‘By hypothesis unknowable’: Eliot – Prufrock – Hamlet – Freud – Joyce

J.T. Welsch (York St John University) 

  • Delivered at the T.S. Eliot Society Annual Conference, Paris, July 2011, where it was awarded the 2011 Fathman Young Scholars Award in Eliot Studies.

What every poet starts from is his own emotions. … Shakespeare, too, was occupied with the struggle – which alone constitutes life for a poet – to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal. … The great poet, in writing himself, writes his time. … hardly knowing it. (Eliot, P&P, 55) 

This is Eliot in his 1927 essay on Shakespeare’s debt to Seneca. Eighteen years earlier, in the winter of 1908-09, twenty year-old Tom Eliot was in the penultimate year of his undergraduate degree at Harvard. In November, his first poems were published in the student-run Harvard Advocate, a periodical he would help edit the following year. In December, in the Advocate’s offices at the Student Union, he came across a copy of The Symbolist Movement in Literature by the British poet and critic, Arthur Symons. The catalytic function of Symons’ book has been granted primal status in the narrative of Eliot’s development as a poet, not least as a result of Eliot’s own re-telling of that early period. Discovering the Symbolists was ‘a revelation’, he writes in 1920 – ‘an introduction to wholly new feelings’. With the benefit of another ten year’s hindsight, in 1930, Eliot secures its significance with detail: ‘But for having read his book, I should not, in the year 1908, have heard of Laforgue or Rimbaud; I should probably not have begun to read Verlaine; and but for reading Verlaine, I should not have heard of Corbière. … It affected the course of my life.’ (1930, letters I, xxiv)

I hope I’m not alone in my suspicion of such causal teleologies, especially coming from a student of Bergson. I think my hesitation has to do with the tautological inevitability projected here in reverse; and as it turns out, it’s Eliot himself who points out the flaw in such retrospective logic. In a 1942 lecture at Cambridge, he admits that ‘The life of a man of genius, viewed in relation to his writing, comes to take a pattern of inevitability.’ (Prose, 224-5) We fall for these ‘patterns of inevitability’, he says, so that, ‘we are unlikely to believe that he would have been a greater writer, or an inferior writer, if he [or she] had had a different kind of education.’ (224) Within the writer’s biography, everything always adds up to the work, which we conversely (though circularly) assume could only be the product of these circumstances and none other. Had Eliot not found Symons’ book, we imagine he would have never read Laforgue, never become so enthralled to French culture that the following year in Paris became ‘inevitable’; and thus never written ‘Prufrock’; thus never been ‘Eliot’ as we know him at all.

As I say, however, Eliot himself warns us that ‘This way of looking at a great poet or novelist or dramatist, is half of the truth: it is what we find when looking at one writer after another,’ without, as he says, taking into account ‘secondary writers [who] provide collectively, and individually in varying degrees, an important part of the environment of the great writer…’ This historical ‘continuity’, beyond the single life, says Eliot, citing R.W. Chambers’ essay on The Continuity of English Prose, ‘is largely unconscious, and only visible in historical retrospect.’ (225) Bearing this in mind, one counteractive approach to tautological developmental narratives would be to take Eliot at his word, and include within the scope of continuity other writing, events, or circumstances which by no reasonable estimation could have directly affected his life or work at the time. To work against the assumption of biographical inevitability, we might take up, for instance, the loosest historical coincidence that in December of 1908, just as Eliot’s apparent destiny was being set in motion by reading Symons, a British psychologist named Ernest Jones visited Harvard for the first time.

In meeting with William James, J. J. Putnam, and other pillars of the psychology community developing then around Boston and Harvard, twenty-nine year-old Jones was acting as a missionary for Sigmund Freud, who had suggested to Jones that such a visit ‘might be the best way to introduce my teaching’ to the Americans. (qtd. Maddox, 72) Jones, however, was disappointed to find that few at Harvard had even bothered to read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, already a decade old in the fast-moving new field of psychoanalysis. Jones also reported that the politics of the New England psychology establishment might pose an obstacle to Freud’s potential influence. Although Jones’ Harvard visit was a success in so far as Freud himself was invited to lecture at nearby Clark University the following year, Freud remained sceptical that ‘once they discover the sexual core of our psychological theories they will drop us. Their prudery and their material dependence on the public are too great.’ (Freud to Jung, qtd. Maddox 76) Thus, in the most oblique way, even before Freud arrives in Massachusetts, accompanied by Jones, we can see a correspondence with the opinion of repressed New England society held by the young poet then beginning his final undergraduate year.

In September 1909, Freud came through Boston on his only trip to the United States, a trip that would leave him with a generally low opinion of the country and especially its unfamiliarly rich food, which troubled his stomach throughout the visit. For five evenings, from September 6-10, Freud delivered lectures mostly without notes, and in his native tongue, despite Jones’ warning that few people in the audience would understand German – a language with which Eliot had also struggled since his first year at Harvard, of course. Accounts in national and local media at the time fulfilled Freud’s fears in their tendency to focus on the general importance of his presence, while omitting his emphasis on ‘sexual factors’. This included articles in the Boston Evening Transcript, a periodical which would become symbolic among Eliot’s caricatures of Bostonian society in 1917’s Prufrock and Other Observations.

Although, in many ways, the lecture series served only as an introduction and summary of Freud’s work to that point, the fourth of these lectures is notable within his oeuvre for containing a new formulation of one of his best-known and most important contributions to psychoanalysis. Over the preceding decade, Freud had already demonstrated how the involuntary repression of certain intolerable or otherwise traumatic feelings, ideas, and fantasies serves an essential function within the structure of every human psyche. As Freud explains the notion of repression in his second lecture (on the Tuesday evening of that week): ‘The investigation of hysterical patients and of other neurotics leads us to the conclusion that their repression of [an] idea to which [an] intolerable wish is attached…[is inevitably] a failure.’ In other words, repression is always incomplete. Freud continues:

‘It is true that [these patients] have driven [the intolerable impulse] out of consciousness and out of memory and have apparently saved themselves a large amount of [dis]pleasure. But the repressed wishful impulse continues to exist in the unconscious. It is on the look-out for an opportunity of being activated…’

This is where Freud’s theory is up to when he comes to Massachusetts. But in the Thursday night lecture, Freud highlights a specific instance of repression, which, rather than being particular to individual experience, ‘constitutes the nuclear complex of every neurosis, and we may expect to find it no less actively at work in other regions of mental life.’ (Freud 47) In other words, this is a specific desire so basic to social interactions that its repression is essential to the structure of psychic life in general. As Freud explains: ‘The myth of King Oedipus, who killed his father and took his mother to wife, reveals, with little modification, the infantile wish, which is later opposed and repudiated by the barrier against incest.’ In other words, the repression of this particular ‘infantile wish’ is necessary to the function of the individual psyche and, via the ‘barrier against incest’, society in general. But if the classic myth provides structure for the famous ‘Oedipal complex’ – a term which Freud doesn’t use until an essay the following year – he also finds it necessary to pair the ancient myth with a more modern example for his Massachusetts audience: ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet is equally rooted in the soil of the incest-complex, but under a better disguise.’ (47)

In 1910, back at Harvard, Eliot follows Symons deeper into Symbolism. Further inspired by his course with Irving Babbitt on ‘Literary Criticism in France, with special reference to the Nineteenth Century’, he makes arrangements to spend the following academic year at the Sorbonne. In January, he publishes ‘Humouresque (after J. Laforgue)’ and the Baudelairean lyric, ‘Spleen’ in the Advocate. And that same month, the American Journal of Psychology, founded and edited by G. Stanley Hall, who had invited Freud to America and attended his lectures, publishes a long article by Ernest Jones in hopes of furthering the engagement with Freudian psychology in the US.

Partly inspired by Freud’s pairing of Shakespeare with Oedipus in the 1909 lectures, and partly by a footnote in The Interpretation of Dreams ten years before, Jones essay is entitled, ‘The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive’. In this seminal work, ‘Freud’s Wizard’, as Brenda Maddox calls Jones in the title of her recent biography, not only uses the phrase ‘Oedipus-Complex’ for the first time in print, but pioneers the use of psychoanalytic theory in the study of literature. Jones’s now culturally proverbial ‘solution’ to what Emerson Venable had previously dubbed ‘the Hamlet problem’ is that the prince is unable to act and kill his uncle because Claudius, in killing Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, had done precisely what Hamlet wished to do, although this desire had been repressed and ‘inaccessible to his introspection.’ (qtd. in Maddox, 86) Following Freud, Jones also suggests that Hamlet’s general ‘distaste for sexuality’ and his revulsion towards Ophelia is also ‘an index of the powerful “repression” to which [Hamlet’s] sexual feeling is being subjected’ (87). Only when Hamlet has committed himself to his own death, Jones concludes, is he able to take action or, in Jones’s terms, ‘slay his other self – his uncle’ (87).

What Jones’s Freudian reading of Hamlet shares with Eliot’s notorious critique of the play begins with the premise that, as Eliot says, ‘the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother.’ (SP 107) Eliot’s problem with Hamlet, as he discusses it in 1919’s ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, is that the prince’s emotional response to his mother and usurper uncle seems ‘excessive’ or otherwise unaccounted for by the ‘facts’ of the drama. Whether or not we agree, we must admit that Eliot’s critique depends upon rather Freudian conceptions of repression and the unconscious, in so far as Eliot defines art and his famous ‘objective correlative’ in relation to externalization of previously unformulated emotions. Eliot argues that ‘Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.’ (107) In this way, Shakespeare’s failure to draw this repressed ‘stuff’ into the light becomes a failure of a psychoanalyst’s practice; and Eliot, whether or not he had read Jones’s essay, also suggests that ‘the intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is … doubtless a subject of study for pathologists.’ (109)

Thus, the main difference between Jones’s Freudian reading and Eliot’s is primarily in their conclusion, rather than content. That Jones claims to have ‘solved’ the Hamlet problem which Eliot has no wish to solve has mostly to do with their respective prerogatives as psychoanalyst and literary critic. Yet, in both cases, the projection of an ‘unconscious’ full of ideas unknowable by Hamlet depends on the transference of the character’s psychology onto his creator. As Eliot explains the relation between protagonist and author – a precarious coupling which allows for the projection of fictional repression – ‘Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.’ Alas, since Shakespeare is held responsible for the state of Hamlet’s psyche as some kind of god or psychoanalyst, Eliot abruptly ends his essay at the point of infinite regress, suggesting that the solution to Shakespeare’s own Hamlet problem would consequently require us

‘to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it [something in Shakespeare’s biography] to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself.’ (109)

Freud, in the footnote from Interpretation of Dreams, was less hesitate in speculating that the life experience which led to the excessive, intractable emotion of Hamlet was the death of Shakespeare’s father and young son – just as others have pointed to the death of Eliot’s father just prior to his critique of the play. Back in 1910, however, as Eliot firmed up plans for Paris, disregarding his mother’s worries, and began making notes for the poem that would become ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Freud published his most sustained study of the relationship between an artist and his work in ‘Leonardo Da Vinci and A Memory of His Childhood.’ Although I don’t have time to say much about this fascinating and very weird case study, it should suffice to say that Da Vinci is discussed in relation to the Oedipal complex and unresolved relations with an overbearing mother, which results in a very Prufrockian-Hamletian ‘impotence’, both sexual and artistic. As Freud says,

‘we should be inclined to place [Leonardo] close to the type of neurotic that we describe as ‘obsessional’; and we compare his researches to the ‘obsessive brooding’ of neurotics, and his inhibitions to what are known as their ‘abulias’.’ (131)

Bearing in mind Eliot’s snide suggestion that Hamlet has become ‘the Mona Lisa of literature’, with its teasing, but unsatisfying structure of secrecy, it might also be worth noting how Freud finds his way out of the maze of Da Vinci’s unconscious, appealing to the same ultimate ‘unknowable’ which Eliot points to at the end of his essay. Freud concludes by drawing a link between a line in Da Vinci’s journal – La natura è piena d’infinite ragioni che non-furono mai in esperienza [nature is full of countless causes that never enter experience] – with the lines:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

I want to finish by trying to close this narrative-historical loop on Eliot’s biography and work in relation to the coincidence of Freudian developments. Aside from all of these chance correspondences, I couldn’t let you go away thinking these two ships passed in Boston in 1909 all for naught and without the ripples catching up to Eliot somewhere down the line. 1910, as I said, turns out to be a big year for the growing interest in Freud among English-speaking psychologists and artist-intellectuals alike. In addition to the Da Vinci book, and the publication of Freud’s lectures from the previous autumn (in English, thankfully), Jones’s studious rendering of the Oedipal Hamlet goes the other way, into German, and into the hands of Ettore Schmitz (a.k.a. Italo Svevo), whose uncle, Edoardo Weiss, would introduce psychoanalysis to Italy that year. (I’m sure Da Vinci would be pleased.) This fact would be of little consequence if Svevo hadn’t then passed along a copy of Jones’s Hamlet article to his English tutor in Trieste, James Joyce. Joyce, in turn, incorporated Jones’ hypothesis into his series of Shakespeare lectures in 1912-1913, and anyone familiar with Stephen Dedalus’s interpretation of the play at the heart of Ulysses can’t help recognise the Freudian influence, as twenty-two year-old Stephen – Joyce’s own fictional doppelganger – connects Hamlet’s psychology to Shakespeare’s.

Clearly, this web of reference could be traced further in all directions. I could point to the deep irony of Eliot’s complaint to Conrad Aiken in 1914 ‘that I have done nothing good since J.A.P. and writhe in impotence’, or the Da Vincian ‘aboulie’ he later complains of to Richard Aldington. I could suggest that the ‘solution’ for The Waste Land he finds in Joyce’s ‘mythical method’ is surely, within the mind of Europe’s collective unconscious, a symptom not only of the way Stephen and Joyce’s via Hamlet and Shakespeare’s problem finds its objective correlative in the structure of Homer’s myth, but of Freud’s repeated pairing of Hamlet with that other Greek myth which underlies all our psyches. But following Prufrockian Eliot, Freudian Jones, Joycean Stephen, and Hamletian Shakespeare, it might be better to draw a circle at the speculative limit of such readings, beyond which ‘the rest is silence / O o o o’.


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