Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Freud's Requiem

Freud's Requiem is a 200 pages long essay on a four page long essay by Freud titled "On Transience". Or, at least that's what it claims to be. In reality what it offers are brief biographical portraits of Freud, Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome, who besides many other things, was Rilke's muse, mentor and lover and also Freud's disciple. I don't think it covers any new ground in this discussion too and it is all very basic but since I was not very familiar with these subjects the book appealed to me overall. I was a little disappointed in the end though as I was expecting some in-depth discussion about mourning and its relationship to art and some interpretation of Rilke's poetry in this light. He touches on this topic but very briefly. For most of the time it reads like a freewheeling introduction to Freud.

Also Freud's essay in question itself is comparatively straightforward and surprisingly jargon-free. He basically argues that beauty and life derive their value from the fact of their mortality unlike the poet who says that grief precludes experience.

The older man was sympathetic to the poet's melancholy (which their silent friend shared), but he could not accept his anguished conclusion. The poet was correct, of course, that all earthly things must pass away, including those in whose qualities we take special pleasure. But rather than subtract from their beauty, Freud protested, this evanescence only added to beauty’s increase. Winter replaces summer, but spring comes again in winter’s wake. The scientist— taken aback, perhaps, by the poet’s remonstrance—suggested that it was beauty’s “scarcity value in time” that gave what is precious its worth. Since beauty was known—could only ever be known—only by the heart and eye and mind of its witness, so long as we live, beauty is with us, passing into nothingness only when we, too, cease to exist.

The author discusses Freud's other more famous essay on the subject, "Mourning and Melancholia", but again not in much detail, which is again a shame. Just the basic theses that Melancholia is a resistance to grief and mourning and mental health requires the ability to mourn. There is a long discussion about Rilke's scepticism about the practice of psychoanalysis. For most the twenties when he was writing his Duino Elegies (it took him more than a decade) Rilke was also deep in serious depression because he was not able to muster his creativity to complete his poem. (He claimed to write his poetry under dictation from angelic voices.) In the end he didn't go to Freud and took any help in psychoanalysis because he felt that he would lose his creativity forever. There is also some discussion about Freud's ideas about the wellsprings of creativity. Though Freud's work is full of references to literature he was himself perplexed about the origins of creativity. "Theory of sublimation" or his ideas about the origins of "Oceanic feelings" are his attempts in that direction.

In particular I enjoyed reading about Lou Andreas-Salome. What a remarkable woman! "thinking man's femme fatale," the author calls her! When she was sixteen, her elderly latin Latin tutor fell in love with her. She of course rejected him and the same story was repeated innumerable times. One of her boyfriends was Nietzsche and they had some kind of a menage-a-trois relationship with Nietzsche's friend and philosopher Paul Ree. There is a marvellous picture of the three with Nietzsche and Ree pulling the cart with her sitting in it with a whip in her hand. She later married an Orientalist scholar but.. she refused to sleep with him after marriage. Poor man! he tried to take his life by stabbing himself in his heart. Marriage of course didn't stop her from affairs with intelligent men, one of them being Rilke who was fifteen years younger to her when they first met.

The book is promising and reads breezily but will be of interest only to the newcomers. I personally enjoyed it and learned a lot from it but more intelligent and learned people should instead take up Rilke's and Freud's original works.

This is the original essay on book's official site. A review by author Hanif Kureishi here.


jyothsnay said...

Now I realise how much I miss your space and reading you boy....
umm,inflicting a tight deadline on myself...to finish the first set of 10 posts on your blog n respond to the same....presto!....missed this blog immensely...Jyo
n is Ant back in action?

Alok said...

no, she is on blog-vacation...!

you dont have to worry about reading my blog. i don't take it seriously myself.

insomnia said...

well,visiting your blog for the first time and in hurry but determined to come back.
Eager to read something from you on freud.