Tag Archives: violence

Sigmund Freud – “The Return of Totemism in Early Childhood,” from Totem and Taboo (1913)

Published in Imago just before the war, the collection of four essays entitled “Totem and Taboo” attempts to locate the point at which human civilization emerges from the animal kingdom. The final installment, “The Return of Totemism in Childhood” is the most boldly speculative: it links the the universal neuroses of the Oedipal complex to the two principle ordinances of totemism: “not kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with a woman of the same totem,” coincide with “the two crime of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, as well as with the two primal wishes of children, the insufficient repression or reawakening of which form the nucleus of perhaps every psychoneurosis” (495). Be this is jumping ahead.

Freud points out that children have no problem treating animals as equals, and takes this as a paradigm for primitive man. Children associate animals im later life with the father–a fear of the father gets displaced onto animals. The sacrificial meal, then, involves the ritualistic slaughter of the totem animal (substitute for the father):

Everywhere a sacrifice involves a feast and a fest cannot be celebrated with a sacrifice. The sacrificial feast was an occasion on which individuals rose joyously above their own interests and stressed the mutual dependence existing between one another and their god. (496)

Crucially, the slaughter of a totem animal by an individual was not tolerated–“the whole clan must share the responsibility of the deed” (497). In this way, “the bond is nothing else than the life of the sacrificial animal, which resides in the flesh and blood and distributed among all participants in the sacrificial meal” (498).

The renewal of this bond–it’s materiality makes repetition necessary–is festival: “a permitted, or rather obligatory, excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition” (499). The festive feelings follow from the taking in of “the sacred life of which the substance of the totem is the vehicle” (500). But this momentary disorder is only the means to the ordering of civilization as such:

The totem meal, perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things–of social organization, or moral restrictions and of religion.(501)

Civilization emerges from a an act of substitution and violence, which leads to the production of a symbolic regime. The guilt of the primal act of violence becomes inherent in all religion, and morality is rooted in the penance demanded by this sense of guilt. Throughout history, representations of the killing of animals represent both the death of the father as totemic animal and his elevation to the sacred, which marks his greatest triumph (506).

The final pages deal more generally with Freud’s notion of a “collective mind,” a necessary concept for tracking the historical development psychic states. This grounds his insistence on the “reality” of psychical states that are never “factual.” “We must avoid,” he writes, “a contempt for what is merely thought or wished” (513). For neurotics, thinking becomes a substitute for doing. But in primitive man, Freud believes, thought passes directly into action. And that is why, he famously writes, quoting Goethe, “in the beginning was the Deed.”


Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia (1915-17)

Drawing heavily from the Narcissism essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” is an attempt to understand the rare times when an ego “[overcomes] the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” (584).Whereas in mourning, the lost object, though repeated reality-testing, is successfully identified and then replaced with another object-cathexis, in melancholia,the unknown loss results in the free libido being “displaced on to another object,” but rather being “withdrawn into the ego” (586), which results in “an impoverishment of the ego on a grand scale” (584). “In this way object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss.” Put otherwise, this is the mirror-image of the “On Narcissism” essay, in that his return to the self represents a violent (not erotic) “regression from one type of object-choie to original narcissism.” Identification with the love-object supersedes object-love:

The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. (587)

Freud goes on:

The difference, however, between narcissistic and hysterical identification (melancholia) may be seen in this: that, whereas in the former the object-cathexis is abndoned, in the latter it persists and manifests its influence. (587)

In other words, the melancholic does not properly digest the object of mourning. It gets stuck. The processes of reality-testing–going out into the world and coming back to the self–is stunted. In extreme form, the melancholic subject develops sadism directed at the ego, because the ego is thought to be responsible for the lost object. This is the crucial point that turns the ego against the drive for self-preservation:

Owing to the return of the object-cathexis, [the ego] can treat itself as an object–if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which reates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world. (588)

So whereas in mourning, time is needed for reality-testing to free the ego of its libido of the lost object, “the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound, drawing to itself cathectic energies…from all directions, and emptying the ego until it is totally impoverished” (589). This image, besides bearing an uncanny resemblance to Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh,” totally disrupts the metaphor of diachronic digestion–it is directionless and therefore dangerous. [See Deleuze “Body Without Organs” for reading of this topography as potentially liberating.]

Robert Browning – Poems

“My Last Duchess,” from Dramatic Lyrics (1842) – A poem about the violence of making art. Told in heroic couplets. The Duke is entertaining a Count who is trying to arrange a marriage with the Duke and his daughter. Walking through the palace, he shows him a painting of his latest wife: My Last Duchess. She was “too easily impressed” with other men’s gifts, ranking them with the Duke’s gift of “nine-hundred-years-old name,” and so he “gave commands / Then all smiles stopped together”–that is, he order her execution and subsequent (?) transformation into a work of art. “There she stands / As if alive.” All this story is told in a highly aesthetic situation–the Duke has created a special little room and curtain and bench form which viewers can aesthetically be impacted (“impressed”?) by the painting. The “aliveness” of the poem is conveyed through the “spot of joy” that mimics the involuntary blush that betrayed her enjoyment of the men’s advances: the question is where the excess is located: is the it the excess that characterizes life (that which goes beyond mere life) or the excess that characterizes art (makes it living). These converge in a painting that is predicated on the death of the represented object. In Duke’s words: “Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint . Half-flush that dies along her throat.” What does do is convert this dying “half-flush” into an artistic “full-flush” that cancels that violent life and death. Thus, in My Last Duchess, Browning is laying out the stakes of art’s relationship to life: a theme that EBB will take up in a more positive manner, by attempting to write a Verse-Novel that refuses to kill anything  by its formal inclusiveness. In the process, she kills the poem with a novel–but that’s what’s necessary for preserving the poem as a poem.


“Porphyria’s Lover” (1836, published in Dramatic Lyrics, 1842) – 5 line stanzas, rhyming ABABB. Porphyria visits her lover and, with startlingly agency, puts his arm around her waist, and makes his cheek lie on her shoulder while her yellow hair is “displaced” “o’er all.” The lover discovers that Porphyria “worships” him, and the transfer power follows from the declaration of possession:

That moment she was mine, mine, fiar,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

The unprovoked violence connects with the violence inherent to the act of painting (and all forms of representation) in “My Last Duchess,” even to the extent of a blush appearing appearing “bright beneath my burning kiss.” In the last stanza, the time of narration converges with the time of the story: “And thus we sit together now,” which implies that the writing of the poem has taken place while her head is on his shoulder (reversal of agency). The last line: “An yet God has not said a word!” is a giddy, childlike rupture of guilty consciences, disjunctive with the rest of the poem. Yet it draws a contrast with the violence of speaking for someone else–that is, free indirect discourse. The agency of the first part of the poem is therefore qualified by this final outburst. God has no said a word, but the artist’s imposition on the object of representation bears a guilt that cannot be exculpated within the sphere of art.


“The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church” (published in Dramatic ROmances and Lyrics, 1845)

Unlike “My Last Duchess” and “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” which employ highly intricate rhyming schemes, this poem, spoken by the bishops, is told in iambic pentameter, unrhymed, blank verse, a more traditional vehicle for dramatic monologue. The Bishop wants to arrange his tomb to be better, more monumental, then Old Gandolf’s tomb of onion stone–but he fears that his inability to oversea all the particulars will end in a product that is as disappointing. But above all the poem is about identifying difficulty of identifying the line between life and death:

For as I lie here, hours of the dad night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

In other words, the Bishop is readying himself for death be being dead, taking on the qualities of the dead stone that is supposed to memorialize his life. Of course, this confounds the whole idea of the monument, which is suppose to represent a life. Living in order to die short-circuits the aesthetic. Does the aesthetic convey a life or a death?


“Fra Lippo Lippi” (from Men and Women, 1855) – About the ability of daily artistic practice to sustain an individual life (and along the way, perhaps, the life of the object the subject is representing).  Fra Lippo Lippi, who has penchant for drinking and sleeping with prostitutes, is picked up one evening by some authorities and tells his story: abandoned by his parents, he gets by on eating rubbish and, when taken in by a cloister, learns to paint. He is clear that he became a painter, and continued to become a better painter because of hunger:

Soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger pinch.

He refines his craft so well that some townspeople declare: “it’s the life!” The priests declare that his job is not to be a realist–“Faces, arms, legs, bodies like the true”–but to “paint the souls of men.” He has violated, in other words, the ban on graven images. He asks the question: “Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flesh?”–a question inherited from The Winter’s Tale: what fine chisel has cut breath? But he is unable to “unlearn” the “value and significance of flesh,” and stages a defense of mimesis:

For don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have
perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted–better for us.

He then proceeds to take the connection between hunger and art full circle: “To find its [life’s] meaning if my meat and drink.” The narrative frame closes with his release by the authorities. He returns to the cloister and the poem finishes with a “Zooks!” one of those Browning interruptions that somehow capture that which escapes the formal structures of the poem: there’s an uncontrollable quality to the language and bodies that populate these poems.



Yeats – Leda and the Swan (1928)

From The Tower (1928), but dated 1923. Leda is Helen’s mother, this therefore connects with both “No Second Troy” and “September 1913.” Two quatrains of alternating rhymes followed by two tercets rhyming ABC/ABC. The poem connects the insemination of Leda directly with the fall of Troy:

A sudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Yet one more instant of Yeats connecting birth and reproduction with destruction (cf. Easter 1916, Second Coming), yet here, in tis penetration of the human by the divine, the argument is that history (blind, violent) takes place as a rape. The question of knowledge and self-consciousness remains: the interrogatives of the second stanza are paired with interrogatives in the final stanza:

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.

This begins to get at a question that runs throughout Yeats: What sort of relationship to history can historical actors actually have? Do we act blindly, or can we achieve soem sort of objectivity in relation to our actions, contingent as they may be? The beauty of the opening stanzas points to the ability to aestheticize these histories. “A sudden blow” contains a  mimetic quality–not entirely referential–that may be required of language if we are going to be able to put on a knowledge at all.