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Alexander Freer, Wordsworth's Unremembered Pleasure. Reviewed by Matt ffytche.

Thursday, September 2, 2021 - 04:50

Alexander Freer, Wordsworth's Unremembered Pleasure (Oxford University Press, 2020), 272 pp.
(Hbk, $70/£55, ISBN: 9780198856986)

Matt ffytche

University of Essex


Wordsworth says, “. . . hearing often-times the still, sad music of

humanity” [“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”].

We are supposed to be in contact with our fellow human beings.

When you give an interpretation tomorrow, are you sure that it will

approximate to expressing the music of humanity or the little bit of it

which has got into your consulting-room?

Wilfred Bion, The Italian Seminars, The Complete Works of W.R. Bion, ed Chris Mawson (Karnac, 2014), vol IX, p. 166


Many contemporary psychoanalysts think of the unconscious not as a fixed entity with certain inherent conditions, but more as an opportunity. As with the invention of negative numbers, the right question to ask is not ‘Do they really exist?’, but: what are the new mental transactions such terms enable? What different narratives do they allow us to present concerning the syntactical enigma of mental life? This kind of latitude – which one might find expressed in Christopher Bollas, Adam Phillips or Jonathan Lear – allows for the unconscious to become a pivot between psychoanalysis and other disciplines, perhaps nowhere more so than literary studies. Freud initiated the turn to literature as an ‘andere Schauplatz’ for psychoanalytic theorisation – practically before he had consolidated the idea of a psychology of the unconscious – with his early comments to Wilhelm Fliess on Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, which by 1906 had been developed by Otto Rank into a magnum opus on the incest theme in literature. On the other side, since the mid-twentieth century, Anglo-American literary critics from Trilling and Bloom to Ellmann, Rose, Edelman and Bersani have provided a ‘home from home’ for Freud, converting psychoanalysis into ‘a form of hermeneutics, transforming it from clinical theory into critical method’ (7), particularly in the fields of modernist and romantic studies. Freer’s Introduction to this volume ably rehearses how the latter has utilised psychoanalysis to investigate ‘intergenerational conflict (Harold Bloom); trauma (Cathy Caruth, Geoffrey Hartman); gender and sexual difference (Mary Jacobus); a psychoanalytically-inflected sublime (Theresa Kelley, Thomas Weiskel); perversion (Collings); melancholy and paranoia (Thomas Pfau)’ (7), with Wordsworth, more than Keats, emerging as a point de capiton, quilting clinical and critical discourses together. According to David Collings, Wordsworth’s poetry poses ‘a form of protopsychoanalysis’ (6). And the traffic certainly runs both ways: a search for mentions of Wordsworth on PEPweb (the electronic platform for psychoanalytic publishing) currently reveals 510 article entries. But, urges Freer, ‘If romanticism is psychoanalytic, then Wordsworth can only demonstrate what Freud already knows’ (10).


This book is in some ways a reaction against the infusion of Wordsworth studies with ‘proto-psychoanalysis’. It ‘attends to psychoanalysis (without being psychoanalytic)’ (13), counting Wordsworth’s delineations of inner life not as a ‘precursor to Freud’s account of the mind, but an alternative path’ (4). Its forays across five substantial chapters – into the themes of ‘unremembered pleasure’; childhood experience and the transition to mature perception; mourning and elegy; the pleasures inherent in poeisis and metrical form; and happiness as an accomplishment in Wordsworth’s late work – are conceived as ‘looping departures into psychoanalysis’ (221). That last phrase is perhaps a throwaway characterisation, however, it captures well the productive tension in Freer’s approach which aims primarily to disentangle Wordsworthian states of mind from their Freudian formulation, but at the same time recognises the usefulness of a psychoanalytic alliance for grounding descriptions of mental, emotional and ‘psychical’ experience more broadly than poetics, thus obtaining some extra-disciplinary purchase. Additionally, psychoanalysis has developed an extensive conceptual repertoire for articulating the stresses and vagaries of subjective life in complex ways, particularly as regards Freer’s chosen topics of pleasure, loss and mourning, the unconscious and remembrance. Yes, there is an element of reaction here against the deep inroads the language of trauma has made into literary criticism since the 1990s. And likewise, against the tendency for psychoanalytic terms to become ‘reflexive critical shortcuts’ (ix), Freer departs into psychoanalytic conceptual terrain, and returns to the consideration of poetry, as distinct fields and practices. Yet there remain good reasons for ranging freely across the border, for keeping the dialogue live.


The freshness, aptitude, thoughtfulness and delicacy with which Freer pursues these twin trajectories – engaging psychoanalysis in order better to articulate how Wordsworth departs from it – is excellently demonstrated in the first chapter, which is devoted to the ‘unremembered pleasure’ of the book’s title. ‘Unremembered’ here, as in the lines:


                                         feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,

As may have had no trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man’s life;

His little, nameless, unremembered acts

Of kindness and of love (44)


stands centrally for all the different ways in which Wordsworth occupies himself with what can pass unnoticed in life, but leaves an impression all the same. Linking with other idiosyncratic terms conveying ‘half-consciousness and underconsciousness’ (22) and liminal states between the ‘fulness of being and its total absence’ (27), unremembered and – even better – unrememberable, connote a range of elusive, lost or limit experiences, including ‘something tangled amongst the memories of early life which, being contained by none of them, cannot be fully grasped’ (20); the articulation of ‘perceptual limits and blind spots’ (40); the overlooked, recessive, and unviewable elements in a scene (41); ‘unnoticed, unconscious and diurnal gifts, whose material substrate is primrose tufts and nameless acts’ (61); a mood or sentiment ‘which might be too subtle or variable to be captured by any singular positive description’ (42); or a broader ‘under-sense’ contained in days ‘invisible to the child who inhabited them because it was irreducible to any single one’ (49). The whole chapter is an engaging exercise in poetic phenomenology – that is to say, Freer extracts from his intensive focus on the areas of phenomenal half-light in Wordsworth’s poetry a set of subtle articulations of experience which avoid falling into conventional determinations of presence and loss (and particularly the presence and loss of pleasure). But the chapter throughout also sustains a sidelong glance at (and refusal to be constrained by) the Freudian notion of ‘unconscious’. ‘Unrememberable’ is something different from ‘repressed’ – or this is what Freer stakes in this chapter, and partly in this book. The veil of amnesia that falls over childhood, for Freud, hides ‘painful impressions of anxiety, prohibition, disappointment and punishment’ (Freud cited in Freer, 50). But ‘Tintern Abbey’ is concerned with something different from Freud: ‘not a traumatic injury, nor strategic self-deception, but a basic failure to notice pleasure the first time around.’ (51) Freer terms this a ‘counter-psychoanalytic idea’ – not repression or projection but something more inherently positive and sustained. Rather than deflected from consciousness, these types of experience are never quite admitted due to their unformed, or unnoticed, quotidian quality. From such perceptions, lying faintly beyond the limits of conscious knowledge, builds ‘a delayed, unrecognised, even unfelt joy, which can only be acknowledged after the fact, and cannot be remembered but only discovered’ (51). The unconscious does not refuse a portion of lived experience to the subject, but gifts it unexpectedly.


Counter-Freudian this idea may be, but as Freer recognises, he can find psychoanalytic allies for many of the phenomena and sub-phenomena he wants to draw attention to in Wordsworth: Winnicott’s explorations of the capacity to be alone, and his interest in children’s attempts to construct a world that is ‘speculative, provisional, heuristic and improvised’ (53); or Laplanche’s concern to think of psychoanalysis as disclosing ‘the intransigently unintelligible aspect of all intimate experience: its enigmatic qualities’ (216). (Further bedfellows might have occurred to him but are not taken up, such as Sándor Ferenczi’s momentous essay on ‘Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child’, or Bion’s writings on the ‘caesura’ and catastrophic change, both of which address the points Freer takes up with regard to the asymmetry between infant and adult experience, and the story Wordsworth tells, that ‘the adult can never recover childhood as it was, but by his loss he learns that there was more to childhood than a child could have grasped’ (19)). Freer situates Wordsworth in the same camp as psychoanalysis when both are exerting themselves to introduce complexity into conventional understandings of personhood and presence – ‘poems will always unsettle our assumptions that we already understand persons’ (x). Or, as he puts it elsewhere: poetry and psychoanalysis most benefit each other when neither understands the other. Psychoanalysis helps produce the climate in which things vanish mysteriously, or cast long enigmatic shadows before they appear – which itself sustains the ground for the alternate account of worldly interaction Freer finds in Wordsworth. There are passages, too, where placing Wordsworth alongside psychoanalysis allows Freer to draw in the language of therapeutics: ‘if poetry can articulate real yet heretofore unnoticed joy, the satisfactions of composing and reading can be understood as modes of affective and even reparative, engagement. Not withdrawing from the world but finding ways of coping with it’ (ix).


The large question at stake overall in the book has to do with the nature of pleasure itself and, allied with this, the experience of happiness. The book undoubtedly makes a bid, via Wordsworth and the ‘unremembered’, to rehabilitate a notion of pleasure as affirmative of lived and living presence, articulated poetically, not psychoanalytically. At heart Freer is keen to dislodge the authorising power of psychoanalysis over critical conceptions of the inner life of subjects – not insofar as it represents clinical or therapeutic concerns (in its own sphere of practice), and not insofar as it endorses the unfinished, enigmatic or obscure dimensions of experience, but as a representative – within Romantic Literary Criticism – of the negative, whether this manifests itself as a concern with revolutions, transgression, the negativity of desire (and jouissance), trauma or the death drive. Against such notions of negativity, disintegration, or rupture at the heart of psychic life, Freer generates out of the ‘unrememberable’ an ontology of something as simple (verbally) yet hard to ascertain conceptually, as the presence of happiness: the subtle baseline persistence of quiet pleasures as an affirmation of life, which tips the scale of existence marginally in the direction of plenitude, rather than the kind of absence, or brokenness, or refusal inscribed in the Freudian unconscious. ‘If we think of unconsciousness as Wordsworth does’, argues Freer, as ‘absences and vanishings, things carried silently out of mind’ rather than as ‘unprocessed yet ineliminable damage’, then ‘what constrains consciousness is not a lack of data… but an excess.’ (101). Wordsworth’s pleasures, for Freer, may be marginal and elusive, but they are also ‘persistent and significant’ (4). Compared with ‘flashy negativity’, pleasure is ‘naïve in its friendly relations to presence’ (108), but also to be distinguished from something merely compensatory, or from hedonistic sensuality. Freer is thus moved by what he finds in Freud’s essay ‘On Narcissism’, which is an uncharacteristic ‘attempt to conceive of selfhood not as a purely defensive structure – a shield against an excessively stimulating world – but as a form built up by pleasure’ (81). The pleasure Freer shapes out of Wordsworth’s particularities, quiet evanescence and unforced gleamings, is unremembered until it is finally noticed or inferred, and (following Anahid Nersessian) its ‘low utopian gesture is to posit a world in which satisfaction is possible’ (195).


The challenge to literary investments in psychoanalysis – to keep the unconscious, but divest it of trauma; to drop the idea that experience is necessarily articulated on the basis of pain, absence and loss, and that these provide an irreducible fulcrum at the heart of human being – is certainly radical and thought-provoking, for all that it is not always posed head-on. But occasionally it is: the objections that the Freudian self is always discordant with the external world, always defending against it (53); or (via Schuster and Deleuze) that ‘psychoanalysis cannot even conceive of pleasure except negatively’ (122), as the lowering of psychic tension, are instructive. Why should one refuse the idea that pleasure can instantiate humans as selves, and rather accept ‘the instantiating cut of trauma’ (86)? In a different vein, on the subject of mourning, Freer’s criticism that Freud assumes the essential fungibility of libido seems fair. To mourn, for Freud, is to gradually detach oneself from one object before reattaching to another, but this ‘effectively sidesteps the painful difficulty of mourning by reimagining it as a problem of true and false information’, a process of reality testing. What does it mean, then, that Freudian theory so often and irreducibly subverts the possibility of satisfaction, pleasure, happiness or constancy in its portrait of human existence? Does psychoanalysis thereby simply manifest its provenance as a medical psychology, concerned with the alleviation of suffering, but for that reason not an appropriate lens through which to interpret Wordsworth’s poetic affirmations?


All of this is well worth ruminating on further. My own reluctance to follow Freer (or Wordsworth) entirely down this path lies in the sense that too much is displaced, or drops out of this image of life. According to Freer, Wordsworth’s answer to the Oedipal problem might be that ‘a limitless desire for maternal love is fractured, but like prismatic light, spreads across humanity at large’ (90-1). If this were so, then all truly would be well, in the best of good-enough worlds. Because it would be a world divested of the sharp breaks and hurts occasioned by the encounter with an impinging ‘no’, paternal or otherwise, with no hatred or destructiveness – only gifts, plentitude, gradual effacements and soft transmutations. Moreover, a lot is predicated on the mother (or nature as mother) here: the ability simply to absorb and transmute the difficult labour of mothering, caring and attending; without exuding despair, being over-demanding, or mentally absent. In the clinical model, this work may or may not be good enough; it may need to find expression in suffering and disintegration – but within the poetic frame Freer sets up the pain must ultimately and silently be absorbed by this mother figure, just as nature yields its products as gifts, for the most part, without the destructive sacrifice of labour (at least other than poetic labour).


It may be true that – as Freer reiterates at several points – ‘pure, unmoderated pain is strictly unintelligible’ and ‘supplementary metrical pleasure is what allows us to look steadily at painful subjects’. Poetry therefore ‘tempers painful feeling not in order to diminish it but to keep us from drowning in it’ (127). But what if we are drowning? The claims Wordsworth makes on lost things, according to Freer, ‘depend on the belief that their loss is something other than their destruction’ (173). But then what space can be found within the poetry to confirm our experiences of destruction and destructiveness? To confirm the landscape of those negative experiences where we experience them? If the selection of poetic language removes ‘what would otherwise be painful or disgusting in the passion’ (126, quoting ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads) where could a Baudelairian poetics start from?


Towards the end Freer cites Hartman on the point that ‘everything works against trauma in Wordsworth. Poetry’s gift is not to block out or to neutralise pain but to make it legible by making it something other than absolute’ (210). And in the conclusion he acknowledges again that ‘my preference for the local and particular has kept the concept of trauma at arm’s length’ (220). But what might be at stake here is not absolutizing trauma in Wordsworth (or ourselves) but making trauma thinkable – and experienceable – alongside pleasure. Because isn’t the problem most often attributed to trauma, in both the clinic and in its literary critical version, not that it imperiously dictates to experience, but that it remains mute and inexperiencable? Thus, to keep the concept of trauma at arm’s length, is to remove one of the windows on to traumatic experience that ultimately would aim to make of it something evanescent, like the good things too. What is the status of poetry as a repository for an understanding of lived experience if there cannot be a place in it for disruption, destruction, hatred, subterfuge, disintegration – and this at a formal level, where necessary? But of course, there are other poets who do this, and perhaps all the more reason to make clear the different, complex and fragile, project Wordsworth is engaged in.


What side anyone might take in this thoughtful, nuanced and perceptive dialogue between Wordsworth and Freud will depend on many things: most of all, on the fortunes of psychoanalysis in the social world, as well as its detached, somewhat autonomous evolution in the academy within literature departments, or as psychoanalytic studies; and in addition on the emerging dialogue between literary critical studies, creative writing and psychology, around the constitutive and therapeutic dimensions of narrative. No doubt, Wordsworth and Freud will remain as recognisable features within the shifting disciplinary landscapes for some time to come. But what their relations will generate in terms of new insight, and how significant these will be, remains very much to be argued for. Freer’s excellent book provides alternative maps of some of the ground covered so far and produces an interesting sketch of what might be at stake in future readings of Wordsworth, as well of the romantic unconscious.