BROOKS BUILDS ON HIS THEORIES by applying his Freudian understanding of narrative to what he sees as a tranferential relationship between a storyteller and his or her listener. Brooks is interested in understanding that relation between storyteller and listener as a "contamination" (218) of sorts: we cannot help but be affected by stories in surprisingly intimate, even psychosexual ways. We then often feel the need to re-transmit that contamination, "the passing-on of the virus of narrative, the creation of the fevered need to retell" (221). Brooks is interested, then, in "the desire, power, and danger of storytelling" (233).

Of particular interest to Brooks are those stories that are framed by other stories and that thus highlight the act of narration, of transmission. Such frame narratives, especially those that include a series of framed narrations, are often precisely about the ripple-effects caused by a traumatic or extraordinary event that lies hidden in the most embedded tale. The examples are many: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (as well as the two important movies that tale inspired, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now), among many others. In each example, part of what is represented in the narrative is the psychic dynamics of transmission, which spill out to each framing listener all the way to us, the readers or viewers. Indeed, what is often being represented is precisely Freud's theory about repetition compulsion. When we hear a traumatic story, we feel obliged to tell it ourselves to others; through such repetitions, we manage to bind the traumatic elements of the transmitted tale, though we also thus pass on the wound, so to speak, to others. What Brooks explores is thus both the psychodynamic logic of narration and the power of narrative to possess our imagination, to keep us listening until the end because of the power of—and our drive to reach—narrative closure.

As explained in the two previous modules, that drive to reach narrative closure, as well as the compulsion to repeat, are both subtended by the death drive, following Freud's theories in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (see the Freud Module on Transference and Trauma). The drive to reach closure explains, for example, why we are often compelled to watch even terrible films all the way to the bitter end. We are caught, like the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner," Coleridge's famous poem about the power of narrative over a listener. To understand the power of narrative over us, Brooks turns to Freud's theories about transference, suggesting that the relationship between a narrative and its "listener" is analogous to the relationship between the analyst and the analysand or patient. Such narratives, like the tales told by an analysand in the talking cure, seek to "make an obsessive story from the past present and to assure its negotiability within the framework of 'real life'—the outer narrative frame—and thus to work the patient's 'cure'" (226). In such frame narratives, "the interlocutionary situation becomes the place of repetition and working through of a past not yet mastered and brought into correct, therapeutic relation with the present" (226).

As in the transferential situation, what occurs in such narratives is the strange repetition of past traumatic events or tales, sometimes forcing the listener of the framing story to re-enact the events of the framed story. In all of the examples above (except perhaps Citizen Kane), what we see is the potential repetition of the framed tale's events by the listeners of the framing situation: Marlow/Willard are tempted to repeat the events of Kurtz, just as Walton is tempted to follow the same hubristic path as Dr. Frankenstein. Because of the related tale, Marlow, Willard, and Walton all step back from the brink of madness, thus enacting a positive resolution to the traumatic embedded tale. As Brooks puts it, "The transference actualizes the past in symbolic form, so that it can be replayed to a more successful outcome" (235). In Wuthering Heights, by contrast, a tale that is more about the failure of the tranferential narrative cure, a series of Catherines allows Heathcliff to repeat continually the same sexual relationship. (Another good example of a similar narrative, by the way, is Hitchcock's Vertigo.) According to Brooks, what the analyst must try to do is get the analysand to recognize this traumatic repetition as something past, something that no longer has a hold on him or her, which then frees the patient to recast "past desires into terms that can be realized and made to render real rewards" (228). The goal is "to make an end to its reproductive insistence in the present, to lead the analysand to understanding that the past is indeed past, and then to incorporate this past, as past, within [the analysand's] present, so that the life's story can once again progress" (228). Some stories, of course, record the failure of the cure, which can be the impetus for further narration (almost as compensation). Heathcliff, as I have suggested, continues his repetition compulsion, circling literally at times around the grave plot of the first Catherine; his insistent desire for an impossible object of desire (a desire, in fact, to return to the prelingual unity he remembers from his childhood union with Catherine) turns out in the end to be a drive towards death, which is, indeed, Heathcliff's own perhaps inevitable end

By turning to Freud's theories, Brooks is thus able "to consider not only what a narrative is, but what it is for, and what its stakes are: why it is told, what aims it may manifest and conceal, what it seeks not only to say but to do" (236).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Brooks: On Transference." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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