ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 12

 - Freud and Fiction


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry turns his attention to the relationship between authorship and the psyche. Freud’s meditations on the fundamental drives governing human behavior are read through the lens of literary critic Peter Brooks. The origins of Freud’s work on the “pleasure principle” and his subsequent revision of it are charted, and the immediate and constant influence of Freudian thought on literary production is asserted. Brooks’ contributions to literary theory are explored: particularly the coupling of multiple Freudian principles, including the pleasure principle and the death wish, and their application to narrative structures. At the lecture’s conclusion, the professor returns to the children’s story, Tony the Tow Truck, to suggest the universality of Brooks’s argument.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 12 - Freud and Fiction

Chapter 1. Brooks’s Debt to Jakobson and de Man [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Well, now today is obviously a kind of watershed or transition in our syllabus. You remember we began with an emphasis on language. We then promised to move to an emphasis on psychological matters, and finally social and cultural determinants of literature. So far we have immersed ourselves in notions to the effect that thought and speech are constituted by language or, to put it another way, brought into being by language and that thought and speech have to be understood as inseparable from their linguistic milieu–language here being understood sometimes broadly as a structure or a semiotic system.

Now obviously our transition from language-determined ideas about speech, discourse, and literature to psychologically determined ways of thinking about discourse and literature has a rather smooth road to follow because the first two authors who borrow from Freud and understand their project to a degree in psychoanalytic terms are nevertheless using what is now for us an extremely familiar vocabulary. That is to say, they really do suppose that the medium of consciousness to which we now turn–the psyche, the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious–they really do suppose that this entity, whatever it may be, can be understood in terms that we take usefully from verbal thought and from linguistics. Lacan famously said, as you’ll find next week, “The unconscious is structured like a language,” and Brooks plainly does agree. You open Brooks and you find yourself really apart perhaps–I don’t know how well all of you are acquainted with the texts of Freud. We’ll say a little bit about Beyond the Pleasure Principle,which is the crucial text for our purposes; but plainly apart from the influence of and the ideas borrowed from Freud, you’ll find Brooks writing on what for you is pretty familiar turf.

For example, he begins by borrowing the Russian formalist distinction in trying to explain what fiction is between plot and story. I feel that I do ultimately have to cave in and admit to you that the Russian words for these concepts, plot and story, are syuzhet and fabula respectively, because Brooks keeps using these terms again and again. I’ve explained my embarrassment about using terms that I really have no absolutely no idea [laughs] of the meaning of except that I’m told what the meaning of them is in the books that I am reading, which are the same books that you’re reading. In [laughs] any case, since Brooks does constantly use these terms, I have to overcome embarrassment and at least at times use them myself. They’re a little counterintuitive, by the way, if you try to find cognates for them in English because you’d think that syuzhet would be “subject matter,” in other words something much closer to what the formalists mean in English by “story.” On the other hand, you’d think that fabula might well be something like “plot” or “fiction,” but it is not. It’s just the opposite. Syuzhet is the plot, the way in which a story is constructed, and the fabula is the subject matter or material out of which the syuzhet is made.

All right. In addition to the use of the relationship between plot and story, we also find Brooks using terms that are now, having read Jakobson and de Man, very familiar to us: the terms “metaphor” and “metonymy.” There’s plainly a tendency in modern literary theory to reduce all the tropes of rhetoric to just these two terms. When needed, they back up a little bit and invoke other terms, but the basic distinction in rhetoric, as literary theory tends to understand it, is the distinction between metaphor–which unifies, synthesizes, and brings together–and metonymy, which puts one thing next to another by a recognizable gesture toward contiguity but which nevertheless does not make any claim or pretension to unify or establish identity–to insist, in short, that A is B. These two terms, as I say, are understood reductively but usefully to be the essential topics of rhetoric and appropriated by modern theory in that way.

Now Brooks then uses these terms in ways that should be familiar to us, as I say. We have now been amply exposed to them in reading Jakobson and de Man. So there is a language of language in Brooks’ essay, “Freud’s Masterplot,” despite the fact that the framework for his argument is psychoanalytic and that he is drawing primarily on the text of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Chapter 2. Brooks’s Debt to Freud [00:06:10]

So what does he take from Freud? What interests Brooks about Freud? He is, by the way, a distinguished Freudian scholar who knows everything about Freud and is interested, in fact, by every aspect of Freud, but for the purpose of constructing the argument here and in the book to which this essay belongs, the book called Reading for the Plot–for the purposes of constructing that argument, what he takes in particular from Freud is the idea of structure: the idea that, insofar as we can imagine Freud anticipating Lacan–Lacan himself certainly believed that Freud anticipated him–the idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. In terms of creating fictional plots, in terms of the nature of fiction, which is what interests Brooks–well, what does this mean? Aristotle tells us that a plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. “Duh!” of course, is our response, and yet at the same time we can’t understand a degree of mystery in even so seemingly simple a pronouncement. A beginning, of course–well, it has to have a beginning. We assume that unless we’re dealing with Scheherazade, it has to have an end, but at the same time we might well ask ourselves, why does it have a middle? What is the function of the middle with respect to a beginning and an end? Why does Aristotle say, as Brooks quotes him, that a plot should have a certain magnitude? Why shouldn’t it be shorter? Why shouldn’t it be longer? In other words, what is the relation of these parts, and what in particular does the middle have to do with revealing to us the necessary connectedness of the beginning and the end: not just any beginning or any end but a beginning which precipitates a kind of logic, and an end which in some way, whether tragically or comically, satisfactorily resolves that logic? How does all this work? Brooks believes that he can understand it, as we’ll try to explain, in psychoanalytic terms.

So this he gets from Freud, and he also gets, as I’ve already suggested, the methodological idea that one can think of the machinations of a text in terms of the distinction that Freud makes–not in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but in The Interpretation of Dreams in the passages that you read for today’s assignment taken from that book, The Interpretation of Dreams, about the dream work. It’s there that Freud argues that really the central two mechanisms of the dream work are condensation and displacement. Condensation takes the essential symbols of the dream and distills them into a kind of over-determined unity so that if one studies the dream work one can see the underlying wish or desire expressed in the dream manifest in a particular symbolic unity.

That’s the way in which the dream condenses, but at the same time the dream is doing something very, very different, and it’s called displacement. There the essential symbols of the dream–that is to say, the way in which the dream is attempting to manifest that which it desires, are not expressed in themselves, but are rather displaced on to sometimes obscurely related ideas or symbols, images, or activities that the interpreter, that the person trying to decode the dream, needs to arrive at and to understand. So displacement is a kind of delay or detour of understanding, and condensation, on the other hand, is a kind of distillation of understanding. The extraordinary thing that Freud remarks on as he studies dreams in this book–published in 1905, by the way–the extraordinary thing about the way in which dreams work is that there seems to be a kind of coexistence or simultaneity of these effects. The dream work simultaneously condenses and displaces that which it is somehow or another struggling to make manifest as its object of desire.

Now the first person to notice that there might be–there are a variety of people who noticed that there might be a connection between condensation and displacement and metaphor and metonymy, most notably Jacques Lacan whom Brooks quotes to this effect: that the work in everyday discourse, in what we say but also in our dreams and in what we tell our analyst, can be understood as operating through the medium of these two tropes. Condensation, in other words, is metaphorical in its nature, and displacement is metonymic in its nature. Metonymy is the delay or perpetual, as we gathered also from Derrida, différance of signification. Metaphor is the bringing together in a statement of identity of the discourse that’s attempting to articulate itself. Again we see in fiction, as Brooks argues in his essay, that these two rhetorical tendencies, the metaphorical and metonymic, coexist–and of course you can hear the implicit critique of de Man in the background–and may or may not work in harmony, may or may not conduce to an ultimate unity, but nevertheless do coexist in such a way that we can understand the unraveling of a fictional narrative as being like the processes we see at work in the unraveling of dreams. So it’s these two elements that Brooks is interested in in Freud and that he primarily does take from Freud.

Chapter 3: Brooks’s Departure from Freud [00:13:14]

Now this means, among other things, that Brooks is not anything like what we may spontaneously caricature perhaps as a traditional psychoanalytic critic. Brooks is not going around looking for Oedipus complexes and phallic symbols. Brooks is, as I hope you can see, interested in very different aspects of the Freudian text, and he says as much at the end of essay on page 1171 in the right-hand column where he says:

… [T]here can be psychoanalytic criticism of the text itself that does not become [“This is what I’m doing,” he says]–as has usually been the case–a study of the psychogenesis of the text (the author’s unconscious), the dynamics of literary response (the reader’s unconscious), or the occult motivations of the characters (postulating an “unconscious” for them).

In other words, Brooks is not interested in developing a theory of the author or a theory of character.

Now I don’t think he really means to be dismissive of Freudian criticism. I think he’s really just telling us that he’s doing something different from that. I would remind you in passing that although we don’t pause over traditional Freudian criticism in this course, it can indeed be extremely interesting: just for example, Freud’s disciple, Ernest Jones, wrote an influential study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which he showed famously that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. Think about the play. You’ll see that there’s a good deal in what Jones is saying; and in fact, famously in the history of the staging and filming of Shakespeare–as you probably know, Sir Laurence Olivier took the role of Hamlet under the influence of Ernest Jones. In the Olivier production of Hamlet, let’s just say made it painfully clear in his relations with Gertrude that he had an Oedipus complex. Again, there were actual sort of literary texts written directly under the influence of Freud. One thinks of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, for example, in which the central character, Paul Morel, is crippled by an Oedipus complex that he can’t master and the difficulties and complications of the plot are of this kind.

Moving closer to the present, an important figure in literary theory whom we’ll be studying in this course, Harold Bloom, can be understood to be developing in his theories of theoretical text, beginning with The Anxiety of Influence, a theory of the author–that is to say, a theory that is based on the relationship between belated poets and their precursors, which is to say a relationship between sons and fathers. So there is a certain pattern in–and of course, I invoke this pattern in arguing that Levi-Strauss’ version of the Oedipus myth betrays his Oedipus complex in relation to Freud. Plainly, Freudian criticism with these sorts of preoccupations is widespread, continues sometimes to appear, and cannot simply be discounted or ignored as an influence in the development of thinking about literature or of the possibilities of thinking about literature.

But the odd thing, or maybe not so odd–the interesting thing, that is, in Brooks’ work is that although the text is not there to tell us something about its author or to tell us something about its characters, even though character is important in fiction and that’s what Brooks is primarily talking about–although it’s not there to do those things it is nevertheless, like an author or a character, in many ways alive. That is to say, the text is there to express desire, to put in motion, and to make manifest desire or a desire. That is a rather odd thing to think about, especially when Brooks goes so far as to say that he has a particular desire in mind. The text, in other words, the structure of the text, or the way in which the text functions is to fulfill in some way or another a desire for reduced excitation: that is to say, the desire which can be associated with the pleasure principle in sexual terms and can be associated with the idea of the death wish that Freud develops in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that I’ll be coming back to as the reduction of excitation that would consist in being dead. In these ways–and it remains to see whether, or to what extent, these ways are cooperative–Brooks understands the structure, the delay, the arabesque, or postponement of the end one finds in the text to involve a kind of coexistence of the sort that I have been talking about between relations to the possibility through desire of reducing excitation, being excited, and reducing excitation.

Now obviously both dreams and stories don’t just express this desire; they also delay it. I’m sure we have all had the experience of waking up–it’s an experience, by the way, which is an illusion; it hasn’t really been the case–and thinking that we have been dreaming the same damn thing all night long: in other words, that we have just been interminably stuck in a dream predicament which repeats itself again and again and again to the point of absolute total tedium. Many of the dreams we have are neither exciting nor the reverse but simply tedious. Whatever excitement they may have entailed in the long run, we feel as we wake up that they go on too long. Perhaps fiction does have this superiority over the dream work: that its art, that its structure, is precisely the protraction of delay to a desired degree but not unduly beyond that degree.

But it’s not just that the middles of fiction involve these processes of delay. It’s that they seem also–and this is one of the reasons Brooks does have recourse to this particular text of Freud–they also have the curious tendency to revisit unpleasurable things. That is to say, it’s not that–the middles of fiction are exciting. We love to read and everything we read is a page turner, all to the good; but the fact is our fascination with reading isn’t simply a fascination that takes the form of having fun. In fact, so much of what we read in fiction is distinctly unpleasurable. We wince away from it even as we turn the page. One way to put it, especially in nineteenth-century realism which particularly interests Brooks, is all these characters are just madly making bad object choices. They’re falling in love with the wrong person. They’re getting stuck in sticky situations that they can’t extract themselves from because they’re not mature enough, because they haven’t thought things through, and because fate looms over the possibility of making a better choice–however the case may be, the experiences that constitute the middles even of the greatest and the most exciting fiction do have a tendency, if one thinks about them from a certain remove, to be unpleasurable. Why, in other words, return to what isn’t fun, to where it isn’t pleasure, and what can this possibly have to do with the pleasure principle?

Chapter 4. Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle [00:22:04]

Now that’s precisely the question that Freud asked himself in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a text which begins with a consideration of trauma victims. It’s written at the end of the First World War, and you should understand this text as not isolated in the preoccupation of writers in Europe. Almost contemporary with Beyond the Pleasure Principle are novels written in England partly as a result of the making public of findings of psychologists about traumatic war victims as the war came to its conclusion. Most of you have read Virginia’s Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and you should recognize that her treatment of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway is a treatment of a traumatized war victim. Rebecca West, a contemporary and an acquaintance of hers who wrote a good many novels, wrote one in particular called The Return of the Soldier,the protagonist of which is also a traumatized war victim. So it was a theme of the period and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle contributes to this theme. Brooks himself likes to refer to the text of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as itself a master plot–in other words as having a certain fictive character. It would be, I think, extremely instructive to read it alongside The Return of the Soldier or Mrs. Dalloway for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

Okay. So anyway, Freud begins by saying, “The weird thing about these trauma victims whom I have had in my office is that in describing their dreams and even in their various forms of neurotic repetitive behavior, they seem compulsively to repeat the traumatic experience that has put them in the very predicament that brought them to me. In other words, they don’t shy away from it. They don’t in any strict sense repress it. They keep compulsively going back to it. Why is that? How can that possibly be a manifestation of the only kind of drives I had ever thought existed up until the year 1919, namely drives that we can associate in one way or another with pleasure–with the pleasure principle, obviously; with a sort of implicit sociobiological understanding that the protraction of life is all about sexual reproduction and that the displacement or inhibition of the direct drives associated with that take the form of the desire to succeed, the desire to improve oneself, and the desire to become more complex emotionally and all the rest of it? All of this we can associate with the pleasure principle. How does this compulsion to return to the traumatic event in any way correspond to or submit itself to explanation in terms of the pleasure principle?”

So then he turns to an example in his own home life, his little grandson, little Hans, standing in his crib throwing a spool tied to a string out of the crib saying, “Fort!” meaning “away, not there,” and then reeling it back in and saying, “Da!” meaning “there it is again”: “Fort! Da!” Why on earth is little Hans doing this? Well, Freud pretty quickly figures out that what little Hans is doing is finding a way of expressing his frustration about the way in which his mother leaves the room; in other words, his mother is not always there for him. So what is this play accomplishing? He’s got her on a string, right? Sure, she goes away–we have to understand this: we know our mother goes away, but guess what? I can haul her back in, and there she is again. This is the achievement of mastery, as Freud puts it and as Brooks follows him, that we can acquire through the repetition of a traumatic event. So maybe that’s the way to think about it, but it can’t just be the achievement of mastery alone, because nothing can do away with or undermine the fact that part of the drive involved seems to be to return to the trauma–that is to say, to keep putting before us the unhappy and traumatic nature of what’s involved.

Chapter 5. “The aim of all life is death” [00:27:01]

So the compulsion to repeat, which of course manifests itself in adults in various forms of neurotic behavior–by the way, we’re all neurotic and all of us have our little compulsions, but it can get serious in some cases–the compulsion to repeat takes the form, Freud argues, especially if we think of it in terms of an effort at mastery, of mastering in advance through rehearsal, as it were, the inevitability of death, the trauma of death which awaits and which has been heralded by traumatic events in one’s life, a near escape: for example, in a train accident or whatever the case may be. So Freud in developing his argument eventually comes to think that the compulsion to repeat has something to do with a kind of repeating forward of an event which is in itself unnarratable: the event of death, which is of course that which ultimately looms.

Now it’s in this context that Freud begins to think about how it could be that the organism engages itself with thoughts of this kind. What is this almost eager anticipation of death? He notices that in certain biological organisms, it can be observed–this by the way has been wildly disputed by people actually engaged in biology, but it was a useful metaphor for the development of Freud’s argument: he noticed that there is in certain organisms a wish to return to a simpler and earlier state of organic existence, which is to say to return to that which isn’t just what we all look forward to but was, after all, that which existed prior to our emergence into life. The relationship between the beginning and the end that I have been intimating, in other words, is a relation of death. I begin inanimate and I end inanimate, and Freud’s argument is that there is somehow in us a compulsion or a desire, a drive, to return–like going home again or going back to the womb to return to that inanimate state. “The aim of all life,” he then says, “is death.”

Well, now maybe the important thing is to allow Brooks to comment on that so that you can see how he makes use of Freud’s idea and move us a little bit closer to the application of these ideas to the structure of a literary plot or of a fictional plot. So on page 1166 in the right-hand margin, the beginning of the second paragraph, Brooks says:

We need at present to follow Freud into his closer inquiry concerning the relation between the compulsion to repeat and the instinctual. The answer lies in “a universal attribute of instinct and perhaps of organic life in general,” that “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.

Building on this idea, page 1169, the left-hand column, about halfway down:

This function [of the drives] is concerned “with the most universal endeavor of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world.”

Kind of pleasant, I guess, right? “The desire to return to the quiescence of the organic world.” The aim in this context, in this sense–the aim of all life is death.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length–of a certain magnitude, as Aristotle puts it. There is more because the organism doesn’t just want to die. The organism is not suicidal. That’s a crucial mistake that we make when we first try to come to terms with what Freud means by “the death wish.” The organism wants to die on its own terms, which is why it has an elaborate mechanism of defenses–“the outer cortex,” as Freud is always calling it–attempting to withstand, to process, and to keep at arm’s length the possibility of trauma. You blame yourself as a victim of trauma for not having the sufficient vigilance in your outer cortex to ward it off. Part of the compulsion to repeat is, in a certain sense–part of the hope of mastery in the compulsion to repeat is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you failed to have in the past and therefore fail to ward it off.

So the organism only wishes to die on its own terms. If you are reminded here by the passage of Tynjanov that I gave you where he makes the distinction between literary history as evolving and literary history as modified by outside circumstances, I think it would be a legitimate parallel. What the organism, according to Freud, wants to do is evolve toward its dissolution, not to be modified–not, in other words, to be interfered with by everything from external trauma to internal disease. It doesn’t want that. It wants to live a rich and full life. It wants to live a life of a certain magnitude, but with a view to achieving the ultimate desired end, which is to return to an inorganic state on its own terms. So there is this tension in the organism between evolving to its end and being modified prematurely toward an end, a modification which in terms of fiction would mean you wouldn’t have a plot, right? You might have a beginning, but you would have a sudden cutting off that prevented the arabesque of the plot from developing and arising.

Chapter 6. Merging the Pleasure Principle with the Death Wish [00:34:08]

Now what Brooks argues following Freud is that to this end, the creating of an atmosphere in which with dignity and integrity, as it were, [laughs] the organism can progress toward its own end without interference, as it were–what Brooks following Freud argues is that in this process, the pleasure principle and the death wish cooperate. This is on page 1166, bottom of the right-hand column, and then over to 1167, a relatively long passage:

Hence Freud is able to proffer, with a certain bravado, the formulation: “the aim of all life is death.” We are given an evolutionary image of the organism in which the tension created by external influences has forced living substance to “diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicateddétours before reaching its aim of death.” In this view, the self-preservative instincts function to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, to ward off any ways of returning to the inorganic which are not imminent to the organism itself. In other words, “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.” It must struggle against events (dangers) which would help to achieve its goal too rapidly–by a kind of short-circuit.

Again on page 1169, left-hand column, a little bit farther down from the passage we quoted before, Brooks says:

… [W]e could say that the repetition compulsion and the death instinct serve the pleasure principle; in a larger sense [though], the pleasure principle, keeping watch on the invasion of stimuli from without and especially from within, seeking their discharge, serves the death instinct, making sure that the organism is permitted to return to quiescence.

It’s in this way that these two differing drives coexist and in some measure cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, and in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

An obvious problem with this theory, and Freud acknowledges this problem in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is that it’s awfully hard to keep death and sex separate. In other words, the reduction of excitation is obviously something that the pleasure principle is all about. The purpose of sex is to reduce excitation, to annul desire. The purpose of death, Freud argues, is to do the same thing. Well, how can you tell the one from the other? There’s a rich vein of literary history which insists on their interchangeability. We all know what “to die” means in early modern poems. We all know about “Liebestod” in “Tristan and Isolde,” the moments of death in literature which obviously are sexually charged. There is a kind of manifest and knowing confusion of the two in literature–and Freud always says that the poets preceded him in everything that he thought–which suggests that it is rather hard to keep these things separate.

For example, by the way, the compulsion to repeat nasty episodes, to revisit trauma, and to repeat the unpleasurable–well, that could just be called masochism, couldn’t it? It could be called something which is a kind of pleasure and which therefore could be subsumed under the pleasure principle and would obviate the need for a theory of the death drive as Freud develops it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Now Freud acknowledges this. He says that it is difficult to make the distinction. He feels that a variety of sorts of clinical evidence at his disposal warrant the distinction, but it is not an easy one. It’s one that I suppose we could continue to entertain as a kind of skepticism about this way of understanding the compulsion to repeat as somehow necessarily entailing a theory of the death wish.

All right. Now quickly, as to the plot: desire emerges or begins as the narratable. What is the unnarratable? The unnarratable is that immersion in our lives such that there is no sense of form or order or structure. Anything is unnarratable if we don’t have a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end to bring to bear on it. The narratable, in other words, must enter into a structure. So the beginning, which is meditated on by Sartre’s Roquentin in La Nausee and quoted to that effect by Brooks on the left-hand column of page 1163–the narratable begins in this moment of entry into that pattern of desire that launches a fiction. We have speculated on what that desire consists in, and so the narratable becomes a plot and the plot operates through metaphor, which unifies the plot, which shows the remarkable coherence of all of its parts.

A narrative theory is always talking with some satisfaction about how there’s no such thing in fiction as irrelevant detail. In other words, nothing is there by accident. That is the metaphoric pressure brought to bear on plotting, sort of, in the course of composition. Everything is there for a reason, and the reason is arguably the nature of the underlying desire that’s driving the plot forward; but on the other hand, metonymy functions as the principle of delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure; the settling upon bad object choice and other unfortunate outcomes, the return of the unpleasurable–all the things that happen in the structure of “middles” in literary plots. The plot finally binds material together, and both metaphor and metonymy are arguably forms of binding. Look at page 1166, the right-hand column, bottom of the first paragraph. Brooks says:

To speak of “binding” in a literary text is thus to speak of any of the formalizations (which, like binding, may be painful, retarding) that force us to recognize sameness within difference, or the very emergence of a sjužet from the material of fabula.

Chapter 7. Tony the Tow Truck Revisited [00:41:42]

Okay. Now I want to turn to Tony as an instance of the way in which reading for the plot can take place. I also want to mention that the choice of these materials for today’s assignment is not just a way into questions of psychoanalysis as they bear on literature and literary theory, but also a gesture toward something that those of you whose favorite form of reading is novels may wish we had a little more of in a course of this kind–namely narrative theory: narratology. I commend to you the opening pages of Brooks’ essay where he passes in review some of the most important work in narrative theory, work that I mentioned in passing when I talked about structuralism a couple of weeks back and work which, for those of you who are interested in narrative and narrative theory, you may well wish to revisit. Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gerard Genette are the figures to whom Brooks is primarily expressing indebtedness within that tradition.

Anyway: Tony the Tow Truck. I would suggest that in the context of Beyond the Pleasure Principle we could re-title Tony the Tow Truck as The Bumpy Road to Maturity. It certainly has the qualities of a picaresque fiction. It’s on the road, as it were, and the linearity of its plot–the way in which the plot is like beads on a string, which tends to be the case with picaresque fiction, and which by the way is also a metonymic aspect of the fiction–lends the feeling of picturesque to the narrative. Quickly to reread it–I know that you all have it glued to your wrists, but in case you don’t, I’ll reread it:

I am Tony the Tow Truck. I live in a little yellow garage. I help cars that are stuck. I tow them to my garage. I like my job. One day I am stuck. Who will help Tony the Tow Truck? “I cannot help you,” says Neato the Car. “I don’t want to get dirty.” “I cannot help you [see, these are bad object choices, right?],” says Speedy the Car. “I am too busy.” I am very sad. Then a little car pulls up. It is my friend, Bumpy. Bumpy gives me a push. He pushes and pushes [by the way, this text, I think, is very close to its surface a kind of anal-phase parable. In that parable, the hero is not Tony in fact but a character with whom you are familiar if you’re familiar with South Park, and that character is of course the one who says, “He pushes and pushes…”] and I am on my way.” [In any case that is part of the narrative, and then:] “Thank you, Bumpy,” I call back. “You’re welcome,” says Bumpy. Now that’s what I call a friend.

So that’s the text of Tony the Tow Truck. Now we’ve said that it’s picaresque. We can think in terms of repetition, obviously, as the delay that sets in between an origin and an end. We’ve spoken of this in this case as–well, it’s the triadic form of the folk tale that Brooks actually mentions in his essay; but it is, in its dilation of the relationship of beginning and end, a way of reminding us precisely of that relation. He comes from a little yellow garage. The question is, and a question which is perhaps part of the unnarratable, is he going back there? We know he’s on his way, but we don’t know, if we read it in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whether he’s on his way back to the little yellow garage or whether–and there’s a premonition of this in being stuck, in other words in having broken down–whether he’s on his way to the junkyard.

In either case, the only point is that he will go to either place because the little yellow garage is that from which he came; in either case–little yellow garage or junkyard–he’s going to get there on his own terms, but not as a narcissist and not as the person who begins every sentence in the first part of the story with the word “I,” because you can’t just be an autonomous hero. On your journey, and this is also true of the study of folklore, you need a helper. That’s part of fiction. You need another hero. You need a hero to help you, and having that hero, encountering the other mind as helper, is what obviates the tendency, even in a nice guy like Tony, toward narcissism which is manifest in the “I,” “I,” “I” at the beginning of the story. Notice that then the “I” disappears, not completely but wherever it reappears it’s embedded rather than initial. It is no longer, in other words, that which drives the line in the story. So the arabesque of the plot, as I say, is a matter of encountering bad object choices and overcoming them: neatness, busyness–choices which, by the way, are on the surface temptations. We all want to be neat and busy, don’t we? But somehow or another it’s not enough because the otherness, the mutuality of regard that this story wants to enforce as life–as life properly lived–is not entailed in and of itself in neatness and busyness. Resolution and closure, then, is mature object choice and in a certain sense there, too, it’s a push forward, but we don’t quite know toward what. We have to assume, though, in the context of a reading of this kind that it’s a push toward a state in which the little yellow garage and the unnarratable junkyard are manifest as one and the same thing.

Now as metonymy, the delays we have been talking about, the paratactic structure of the way in which the story is told–all of those, and the elements of repetition, are forms that we recognize as metonymic, but there’s something beyond that at the level of theme. This is a story about cars. This is a story about mechanical objects, some of which move–remember those smiling houses in the background–and some of which are stationary, but they’re all mechanical objects. They’re all structures. In other words, they’re not organic. This is a world understood from a metonymic point of view as that which lacks organicity, and yet at the same time the whole point of the story is thematically metaphoric. It is to assert the common humanity of us all: “That’s what I call a friend.” The whole point of so many children’s stories, animal stories, other stories like this, The Little Engine that Could, and so on is to humanize the world: to render friendly and warm and inviting to the child the entire world, so that Tony is not a tow truck–Tony’s a human being, and he realizes humanity in recognizing the existence of a friend. The unity of the story, in other words, as opposed to its metonymic displacements through the mechanistic, is the triumphant humanization of the mechanistic and the fact that as we read the story, we feel that we are, after all, not in mechanical company but in human company.

That’s the effect of the story and the way it works. In terms of the pleasure principle then, life is best in a human universe and in terms of–well, in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the whole point of returning to an earlier state, the little yellow garage or junkyard, is to avert the threat that one being stuck will return to that junkyard prematurely or along the wrong path.

Okay. So next time we will turn to the somewhat formidable task of understanding Lacan.

[end of transcript]

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