Metaphor is the return of the repressed 2

Lots of prosaic prose
Agnes Richter's Jacket2

 “How did this come about?

Stay tuned,”

is how I concluded my previous post.

Here’s the simple narrative. I was puzzling over some of Shane MacGowan’s lyrics, struck by the viscerality of his fear of ghosts and corpses as well as the frequency with which they appeared in even the songs with the jauntiest melodies. That, combined with his well-known excesses and the general darkness of his work, made me suspect that something had “happened to” him, at an early age. A wake gone awry, perhaps? A combination of the terrifying bedtime stories he alludes to in “Sit Down by the Fire” and a wake gone awry, perhaps? Encounters with the near-dead in some guise or other? At the same time I was embarrassed by the literalism of my first response, which was clearly what we learned, in grad school, to call a “naïve reading.” I was also well aware that the standard interpretation of many of the songs I was thinking about, especially “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” (alternately titled “Connemara Let’s Go!”), a song that includes the horrifying lines: “What the hell's that over there/ A putrefying corpse sitting in that chair;” and “If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” which features a particularly vivid last stanza: “Bury me at sea/where no murdered ghost can haunt me/If I sink beneath the waves/No corpse can lie upon me,” is that these are allusions to the collective memory of Irish oppression through imposed starvation, outright slaughter/burial in mass graves, and other forms of systematic violence that amounted to genocide.  But there you had it.  These were metaphors, not literal references. Any sophisticated person could tell you that. And yet… isn’t fear of the literal, fear of the obvious, a form of denial?  MacGowan’s famous resistance to any form of rehabilitation or psychological intervention (he was first institutionalized at seventeen –an experience he has characterized as “terrifying” — and his abiding distrust of any attempt to “reconstruct” him is well-documented), might itself be another screaming piece of evidence. But isn’t this line of inquiry the height of indecorous reductivism? And yet… why can’t it be both metaphoric and literal? I was mortified to even be having this argument in my mind.

I remember, decades ago, reading an essay submitted to a well-known academic feminist journal that offered an ingeniously literal reading of Plath’s “Daddy” as an account of incest (“She even tells us how long it went on: ‘Seven years, if you want to know’”). It made perfect, if weirdly over-determined, sense. Every detail was accounted for. But although I had a great deal of sympathy for the insight and suspected it might have been accurate, I winced at the crudeness of its literalism, and referred the essay to another journal, something like the Journal of Family Psychology, or Trauma Studies, I can’t remember.  (I don’t think the Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies existed yet, nor did many journals on the subject that began to publish in the 2000s.) I always felt weird about turning it down, because I had witnessed and heard about cruel instances of denial and suspected my complicity in the “conspiracy of silence.”  But no, this is literature and literature avails itself of figures of speech, of which “metaphor” is perhaps the most ubiquitously invoked one. Lesson number one of Literature 101 is that literature is not reality. But what we mean by that, at least what I mean by it when I try to impress this on my young students, is that fictional characters are not real, and that Jane Eyre’s primary problem, contrary to a paper I received during my first semester of teaching in 1988, is not that that she did not accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior. In fact, Jane Eyre is a pair of proper nouns, not a person. Yes, we know this.  But the scenes and events and thoughts and emotions described in the novel have some relationship –though the jury will be forever out on the exact nature of this relationship — to the interiority of the writer, to the experience of women like her in her era, and to the language that is the psychic, temporal and spatial seam between them and us.

At the same time, I had been for some years considering metaphor in the context of the text/textile nexus. Starting in the late 1980s in conversations with Frieda Knobloch, then an American Studies doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, in which we (each of whom had a textile practice) bemoaned academic feminist literary and other humanistic scholars’ appropriation of textile metaphors without any sense of what they were actually talking about. “Broken tapestries,” “weaving/ braiding/knitting our stories,” “the voice of the shuttle” –do they even know what a shuttle is, let alone how it sounds as it shoots across the warp (though of course Philomena was not working on a loom on which the shuttle would merely shoot across; working on an upright tapestry loom, she would have been far more involved in detailed manipulation of the weft than most modern Jacquard looms and their shuttles allow). Even the assumption that textile labor was ubiquitously and eternally associated with the feminine was flawed.  Need I add that Frieda and I identified as feminists ourselves; but we were sharply aware of the nostalgia, mystification, and unhelpful romanticizing embedded in these glib uses of metaphors of manual labor on the part of cerebral workers who asserted their presumed superiority by the very appropriation of actual practices as mere metaphors. In exploring the ways in which textual thinkers often use textile metaphors, with the help of paleo-linguist E.J.W. Barber’s writing about textiles (her major works on the subject are the scholarly Prehistoric Textiles and its trade complement Women’s Work: The First Twenty Thousand Years), I realized that the relationship is not metaphoric in origin, though it has come to operate metaphorically in many modern texts. Beyond the obvious etymological connection embedded in the proximity of the words “text” and “textile,” the connection was material. (And perhaps from here on in, the word “material” is a better descriptor of what I sense embedded in textuality than the word “literal”.) When human material culture emerged, I learned from Barber, the same materials were used for making clothing as for surfaces for inscription: hides, plant matter, pliable or malleable surfaces…  Papyrus or other flora beaten to pulp or otherwise processed and transformed into coverings and pages. Colored threads embedded in tapestries told stories of historical events to the illiterate. Clay was used for housing and for various forms of inscription. Etc. Pens and needles bear a striking resemblance –they are indeed miniature weapons, as the word “shuttle”’s etymology cites. There was no text/textile divide: neither was subordinated to the other. Nor did textile precede text. Ornamentation, inscription, surfaces, shelter, were contemporaneous in origin and similar in purpose.

Are my strokes too broad?

I’m making the point that text and textile, lover and beloved, spirit and body, were not and are not separate. Metaphor and material are not separate. Textual materialism works in two (at least) directions. There is still only simultaneity, though over time the cerebral workers ascended in social importance. Manual workers and their work were repressed (gendered, classed as artisans, slaves, wives or laborers) and their labor taken for granted in the presence of the writing surface itself, but diegetically indicated only as metaphors.   

As I walked to the G train, arguing with myself about the status of the literal in literary interpretation, and scolding myself alternately for being simpleminded on the one hand and afraid to embrace the obvious on the other, the phrase “metaphor is the return of the repressed” started to repeat itself in my mind.  I thought about MacGowan’s ghosts yearning to be re-united with their rotting bodies, and text yearning to be re-embraced by the warmth of textile-based papers, vellum, papyrus, palm leaves, or still-malleable clay. I thought of words wanting to caress and be caressed by the things they point to, as well as by the sounds their inscriptions represent. I thought of some unhappy family history and how fifty-plus years on it was now resurfacing in strange, oblique ways that displaced responsibility and precipitated “acting out” versus “working through,” though during the eight or so years I was acutely trying to understand Iggy Pop I came to see the interpenetration of those two behavioral vectors in the artistic practice of sublimation. It was cruel, even if one was somehow responsible for the perpetration, to be divided from one’s material history, or even one’s materiality tout court.  

The words that resounded obsessively in my head on the way to the G train were “metaphor is the return of the repressed.” I was headed to dinner with a friend, not even sure I could go through with it in the wake of this intensity. On my return I googled the sentence and discovered it attributed to Jacques Lacan. Okay, if I’m going to be scooped by someone it better be by someone “good.” I never dreamed that Lacan would be important to me. And maybe that’s the only thing I need him for.  Had I ever in fact read that passage of Lacan? Not that I recall. In fact I’m almost certain I didn’t. My first encounter with Lacan was on a “gap year” in Paris after high school. My teacher there, a Montaigne scholar, was crazy about Lacan and attended his weekly seminars and encouraged his students to do likewise. Still reeling and only half-present because of my father’s death a few months earlier, I wasn’t about to undertake anything extracurricular, and took my teacher’s enthusiasm for this psychoanalyst as exciting but somewhat eccentric. We read parts of Ecrits I, where I assuredly would not have encountered that sentence in English.  But this moment of haunting indicates both the presence of my father in this nexus, as it’s impossible to think about that year in France without re-entering the daze I stumbled through in 1973-74, and the “law of the father” Lacan himself, whom I thought I understood in France at eighteen (turns out later I got “langue” and “parole” exactly backwards), but found completely opaque and inaccessible eight years later in grad school, in English translation, and in the canon, and hence never paid too much attention to beyond “the unconscious is structured like a language,” the concept of unfulfillable desire, and something called the Real, which I took, at eighteen, and perhaps now, to be an index of some level of mysticism underlying his work. So he enters, himself a ghostly signifier, when I need him. “Les non-dupes errent.” Eventually, Lacan abandoned the idea that the repressed was the signified and said it could only be another signifier, ad infinitum. That’s okay. That works as an infinite regress of signification. And that suggests something more: that my desire to find a resting place of certainty is an index of the flawed nature of “insight” itself. About which more later.

Thanks for your patience with this plodding plot, this doddering confessional through the shallows of lit crit 101 and the crackpot crudités of one learning to think with her hands.

So, dear Jacket2 readers (yeah, there’s a clothing/book nexus for ya), here’s a jacket whose reading will inscribe you in asemic, gendered ornamentation and madness … the handiwork of Agnes Richter (1844-1918), a German seamstress who, during her residence as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, sewed (created) and then embroidered (thread-wrote upon) indecipherable language on the garment –most of the “writing” is on the inside of the jacket, close to/continuous with her skin…

Stay weirdly out-of-tune(d).