Dangerous intimacy

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Review of Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Quadrant (Australia), 46 (October 2002).

In his later years, Henry James liked to dictate his books to an amanuensis rather than writing them himself. His last secretary was Theodora Bosanquet. They worked well together and Bosanquet remained in James’s employment until his death in 1916. She went on to have her own literary career, wrote a memoir of Henry James, books on Harriet Martineau and Paul Valéry, and was literary editor of the journal Time and Tide. But in 1933 she found herself taking dictation again, somewhat against her will. James, Meredith, Hardy, and Galsworthy, all deceased, appeared at a séance to announce that they needed a secretary. Bosanquet would have to cut back on her own writing to concentrate on theirs.

Bosanquet was less surprised by this commission than we might expect. As a regular participant in séances and an active member of the Society for Psychical Research, she was used to communications from the dead. She spent much of the 1930s trying to balance her own writing with the demands of late authors who clamoured for her services from the other side. Bosanquet took ghostly dictation several times a day, and left an enormous archive of her automatic writing.

Bosanquet’s archive is one of several fascinating sources explored by Pamela Thurschwell in Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The book is a literary and cultural history which reads the ways in which three different forces – three diverse strands of thought and activity – intersected and shaped one another at the turn of the twentieth century. One topic is the pervasion of new communications technologies such as the telephone and telegraph into everyday life; the second is the deep interest in telepathy and other occult phenomena and the activities of the Society for Psychical Research; and the third is the emergence of psychoanalysis and other new psychologies.

These separate but related subjects are traced through an impressive range of writings: literary works such as Stoker, Dracula (1897), Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Du Maurier, Trilby (1894), J. MacLaren Cobban’s forgotten Master of his Fate (1890), Rudyard Kipling, “Wireless” (1902), James, “In the Cage” (1898) and his First World War propaganda, along with Bosanquet’s diary and automatic writings, and the psychoanalytic writings of Freud and Ferenczi. Thurschwell traces the ways in which these works talk to one another, colour one another, and affect each other’s view of the world. It is the history of an intimate relationship among writings. And it is a history of a specific phase in the changing story of intimacy. For Thurschwell, intimacy becomes several conflicting things during this period: a commodity costed by the word in the telegraphy office; an object of scientific study for sexologists, psychical researchers and psychologists; a means for healing in the psychoanalyst’s consulting room. These conflicts are played out in much literature of the period, and Thurschwell helps us to recover a sense of the sheer strangeness of these works.

Many recent critics have traced the shifts in the understanding of sexuality in the late nineteenth century. Literature and other writings of the time show for example the ways in which male homosexuality – a practice as old as humankind – became defined in new ways during this period, not least as a result of the trial of Oscar Wilde. Perhaps for the first time in human history, homosexuality became not simply a practice or a pleasure, but an identity. The consequences of this shift continue to be played out today in debates over gay rights, needs, and identities. All this has been explored by historians such as Jeffery Weeks (Sex, Politics and Society, 1981) and various literary critics over the past two decades.

Thurschwell offers new ways of thinking about these historical questions, and shifts the focus from sexuality to intimacy, an altogether more mysterious phenomenon. What is intimacy? The OED tells us that the word refers to the deepest, most inward, essential aspects of human relationships or human feelings. It is also used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The adjective intimate refers to something “proceeding from or concerning or affecting one’s inmost self”. In the early twentieth century, the word was taken up by commerce to refer to women’s underclothing – intimate apparel – the metaphor shifting from the inside to the surfaces of the body, whilst remaining tantalisingly secretive and hidden.

For Thurschwell, the relationship between the lesbian Bosanquet and the gay man Henry James involved a particularly interesting kind of intimacy. While there was perhaps a sexual element in this friendship, the real closeness took place in two minds. Mental or psychic closeness, James suggests, can sometimes be more intimate, more exhilarating, more satisfying – and more disturbing – than physical or sexual contact. In this case, intimacy was enacted through the transmission of words. The secretary is like the medium at a séance. Words pass through her mind and out via her fingertips on to the page.

Assuming that James did not really speak to Theodora Bosanquet from beyond the grave, his posthumous dictation presumably came from within her own mind. Bosanquet writes some plausibly long-winded Jamesian sentences. But are the words and the syntax his, or hers; who is the source of an utterance? This in turn raises questions about the extent to which we are affected by the consciousness of other people. How do we dwell within one another; where are the borders of one’s identity; how does one know one’s own mind?

And how is it that other people’s words can invade and destroy us? Freud notes in his study of Daniel Paul Schreber (author of Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, 1903) that one of Schreber’s most frightening delusions was the sense that he was being entered by rays of language, forces which threatened to annihilate his personality completely. Later in the century, the young Portnoy in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) is so pervaded by his mother’s overpowering character that when he goes to school, he is convinced that all his teachers are his mother in disguise. When he gets home, she is always there before him, solicitous with snacks and questions about his day. Portnoy answers very carefully for, after all, she already knows. Her words and her personality penetrate his consciousness, like an occupying army.

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Thurschwell traces the ways in which new technologies of communication entered into our ideas about intimacy in the late nineteenth century and continue to shape them up to the present day. Fantasies of ever-closer communication across time and space have developed alongside increasing isolation and estrangement in our daily lives. But a fantasy is not merely a delusion; it has a real if complex relationship to external things. Our interior, psychic world is the place of fantasy, and it has its own reality which in turn affects the ways in which we live and interact with the outside world.

Thurschwell is a marvellous guide through the labyrinths of psychoanalytic thinking of the early twentieth century; she has also written a wonderful introductory book on Freud (Routledge, 2000). She explains difficult concepts with admirable clarity and good humour, reading through and across diverse writings and showing how they shed light upon one another. One of the most fascinating chapters examines the relationship between Freud and Sandor Ferenczi (1873–1933). Ferenczi’s late work, Thurschwell notes, explores the ways in which people who are abused as children sometimes take in the experience so deeply that they identify with, introject, and even speak in the voice of the attacking adult. Whose desires, then, are they speaking? These are extreme cases, and real ones, but they also suggest how the common childhood experiences of being undermined, criticised too harshly, verbally demolished, and so forth, take up residence in the internal world. Adults then re-enact their own childhood pain and humiliation with the next generation, unwittingly passing on their worst hurts to their children, as Alice Miller points out in The Drama of Being a Child (1979).

Ferenczi has an uneasy place in the history of the psychoanalytic movement. He was too eccentric, too radical – some would say almost deranged, and inclined to get sexually involved with some patients. But this is precisely why he is interesting, argues Thurschwell; his “most innovative technical and theoretical speculations are inseparable from the fact that he was ‘deranged’ and seduced his patients.” To put it more temperately, she says, Ferenczi used an “active technique,” taking on the roles the patient suggested in an attempt to reach the unconscious forces at work. Sometimes this included providing physical contact if a patient desired it. Most psychoanalysts would regard this as unethical, crossing borders which should remain inviolable. This risky strategy is not good or even acceptable clinical practice, but for Thurschwell it none the less makes an important conceptual point. Ferenczi pushed at the boundaries of psychoanalysis, trying to find new and deeper ways for people to communicate. The illnesses which take people to an analyst are profoundly isolating, and Ferenczi’s unconventional methods were an attempt to reach his patients across the immense distance of their psychic distress. Alongside this, Ferenczi was fascinated by contemporary experiments in thought transference and other occult activities, hoping that they might provide useful tools for psychoanalysis. We dismiss such ideas now, but they were a genuine attempt to find ways of making contact with deeply disturbed patients, to be with them in their terrible loneliness.

Freud, by contrast, wanted to make a clear distinction between psychoanalysis and psychical research, and he was opposed to Ferenczi’s interest in the occult. Psychoanalysis was a science of sexuality; it wanted no truck with spooks. Yet there are uneasy parallels both in patients’ symptoms and in psychoanalytic treatment which refuse to go away. Even in ordinary life, a person in love is like a person possessed; emotional and sexual desires are, in their effects, uncannily similar to the demonic, remarks Thurschwell. As Adam Phillips argues, “sexuality and the unconscious were the new, scientifically prestigious words for the occult, of that which is beyond our capacity for knowledge, for the weird, unaccountable effects people have on each other.” The sheer peculiarity of human relationships might seem to call for supernatural knowledge; science will never be enough.

As Thurschwell concludes, “what the supernatural and the erotic have in common is the ways in which fears, anxieties, desires – the meat and potatoes of psychoanalysis – emerge from questions of proximity and distance.” What is our relation to other minds and other bodies; what kinds of closeness are pleasurable, what disturbing? If a person’s mind or body is invaded in childhood, what happens to the boundaries of their identity; how do they later experience sexual pleasure and sexual anxiety? What if the invasion is fantasised as well as real? To put it another way; “How close is too close?”

This discussion is a tour de force, as are many other sections of the book. Thurschwell writes with an academic audience in mind, but this book can be enjoyed by any serious reader interested the cultural history of the late nineteenth century. It provides new readings of fin de siecle literature, and gives us greater understanding of the ideas which were to shape our knowledge of the human psyche throughout the twentieth century.

Review of Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Quadrant (Australia), 46 (October 2002). Copyright (c) Trudi Tate 2002.

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