(Liya Rechtman)– Plath is a notoriously depressing read, and yet, every year in English classes around the world, we find ourselves back to Daddy’s “ich, ich,” Lady Lazrus, and The Colossus. Adele is cheesy and, as far as I can tell, only talks about heart-wrenching break ups, but she’s won just eight Grammy awards. See also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Never Let Me Go, and The Notebook.
Why do we engage with art that makes us cry?
These examples seem at first to contradict the pleasure principle – the concept that we are ruled by things that make us happy: that we are all, at the end of the day, hedonists. Of course, there are things we do that don’t directly relate to our happiness. We defer pleasure in favor of unpleasure, for example, in order to experience greater pleasure and stability later on. We are okay with someone or thing going away from us as long as we can anticipate the return of food/sex/praise later.
But then there are things we do which make us patently unhappy. Like someone who has been abused re-injuring themself, or someone who has been raped repeatedly placing themself in a high-risk/violent sexual situation. Freud says that in dreams we fulfill wishes that we cannot possibly fulfill in our waking lives or with our conscious selves. However, people often relive traumatic experiences during their dreams as well.
Freud illustrates two reasons for this: 1) the mastery of trauma or unpleasure leads to a certain kind of pleasure and 2) compulsive repetition either leads to pleasure or is an instinct more important than the pleasure principle.
Freud goes on to present a case study of a “good” young boy who does not, despite his desire to always be with his mother, protest when she leaves the room. Instead, he turns this action of abandonment onto his toys by throwing them away from him. In this, somewhat violent action, he is doing three things. Firstly, he is increasing the joy of playing with his toys by deferral of pleasure, in accordance with the reality principle. More importantly, he has slotted himself into the active role of departure, in his relationship to his toys, in contrast to the passive role he plays in relationship to his mother. In this way he is the master of this situation. Although the unpleasure repeats itself, it is now his doing, and there is pleasure to be had in that. Thirdly, he can be read as simply compulsively repeating something that makes him unhappy, despite the fact that it is contrary to an increase in pleasure.
The experience of the splitting of conscious ego, as a response to a traumatic occurrence, cannot be encapsulated in language at all. Why, then, does Adele return to “Here in the dark in these final hours,” at time when she remembers the traumatic realization that “I can’t make you love me if you don’t?”
More serious artists do the same thing. Otto Dix depicted terrifying images of the trenches in World War I. Plath writes:
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
Well Plath, Freud would be totally with you (not to mention the rest of “Daddy…”) These artistic representations are taking the artist “back, back, back,” to the moment of their trauma, with compulsive repetition of the event. And they take us, innocent bystanders with them. Freud writes:
[T]he artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children’s are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy), the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable. This is convincing proof that, even under the dominance of the pleasure principle, there are ways and means enough of making what is itself unpleasurable into a subject to be recollected and worked over in the mind.
Sad stuff is written compulsively and to gain mastery, and we read it because living through that experience with the writer is pleasurable to a reader.
You may note how Freud’s compulsivity and “mastery” could so easily be flipped over into feminist understandings (and rape survivor vocabulary) of “regaining agency” and “breaking the silence.” The next question then becomes – is this kind of trauma-art helpful to the writers? And what does it do for the readers?