The fascinating brain of teen girls

I don’t really know much about the brain of teen girls. As a man, the female psyche must on some level remain for me, as it was for Freud, “a dark continent” (The Question of Lay Analysis, 1926). Freud was prescient enough to know that the mechanisms he studied were the objective mechanisms of identity formation — not the subjective experience itself (the dark continent). He was also progressive enough to warn his fellow analysts against “underestimating the influence of social customs” in discussions of gender and to emphasize that “the proportion in which masculine and feminine are mixed in an individual is subject to quite considerable fluctuations” (Essay on Femininity, 1933).

But enough about Freud. After all the psychology and philosophy and literature I’ve read, I think my daughter (I believe 14 at the time) most succinctly expressed, by accident one day, exactly what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We were wandering a city in Spain — Barcelona, Madrid, I forget which city — and were in a green space filled with monuments. I had momentarily lost her, and then I heard her voice near a monument and came back up to her.

“Hey there. What ya doing?” I asked her.

“Singing. And thinking about how weird I look.”

She tossed the line off casually, but I thought that that was it. The rich and contradictory inner life of the teenage girl in a nutshell.

Now I welcome feedback from those of you who actually were teenage girls (and from those of you who weren’t — unlike some of my younger liberal friends, I reject all restrictions on what you are allowed to say, think, or do, based on your demographic identity).

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses

From Depth Psychology to the Akashic Record

It’s commonplace now to hear how modern physics increasingly dovetails with the ancient world view of the Eastern mystics. If this is true of our evolving conception of the objective universe and how it works, it is also true in the vast space of the subjective universe, the space of the psyche.

Before Freud, you had “faculty psychology,” which seemed well seated upon the Western classical world view – a symmetrical row of nice, neat boxes, each representing a “faculty” (appetite, emotion, desire, reason, etc.). Freud’s theories signaled a paradigm shift to “depth psychology,” with layers of unconscious drives and desires and memories folded beneath our conscious awareness, influencing our everyday behavior from invisible, forgotten spaces in the depths of the psyche.

“Depth psychology” is still the dominant paradigm for the psyche, and even Freud’s attackers draw upon Freud for their weapons, but his breakaway student, Jung, expanded the “depth” of depth psychology. Freud’s locus of interest is the individual psyche, and his case histories typically trace back antecedents of adult behaviors to the formative infantile development of the individual. Jung traces the roots of the psyche deeper still, to a place that transcends the individual altogether; hence we get the universal archetypes of the collective unconscious, a deep space of psychic phenomena shared by us all. You can think of it as our common grazing land, or if you prefer a high-tech metaphor, it’s the “cloud” wherein our fundamental data are stored and from which we all download to configure our own machinery. Either way it is here, in this transcendentally deep “subjective inner world,” that Jung finds “the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.”

It’s a short stretch from Jung to the akashic record of the mystics. The akashic record in the Eastern mythos is the record of everything normally considered past, present, and future (in our clumsy linear sense of time). Every thought, every movement of every leaf, is contained in this vast database, as it were. But the akashic record is more than a database. It is the ultimate reality. All our daily actions are reflections of, or abstractions from, the akashic record. We are right now living the akashic record, experiencing it from one orientation point. Through yoga, meditation, or other spiritual practices, you can almost picture your self-reflection carrying you down to the Freudian depth of childhood and then infancy, then breaking through to the Jungian depth of the collective unconscious, and finally arriving at the level we metaphorically call the akashic record. At this point, we’ve not only carried depth psychology to a point where Western psychology merges with Eastern mysticism, but we’ve inadvertently married the “objective” and “subjective” universes that provided the point of departure in the opening paragraph of this fine blog entry. Cosmic consciousness, as the very compound of the phrase suggests, simultaneously expresses ultimate reality in both its objective and subjective aspects. When you hit that ultimate depth, the inside becomes the outside, the innermost psyche finds itself expressed as the objective cosmos. So om mani padme hum, and I’ll see my physicist friends on the other side.

Tristram Shandy’s Faux Postmodernism

From time to time, my literati friends put forth Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) as if it were a postmodernist novel 200 years ahead of its time. This is understandable, considering all the reflexivity and discontinuities built into the structure of the text. But on the core issue of human identity, Sterne is no postmodernist.

Human identity, to the postmodern, is essentially fragmented, incoherent, all colliding and discordant surfaces without any stabilizing interior or deep anchor. Sterne may superficially anticipate these postmodern preferences, insofar as human identity in Shandy, more so than in contemporaries in the period from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen, is whimsically determined by each character’s hobbyhorse. Sterne, however, is a man of sentiment, and his sentimental world view is at odds with postmodernism’s intellectually austere view of human identity. In Sterne’s case, the sentimental side wins. Although human identity in Shandy may seem random, even infinitely displaced by hobbyhorsical identity, this arbitrariness is underwritten in the text by a sense of private identity. (And insofar as private identity is perhaps more “private” in Sterne than in other writers of his age, he may anticipate Freud more than he anticipates postmodernism per se.)  It may be true that once we get Uncle Toby’s “military apparatus out of the way . . . the world can have no idea how he will act,” but Tristram suggests that the reader has a clearer vision than “the world”: “You have seen enough of my Uncle Toby” to know his “singleness of heart . . . plainness and simplicity” (italics mine).  For those who would appropriate Sterne for postmodernism, it may be tempting to see no stable identity behind the hobbyhorse.  (Compare to my snippets on Gertrude Stein or Robbe-Grillet.) A careful reading, however, suggests that there is private human identity, and that it is urgent that we recognize it as such, despite appearances, for this private identity is the real locus of the sympathetic passions at the heart of the 18th-century Cult of Sensibility, of which we might call Sterne a charter member.

White Privilege and a Third Way on Race

Like many, I was amused by the recent Samuel L. Jackson interview flap, in which the interviewer asked Jackson about his super bowl ad. The problem was that it was Laurence Fishburne and not Jackson in that ad. As this opened the door to much twittering about racism that predictably generated more heat than light, I thought I’d carry my blog into the minefield of race. I say “minefield” because one false move in any direction and one is subjected to the vilest of condemnations, comparisons to Hitler, etc. – which is a true pity because it would help us all enormously if we could talk about it openly and freely, without being shamed into silence or charged as an unredeemable racist for every misstep or every deviation from the party line of the listener. And when it comes to stifling discussion on this topic, I find my liberal allies and my conservative friends “across the aisle,” as it were, equally culpable. My own views, I think will cause equal discomfort to both sides, and hence with luck might push dialectically toward a third way. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

It’s tempting to shame Jackson’s interviewer, Sam Rubin, for being a racist, but this would be a mistake on at least two levels.

First, we have no reason to believe that race was an operative factor in his faux pas. I often get actors mixed up, white and black, including Fishburne and Jackson in some of their shots. Of course, unlike me, Rubin is an entertainment reporter, and such a glaring mistake, whether the actors confused were white or black, is a serious faux pas. Even there, I sympathize, having made incredibly stupid mistakes myself from time to time, but if this proves part of a larger pattern, Rubin may need a new line of work.

Second, even if race were an operative factor – i.e., Rubin blurs black actors together more easily than white actors – shaming is not the best response. It is safe to assume that if Rubin’s stumble was race-related, this isn’t because blacks really look alike but rather that if one grows up day in and day out from infancy surrounded by white faces, one becomes better at picking up distinguishing cues of white faces.  Awkward, yes; racist, no. This is actually an iteration of a quite common scenario in our culture – and one that I believe my fellow progressives consistently mishandle. The scenario is this: Someone inadvertently expresses a racist structure, or what can function as a racist structure, with no bad intent. Certainly, Rubin did not intend to confuse the two black men, nor did he intend to suggest that black men all look alike. No one intends to jeopardize his career by presenting himself foolishly on public TV (Jerry Springer guests and reality TV stars excepted). To those who would promote racial harmony and equality, Sam Rubin is still a potential ally. Yes, he slipped (as we all do from time to time), but as far as we know his heart is in the right place. He is certainly not a lost cause, certainly not in the same camp as the white supremacist on Jerry Springer who speaks of blacks with bad intent.

So on to “shaming” as a form of corrective action. An unintentional slip may warrant a confidential follow-up, a little nudging combined with a willingness to hear the other side, but in general it doesn’t warrant shaming because shaming, in general, doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character.  I hold racial harmony and equality a dear goal, but I cringe when I see my progressive colleagues shaming white people who slip in the manner of Rubin, with no ill intent. There are enough people out there with racist intentions who deserve to be shamed. Why alienate potential allies because of an unintentional slip that exposes some racist tic of the culture or that is politically incorrect enough to be construed as racist? The bottom line is that shaming, the reinforcement of self-loathing, doesn’t build character for blacks and doesn’t build character for whites. Save it for the select few malicious racists who deserve it.  Lumping Rubin in with such freaks places the “us versus them” boundary line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side. (Although Gandhi and Mandela were famous for not writing off even avowed racists, I do not rule out “shaming” as a mechanism for dealing with those who spew racist views with expressly bad intent. But where there is no bad intention, shaming does more harm than good.)

So how do we break the ossified “us versus them” line? I’ll try to point a way out through a concept that has gotten quite a bit of traction recently in the public sphere: “white privilege.” “White privilege,” I could argue, is the breaking point of the current age of race relations. It is equally misused on both sides. To the standard conservative, “white privilege” is the crowning concept in a long line of liberal misconceptions about race. “What white privilege?” they ask. When policy issues addressing racial inequity appear, the standard conservative line argues that slavery ended 150 years ago, that blacks have the same opportunity as whites to work hard and climb the ladder – indeed blacks have greater opportunity, since they have all “our” freedoms plus affirmative action and set-asides and minority-owned business preferences, etc.

There is a certain logic to this, but upon a closer look that logic proves spurious and historically naïve. Africans were taken in chains, separated from all who spoke their own language, subjected to a multi-generational, cradle-to-grave, systematic attack on all human values, had spouses and children sold away in the middle of night, were forbidden education, literacy, or any other form of self-determined skill-building. Their condition was not “like the Irish immigrants,” as Bill O’Reilly idiotically likes to say.  You can’t one day say, “You’re free now,” and conclude that everyone, black and white, is suddenly at the same starting line. Since slavery, economic and educational conditions for blacks have never, in the aggregate, reached par with whites, this is a problem that public policy can and should address.

The standard liberal line on “white privilege” at first seems more innocuous. Whites have certain advantages in our society. No sane person can deny that whites, on average, have greater economic and educational resources at their disposal than blacks. Whites are more likely to be born into middle and upper classes than their black counterparts. This comes with certain privileges or advantages. People born into those classes have a level of access to education, jobs, contacts, visible role models, family safety nets, etc., that tend to keep them in those classes, not in every case, but in the aggregate.  The problem is that for liberals, “white privilege” has become a shaming device, a catalyst for self-loathing. The message all too often seems to be that whites (like me) should feel embarrassment and guilt for the advantages we and not others are born with. But self-loathing does not and never will build character. Not for blacks. Not for whites.

So the problem with “white privilege” is that both sides use it in a way that fetishizes the current, unproductive “us versus them” lines in the sand. We need to push off of both sides to a new position. Progressives have a point in the sense that blacks and whites are not and never since slavery have been at the same starting line. Conservatives have a point in that the introjection of racial guilt and shame about the history of slavery is not going to solve the problem. We become what we visualize. We need to visualize not guilt, not self-loathing in ourselves or others. We need to visualize a way out of the “us versus them” dilemma, a third way. The “third way,” when it appears on the horizon line, will involve all of us opening up, being more cognizant of the fact that we and our white and black interlocutors are all flawed, all make mistakes, but we are all in this together. We will put the self-loathing on both sides behind us. The third way will have us visualize harmony in our daily actions, to visualize it as if there is no other way, to envision ourselves and others as happy, fulfilled beings.  We need to acknowledge the historical basis of racial disparities and work out policy changes without inducing any collective shame and self-loathing. We can build something together but it involves getting on the same side in the tug of war … and cutting ourselves, our black and white neighbors, and Sam Rubin a little slack.

Song of Solomon/Sula

If you view these two Toni Morrison novels from a psychoanalytic perspective, an interesting distinction emerges. Song of Solomon, despite the everyday characters navigating everyday minefields, is essentially Jungian, an archetypal quest narrative, albeit one played out in the local coordinates of African-American culture, with other archetypal struggles about identity and authority and duality turning within that larger wheel. Sula is essentially Freudian, focused on deeply personal relationships of family, love, friendship, lives spent sorting out these domestic emotions, with small incidents from the past erupting in memory again and again until they punctuate and define one’s whole adult life. Both great books, but (for reasons unrelated to Freud versus Jung) for me Song of Solomon beats out Sula and the more famous Beloved as the novel in which Morrison best finds her own voice and as perhaps one of the five or six best novels in English.

Morrison’s Women

A sculptor friend, Thomas Morrison, privately commented on my “Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud”, lamenting the puritanical repression of the id, and my response led me to the following critique of his own exhibit, “The Art of Woman” (currently free and open daily at the old St. Vincent’s Orphanage at 1507 Magazine St in New Orleans).

In my appended comment to the Zeppelin blog, I noted that in the healthy sonic universe, as in the healthy psyche, the id, ego, and superego work symbiotically. With Morrison’s sculptures, we’re moored in a cultural universe rather than a sonic one. I appreciate the power that the id brings to that cultural universe, and I am no fan of puritanical repression; I am, however, thankful for some element of cultural superego, some formation that can harness the id’s primal, amoral drives to higher ideals and aspirations.

In the Zeppelin blog, I didn’t get into the policing function of the superego, but it is apparent in the Beatles’s “Revolution,” which is a check against revolutionary forces (like the Weather Underground) that could potentially become violent and counterproductive. This aligns “Revolution” with the Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” which overlays the same cautionary tale upon the cultural revolution of the 60s.

Morrison’s exhibit, a collection of cast bronze female nudes from Greek mythology, draws more from the Jungian model’s collective unconscious, which doesn’t correspond neatly to the Freudian schema. The collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche which houses the three Freudian zones, but if we extrapolate Freud to the cultural level, I’d say that classical mythology is a collision of the cultural id with the cultural superego, as untamed cosmic forces intersect with cultural ideals. E.g., Andromeda is buffeted by gigantic forces beyond human comprehension, but Perseus steps in as a kind of superego figure who imposes moral order upon the otherwise chaotic power of the id. Andromeda is the ego here, subjected to the inscrutable powers of the cosmic id, but saved by the moralizing power of the superego. It is a role played often by women in classical mythology – so much so that we might say that the ego is a feminized function in classical myth.

Morrison’s sculpture captures Andromeda, the ego, at the moment of her subjection. His Penelope, on the other hand, is a more integrated figure. Her stoic gaze (more striking live and up close than it appears in this image) shows her to be quite aware of her subjection to forces beyond her control, but in her posture she is herself heroic, impervious to all advances. She contains within herself, within her own moral compass, the heroic counterpoint to those entropic forces. Unlike his Andromeda, Morrison’s Penelope is casted as a freestanding human figure, self-contained, self-referential, enacting within herself the collision of the id and superego. Whereas the sculpted environment of Andromeda emphasizes the external limits of the female form depicted, the gesture toward environment in Penelope – the hermit crab at her feet – does not interrupt the freestanding contours of the figure. To be sure, it “grounds” her, showing perhaps the thrownness of the ego into a particular terrestrial time and space, yet she stands, beside, above, separate. The “hermit” crab may show the thrownness of the ego, but also implies by its very nature the isolated integrity of the individual.

So if Morrison’s Andromeda gains its affective power by what is missing – Perseus – and by focusing our attention on the dramatic context, his Penelope gains affective power from her self-possession, with all attention on the gaze and subjectivity of the freestanding body at hand. The secret, and perhaps subversive, power of Morrison’s Penelope is that she needs no Odysseus to complete her heroic journey.