For the very last time, I’ve delivered my background lecture for my British Literature survey course on the 20thCentury, a multimedia extravaganza of a presentation that covers everything from the French Symbolists, the Educational Act of 1870, Woman’s Suffrage, the Boer’s War, the Irish Question, the impact of WWI, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics, poetic revolution, new methods in fiction, and the literary movement of Modernism.
Students (I hope) see how cultural components manifest themselves in literature produced in a specific time and place, in this case in Great Britain between 1898 and 1939.
They learn that the Educational Act of 1870, which resulted in universal literacy, gave rise to a large unsophisticated reading public. In addition to highbrow and middlebrow readers, another category emerged – lowbrow readers.
World War I shattered naïve Victorian beliefs in perpetual progress as the great stained-glass window of Western Civilization lay in pieces. Modernists like Eliot started picking up those pieces and rearranging the shards into chaotic mosaics that reflected reconsidered notions of time and space transmitted to us via Freud and Einstein. The Freudian past, at least subconsciously, coexists in our present; Einstein’s time is relative: a moment can be excruciating long, a lifetime flash by in an unconsidered instant.
The most fun I have is explaining how psychoanalytical analysis is supposed to work, using myself as an example in a concocted narrative that I bring to life by adding specific details that create verisimilitude despite the outrageous events related. Many of the students actually believe what I’m about to relate.*
[I say] Let me explain how psychoanalysis works, and I should know, because in the early 1980s I actually underwent psychoanalysis after suffering from a series of debilitating panic attacks.
Bear with me. Relating these events is painful for me, but because they are so personal, I think telling my story will help you see clearly how psychoanalysis works.
Okay, Freud argued that the mind consists of three divisions, the consciousness, precociousness, and unconsciousness. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to ditch precociousness and reduce the mind to consciousness and unconsciousness. According to Freud, things that happen to us when we are young remain active in our unconsciousness even though we think we have forgotten them, and sometimes painful unconscious memories affect our behavior even though we’re not aware of it.
For example, in my case [here I pause, feign emotional overload, then continue with a quavering voice]. Okay, this sounds really weird, but I’m just gonna come out and say it. When I was being diaper trained, my mother stabbed my backside with uncooked pasta, and what’s worse, while stabbing me she made horrible screeching noises like soundtrack screech in the movie Psycho.
[Occasionally a naïve student will ask why, and I’ll reply something like, “God, I wish I knew”].
I pretend to control my breathing and continue.
Of course, I repressed these memories. According to my conscious mind, they never occurred, and for a long time, I wasn’t affected by them. I graduated from high school, college, met Judy Birdsong in grad school. We married and moved into a downstairs apartment at 17 Limehouse Street.
[Sometimes a student will say, “I live on Limehouse Street” or “I used to live on Limehouse Street,” and if they do, I try to establish where their house was in relation to our apartment.
Anyway, [I continue] in those days there was a Piggly Wiggly on Broad Street right around the corner. Of course, it’s gone now, but we could walk there from our apartment. That Piggly Wiggly was a weird supermarket with wooden floors, which has nothing to do with anything. Anyway, one night I walked there to pick up a couple of things when I suffered a terrible panic attack. This is embarrassing, but I actually fainted. I came to in a second, wasn’t taken to the hospital, was able to walk home, but I did have some tests run. Nothing came up.
For a while, everything was okay. I was teaching at Trident Technical College, enjoying the life of a newlywed until one evening while Judy and I were watching TV, during a commercial, I had another attack. We didn’t note it at the time, but later Judy remembered it was a Chef Boyardee ad.
To make a long story short, these attacks started coming in greater and greater frequency, and finally I had to take a medical leave of absence. Judy’s parents, who were wealthy, insisted I receive the very best medical care, so that meant flying to Vienna for psychoanalysis.
My analyst’s name was Clarita von Trott. She was 60-something at the time. Anyway, she began with a Rorschach test, you know, those ink blot tests. Well, she showed me one, and I screamed “Lasagna!”
We did word association.
Dr. von Trott: boots
She asked that I write down my dreams.
I’m in a city surrounded by mountains, bowl-like, and as I’m walking down a sidewalk, thousands of white snakes come out of doors and wrap around my legs, slithering the up my torso, up to my head, smothering me . . .
Then one day, as I was lying on the couch in her office, the memory emerged. I was lying on my back on the layette when I heard a cabinet door open and something rattling. There was my mother in her nurse’s uniform, the little white cap, and she rolled me over, and the pain, the screech.
The excavation of the memory cured me. I was cured!
And that’s how psychoanalysis works.
I go on and explain how Stephen Dedalus in a Portrait is pushed in the ditch how that memory returns as he’s walking on the strand in Ulysses.
By this time, most of the students realize the story’s an invention, but I can see by the expressions of a few, they don’t know what to think. A brave one might ask “Did that really happen,” and, of course, I say no.
I add, “You don’t get teaching like this at the Magnet.
*It occurs to me that I should have cast this paragraph in the past tense