On the surface
“In psychoanalysis there is a truth, but it has no content and is rather an ethical position.” I wrote this in my notebook for Deborah Britzman’s Seminar in Pedagogy and Psychoanalytic Theory on September 23, 2003. My hand transcribed this sentence, yet I cannot remember what it felt like to inhabit my body then, as I was on the cusp of sinking in love that would devastate me for nine years and before my body was irrevocably transformed by grief.
It was in that seminar that I encountered Sigmund Freud for the first time since I read The Interpretation of Dreams in high school, searching for something quite different from the seasick hallucinatory stories I found there. We read On Metapsychology in that seminar, a book that disquieted me with its haunting and lonely theories that reached through decades of pages to touch the heart of my being while rupturing my intellectual explanations of human experience, explanations that felt intimate and precious before.
When someone asks me where to begin reading Freud, I always recommend On Metapsychology; but I also suggest this book to people experiencing profound life disruptions. It covers 27 years of psychoanalytic thought to 1938, the year he fled Vienna for London after Hitler’s invasion of Austria, and one year before his death. On Metapsychology outlines many dimensions of Freud’s most radical discovery – the unconscious – as not a thing or memory that can be defined or contained, but a residue, a trace, a stain that structures our life in all its wonderful and disturbing illogicality. Reading Freud unravelled me into a space for my loneliness, opening a desire to know something unnameable, something different from what I thought I had understood. After On Metapsychology, I could no longer hold on to my theories of the body as a surface inscribed by culture, society, and history – theories of consciousness that could be reasoned with. Instead, I had to confront the possibility of the body’s surface as marked by another logic, one which interfaces with culture, society, and history, but that will never make sense because it is structured around an idiosyncratic psychic fissure that can never be known but that reveals itself through its traces – the logic of the unconscious.
A year and a half earlier, I read Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, a text which demands the reader’s ethical engagement with their relation to the epistemic violence of naming and delineating space. The book itself resists naming. It is autobiography, theory, aesthetics, cartography, poetics, and history, and Brand sculpts words around the void left by the “door of no return.” Brand describes the door as a fissure in time; a physical, spiritual, and psychic place in the consciousness of Black people in the New World Diaspora whose enslaved ancestors passed through that door. When I read A Map to the Door of No Return, I was a Master’s student at Simon Fraser University and enrolled in Brand’s creative writing seminar titled, “Writing Feminist, Writing Fiction.” She held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Chair in the Department of Women’s Studies at the time, and my admiration for her enticed me there. In that seminar, I had to abandon the way I used language. I did not succeed in doing this in the stories I wrote, and instead I carry that task with me still.
I approach a re-reading of A Map to the Door of No Return with trepidation and curiosity. Every time I read it, new and challenging political insights surface and I am moved to re-evaluate my analyses of colonialism, race, and place in Canada. Astonishingly, re-reading also reveals the book’s impression on my unconscious. My life draws me into the places of this book, though I only make this connection retroactively: Granville Street, Raglan Road, Vaughan Road, Harris Street, and even little Antigonish, Nova Scotia. On a personal level, coming back to this book is pleasurably uncanny, and makes me wonder where its trace will emerge next.
Both of these books – and these experiences of learning – have fundamentally changed how I think and write. In Surface Imaginations, I engage with the importance of surface in identity construction through the example of cosmetic surgery. My argument is that it is through surfaces – in the case of cosmetic surgery, the photograph and the skin – that we negotiate the relationship between psyche, body, and the exterior world. The traces of the unconscious appear through these surfaces. As a writer, I draw on the lessons of poetry to animate the narratives of cosmetic surgery in my book, using interview transcripts to craft short creative pieces that aim to hold parts of the narrative that don’t make sense according to a conscious logic. Writing about the profundity of surface compels me to make strange with words, to avoid the manoeuvre of closing the gap created by the unconscious through language.
Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst is an associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Her most recent book is Surface Imaginations: Cosmetic Surgery, Photography and Skin (McGill-Queens University Press, 2015)
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Daniel Pasikov.