The Tears of Narcissus: Melancholia and Masculinity in Early Modern Writing.
Lynn Enterline's work is in many ways an exemplary one for the contemporary state of Renaissance literary studies. It is theoretically sophisticated, impressively learned, lucidly written, and, most importantly, animated by a nuanced appreciation of texts by Tasso, Marvell, Shakespeare, and Webster. By investigating the recurrent interplay between the construction of masculine subjectivity and the affect of melancholia, it participates in the collective project of rewriting the Renaissance from the converging standpoints of psychoanalytic and feminist theory that has already had an incalculable effect on our discipline. It is, in short, a work of incontestable brilliance that will establish its author as one of the foremost Renaissance scholars of her generation.
For all my admiration of Enterline's accomplishment, however, I cannot subdue a twinge of melancholy in my response to The Tears of Narcissus. For one thing, it is difficult to discern the logic of either her choice of texts or the order of their presentation. Certainly, specialists in the Gerusalemme liberata, Marvell's lyrics, The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice, and The Duchess of Malfi will want to familiarize themselves with the relevant chapters of Enterline's book. But this already impressive study would have been even stronger had Enterline made it clear why she selected these texts instead of any number of others that might have been equally congenial to her argument, and why she decided to proceed in defiance of chronology or any other obvious organizing principle. It must also be said, as Dr. Johnson did of Paradise Lost, that few readers of The Tears of Narcissus are likely to wish it longer. Especially the two chapters on Tasso (the only author treated in more than one chapter) are likely to deter all but the most intrepid experts.
These qualms, however, are minor compared to my unease at the theoretical underpinnings of the book. Enterline proceeds without acknowledging that psychoanalysis is, first and foremost, a mode of therapeutic practice and not a system for the interpretation of literary texts. What is more, Enterline relies on an extremely narrow tradition of psychoanalysis, consisting entirely of Lacan, Kristeva, and some of the most dubious aspects of Freud. That this postmodernist perspective on psychoanalysis is the dominant one in the humanities today prevents Enterline from recognizing just how fragile a foundation it provides for her conceptual edifice. Most unfortunately, in seeking to advocate psychoanalysis, this outlook actually condemns it to intellectual sterility and prompts a lack of respect from psychologists and others in allied fields who take the scientific method seriously.
When, citing Jacqueline Rose, Enterline asserts that "the idea of an unconscious challenges . . . 'any form of empiricism based on what is there to be observed'"(10), the implication is not merely that the hermeneutic aspects of psychoanalysis cannot be encompassed within a positivistic framework but that the concept of the unconscious exempts psychoanalytic propositions as a whole from scientific scrutiny. This is to make psychoanalysis a form of mysticism no better than astrology. It is thus not surprising to find Enterline, under the spell of Kristeva, embracing Freud's concept of primary narcissism, without ever confronting the fact that it has been subjected to a devastating critique by Michael Balint in The Basic Fault (1968) and that its notion of an infant in some kind of cocoon is contradicted by everything that we know from research on infants themselves. Were Enterline to reconsider her disparagement of the scientific method, she would no longer be able to assert that the self is constituted by a "linguistic gesture . . . setting up the structure of differences that make perception possible" (203), because she would know that neonates have been shown to be capable of making perceptual discriminations and that the process of learning from experience begins even in the womb. Despite Enterline's gestures in the directions of social and historical analysis, Lacan's paradigm holds sway in her thinking, prompting her to claim that "the practice of maternal care, is culturally inscribed within, but not foundational to, the very linguistic errors out of which a subject's sense of integrity is produced" (207) and to devote an entire chapter to Marvell's poetry without mentioning the English civil war.
It would be unrealistic to expect Enterline to repudiate an ideological outlook that she deploys so adroitly and that retains considerable prestige in advanced literature departments. But I would venture to hope that she might evaluate her position more self-critically and recognize that many of its assumptions are, to say the least, highly contestable. Were Lynn Enterline, to borrow her own trope of Narcissus's tears, to begin to see her version of the psychoanalytic mirror not as a transparent medium but as an object of scrutiny, I predict that this would cause a ripple in the pool of Renaissance studies with far-reaching effects.
PETER L. RUDNYTSKY University of Florida
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|Author:||Rudnytsky, Peter L.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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