Thursday, October 28, 2010

Delusions and Dreams of Tokyo

In Freud's essay, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva," he analyzes an uncanny short story about an archaeologist who becomes obsessed by a woman seen in a reproduced Roman plaque.  He imagines that she died in Pompeii, and his semi-delusional obsession becomes so great that he leaves for Italy.  Inevitably drawn to Pompeii, he is stunned to actually encounter the girl from the plaque - not a delusion, but an actual woman - in the place he had prepared for her in his imagination. It is eventually revealed that the woman he discovers is a childhood love whose memory he had repressed and redirected onto the plaque, whose image resembled her.

The essay is relatively early (1906) and the parallelism of psychoanalysis and archaeology continue t proliferate in Freud's subsequent work.  Jensen's story certainly resonated with Freud so powerfully because of its simple but powerful point: that we always find what we are looking for.  Without knowing it, the protagonist is guided along paths set for him long ago, and while in this case the ending is happy - he overcomes his sexual repression and the two characters find happiness - this still has the character of a compulsive symptom, no different from hysteria or neurosis.

What catches me even more effectively, though, is the image of Pompeii, the ultimate uncanny catastrophe, in which a city was simultaneously destroyed and preserved for all time.  There is no modern disaster that fits this mold better than the destruction of Japan during World War II.  In some cases, this preserved destruction is of the same, physical sort - think of the Peace Dome in Hiroshima, or even more the outlines of bomb victims engraved on concrete walls.  But there is simultaneously a mediated preservation - we can still watch films of the firebombing of Tokyo as it turns from routine disaster to complete conflagration.

In Tokyo, these preservations tend to be totally overlain, one might say repressed, by the reality of the modern city.  But they are always there - whenever I get into a conversation with a person over 60, and mention any aspect of Tokyo as a city, the firebombing is sure to be mentioned.  It is cited as the reason there are relatively few large trees in the city.  It is (more certainly) the reason so much of it seems cheaply and hastily assembled.  Its memory, in a negative form, is physically present at every point on the map.  And this is to say nothing of the real memories that still persist among older people, many of whom starved for years following the war.

Around and through these memories flow the present - but the boundaries are never quite clear.  Just as Jensen's archaeologist eventually found the present through the past, the long graven shadows of the firebombing, however persistent, can only point towards the future. Japan's obsession with history, while objectively justifiable, has not yet recognized itself as a struggle over the present.

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