Sunday, 5/21/23 at 5:25 PM

I’m currently reading the fourth chapter of Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction—“Seduction and the Scene of Reading.” It involves, among other things, a serious feminist criticism of Freud’s analysis of Dora: in essence, an account of Freud’s phallocentrism and of his sexual mystifications of female desire. But because the writing is serious—because it takes into account more than what it claims, it’s hard not to wonder about some of the other stuff that she doesn’t take as central to the home base of her conclusion. I don’t know how to describe what this “other stuff” could be in detail, but I know I’m curious about Armstrong’s argument because of my own contrarian intuition that Freud was more right about Dora than Armstrong’s account of the case allows for. And I know that I believe it’s important to return to the questions around the case in order to understand exactly how and where Freud went wrong. Why did Dora feel the need to abruptly end the analysis? Was it because Freud failed to listen? All this has to do with the broader question of how and why men who are interested in women’s speech, who do listen to it, come to deny women’s speech, or come to anger women to the extent that no further dialogue becomes possible. And what do women—Nancy Armstrong, Dora, and Virginia Woolf—do with the phenomenon of men who fail to listen to women in such flamboyant, provocative, frustrating fashion? What do women get out of thinking about men’s interest in the enigma of woman?

Dora, famously, cut off her analysis with Freud after he failed to listen to her. She was suffering from various hysterical symptoms: “dyspnoea, tussis nervosa, aphonia, and possibly migraines, together with depression, hysterical unsociability, and a taedium vitae which was probably not entirely genuine” around the age of eighteen (though some of these symptoms had been going on for longer). Her father tells him that at some point she had been on summer vacation in the Alps with a family friend, the couple Herr and Frau K.; Frau K was taking care of her father during his illness, and Herr. K had made a pass at her. Dora tells Freud of her own account that when she was fourteen, Herr K. “suddenly clasped [Dora] to him and pressed a kiss upon her lips.” After some more information about her father’s relationship with Frau K., and the timeline of Dora’s hysterical symptoms, which overlap with Herr K.’s absence, Freud proposes to Dora “that she had all these years been in love with Herr K.” Her response is recorded as follows: “When I informed her of this conclusion she did not assent to it.” The arduous second session involves the discussion of a dream which Freud reads as a wish to become pregnant by Herr K. Freud describes her response to the interpretation as “depreciatory”: she asks, “Why, has anything so very remarkable come out?”

It would be annoying and ridiculous to be told that one had a secret, repressed crush on a man who produced in you some measure of disgust; even if it were true that Herr K.’s kiss had aroused some form of excitation or desire, the whole scenario of Freud attempting to convince her that she in fact desired him seems to me obtuse and uncharacteristic of the silent wiles I associate with the ideal psychoanalyst, who manages to get the analysand to speak out what has been repressed of their own accidental volition. Armstrong argues that modern female subjectivity (early 20th century) and modern theories of sexuality (Freud’s) have to be understood as having a complex relationship because theories of sexuality say something about female desire which appears to liberate desire from the constraint of repression, and therefore support the articulation of female subjectivity, but that in fact they don’t—theories of sexuality only constrain women to relations with the phallus; men like Freud “invoke the figure of the house as a woman’s body that contains something they need.” (242). His “psychoanalytic fables of desire” mystify the cultural and historical constructedness of the woman’s situation as a vacant house for male desire.

Freud seems to have said something important about female desire, nevertheless—and this thing he discovered or uncovered in the “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” could only come out of the fact that he listened to and recorded what Dora said to him; that she negated what he said and refused to continue the analysis seems to prove that she wasn’t merely a vessel for meaning-making. Armstrong writes that he creates an ideal woman “who feels herself lacking as such and, in order to fill the lack, desires nothing so much as the male organ.” I don’t get a sense that Dora feels herself as lacking from reading Freud’s case history; rather, I see a man who experiences himself as lacking the male organ which could have completed the fragment of the analysis with her. He’s perplexed and moved by her “vengefulness” and “depreciatory” remarks, and clearly feels humiliated when she says she’s decided, a “fortnight ago,” to dismiss him.

I like where Armstrong goes with Freud on Dora right before she moves on to Woolf: “either she cannot admit the degree to which she desire Herr K. because to do so would mean acknowledging her desire for her father and for Freud himself, or else—the conclusion he finally reaches—she is deeply angry with men.” Deeply angry with men! Armstrong associates Dora’s anger with an anecdote from Virginia Woolf’s “Women and Fiction,” in which Woolf describes the act of sketching a portrait of the kind of professor who writes up superficial and dull scientific claims about women in academic books (e.g. “women have less hair on their bodies than men”). She draws an angry professor, and realizes she has drawn the angry professor out of anger! It seems that in realizing the anger of the angry professor who can’t articulate anything less dull about women, she can realize the impulse to write about what men want out of women. And thence comes the famous passage from A Room of One’s Own, on men’s use of women as enlarging mirrors:

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is? So I reflected, crumbling my bread and stirring my coffee and now and again looking at the people in the street. The looking-glass vision is of supreme importance because it charges the vitality; it stimulates the nervous system. Take it away and man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine. Under the spell of that illusion, I thought, looking out of the window, half the people on the pavement are striding to work. They put on their hats and coats in the morning under its agreeable rays. They start the day confident, braced, believing themselves desired at Miss Smith’s tea party; they say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance, which have had such profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in the margin of the private mind.

This theory of femininity doesn’t say anything about female desire. But I wonder about the attitude of the woman speaker satirizing these men, “So I reflected, crumbling my bread and stirring my coffee and now and again looking at people in the street.” She seems a little bored… and she’s certainly inside of a house, and she’s lokoing out the window—not at a mirror, but out the window, at who-knows-who in the street. But even if she is disaffected, woman has the power to diminish, to change the literal size of a man’s self-regard. I think it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that there’s a sadism in Woolf’s writing about men—a sadism that brings me back to Dora’s anger.

Didn’t Dora find it fun to tell off the old man? I haven’t quite answered the question of where Freud went wrong in his role as analyst, but I don’t think his error lay in his sense of Dora’s repressed libidinal desires for the adults around her. She probably agreed with some of what he had said, even—but it seems to me that her desire to diminish Freud overtook the desire to hear more of his prattle about all that. It was too tempting to cut him off, to cut off his tongue and ears.

On a different matter—I’m kind of annoyed with the writing I posted about my decision to detransition last summer; though it served its purpose at the time as a sort of push to think about what it meant for me to detransition, it seems too neat and therefore outdated; I’m thinking about what it would mean to respond to it now—the response would have to be careful but aggressive.

I think I treated myself as a kind of “house of woman”—an enigmatic source of knowledge for something I had no embodied sense of; and rather then letting the thing I didn’t know about rest, I had to use writing and speaking in analysis to justify and put into motion the decision to go off testosterone and to position myself as a woman in the world; I was obsessed with getting to know that desire for femininity in language. By addressing the bulk of that language to my analyst, I participated in a hysteric’s discourse: I needed to address a man in order to feel “verified” as a woman before I could become a woman in public. The act of trying very hard and failing to say what I wanted to say about femininity had its hold over me, it compelled me to finish what I hadn’t even started. I’d normally approve of such efforts, regardless of the success of their outcomes, but somehow seeing that stuttering desire to write about detransition now makes me uncomfortable. I want to say to myself, What do you think you could accomplish by saying something like that about that? And yet I refuse to read what I wrote with the necessary care and suspension of familiarity that it should be read with. Maybe it isn’t all that bad, but the narrative I’ve produced above on account of instinct still stands. Thesis: what I produced then was distinctively male writing.

Essentialist? Mystifying? Perhaps. I like the drama of essentialism, of mystification, if that’s what writing about “man” and “woman” as separate categories involves. But this isn’t all about theory. I find that in practice, writing about being a woman, and becoming a woman, for me now seems to involve writing about men. I see this currently in the works of Mary Gaitskill, who clearly loves both men and women very much, and on their own terms (as “men” and “women”). The way women write about men matters to me a lot, and I want to be able to say something about men too—my public existence as a woman is staked on this, I think—and nothing’s truly private when language gets involved. So for the men I know, privately, I want to be able to write, to write about men (not them, but them as men). And because I don’t have the kind of pause I need from life when I’m around live men, I write about dead men—Freud, Swinburne, Lawrence, Meredith.

Somehow writing about men doesn’t produce this sense of discomfort that I associate with trying to write about women or being a woman. It isn’t that I’m afraid of the charge of narcissism—what I don’t like about writing about woman in isolation is that it does desexualize the encounter with language to some extent. I like the sexual charge of writing, and admitting to the sexual charge of writing, and embarrassing myself or being flagrantly exhibitionistic about this sexuality I associate with writing seems to happen best if I write about men. The detransition essay was uncomfortable to write at the time because it involved a desire to talk about specific men and their effects on my sense of my gender, which involves some sexual core; how can I talk about the men without talking about my desire for them. Now, the situation has changed somewhat, but I still sense that I’m wishing something that hasn’t happened into being by discussing this desire to be explicit.

A lot of this intent to write about men—Freud, or my dissertation subjects: Swinburne, Meredith, Lawrence, and James—involves a desire to create a kind of House of Men, because if I can create that house, it means that I’ve been able to articulate something that makes me a little freer in the world, I think—perhaps freedom is the primary stake for all notions of the feminine.

Women have been so collected, or never collected enough; or a collection can never form an edifice. There’s something Cusk wrote about freedom in Second Place that sticks to me, that the artist is free out of skill and entrainment in a few narrow areas, that few can be “free in more than one way.” Freedom is not, as the narrator writes, “a mere unbuttoning”—“it is the dividend yielded by an unrelenting obedience to and mastery of the laws of creation.” And so “the rigorously trained fingers of the concert pianist are freer than the enslaved heart of the music lover can ever be.”

Is this not another justification for female prostration at the feet of men? Or does this express an aspiration to become the free concert pianist instead of the enslaved music lover? As with all fiction, we’re invited to inhabit both possible modes of the feminine, I’ll call them modes of the feminine. Because I do think there’s more at stake when we understand questions around creation and the freedom to create in sexual terms, and with a recognition of the differences and inequities surrounding the masculine and the feminine modes of creation. For what it means to write or make as a woman or a man differ so much—and I don’t know if I should admit to it, but I find it thrilling when a woman expresses something of a desire for men in her desire for creative freedom.

Tags: psychoanalysis femininity