‘Exceptional’ Woman and Exemplary Sociability: The Figure of the Narquette
Freud tells us that patients who suffer but also take pleasure in suffering their own exceptionality will make themselves known to the analyst via an explicit refusal to renounce any satisfaction, or submit to the temporary discomforts that therapy must entail: ‘They say that they have renounced enough and suffered enough, and have a claim to be spared any further demands; they will submit no longer to any disagreeable necessity, for they are the exceptions and, moreover, intend to remain so’ (1916b, 312). Accounting for these ‘Exceptions’ in his paper ‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work’, Freud notes that their sense of suffering stems from experiences in early childhood over which they had no control. The ‘privileges’ claimed by the ‘Exceptions’ are a form of recompense or retribution for ‘an unjust disadvantage’ of which they know themselves to be ‘guiltless’ (313). To explore the consequences that this sense of injustice might have on the development of character, Freud takes as his lead example the eponymous protagonist of Shakespeare’s Richard III whose villainous intentions are bound up with his congenital deformity, or physical lack. Here is the excerpt from the soon-to-be King Richard’s complaint that Freud reproduces in his text:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion.
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Freud insists that this opening soliloquy would fail – ‘the play would be psychologically impossible’ (314) – were it not for the fact that the audience is able to admit a small identification with the complainant. The play works, so to speak, because Richard’s grand narcissism calls out to the more dormant narcissism in the audience and, in doing so, provokes a moment of ‘fellow-feeling’ (314). Such fellow-feeling is only possible because, like Richard, ‘we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism’ (315). The location of the wound will of course vary; it may be in the region of good looks, physical prowess, higher intelligence, social status, or material privilege that we have suffered most keenly; indeed, it may also be the case – as Richard III testifies – that we suffer multiply. When Freud suggests that ‘Richard is an enormous magnification of something that we find in ourselves’, he is, as we have come to expect, gently provoking the narcissism of his readers – and we can safely assume that he would not expect to be exempt from his own provocations (315).
One of Freud’s pet writing projects, ‘planned only for fun’, was an autobiographical work, the first volume of which was to be called ‘Poverty’, the second, ‘Riches’. In a touching letter of 1884 to his fiancee Martha Bernays, Freud writes of an unexpected gift to come his way from a friend of private means (Joseph Paneth) which would endow his career and hasten their marriage; with this gift, he quips, ‘it seems that we have started on the second volume of our highly interesting family chronicle ("Riches")’ (Freud, 1884: 103-104). Freud’s clear jubilation at having a noteworthy sum invested in his name is met, unsurprisingly, with a degree of ambivalence regarding the sense of obligation that he will feel towards his benefactors.1 Moreover, the gesture of generosity that Freud is the recipient of incites in him a reflection which gives us cause to consider the association between guiltless affliction and narcissistic exceptionalism. Having shared with Martha the detail of the financial arrangement he is set to enjoy, and marvelled that ‘it really sounds like a chapter out of Dickens’, Freud then exclaims:
But isn’t it wonderful that normally parsimonious persons should be moved by the power of their and our true love to become warm and willing to make sacrifices? And isn’t it wonderful again that a wealthy man should mitigate the injustice of our poor origins and the unfairness of his own favored position? And think how much happier and more capable of work I shall be when I have you at my side! And then I will work and earn so much that I shall no longer need to feel ashamed. (104, my emphasis)
There is a curious mixture of sentiments to be discerned in these few lines. Freud’s exuberance, signalled by the on-rush of sentences – And isn’t it wonderful.. ./And think how much happier.. ./And then I will work… – is inspired by plain relief: it will all come good, the anxieties of poverty shall be alleviated and the dream of ‘Riches’ be realised. However, that someone else is in a position to affect such a colossal change for Freud, to assure him a greater degree of happiness and to take away his source of shame, surely grates; perhaps the allusion to the parsimonious (and cold) character of the wealthy man gives vent to this frustration. If Freud’s struggle with his own narcissism is on display here, it only reflects the tensions that surround his capacity to secure his own destiny. The question ‘why were we born in a middle class home instead of in a royal palace?’ features as an example of the normalcy of the narcissistic complaint in Freud’s discussion of Richard III, but perhaps it would sit just as well in a private confession to Martha. When Freud underscores the ‘injustice of our poor origins’ in his letter to his fiancee, we are reminded that the ‘Exceptions’ are driven by the conviction that they cannot be held accountable for the lot they’ve been dealt. But if the subject is unaccountable (or guiltless) for the affliction he suffers, this is not the case for the redemption that will follow. Indeed, alongside Freud’s recognition that his circumstance was shaped not of his design, we also detect his desire to reassert his sovereign autonomy. Clearly Freud wants to commend the wealthy man for recognising the ‘unfairness of his own favoured position’, but perhaps he also wants to take some credit for this turn of events; after all, it is the ‘true love’ of Freud and Martha that is deserving of the gift. And then, lest a doubt persists over who will ultimately be accountable for the future success and happiness that Freud dares to imagine, he declares his intention to ‘work and earn so much that I shall no longer need to feel ashamed’. What a poignant display of avaricious desire rooted in vulnerability! Just as for Richard III the litany of Nature’s wrongs whets his determination to ‘prove a villain’, so Freud’s milder note of resolve is sustained by a sense of injustice: for some, the narcissistic wound sharpens ambition.
Freud’s wish to protect himself from shame offers us an opportunity to re-engage with the theory of environmental disequilibrium that I have advanced throughout this book. We recall that our re-reading of primary narcissism put forward in the previous chapters, is one where the essential disequilibrium in the child’s given environment of care motivates his narcissistic fantasies of self-sufficiency (and indeed the narcissistic fantasy of fusion with the other). Bringing Freud’s personal reflections to bear on his account of the ‘Exceptions’ encourages us to imagine the vicissitudes of character formation that develop from this primary situation. It is obvious enough that with the giving of a gift comes the negotiation of a power relation; this is the case with any mother’s gift of love to the new-born child, as it is the case with a friend’s gift of financial aid to the not-yet-married Freud at twenty-seven years of age. To put it simply, there is nothing exceptional in suffering the unequal power relations of one’s environment. But just as importantly, as Freud allows us to see, there is nothing exceptional in the desire to be impervious to such forces: to be untouchable by the social other would be equivalent to being invulnerable to shame. In a love letter of all places, Freud demonstrates the enduring appeal of this narcissistic ideal.
We should note that if we are all vulnerable to the fundamental disequilibrium of our social environment (and dream of being otherwise), Freud nonetheless suggests that some of us are more vulnerable than others. Here, rather than focus on the disadvantages of material inequality and social class that personally preoccupied Freud, he directs his reader to the category of (what we are now habituated to call) gender. Of course, we cannot really be surprised by Freud’s focus here since his account of the subject’s sexuation – the assumption of a gendered identity consequent upon his/her inscription into the world of sexual difference – is isomorphic with his postulation of unconscious mental processes. This speaks to psychoanalysis’ formative conception of the unconscious, and to the fact that early psychoanalytic theory-building privileged the sites of gender and sexuality over those of class, race and ethnicity. Freud, then, cannot conclude his discussion of the ‘Exceptions’ without a brief comment on the ‘claim of women to privileges and to exemption from so many of the importunities of life’ on account of their guiltless suffering (315).
In this 1916 paper on character-types we see Freud persist in his attempt to develop a feminine psychology that hinges on the little girl’s ‘penis envy’ and subsequent investment in her own body: ‘women regard themselves as having been damaged in infancy, as having been undeservedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’ (315).
Needless to say, there are many reasons why we might find Freud’s movement from the villainous particulars of Richard III to the generality of the female condition troublesome; not least because it throws into question the exceptionalism of the so-called ‘Exceptions’. When Freud claims that it is a lot to bear ‘to be brought into the world as women instead of as men’, he really is speaking categorically (315). If we defer for a short while the temptation to get caught up in debates over the possibility of a Freudian feminism, then what I think we can take from Freud’s seemingly sweeping presentation is his insistence on the normalcy of the desire to be an exception (i. e. minimally, the psychology of around 50 per cent of a given demographic ‘rests upon the same foundation’ as this so-called character-type (315)). What’s more, although Freud asserts that it is his clinical data – the women on the couch – that ground his pronouncements on feminine narcissism, by his own example we are invited to speculate that his sense of ‘fellowfeeling’ must also be at play. Freud’s great fear of poverty is an instructive coordinate to keep in mind here.2 We noted above that there are many different psychosocial sites that can accommodate a narcissistic wound (from congenital deformity to class disadvantage); if the physical wants of Richard III put Freud in mind of the guiltless sufferings of women, we would do well to remember that penis envy can only be situated within the broader remit of the castration complex. Let me explain by way of a further example.
In another moment of private correspondence, Freud reflects on the ways in which his financial hardships impinge upon his mood. Writing now to Wilhelm Fliess, rather than to Martha, Freud states that to be afforded an ‘ample livelihood’ would ensure him greater satisfaction in his work; specifically, his writing style would be improved and the acuity of his ideas enhanced. He explains to Fliess:
My mood also depends very strongly on my earnings. Money is laughing gas for me. I know from my youth that once the wild horses of the pampas have been lassoed, they retain a certain anxiousness for life. Thus I came to know the helplessness of poverty and continually fear it. (Freud, 1899b: 374)
Freud’s evocation of agitated wild horses to convey the persistence of poverty-anxiety (rather than penis envy) articulates his experience of the social environment’s fundamental disequilibrium. The ‘injustice of our poor origins’ (letter to Martha above) continues to leave its mark precisely because the helplessness of dependency is ineradicable.
On which note we might suggest that the feeling of ‘having been undeservedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’, is much less a trait of woman than it is the legacy of childhood. The difficulty of accepting a gift of aid – the difficulty of being patronised – recalls the recipient to the ties of his environment, and forces him to concede that despite his best efforts, despite his hard works, and despite his carefully cultivated illusion of self-sufficiency, he remains subject to a power that is not of his own making. What is ‘continually feared’, then, is the repetition of this state of infantile helplessness (kindlichen Hilflosigkeit) which, as we have characterised it in previous chapters, entails a recognition that the environment can always withdraw its care – the mother can always leave.
We recall that the very registering of environmental disequilibrium propels the subject’s narcissistic fantasy. The villainous grievances of Richard III, the heightened work ethic of the young Freud, and the ‘characteristic exceptionalism’ of womankind, demonstrate that the vicissitudes of this fantasy are manifold. But perhaps what they all bring to mind is the plea for fairness that typifies childhood. The circulation of the term in the various complaints is conspicuous: From Richard’s protest, ‘I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion’, via Freud’s appetite for economic redress, ‘[…] a wealthy man should mitigate the injustice of our poor origins and the unfairness of his own favored position’, to the Freudian account of women who are ‘undeservedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’. It would seem difficult, then, to sever the relation between narcissism and a keen sense of what is un/fair. But if our sense of ‘fairness’, which was, incidentally, one of Freud’s favourite English words, is cultivated via our narcissism, then we would need to ask what kind of ethical relations this makes possible.3 How might the ‘Exceptions’ – still smarting from their narcissistic wounds – become ethical characters for whom the other is something more than a site of envious appropriation?
If, as we have noted thus far, a narcissistic wound can prime one’s capacity for ‘fellow-feeling’ and the flourishing of human compassion (see discussion above of narcissistic compassion in ‘The Wolfman’ case), and if, furthermore, it has a role to play in the development of a sense of balance and proportion, then we are still unclear as to how exactly the transformation from private investment to public concern is enacted. In other words, how might it be that the narcissist, with his claims to the type of exceptionalism that Freud describes in his 1916 paper, can come forward as an exemplar in the contemporary psychosocial landscape? This is the question to keep in mind in our ongoing discussion because it is also the question of today’s political climate. Contrary to the critical declinist perspective considered in the last chapter it doesn’t do to simply disparage identity politics as ‘narcissistic politics’ or to decry the passing of a (fantasy) public discourse that was unsullied by private claims and counter claims. Rather, as Wendy Brown (1995) makes clear with her addition of the notion of ‘wounded attachments’ to the political lexicon, the challenge is to recognise the ‘pain installed at the heart of many contemporary contradictory demands for political recognition’ and to imagine the conditions for this pain’s articulation that would resist its ossification – which is to say imagine conditions that might afford the given subject a release from his ressentiment or psychic attachment to his own particular wound (74). The ‘narcissistic’ landscape of late modernity cannot be disputed: private interest claims abound, and wounded identities seek-out recognition. But such narcissism is only truly destructive if it inhibits the prospect of freedom from identity. One of the possibilities that inheres in the Narcissus myth is that Narcissus’ love for his poolside companion releases him from his identity. To suggest that Narcissus enacts a move beyond himself is perhaps paradoxical given his reputation for total self-involvement, but it is precisely this paradox that we will pursue further below.
When, as Freud insists, narcissism calls out to narcissism, when it provokes our fellow-feeling, it does so on account of its general form rather than any idiosyncratic content. I suggest, then, that in order to appreciate narcissism’s communicative potential, we will need to understand its formal, or aesthetic, quality (that which was denied it by Sennett and Lasch). This leads us to a final thought about Freud’s reading of Richard III as an ‘Exception’. As established, the point that Freud makes in his treatment of Richard III is that our own narcissistic wounds prime our capacity for fellow-feeling. But the critical point to note is that the success or failure of the playwright’s communication of this fact rests entirely on his poetic skill. In order for the audience’s sympathy to be stirred, it is imperative that ‘Richard’s soliloquy does not say everything’ but ‘merely gives a hint, and leaves us to fill in what it hints at’ (314). Freud recognises that a ‘bungler’ in Shakespeare’s place would surely have revealed too much too soon, contravened the artistic rule of obliquity, and violated the audience’s desire to enjoy and partake in the play’s illusions. The therapist reading Freud’s paper may wish to take his respect for the poet’s ‘subtle economy of art’ as a recommendation on analytic technique: that a patient will have limited investment in a therapy in which language is directed too quickly towards conscious understanding becomes a known fact to the therapist who (inevitably) bungles his lines (315). What we can also take from Freud’s reading, and carry into our discussion below, is that the playwright’s formal mastery of play – his calibration of what to reveal and what to merely hint at – assures a spellbound audience.