Edith Freud & Sigmund Wharton

I’m painfully slow, it’s true. Fans of Wharton’s storytelling probably already know what I’m just now discovering, or at least articulating to my own satisfaction. Wharton shares a family resemblance with Freud. And I’m not talking about her mannish features either. No, she has something else in common with him. Her view of repression shares at least two startling similarities with Freud’s theory of mind. As you may recall, he endorses a hydraulic conception of psychic life. Through the blockage of the id, a secondary elaboration gives rise to the ego, and through the blockage of the ego, a tertiary elaboration gives rise to the superego. Repression fits us for civilization while laying the groundwork for our discontent. Sorrow and humiliation are inescapable features of life. That’s the first similarity. The second one has to do with the secret language of signs. According to Freudian theory, a dream is a psychical structure that has meaning. Through proper technique, the manifest features of a dream can be interpreted. (A lovely ripe melon isn’t always a melon, you polymorphously perverse dreamer, you.) Dreams are disguised wish fulfillments. In Wharton’s prose, there’s a similar relationship between repression and the development of a language of secret signs, except that this language emerges in a social context instead of a dreaming state. Indeed, repression, i.e., submerging what’s uppermost in your thoughts, is inversely related to the language of innuendo. Insofar as Wharton’s character’s block their true thoughts and feelings, the language of secret signs predominate: flashing eyes, a subdued tone, a fugitive glance, a clandestine touch, an upturned lip, or a cluster of yellow roses anonymously sent. Like dreams according to Freudian categories, innuendoes are disguised thoughts and feelings—and they’re ignored at your own peril.

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4 Responses to Edith Freud & Sigmund Wharton

  1. Richard says:

    Kevin, what a marvelous (and marvelously witty) post–you’ve inspired me to take Wharton out for a whirl this year, “mannish features” or no! Love the line “Repression fits us for civilization while laying the groundwork for our discontent” even though conceptually I’m sort of traumatized by it. In short, nicely done, my friend!

  2. Thank you, Richard — especially for giving Wharton a gander. That’s one of the finest compensations of blogging about books you love. Many cheers, Kevin

  3. nicole says:

    Repression fits us for civilization while laying the groundwork for our discontent. Sorrow and humiliation are inescapable features of life.

    You put this so clearly that I can hardly believe I never really thought about it before. The second similarity is similarly wonderful. Great post!

  4. D G Myers says:

    Kevin,

    Finally cobbled together a reply to you here.

    —David

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