Exam Reading – Psychoanalysis Part 1

What is the problem with psychoanalysis? It seems like there are always scholars/critics arguing that its passé, out-of-style, “we’re over it.” But yet, there are still a fair amount of scholars using it, and using it in really interesting ways. It’s as if any interest in psychoanalysis needs to be a deep dark secret and, if you do have the gall to use it in your critical discussion, you’d better have several pages/footnotes of justification, or you better be using it in some snazzy way. I’m not yet even close to being an expert on psychoanalysis – or the way people are using or not using it – but I do always find myself drawn to scholarship that has psychoanalysis at its core. And, more importantly, after reading a fair amount of foundational psychoanalytic texts for my exam prep over the last several weeks, I have found very useful material for my own questions and ideas. So I’m hard pressed to dismiss it, but also worried about the critical backlash that seems to come whenever scholars use it. Here I lay out some of my thoughts in an attempt to both assess the usefulness of them, but also just simply to get them out – in case this is the last place they ever get fully articulated.

Anatomical Extensions and Fetish

In Three Essays Freud defines a fetish as a part of the body, generally “inappropriate” for sexual activity, that gets substituted for the sexual object. I am always intrigued by the idea of a fetish. I was originally introduced to the idea in Marxist terms, as the fetishized commodity and the way objects get infused with that “something more” (whether through the process of labor or simply demand) that generates a commodity fetish. Freud’s conception of the fetish, though, is particularly helpful for thinking about this same idea in relation to the body. Specifically, he states, in his definition of perversion (directly linked to fetishes in his account): perversion is a sexual activity that extends “in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union” (Freud 16).

I want to emphasize his phrase “anatomical sense,” specifically the relation between anatomy, perversion, and fetish. It seems interesting to think that perversion and fetish (although Freud does also suggest that a fetish can be an inanimate object, as long as it “bears an assignable relation to the person whom it replaces”) are tied explicitly to the limits of anatomy – that is, limited by the body in an anatomical sense. This would suggest that it is only the “material” of the body that is available for fetishistic impulses. The physical parts of the body that can be touched, held, etc.

While this could, certainly, mean organs and tiny parts of the interior body with our modern day biological knowledge, back in, say, Petrarch’s lifetime, this would likely have been much more limited to the external features of the body that the eye could see and the hand could readily touch. It would be limited to features like eye, hair, hand, etc. – things we arguably see “fetishized” to an extent in the Rime Sparse. But Freud’s definition rules out things like virtue, constancy, chastity – other arguably “fetishized” elements of Laura and of various other women within the sonnet tradition following Petrarch. Freud had an interesting thing to say about this, too.

Sexual Instinct vs. Sexual Object

In his discussion of infant and child sexuality, Freud makes a distinction between sexual instinct and sexual object, arguing that the sexual instinct, in its first instances, is likely independent of any sexual object (Freud 14). Instead of recognizing this distinction, Freud points out, we are in the habit of seeing the connection between sexual object and sexual instinct as more “intimate” than it actually is (I was particularly excited to see him directly use the word “intimate” here, but more on that in “Exam Reading – Psychoanalysis Part 2”).

Bringing us back to Petrarch and the Petrarchan sonneteers (here I’m thinking specifically about Sidney, Spenser, Wyatt and, marginally, Shakespeare), Freud emphasizes a temporal break in our recognition of the distinction between sexual object and instinct. The ancients (Ancient Greece, especially) stressed the instinct itself, rather than the object. For instance, in the pederasty in many of Plato’s works, it’s very apparent that the sexual instinct is valued regardless of object. While there are many instances where the choice of sexual object is discussed (based on the physical appearance or intellectual promise of the young boy chosen), there’s still a sense that the sexual instinct is prized above all.

But, Freud argues, currently we emphasize the sexual object – “we despise the instinctual activity itself and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object” (Freud 15). This shift in emphasis from sexual instinct to sexual object is blatantly apparent in Petrarch – in fact, one could argue that Petrarch’s sonnets are working through the tension between these two impulses. On one hand, the poet is overtly sexual and pursues Laura as a result of that sexual instinct. But on the other, the sonnets make every effort to portray the sexual object as transcendent being, so morally and physically superior that the sexual instinct is warranted by the object itself. Laura, and not just anatomical pieces of her, becomes the fetishized sexual object. The base sexual instinct, the animal impulse in the poet, is the original framework for his desire, but that base instinct is covered over by the virtue and moral superiority of the sexual object – the illusion of the transcendent sexual object is the fetishized Laura. But, in the process of her transcendence the problem is that she becomes “un-anatomical.” In other words, she loses the material and physical part of her being that, according to Freud, is necessary for the fetishistic impulse. How, then, to grapple with what appears to be an “immaterial” fetishized object in Petrarch’s poetry?

The fetishized object is, of course, always transcendent in some particular way – that’s the “something more” it has to have in order to be a fetish in the first place. But, if we’re thinking about fetishes and fetishistic impulses in terms of bodies, as Freud does, then how does bodily matter and material become transcendent in order to be fetishized? If it must be physical in order to attract the sexual instinct in the first place (the desiring body needs a material to desire, whether that’s a part of him/herself or another person or an inanimate object), how can the body maintain its physicality through the process of transcendence? It is possible that some of the poets I’ve mentioned provide an answer – I’m thinking about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 as being particularly helpful, and Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, in which lover and beloved directly speak to one another (the voice, potentially, becoming the material piece of the beloved that grounds her even in her transcendence) and the linked chains of action throughout Sidney’s sonnet sequence (more on this in “Exam Reading – Sonnets”).


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