A speakable evil

[this is a response, or an approximation of what I said in response, to a lecture my friend Erik gave on Dead of Night  in our British Horror class.  What he had to say was seriously good, but until we set up our collective horror blog - I'll take suggestions for a snappy title, though I'm partial to A Nasty Piece of Work - you get my side only.  Also, videos work if you let them run past their self-imposed initial blackening.  If anyone can tell me how to get them to actually work as they're supposed to, I will owe you many things.]


Like science fiction and pornography, psychoanalysis has at least two basic modes: soft and hard.  Unlike the former, it isn't a question of scientific accuracy or nerded-out technical detail.  And unlike the latter, it isn't about whether you see and hear what you damn well know is going on or if palm fronds and fuzzy lighting and hot sax keep it supposedly vague.  (Although like both cases, the question of the techniques of revelation, and the related attempt to zero in on the "things themselves" is, of course, at the fore.)

Rather, to take an opposition that isn't a real one (and one that's particularly fraught in terms of a hard/soft metaphor, particularly given that we're talking psychoanalysis and as such, I don't want to further correlate a masculinist hard = rigorous and reasonable, soft = vague and emotive), I want to point toward these modes of psychoanalysis around which Dead of Night is largely centered.

That's to say that there's a soft psychoanalysis, which may be very rigorous and exposing indeed, yet which is ultimately concerned with the bolstering of the image of the subject as willful and coherent.

And there's a hard psychoanalysis, which may be sloppy and figurative and obscure, yet which is ultimately concerned with the dismantling of that same image.

(Not to say that either mode cannot fail deeply and swerve its results toward the other: it's not hard to imagine an analysis that may very well take down the most cherished fantasies - that is, the basic ones, the fantasy structure of coherency and directed desire on which the more particular ones about whips and desert islands and ventriloquists come from - yet to which the analyzed subject says: yes, but I still feel coherent!  How much more of a triumph am I, who can still know about the dark sludge of everything, and yet still go about my business!  Or in reverse, the one "working through" symptoms, paths of desire, everything, who actually uncovers something so unfathomably nasty and counter to kind of subject she thinks she was that the result is a total breaking down from which it's near impossible to regain any semblance of being the same subject as before: my God, could it have been me who ever thought that, who ever wanted that...

Such an opposition is not meant to designate rigid forms of differentiated practice, but rather a set of goals, horizons, tendencies, spoken or otherwise.)

For the first, for "soft" analysis, the struggles of the subject, and the struggle to become the subject that you were supposed to be all along, are oriented around the tension between necessity (meaning here the sense of a world that has to be that way, or even the constellation of psychological forces that we seemingly don't choose) and will (the subject's voluntary attempt to intervene in the order of that world and to control/work through those symptoms).

As Craig, our dreamer/protagonist/murderer, puts it:

I feel my will power draining away.  I feel I'm in the grip of a force that's driving me towards something unspeakably evil.

In Dead of Night, the failed attempt to wrest control of the dream, the consequent terrible slide toward the inevitable, is alternately, will's hijacking (the "unspeakable evil" posseses him and gives him the will to murder) or diminishment in the face of an inhuman necessity, initially resistant but worn down by forces and logics (and Scotch and lots of stories and insistent complicity in keeping him around "against his will").

This is the perspective shared equally by the house's shared belief in the supernatural (cue the recurrent chorus of "we believe your dream was real" and the badgering of the Doctor for being the "Great Debunker") and the kind of shrink they think the Doctor should be.

In both ways, there's a double assumption of the "unspeakable" which collapse in both cases into a simple desire to make it otherwise: either the influence of those other worldly forces (which, of course, turn out to be deeply speakable, if anything threatened by the prospect of an analysis that would break the cycle of endless story telling, of talking it through, trading yarns, getting a bit excited and creeped out about your experiences with the beyond) or the tugs and pulls of the unconscious, which, in the kind of analysis they ultimately push Craig towards, is very much something to be spoken of, leaving him alone with the Doctor, to finally air those symptoms.  It is that to which they, not a "force," push him from the start, building up the fantasy to the point that all that unspeakable is ready to come out, when Craig can get his talking cure and rejoin them in their pseudo-normalcy.

However, until that moment, where he gets shut up once and for all, until Craig dreams it all over again and gets to snuff out his commentary again, ad infinitum, the Doc is tracking out that other hard mode, that goes in reverse.  It is entirely speakable from the start.  It speaks of, and brings about, deflations of prized notions, the stabbing balloon-pop of the big egos in the room (and it is full to bursting), the naming what's blatantly the unacknowledged case, and above all, the coming-to-pieces of the idea that you are in fact the lodestone of those forces supernatural or psychosexual, that your own symptoms or the ones that come between you and others are still your property, still your own private fuck-up, still the thing for you and you alone to talk through, that the solution to shared problems is back in the preciously tortured depths of the individual.  And as much as they've been asking for it, they certainly don't want to hear it.


A significant portion of the frame story centers around this repeated invitation and avoidance, pushing up to the point where he will pronounce his analysis and judgment, and then scrambling to mock and disavow it, pretending that his quite clear explanation [even if it the situation it describes isn't really "cryptoamnesia," or at least not in any discernible way] or denouncing him as a mystery-less scientist who just won't get it, the kind of character who, in endless later films, will "get it" by the forces of darkness, or at least become a drooling blown-mind fool, because of not heeding the signs that the world is a place that can't be explained.

If we are to track out hard psychoanalysis, at least as modeled here in its brief pre-shushed incarnation, it substitutes that non-dialectic of necessity and will with a

chance (which is still determining, and may appear utterly "deterministic," but in which case the determination happens to you without particular cause: even that which you couldn't avoid begins by a chance encounter)

and desire (in which it is desire that constrains, not the will to cut against that world or an expression of who you are via how you want, but rather, the operation that tries to produce the illusion of choice and cause by doing exactly the opposite, by instituting a set of constraints about what kind of things a kind of person like you is supposed and allowed to want, all set over a realm of indifferent objects that don't particularly return the favor)

What I want to venture, however,  is that the work of this kind of perspective and analysis, and the subsequent battled we see against the guests' scornful shutting it down, isn't ultimately a disabusing, disenchanting Enlightenment rationalism set against the pre-critical, willfully ignorant, and petty bourgeois illusions of those in the house.  Moreover, it isn't about competing conceptions of individuals.  It's about an insistence on collectivity foreclosed from the start by the task of soft psychoanalysis and which is raised by the hard mode to hang uncertainly.

Take the Haunted Mirror episode, which brings about the fiercest badgering of the Doctor and his diagnosis of cryptoamnesia.


Of all that can be said, three short points.

1.  Her comment, "it's the mirror, that's why I came back", carries an odd weight with it, an other tinge, as if to say: well, actually, I do want to leave you, because you've become an intolerable shit, but it turns out it may just be a haunted mirror!  In which case, she is doubly invested in the mirror being that instance of evil incarnate: she needs it to be the case.

2.  He is markedly absent in the return to the frame tale, and we're given to assume that the marriage in fact did not happen.  Which means that, in a perverse way, he got what he seems to have wanted all along, and, more crucially, she (or they) don't really believe that the mirror was the problem.  If it was just the influence of the mirror, then all should be returned to normal. And perhaps it is, insofar as "normal" between them seems to be constraining, mutually cold and perfunctory, fidgety, and not much fun at all.

3.  She did see it, though, the other room, and that - the segment signals for us - is the horror of it.  Not that he may or may not be possessed, that it may or may not be in his mind, not even that he may strangle his wife in a fit of evil or madness, but that what was the province of a single subject bleeds over to another, that there's room for another in that dark room.

All this is to say that: Given that we don't really accept that the mirror was haunted (not because we're skeptics, but taken on the grounds the film gives us internally, of the non-marriage to follow, and the fact that despite their chirpy support throughout the film of belief in the supernatural, no one actually really seems to buy it: their consolation of her has more of a pitying recognition that a relationship went to hell, not that you stared into the abyss of black forces),  given all this, we're looking at a film in which strangling your wife in front of a haunted mirror may in fact have nothing to do either with the supernatural or with issues of personal subjectivity and fraught choices.  (A different kind of psychology might advocate a transindividual neuronal or chemical fuck up, which is a whole other question, but not particularly pertinent to the world sketched in Dead.)  It may be, worst of all, a common symptom, and one that perhaps doesn't start with issues you have with each other, or in the realm of either subject.  Perhaps it's a joint neuronal fuck up.

Really, though, it is in the common space of neither subject.  It is what cannot be located in the "wood and glass" in the cold feet or in some absent trauma.   It is the space itself of the non-marriage that hangs and reeks in the air when we return to the frame story.

The disavowal of the common, that belongs to no one, which here appears mostly in negative relief as something unavoidable but nasty as hell, can be schematized as follows:

it's all well and good for one person to be totally nuts or be a pervert

- it's all well and good for one person to see ghosts or be gripped by a supernatural force that compels him to evil 

- it's all even fine for that one person to be explained, and made to talk his own explanation, in a viciously cold and deterministic way, even at the expense of his own shattering

- it's quite OK to go nuts together, provided that we're dealing with premonitions and supernatural that is not only "unspeakable" but outside of the realm of the social, the historical

- but it is decisively not OK to conceive that we go nuts together, become perverts together, act badly together, act at all in any way together, on the grounds that we're just in the grip of one another, in the company of others, that the common is both method of transmission and root cause

[Want to swerve off into a brief, partially related, interlude here for golfing story:


First, worth noting is the remarkable instrumentalization: "that's what you're here for..."

Aside from the fact that Parratt is a twit and that Mary is never given even a semblance of desire in the film (willingly being the prize of the golf game between the buffoons), even as that foreclosure of her has more to do with the particularity of who is narrating the story rather than the film itself, even given all this, there's something deeply odd in how they act before they go off to, supposedly consummate the marriage.  (The homoeroticism of the whole episode, here in Parratt's somewhat bashful and nervous reaction to the prospect of Potter - the real other half of this not-very-odd-couple - being there when he has mediocre sex with his wife, goes largely without saying.  It's not a subtext - it's just there.)  Namely, she supposedly cannot see Potter.  Yet the way in which she "excuses" herself is decidedly the kind of thing done when a couple wants to sneak away from the crowd to go fuck without really saying so.  Yeah, I'll just head to bed.  Oh, you're tired too?  I'll see you later.  Good night everyone...  It isn't what you say alone with the other.  She seems as aware of Potter as Parratt does.

Here too, in the "comedy" story of the film, the threat isn't just the intervention of the supernatural (you and your will battle it out, and lose, to forces beyond your control and comprehension, even if here this basically means that a ghost beds your wife, in a brutal ending of rape - by an invisible specter, no less - that cannot be covered over by the group's laughter about the "saucy tale."  Rather, it's the way in which she is "in on it" is the joke version of what seems to be the case elsewhere, namely that the demarcational lines between subjects, and between their fields of perception, are a lot murkier than we would like them to be, and with this, the creeping dread that we never can tell just how many are in on it and to what degree that "it" was ever a private occasion.]

The shutting up of the doctor, the swerve into "one man's nightmare" and madness, into it all being in his head, can't fully paper over the strangeness of this assemblage of people, this house of others.  Over the questionof why all these people are here, other than a roaring back into view of what is certainly not just in his head, the unspoken sense of this being a WWII film, that they may have had to get the hell out of the city, away from the war, from the blitz.

And more than that, it carries with it longer echoes in both directions.  To The Decameron, when the telling of stories amongst the rich in a location away from the city is a distraction from the ravaging plague and the sense that there may be no world to go back to.  And to the "cozy catastrophe" scenarios of post-apocalyptic fiction, after there is nothing to go back to, when all you have left is this collective that has no logic other than the fact that it persists.  The reason Craig - an architect - is called to the house is to build more rooms, to make permanent this temporary coalition, who seems indeed to be waiting out the storm or unsure what to do after the flood.  They drink a lot, they smoke a lot, they decide to become believers in the supernatural, and above all, they don't talk about what they're doing there, why they're sleeping there.  Why they're building more rooms even as they hold off confrontation both with the incoherence of the group and with the analysis that will end it once and for all.  It is for this that Craig is called to do, to throttle the possibility of making speakable what is really unspeakable, that we exist as a we that does not cohere, that has no natural reason for being, and which penetrates all spaces, from the rooms that won't be built to the stories that never were.

So the problem with the Doc - and with this incarnation of hard psychoanalysis - was never that he's too scientific or cold or hard to understand.  It's this possibility of a thought of the collective, something rarely followed through on in most psychoanalysis of any type, which really can think of the individual, the couple, and perhaps triangulation, but which falls apart when asked to consider the many not immediately circumscribed by the private and the personal.

As of the golfer there on the sofa, the other room in the mirror, the dummy standing between two men, there's always a third.  Yet given what the hearse driver/bus driver says, just room for one more may turn out to be comforting in that way, that the series will stop, just up to 3, that perhaps the couple isn't alone, but that it can be counted, the influences and forces and grips can be voiced, limited.

Against this, an other mode of analysis seems to say, with a sticking tongue, always room for one more. The set will always expand, and you will build more rooms, and you have been doing so even without knowing it, waiting for it, to see the few become the many, even as we shudder and hold it off, back to the impossible of the one and only.


watts_tower said...

"They drink a lot, they smoke a lot, they decide to become believers in the supernatural, and above all, they don't talk about what they're doing there, why they're sleeping there. Why they're building more rooms even as they hold off confrontation both with the incoherence of the group and with the analysis that will end it once and for all. It is for this that Craig is called to do, to throttle the possibility of making speakable what is really unspeakable, that we exist as a we that does not cohere, that has no natural reason for being, and which penetrates all spaces, from the rooms that won't be built to the stories that never were."!

Ben said...

Wait, collective horror blog?