A Fessing Challenge

I had hoped to post on the Slaves of Golconda read, Ruth Hall (by Fanny Fern) today, but ouf it’s been a busy week with the new university term starting and I am pooped. Like too many Fridays, I began the day reasonably bouncy, and thinking I had survived quite well, but by early afternoon I was feeling distinctly weary as I trailed around the conference rooms, checking students and speakers were happy and had all they needed (they were and they did). I have lots to say on the novel and don’t wish to do it a disservice, so I’ll postpone my thoughts until tomorrow. In the meantime, I realized I hadn’t risen to Courtney’s challenge to the Friday ‘Fessing crew to post some of their recent work in progress. The idea is to quote a passage that you are happy with, followed by one that needs work. I have no idea what you are going to make of my academic ramblings, but here below are two paragraphs from the chapter I’ve been writing on dreams.

This first comes near the beginning and describes the dream as Freud theorized it. I liked this passage because dozens of academics have had to include an account of Freud’s dream theory in their work and despite having read a fair chunk of them, I wanted to do something different in my own voice. I don’t think there’s a single paragraph in my first draft of this chapter that couldn’t benefit from some tweaking, but this is not bad for a first go:

‘Freud’s model of the dream is of a four-dimensional space in which a number of phenomenological, emotional and psychic tributaries converge. The result is a performance with many layers, taking place in a space that emphasizes the cooperation and mutual interdependence of the center stage and backstage of the mind. And like all experimental dramas, what happens center stage cries out for interpretation. Freud split the dream into its latent and its manifest content, between the elegantly ludic images the dreamer retains and the hidden wishes and desires that fuel its creation. These desires emanate from the unconscious and must therefore be distorted and disguised in order to make it past the censor, a kind of night watchman of the mind who regulates levels of excitation and revelation. The original wishes themselves have, Freud insisted, a regressive quality, stemming from unresolved issues arising in childhood, but to express themselves they often cling onto ‘Tagesreste’, the flotsam and jetsam of the previous day that lingers still in the memory of the dreamer. The dream thus draws simultaneously from the distant past and the present, tracing out the fault lines in the individual psyche that stretch back into developmental traumas and concerns. The patterns of association which the dream takes can be understood to follow magnetic paths of attraction imprinted by the movement of psychic energy in the form of drive functions, desires, impulses and wishes, and hence Freud declared it possible to solve the enigma each element of the manifest dream represents by tracing the clusters of associations back to earlier troublesome experiences.’

Theory is so much easier to write about than the texts themselves. Theory is there, more or less coherent, self-sufficient, and all you have to do is explain it, with a follow-up look at the objections that have subsequently been raised as to its claim on truth. Faced with the literary texts, writing becomes much trickier. There are so many different pathways you could take through the material, so many possible interpretations, so many ways you could shape your thought around the stories, so many themes and preoccupations you could highlight. Sometimes every sentence is the verbal equivalent of standing lost in the outskirts of the Hampton Court Palace maze, wondering which route to take. The texts for this chapter on dreams have all been particularly challenging as well. I had a real struggle on my hands with the authors I chose to discuss in the section from which the following paragraph is taken. I was working with two experimental French authors from the back end of the twentieth century, Georges Perec and Hélène Cixous, who had both published books that contained nothing but transcripts of dreams. I found these difficult to interpret, and had to turn that very difficulty into the basis of the interpretation itself:

‘This begs the question, of course, of what we might be reading these dream accounts for, what as readers we might hope to gain from them. The urge to treat them as a distorted but revelatory form of autobiography is inevitable, but the stark presentation of the dream accounts, unaccompanied by any informative biographical material forecloses this possibility. We could try to read them as indicative of a more structural perspective on the psyche of each author, an indication of their hopes and fears and desires, except that the oddly generic form of dream images that cluster around beds and bathrooms, nakedness and mutilation, family, friends, law enforcement officers and child figures, all of whom have more symbolic weight than verisimilitude, makes accurate and personalized deduction somewhat difficult. Perec, as ever, presents his dream accounts with a studied neutrality in which, as Stella Béhar describes ‘rien n’est laissé à la sensation’ (146), whilst Cixous writes more dramatic, free-flowing accounts that have the authentic texture of dreamwork, but neither style results in what we might recognize as art works. Both offer accounts of dreams studded with the significant elements that have become associated with their other texts, for instance Cixous’s father and the concentration camp for Perec, but such elements only surface occasionally and are padded with much that is mundane and banal. Indeed, it is intriguing that for writers who have attracted a great deal of critical attention, very little has been written on these dream texts, and it can be taken as a measure of their internal resistance to interpretation. We have the sensation of both Perec and Cixous presenting texts of some intimacy to the reader, and of them both moving surreptitiously behind the scenes, arranging the furniture of the dream landscape (no matter that Cixous denies retouching her accounts in her preface). But it is the enigmatic opacity of the dreams that predominates, and this through the familiarly bizarre combination of the banal, the violent and the fantastic. We are obliged to recognize that dreams are not stories, nor are they poetry, but something else altogether. They are a kind of textual phantom limb that makes sense only when reconnected to an entire body of thought and work.’

Well, it ends okay, but the rest of it lacks a bit of flow. I think I’m missing some linking sentences here, the kind that do not necessarily arise instantly in the mind when you are writing a first draft and just trying to figure out what you think. As I wrote this, I was turning the texts around and around, trying to see what was absent from them, what prevented me from reading them like a critic, which is to say I was like someone looking down the back of the sofa for all the old coins and pencils and broken chips of sweets that have fallen down there and can be used to reconstitute the hidden life of its occupants. So, like a detective I’ve put the evidence down on the table, but at the moment it just lies there, not really showing its enticing side. But a few neutral, going nowhere sentences that slow down the accumulation of thoughts will help a lot and give the reader space to think in tandem with me. Oh, and some of those sentences are too long – it’s a perpetual failing of mine.

Having done this I can say that it is indeed a fine way to get back into writing. I’m not going to rewrite just now; instead I want to move forward next week and write the final part of the literary analysis on the works of Claude Simon and Samuel Beckett. More maze dwelling, but it is still endlessly fascinating to me.

5 thoughts on “A Fessing Challenge

  1. Well, I liked that second paragraph (actually I liked both!) because of the way it showed you trying to figure out what’s going on — I like following someone’s mind trying to make sense of things. And I liked the passage because it’s so full of questions about texts that the more I think about the more annoyed and almost angry I get. I hate listening to friends’ accounts of their dreams, so why in the world would I want to read a book of the dreams of some stranger, famous though they are? This is definitely a case where I’m happy to say I’ll let the experts take care of reading and figuring out what’s going on!

  2. Dorothy – oh bless you for reading them – I didn’t think anybody would get through them! I tell you, I was pretty fed up with reading the dreams of Perec and Cixous, and between you and me, I didn’t make it to the end of either book. Although it was difficult to write about them, I still enjoyed that part of the process a lot more than the reading. Thankfully I can move on now, to different issues, but all the dream material has been challenging. That’s good in some ways, but I wouldn’t say no to an easy analysis once in a while!🙂

  3. I agree with you that the first paragraph is strong, and your voice rings clear. The second paragraph is also strong, especially at the end, and its complexity reflects the material and all its potential resonances. I think all it needs is a little tightening here and there. And I agree with Dorothy: imagine publishing books that are nothing but transcripts of one’s dreams! That is pretty presumptuous.

  4. I like the Freud paragraph. Very clear and easy to follow your line of thought. The second paragraph is pretty good, though not as clear and I had to really concentrate to follow where you were going. It does end well as others have commented. I like the way you think on “paper.” 🙂

  5. Charlotte – thank you for reading it! I think it needs a bit of nipping and tucking and smoothing, too, but I’m very glad that what I’m trying to say is also coming through. You never know! And yes, imagine the publishing power to be able to get such books out. I remember one academic telling me that Perec’s book was a marvel of originality, whilst Cixous’s was of no interest at all, derivative and dull. How he could distinguish between them, I have no idea.

    Stefanie – yes, I think the second paragraph is a bit dense still and the reader needs to be guided more gently through it. Glad you liked the Freud bit, as I wondered how I was going to do that, and then in the end it was fun. Thank you for your kind comments! I usually just plow on with the academics so it’s rather lovely to have some outside encouragement.

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