Tribute to Freud

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 [2010], 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 [1951] 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 [1969], and like the 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] 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

Dear H.D., 

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,

affectionately yours,

Sigm. Freud

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 [1922], 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 [1939] 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?

Dahin! dahin

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?

Dahin! dahin

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?

Dahin! dahin

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.

Scream and Scream Again, or, Mabuse Ain’t What He Used to Be

Here’s another lengthy set of remarks culled from lectures I gave for the British Horror Film course from a few years ago. This time the subject isn’t Tod Slaughter but Scream and Scream Again (1970), a peculiar film that brings together a disparate set of genres, tones, and narratives, few of which cohere with each other, though the result is nonetheless a pretty compelling and (at times) remarkably boring horror movie, which is no mean feat.


As those of you who stuck around last Tuesday night already well know, the film we’re going to be talking about this week, Scream and Scream Again, poses a number of challenges to interpretation that speak to some of the things I allusively tried to prepare the grounds for during my position statement last week right before the Thanksgiving holidays. For starters, there’s the fact that the film is a generic mess, a shambling assemblage of discordant moves and archetypes, a distractingly clumsy mash-up of conspiracy thriller paranoia, by-the-book police procedural forms, Swinging London iconography (“I love you, man!”), parodically outsized (and presumably Cold War-instigated) totalitarian fantasy projections supposedly giving us a peek behind the Iron Curtain (though that reading gets quickly enough troubled and undone once you start to apply a little pressure to it), and (finally) horror-ish signifiers (a vampire serial killer, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, oh my!). The obvious (but no less essential) thing to note about Scream and Scream Again’s unseemly clutter and general untidiness is the degree to which the film’s unruliness seems to be related to the threat the movie does not so much contain as it open-endedly represents and (dare I say it) embodies. That is to say, Scream and Scream Again is as much a composite as are the living dead superhumans being designed by Dr. Browning with his applicator and his fabricator. The film, in short, is a beefed-up, amped-up, sped-up assortment of distinctive parts that all seem to be governed by a design that is not itself reducible to the functions and expectations normally attached to those parts, at least not when they show up in a British horror film from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In this respect, therefore, it’s perhaps helpful to keep in mind that Dr. Browning’s revelations at the end of the film don’t really tell us anything that would help us to make sense of what it is we just saw. For instance, to take the most obvious (but no less important) example: nothing Browning says satisfactorily explains why Keith is a vampiric serial killer instead of just another normal run-of-the-mill serial killer, like the real-life (if not quite contemporaneous) Yorkshire Ripper who terrorized England and killed thirteen women between 1975 and 1980. In fact, Keith’s activities and the police effort to catch him are evidently such a consequential sub-plot or composite element in the film that Keith’s protracted chase and death scene gets fifteen minutes of screen-time in a ninety-five minute film, meaning that Keith’s failed escape and his successful suicide take up almost twenty percent of the film itself. Yet despite this conspicuous focus on Keith’s clumsy escape attempts and his acid-bath death, all Browning has to say about him is that Keith was his first composite with “autonomously functioning brain patterns,” but that does little to help you understand or account for in a tidy sort of way why Keith’s “autonomously functioning brain patterns” lead him to rape, brutalize, and drain the blood of young women out on the town for a shag. In short, much like Keith, the film itself is much in need of our interpretive efforts because the explanations and motivations with which Dr. Browning very elaborately regales Dr. Sorel at the end of the film very noticeably leave a lot of stuff explained, not only with respect to the narrative itself but also to the world that that film attempts to build up in its ample (and disorienting) use of match-cuts as it moves from story-to-story, from genre-to-genre, and from zone-to-zone.

Allied to the composite-style of which Scream and Scream Again is cussedly comprised, a remarkable lack of piety toward this thing called “The British Horror Film” also seems to get strikingly demonstrated again and again throughout the movie. Another way of saying this would be to note that what the film presents us with is decidedly not the “English gothic tradition” so stridently singled out and generously described by David Pirie in his book-length study of British Horror. To be sure, we do indeed find a vampire amidst all the stitched-together pop culture detritus of the film, but this isn’t a Hammer (or even a Universal) vampire. Far from being the stuff of Byronic anti-hero legend that Pirie reliably sees instantiated with varying degrees of approximating success in Hammer’s long run of Dracula flicks, Keith, the vampire serial killer in Scream and Scream Again, does not seem to embody familiar British gothic archetypes so much as he does a set of evacuated preconceptions that neither he nor the film makes much effort to thereafter fill in or flesh out for us. That is to say, sure, Keith’s a vampire, but the film doesn’t really give us the sorts of vampire business (like close-ups of the bite marks) to which we’ve grown accustomed by the Hammer house style, nor do we ever get to see Keith baring his canines as he moves in for a gulp from the jugular. Similarly, the rationale for Keith’s bloodlust is so non-existent that evidently it doesn’t even rate a quasi-logical cover story. Nothing Dr. Browning says suggests that Keith’s vampirism is a necessary supplement to his living dead superhuman-ness. We have no reason to suspect that Keith needs blood to stay alive, meaning that we’re thrown back on trying to interpret this wildly inconsistent movie in terms of the elusive motivations of its wildly inconsistent characters, who seem to have overdeveloped fantasy lives, of which the film does not make always let us partake or catch more than a glimpse.  Unlike a lot of the other films we’ve been watching this quarter, it would perhaps be fair to say that Scream and Scream Again doesn’t much care about putting together a coherent cover story for us, nor does it seem to think that this is a problem. Instead, its incoherent cover story simply is the case, like it or lump it.

While I do not want us to ever lose sight of this incoherence or of this doubled inconsistency at the level of the film itself and of the motivations of the film’s characters themselves, I do nevertheless want to make a start here today of addressing these confusing and maybe even nonsensical features of the text by way of a long detour into figures and national film traditions that have not yet come into our view this quarter in the British horror films we’ve watched up to this point. The reasons for this detour are easily enough justified because you all ought to know up-front that I understand Scream and Scream Again’s symbolic investments and pieties as being not at all reducible to the British film-making milieu, industrial arrangements, and reservoir of citational material with which you’ve all grown quite adept at recognizing, analyzing, and making use of in novel ways these past eight or so weeks. Instead, the argument I’m making today would have you all believe that Scream and Scream Again evocatively scrambles the tools you all have been working with because its main intertextual points of reference exist across a range of times and national spaces that seem to have little to do with Pirie’s much-vaunted “English gothic tradition.” At the risk of speaking schematically, I think we can reduce these points of references to at least two orders, which I will list for you now and then spend a good chunk of today’s lecture detailing at greater length.

Our first point of reference (and the one I am going to spend almost all of today’s lecture talking about) comes from German popular cinema from the 1920s to the 1960s (in other words, from Weimar Germany through Nazi Germany and out the other side in a Cold War-set Western German milieu), and this point of reference goes by the name of Dr. Mabuse, the great criminal mastermind, anti-hero, and supposedly allegorical embodiment of all that went wrong with German history following World War I. Our second point of reference is more concisely expressed and comes from a near future that was just becoming discernible at the time Scream and Scream Again was in production, and this point of reference goes by the name of the conspiracy film, perhaps the American film genre par excellence in the 1970s.

Let me go back to my first point because it needs a bit more unpacking. If I had time today, I would build up another German point of reference, one that comes from West German popular cinema, but from a later period that roughly overlaps with the years of Hammer’s rise and fall (roughly speaking, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s), and this point of reference goes by the name of Kriminalfilms (Krimis for short), which more generally means crime films but in this period tended to refer principally to German-language adaptations of the pulpy crime novels of an early twentieth-century British writer (Edgar Wallace) by a Danish and German film studio called Rialto Pictures. Because I don’t have the time to develop linkages between Scream and Scream Again and these comic-book-like and downright goofy Krimis (parenthetically, I would note for you all that the best imaginative approximation of these films for those of you who haven’t seen them is to think about a Sean Connery James Bond film shot like an hour-and-a-half-long Scooby-Doo cartoon episode, complete with endings in which the killer gets unmasked by the snoopy Scotland Yard investigators, and you’ll be damn awful close to any given Krimi), I’ll very briefly describe them to you and why they might be worth your time.

These films are fascinating intertexts for a course like this because Rialto’s Edgar Wallace Krimis are pretty much West Germany’s answer to Hammer Horror. That is to say, if there’s a popular cultural property of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s instantly recognizable as “West German,” it’s these Krimis, and they’re pretty neat intertexts with Hammer horror when you start to think about them together. For starters, if most of the canonical Hammer films are set in a Hammerland that’s supposed to be the Europe or Eastern Europe of the nineteenth century or earlier, then these Edgar Wallace Krimis are also all set in a place we can take to calling Krimiland, which is supposed to be a mid-twentieth-century West German’s pop imaginary representation of mid-twentieth-century London, where evil secret organizations (often led by men and women who wear strange masks and colorful disguises) face off against the good secret organization called Scotland Yard. A lot of jokes at the expense of the Brit’s stiff upper lip are made, huge quantities of poisoned tea get consumed, remnants of a decaying aristocratic class get unmasked for the decadent wastrels that they are, and the bourgeois-fied members of this remaindered landed gentry end up winning the vast inheritance and marrying the dashing Scotland Yard investigator. I would also note for you all that though these films always show Scotland Yard coming out on top, along the way the Yard’s detectives let a lot of people die, either through incompetence or boneheaded negligence.

There’s a lot more to be said here, but the thing to hold onto here is the sort of supranational work that is being done in Hammer films and in these Krimis in order to make more imaginable or thinkable something like an integrated and integral Europe. Think of both as pop culture anticipations of the European Union from the Cold War period. Although I’m not going to be able to talk about these West German Edgar Wallace adaptations in any sort of detail, I would like to give you a taste so you have a sense of what it is we’re dealing with here. Here’s a clip from The Monk with the Whip (1967), in which a boarding school headmistress, done up in a lurid blood-red monk outfit, terrorizes the teaching staff and student body of her all-girl school somewhere in the countryside just outside of London. Here are the opening four minutes of the film:

I don’t have the time to go into any sort of detailed analysis here, but let it suffice for me to point out to you that if we start in a British horror film—that is to say, if we start in a lurid Eastmancolorized mad scientist film—then by the end of the credit sequence we’re pretty securely situated in Krimiland, replete with a Scooby-Doo villain whose dramatic entrance is scored with an organ music cue that segues quite jarringly into the poppier jangle of late 1960s Euro-jazz that’s such an integral part of this film and of Scream and Scream Again. Compare this opening credit sequence, with the red monk figure approaching the camera as the credit rolls, with the opening of Scream and Scream Again, where our unfortunately disoriented man approaches the camera as the credits splay out over him and as the Euro-jazz pap plays:

If I had more time today, I would stress the importance of Scream and Scream Again’s credit sequences as the place where the film starts cueing viewers for a perceptual experience in which Krimis—and not Hammer or its British knock-offs—are the film-watching and -making models to be followed. As I don’t have time to do this, however, I’ll let that claim loom over us for a bit as I move on.

In a nutshell, what we have here is a complex weave of styles, figures, tropes, narratives, filmmaking traditions, national cultural properties, and temporalities informing the intertextual network that Scream and Scream Again establishes, which is a roundabout way of saying that all the problems presented by Dr. Browning’s composites remain with us still. Saying that these film traditions or figures or genres or modes are the principal ones being evoked by Scream and Scream Again does not make the untidy hash of things described by the ill-fitting assemblages in that film’s narrative, style, or characters go away. What starts as a mess, in other words, is going to stay a mess, but at least now we have a bigger mess to work with and select from in interpreting the film. I ought also to fess up at this point and tell you all that the mess is going to stay a mess throughout this lecture, which is to say that I am not leading you all down a path at the end of which stands a perfectly coherent and singularly reconstituted Scream and Scream Again. Instead, at 3:45 we’re still going to be stuck with a countless number of composites (composite narratives, composite styles, composite intertexts, composite histories, composite national cultures, etc.), and if there’s any goal I have in view for my commentary today, then that goal is that we all will have a better sense of how to coherently talk about the incoherence of Scream and Scream Again’s compositeness. Another way of putting this would be to say that while I am trying to do justice to the film’s compositeness, I am not at all going to be faithful to its incoherence.

The other preliminary thing that I ought to signpost for you all a bit more forthrightly has to do with this issue of the Britishness of the British horror film. For starters, for those of you thinking about writing about Scream and Scream Again for your final paper, I would strongly encourage you to re-read the material written by Andrew Higson in the course reader on the idea of national cinema. I really don’t have the time to belabor this point (though it is a point well worth belaboring), but I do want to gesture toward the Higson chapters in order to pose the following question, and I want all of you to mull over this question as you continue thinking about Scream and Scream Again this week: if we start from Higson’s cultural valence of the concept of national cinema—that is to say, if we assume that the concept of national cinema in the case of Scream and Scream Again is preeminently a cultural notion as opposed to an economic one—then what sort of mass identity is being affirmed in a “British” film where the primary cultural traditions being negotiated are non-indigenous so long as we approach the “British Horror Film” in terms of its “Britishness”? In a nutshell, what’s so British about Scream and Scream Again? Alternatively, just how German is it?

The tentative answer I am offering today would have you all believe that Scream and Scream Again ruptures the sorts of national frameworks that this course has provisionally put around the films it has shown you up until now because the indigenous and shared cultural traditions that this film imagines (and would have you imagine along with it) derive from a continent-wide reservoir of cultural properties that traverse a supranational unit, like that of the European Coal and Steel Community or the European Economic Community or (finally) the European Union. In short, I want you all to start thinking about the necessity of approaching this film in terms of a broader European film culture and horror film tradition because my readings today and my hunches today all express in one way or another a principled dissatisfaction with the capacity of certain jealously guarded and nationally demarcated film concepts and tools to adequately open up Scream and Scream Again to adequate interpretation.

This has been a long, roundabout way of saying that there is more than one way to study British horror movies, and the purpose of my comments in this our final week is simply to shake things up a bit and get you all to start thinking about British horror films not so much in terms of “indigenous” film traditions but rather in terms of pan-European cultural interchanges, exchanges, and product differentiation. For instance, a useful sort of question to ask in this vein would be the following: what do the Hammer Dracula movies look like after we take into account Italian vampire films from the 1950s, Spanish vampire films from the late 1960s, and French vampire films from the 1970s? Alternatively (and more interestingly perhaps), I can’t help but notice that it would be very instructive to juxtapose Hammer Dracula and Frankenstein movies with the principal contemporary horror icons from other European countries, like the figure of the witch in Italy or the wolfman in Spain or lesbian vampires in France or Dr. Mabuse in West Germany. In short, what happens when we replace Great Britain with the figmentary (but no less powerful) idea of a unified Europe as our referent for these “British” horror films? With those questions asked and those observations expressed, we can begin to talk about the Scream and Scream Again by way of that shadowy criminal mastermind, expert hypnotist, and counterfeit artist, Dr. Mabuse, arguably the most popular anti-hero of German popular cinema and the subject of twelve official Mabuse films made over the course of seventy years.

For most contemporary non-German film-viewers, however, the name “Dr. Mabuse” conjures up visions of an auteur because the film-maker most commonly associated with Dr. Mabuse is Fritz Lang, who directed and co-wrote the first three Dr. Mabuse flicks:  Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). Following The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Artur Brauner, the producer who owned the rights to Dr. Mabuse in the post-war period, began cranking out campy remakes and sequels to the original Mabuse trilogy, and these serially-produced sequels and remakes borrowed a good deal both from 1960s spy films and from the Krimis being churned out by Rialto films in West Germany at the same time as well, but I’ll bracket that connection for the now and focus instead on the three Lang Mabuse films.

All you need to know about the first three Mabuse movies is that they all involve an “evil” mastermind who threatens the existing social order with his well-coordinated criminal organization, whose unparalleled efficacy at carrying out its anti-social misdeeds often seems to make existing society its uncanny double. That is to say, these films reliably tend to suggest that the institutions and fidelities of a Mabuse-led or a Mabuse-inspired criminal underworld would make the world run more smoothly because they actually accomplish what they set out to do, unlike existing police forces, market economies, and national governments, which all stumble, falter, and outright fail with far too much regularity to be of much service or help to the billions of people they manage, govern, and police worldwide. Alternatively, Mabuse’s criminal underworld, particularly in the first Mabuse film, tends to get read allegorically quite literally as an “image of the times” such that Mabuse’s criminal activities are meant to be interpreted as thinly-veiled representations of supposedly more socially acceptable crimes, like speculative finance in the time of currency inflation in early 1920s Weimar Germany or increasingly invasive surveillance technologies in the Cold War-era. In short, the boilerplate or commonplace critical assumption regarding the Lang Mabuse trilogy is that they present us with three “images of the times” that are all certainly different but that all nevertheless share a conspiratorial world-outlook that becomes increasingly harder and harder to localize in the figure of Dr. Mabuse himself as the twentieth century unfolds. Mabuse, after all, goes mad at the end of Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, and then dies halfway through The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The criminal organization that carries out its terroristic campaign in early 1930s Germany does so using the notes written by Dr. Mabuse in his insane asylum, and in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, “Mabuse” is simply a name adopted by a new criminal mastermind who follows Mabuse’s Weimar- and Nazi-era example. In other words, Mabuse is not really Mabuse by the early 1960s. What we have here, then, is the evacuation of Mabuse as a person and its re-inscription (by way of Mabuse’s notes, his last will and testament) into a subject-position that anyone else (or, alternatively, that any number of people) can fill should they aspire to become criminal masterminds who are also images or symptoms or allegories of their times. In short, what we find in the Lang Mabuse films is an overarching narrative in which the name, “Dr. Mabuse,” becomes more and more abstract and less and less personalized such that anyone could be a Dr. Mabuse in potential.

I would further add that we know that Scream and Scream Again ought to be preliminarily approached as an unofficial Mabuse film because the West German distributors somewhat cynically re-titled the movie The Living Corpses of Dr. Mabuse and re-dubbed the movie so that Vincent Price’s Dr. Browning underwent a name change to Dr. Mabuse. In other words, film distributors in Germany saw a way of cashing in on the renewal of the 1960s Dr. Mabuse craze by introducing minimal differences into a British and American-financed film whose paranoid and totalizing outlook onto a Cold War world system seemed to already make that film legible as a Mabuse movie to West German nationals in the first place. In other words, Scream and Scream Again’s updated conspiracy narrative with self-destructive and singular anti-heroes behind it all seemed to jive with the sorts of cultural preconceptions and expectations raised by the Dr. Mabuse figure himself in the mid-to-late 1960s. Compare, in this respect, the rationale behind the Mabuse-conspiracy given by Dr. Baum in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse with the account given of the Mabuse-like conspiracy by Dr. Browning in Scream and Scream Again. In this first clip from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, we have Dr. Baum describing the genius of his patient, Dr. Mabuse, to police inspector Lohmann as they stand over the body of Dr. Mabuse himself. Take a look:

Now compare this to a similar scene at the end of Scream and Scream Again:

There’s obviously a lot to be said about these two scenes and their relationship to each other, but for our purposes today I want to focus on two things. For starters, the scene from Scream and Scream Again seems to pointedly revalue Dr. Baum’s description of Dr. Mabuse, such that the sorts of things Dr. Baum celebrates Dr. Browning disparages, and the sorts of things Dr. Baum disparages Dr. Browning celebrates. For instance, the godlessness of the Weimer Republic in the early 1930s seems to be an occasion for welcoming the terror and horror that Dr. Mabuse’s singularly “phenomenal, superhuman mind” instigates in his last will and testament’s call for an anarcho-fascist campaign of terrorism targeting all levels of society: finance, energy production, heavy industries, transportation, etc. are all ripe for destruction so that humankind can be purified of and by its own propensity for violence, self-destruction, and mass extermination. There’s a sort of homeopathic quality to Mabuse’s testament in this film, such that the acts of terrorism that his written words impeccably put into action after his death are simply amplifications of the daily acts of terrorism (like mass unemployment) that already confront Germans in the interwar period but that are more or less countenanced because they are accepted as being part and parcel of modernity. In other words, terror and horror already exist as a baseline of social experience in Weimar Germany, but their presence has been obscured precisely because they are such a commonplace feature of modern human life, and what Mabuse calls for (according to Dr. Baum) is a series of criminal undertakings meant to apocalyptically unveil these baseline social experiences for the acts of quotidian terrorism they in fact are once and for all. All of Dr. Baum’s talk of a regrettable lack of justice or compassion is just a feint or a ruse, therefore, to cover up the real problem with Weimar Germany in the early 1930s, which is that it wasn’t frightening enough because its citizens were just too damned jaded to be scared by much anymore. Obviously, this is the point where the Mabuse-as-Hitler or Mabuse-as-proto-fascist readings have a field-day, and it certainly has a scary sort of force as a culture critique that does seem plausible on its face: by the early 1930s, this Mabuse-as-Hitler argument would have you believe, Germans were so jaded that even the rise of German National Socialism wasn’t enough to scare them back into their senses. I don’t know that that approach gets you much farther than these sorts of pithily aphoristic glosses, but you can’t deny them a certain force all the same.

Curiously, Dr. Browning’s big speech in Scream and Scream Again invokes such From Caligari to Hitler readings by its use of something like reverse discourse. That is to say, Dr. Browning tries to reclaim Dr. Baum’s speech by repurposing or revaluing the negative connotations attached to its terminology, both within Lang’s film itself and in the history of German National Socialism. Instead of presenting us with the “superhuman” in terms of wholesale destruction, terror, and horror, Dr. Browning makes the important qualification that while what he is describing to Dr. Sorel certainly looks an awful lot like a super-race, it really ought not to be understood as an evil super-race. This sort of revaluation can be seen throughout Dr. Browning’s speech (think for example of his celebration of the condition of our godlessness, which inverts Dr. Baum’s assertions in Lang’s film).

However, if Dr. Browning really is our Dr. Mabuse, then he’s a less obviously malevolent Mabuse-figure, for rather than taking humankind’s proclivity toward mass extinction as a mandate for speedily exterminating all human life, Dr. Browning interprets it instead as a call for greater and greater control of men and women by a super-race of scientists who (in twenty years time we’re told) will be ready “to act for the good of humanity,” though (as with much else in this movie) of what such acts will likely consist is left pointedly undisclosed. What gets stressed in its place (and what Dr. Sorel’s questions reliably point out) is the technocratically totalitarian nature of Dr. Browning’s post-sixties Mabuse-like plan, which is to say that it presupposes a caste of superhuman rulers and a caste of human subjects ruled by those superhuman rulers. Our latter-day version of Dr. Mabuse may be kinder, gentler, and look a whole hell of a lot more like Vincent Price than Fritz Lang’s Mabuse did, but the keynote here still remains one of the conspiratorial subjugation of the masses, by means of terror and horror in the earlier film and by means of a presumably genetically-modified biological dispensation in this one that is meant to look more like benevolent and competent caretaking than it does terroristic purification.

The other thing that ought to interest us about the connections between this scene and the one from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has to do with Dr. Sorel’s initial reaction to Dr. Browning’s revelations: “So, you’ve created life. It’s the old mad scientist’s dream. Let’s play God.” What leaps out at me here is the explicit way in which this part of the exchange between Browning and Sorel negotiates the shifting cultural fields of reference at play throughout the scene. In other words, what interests me here is the way in which Dr. Sorel starts to interpret Dr. Browning’s speech in terms of a British horror film only to have Dr. Browning himself laugh off that interpretation in favor of the more plausible one: Browning sees Sorel’s Frankenstein and raises him . . . a Mabuse. Unlike Mabuse, Frankenstein, it will be remembered, was never much of a team player, and in the Hammer films he tends to sit uneasily either within, at the head of, or at the edges of institutional frameworks. Mabuse, on the other hand, as you all are discovering, is all about institutions, he’s all about massive vertically integrated criminal organizations at the top of which sits him and him alone. In short, Dr. Sorel’s failure to interpret the sort of horror movie that Dr. Browning and he are in corresponds with his failure to grasp more fully the newly totalizing dimension of the problem he now faces. If only things were as simple as they often are in a Frankenstein film, if only the problem were that of one head too many or one head too few, then maybe Dr. Sorel could throw together some sort of hasty solution that would satisfactorily patch things up until the sequel. After all, Frankenstein himself really is the individual most responsible for the problem with the surplus heads and bodies, it is he who is singularly responsible for all this cinematic over-generativity or surplus-productivity, so all you need to do is lop off his head, or maybe just wait until he and the film he is in gets bored with the mere fact of production, right? As I said earlier, however, Dr. Mabuse is a lot more slippery a figure, not least of all because he progressively evaporates as Lang’s three films proceed, and his subject-position increasingly becomes occupiable by any and all comers clever enough and bureaucratically-minded enough to put into play globe-encompassing conspiracies involving petty theft, blackmail, terrorism, speculative finance, explosive feats of engineering, and closed circuit television surveillance systems. Moreover, Scream and Scream Again presents us the frightening prospect in which humans as such do next to nothing. You’ll remember that the climactic fight involves three superhuman Mabuses facing off against each other while our two humans make their escape.

Parenthetically, I want to interrupt myself here in order to point out that the interesting thing about this confusing-Frankenstein-with-Mabuse business is that it also gets at an interesting feature of the formal composition of Scream and Scream Again, which has to do with its witty use of match cuts. You all will remember from Evan’s lecture on the Hammer Frankenstein films that match cuts in those films provide a model for assembly. Conversely, the Fritz Lang Mabuse movies tend to operate by the disorienting use of cross-cutting, whereby you are plopped down in one narrative only to be jerked abruptly from it and thrown into another narrative already in progress, meaning you’re constantly hard-at-work bringing yourself up to speed, trying to figure who’s who and what this story has to do with the other story you were just in. The neat thing about Scream and Scream Again is that it does both of these things: half the fun is trying to figure out where you are in a given plot and what that has to do with the other plots already presented, much like in a Mabuse film; the rest of the fun comes from the smart and silly editing tying these various plots together from scene-to-scene. Consider, in this respect, this strange (but typical) bit of cross- and match-cutting in Scream and Scream Again:

I don’t have the time to do justice to this feature of the film, though maybe Marsh or Evan will follow through on it come Thursday. For our purposes today, let it suffice to say that compositionally or formally, the film takes the composite-ness of a Hammer Frankenstein film stitched together with a Dr. Mabuse film very, very seriously and in ways that reach down much deeper than its surface loopiness might otherwise suggest. But I digress.

Before I build a bit more on this in terms of Mabuse and bureaucracies, I ought to briefly point out here a final thing, which is that it should be of interest to all of us that Mabuse gets confused with just another mad scientist in the first place. That is to say, it is not a mistake that Germany’s biggest horror icon gets mis-identified as one of Great Britain’s biggest horror icons in a film that actively seeks to negotiate the film traditions and cultural properties of these two nation-states. I would further note that the presence of Vincent Price here muddies things even more because what we effectively have here is a figure who’s part-Frankenstein, part-Mabuse, and part-Edgar-Allan-Poe-villain (if we take Price’s wildly successful run as the villains in AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the early 1960s as the horror roles with which Price likely would have been most popularly associated at this time). In short, Price’s Dr. Browning certainly is a composite himself, not just in terms of the film’s plot but also in terms of the film’s use of horror iconography, which mashes together a giddy concoction of times, places, and figures that are not at all reducible to each other. There’s obviously a lot more to be said on this point, but I just don’t have the time to say it.

The next thing that we would want to note concerning Dr. Mabuse and Scream and Scream Again is that the sort of utopian fantasy that Dr. Mabuse names is that there is such a thing as a smoothly functioning bureaucracy. To put it more pithily, to believe in the threat that Dr. Mabuse poses is to believe that somewhere in the world there’s a bureaucracy that’s working—maybe not flawlessly, but more efficiently than any other bureaucratic structure ever yet realized in the history of mankind. It’s an entirely illegal and shadow bureaucracy meant to overthrow existing social structures and their attendant bureaucratic arrangements, to be sure, but that shadowy and shady bureaucracy of Mabuse’s is a bureaucracy all the same, which is to say that Dr. Mabuse (or rather the person occupying the Mabuse subject-position) spends a damn awful lot of time coordinating the efforts of his criminal underlings and lackeys, who for the most part follow through quite well in carrying out the Mabuse figure’s demands. Consider, in this respect, all the work that goes into carrying out a campaign of terrorism in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse:

Now compare this to another Mabuse-figure from Scream and Scream Again, Fremont, who seems to be a higher-up in the British government:

Two things are worth nothing here. For starters, I would argue that these two scenes (when coupled with the ending of the film) call into question the West German distributors decision to make Vincent Price’s Dr. Browning their Dr. Mabuse because a good deal of the pleasure in watching this film is the guessing game one has to play in order to figure out who is the “real” Mabuse, and a rather significant part of the wit of the film derives from its smart extrapolation from the Fritz Lang films, meaning that Scream and Scream Again takes seriously the possibility that there likely isn’t a Mabuse anymore but increasingly a planet (or at the very least a whole slew of governments) overrun with all sorts of men who would be Dr. Mabuse. Sven Lütticken’s “Planet of the Remakes” has already been remade into a planet of the Mabuses, as it were. That’s my first point.

My second point would be to note that Scream and Scream Again seems committed to removing the differences between the West and the East that Fremont discusses here in a shared bureaucratic solvent. That is to say, both of our Mabuses here, Fremont and Konrad, are quite adept at working their way up the organizational ladder given their seemingly very different social environments, with the result that all this Cold War business involving spy planes and captured pilots gets belied by the fact that at the end of the day what really unites East and West into a unified world system is the fact that there is a super-race of Mabuses likely at the head of both. Hence Fremont’s succinct reply to Dr. Sorel’s question at the end of the movie:

“Is it all over, sir?”

“It’s only just beginning.”

In short, the film seems to be saying there really is no Cold War because there is no systemic difference between East and West; both are recuperable under a totalizing and shared vision of a modernity-to-come marked by impeccably and technocratically managed societies belonging to the new race of suped-up Mabuses.

Another way of coming at this would be to say that being an anarcho-fascist committed to a campaign of mass terror and horror in Nazi Germany and being a group of genetically-modified technocrats committed to taking the reins of world power firmly in their collective hands takes a lot more organization effort to pull off than it does if you’re the Joker in the Gotham City of The Dark Knight (2008), where there’s obviously a pretty big organization behind the Joker’s terrorist acts, but we’re never shown the difficulties of keeping that organization in line. Instead, everything operates seamlessly, as if all the Joker has to do is will it and it is so. Against this vision of the seeming effortlessness of an anarchic overturning of Gotham City, we have in the Mabuse films and in Scream and Scream Again a counter-utopian vision of institutions that finally work. Fremont, it will be remembered, can’t even get the British government to make planes that self-destruct when they’re supposed to, which is precisely the sort of thing that Dr. Browning waxes misty-eyed over the passing of in his final speech to Dr. Sorel as he prospectively describes how the non-evil super-race will run things on ever more smoothly functioning institutional grounds: when the Mabuses of the world set a plane to self-destruct, presumably it will self-destruct and kill the pilot while it’s at it too. Similarly, it ought to be noted that despite the investigative efforts of Inspector Lohmann in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the explosion of a chemical plant and the spread of deadly gas from this explosion do in fact take place in that film. In other words, a terrible and very deadly terrorist attack is successfully carried out, and nothing Lohmann or a traitor from within Mabuse’s organization do ends up preventing this from taking place, which begs the question: Well, if Mabuse is such a criminal mastermind, then how does he end up getting his comeuppance?

The short answer is that Mabuse always does himself in, which is to say that there is an arbitrary self-destructive streak in Mabuse, which is a pretty unsettling prospect when you think about it. That is to say, the message of the first three Lang Mabuse films tends to be that you can’t do much to stop Mabuse—all you can do is wait and see how long it takes before he drives himself insane or he “accidentally” drives himself off a bridge. Here’s how Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler ends. While holed up in a secret hide-out where his counterfeit money operation is based, Mabuse gets visited by the ghosts of all the people he’s killed in the film and starts to go mad just as the police descend upon his hide-out:

And here’s how The Testament of Dr. Mabuse ends, with Dr. Baum, our surrogate Dr. Mabuse, going mad and checking himself into his own mental institution, where he sedulously begins tearing up not counterfeit money but rather the last will and testament of Dr. Mabuse himself:

And here’s how The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse ends: in a five-minute-long car chase that (much like the one in Scream and Scream Again) stands out both for its arbitrary length and for its arbitrary ending. That is to say, the very belated hailstorm of bullets that greet Mabuse on the bridge seem hardly to justify the over-zealous curlicues and over-corrective steering that leads to his car plummeting into the river. Take a look (it’s a longer clip, but that’s because it’s worth reflecting upon its relationship to the fifteen-minute chase scene involving Keith in Scream and Scream Again):

Now compare Mabuse’s death here to Keith’s in Scream and Scream Again:

If we take seriously this self-destructive streak in the Mabuse films and its continuation into Scream and Scream Again, then we’re now left with the problem posed by the ending, in which we have three Mabuses face off against each other, but not all three Mabuses die. If Mabuse is supposed to kill himself (like Keith faithfully did), then why do we end up with one more Mabuse than we need at the end of the film? The answer to my mind is simple provided we approach the matter of Mabuse’s self-destructive streak in the following terms: it takes a Mabuse to kill a Mabuse, and if you live in a world where there’s more than one Mabuse, then your film need not end with all the Mabuses dispatched to an early grave or an early trip to the insane asylum. That is to say, Scream and Scream Again very cleverly follows out the logic of Lang’s Mabuse trilogy into an ending that that trilogy cannot quite seem to imagine as a possibility, even though it is a conclusion that is entirely thinkable in the terms set up and described in those three films. If Mabuse’s self-destructive tendencies simply mean it takes a Mabuse to kill a Mabuse, then Scream and Scream Again’s Mabuses are easily as self-destructive as any to be found in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, or The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

What also interests me about this ending to Scream and Scream Again is the way in which it strangely overlays British horror iconography onto German horror iconography, particularly in Dr. Browning’s death scene, which I very much believe is an uncanny composite of moves cribbed from Dracula films (both British and American) and Mabuse films. Take a look to refresh your memories:

This is a pretty weird moment and an inscrutable death scene if you don’t have Mabuse and Dracula movies to give you some orienting cues to follow out in interpreting it. If I had the time, I would start by showing you some shots of glowing hypnotic eyes from 1930s American horror films, like Dracula (1931) or The Most Dangerous Game (1932), but I think I can get my point across by sticking with Christopher Lee’s Dracula, who (as you all well know) likes to make people do his bidding seemingly through the hypnotizing power of his gaze. There are countless examples of this, but here’s one of the snazzier ones in which the eyes of Lee’s Dracula mesmerizingly draw a young woman to him on the rooftops of a small Middle European town in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968):

Now compare this spellbinding gaze with that deployed by Dr. Mabuse in Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. In this scene, Mabuse is disguised as Sandor Weltmann, a world-famous hypnotist, who uses his powers of mesmerism to bring Police Inspector von Wenck under his control:

After having von Wenck do his bidding in front of the gathered crowd to prove his control over him, Mabuse almost successfully has von Wenck kill himself in a horrific automobile crash (the only thing that saves the police inspector are his fellow cops who forcibly pull him from his speeding car just before it goes over a cliff).

Now the gist and pith of all this laborious building up of a mesmeric citational network established by what looks to be a clumsily-put-together throwaway anticlimax is to say that these remaindered bits of Mabuse movies and Dracula flicks aren’t just leftovers, they’re obstinate willful parts that refuse to be incorporated into an integral whole. That it is to say, just because Mabuse and Dracula make heavy use of the power of the gaze to bend people to their will, we’re still left with the seeming irreducibility of those powers (or, more particularly, of the meaning of those powers) to each other. Dracula isn’t Mabuse after all, right?

Well, actually, Dracula is a Mabuse figure, depending on what Dracula film you’re talking about and when that film is set. So long as the Hammer Dracula films takes place in some indistinct nineteenth-century neverneverland, Dracula very much runs a one-man operation of sorts entirely dependent on his face-to-face encounters with his victims, minions, and enemies. Whatever organizational structure might be found here is only nascent—it’s early modern as it were. Interestingly, however, of the 1970s Hammer attempts to bring Dracula into the late twentieth century, the only film to somewhat successfully pull that off was the final one, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), which got rid of all the gothic minion nonsense of Dracula A.D. 1972 and realized that the really scary prospect of a Dracula in the late twentieth century is the possibility that he would integrate far too well into existing society such that he could be both a multi-millionaire property developer (operating under the alias of D.D. Denham) and the head of a multi-billion dollar foundation without anyone being any the wiser. That is to say, what Scream and Scream Again anticipates is that Dracula really is a sort of Mabuse-figure in potential, and all that held him back from becoming one and the only thing that held us, the viewers, back from recognizing as much is the story of capitalist development itself. In other words, with the onset of something like modernity throughout all the zones of Europe (East, Middle, and West), Dracula has to get his act together, put together an alias, stop relying on time-consuming face-to-face encounters, and start putting his plans into motion through massive corporate structures that allow him to get at millions of people and at a distance instead of a handful of people and far-too-up-close.

In short, the argument I’m trying to map out here is that Scream and Scream Again suggests that Dr. Mabuse may have been in drag as Dracula all along. Who’s to say otherwise, especially when you get taken to the police station and the bobbies start asking you to help them to put together a composite sketch of villain? Don’t all men start to look alike? Doesn’t Scream and Scream Again’s composite nature make the composite image of the threat it presents start to look ever and always like Mabuse?

I want to end this lecture by pointing out the problem with this reading and by pointing to what the next move an interpretation of this film would have to make. In a nutshell, the manifest shortcoming with a Mabuse-explains-it-all reading is that it buys a bit too much into a progressive philosophy of history. That is to say, if we stay stuck reading Scream and Scream Again in terms of Dr. Mabuse tropes and moves that ever and always trump pre-existing British horror movie ones, then we’re basically reading this movie far too teleologically, as if Mabuse were at the end of every horror road in Europe. As much I see the film doing something like this, I don’t entirely buy a reading of Scream and Scream Again in which all Frankensteins and Draculas are Mabuses-in-potential that only need to be brought into the twentieth century for that relationship to be unveiled for once and for all. The obvious limitation with this interpretation is that it is still too personal. If Mabuse really is supposed to be some sort of “image of the times” for much of the twentieth century, then it’s an image that eventually starts to get things more wrong than right about those times by insisting far too much on the figure of Mabuse itself, which is hardly consonant with the world we all live in and have all lived in since at least the 1970s, for in this world there is no magic name we can incantatorily invoke to describe (much less solve) all our problems.

Saying Mabuse or, for instance, J. Edgar Hoover is the person listening in on your phone calls or filming you in your hotel room is almost a non sequitur because the category of privacy itself had already started to evaporate by the time of Scream and Scream Again such that the question of the subject-position at the head of the organization carrying out these unseemly surveillance operations was altogether moot. In short, the problem was no longer who was surveilling us but rather that there was surveillance of everyone everywhere all the time in potential. That is to say, the epistemological problems sketched in by Fritz Lang’s first three Dr. Mabuse movies (which can be re-phrased as the question, Who is the real Dr. Mabuse?) become ontological ones by the early 1970s (in other words, the subjugation of masses of people in the West to invasive organizational forms that maybe mean them no good simply became a condition of being or of existence for those masses by the 1970s such that the revelation of who was behind it all became a silly thing to undertake because no one really believes any one person is behind anything anymore really because the problem has become global and it has become deeply structural in nature).

What I am trying to sketch in here is not the Mabuse-like progress narrative described by Scream and Scream Again’s ending but rather a mutation in narrative itself. Instead of creating a new villainous figure to take over the reins of Mabuse, Frankenstein, and Dracula, films of the 1970s (particularly American films— Parallax View [1974], The Conversation [1974], Three Days of the Condor [1975], All the President’s Men [1976], Marathon Man [1976], Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978], Winter Kills [1979], Blow Out [1981]) start to focus instead on the ontological obstinacy of the conspiracy form itself. Instead of becoming invested in unveiling the puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes, these films become increasingly committed to exploring the texture of social experience and sociability itself in a world where everything (even the most intimate moment) is a public matter and can be made to stand in for something else in way not of your own choosing.

I want to close with that point by suggesting that Scream and Scream Again isn’t quite as Mabuse-crazy as I might have led you to believe because there are moments throughout the film that manage to think outside the Mabuse-box and envision something like these American conspiracy films that were just around the corner in 1969 and 1970. Compare, for instance, this scene from Scream and Scream Again with the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. First, the meeting of Fremont and Konrad in Trafalgar Square:

The sorts of things I want you all to notice here are the long-range, high angle-shots of Konrad crossing the square to the fountain and the long-range shots of Fremont coming down the stairs because they open up an eerie space in which high-level transactions between Cold War enemies unfold in plain view of an unsuspecting public that nevertheless may be listening in (for instance, the question here that almost gets raised by the film is, Who’s operating that rooftop camera that zooms in on Konrad? Is it the film itself or is it someone/something from within the diegesis of the film?). To be sure, this disquieting framing of the meeting of Fremont with Konrad quickly enough breaks down into the more familiar two-shots that re-instigate something like a private space in the middle of Trafalgar Square, but the looming openness and permeability of the space around them which gets set up in the establishing shots doesn’t entirely go away.

For one thing, Coppola’s The Conversation picks up on it and decides to shoot its credit sequence and much of the sequence that follows using similar high-angle long shots showing us a variety of people (but mostly one man and one woman) walking around Union Square in San Francisco while a group of men with surveillance equipment try to record their conversation from rooftops and open windows around this very public space:

The rest of the movie ramifies outward from one garbled sentence that the couple later exchange (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”), which Gene Hackman’s character interprets and re-interprets and misinterprets in a variety of self-destructive ways. That is to say, this movie (like most American conspiracy movies of the 1970s) does not care all that much with who’s responsible for mass surveillance. We already know who’s doing it here: Gene Hackman’s company. To be sure, there’s the question of who hired them to do it, but The Conversation doesn’t much care about that either. Instead, it’s invested in the problems raised by hermeneutics itself, which is to say, if everything we say and do is a public matter, then there’s still the problem of interpretation, of someone sifting through all we do and say and making heads or tails of it somehow.

Which is a long roundabout way of saying we’re back where we started with Scream and Scream Again, faced with the problem of making heads or tails of a film at least as ambiguous as a barely-heard sentence uttered in an undertone next to a blaring street musician in Union Square in 1974. Mabuse won’t help you find a way into The Conversation, and he won’t help you after a certain point with Scream and Scream Again. What will, however, is the simple fact of the conspiracy itself and its globe-encompassing ramifications, which elusively promise to tell you something about the world you live in, even if that world is a pop cultural composite made up of indistinctly placed totalitarian regimes, of vampire serial killers, of bad pop bands who only know how to write one kind of bland pop song, and of superhuman technocrats secretly embedded in positions of power. What else does this composite name if not the problem of trying to give it a name in the first place, like that of Mabuse, who by the late 1960s is no longer able to tie all the detritus of social and cultural life together into a cohesive and life-threatening whole. You don’t need to go to movies to experience that anymore. All you need to do is go for a walk in a park or stroll around Union Square on your lunch break.

Meaningless Words and the English Language

I’ve been re-teaching George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946), and the following has occurred to me.

First, some context: one of the major sins of contemporary English for Orwell is the reliance on “meaningless words,” by which he means words that “do not point to any discoverable object, [and] are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.”[i] His initial examples of this derive from art criticism, but he quickly directs our attention to more germane political examples in order to flesh out why someone would want to use meaningless words. He writes,

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality. (132-33)

A few things are worth noting here. For one thing, whereas the focus in the art criticism segment of the passage is on the sin of omission on the part of the reader, who hardly expects a meaningless word to refer to a “discoverable object,” here in the political section of the passage Orwell claims that we have a sin of commission (there are deceitful politicians and ideologues who have their “own private definition, but allo[w their] hearer to think [they mean] something quite different”). So the political use of meaningless words is what makes such words more than just a peccadillo, even when all that seems to be at stake on the surface is whether or not we can agree that the essential thing about Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915), say, is its vitality or its deadness.

So far, so good.

The trouble appears when we reconsider what Orwell’s claims in the political part of the passage add up to, which seems to be this: meaningless words are dangerous because they press our buttons rather than engage our minds. Instead of asking a politician at a debate or a talking head on a television program or a canvasser on the street what she or her party or her preferred candidate mean by democracy or socialism or justice or freedom, we simply feel warm and full of approbation (or at least experience the lure of such feelings) for the things to which those words get attached. We cheer (or are made to feel as though we should cheer) when a country gets called democratic, and we boo (or are made to feel as though we ought to boo) when it gets called fascist or totalitarian. Meaningless words just affect us; there certainly are meanings to be disclosed and/or debated within them, but so long as they are truly meaningless words, we seldom (or never) think to do so because thinking is not what they are asking of us when we encounter them in the world.

With this in mind, it’s hard not to notice something quite damning about Orwell’s definition of politics in this essay: “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia” (137). There is certainly no discoverable object to be found here, nor are we being asked to seek it out. Orwell is merely pressing a button in the expectation that our boos, hisses, and jeers of recognition will promptly kick in. And without a clearer sense of what politics means, it’s altogether uncertain what Orwell would have us understand the “political regeneration” wrought by his suggestions to entail beyond a warm fuzzy feeling about a future goodness shorn free from a present badness (128).

Which is a roundabout way of saying that politics is a meaningless word in “Politics and the English Language.”

[i] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angos (New York: Harcourt, 1968), 4:127-40, here 132, further references provided parenthetically.

Tod Slaughter, or, Marriage Is a Business Proposition

Here’s the opening lecture for the British Horror Film course that I taught a few years ago and would very much like to revisit soon.

I want to use this opening statement as an opportunity to both frame this week’s readings and obliquely introduce tonight’s film, Dead of Night (1945; dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, et al.).  For those of you who know a little bit of the history of horror films, 1945 will likely have struck you as being really rather late in the game for a national cinema to begin making its first discursively effective forays into horror.  After all, Universal Pictures in the U.S. had begun cranking out sound horror films fourteen years prior to Dead of Night, and it’s not like these Universal horror shows went unnoticed by film-makers and –viewers of the world.  Tod Browning’s Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi) appeared in New York in February 1931, while James Whales’s Frankenstein (starring Boris Karloff as the monster) showed up in U.S. theatres in November and December of the same year.  Both films promptly got UK releases (Dracula in 1931 and Frankenstein in 1932), and both had extremely successful exhibition runs throughout Britain as well.  In fact, if you believe many of the popular and scholarly histories of the British film industry in the 1930s, then you could say that these Universal attractions perhaps proved too successful, insofar as the incredible popularity of these films in the U.K. made a target of the horror film genre for many outraged members of the community, from clergy members, local councils, and members of Parliament to child protection societies, morality councils, and (eventually) the British Board of Film Censors itself, which instituted an advisory classification for horror films (“H”) in January 1933 (less than two years after Dracula premiered in Britain).  While not yet an official form of certification (like the “U” and “A” certificates), an “H” classification was nevertheless grounds enough for some cinema chains and local councils in the U.K. to refuse to exhibit any movie with that classification.  By June 1937, this advisory classification became an official certificate—that is to say, if your film got an “H” certificate after that date, then only adults could watch it in cinemas (meaning that it functioned much like the NC-17 rating does in this country today).  In 1942 “H” films were banned outright by the British Board of Film Censors, and only with the end of hostilities in Europe were horror films allowed to be imported, made, certified, and exhibited.

Now what this admittedly hasty and slapdash account of the pre-history of horror films in the U.K. would have you believe is that the British Board of Film Censors first muted, then restricted, and finally altogether smothered the potential for the discursive founding of a native horror tradition in British cinema before 1945.  Therefore, in response to the question, Why does it take horror so long to get started in Britain?, the answer would seem to be something along the lines of, Because the censors made it so damn awful hard to do so before 1945.  Now I certainly do not want to dispute the proscriptive efficacy of the British Board of Film Censors as a historical datum—that is, I do not at all want to be understood as denying that Britain has tended to have one of the more fussily active institutional bodies independently overseeing and censoring film and video production and exhibition in the West.  Yet even though I grant all that, I do not want you to take away from this weekend’s reading or from this course the notion that this is a story of artist-heroes and hypocritical villains, with the dastardly British Board of Film Censors taking their shears to defenseless works of art that have now come down to us brutalized and maimed.  Texts and their producers are not as helpless as all that—they are not more done to than doing, as it were.  More axiomatically expressed, I want to advance the claim here that censorship could not have (nor did it) prevent the expression of horror images and effects in 1930s British cinema.  At most, the British Board of Film Censors forced filmmakers to develop and hone techniques of representing and embodying horror between the lines.

Consider, in this respect, the following scene from the first sequel to Universal’s Frankenstein, James Whales’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  The scene we’re about to watch ought to have a haze a familiarity around it for you, even if you’ve never seen a Frankenstein film, because it’s one of those bits of horror-film discourse that got around a lot in the 1930s and then stuck around for a few decades more.  In a word, this is one of those iconic laboratory scenes from the Frankenstein series, in which we get to see all sorts of flashing lights, high voltage traveling arcs, hasty switch- and lever-pulling, and (as it turns out) a bit of Ben Franklinesque kite-flying during a dramatic thunderstorm.  Take a look:

At the level of first impressions, what we have here is a pretty impressive montage of evocative mise-en-scene, dutch camera angles, and hyperbolically lit close-ups, all in the service of representing for us the labor (and the division of labor, I would add) that goes into re-animating a composite corpse in the sequel to Frankenstein.  Whereas in that earlier film, Dr. Henry Frankenstein managed to create his first monster with only one assistant (Fritz) and without any kites whatsoever, in Bride of Frankenstein Henry gets press-ganged into imparting life into the monster’s prospective mate by Dr. Pretorius (he’s the white-haired chap wildly tossing switches and iconically posing before travelling arcs and mini-explosions throughout the lab set), who evidently requires the assistance of two cronies as well, Karl and Ludwig, who can be found manning the kites on the edges of the frame in the rooftop shots.  There’s a lot to be said about this doubling (doubling of laborers and their scientist overseers, doubling of monsters, etc.), but for our purposes here let it suffice to say that this scene seems invested in showing us that an awful lot of collective male laboring goes into making a spectacle out of the making of a woman outside of the womb.

Now let’s compare this lab work scene to a strikingly similar one that pops up four years later in George King’s The Face at the Window, a British melodrama set in Paris that was released in cinemas five months before war was declared on Germany.  All you need to know by way of exposition before we dive into the scene is that this is the film’s climax, in which the unjustly maligned protagonist, Lucien Cortier, reveals that the aristocratically untouchable Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (played by the wonderfully campy Tod Slaughter, but more on him later) is in fact responsible for the various crimes and murders that have been wrongfully blamed on Lucien.  Lucien uses the laboratory of one of his scientist friends to re-vivify a recently murdered man (Lucien’s scientist friend himself) so that this dead man can live again long enough to write out the name of his murderer.  Here’s what it looks and sounds like:

The citationality of this scene ought to be self-evident, but it’s worth rehearsing some of these bits of shared discourse and working through what similarities and differences there are and what those relationships might mean if they meant anything.

For starters, what we seem to be presented with here is Frankenstein on the cheap:  instead of huge sets whose axis of orientation tends toward the neck-achingly vertical, with electric current spraying downward onto the scuttling figures of our two laboring scientists (anti-hero and anti-anti-hero, as it were) from a long phallic device extending from an ostentatiously thunderstruck rooftop exterior, we have here instead a flattened, fairly non-descript and self-contained room, free of the high voltage travelling arc sprays so prominently and repetitively displayed in Bride of Frankenstein, though this downscale set is not entirely without its own assortment of the laboratory essentials every mad scientist needs, from flashing lights, spinning wheels, bubbling beakers, curly-cued wiring, and (as it happens) a peal of thunder.  As if to underscore this rinky-dinkness of the lab’s equipment, you’ll note that nobody in the scene pays all that much attention to it.  Unlike Bride of Frankenstein’s Henry and Pretorius, who can’t stop looking at all the cool and dangerous-looking stuff going on around them and who never really get around to looking at the creature they’re in the midst of studiously reanimating, everyone in The Face at the Window is wrapped up with staring down the object of all this scientific labor, the supposedly revivifying hand of Lucien’s dead scientist friend.  To be sure, as in Bride of Frankenstein, the action here gets punctuated with a variety of close-ups of the actors’ faces, although here the structural roles doled out to the figures seen up close are not those of scientific mastery so much as those of engrossed spectatorship—even Lucien, the putative scientist-figure here responsible for these effects, is (by scene’s end) shown to be just as much a passive witness to the proceedings as everyone else, with his and their close-up shots alternating in a faster and faster rhythm with close-ups of the hand of the “corpse” slowly coming back to life to write out Lucio del Gardo’s name.

In short, the lab in The Face at the Window gets represented to us as a theater calculated to achieve certain spectatorial effects (tensions get heightened, the possibility of fright at the prospect of a “real” reanimated corpse gets raised, and Lucio del Gardo gets forced into dropping the innocent aristocrat act)—that is to say, it is not a space in which scientific labor as such really (or diagetically) gets done.  Maybe Lucien’s dead friend’s experiments with corpses really do work, maybe they don’t—the film doesn’t really care because it is finally revealed that the corpse hand belongs to a very real and very much alive person and not to Lucien’s dead scientist friend.  If the start of this scene seems to place us in a Frankenstein film on the cheap, we end it in a Frankenstein film with its tongue swelling out its cheek.  That is to say, the unimpressiveness of Lucien’s lab equipment doesn’t look like a function of Spartan budgetary constraints by the end of the scene so much as it seems to be of a piece with the film’s mode of interpreting and re-presenting in a thoroughly debunking spirit that which Frankenstein and its Universal-derived brood have wrought.  If The Face in the Window really does offer us its lab-as-a-theatre-of-effects, then those effects are structured so that the narrative build-up to what the film thinks ought to scare you has a complementary (and perhaps even obligatory) let down into something like laughter.[i]

Now what I want to demonstrate in the remainder of this opening statement is the extent to which horror passage-work in 1930s British film tends on the whole to exhibit precisely this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too quality, which is to say that it often strives to reproduce the discourse of “American” horror even as it all the while seeks to debunk it.  To speak more particularly, we could note that there seems to be a pseudo-realist impulse subtending this scene from Face at the Window, in which the possibility of their really being something like scientific necromancy gets represented and then quickly dissolved in hilarity (hilarity that is itself further punctuated by a very real gunshot though not by really good marksmanship).  Somewhat reductively, this apparent preoccupation with debunking the possibility of their actually seeming to be re-animated corpses in a British (as opposed to an imported American) film can be made to look like a form of self-censorship.  Following such an approach out a bit further, one could even go so far as say that it is by means of just such a debunking spirit that Face at the Window can perhaps be seen to already be doing the British Board of Film Censors’ job for it.  The problem with debunking, however, is that there is no stop button for it.  In other words, we could just as easily ask ourselves whether or not Face at the Window’s parodic take on horror (which we can perhaps re-phrase by saying that what the film thinks ought to scare you ought not be so real as to fail to make you laugh all the same) doesn’t comment on and/or debunk the film as a whole, an operation I want to test out by hurriedly looking at clips from two other films.  The hunch or thesis here, therefore, goes something like this:  we should trouble any interpretation of debunking as a one-way street leading ineluctably to self-censorship in those 1930s British films that happen to have horror passages by noting instead that contemporary censorship forces in the U.K. seem to have elicited pressures within texts like The Face at the Window, which itself can be seen to be pushing back against these forces and these pressures in a way that makes ambiguous or ambivalent that text’s discursively-marked horror images and putatively strived-for horror-effects.  That’s a mouthful, and the simple way of saying it is this:  censorship does not produce distorted texts but instead makes more complicated ones not only possible but perhaps even necessary.[ii]

Another way to put this would be to say that what censorship does to British horror in the 1930s is make it exhibit a laterality it might otherwise not have had, and the scene we’ve just watched performs this intertextual agility for us in a neat way:  what starts to look like Frankenstein instead simply turns out to be a plain (and all-too-mundane and diagetically-motivated) gambit aimed at getting Tod Slaughter’s Lucio del Gardo to reveal his guilt.  Detection, not horror, is the narrative’s ostensible aim; a preoccupation with epistemology, not affect, would appear in turn to be the cover story it presents to its audiences.  It is important, however, to insist that this story is just a cover.  As in all these movies, we know from the beginning who the hidden bad guy is:  it’s Tod Slaughter.  He’s the mystery the heroes are trying to solve, and since we the audience are in on the game from the beginning, the main interest for us isn’t detection per se, but pleasure—specifically the pleasure of seeing just how much Tod Slaughter can get away with and how much fun he can have while getting away with it until the inevitable unmasking scene occurs.  Therefore, taking a step back from this text and looking over the field of British film production in this period in general, we can extrapolate from this scene and sum up the situation as follows:  if you want to make a British horror film between 1933 and 1945, then you do so by making use of the materials and forms of other genres to which the stink of the “H” classification or certificate does not yet stick.  In other words, in order to present British audiences with horror effects in British films, you start out by making a melodrama or a mystery or a comedy in which horror passages can be inserted, protracted, called forth, and/or ironically emplotted within these more socially acceptable narratives and materials.  If this is in fact sums up the situation of horror in the U.K. before 1945, however, it does not prescribe for us how these horror passages function in any given film from that period.  That is to say, we still have to attend closely to individual cases.  Interpretation does not go away; it just has a few more orienting cues to look for and go by.

Now there are many examples I can give you in the interest of fleshing out this claim with textual support demonstrating possible models of how to make use of it in an interpretation, but rather than move ahead to British war-time comedies and melodramas, I want to stick with Tod Slaughter and make my case by taking a closer look at some of his cinematic output from the mid-to-late 1930s.  Born Norman Carter Slaughter in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1885, Tod Slaughter made his name in the 1920s managing and starring in Victorian melodramas staged at the Elephant and Castle Theatre.  After leaving the Elephant and Castle, he took his repertoire on tour into the suburbs and provinces, and then in 1935 (at the age of 50) Slaughter began starring in film adaptations of many of those wildly successful plays with which he had become increasingly identified in British popular culture over the past decade or so:  in his first two films, he reprised his roles as villain in Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935) and then in The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) (where, as Sweeney Todd, he “polishes off” a number of unsuspecting wealthy men who were just looking for a shave).  He followed these two films up with five more Victorian melodramas:  The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), It’s Never Too Late to Mend (1937), The Ticket of Leave Man (1937), The Face at the Window (1939), and Crimes at the Dark House (1940).  These films present us with a remarkably unified set of texts.  All seven were produced by George King, all appear to be pro forma Victorian morality tales with vice punished and virtue rewarded, all star Tod Slaughter as the villainous embodiment of eventually punished (but more often than not gloating) vice, all (with the exception of The Crimes of Stephen Hawke) are based on plays or novels written in the nineteenth century, and all pretty much serially repeat the same plot, which basically hinges on Tod Slaughter’s villain doing a lot of bad things under the protective covering offered by his vast wealth and/or upstanding public reputation before a boring young male protagonist finally manages to unveil to the community Slaughter’s responsibility for all the naughty things perpetrated in the film (robbery, fraud, rape, adultery, murder, etc.), thus sending Tod Slaughter off to prison (or, as the case may be, to his death) and thereby preventing the boring young heroine from either marrying or staying married to this old ham-actor cad who means her no good.

Now I want to spend what little time we have left giving you a sense of what this all looks like, of what the experience of watching a Tod Slaughter film unfold feels like, in order to show to you the degree to which horror passage-work in 1930s British melodramas, mysteries, and comedies was not necessarily made safe or neutralized thereby for the benefit of vulnerable British audiences.  The thesis I am advancing here, you will remember, is that horror debunks as much as it is debunked in these ‘30s films—that is to say, these films may exhibit many features that seem to act to undermine the potency of the images or situations they think ought to scare you (think of the “corpse” in The Face at the Window popping up to smile and say, “That’s where you’re wrong”), but this debunking process can work both ways, meaning that we have to ask ourselves why a comedy, mystery, or melodrama needs to so ostentatiously perform the neutralization of its horror passages in the first place.  That is, what are these texts really scared of.

With this thesis in mind, let’s cycle through some of the highlights of one of the best Tod Slaughter melodramas, Crimes at the Dark House, which is adapted (though that verb ought perhaps to be put in scare quotes) from Wilkie Collins’ famous mystery novel, The Woman in White, first serialized between 1859 and 1860.  In the interest of time, I’m going to keep my commentary here to a minimum, but I will punctuate some of the scenes with some cues for you to follow as we work our way to the grand finale.  The film starts in fine homicidal fashion:

With the real Sir Percival Glyde staked through the ear canal and with the signet ring and letter now in his possession, Tod Slaughter’s Aussie gold-digger assumes the identity of the baron and makes his way back to England, where he gets an interesting reception from the help:

Here we have a good example of a key recurring feature in these Tod Slaughter Victorian melodramas, which has to do with the issue of complicity.  As the scene unfolds it becomes increasingly unclear the degree to which Mrs. Bullen, the housekeeper, is all that unaware of the fact that Slaughter ain’t exactly who he purports himself to be.  That is, if Slaughter is the key figure of vice in these films, he is never the only such figure because around him there always happen to be a variety of people aiding and abetting him in (as well as benefitting from) his shameful deeds.  More on that in a minute.

You’ll have noticed that Slaughter’s faux Sir Percival Glyde takes an instant lip-licking and claw-clutching liking to the parlor (now chamber) maid, Jessica, and the ups-and-downs of this relationship provide a counterpoint of sorts to the main plot, which concerns Slaughter’s plans to marry a wealthy young woman because the estate he thought he was inheriting when he killed off the real Sir Percival Glyde has (as it turns out) little more than debts to bestow upon him.  The upstairs-downstairs erotic pursuits undertaken by the bogus Sir Percival Glyde and Jessica also link up pretty explicitly with the title figure from Wilkie Collins’ novel, the woman in white, who is the legitimate daughter of the murdered Sir Percival Glyde and who has escaped from a local asylum to harass Slaughter’s hammy impersonation of a debt-ridden aristocrat.  Consider the following:

Let’s hold on to the observation, “Marriage is a business proposition,” because that’s a claim that has a future in these films.  For now, though, we can take a look at how things turn out for Jessica:

Two things are worth noting here:  (1) Slaughter’s “bride of death” quip was a tag-line that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences, as it was used in Slaughter’s first film, 1935’s Maria Marten, or Murder in the Red Barn, thus making its appearance here function somewhat like an act of self-branding (it’s Slaughter’s “I’ll be back,” as it were); (2) the murder of Jessica in the old boathouse by the lake links back up with the woman in white subplot quite explicitly once the false Sir Percival Glyde takes to the notion of getting rid of the woman in white’s mother (and the secret wife of the dead Sir Percival Glyde), Mrs. Catherick, using a ploy that will now be familiar to us:

With these two emblems of illicit and/or hidden sexuality out of the way, the sham Sir Percival Glyde can pursue in earnest his plans to marry Laurie Fairlie and dispossess her of her fortune.  But marriage is not simply a business proposition, nor is it wholly without its spectators, from fantasizing servants to the obstructing woman in white herself:

What this second scene in particular makes clear is the degree to which married sex not only starts to look like rape but (more particularly) appears to be not altogether unlike the sort of horror film with which we are all more familiar, with the alternating shots of Tod Slaughter’s feet (slowly ascending the stairs, slowly crossing the floor), Laurie Glyde’s (née Fairlie’s) cowering face, and the bedroom door as it creakingly opens all suggesting to us now (more than seventy years after the fact) the composite elements of a proto-slasher film as it were.  Perhaps most importantly, however, this sequence suggests that the horror passage-work in these 1930s Tod Slaughter films functions as a critical commentary on marriage and sex, and (I would add) it would probably be overly hasty to see these films as safely restricting their horror-show critiques simply to Victorian marriage and sexuality.  In this view, the horror passage-work in these melodramas do not simply punctuate the elaborately moral narrative with reliably containable bits of pleasure; instead, the horror passages here debunk the contrivances of those narratives by implying that determinations of virtue and vice are beside the point to begin with.  That is to say, if we take seriously the “horrific” operativity of a figure like those of Tod Slaughter’s villains within the societies these films represent, then the implication seems to be that there is not much moral uplift in the narratively belabored downfall of vice and the heroic rise of virtue because both changes in station seem utterly inconsequential, insofar as these events leave untouched the social arrangements and institutions that go on taking the mere appearance of wealth and social respectability at their word.

In other words, if horror has a function in these Tod Slaughter melodramas, then it is that of ruffling surfaces—the surfaces people present to each other in these films, the surfaces these texts in turn present to their viewers, and the socially prescribed and accepted surfaces that normative sexuality would appear to present to the world in the seemingly more manageable form of marriage, which we can no longer take straight as it were.  In this sense, then, I would argue that the climactic unmasking scene in It’s Never Too Late to Mend offers us the truth of horror in these Tod Slaughter melodramas, for it offers us a doubled unveiling, with vice doing to virtue what virtue normally does to vice:

Two things deserve passing mention here:  first, the dramatic entrance of the reverend who successfully prevents the discharging of a bullet from Tod Slaughter’s gun with his demonstrative brandishing of a cross would seem to make Slaughter’s sadistic aristocrat in this film into a vampire, into Dracula as it were; second, despite the unveiling of Slaughter’s bad deeds here, marriage in the end nevertheless continues to prove to be a business proposition.  That is to say, the young lovers can marry now because the boring young man is filthy with money, which means he can materially benefit the sorry state of the boring young woman’s family’s finances, the principal impediment to their not having tied the knot earlier in the film.  So slight is the uplift in the punishment of vice represented here that one is tempted to take Tod Slaughter at his word and treat his maniacal refrain (“He’ll break your heart / He’ll break your heart”) as the debunking message of horror in this film and perhaps in the all the 1930s Slaughter melodramas as well:  not vice punished and virtue rewarded, but male vice showing male virtue up for the vice it really is or badly wants to be underneath its superficially respectable surface.  In a nutshell, what these Tod Slaughter melodramas really think ought to scare you is how much fun it is for men to do really awful things to women who cannot do anything but submit to those same awful things.  Like marriage, for instance, Victorian or otherwise.

[i] My attention to what a horror film thinks ought to scare you is entirely dependent on the work of H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., whose book on horror is forthcoming. Likewise, my understanding of the horror genre and my ways of interpreting it owe a great deal to years and years of watching movies with Marsh and Evan Calder Williams. I should also note here that Marsh and Evan were my co-instructors for the first iteration of this course.

[ii] An introductory lecture for a film course is no place to pursue this point much further, but it should be noted that this way of approaching the effects of censorship goes at least as far back as Leo Strauss, who develops this claim by looking at the works of notable heterodox Jewish philosophers. See Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1952).