NDJ:3 Stephen Whitworth, PhD

Shakespeare’s “Suffering Ecstasy”

The topos is familiar: we are in the space of the ‘complaint.’ In literary terms, this means that we are about to hear a poem about remembering, a poem about love, loss, and painful abandonment, a story about the suffering that has ‘inevitably’ followed giving in to the passions, a story recollected and transformed into penitential song.  Such, at least, is our generic expectation when we read the title of the quasi-narrative lament that Shakespeare originally wrote as the conclusion to his sonnet sequence, the little-known ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’ And yet, contrary to expectation, Shakespeare’s poem does not provide us with the simple voice of a sorrowful maiden speaking directly to us of her painful love memories. Instead of conforming to the long and venerable tradition of the literary complaint (dating from Renaissance poets such as Daniel, Lodge, and Churchyard back to Chaucer and Ovid, and before that all the way back to the Lamentations of Jeremiah), Shakespeare does not use memory for didactic purposes; he does not present us with the memories of a female plainant to teach us a moral lesson about the importance of female chastity and purity. He uses the form of the complaint, rather, to meditate upon the transmission process of memory; to make us question the reliability of ‘historical testimonial’ and remembered trauma; and, finally, to consider the possibility that when we recount our love memories to the Other, what we recount is not so ‘seductive,’ pleasurable, and ‘dangerous’ as is the process of recounting itself. And interestingly enough, the space of story-telling with which Shakespeare provides us in ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ bears a striking resemblance to the scenario of the analytic session.

For we do not ‘hear’ Shakespeare’s complaining maiden directly. Her words are transmitted to us by a curiously nameless and faceless narrator who, while lying on a hill and functioning primarily as a site of readerly identification and/or transference, overhears a ‘doble voice’ from a ‘nearby sist’ring vale’: an echo, the echo of the maiden. With ‘fluxive eyes’ that do ‘batt’ry to the spheres intend’ and ‘mind and sight distractedly commixed,’ the maiden herself is situated by the ‘weeping margent’ of a river, telling her story to a seated, silent, and disinterested ‘reverend man’ or ‘Father,’ who ‘desires to know/In brief, the grounds and motives of her woe,’ in case it might assuage her ‘suffering ecstasy.. .her grievance with his hearing to divide.’ When the maiden responds to this would-be therapeutic listening, she chooses not to speak, for the most part, in her own voice, but to report the exact words of the flattering and charmingly specious speech of seduction delivered to her some time ago by the beautiful young man who brought about her fall from innocence, a young man so beautiful that he ‘sexes both enchanted.’ The majority of the poem is, thus, in double quotation marks, and the ‘doubleness’ or duplicity of the scene of hearing staged by the text is multiplied many times over. Not only do we hear merely the echo of an original located elsewhere, in ‘another scene,’ but the language of desire relayed to us by that echo is already nested within the reflective discourse of someone trying to make sense of it to (or at least make it comprehensible for) an Other. Is this not precisely the dilemma faced by the analyst, who only ever hears what should be his primary object of interest—the unconscious and its concomitant fundamental phantasy— through the distorting ‘noise’ of both his own and the analysand’s egos?

If this is the case, the real analytic danger is not the trauma inflicted on the maiden by the experience of ‘misuse’ that she has described. It is the temptation to accept uncritically what


Memory and/as Phantasy Stephen Whitworth, Ph.D.

she has said as unproblematically ‘true,’ to jump to making interpretive interventions designed to offer her ’empathy,’ make her feel better, ‘cure’ her, without ever asking or wondering where her desire ‘lies’ in the narrative that she has constructed. Shakespeare’s reverend man avoids this pitfall, does not offer the moralizing ‘comfort’ usually offered at the conclusion of a complaint, remains silent, and allows the maiden to continue the real work of analysis. He allows her to continue to associate, to speak. As she does so, her thinking seems to take a bit of a turn. Once she has stopped reporting the speech delivered to her by the young man, she asks an important rhetorical question, addressed as much to herself as to the reverend man. ‘Who, young and simple,’ she exclaims, ‘would not be so lovered?/Ay me, I fell, and yet do question make/What I should do again, for such a sake.’ It is not long before she offers an almost orgasmic elaboration on her own question, not in the language of the finite, the ‘finished,’ the lost, or the apparently ‘definite’—the preterite, or past—but in the subjunctive, a grammatical mode that, while expressing states of being contrary to ‘fact,’ nevertheless tells us—in expressing volition—a great deal about who and what we are. ‘O that sad breath his spongy lungs bestowed,’ our maiden concludes, ‘O, all that borrowed motion, seeming owed,/Would yet again betray the fore-betrayed,/And new pervert a reconciled maid!’

In remaining silent, in resisting the seductive appeal of an apparently traumatized ego to be comforted, made to feel better quickly, Shakespeare’s reverend man reminds us of something about analytic work too often forgotten in contemporary psychoanalysis: that the ‘complaint’ of the analysand’s ego is never an appeal for self-discovery, for a confrontation with the real of desire. It is, rather, a statement that the painful symptoms that once afforded the ego a pittance of pleasure are no longer working properly, and a request that the analyst offer those symptoms a prop or quick fix, so that the work of evading desire may proceed unimpeded. The task of the analyst is not to reflect the analysand’s ego back to itself, to ‘fix’ his/her symptoms or provide him/her with new symptoms, but to allow those symptoms to exhaust themselves in association, in speech, so that the past becomes something more than that for which one must learn to grieve or make reparation, so that the past becomes the motive force for a continual striving, a memory, in short, for the future.

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