Repression, or, The Back-Pedal Brake

Repression, or, The Back-Pedal Brake

Steven Connor

This is the text of an interval talk broadcast during a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on BBC Radio 3 on July 1, 2000. It is copyright Steven Connor.

Suddenly, after 1900, a new kind of character entered the world: the repressed. The one held down by himself. And a new kind of drama went along with it: the drama of the struggle to free oneself from oneself. With this struggle, a new intensity was given to the motto displayed to the ancient world at Delphi: know thyself. Where this had meant before, know your strengths, weaknesses and possibilities, now it came to mean something more complex and demanding: know what you do not know about yourself; learn to think the things your very life has made unthinkable.

Repression had been known before Freud, and so had the unconscious. Freud’s genius was to have connected them up. For Freud, repression was very different from simple denial. Repression was the process of making a desire unavailable to be known while yet not negating it entirely. Holding to his principle that no human being ever voluntarily gives up a pleasure, Freud developed a vastly complicated thesaurus of the ruses we use to keep yes alive in our ways of saying no, for refusing to relinquish what we seem to be setting aside. Repression is in fact is a process of preserving desire under otherwise impossible conditions, smouldering quietly beneath the damp clods of amnesia.

Repression is not, of course oppression. Most societies have more or less coercive means of encouraging conformity and discouraging unwelcome attitudes or behaviours. But something more than the gibbet and the thumbscrew is needed to bring about repressed, as opposed to oppressed people. For repression in the characteristically modern sense can only come about when outward authority appears to have shrivelled and individuals have taken on responsibility for policing themselves. And, according to Freud, one more move is required for the securing of repression: not only must the repressed desire be consigned to forgetfulness, but the act of repression must also itself be forgotten, like someone who buries their treasure and then deliberately hides the map from themselves. It is this capacity to cover its own tracks that is repression’s most distinctive characteristic.

This leads to an important consequence. For, where the ordinarily self-denying person may well suffer from acute internal conflict, they at least know what their conflict consists of. The repressed person, who has no access to the bank account of their own desire, becomes reliant upon others, or at least one other – whether it is the psychoanalyst, or other person thought to be in the know – to put them back in contact with themselves. This is why the drama of repression is never really, despite appearances, a private drama, since it always enlists others in the work of interpretation and accreditation of the recovered truth.

Nor is repression just suppression. In suppression, something appears to be banished downwards, or more straightforwardly sat on. One would imagine that suppression would be the thing that required or requisitioned the ‘subconscious’, a word that Freud rarely used, but which has passed into popular use and understanding, because of the apparent attractiveness of the idea that unconscious desire is something that you hear stirring in its straw in the cellar, or, that, lifting the trapdoor, you glimpse in the torchlight, with matted hair and blazing eyes. In fact the idea that uncomfortable desires might go to ground in this way probably does the satisfying work of suggesting that the underground is where these ideas originally come from – not from us at all. For Freud, who was shrewdly and admirably evasive about where and what exactly the unconscious was, repression implies something more complex and more abstract. Repression, as opposed to suppression, implies, reversal, undoing; it may suggest consigning a thought, idea or memory not to a different place, but to a different time, back into the past. This implies the incompleteness of repression, its link with returns, repayments, repercussions and repetitions.

‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’ wrote William Blake. But the opposite of repression is not action, it is speech. The theory is that putting your thwarted desire into words will not only take away its power to cause you suffering, but will also drain off the desire itself, which is otherwise dammed up by its denial. (Funny how our thinking abour repression is conducted almost entirely in terms of hydraulics.) Once you’re out of church, that irresistibly funny joke no longer seems so funny, and the excruciating desire to laugh has evaoprated like a sneeze that has missed its moment. But what if speech were also sometimes a way of harbouring desire while preventing you from acting on it, a way of saying no that allowed you to carry on saying ‘maybe’ or ‘not just now’ – not unlike the operations of repression in fact? Letting it all hang out could then be a subtle way of keeping it safely bottled up. (And, by the way, how very British that bottling metaphor seems – cutely connecting the dangers of unexpressed feeling with the rituals of chutney-making and butterfly-hunting.)

The appearance of puritans in Europe provided the beginnings of popular representations of repression. Thomas Nashe called them ‘pruritans’, because of the self-tickling delight he thought they took in multiplying prohibitions on themselves and others. The absurd, but unnervingly violent Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with his susceptibility to gush and to cross-gartering, is an early representation of this character type, as is the chilly-blooded prince Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, who is so frighteningly unaware of his own desire. By the nineteenth century, an energetic commerce had been established between eruptions of passionate expression and white-lipped restraint. Herman Melville, the writer of the almost pathologically uncontained and uncontainable novelMoby-Dick, was also fascinated by enigmatic withdrawals from action and speech, such as those progressively practised by his character Bartleby the scrivener, who simply declines to participate in his social and professional life, with the words ‘I would prefer not to’. Another writer who elaborated the art of preferring not to was Emily Dickinson, who wrote hundreds of poems from her quiet retreat in Amherst, only a handful of which were ever published in her lifetime. The quiet, hymn-like sing-song of her poems often evokes states of carefully diminished contentment – ‘The mind is smooth – no Motion – /Contented as the Eye – /Upon the Forehead of a Bust – /That knows – it cannot see’. But the effect of all this regularity is to heighten attention to the hairline fractures that testify to the pressure of the unexpressed:

the stillness is Volcanic –
In the human face –
When on a pain Titanic –
Features keep their place -

Freedom and restraint come together remarkably in the work of Dickens. Alongside the boiling exuberance of characters like Pickwick, Sam Weller and Flora Finching, there is to be found in Dickens a whole subspecies of pinched, claustral lives, characters hunched defensively over secrets sunk so deep that they seem inaccessible even to the ones who hoard them. This was the century in which secrecy and fiction became identical. It is as though there were also for Dickens and his century some secret correspondence between secrecy itself and all this uncorked self-exposure. These tensions finally erupt in the portrait of Bradley Headstone, the resentful and jealous schoolmaster in Our Mutual Friendand John Jasper, the homicidal, opium-smoking choirmaster of a sleepy cathedral town in Dickens’s last, uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and in the many fictions of the double life in the later part ofthe century, from Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onwards.

The growing ease and expansiveness with which repression was discussed meant that denunciation of the national habit of repression, itself became a national habit in England during the twentieth century, especially after the First World War, from which so many stolidly unflappable chaps had returned with limps, quavering lips and trembling fingers. The long-delayed importation of Freud into British life, through the slightly incongruous channel of the Bloomsbury set, who undertook the work of publishing him in English, assisted this decisive rejection of Victorianism, and the formation of the modern certainty that, whatever it was we were, we were definitively, and as a matter of desperate resolve, not Victorian. E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf diagnosed an incapacity for feeling as the national malaise, and helped develop the current orthodoxy, which is apparently capable of surviving any exposure to evidence or experience, that masculinity is synonymous with the repression of feeling. Where other cultures went in for blowsy and vulgar pathologies like hysteria and psychosis, repression became a thoroughly English speciality, to which a curious kind of pride could attach. In English writing, irony, which simultaneously conceals and releases meaning, moves into the place occupied by hysteria. As a way of unsaying the very thing you are saying, or saying the very thing you’re not, irony is the perfect compromise betweeen the need to confess and the need to repress.

W.H. Auden, who seems to have been one of the most serenely unrepressed of people in his life, mocked and mourned in his writing the lives lost to rituals of self-control, with his poems about characters like Edward Lear, who ‘wept to himself in the night/A dirty landscape painter who hated his nose’, or A.E. Housman, who lived the outward life of a Latin scholar, while writing his turbulent poems of lost love and beautiful, but violently deceased young men:

Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer

Auden’s mockery was sharpest in his cruel and funny accounts of ordinary lives addled by disavowal, like Miss Gee, the parish spinster who is rewarded for her life of sexual propriety with an emphatic and inoperable sarcoma. Auden’s poem about Miss Gee is remarkable for the cunningly-maintained mismatch between its rattling rhythms and that’ll-do rhyming and the gravity of its subject. But, looked at another way, this very rift between style and subject is itself a perfect match for the failure of fit between Miss Gee’s inner and outer lives. Little details enforce the picture, like the clothes that Miss Gee wears ‘buttoned up to her neck’ and the emblematic ‘back-pedal brake’ that she applies to her bike and her life alike (bicycles, we should note, are implicated in oddly insistent ways with English fantasies of break-out and recapture – think of the careless rapture of the fag-smoking, bloomered New Woman on her bike, as recorded in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, or the misery of the pedal-pushing schoolteacher in Orwell’s The Clergyman’s Daughter). Auden gives us one of Miss Gee’s overheated dreams, in which putting on the brake only accelerates the approach of her unthinkable and voluptuous undoing:

She was biking through a field of corn,
And a bull with the face of the Vicar
Was charging with lowered horn.

She could feel his hot breath behind her,
He was going to overtake;
And the bicycle went slower and slower
Because of that back-pedal brake.

But what happens when the theory of repression becomes an orthodoxy, when the injunction ‘thou shalt not repress’ moves into the place of the old injunction ‘thou shalt not speak’? This is precisely the predicament analysed by Michel Foucault who argues compellingly, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality against what he calls the ‘repressive hypothesis’. The one thing we take care to know for absolute and infallible sure about the Victorian age, is that they were grimly repressed, that they writhingly concealed from themselves the knowledge of sexual desire. We might wonder what work of reinforcement there might be in our being so sure, or wanting to be, about the Victorians’ repressiveness and repressedness (as Jacques Derrida has remarked, being sure and wanting to be sure are the same thing). The repressive hypothesis certainly allows us to act as the authorised interpreters of what the Victorians did not know about themselves. It also surreptitiously promotes the sexuality which we are so cockily convinced that the Victorians dreaded into an essential principle of life and identity. Any denial of the deeply-laid contemporary assumption that your sexuality is not something you do, but something you essentially are, an assumption that is stronger than ever in our era of mainstream and even state-sponsored soft-porn, is automatically assumed to be the evidence of repression: how, then, do you plausibly deny that you are ‘in denial’? The subtle pressure to conform to and conform by self-expression, the idea that life is nothing but the expression of life, and silence mere death, delivers the one who labours to lift the lid and let on about themselves into the hands of those who wait patiently for them to speak, the authorities, the advertisers, the consumers of true confessions (all of us), who have prepared a stage and a script for all this spontaneous self-disclosure. It has seemed to some, such as Herbert Marcuse, who called all of this ‘repressive desublimation’, that it is the institutionalised requirement to be free of your repression, in certain approved fashions, that is really repressive. So it is not speech that is forbidden us now, it is silence; it is not desire that must be denied, in an economic system founded upon the necessity that desire be both wildly proliferative and indefatigably at attention, it is torpor, fatigue, indifference.

So what of repression today? If repression had a historical beginning, are we seeing it coming to an end? A century ago, the problem seemed to be how to find ways of telling the truth about what one felt. Now, in the age of compulsory nudism, from the participants in daytime TV shows all the way up to accessory Royalty and the President of the United States, the problem increasingly is how to find the feelings to go with all that truth-telling.