Panel: “Black Psychoanalysis in the 1950s”
Panel Chair Gwen Bergner explained that scholars have used African American literature and theory to revise psychoanalysis as much as the reverse. Black writers have actively engaged with psychoanalytic thought throughout its history, and in keeping with the conference’s themes, we are going to discuss imagination, transformation, and reparation in black uses of psychoanalysis. Bergner is proud to have been a reviewer for the book manuscripts of all three panelists. She credited Dorothy Stringer with having assembled the panel. Badia Sahar Ahad began by citing the historical objectification of the black female body, which has been seen as a locus of “primitive sexuality” and of what’s a pathological subjectivity by mainstream standards. One medium through which African American women challenged the idea that they were sexually loose and morally bankrupt was the Mental Hygiene movement. Working-class women were attracted to normative ideals in this time, when there were few spaces left for black women to inhabit deviant desires. The periodical literature, study of which was inaugurated by Frances Smith Foster in her work on the importance of popular media, manifests the discourse of the everyday in such genres as the advice column, where psychoanalytic ideas got filtered to the public. Popular media’s banal engagements of these ideas prescribed ways for African American women to be both proper feminine and desiring sexual subjects.
The magazine Tan Confessions, established late in 1950, worked to contain a space for black female sexuality. In its pages, black women were active participants in the culture of therapy. The expression of interiority and intimacy in general for black people has been fraught, and the contradictions therein are evident in Tan Confessions. The magazine contained homemaking coverage alongside steamy expositions of illicit, bizarre, and absurd adventures and alternative sexualities, enacting a quasi-religious impulse to confess. The advice column often employs the language of psychoanalysis, using terms like “inferiority complex” or, worse, “superiority complex,” a problem that damaged black women’s capacity to submit to their husbands. And the magazine was full of stories of transgressive desire.
The term “mental hygiene” was originated in 1898 to name the art of preserving the mind against deleterious influences, through discipline of the intellect and government of the passions. But Tan Confessions shows an ambivalent relationship to the mode of mental hygiene. The magazine, as its readers’ responses emphasizes, makes accessible some alternative narratives previously rendered invisible. Readers sent letters condemning the magazine for having printed “Strange Love,” a tale of a married woman’s affair with a Lesbian. The story gushes with praise for its Lesbian character’s beauty and depicts the natural growth of same-sex desire: the heroine regrets having committed adultery, but the gay sexual attraction is never disavowed. Other stories manifest important women’s issues such as discontent with domestic life and sexuality.
The stories are written to educate women on how to address domestic and sexual dilemmas. In “Do Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives?” the heroine learns not to be a domineering wife, as psychological texts teach her to come to terms with her “superiority complex.” Her story speaks to the production of therapeutic cultures. The confession periodical appears as a communal vehicle for self-help, wherein shape an engagement with mental hygiene outside the usual institutions of psychoanalysis. The black female subject is presented as an architect of therapeutic communities, fostering intraracial dialogue about black issues. But the punishment for deviance is psychosis. The stories frame sexual and social lives in mid-century psychoanalytic terms, but black women are trying to create subjectivities that ultimately run counter to mental hygienic and psychoanalytic norms
Dorothy Stringer is studying Richard Wright’s post-exilic work. Citing Wright’s vow after Uncle Tom’s Children to write a book so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears, she noted that psychology is the whole theme of “How Bigger Was Born” and that Wright is indebted to Freud’s “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” as well as his own barely-manageable affective flux, evident in his remark about an “act of concentration, of trying to hold within one’s center of attention all of that bewildering array of facts which science, politics, experience, memory, and imagination were urging upon me. And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive of emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth."
Wright was very very widely read in psychoanalysis (but not in Lacan). Inventing and controlling and transmitting affect is what writing is for him: it’s how he integrates an analytics of race as bodily reality. Affect, we know from Laplanche and Pontalis, is a diagnostic object which, like physical pain, can’t be repressed. And it lacks a necessary relation to language.Wright was uninterested in mapping sociocultural dynamics. How psychological necessities affect and change the political world. He sought to describe a racialized history of affect. What holds his post-1947 work, and especially the works of his very prolific time after 1951, together? The connection between affect and modernity: what he called “psychological reactions.” He attributed oppression to specific affects, as in his “Never have so few hated and feared so many.”
Savage Holiday was not reviewed at all in the U.S. It lacks any of Wright’s usual topics. In this text, racism shapes subjectivity in the absence of people of color. The “savage” seems initially to be just a figure of speech; but when Erskine Fowler thinks of a “savage,” he has Gothic feelings that are manifested in violent acts. The “primitive” is not primarily used to describe a racist fantasy of another but Fowler himself. Fowler is an insurance executive, in a sense experiencing the disordered affect of the professional-managerial class that Wylie, Mills, Riesman, and others addressed in 1950s discourse. But Wright refuses to consider whiteness therein as neutral or self-constituting. Passages such as “He stripped off his pajamas and loomed naked, his chest covered with a matting of black hair, his genitals all but obscured by a dark forest, his legs rendered spiderlike by their hirsute coating. Nude, Erskine looked anything but pious or Christian” compare Fowler to various grotesque racist fantasy-figures. The filmic and pulp clichés that are central to Wright’s work are generally ignored by Mills and other social commentators. In Native Son, movie monsters and the like are a commentary on Du Boisian double consciousness; in Savage Holiday the reformist critique is absent: the conflict is one of affect versus discourse, primitive versus civilized — and ultimately, Fowler has to turn himself in, because the discourse cannot see him as a criminal.
The crisis in Savage Holiday is a Poesque, cosmic crisis. After the door closes behind Fowler, on that bad morning that leads to his crime, “A fine film of sweat broke out over the skin of his face. Again he grasped the doorknob and strained at it, hoping that his sheer passion for modesty would somehow twist those cold bolts of steel, but the door held and he knew that steel was steel and would not bend. There was no doubt about it; he was locked out, locked out naked in the hallway and at any second one of his neighbors’ doors would open and someone would walk out and find him . . . They’d scream, maybe, if they were women. Good God, what could he do? His face was wet with sweat now.
“He tensed as the faint sound of the elevator door opening downstairs came to him, echoing hollowly up the elevator shaft. Somebody was coming up! Maybe to this floor! He glared about in the sun-flooded hallway, searching for nooks and crannies in which to hide, clutching awkwardly his bundle of Sunday papers. His hairy body, as he glanced down at it, seemed huge and repulsive, like that of a giant; but, when he looked off, his body felt puny, shriveled, like that of a dwarf. And the hallway in which he stood was white, smooth, modern; it held no Gothic recesses, no Victorian curves, no Byzantine incrustations in, or behind which, he could hide.
The elevator was coming up . . . He felt that he was in the spell of a dream; he wanted to shake his head, blink his eyes and rid himself of this nightmare. But he remained hairy, nude, trembling in the morning sun. If that was Mrs. Brownell coming up, she might scream; she’d surely complain, maybe to the police . . . He felt dizzy and his vision blurred.” And it goes on like that for eleven pages of anxiety, the naked-in-public nightmare from which there’s no waking up.
Fowler’s unconscious complicity in his own exposure — he’s pretty clearly aware of the risk he takes stepping out of his door with that breeze blowing — is consistent with the failure of sexual repression. But Wright encourages skepticism of psychoanalysis. His epigraphs group the anthropological Freud, with his totems and fetishes, alongside other unreliable cosmologies. The quote from Job, on the other hand, gives the Bible a special place. The Bible is the working-class text par excellence (recall Wright’s grandmother’s attitude toward it) and constitutes all of Fowler’s library. Wright’s use of Job inverts and parodies the racial history of primitivism: the savage is actually Job, God’s good man. Ultimately, Wright is a very bad Freudian: he’s willing to use psychoanalytic texts in his unresolved bricolage, but there’s no Master Text in Savage Holiday or elsewhere, no key to What It Means. Just the use of distinct, granular units of affect.
Mikko Tuhkanen spoke of his admiration for Leo Bersani and introduced the topic of “James Baldwin and Fascination.” Evidently Bersani’s and Laplanche’s work on how the Enigmatic Signifier calls the subject into desire is relevant to a Baldwinian ethics of otherness. For Baldwin, Protest Novels fail in the task of Art — in dealing with the complexity to which he gives the Nietzschean name “reality.” Like Nietzsche, he insists on the ethical necessity of undoing and being undone. Protest Novels strengthen the categories whose violence they delineate. But accepting the terms of the argument cannot extricate us from the deadly, timeless (and Hegelian) battle of the master and the slave.
Randall Kenan has written on “the strange fascination” Uncle Tom’s Cabin held for the young Baldwin as an unethical relation. Kipling and Proust show us that fascination immobilizes. Lacan and the étade de miroir demonstrate the fascination of the Imaginary, the simultaneous identification with and alienation from one’s gestalt, the semblable. Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves discusses this murderous fascination with the Other and the subject’s libidinal attachment to the Other in a master/slave dialectic: we have also seen recent analyses of Wright in those terms. Go Tell It on the Mountain addresses immobilization in dialectical violence: Elizabeth’s doomed affair with Richard, her fascination with the white cop’s weapons. In what Baldwin calls the “rage in the blood,” the fascinated gaze gets caught by the sight of the Other’s violence and, as in Kipling and elsewhere, it is the fascinated party who gets devoured. For Baldwin, protest artists remain damagingly beholden to their Others, in the thesis/antithesis confrontation he calls “thrust and counterthrust.”
Baldwin narrates his departure from the U.S. as a breaking of the thrall of violent fascination. The mirror scene in “Notes of a Native Son” involves the breaking of the hold of the specular image, of the deadly allure of the Imaginary Other. But Baldwin retains a hunger to unearth racist fantasies — he is fascinated by the consciousness of Bull Connor — and in 1947 writes “the root of our trouble is between their legs.” Neither Baldwin nor psychoanalysis suggests what we may find beyond the dialectic. The dreaming narcissist, the nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, are mesmerized states which Baldwin wants us to snap out of. In the diasporic imagination, Modernity often figures as a state of involvement with monstrosities. Vivaldo’s awakening is gained at the expense of Ida’s confinement. Baldwin’s breaking of the spell should constitute reality’s becoming: he prefigures the argument for narcissism in Bersani’s rereading of Laplanche.
An audience member asked about the diagnosis offered by “Going to Meet the Man” and what Baldwin offers as the consequences of that revelation — the call to an awakening at the end. Mikko said that’s one of the more Wrightian of Baldwin’s texts, whose pessimism leaves no easy way to break the dialectic. But it also suggests that what Baldwin rejects is ego-psychology and not psychoanalysis itself. An auditor suggested that if there’s a Master Text in the post-exilic Wright it’s Enlightenment thought, and Stringer acknowledged that in Black Power, for example, he’s got whole chapters on how The West Is Superior. Q: Savage Holiday is a book that makes you do certain kinds of ham-fisted psychoanalytic readings. Stringer: And it makes you feel dirty.
An audience member suggested the message that white Westerners are afraid of the moral chaos that’s let loose by Enlightenment thinking and that the black American is better-equipped to deal with Enlightenment thought. Stringer objected, But there are so many references to High Romantic, fairytale, magical texts, jokes about Blake — the whole thing is psychotic. The obsessive method is more like a dialectic that’s become toxic than like a dialectic that’s achieved or achievable. The book that Wright wanted his post-exilic reputation to rest on was probably The Long Dream. Mikko suggested that, as we might infer from Max’s speech, Wright believes in the Light of Reason. And what interests Wright is that psychoanalysis is the undoing of Reason. Descartes and Husserl talk about reason as awakening, while Freud tells Wright that we’re not sure when we’re awake and we’re not sure what the awakening entails. The “I” of Black Power is designed as an untrustworthy narrator.
An audience member asked, What does your work with these writers lead you to think about the utility of psychoanalysis now? Stringer offered a forceful answer that made me wonder how people like her manage to speak so quickly and intelligently while people like me hesitate and stammer and couldn’t answer a question in a complete sentence even under threat of punishment. Something like, “Psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute in the clinic and in the academy, but its ghosts are everywhere; and its scraps are everywhere: it’s come into bits and the bits have spread out; it’s now something that’s being dismembered and repurposed. So we’re at a point where concerns about its status and authority can be thrown out . . . I know that if I’m going to speak about desire in mid-century black literature, I’m going to use it, and I don’t care about its reputation in that context."
Ahad, as I was trying to take down Stringer’s forceful answer, replied to an audience question by talking of the Negro Projects in the Social Hygiene movement of the 1930s and of the fact that Wright and Ellison along with Wertham started a Mental Hygiene Clinic in Harlem in 1946 and we can read the Case Studies of the many women who went there to be cured of their homosexual desires: there are wonderful remarks therein, such as that of one woman who said, “Maybe my life is just revolutionary.” In founding Tan Confessions, John Johnson was very interested in the politics of black respectability. But many letters to the editor affirmed the deviant behaviors that were included in the magazine as cautionary tales. The behaviors described can become destigmatized through repetition and people seemed relieved by the existence of these stories. Johnson ultimately couldn't take it: he felt guilty having a confession magazine. After a couple of years, the magazine changed to Tan, and by the time it folded in 1955, it was a domesticity magazine.