The monster's touch

En montant sur le trône, il entra dans le cercle enchanté et sans issue. – Merezhovsky, writing about Alexander I.

The circle that is without an exit and under a spell – isn’t this the circle of the monster? Monster as father substitute. Monster as noble. Monster as libertine. The Monster who demands the right to the first night.

It is impossible for those who have received at least one extra eye from Freud’s angel to ignore the fact that the Marriage of Figaro, which, according to Danton, “killed the nobility”, contains a strong incestuous subplot – the Count, in the story, wants to break up Figaro’s upcoming marriage, in order to have Susanne, Figaro’s fiancé, to himself. One avenue is already closed, since the Count verbally renounced his right to the proverbial “first night”, Thus, he conspires with Marceline, the governess, to make Figaro pay for another contract - a bond he had made with the governess promising to marry her if he couldn’t pay back a sum he’d borrowed from her at any date she named. This plan is spoiled, however, as Figaro recounts the story of his being stolen by the gypsies with details that confirm, for Marceline, that Figaro is her son.

By all accounts, the nobility howled with laughter at the speeches in the play. King Louis XVI, who is usually depicted as one of history’s fall guys, was, at least in this regard, prescient. He read the play before it was put on. The monarch wasn’t in the habit of being a censor, but Beaumarchais was by long, Figaro like ties a familiar in the royal household, the music teacher of Louis’ sisters, a state spy, etc. He pronounced the play dreadful, and said it should not be put on.

Other royalty was not so sensitive. In Poland, the play was actually staged by Prince Nassau, Beaumarchais’s friend, at the court, with the king and various nobles making up the cast.

All of which I bring forward to convince you that an apparently weak link between the overthrow of the old order and Freud’s account of the revolutionary overthrow of the father – which happened in dreamtime, meaning that it is always happening, in a sense. As I hope I’ve made clear, the dissolution of the human limit, or, to reformulate it, the universal-making of universal historywas, from one point of view, the extension of man to the master of the world; but, within that point of view, one price for that extension was the dissolution of the old, defining character of man. His glassy essence was melted down and sold for scrap to the poets, the alienated, the crabby reactionaries, the fevered revolutionaries.

Having made contact with our context – and contact, contagion, Beruehrung, Ansteckung, are very much part of Freud’s text, one we have to get back to – let us go then, you and I, to the introduction of the notion of projection in Totem and Tabu, which occurs in his second chapter. The first chapter is about the incest phobia. The second chapter is entitled, The Tabu and the ambivalence of the feelings ( Gefühlsregungen - affective reactions), and it is here that we can see, like a strategy emerging in a chess game, that the circle of this text is not bound, as one might expect, to return to the infant’s sexuality – but rather, we are enrolled in a movement towards death. But it is a mistake to think that eros is the opposite of thanatos, here – as is signaled by the very word, ambivalence.

The question that Freud wants to answer is: why are ghosts scary? Or: why are the dead fearful?

Why, I could ask, rephrasing this slightly, do I have to wake up and fall back asleep in order to get rid of the monsters?

“This hostility, which in the unconscious bears a painful trace as satisfaction over their death has, by primitives, another fate: it is parried when they shift it to the object of hostility, to the dead themselves. We call this massive defensive process, in the normal as well as the pathological mental life, a projection.”

To be continued

To be continued