Here’s the “script” (as it were) I used for two lectures I delivered a few years ago on H.D.’s Tribute to Freud for the “American Writers Abroad” course.
This week we find ourselves confronted yet again with yet another difficult modernist text, certainly one that presents as many challenges to understanding and interpretation as did Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) in week three. As was the case with Nightwood, an awful lot of effort gets expended in one’s first reading of Tribute to Freud (1956) to get a sense both of what is happening and of when what is said to be happening in fact happened. As the clunky use of verb tenses in what I have just said demonstrates, even trying to straightforwardly express the difficulties with which H.D.’s psychobiography presents its readers requires us in part to embody or perform those same difficulties, even when we’re simply trying to pithily or manageably describe them. As good a way as any to emblematize these difficulties would be to start today at the beginning and ask you all to tell me when are we on pages 3 and 4—that is, in section 1 of “Writing on the Wall,” which is perhaps not quite so confusing an opening as something like Nightwood until you start asking questions like the following: When are we on these pages? What year is it? What’s happening in Vienna? What sorts of relationships to time do these two pages enact, perform, describe, or represent?
For these opening two pages do not represent time so much as a superimposed set of relationships to time: time-as-period, calendar time/rationalized time, evental time, habitual time, present time (WWII), national historical time. Note that the overarching relationship to time here is quasi-spatial in that it involves a pick-and-mix approach to different temporalities that can be broken down, separated, and put back together in novel, non-chronological arrangements whose ultimate compositional principles do not rely upon fidelity to progressivist notions of history or sequence (think of history as chronicle: in 1933 A happened then B followed by C, which led in turn to E but not before D happened, so on and so forth; alternatively, in 1915 H.D.’s first child was born stillborn, in 1918 her brother Gilbert died in battle during WWII, in 1919 her daughter was born, in 1920 she has the writing-on-the-wall hallucination on the Isle of Corfu in the company of Bryher, in 1933 she has first sessions of analysis with Sigmund Freud, in 1934 she has her second session, in 1944 she writes her memoirs of these two sessions, so and so forth).
Instead of this progressivist philosophy of history, H.D. invokes archeological, cinematic, and psychoanalytic models throughout Tribute to Freud to describe her own creative attitude toward history—toward time, its passing, and its potential prophetic openings onto futurity. According to these three models, which we will be looking at extensively today together, time is a substance that leaves behinds traces that can be excavated, that can be put together into jagged collages or montages of associations, and that can be superimposed on, above, or below each other, as when one used to place two images on top of each other in a film or photograph to suggest the uncanny proximities of totally unproximate things (think here of Victorian spirit photography) or to double an actor’s performance by having him play two different characters in the same scene.
A good example or emblem of these simultaneously archeological, cinematic, and psychoanalytic relationships to time can be found in the first paragraph on page 47, where H.D. observes the following regarding her experience with the writing-on-the-wall on the island of Corfu: “But there I am seated on the old-fashioned Victorian sofa in the Greek island, and here I am reclining on the couch in the Professor’s room, telling him this, and here again am I, ten years later, seated at my desk in my own room in London. But there is no clock-time, though we are fastidiously concerned with time and with a formal handling of a subject which has no racial and no time-barriers. Here is this hieroglyph of the unconscious or subconscious of the Professor’s discovery and life-study, the hieroglyph actually in operation before our very eyes. But it is no easy matter to sustain this mood, this ‘symptom’ or this inspiration.”
I will return to this quote in the final half of today’s lecture, so for now let it suffice for to point out that for H.D. such a practice of re-approaching history involves opening oneself up to the strange forms that history itself takes through a complementary exploration of one’s own unconsciousness, of those instinctual parts of oneself that escape conscious awareness or present attention. In other words, going deeply into yourself is the same thing as opening yourself up to abstract forces and examples that exist outside or beyond you according to Tribute to Freud, for to deeply subjectivze yourself through analysis seems to be the same thing as radically objectivizing yourself, as making yourself the object of historical forces and patterns that exceed your isolated self, or any account you could give of your own self. As she notes early on, “I do not want to become involved in the strictly historical sequence. I wish to recall the impressions, or rather I wish the impressions to recall me. Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own sequence.”[i] Alternatively, as H.D. admits in her journals from her first session with Freud on page 137, “I cannot classify the living content of our talks together by recounting them in a logical or textbook manner. It was, as [Freud] had said of my grandfather, ‘an atmosphere.’ . . .”
I will have much more to say about this impressionistic and atmospheric representation of time, history, and sequence, but let it suffice at the beginning of today’s lecture to emphasize that the overmastering relationship to time that H.D. sketches in here in Tribute to Freud is a relationship that we are being asked to categorize under the heading of human recollection or memory—not time itself but a potentially de-subjectivizing relation to an overlapping and superimposed set of times or temporalities is the material with which H.D. actively works and by which she more or less gets herself worked over. In a word, time is most certainly not an arrow reliably flying onwards and upwards in Tribute to Freud. Instead, it is a confusing mosaic, made up of broken bits and pieces that have been exhumed up by H.D., that have been dug up in her mind and then super-glued together in novel patterns that these broken bits and pieces seem to have suggested themselves and that (in turn) are badly in need of de-coding or deciphering. Alternatively, time exists in Tribute to Freud as an uncollated clutter of film strips badly in need of being edited together in ways that the film strips themselves seem to will, demand, or imply—and, again, this new strange assemblage will then need to be interpreted and translated into a less strange and more clearly ordered assemblage of words. To sum up, then, the shattered mess of time seems to suggest to H.D. through psychoanalytic processes of free-association (or the involuntary selection of thoughts and impressions) a new relationship to time in which these shattered bits get stuck together and superimposed upon the other in ways that exceed or even contradict our assumed ways of interpreting history progressively.
Therefore, in a nutshell, the mosaic, free-association-like presentation of her retrospective account of being psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud himself in “Writing on the Wall” tends (on first approach) to derange or deform our sense of the book’s contents and events, along with the order in which those things may have chronologically happened. To consequentially revise a mythological figure and story that would have been near and dear to H.D.’s antiquarian heart, we as first-time readers of Tribute to Freud find ourselves lost in a labyrinth of cunning and intricate design without so much as the frayed end of a string to guide ourselves back out again. We are, as it were, Theseus lost in Daedalus’ labyrinth on Crete entirely bereft of Ariadne’s thread, waiting to be devoured by Minos’ minotaur.
Now admittedly, if this particular reference was opaque or bombastically confusing to you, then you will probably sorely feel the need of limbering up on your ancient Greek mythology and cultural knowledge because such mythology and such a knowledge present the very patterns and relationships that H.D. unfailingly discerns in the world around her—and this is true of H.D. throughout her writerly life, from her early days as an Imagist poet in Ezra Pound’s orbit and on into her subsequent development as a writer of prose and poems quite overtly modeled after ancient or mythological narratives, characters, themes, and images. Myth, as it were, is the very medium in and through which H.D. experiences the world around her, and we get a pretty explicit expression of this archetypal impulse of hers on pages 28 to 29 in Tribute to Freud, just after she has described a scene from her childhood in which her mother playfully leaves H.D. and her brother behind alone to sit, seemingly abandoned, on the curb of Main Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:
It seems odd that my mother should be laughing. My brother had defied her. He is seated on the curb-stone. He is not going home. As he repeats this solemnly, my mother laughs more. People stop and ask what has happened. My mother tells them and they laugh too. They stand either side of my mother, more people, friends and strangers, all laughing. “But we’re collecting a crowd,” she says, “we can’t stay here, crowding the pavement.” She obtains supporters; strangers and near-strangers repeat her words like a Greek chorus, following the promptings of their leader.
There is a slight, whispered conspiracy. The strangers melt away and my mother, with feigned indifference, strolls off. My brother knows perfectly well that she will relent, she will pretend to go away but she will wait aorund the corner, and if we don’t follow her she will come back. He has told her that he is going away to live by himself, and he has moreover told her that his sister is coming with him. His sister waits anxiously, excited yet motionless, on the curb beside him. In addition to this final ultimatum of my brother’s, we were not supposed to sit on the curb-stone. But there we sit, not “crowding the pavement” but making a little group, design, an image at the crossroads. It appears variously in Greek tragedies with Greek names and it can be found in your original Grimm’s tales or in your nursery translation, called Little-Brother, Little-Sister. One is sometimes the shadow of the other; often one is lost and the one seeks the other, as in the oldest fairy tale of the twin-brother-sister of the Nile Valley. Sometimes they are both boys like the stars Castor and Pollux, sometimes there are more than two. Actually in the case of Castor and Pollux there were four, with Helen and Clytemnestra—the children of a Lady, we are told, and a Swan. They make a group, a constellation, they make a groove or a pattern into which or upon which other patterns fit, or are placed unfitted and are cut by circumstance to fit. (28-29)
H.D.’s mother and her “supporters,” we are told, look like the members of a Greek chorus, which would presumably leave H.D. and her brother in the roles of protagonists in this comedy that the pair nevertheless seem to think is a tragedy, though this initial image of the siblings changes suddenly on the next page into a German and then an ancient Egyptian fairy tale before H.D. and Gilbert finally become Castor and Pollux or rather Helen and Clytemnestra.
Now to be honest, I am not all that interested in the particular exemplary figures to which H.D. here relates the “little group, design, [or] image” that she, her brother, their mother, and their mother’s “supporters” make on the curbside of Main Street early on in her memoir. While it would probably be a useful exercise to link this specific “group, design, [or] image” to the particular Grimm’s fairy tales she cites or to the various Greek myths concerning Leda’s children (Castor, Pollux, Helen, and Clytemnestra)—let me back up: while following such linkages and resonances out might be a useful undertaking, I do not think that is where the action is at in this passage, nor do I think that it is where the action is at in Tribute to Freud as a whole. For one thing, such an interpretive approach would mire us all in the worst sorts of pedantic inquiry, with me reconstructing for you, tale-by-tale, myth-by-myth, and page-by-page, the complexly allusive network of mythical citations that H.D. throws over her experience of being analyzed by Freud much as one would cast a net into the sea. What we would be doing maybe could have a use of some sort, but I am not at all interested in deciphering Tribute to Freud anecdote-by-anecdote or memory-by-memory or free-association-by-free-association using some sort of outsized mythic decoder ring, despite the manifest temptations for studiously undertaking just such a task, which H.D. herself seems to punctually solicit from us on every other page or so. At the very least, the overabundance of references to Greek myths, to middle European fairy tales, and to actual relics of ancient material culture seem to be calling out to us from every other page, begging us to re-read H.D.’s Tribute to Freud all over again, to translate it mytho-poetically, specifically in terms of Herculean labors, in terms of written-over or slightly effaced hieroglyphs, and in terms of visionary pilgrimages to Delphic shrines, where Freud is as likely to pop up as an oracle as is H.D. herself is.
It would, in other words, be damn awful easy to spend an hour-and-forty-five minutes today doing nothing but annotating all the specific mythic archetypes, characters, and forms to be found in Tribute to Freud, so that H.D.’s two sessions of analysis with Freud in the early 1930s start to take shape as a sort of pastiche collage or experimental cinematic montage of specifiably meaningful ancient myths. My point is not to slag off such approaches but to point out that they likely shut the book down for first-time-readers, they tend to make Tribute to Freud look more daunting or unapproachable than it actually is. Getting hung up on such allusive details gives the illusion that the book requires a deep knowledge of myth and history that no undergraduate can likely hope to possess as an undergraduate in the first place. My goal today is to demonstrate to all of you that Tribute to Freud is more open, more inviting than its densely allusive mythological surface may in fact seem to suggest to a reader the first go-round.
Therefore, what I want us all to be attentive to as we re-traverse this text together today is the fact that mythic structures are insistently assumed by H.D. to intervene between her and the world around her in the first place. That is to say, it’s probably not earth-shatteringly important that H.D. compares her and her brother to Castor and Pollux or to brothers and sisters from Grimm’s fairy tales. However, what is of consequence to any interpretation of H.D.’s Tribute to Freud is that she is constantly invoking such fairy tale and mythic archetypes in the first place, not only to explain the world around her but also her position in that world. Not specific myths themselves but the overmastering relevance that H.D. ascribes to mythic figures and forms in general as she attempts to navigate the confusions, the ephemeral visual hallucinations, and the apocalyptic political events of early-twentieth-century European daily life ought to be where our attention is most focused today.
I want us to be attentive not to specific myths so much as to the fact that there are myths at all in Tribute to Freud and that their explanatory or organizing force goes largely unquestioned by H.D., either in “Writing on the Wall” or in “Advent.” At a brass-tacks level, then, the sort of questions I want you all to tarry with today go something like this: How is it that characters, objects, and stories that have been dead and (quite literally) buried for millennia happen to offer “moderns” like H.D. and like us the urgent and timely tools with which to manageably re-organize the distractions, entropy, and chaos of our contemporary moment into a coherent unity or shapely whole? In insisting upon the contemporary relevance of mythic archetypes, narratives, and figures, isn’t H.D. simply just erasing the fact of history or of historical difference itself? Surely interwar Austrofascist Vienna and Minoan civilization on the island of Crete in the pre-classical Bronze Age (27th Century to the 15th Century B.C.E.) are radically different times and places, such that a myth about bestiality, a minotaur baby, a labyrinth, and the heroic founder of Athens developed and expressed in the one cannot be made to explain or orient experience in the other, right? That is to say, just how a-historical or anti-historical are H.D.’s assumptions as a creative writer and early-twentieth-century American abroad? Alternatively, what sort of philosophy of history do her writing and living practices adumbrate or vaguely foreshadow? Finally, to sum all these questions: What’s so mythical about modernity? What’s so mythical about expatriation in the early 1900s? What’s so mythical about psychoanalysis? Alternatively, what’s so modern about antiquity, what’s so modern about myth?
Therefore, what most strikes me about this passage and what offers us some important cues to follow as we make our way through H.D.’s labyrinth is her incredible admission at the end of the passage I just got done reading a few minutes ago: mythic archetypes, narratives, and figures make, we are told, “a group, a constellation, they make a groove or a pattern into which or upon which other patterns fit, or are placed unfitted and are cut by circumstance to fit.”
Earlier in the quarter, we read Tropic of Cancer (1934) where Henry Miller scatologically sought to upset literary values and traditions by negating the category of literature as such and replacing it with the unlikely positive values he ascribed to various verbally expressed obscene experiences and encounters, which were said by him to be ephemeral and disruptive of coherent human identities. In his most apocalyptic moments, Miller is able to credibly present obscenity as an event of sorts in which the human body as such gets imaginatively broken down into an indeterminately gooey mass of bodily fluids dissolving into an even bigger mass of other people’s bodily fluids, hydraulically circulating throughout subterranean pipes and chambers endlessly. If there is any such thing as a classic in Miller’s view, then, a classic would have to be a text capable of arousing just such a radical reaction, either speculatively or affectively. The Miller-ish masterpiece would identity itself as such by endurably threatening human identities and relationships to oneself through the offensively salacious claims it happens to make.
For Miller, therefore, there is a specifically nihilistic function to be served by properly obscene writing, for such writing acts to negate whatever happens to be, such texts act to clear out a space in what there is for differences that might yet come to be, and it is precisely this act of evacuation or of clearing that ensures for Miller that a work will have an enduring value through time because people will likely always need a way of confronting (if not necessarily mastering) their impulses toward nihilism, toward negating the conditions of life in which they find themselves and by which they find themselves more or less meaningfully constituted as human subjects.
Now in this passage from Tribute to Freud, we can see H.D. quite explicitly coming at questions of literature, value, history, and even life itself from a perspective that attempts to put people like Miller back on their feet, right-side-up as it were. Antiquity, we are told time and time again, always already provides us with the outlines and examples and shapes through and by which we currently experience our lives and worlds. Not the Miller-ish anticipation of an unrepresentable difference anticipated through creatively obscene negation but rather the concentrated pursuit of mythic pattern recognition is said by H.D. in Tribute to Freud to be the way to measure the value or worth of a piece of writing.
For H.D. there most certainly are classics, but they don’t look like the works of Menippean satire that Miller most prizes, such as Apuleius, Boccaccio, or Rabelais. H.D. isn’t celebrating writing or art that dissolves human identity or that calls it into question; instead, she is constantly giving voice to the wish for more certain grounds on which to credibly re-secure such time-honored identities and certainties. She is constantly expressing the impulse for finding a transcendental gauge, a transhistorical ruler by which to measure the coherence of our identities as human subjects and agents, who both proportionately act on the world and are acted upon by the world. Not hydraulically circulating human slime but eternally present ancient godheads are H.D.’s yard-sticks, in other words.
At the very least, according to her, such sacred divinities and the heroes they spawned and/or manipulated provide the prototypes for all human behavior and relationships, and even for all visual and narrative experience as such. Again, for H.D., the utter contingency of our encounters in the world and with other people in the world manages to achieve a consistency and a meaning by means of this mythic pattern recognition that they would not otherwise possess on their own terms. Accordingly, to truly grasp the fact that human experience on this planet has any meaning means that we need to be attentive to the age-old human designs into which such experience can be made to fit.
Also, it must be pointed out, this practice of mythic pattern recognition is, as we shall shortly see, not simply a writerly practice but part of H.D.’s equipment for living. It is a mode of operating that extends beyond the blank page and into everyday life. Also, I perhaps ought to make it clear that I am ventriloquizing H.D., the speaker or narrative persona in Tribute to Freud. The positions I am ascribing to H.D. rightly belong with this narrative persona, not with the “real” historical person per se.
It is in this sense, therefore, that antiquity and its cultural artifacts are said by her to comprise “a set of groove[s] or pattern[s] into which or upon which other patterns fit, or are placed unfitted and are cut by circumstance to fit.” These grooves and patterns exist not only outside time, they not only are timeless, they not only are not bound to their time or place of origin. In addition to all of this, they are the very grooves and patterns that present-day circumstances produce out of themselves and on their own.
In short, the various accidents and catastrophes of present existence are said by H.D. to endlessly confirm the timeless value of mythic archetypes because such contingencies ensure that shapeless, formless experience eventually breaks down into more classically legible figures and forms. The contingencies of daily life are not as contingent as they first appear in Tribute to Freud; instead, they always seem to be a means of making patterns and structures emerge from beneath the surface of sensory experience. Amorphous immediacy, according to H.D., is always reducible to mythic mediations, and the way to get through life and the way to create art that lives on after you die is to recognize these mediations, these patterns, these figures and to anticipate and to commemorate the overarching design that such mediations, such patterns, and such figures happen to make.
My opening comparison of Tribute to Freud to Dedalus’ labyrinth, therefore, was not a gratuitous gesture on my part—if anything, it was a gesture that expressed a gently satirical fidelity to the vision of the world and of time that informs H.D.’s own outlook and poetics. After all, to approach the world in such a way that you see Greek myths in every sight or encounter is to put a damn awful lot of trust in the continuing exemplarity of myths in the first place. In other words, at the end of the day, the excavation of Tribute to Freud’s relationship to specific myths and artifacts is not all that important; instead, what is important is the attention we as readers pay to the impulses, motivations, and compositional practices that both lead into and follow from a worldview in which everything in our lived experience comes down to us always already cut or ever-ready to-be-cut-down-to pre-made patterns fabricated millennia ago in ancient Greece, Egypt, or China, which times and places are understood by H.D. to be as much a present reality of sorts in her life as the hallucinatory projected writing on a wall in Corfu in 1920, as the swastika-chalked sidewalks in 1933 and 1934, and as the bombed-out ruins in London during the Blitz of 1944, when she finally sits down to draft “Writing on the Wall” in the fall of that year.
Now I realize that this all sounds downright mystical, and to a certain degree it all ought to sound downright mystical because it is downright mystical. That is to say, there is a rather strong tendency in H.D.’s writing to view all things through a quasi-religious or sacralizing lens, whereby the repugnant contingencies of everyday life are understood to be mysteriously redeemed by a veneration for transhistorical features of individual and social experience that loom timelessly and significantly behind immediate sensory perception, as is said to be the case in all her involuntary thought-associations in Tribute to Freud detailing the interlocking network or web of mythical patterns into which her childhood, young adulthood, and middle age are said to have happened to fall.
Think here for instance, to take a more or less arbitrary example, of her recollection of the incident involving her, her brother, and her father’s magnifying glass, in which the magnifying glass soon gets overloaded with signification, with meaning, with transhistorical resonances (this incident gets described on pages 21 to 26). The magnifying glass, we are told, goes from being a simple magnifying glass used to truantly burn up some newspaper to representing a sacred symbol, an Egyptian hieroglyph, ankh (☥), the symbol of life itself, before the slide of signification spills ever onwards to the planet Venus supposedly annotated by means of this same symbol at the top of a ledger kept by H.D.’s astronomer father (24-25).
There are at least two things I want us all to hold onto from this passage in Tribute to Freud. The first thing is that this sort of involuntary slide through more or less arbitrary associations and significations is not as singular as it may appear to be at first glance because as H.D. makes clear in section 50 of “Writing on the Wall,” such an involuntary slide and such a set of arbitrary associations and significations occurs every time we open a dictionary to look up the definition of a word and are confronted with a strange and almost archeological jumble of dissonant, archaic, and variable meanings all seemingly held together capriciously by a single word. This comes out following H.D.’s revelation of her “peculiar dream or merely a flash of vision” at the age of eighteen or nineteen, when she had the vision of a picture of “an altar-shaped block of stone [that] was divided into two sections by the rough stone marking,” with a serpent, “roughly carved,” on one side of the altar-shaped block of stone and with “a roughly incised, naturalistic yet conventionally drawn thistle” on the other (64).
She receives, you all will remember, a hasty and unlikely bit of dream analysis from a young Ezra Pound, who insists that the vision is either a flashback or a prophetic vision of Asklepios, son of Phoebus Apollo, the “blameless physician,” and Greek divinity of medicine whose serpent-entwined rod remains a symbol of medicine and healing in the western world.
As we all know from having read Tribute to Freud and from having a glance back at the book’s epigraph (where we are told Freud himself is in fact the “blameless physician”), Pound is kinda sorta right: at one level it would not be hard to read H.D.’s teenage vision of Asklepios’s rod by way of snake and thistle both as an early expression of her project of mythic pattern recognition and as an early instance of a prophetic omen, whereby her visit to Freud roughly thirty years later gets dramatically adumbrated in an ambiguous and hard-to-decipher sign. (And parenthetically here I would note that H.D. presents her practice of mythic pattern recognition consistently in an altogether Kit-like fashion: that is to say, much like Port’s wife in The Sheltering Sky (1949), H.D.’s mythic method is constantly invoked as a sort of prophetic indication of the coming war and the coming continent-wide atrocities committed against Europe’s Jewish populations, from which atrocities H.D. seems both impelled to save Freud even as she finds herself wholly unable to talk to him directly about the contemporary terroristic activities committed by Nazis in the city of Vienna itself. More important than this for our present purposes, however, is the fact that H.D. finds the same exact design on a Graeco-Roman signet ring in a gallery in the Louvre years later, which leads her, in section 50, to present us with the dictionary definitions of the word “signet”:
Signet—as from sign, a mark, token, proof; signet—the privy seal, a seal; signet-ring—a ring with a signet or private seal; sign-manual—the royal signature, usually only the initials of the sovereign’s name. (I have used my initials H.D. consistently as my writing signet or sign-manual, though it is only at this very moment, as I check up on the word “signet” in my Chambers’ English Dictionary that I realize that my writing signature has anything remotely suggesting sovereignty or the royal manner.) Sign again—a word, gesture, symbol, or mark, intended to signify something else. Sign again—(medical) a symptom, (astronomical) one of the twelve parts of the Zodiac. Again sign—to attach a signature to, and sign-post—a direction post; all from the French, signe, and Latin, signum. And as I write that last word, there flashes into my mind the associated in hoc signum or rather, it must be in hoc signo and vinces. (66)
As this trip to a ready-to-hand copy of the Chambers’ English Dictionary ought to suggest, therefore, H.D.’s disorienting free-associations don’t look any more or less weird than the definitions to be found in a dictionary itself. If starting with a magnifying glass she is able to move back to an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and then upward into the stars where she ends up on the planet Venus, then starting with the word “signet” the dictionary is able to move from signs, marks, tokens, and proofs to rings and royal signatures before going on to encompass words and symbols themselves and then on to medical symptoms and to interstellar space itself, with a penultimate reference to “one of the twelve parts of the Zodiac,” before we come back down to earth again with a direction post (certainly an ironic touch on the dictionary writers’ part, no?).
Furthermore, if H.D.’s father’s magnifying glass took her all the way back to ancient Egypt, then “signet” in the dictionary takes us all the way back to Latin, to the Graeco-Roman period with the etymological root, “signum,” which in turn leads us back to a specific historical event in 312 A.D., when Constantine I saw the chi-rho (☧) in the sky before a battle with a rival Roman co-emperor, Maxentius. After defeating Maxentius in battle following this vision, he adopted as his motto in hoc signo vinces: “in this sign you will conquer.”
The gist and pith of what I would have you all hold onto from this experience as it gets represented in Tribute to Freud is the degree to which hyperbolically subjective experiences (like personal memories, like involuntary associations of images, ideas, and impression, like hallucinated visions) start to structurally resemble objective, historically conditioned records, such as those to be found in any dictionary, where the collaged presentation of obsolete and contemporary meanings, of definitions and etymological roots, can, with a slight adjustment of perspective, start to look like so many exercises in psychoanalytic free-association. As H.D.’s visionary experiences and involuntarily selected impressions suggest, and as any good dictionary itself demonstrates, the world is (if anything) too full with signification, with meaning, and there is really no hard-and-fast rule that one can make use of to get this slide of meaningful associations to stop or stay still for once and for all. There is no stop-button to the meaning of things in other words, as the dictionary and as H.D.’s free associations make clear.
My second point here is more easily and quickly put, and it goes something like this: the explicit appearance of a hieroglyph here in the magnifying glass incident is no accident because the relationship of H.D. to almost all the objects, events, and people around her evinced throughout Tribute to Freud is reliably that of an Egyptologist to a recently disinterred set of ancient artifacts in a dead language that needs to be translated into vocabularies and grammars with a more widespread currency among present-day speakers. That is to say, everything in everyday life for H.D. in Tribute to Freud is a text waiting to be decoded using a key made up of ancient and sacred works. Everything is potentially a myth somewhere below the commonplace surface it presents to the world, and part of the onus of living and writing in Tribute to Freud is digging below this surface and interpreting the mythic substructures one happens to find there.
As H.D. remarks following the other big childhood recollection in her memoir—the one in which her half-brother removes a log to reveal “curled, white slugs,” ants, and cocoons—“There were things under things, as well as things inside things” (21). The thought experiment that Tribute to Freud is, in no small part, asking its readers to seriously engage in is that of rendering everything in the world as an uncollated set of vaguely significant hieroglyphs, of picture-words awaiting organization and translation, though readers need to reconcile themselves to the fact that (much like the dictionary itself) none of these hieroglyphs can be reduced to a single definition or meaning. There is no single message waiting for us at the end of all this rebarbative labor of deciphering, except maybe Constantine I’s “in this sign you will conquer,” meaning only by attending to the hieroglyphic significance of all experience can one ever hope to master its seeming contingencies, accidents, and formlessness with direction, meaning, and form. Yet, for all that, there will always be an irreducible quality of ambiguity sticking to these hieroglyphically processed experiences, images, events, and relationships. If myths are the lens through which H.D. approaches her world most generally, then at a linguistic level, this lens is more specifically that of an Egyptologist to a recently exhumed or excavated set of hieroglyphically covered artifacts.
I want to briefly interject here to turn our attention to the film we watched last week, to Kenneth Macpherson’s Borderline (1930), on which H.D. wrote an essay you all read in preparation for that screening.
I want to do this now because it nicely brings out the degree to which H.D.’s practice of mythic pattern recognition extends to Borderline as well—that is to say, it’s not just the way she interprets the world and it’s not just the way she writes, it’s also the way she interprets actual texts as well, including films. In that essay, you all will recall, H.D. makes a strong case for our reading Paul Robeson’s Pete (surprise surprise) mythically. At the very least, on page 233 of the PDF you all have, she makes the following observation:
Adah is real, Pete is real, vital dynamic, indifferent in his giant mastery. Nevertheless, there is dream in them, nightmare, and that dream-nightmare permeates our consciousness although we may not know what it is or why. Pete and Adah escape from their little room and stand on a hill slope. Like a dream, the great negro head looms disproportionate, and water and cloud and rock and sky are all subsidiary to its being. Like a personal dream, gone further into the race dream, we see (with Pete) hill and cloud as, on that first day created. Dream merges with myth and Pete, regarding a fair heaven far from the uncreated turmoil of that small-town café, says quite logically, “let there be light.” Light has been, it is obvious, created by that dark daemon, conversant with all nature since before the time of white man’s beginning. (233)
While faithful to the mythic method articulated by H.D. throughout Tribute to Freud, the racialization of that method with respect to Pete here ought to make us somewhat uncomfortable. Compare, for instance, H.D.’s ascription of the demonic energy exerted by Pete’s “race dream” here to Langston Hughes’s description of primitivism in The Big Sea (1940). In that autobiography, Hughes quotes himself as saying, “In the primitive world, where people live closer to the earth and much nearer to the stars, every inner and outer act combines to form the single harmony, life. Not just the tribal lore then, but every movement of life becomes a part of their education. They do not, as many civilized people do, neglect the truth of the physical for the sake of the mind. [. . .] The earth is right under their feet. The stars are never far away. The strength of the surest dream is the strength of the primitive world” (311).
You all will remember that Hughes himself insists that such an organic relationship to the earth is impossible for Black Americans to achieve because they are no longer Africans but rather are Americans, saddled with all the contemporary problems, hang-ups, and aptitudes of every other modern person in the West. Black Americans, in short, are decidedly not primitive, they decidedly are not the exotics of American mass culture. After all, his falling out with his patron, we are told, occurred because she wanted him to write about Black Americans exclusively in terms of their primitiveness, while he wanted to write at a more socially engaged level about the urgent day-to-day problems Black Americans and the proletariat masses were facing at the beginning of the Great Depression. From Hughes’s perspective, then, H.D.’s comments here would seem to be potentially offensive and harmful because Paul Robeson’s Pete is no more primitive than H.D.’s neurotic racist, Astrid.
Yet for all this uncomfortable-making ambiguity, H.D.’s description of this sequence of the movie is, on the whole, fairly accurate. At the very least, I would have you all think about how the experience of watching this sequence compares with the experience of reading H.D.’s account of it as it plays out:
Mixing naturalistic quasi-documentary footage with stagebound images of Pete and Adah as artfully posed profiles against an ostentatiously painted backdrop of sky and clouds, this sequence does (on its face) seem to make much of the associations to be drawn out between Pete’s mysterious smiles and the numerous (and occasionally rapid or jump) cuts to the ambient natural beauty of the Swiss setting, from windblown trees and clouds to gushing waterfalls and whirling streams. Pete may not actually say, “Let there be light,” but H.D.’s commentary does draw out the extent to which this sequence does potentially ascribe a mythological demiurgic or creative force to Pete, as if he were in fact responsible for physically creating the world around him, as if his enjoyment of and his at-oneness with the scenery were part and parcel of the very sort of relationship that would have created that same scenery in the first place.
Consequently, reading this sequence and H.D.’s commentary in terms of the larger structure of the film, according to which Pete gets scapegoated and expelled from the small mountain community, we can say that Borderline never really lets him into that community, since it seems to overload him with all the primitivistic abilities and aptitudes that explicitly disqualify him from being a modern citizen there in the first place (at the very least, such is Hughes’s contention in the final pages of The Big Sea). Thus, what we have in Borderline is a representation not only of exclusive thought-forms and behaviors at the borderline of the binaries existing waveringly between nation-states, sexualities, races, and classes, but also of the potential exclusion of mythic self-relationships to the world. That is to say, this organic mythic communion between self and environment gets ascribed only to Pete; all the other characters who come up against mythic archetypes according to H.D. (like Thorne, who confronts his wife, the bar maid, and the hotel manager as if they were the three Furies) do so in an adversarial way. Only Pete engages in a bit of H.D.-like mythic pattern recognition in a life-affirmative way, meaning his subsequent expulsion from this Swiss mountain community is not only racially marked but also visionarily significant. In other words, living the way that H.D. outlines in Tribute to Freud is dis-encouraged by the exclusively operative binaries of modern life itself, which actively seems to impede our realizing that we are all, in our dream-lives if not our real ones, demiurgic forces to which natural and social life are subservient. Consequently, to live the life of a mythical being is to live the life of an eternal exile, as it were.
I want to stay with this sequence from Borderline just a few more minutes in order to tweak H.D.’s mythic method a bit. At the end of the day, what H.D.’s preoccupation with mythic structures subtending the world implies is that everything is connected to everything else by a dense web of intertextual allusions. If we’re feeling a bit reluctant to follow H.D. down the rabbit-hole of classical myths and allusions, then perhaps we will be less reluctant to revise her theses a bit and start to think about popular culture (specifically movies themselves) in terms of mythic texts, structures, images, characters, and situations through which we all implicitly and explicitly orient our waking and dream lives today. Hercules, Asklepios, and Constantine I may not seem to have much bearing on our lives here in the U.S. in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but The Big Lebowski (1998), The Dark Knight (2008), and (to take a much less high class-example) The Room (2003) certainly do. (And, parenthetically here, I would note that this was the implicit argument of Inception , where all the dreams in the central episodes of that film seem to be collages of images and plot-business cribbed from other films, like Fred Astaire’s ceiling dance from Royal Wedding  in the topsy-turvy hallway fight scenes, like the ski scenes lifted directly from the George Lazenby James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service , and like the 2001: A Space Odyssey  echoes in the father-son scenes in the mountain castle in the same part of that film—which is a long roundabout way of saying even our popular films take it for granted at this point that movie myths and images have colonized our dreams lives and unconsciousnesses.)
At the very least, for people who work on cultural studies since the 1950s, the interpretation of pop cultural objects as instances of modern myths has long been a working assumption we can credibly make, insofar as these objects do seem to implicitly organize our respective places in the world and how we comport ourselves in those places. In a nutshell, despite H.D.’s assertions to the contrary, perhaps our unconsciousness today is more in thrall to the mass culture industry and (specifically) to things like the movies and video games than it is to Homer’s Iliad or to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Extrapolating from this situation, then, we ought to be on the lookout for movie citations in the sequence that H.D. herself picks out from Borderline because such citations are perhaps the more urgent bits and pieces of allusiveness in the film for those of us interpreters and readers reviewing it today. As it happens, such citations prove to be quickly enough discernible.
To refresh your memories a little, here’s the entrance of Pete and Adah into the sublime Swiss scenery:
And here’s the epilogue to G.W. Pabst’s 1926 film, Geheimnisse einer Seele (Secrets of a Soul), a film to which Kenneth Macpherson’s essay, “As Is,” explicitly compares Borderline:
Beyond affinities of their mountaintop settings, what these two sequences draw out is the degree to which Borderline’s scene plays off of the ludicrously happy-ending of Secrets of a Soul, in which a successful series of sessions of psychoanalytic therapy allows the protagonist husband to overtake the hill and lift his progeny to the heavens Lion King-like. Not the mythic and transhistorical demiurgic forces so much as the hyperbolic ending of a recent German art film seems to be the organizing allusion here, such that Secrets of the Soul’s final orgiastic hymn to the husband’s safely secured reproductive futurity becomes the occasion for Borderline’s comparable orgiastic hymn to Pete’s communion with Adah and nature.
The implication, then, is that Pete and Adah don’t need psychoanalysis to achieve this heightened sensory and affective state because their close mythic communion with the world around them when the interfering ways of society are removed apparently gives them access to such states always already. Alternatively, everyone who cannot innately access such mythic relationships to the world does need psychoanalysis to recover this lost condition. Looming behind this scene from Borderline, then, is not so much an African creation myth as a successfully carried-out psychological analysis.
Okay, to return to Tribute to Freud more directly: for all her possible pretension and mysticism, H.D. is still yet able to evince some gallows humor at the expense of herself and her worldview, a feature of the text that gets activated quite early in the memoir. The passage I have in mind here takes place on pages 11 to 12, when Freud finally receives some gardenias from H.D., only to be slightly confused by the handwriting on the note accompanying them. The flowers and note, you all will remember, have been sent by her to Freud in celebration of the safe arrival of his relics from the continent to his home-in-exile in London.
But in imagination at least, in the mist of a late afternoon, I could still continue a quest, a search. There might be gardenias somewhere. I found them in a West End florist’s and scribbled on a card, “To greet the return of the Gods.” The gardenias reached the professor. I have his letter.
20 Maresfield Gardens,
London, N.W. 3
Nov. 28th, 1938
I got today some flowers. By chance or intention they are my favourite flowers, those I most admire. some words “to greet the return of the Gods’ (other people read: Goods). No name. I suspect you to be responsible for the gift. If I have guessed right don’t answer but accept my hearty thanks for so charming a gesture. In any case,
I only saw the Professor once more. It was summer again. French windows opened on a pleasant stretch of lawn. The Gods or the Goods were suitably arranged on ordered shelves. I was not alone with the Professor. He sat quiet, a little wistful it seemed, withdrawn. I was afraid then, as I had often been afraid, of impinging, disturbing his detachment, of draining his vitality. I had no choice in the matter, anyway. There were others present and the conversation was carried on in an ordered, conventional manner. Like the Gods or the Goods, we were seated in a pleasant circle; a conventionally correct yet superficially sustained ordered hospitality prevalied. There was a sense of outer security, at least no words were speaken to recall a devestatingly near past or to evoke an equivocal future. I was in Switzerland when soon after the announcement of a World at War the official London news bulletin announced that Dr. Sigmund Freud, who had opened up the field of the knowledge of the unconscious mind, the innovator or founder of the science of psychoanalysis, was dead. (11-12)
Here we have a somewhat self-satirizing view of just how much H.D.’s mytho-poetic worldview can potentially get mixed up with misprision or misinterpretation. That is to say, it is not always clear where a credible act of mythic pattern recognition shades off into a comical act of misunderstanding, where the putative divinity of human experience ends up getting confused with something that is (at bottom) just a material good, just a commodity, as it were, seemingly unredeemable by any spiritual force or breath. When is a good just a good and not a good and a god?, we can see Freud (and with him, H.D.) indirectly asking us here, and the answer seems to be, properly speaking, never. A good is never just a good without also being a god at one and the same time, according to H.D. To insist that Freud’s relics are either goods or gods is to risk giving up access to a deeper, more significant mode of organizing human experience.
As she says on page 12, describing her last visit to Freud in London, separating the transcendent meaningfulness of gods from the arbitrary market logics of mere goods means reducing human encounters to empty conventions and falsely hospitable surfaces: “Like the Gods or the Goods, we were seated in a pleasant circle; a conventionally correct yet superficially sustained ordered hospitality prevailed. There was a sense of outer security, at least no words were spoken to recall a devastatingly near past or to evoke an equivocal future.” With no gods in goods and with no goods in gods, human relationships hollow out into mere conventions, into rank superficiality and a tenuously maintained sense of hospitality that can do nothing to prevent the onset of new World Wars and Holocausts, according to H.D. In other words, according to the fantasy and anxiety being articulated here, we need a transhistorical metaphysical project of sorts to help us better orient and manage the confusions and terrors of everyday life in the interwar period, for without the compensatory structures of such a project and such a fantasy, there is nothing for an anti-fascist pacifist such as herself to fall back on in the face of unfolding historical events in the 1930s. If H.D. seems to rather solemnly articulate the significance of her mytho-poetic method, then that is because the stakes could not be higher, as those of us who are all familiar with what came of World War II and of German Nationalist Socialism ought to know too well.
The other thing whose salience I need to bring out a bit more is the degree to which H.D.’s compositional methods of mythic pattern recognition are, in many respects, simply more extreme versions of a widely-employed modernist writing practice that received one of its canonical expressions in T.S. Eliot’s 1923 essay, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” That is to say, if H.D.’s mytho-poetic methods are situated in a tragic set of national and world-historical narratives, then those same methods are no less circumscribed by a specifiable set of literary historical narratives—to wit, those of literary modernism itself. In his essay on Joyce’s second novel, released the previous year in limited edition book form, Eliot elaborates upon the mythic referents subtending the various banal everyday doings of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom on June 16, 1904 in Dublin, which is made to encompass the entire classical Mediterranean cosmos in Homer’s The Odyssey. For those of you who may not be familiar with Ulysses , in that text Joyce patterns the characters, events, themes, and images that take place in one ho-hum day after the characters, events, themes, and images that take place in Homer’s epic.
To take some obvious examples: Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Joyce’s Telemachus, spiritual (if not actual) son to the Jewish Dubliner, Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Odysseus or (if you prefer Roman names instead of Greek ones, Joyce’s Ulysses), whose wife, Molly, is Joyce’s not-so-faithful Penelope (perhaps the most consequential “event” that takes place on June 16, 1904 is that Molly, unlike Penelope in Homer’s epic, cheats on her Ulysses in their home). Moreover, the book is famously divided up into eighteen un-titled episodes patterned after sections from The Odyssey itself. Thus, just as Odysseus finds himself at one point in The Odyssey facing the threats to his life posed by a human-eating giant, the Cyclops Polyphemus, so too Leopold Bloom finds himself physically threatened for being a Jew in a pub by an extremely tall and athletic Irishman with one-eye in the twelfth episode of Ulysses. I could go on with drawing out these and other parallels, but I think you all get the point.
So in a nutshell, it is to this seemingly structural (and, it ought to be emphasized, it is to this satirical and ironic) use of ancient mythical figures, narratives, and texts that Eliot appeals in his essay as an innovative way of organizing modernist poetry and prose following Joyce. Eliot, in other words, is making a strong case in this essay for other modernist writers and poets to start using myths in precisely the same structural, satirical, and ironic way that he sees Joyce’s Ulysses as working. That is to say, other modernists are not supposed to write novelizations of ancient Greek epics; instead, they are to take the drab banality of everyday present-day reality and then to superimpose tropes, images, and figures from ancient texts and myths over or beneath them.
To make this argument, he starts by asserting that he and the person he is addressing his essay primarily to (Richard Aldington, a member of the Imagist poets centered briefly around Ezra Pound in the previous decade and H.D.’s ex-husband as it happens, so my forcing of this essay upon your attentions is also partly biographically motivated) are agreed on what constitutes literary value. Value, it is commonly held by them both, is said to reside in the classical. Where Eliot and Aldington are said to meaningfully differ is in how a writer ought to go about achieving or realizing this value:
We are agreed as to what we want, but not as to how to get it, or as to what contemporary writing exhibits a tendency in that direction. We agree, I hope, that “classicism” is not an alternative to “romanticism,” as of political parties, Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, on a “turn-the-rascals-out” platform. It is a goal toward which all good literature strives, so far as it is good, according to the possibilities of its place and time. One can be “classical,” in a sense, by turning away from nine-tenths of the material which lies at hand and selecting only mummified stuff from a museum—like some contemporary writers, about whom one could say some nasty things in this connection, if it were worth while (Mr. [Richard] Aldington is not one of them). Or one can be classical in tendency by doing the best one can with the material at hand. The confusion springs from the fact that the term is applied to literature and to the whole complex of interests and modes of behaviour and society of which literature is a part; and it has not the same bearing in both applications. It is much easier to be a classicist in literary criticism than in creative art—because in criticism you are responsible only for what you want, and in creation you are responsible for what you can do with material which you must simply accept. And in this material I include the emotions and feelings of the writer himself, which, for that writer, are simply material which he must accept—not virtues to be enlarged or vices to be diminished. The question, then, about Mr. Joyce, is: how much living material does he deal with, and how does he deal with it: deal with, not as a legislator or exhorter, but as an artist?
What we have here, then, are two opposed mythic or classical methods, one credibly available to literary critics and the other plausibly usable by creative writers, and never in the middle shall the twain meet according to Eliot because being a classicist or a classically formed literary scholar permits one to flee from the vile or objectionable parts of present-day reality into an artificially celebrated and preserved classical past. That is to say, as a passive receiver of culture and literature, the classical literary critic can approach both culture and literature as one would a buffet, picking and choosing only those things most appetizing to him and her, and if he or she happens to be a properly classical literary critic when it comes to taste, then he or she will likely draw the overwhelming majority of his or her objects from antiquity, thereby disregarding much of potential value in the present.
As I have had occasion to mention throughout this quarter, for many English-language writers of high modernism in the teens and twenties (e.g., Eliot, Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, etc.) early-twentieth-century modernity and the rise of mass cultures were an unqualified “bad” thing that one (as a writer) had to resist by separating out what one did (one’s poems, one’s novels, one’s essays, one’s fiction) from all the other claptrap books and textual commodities circulating among and being aimed at the degraded and degrading masses. In this view, then, for Eliot the insistence on the unquestionable value of classical or mythical forms and archetypes was a way of similarly resisting all the confusions and depredations of contemporary writing and culture. As this paragraph makes very clear, Eliot is taking for granted that any competent literary critic of the 1920s agrees that classical texts are the measure of modern art. That, he says, is not the problem he has with H.D.’s ex-husband’s negative evaluation of Ulysses.
What ought to interest us here, therefore, is the fact that Eliot insists that there is a bad way and a good way of invoking classical archetypes, and the bad way seems to involve using mythical narratives and figures as a way of escaping from history and modernity. According to Eliot, the use of classical or mythical forms to avoid confronting present-day realities is an inescapably flawed way of invoking such forms. Instead, for Eliot, classical myths ought to be a way of processing and organizing contemporary experiences, be they howsoever individual or social. Not as a flight-from but as a direct altercation-with modernity is the function to be served by myths for modernist novelists and poets: “It is much easier to be a classicist in literary criticism than in creative art—because in criticism you are responsible only for what you want, and in creation you are responsible for what you can do with material which you must simply accept.” You cannot legitimately ignore the repugnant aspects of present-day life by escaping into Homer, Sophocles, or Virgil, in other words. If you use Homer, Sophocles, and Virgil at all, then you need to use them to help you compositionally manage or process present-day events and experiences, to relativize those events and experiences with respect to human kind’s collective past, to the “classics” of human culture, as it were.
It is in this sense of relativism, therefore, that Eliot goes on to accredit Joyce’s novel with all the force of a major scientific discovery:
It is here that Mr. Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery. No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary. I am not begging the question in calling Ulysses a “novel”; and if you call it an epic it will not matter. If it is not a novel, that is simply because the novel is a form which will no longer serve; it is because the novel, instead of being a form, was simply the expression of an age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter. Mr. Joyce has written one novel—the Portrait; Mr. Wyndham Lewis has written one novel—Tarr. I do not suppose that either of them will ever write another “novel.” The novel ended with Flaubert and with James. It is, I think, because Mr. Joyce and Mr. Lewis, being “in advance” of their time, felt a conscious or probably unconscious dissatisfaction with the form, that their novels are more formless than those of a dozen clever writers who are unaware of its obsolescence.
The novel, we are told here, is an art-form whose sell-by date has come and gone, and if the cutting-edge “novels” of Joyce and Lewis seem to present-day readers to be disorienting and unshapely messes, then that is because the present age demands that new prose forms develop that are capable of less artificially expressing the anxieties, desires, beliefs, and aspirations of the times, of the bad new days, not the good old ones. What Tarr and Ulysses presumably anticipate, then, is the discovery of new forms, of new epics that the novel-as-a-nineteenth-century-form can yet hope to become or be, even though it itself has not yet become that new thing or form. The novel-as-a-form cannot adequately express the present, Eliot argues, at least not on its own. Nineteenth-century realism, he contends, needs the supplement of Joyce’s mythic method:
In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious. It is a method for which the horoscope is auspicious. Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough [1890-1915] have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art, toward that order and form which Mr. Aldington so earnestly desires. And only those who have won their own discipline in secret and without aid, in a world which offers very little assistance to that end, can be of any use in furthering this advance.
The key sentences here are “It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” and “Psychology (such as it is, and whether our reaction to it be comic or serious), ethnology, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.” In a nutshell, Eliot’s obituary for the novel is really an obituary for narrative as such, for stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, roughly in that order. At the very least, a narrative presupposes that one could (if one put in enough effort) take a text and re-organize it chronologically.
What Eliot argues here, however, in his manifesto-like claims for “the mythical method” is that narrative as such is an altogether insufficient way of confronting modernity in the early twentieth century. One certainly could take Ulysses apart and chronologically re-order all its memories and reveries in terms of “real” unfolding events, but in doing so one would have added nothing to that book—in fact, one would have actively subtracted from its merits and values (and parenthetically, I would note here that a lot of the early literary criticism on Ulysses and later Finnegans Wake  wasn’t properly critical but merely descriptive—it merely tried to explain to readers what was supposed to be actually happening beneath or behind the densely layered and mythically suggestive verbal surface and its representations of interiority in those two books).
For Eliot, then, to return to claims in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” experience at this time in Europe and in America simply was not breaking down into stories. In restricting itself to the events that happen over the course of a rather insignificant day in the lives of the Dubliners it represents, Joyce’s Ulysses after all suggested that the overarching story designs of comic or tragic or sentimental or realistic emplotment were dead dogs, were of no use in adequately confronting the strange shapes into which early-twentieth-century modernity was twisting social and personal experience. No narrative, in other words, could hope to encompass or represent the world it purports to encompass or represent anymore. Modernity has become too chaotic to be tidily presented in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends, whatever the order imposed on such things.
Yet for all this disenchantment with narrative as such, Eliot is not saying that all cutting-edge writing from here-on-out is an anarchic or futile free-for-all of a little bit of this mixed with a little bit of that. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” after all, in its very title cues us to be on the lookout for order as an organizing desire for Eliot and other modernist writers who would follow the supposed example he sees in Joyce’s prose. Just because modernity was shaping up into a shapeless mess didn’t mean that creative writers could legitimately use that shapelessness as an excuse to make formless novels and poems. Instead, according to Eliot, Joyce’s “mythical method” offers such writers the means with which to meaningfully organize the confusions and degradations of modern experience in a way that relates that experience not to a cookie-cutter narrative structure but rather to a variety of archetypal experiences shared by all humans across history and against which modern experience itself could be credibly measured, compared, and judged.
As Eliot points out furthermore in this final paragraph, such a method is no isolated literary thing: psychology, ethnology, and the comparative study of religions and mythologies all provide contemporary and interdisciplinary warrants for our approaching modernity in a comparative frame-of-mind. For Eliot, a key text to consider in this regard is James Frazier’s massive twelve-volume mythological and religious study, The Golden Bough, in which Frazier attempted to reduce all mythologies and the historical development of religious practices in the world to a core set of shared beliefs. According to Frazier, a central pattern or structure suggested or covered over by all these world mythologies and religions is that of fertility cults worshipping and then sacrificing a sacred king. This, for Frazier, is an important kernel of all mythological experience and religious ritual, and Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land (1922), is itself a tour of a dessicated, vulgar, arid, and infertile 1920s London landscape that takes this mythological essence as its structuring guide, thus making this poem a modernist myth or a modernist religious expression calling for in its own dense and ironic way a sacrificial renewal that could possibly right the world and change the interwar waste land into a fertile plain again.
In a nutshell, then, H.D.’s mysterious reverence for antiquity and its archetypal patterns was no predilection peculiar to her. We have a number of other important English-language male modernist writers themselves persuasively embodying and/or invoking the utility of such patterns and forms to make their own very difficult and strangely organized works of art. As I have intimated throughout this lecture, however, what makes H.D.’s mytho-poetic method somewhat singular as compared to Eliot’s essay is the degree to which that method extends beyond the page and into life. At the end of the day, Eliot is not claiming in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” that human everyday experience really does get mediated by mythical archetypes. His problem in this essay, in other words, is not so much how to live as it is how to write well, how to write a good poem, how to create a cutting-edge novel or play in a social and cultural milieu that seems positively inimical to art as such. To some extent, such compositional issues and concerns are on H.D.’s plate as well in Tribute to Freud, but these issues and concerns are merely a subset of a much wider-ranging group of problems that pertain to the problem of life itself, of living in, with, and through the traumas of early twentieth-century experience, from one World War to the next and everything else in between. Again, if Eliot is interested in how the “mythic method” will help him and other modernists to write in the interwar period, H.D. is concerned above all else with how such a method will help her to live unreconciled to the violent and chaotic experiences that Western modernity was producing in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Therefore, if there is an intertextual model for H.D.’s life and writing practice of mythic pattern recognition, then that model derives as much from Freudian psychoanalysis as it does from Eliotic poetics. After all, if you know nothing else about Freudian psychoanalysis, then surely you all are familiar in a sort of pop cultural kind of way with the Oedipus Complex, according to which all the affections and hostilities evinced by all children everywhere always towards their parents are incredibly said by Freud to hew closely to the archetypal patterns described in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus inadvertently kills his father, marries and has children by his mother, and threatens the security and prosperity of the Theban state with these crimes that are simultaneously familial and civic in scope. What you may not know about the Oedipus Complex is that Freud’s empirical bases for it are startlingly frail: though it is considered by him to play a foundational role in the structuring of all human personality and desire, Freud ascribes explanatory power to the Oedipus Complex not because of extensive clinical research and evidence (most of his research and evidence derives in any case from a few abnormal subjects and from scattered allusions to his own self-analysis); instead, his main piece of evidence is the Sophoclean tragedy itself.
In other words, Freud claims that the Oedipus Complex is a universal feature of human personality development because Oedipus Rex is an ancient play that transcends history in its capacity to still effectively move modern audiences. What we have here then is a recapitulation of Miller’s obscene classics and H.D.’s mythic classics because what is said to make the Oedipus Complex a real feature or dimension of human interiority and childhood development is the capacity of Sophocles’ classic to persist throughout time as a moving work of art. The fact that Oedipus Rex can still dramatically affect early twentieth-century audiences is understood by Freud as all the proof he really needs in arguing for the secretly harbored oedipal urges hidden deep within all human beings. Or as Freud himself puts it in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), “[Oedipus’] destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so”[ii]
Now my point in offering you all this gloss on the Oedipus Complex is not to take Freud to task tsk-tsk-ingly for his unduly gendered reading here nor is it my place to show him up as being obviously wrong on “scientific” grounds. I am, to be quite frank, uninterested in whether the Oedipus Complex does or does not have the sorts of universal and transhistorical explanatory power that he empathically describes it as having when it comes to human personality development. Instead, what I am most struck by here, and what I would have you all graphically struck by as well, is the degree to which Freud’s work on the Oedipus Complex is, itself, a rather startling example of what H.D. means by mythic pattern recognition, of seeing and interpreting everyday life in terms of the shapes and forms handed down to us by millennia upon millennia of human culture. In other words, I am trying to make especially salient to you all
(1) the wider cultural affinities that H.D.’s project of mythic pattern recognition had both with other writers and with other disciplines and
(2) the deeper implications of H.D.’s desire to be psychoanalyzed by Freud himself, with whom she explicitly forged an imagined affiliation based around their respective preoccupations with the explanatory powers of mythical images, characters, and situations in daily life.
Or, to use the words that H.D. herself invokes in her journal entries in the “Advent” section of Tribute to Freud, “The Professor said that we two met in our love of antiquity. He said his little statues and images helped stabilize the evanescent idea, or keep it from escaping altogether” (175).
I think it can be plausibly claimed that this admission of Freud’s which H.D. records in her journal offers us not only some clues for figuring out why H.D. was in analysis in the first place but also for determining what it is she hoped to get out of it. At a fundamental level, Freud’s claims here seem to be that antiquity and its enduring myths provide a much needed stabilizing force to the unduly ephemeral qualities of contemporary cultural, literary, and psychological production. That is to say, antiquity’s mythological traces are a means of preserving one’s own work against the looming immediate threats of obsolescence and unfashionability—mythical pattern recognition is, in a word, a way of protecting the meaning of one’s own work against the seeming meaninglessness of contemporary mass life in the West, overrun as it then was with developing culture industries, insurrectionary mass politics, World Wars, fascist states, and racial and ethnic genocidal programs.
Keeping this in mind, then, we ought to carefully re-read an account that H.D. gives of her free-associations in Tribute to Freud:
We touched lightly on some of the more abstruse transcendental problems, it is true, but we related them to the familiar family-complex. Tendencies of thought and imagination, however, were not cut away, were not pruned even. My imagination wandered at will; my dreams were revealing, and many of them drew on classical or Biblical symbolism. Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analyzed, shelved, or resolved. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often found to be part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory, therefore to belong together; these were sometimes skillfully pieced together like the exquisite Greek tear-jars and iridescent glass bowls and vases that gleamed in the dusk from the shelves of the cabinet that faced me where I stretched, propped up on the couch in the room in Berggase 19, Wien IX. The dead were living in so far as they lived in memory or were recalled in dream. (13-14)
In a nutshell, what this passages seems to be claiming is that H.D.’s impulses in being psychoanalyzed by Freud have to do with her translating or transforming the uncollected fragments of her interior life into relics—that is to say, her project in these sessions and in writing Tribute to Freud itself involves her concerted attempt to redeem the junk associations of her mind into meaningful or mythically significant artifacts, like the much-remarked upon artifacts to be found upon Freud’s desk itself or (as described in this passage) on the shelves of the cabinet facing her on Freud’s couch. Part exercise in waste management, part attempt to further hone the implications and connotations of her mythic pattern recognitions, H.D.’s analyses with Freud not only follow from their mutual interest in antiquity but also lead back to that same antiquity, where she hopes to discern more clearly the vague foreshadowings and transhistorical structures of the world she and he fitfully inhabit. You all will have noted, after all, that in the passage we just read, H.D. lightly dismisses Freud’s obsession with “the familiar family-complex” and emphasizes instead the mythic impulses subtending his work—not the Oedipus Complex but rather the mythic complexes are where the action is at for H.D. in her psychobiography.
Before I end today’s lecture by pointing out some of the ways in which H.D. goes on to transform Freud’s work, I would like to make a brief (and, given our topic, an appropriate) detour back to the beginning of class, when I mentioned that H.D.’s approach to time is an estranging one—that is to say, in Tribute to Freud time does not progress linearly but rather in a jagged set of overlapping and overlaid associations in which relationships of cause-and-effect or of one-thing-after-another appear to break down altogether. I would like now to sketch in an important psychoanalytic concept that might help us to re-approach this seemingly counterintuitive representation of temporality, not least of all for the light it might shed on it.
This concept in Freud’s German is called Nachträglichkeit, which tends to get (rather clumsily) translated as “deferred action,” though the original German is more evocative than that rather vague pair of words. Träglichkeit comes from the German verb tragen, meaning (among other things) “to carry,” “to sustain,” “be bear,” and “to drag.” Thus, with the preposition nach, meaning “after,” what we have in this suggestive word Nachträghlichkeit is not a deferred action so much as a “carrying after” or a “sustaining after” or a “bearing after” or a “dragging after.” This is the word that Freud uses when he refers to mental relationships to time and temporality that are marked by a structure in which the present creates the meaning of the past rather than the other way round.
The paradigmatic and perhaps the most famous example of Freudian Nachträghlichkeit ought to bring this structure out for us in a fairly clear-cut way. In Freud’s analysis and case-history of the “Wolf-man,” the patient (that is, the “Wolf-man” himself) was troubled by a reoccurring dream he was having in which he saw a pack of wolves sitting in a tree (this is where his nickname comes from, not—spoiler alert—from his ability to change into a wolf during full moons: apologies to all the Larry Talbot fans out there). After a long set of exhaustive analysis sessions, he and Freud came to the conclusion that the dream was covering up a repressed memory of the patient’s in which he once saw his parents having sex doggy-style. Whether this repressed memory was really a memory or an imaginative vision posing as a memory never conclusively got determined upon by the patient, leading Freud to decide that the “doggy-style” memory was both a repressed memory and a fantasy pretending to be a repressed memory. In other words, the “Wolf-man” certainly saw something—something, whatever it was, was being repressed in the “Wolf-man’s” dreams—but (and here’s the important thing) whatever that something may have ended up being really, it nevertheless took place and got repressed in the patient’s memory before it meant anything to him.
At a brass-tacks level, therefore, the meaning of this traumatic event did not acquire either its meaning or its traumatic force until after the patient entered adulthood, until after the patient developed enough emotionally, physically, and mentally to discern and decipher its meaning or its traumatic potentials. According to Nachträghlichkeit, then, meaning does not come from the past, from past events that inherently contain meaning like a water bottle holds water; instead, meaning comes from the present as it reviews, repeats, stages, and remembers the past. Meaningful events from our past, in other words, do not happen in the past, they happen in the present (the past only becomes an event in a present moment that retroactively causes that past to become event-like, in a movement much like of the name of Nachträghlichkeit itself). Far from the past causing the present, it is, in fact, the present that drags the past after it. The present meaning of the past, therefore, is a long-drawn-out and ever-unfolding process of selection, of sorting and collating fragmentary bits of memory that may or may not be meaningful. Or, to use the words that H.D. herself uses on page 9 of Tribute to Freud, here’s how Nachträghlichkeit works: “It was not that [Freud] conjured up the past and invoked the future. It was a present that was in the past or a past that was in the future.” It is a present that assigns meaning to the past or a past whose meaninglessness gets redeemed in some future meaning-making moment.
I want to close today’s lecture by swerving from the course I’ve been tentatively mapping out for the last few minutes by bringing to your attention the ways in which H.D.’s Tribute to Freud manages both to show gratitude for and to positively value Freud’s contributions to psychological research and to mental health in the interwar years while nevertheless demurring in some striking ways. What I mean by that is this: though quite explicit in expressing its desires to draw out the affiliations and affinities between H.D.’s mythic pattern recognitions and Freudian psychoanalysis, Tribute to Freud nevertheless resists taking on all of Freud’s concepts and terms unreflectively. In fact the very word resist or resistance is one such concept and term that Freud uses in his writing to refer to anything in the actions and words of an analysand that obstructs analysis, that obstructs the analysand from gaining access to his or her unconscious. In H.D.’s journal, she admits at one point that Freud accused her of exhibiting signs of such resistance: “Sigmund Freud said at our next session that he saw ‘from signs’ that I did not want to be analyzed” (139). At another point she records the following:
The Professor asked me if I had ever wanted to go on the stage. He said he felt I narrated these incidents so dramatically, as if I had “acted them out” or “prepared” before coming to him. I told the Professor how I loved “dressing up,” but most children do. There were some old stage properties in our first home, left to my mother by a retired prima donna who had taught singing at the old school where my grandfather was. The Professor said he felt some sort of “resistance.” (184)
This last excerpt gets to crux of the matter of H.D.’s resistance to analysis because what we have elaborated throughout “Writing on the Wall” and “Advent” is not so much a desire to achieve psychic health by plumbing H.D.’s unconscious depths as we do a desire on her part to sharpen or hone her abilities as a poet and her method of mythic pattern recognition. Paradigmatically, analysis sessions are supposed to be staging grounds for memory. That is to say, in analysis, the analysand unconsciously projects element of his or her mental life onto external people and objects, and a big part of analysis is concerned with staging these projections in an unconsciously carried-out performance of sorts until the analyst can bring meaningful dimensions of these performances to the conscious attention of the analysand.
This is another big claim of Freudian psychoanalysis: what we repress in our memory, what gets buried in our unconscious, what we can’t recollect we are doomed to express in our encounters with people: what we can’t remember, we performatively enact in our intersubjective relationships, and part of the function of analysis is to provide a screen of sorts for these projections and displacements. One particular type of projection of note here is that of transference, which refers to the projections that occur in analysis sessions themselves, to the process by which unconscious wishes get actualized in the presence of the analyst. Often these transferences have to do with repressed material concerning events in one’s childhood, meaning a lot the process of transference in analysis has to do with the analyst taking on the roles of one or both parents at different times (and Freud, you all will remember, even cops to his discomfort in playing mother in these things to H.D. at one point). Finally, it ought to be noted that to the degree that Freudian psychoanalysis provides a cure to its patients, that cure depends upon the patient unconsciously establishing transference with his or her analyst, acting it out, recognizing it as such, interpreting it with the analyst, and resolving it.
What is interesting to note about the passage I just read, however, is the fact that H.D. is treating the inherent (if nonetheless unconscious) performativity of transference too much like an opportunity to perform for Freud. She is too deliberate, too conscious, too aware of what she’s doing in their sessions together for analysis to work. In far too elaborately staging a scene of transference, she is effectively resisting it, she is effectively resisting her own analysis and its potential psychic cure as well. She is too dramatic, too prepared, too performative in her approach to her first sessions with Freud, and in H.D.’s journals she admits to this fact quite explicitly: as she says (again, very Kit-like) on page 139, “How can I tell him of my constant pre-vision of disaster? It is better to have an unsuccessful or ‘delayed’ analysis than to bring my actual terror of the lurking Nazi menace into the open.”
Remarkably, H.D. interprets her own unconscious here socially: her psyche is a matter of political critique and divination, as it were. In other words, what H.D.’s resistance indexes here is Freud’s own resistance to her re-visioning of psychoanalysis as a tool-kit for prophetic interpretation and poetic creation. On page 173, H.D. records the following exchange with Freud, in which Freud himself refuses to interpret H.D.’s projections, symptoms, and images prophetically or poetically: “The Professor repeated, ‘You see, after all, you are a poet.’ He dismissed my suggestion of some connection with the old mysteries, magic or second sight. But he came back to the Writing on the Wall. The drama, as he called it, he said held no secret from him; but the projected pictures, seen in daylight, puzzled him.”
I want to close our discussion of Tribute to Freud by asking you all to consider closely Freud’s puzzlement here (“but the projected pictures, seen in daylight, puzzled him”), for what is Freud’s puzzlement based on if not H.D.’s poetic misappropriation of Freudian terminology to her own creative ends? In the Writing on the Wall experience, you all will remember, H.D. successively sees projected in lights the head and shoulders of a visored airman, a lamp, a tripod, a ladder, tiny flying people, winged Niké ascending this ladder, a sun, and an entrance of Niké into this sun. Instead of the expected displacement of elements of mental interiority onto an exterior world, as is said to happen when you ascribe wishes and desires you unconsciously possess onto a friend who does not possess those same wishes and desires—instead of this properly psychoanalytic relationship, H.D. poetically re-activates the word project, turning herself or her world into a magic lantern, into a movie projector casting images of light that she (with the collaborative encouragement of Bryher) can see. H.D.’s account refuses to tell us if she or if something in her circumambient environment itself projected these images, and contrary to psychoanalysis, she demands that this indecision remains a radical indeterminacy, for to settle for the expected Freudian explanation (according to which she must be the projector) is to give up the mystical or sacred experience that H.D.’s visionary poetics and practice mythic pattern recognition demand. Freud, for all his insight and innovations, is elaborating a dogma of sorts, a set of moves and vocabularies that were to be followed by psychoanalysts within certain circumscribable limits; yet what H.D. seems to want from the analyses described in Tribute to Freud is not a first-hand grasp on this dogma but rather a chance to stage her own scene of recognition as a poet in Freud’s eyes, her own counter-scene of transference as it were.
After all, in H.D.’s telling of it, Freud seems to think that he is gently chiding H.D. when he calls her truly a poet, for in telling her as much he also insists that all her talk of mysteries, magic, and prophetic vision are hogwash and horsepucky. Yet H.D., true to form, refuses to take the de-sacralizing insult that Freud directs toward her at face value. His dismissal is an affirmation in the end, or at least that’s how she re-casts it in her memoir, Tribute to Freud, and in her 1935 poem to Freud called “The Master,” the seventh and eighth parts of which are on the second side of your handout, and which parts I will read now in closing so that H.D. can have the last word on this subject today:
Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn,
Ein sanfter Wind vom blauen Himmel weht,
Die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht?
Kennst du es wohl?
Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Geliebter, ziehn.
Kennst du das Haus? Auf Säulen ruht sein Dach.
Es glänzt der Saal, es schimmert das Gemach,
Und Marmorbilder stehn und sehn mich an:
Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan?
Kennst du es wohl?
Möcht ich mit dir, o mein Beschützer, ziehn.
Kennst du den Berg und seinen Wolkensteg?
Das Maultier sucht im Nebel seinen Weg;
In Höhlen wohnt der Drachen alte Brut;
Es stürzt der Fels und über ihn die Flut!
Kennst du ihn wohl?
Geht unser Weg! O Vater, laß uns ziehn!
Knowest thou where the lemon blossom grows,
In foliage dark the orange golden glows,
A gentle breeze blows from the azure sky,
Still stands the myrtle, and the laurel, high?
Dost know it well?
‘Tis there! ‘Tis there
Would I with thee, oh my beloved, fare.
Knowest the house, its roof on columns fine?
Its hall glows brightly and its chambers shine,
And marble figures stand and gaze at me:
What have they done, oh wretched child, to thee?
Dost know it well?
‘Tis there! ‘Tis there
Would I with thee, oh my protector, fare.
Knowest the mountain with the misty shrouds?
The mule is seeking passage through the clouds;
In caverns dwells the dragons’ ancient brood;
The cliff rocks plunge under the rushing flood!
Dost know it well?
‘Tis there! ‘Tis there
Leads our path! Oh father, let us fare.
[i] H.D., Tribute to Freud (New York: New Directions,1974), 14. Further references provided parenthetically.
[ii] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London: Vintage, 2001), 4:262.