Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Love is the desire to prostitute oneself"

Leo Bersani's Baudelaire and Freud (1977) operates on the fundamental Freudian assumption that "no text is fully present to itself." Attention to its "lack" will propel the reader from the text into "a fascination with other texts having the same potential for both fixing and scattering our attention," in this study, Freud's texts. Bersani is careful not to view Freud's texts as a master-key to unlock the meaning of Baudelaire's poetry; instead, Freud's texts "bring a certain coherence to the given literary text and accelerate its disruptive interpretive mobility," a statement which I take to mean, Freud will give a meaning (not the meaning) of Baudelaire, and will clarify the subversive nature of his poetry.

I am wary of psychoanalytical (or Marxist or feminist or queer) readings of literature because all too often they reduce literary works to codes to be cracked by the theorist, and the decoded meanings sound distressingly similar. Bersani's subtle reading of Baudelaire avoids that trap by and large. He reads Baudelaire consistently, but not simplistically, as exemplifying a critical moment of cultural history, when "an idealistic view of the self and of the universe is being simultaneously held onto and discredited by a psychology . . . of the fragmented and the discontinuous." To desire, as Baudelaire's poems enact, is to be scattered, partial, and mobile.

The one lapse in interpretative subtlety lies in Chapter 11, an analysis of Petits Poems en prose. After a discussion of Freud's idea of hypochondria as the failure of megalomania, the chapter concludes that "Baudelaire's relation to the old clown and to Fancioulle is very much like this crippled form of self-love: the poet's fearful sympathy for the unhappy artist is hypochondria allegorized." This is poetry as mental illness. Thankfully, the rest of the book is less reductive, and more stimulating.

Of particular interest to me is Chapter 10 in which Bersani takes Baudelaire's "realistic" poems about Parisian life as a springboard to talk about the relationship between literary realism and narcissism. Nineteenth-century fiction sees itself as holding up a mirror to the world. Bersani argues that the literary work does create a mirror, but it makes of the world a mirror in which to see itself. By willing his separation from his created world, the writer of realistic fiction has implicitly denied that he is mobile desiring fantasy. As a result, his "affectivity" is relocated in a world cluttered with things which he has to describe in order to see his own existence.

In the hero of realistic fiction the narrator sees a version of himself. Since the hero is an ideal version of self, he "embodies the danger and guilt of desire, and is therefore condemned by a conscience operating through the narrator's voice." In psychoanalytical terms, the death of the hero is also intelligible as "manifesting the narrator's paranoid terror of the self he would both passionately appropriate as an ideal and passionately reject as an instance of dangerously energetic desire." Think Melville and Ahab. I think this view of realist fiction is extremely suggestive.

The other key chapter, for me, is Chapter 7 "Desire and Death." In it, Bersani takes the unusual interpretative turn of using Baudelaire to read Freud. Freud explains sadism and masochism as arising from the will to master the world and self. However, he complicates his explanation by observing that, besides the will to master, the subject also desires to inflict pain. Pain, according to Freud, is experienced as sexual pleasure when it is strong enough to shatter the stability of self. Bersani questions Freud's complicated moves to explain the desire to inflict pain. It is simpler, and perhaps more accurate to see that sadism and masochism is primarily concerned with inflicting pain and pleasure, rather than with the will to master. The death drive and the pleasure principle are not antagonists, as Freud would have it. To put it crudely, desire seeks death.

The result appears counterintuitive. Surely, desire is about life: joy, vitality, regeneration, reproduction. To think of desire as death-seeking, however, reminds us that desire is painful, and seeks to put an end to its own pain. That end is achieved in orgasmic release, if not in physical violence. Orgasm is but momentary relief.

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