Modernism and the European Unconscious

Edited by Peter Collier and Judy Davies

Polity Press

“Avant garde art exemplifies [Andre] Breton’s argument in the light of Freud, that by operating with the intellectual and conscious mind we are, as it were, dealing with the mere tip of the iceberg of man’s total experience.” So says Allison Sinclair, whose essay on avant garde theatre in the 1920s and ’30s is one of sixteen small essays that make up Modernism and the European Unconscious.

The idea of the conscious world as the tip of the iceberg, of the unconscious as a new world, or “dark continent” to be explored, was enormously influential for European artists at the turn of the century. Modernism’s break with tradition, its attempt to remove the barriers between art and life, was fueled by new concepts of the mind brought about by Freud, and to a lesser extend Jung, and by the writings of Nietzsche. The latter’s call for a return to the Dionysian in the arts near the end of the 19th century was directly paralleled in the new psychology’s goal of breaking down certain harmful repressions of the powerful, irrational, unconscious mind in order to make people’s lives complete.

The influence of these ideas was quite various, and editors Peter Collier and Judy Davies address this diversity with essays on a host of different subjects relating to Modernist theatre, literature, music and film. Not everyone was or is that impressed with Freud and the unconscious, and the collection also contains some insightful criticism of the romanticism of the period, and of the new psychology’s claim to universality.

Of the non-sceptics, Allison Sinclair’s essay entitled “Avant Garde Theatre and the Return to Dionysos” deals best with one of the issues central to this entire collection: the different conceptions of the unconscious. According to Sinclair these can be loosely divided into two camps: the Freudian, which sees the need for repression of the unconscious and seems to regard it with some fear, and the Jungian/Nietzschean which seeks to incorporate people’s unconscious/Dionysian side with their conscious/Appoline side. These two trends in avant-garde Spanish theatre of the 1920s and ’30s were represented by Ramon del Valle Inclan and Frederico Garcia Lorca, respectively.

What these two shared was a desire to drive people on to new modes of thinking and feeling through the presentation of the what Sinclair calls the “guts” of experience. This approach presented viewers with a cold, perhaps even painful theatrical experience; alienation was used as a deliberate tool. For many people, as today, this sort of theatre holds little interest and may appear shallow in its calculated offence. But convinced of its sincerity and value, Sinclair asserts that:

“It is easy to misjudge the motives of avant garde writers. Yet their obsessions with morbid sexuality and split personalities are neither frivolous nor eccentric.”

The first essay in the collection, and one of the best, is far more skeptical of Freud’s achievements and of the value of psychoanalytic art criticism. Malcolm Bowie in “A Message from Kakania” sets a discussion of Freud’s influence on Mahler and Schoenberg into a broader discussion of the intellectual climate of Vienna at this time. He claims that this and the personality and talent of Freud himself have more to do with the phenomenon of psychoanalysis than the discovery of any universal truths about the workings of the human psyche.

“Freud’s ‘unconscious’ is European, alas. And it belongs not to the continent at large, but to the Austro-Hungarian empire in its declining years,” he states. “The Antithesis between man’s high aspirations and the low ‘farce’ of his desire, recounted in the theories of psychoanalysis and evinced in its rhetoric versus the bungling of it sresearch, gave insight into a volatile Austrian culture.”

Ultimately, he says, psychoanalysis is useful to art criticism only in its ability to bridge the gap between multiform desire and the specific features of a particular work of art. Each work, however, should be discussed in the language of its medium and form, he claims.

“In the course of such critical activity, the language of psychoanalysis offers clues but not solutions, calls to action for the interpreter, but not interpretation.” He asserts that just as an analyst must be attentive to the changing aspects of his [the male pronoun is Bowie’s] subject patter, and must shape his language to account for his findings, so the critic must use language to express the specific art form he is evaluating.

It is one thing to be critical, of course, and another to be merely dismissive. Yet this dismissive attitude toward trends that have continued from the Modernist and psychoanalytic desires to accept, or confront, all that is human seems to be gaining momentum in our times. On the whole Modernism and the European Unconscious presents a balanced account of Modernism and its aspirations, and is timely in its consideration of the beneficial aspects of having removed certain artistic and social boundaries in the twentieth century.

Here in the West today the debate over what should and should not be repressed is heated. There is the issue of government arts sponsorship/censorship in the United States, a call for a return to earlier sexual mores in the face of AIDS, suppression of homoerotic arts, continued book burning in the schools, etc. Allan Bloom summed up the attitude of the conservative backlash in his bestselling book of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind: “Now all has been explored; light has been cast everywhere; the unconscious has been made conscious, the repressed expressed. And what have we found? Not creative devils, but show business glitz. Mick Jagger tarting it up on stage is all that we brought back from the voyage to the underworld.”

In the face of this sort of facile reactionism against the legacy of Modernism and notions of the unconscious, this collection of essays presents an interesting and diverse discussion of the antecedents of much of today’s art.