Thursday, April 14, 2011


In her book, The Destructive Element, Lyndsey Stonebridge describes how in her book, On Not Being Able to Paint, Marian Milner prefers the term “reverie” to “phantasie.” Milner is largely discussing Freud’s essay, “On Creative Writers and Day-dreaming [Uber Dichtern und die Phantasieren],” in which Freud talks about phantasy both in terms of the tripartite dynamic of nachtr√§glichkeit and in terms of the state of childhood play and adult daydreaming. Stonebridge writes, “What Milner wants [in moving from Phantasie to “reverie”] is ‘a setting in which it is safe to indulge in reverie, safe to permit a con-fusion of “me” and “not-me”’; a space she finds in both art and analysis” (144). Mistaking “setting” for “settling in,” I imagine nonetheless that there is a sense of imbrication, if not habituation, which is part of the reverie. Stonebridge emphasizes the feeling of timelessness, or of untimed space, which is important to the reverie. Could it be said that the sense of untimed space is as much a part of settling in as it is of the setting of phantasy? Stonebridge introduces the idea that the not-me part of the phantasy exists merely as a means through which the self can find itself again. But her point is not just to refute, as she does, this restorative reading of Milner. It is, rather, to extend this discussion, and the “primal creativity” that Milner finds in the scene of phantasy, to questions about selfhood, agency, and the constitution of the “I.” Stonebridge turns to the question of self-narration: “the possibility of a ‘dangerous’ collapse of the frontier between an omnipresent risk of seduction by a variety of possible stagings of cultural and political phantasies” (152). The question of how the self is imbricated in totalitarian phantasies, indeed, in this double political pathology and art is an issue which is inextricably tied to the question of self-narration. The position of the autobiographical ‘I’ in their first-person narratives is ever-shifting, fragile and subject to sense of setting and settling in, is behind the collapse of the frontier. Stonebridge goes on:

What Hannah Arendt calls the ‘total state’ that totalitarianism proffers, for example, is one, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy suggest, in which ‘I’ can be just as totally represented to myself as a subject. On the one hand, such phantasies appear to erase the self by transforming identity into a limited set of masks, each wearing the grimace of the common good, and which testify to the uniformity of the ‘masses’ for whose sake the subject is willing to sacrifice its difference. (152)
Such a totalitarian state represents the difficulty of maintaining the distinction between the self and non-self even when it would seem that the rediscovery of the one in the other would grant a much-needed redemption. In this sense, Stonebridge’s discussion of the postwar work of wartime trauma indicates how aesthetic notions of “staging” and the “frame” perform the work of keeping open a space for reverie.

picture: Marian Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint