Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A psychical complex of the most intricate possible structure. - a Freudian reading of Lady Audley's Secret - no, not like that, but still Freudian

I will repeat a couple of fragments of Lady Audley’s Secret:

“My lady's portrait stood on an easel, covered with a green baize in the center of the octagonal chamber.” (I.VIII)

“The green-baize covered card-table was adorned with…”  (II.VIII, 130 pages later)

The “green baize” is mentioned several times in the novel, mostly as an accessory of the portrait.  The reader of the novel knows that the portrait plays an important part in the uncovering of Lady Audley’s secret.  In the second passage, an amateur detective is also searching for clues to the secret, and is about to find an important one.  But the presence of a common color and type of cloth is just a coincidence for the detective.  Even if he unconsciously associates that cloth with Lady Audley, its presence in someone else’s house can hardly be meaningful.

 It is only the attentive reader who can perceive the association, who sees the trace of Lady Audley.  What is meaningless in crowded reality is meaningful in spartan fiction.  It is not a coincidence for me, or for the author, who picked these particular descriptive details out of many possibilities.

Or perhaps Braddon did not create this connection purposefully, but only by chance, without thinking about it.  But she might, then, have picked the green baize unconsciously.  After all, she is the one who has been repeatedly associating Lady Audley with the green baize, going so far as to write out the words several times.  So it is no surprise when, casting about for furnishings for this room where Lady Audley had once been, the phrase “green baize” pops into her head.

In Sigmund Freud’s 1901 essay “On Dreams” (a summation of the 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams written for slackers like me), a dream is described as

a psychical complex of the most intricate possible structure.  Its portions stand in the most manifold logical relations to one another: they represent foreground and background, conditions, digressions and illustrations, chains of evidence and counter-arguments.  Each train of thought is almost invariably accompanied by its contradictory counterpart. (60)

“He is describing fiction,” I thought to myself, not just dream-fiction but all of it.  We use some different vocabulary – replace “contradictory counterpart,” for example, with “ambiguity and irony.”  I want to doctor this one, too:

The restoration of the connections which the dream-work [fiction] has destroyed [concealed] is a task which has to be performed by the work of analysis [reading]. (60)

But this is almost perfect as is:

An immediate transformation of one thing into another in a dream seems to represent the relation of cause and effect.  (61)

Lady Audley is transformed into green felt, just for a moment.  How strange that I, that a good reader of fiction, can follow Braddon’s nonsensical dream-logic.

The Freud quotations are all from the Standard Edition, Volume V, tr. James Strachey.


  1. This is excellent, as was the stuff about the angles yesterday.

    Gardner wrote about "the fictional dream," which I think matches up nicely with Freud here. A writer can't help but get stray bits of one scene/character mixed in with other scenes/characters. The best writers will let it happen and follow their own trails of fingerprints around the narrative. A too-controlling writer will cut all of these unintended overlaps, removing accidental mysteries, diminishing the work.

  2. I think you are describing the kind of process Nabokov followed, to jump straight to the highest possible level. The final text reveals a complete mastery of every element of the fiction, but most of the pieces were discovered in the process of writing, not hatched from the egg.

    Inventiveness is itself a valuable and rare talent, but I believe the kind of artistic sense you describe is rarer.

    I have Nabokov on my mind in part because he uses dreams so often, many of them featuring subtle parodies of Freudianism. But in the sense I am talking about here, SF and VN are pretty close.

  3. I would claim that Chekhov and Dostoyevski also had this sort of artistic sense, though Chekhov lacked VN's sense of the narrative as a skilled high-wire performance (and his stories were usually too short--and written too quickly--to allow this sort of process of discovery) and Dostoyevski lacked the discipline to organize; his novels include not only his sprawling narrative canvas, but also the dirty brushes and still-wet dropcloth.

    The novel I just drafted has at its core the idea that there is no difference within one's mind between memory, imagination, fantasy and fact. All of it appears to be equal and so all of it belongs in any story we tell, even a supposedly true story. Also, none of it presents itself to inquiry or imagination in any sort of order. Which is just a way of rephrasing your "discovered" comment.

    Nabokov's description of the writer/father character in The Defense coming upon a new way of creating a story at the end of his career (thinking first about symbols and colors and then, maybe, about character and plot), is a nice partial example of this process, I think.

  4. Good choices - with Dostoyevsky, it sometimes seems like it is all instinct - but what instinct!

    That novel of yours sounds like it was influenced by Schopenhauer. Now that I am reading Schopenhauer, everything seems like it was influenced by Schopenhauer. It is like I have been bit by a venomous snake.

    I will bet you are right about The Defense, although that is as likely to be self-parody as actual method.