sabin calls the "doublenesss of his usage" in The Golden Bowl transforms terms like "love," "knowledge" "experience" into thematic conflicts, and cliches become "opportunities for self-assertion and argument" (69).
7 Mellard also suggests that the mourner functions as a castrating father figure (132-33).
8 Not only does the octopus regenerate its arms if they are injured, but I am informed that when octopuses mate, the male's penis breaks off in the female. In contrast to Cohn's need symbolized in this passage, the Angel has "eight vaginas" and is "Hermaphroditically Equipped as well with a Bouquet of Phalli" (II:48).
Arrive, Michel. Linguistics and Psychoanalysis Trans James Leader. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1992.
Bishop, Ryan. "There's Nothing Natural About Natural Conversation: A Look at Dialogue in Fiction and Drama." Oral Tradition 6 (1991): 58-78.
Brooks, Peter. "The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism" Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 334-48.
Chafe, Wallace and Jane Danielewicz. "Properties of Spoken and Written Language." Comprehending Oral and Written Language Ed. Rosalind Horowitz and S. Jay Samuels. San Diego: Academic, 1987. 83-113.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vols. 4 & 5. London: Hogarth, 1968.
Halliday, M.A.K. "Spoken and Written Modes of Meaning" Comprehending Oral and Written Language. Ed. Rosalind Horowitz and S. Jay Samuels. San Diego: Academic, 1987. 55-82.
James, Henry. "The Beast in the Jungle." The Novels and Tales of Henry James. Vol. 17. New York: Scribner's, 1922.61-127.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. 2 vols. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993-94. Part I: Millennium Approaches. Part II: Perestroika.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.
-----. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 19541955. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Norton, 1988.
-----. Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Norton, 1988.
-----. The Psychoses 1955-1956. Trans. Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 1993.
Mellard, James M. Using Lacan, Reading Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Riffaterre, Michael. "The Intertextual Unconscious." Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 371-85.
Sabin, Margery. The Dialect of the Tribe: Speech and Community in Modern Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Tannen, Deborah. "Hearing Voices in Conversation, Fiction, and Mixed Genres." Linguistics in Context: Connecting Observation and Understanding. Ed. Deborah Tannen. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988. 89-113.
Yell, Susan. "Control and Conflict: Dialogue in Prose Fiction." AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 74 (1990): 136-53.
Joyce Wexler is professor of English and director of the honors program at Loyola University, Chicago. She is the author of Who Paid for Modernism? Art, Money, and the Fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence and Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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