CLARA MUCCI insegna letteratura inglese presso
l'Università di Pescara, facoltà di lingue.
Si è appassionata alle teorie decostruzioniste,
femministe e psicoanalitiche durante gli
anni di ricerca e insegnamento a Londra (Westminster
College) e ad Atlanta - USA (Emory University).
Negli anni 90, a Milano, ha collaborato alla
rivista Scibbolet e ha partecipato alla fondazione
dell'APLI, Associazione Psicanalitica Lacaniana
in Italia. Durante l'estate insegna Women's
Studies per il summer program abroad dello
Hunter College, New York. Si è occupata di
questioni di marginalità e liminalità nel
periodo di Shakespeare, ("Liminal Personae - Marginalità e sovversione nel teatro elisabettiano
e giacomiano" - Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane 1995); di persecuzione delle donne come streghe
sempre nel rinascimento inglese ("Il Teatro delle Streghe -Il femminile come costruzione culturale al
tempo di Shakespeare - Liguori Editore 2001), e di riscritture del canone da parte di
donne poco definibili nel panorama del 900,
come Karen Blixen, a cui ha dedicato uno
studio sul racconto lungo "Tempests",
insieme a una lettura poststrutturalista
della Tempesta di Shakespeare ("Tempeste - Narrazioni di esilio in Shakespeare e Karen
Blixen" - Edizioni Campus 1998). Attualmente si occupa di cartografia e
anatomia rinascimentale, e di isteriche e
origini della psicoanalisi. E' studentessa
Marginalità e sovversione nel teatro elisabettiano e giacomiano"
di Clara Mucci
(Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane 1995)
"A Memoria di Donna"
Psicoanalisi e narrazione dalle isteriche di Freud a Karen Blixen
di Clara Mucci
(Carocci Editore 2004)
Mi interessa analizzare, entro il canone,
le voci dei marginali e dei repressi, di
coloro che rappresentano il valore negativo
all'interno del binarismo di una data cultura
(nel periodo storico da me analizzato: fools,
streghe, malcontent, donne rinascimentali).
Inoltre prediligo accostare a grandi autori, come Shakespeare, autrici insolite e difficili da collocare nel canone, come Karen Blixen, nonché rintracciare il discorso sovversivo della poesia entro opere canoniche e canonizzate. In tal senso la mia indagine esplora in particolare autori e autrici come Kristeva (per la marginalizzazione delle donne come soggetto politico, non legato al genere sessuale, e per la sovversione nel linguaggio poetico, vedi il suo "La rivoluzione nel linguaggio poetico"), Lacan, Freud, Greenblatt (quest'ultimo per fondamentali assunti neostoricisti che vanno però inquadrati nell'ambito del represso culturale) e Derrida (per la sua attenzione decostruzionista nei confronti del represso culturale analizzato attraverso uno smantellamento dei binarismi di una cultura in un dato periodo storico.
Narrazioni di esilio in Shakespeare e Karen Blixen"
di Clara Mucci
(Edizioni Campus 1998)
The Blank Page as a Lacanian "Object a": Silence, Women's Words, Desire, and Interpretation between Literature and Psychoanalysis
di Clara Mucci
This paper is about the "knots," the entanglements between psychoanalysis and narrative, on one side, and interpretation, on the other, as a practice both in literature and in psychoanalytic treatment. The metaphor of the blank will accompany us through a reading of - or a "listening to," as I will suggest, - the prologue of Isak Dinesen's short story "The Blank Page" (Dinesen 1975). In my reading, I will try to subvert the "master-slave" relationship traditionally implied in psychoanalytic "applications" to literature, in which psychoanalytic theory is "applied" to literary texts as the superior "tool" that can explain all the unconscious, secret meanings in the text. Subverting this relationship means to deconstruct a long lasting habit in the interpretive practice both in literature and in psychoanalysis, in which interpretation is an act of appropriation and expropriation of a text, of a textual body that should be simply left open to speak with its own voice. I will therefore invoke Shoshana Felman as the "guarantor" of this "truth," to use provocative Lacanian language, a truth that refuses to consider psychoanalysis as a subject and literature as an object, repeating binary oppositions traditionally accepted and that relegate the second term of the opposition (like male/female, white/black, rational/irrational, culture/nature) to a marginal, inferior position. My argument is that interpretation has often been, in psychoanalysis as well as in literary criticism, an act of penetration and intrusion if not abuse onto the textual body. Using a literary example, I will identify the very notion of the blank, as the empty space in a text, ("the inconsistencies, the failure of speech and significations," as Robert Con Davis says, in Lacan and Narration, 1983, p. 854), marked by absence, negation, silence, death, as the very site of a difference in the text, the place where the voice of the Other, in Lacan's words, speaks.
Together with "The Blank Page", I will use Freud's Dora as an example of a "betrayed" story, exemplifying on the analyst's part a desire of appropriation of a different story felt as other, therefore to be repressed or erased, in any case misrecognized. I will indicate in Freud's desire to "fill in the gaps" in Dora's narrative the same desire of repression and misrecognition at work when literary critics (of both sexes), appropriate the text and impose their own reading on it, projecting their own fantasies on it or levelling and erasing the otherness in the text, its specificity, the distance created between the text and ourselves.
The prologue of Dinesen's story reads:
By the ancient city gate sat an old coffee-brown, black-veiled woman, who made her living by telling stories.
'You want a tale, sweet lady and gentleman? Indeed, I have told many tales, one more than a thousand, since that time when I first let young men tell me myself tales of a red rose,.... It was my mother's mother, the black-eyed dancer, the often-embraced, who in the end -wrinkled like a winter-apple and crouching beneath the mercy of the Veil - took upon herself to teach me the art of story-telling. Her own mother's mother had taught it her, and both were better story-tellers than I am. …'
Now, if she is well paid and in good spirits, she will go on.
'With my grandmother, 'she said,' I went through a hard school'. "Be loyal to the story," the old hag would say to me. "Be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story." "Why must I be that, Grandmother?" I asked her. "Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?" she cried. 'And you mean to be a story-teller? Why, you are to become a story-teller, and I shall give you my reasons! Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. - Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not."'
'Who, then,' she continues, 'tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of the highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all - where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.' (pp.125-26)
After this warning, the old woman story-teller sitting at the margins of the city, like an ancient oracle, proclaims that the old women story-tellers know the story of the blank page, a disturbing and mysterious story, which might "amongst the uninitiated, weaken our own credit" but that she, out of exceptional generosity, will tell us. This second story, born within the story of the blank page, leads us to the blue mountains of Portugal, where an old convent of the Carmelite order is located, a convent renowned for growing the finest flax and manufacturing the most exquisite linen of Portugal (p.127). For centuries, the convent has enjoyed the privilege of supplying bridal sheets to all the young princesses of the royal house and of receiving back the central piece of the "snow-white sheet which bore witness to the honour of a royal bride' (p.129). But the real peculiarity and attraction of the convent consists in a long gallery situated in the main wing of the convent on whose walls 'hangs a long row of heavy, gilt frames, each of them adorned with a coroneted plate of pure gold, on which is engraved the name of a princess'(ibid.). Each of these frames 'encloses a square cut from a royal wedding sheet" bearing the 'faded markings' of the wedding night (ibid.). Many princesses proceeded there on a pilgrimage "which was by nature both sacred and secretly gay"(p.130) to read the stories told by the canvases. But, the old woman says,
in the midst of a long row there hangs a canvas which differs from the others. The frame of it is as fine and as heavy as any, and as proudly as any carries the golden plate with the royal crown. But on this one plate no name is inscribed, and the linen within the frame is snow-white from comer to corner - a blank page....It is in front of this piece of pure white linen that the old princesses of Portugal - wordly-wise, dutiful, long-suffering queens, wives and mothers - and that their noble old playmates, bridesmaids and maids-of-humour, have most often stood still. It is in front of the blank page that old and young nuns, with the Mother Abbess herself, sink into deepest thought. (p. 131)
In the words of the ambiguous woman story-teller, the prologue suggestively indicates the blank page as the locus where "a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale" can be read. She also suggests that "silence" tells "a finer tale" than "any of us," and that one reads a "deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book" only "upon the blank page". Two more points should be stressed: that in order for silence to speak in the end, the story-teller has to be "loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story"; and that when the story "has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness." Finally, the prologue says, no reasons have to be furnished to the story-teller or by the story-teller; and moreover, only "the faithful" "will hear the voice of silence." Silence as the final word to be heard needs the hard school of faithfulness.
For the purposes of my discourse, I will associate the analysand to a story-teller, recounting the story of his/her life, first; and I will then indicate how the analyst in Freud's writings (especially "Construction in Analysis" and "Analysis Terminable and Interminable") can be associated to a story-teller, as the one who recounts a story for the analysand. A similar analogy can be traced in literature both as creative practice and criticism, in which not only the writer is a story-teller, but the literary critic, in a sense, while reading the text retells a story. In both circumstances, the problem of 'faithfulness" is central, and I will show how in both cases (in literature as well as in psychoanalysis) the final aim to achieve, at the end, is "silence," which will be read in Lacanian terms.
lf we ask why the beginning passage of Isak Dinesen's short story is so powerfully evocative, if we try, with our habit of literary critics trained to furnish reasons for the beauty and mystery of a text, the only thing we can actually do is to tell in return a story, a concatenate, Logical sequence of causes and effects, expressed through words within a temporal structure. That is to say, we would use a story to account for another story. But isn't this meta-narrative element present in any kind of literary criticism exactly one of the revolutionary aspects of psychoanalysis, consisting, as Meredith Skura says (1981, p.9) in "explaining one part of the story by another - today's symptom by yesterday trauma - instead of evoking external physiological explanations"? The function of the analyst as a story-teller is clear when Freud argues ('Constructions in Analysis', SE 23, p. 260) that the analyst, while interpreting "constructs a piece of narrative and then communicates it to the subject of analysis so that it may work upon him; he then constructs a further piece out of the fresh material pouring upon him, deals with it in the same way and proceeds in this alternating fashion until the end." That the kind of truth implied by psychoanalysis is a kind of fictive, fictional truth, whose validity is symbolic though effective for the treatment, is clear in Freud's statement that even when the analyst's reconstruction is not able to recollect repressed sequences of the analysand's story, it nonetheless gives him, Freud explains (ibid., p. 256) "an assured conviction of the truth of the construction which achieves the same therapeutic result as a re-captured memory." For Freud and such post-Freudians as Donald Spence and Roy Schafer, at "the end of the analysis," even if to trace such a moment is a theoretical impossibility, a new story may be reconstructed, a story which inscribes itself in the old trace but which is now capable of re-expressing a healthier, positive contact with reality (Spence 1982; Schafer 1983).
The meta-narrative element is present in psychoanalysis also in the writing of case-histories, which, as Freud confesses with some embarrassment in Studies in Hysteria (SE 2, p.160), "lack the serious stamp of science" and "should read like short stories," but which nonetheless enable him, through a "detailed description of mental processes" to obtain at least "some kind of insight into the course of that affection." A description, Freud says, a story of the illness, built through language and narrative structure, is useful to the treatment itself. "Hysterics suffer from reminiscences," Freud writes, and the pattern we could trace between words, narration, and memories in the practice of the talking cure (the session) and in the theory (the case history) is indeed striking. But in the very act of writing a case history, using narrative and literary tools to cast some light on the obscurities of mental illness, Freud betrays his desire to master the patient's life history through his own words. As Susan R. Suleiman puts it, Freud betrays his desire to possess "the authority of a Balzacian narrator" (Rimmon-Kenan 1987, p. 130).
In the case of Dora, Freud's faith in the "healing capacity of coherent story-telling" (Rimmon-Kenan 1987, p.128) will finally lead him to a failure in the treatment. To go back to the teachings of the prologue of "The Blank Page", Freud's need to "furnish reasons" in order to reconstruct a narrative coherence will lead him to miss Dora's real story, which is relegated to the margins of the book in a few, illuminating notes. Even if Freud recognizes that the failure in the treatment is due to his incapacity "to master the transference in good time" (Freud 1963, p.140), he remains nonetheless convinced throughout the writing of the case history that the aim of the cure is "an intelligent, consistent and unbroken story" in which "all the damages to the patient's memory have been repaired"(p.32). Freud is unwilling to recognize in this case his countertransferential feelings, leading him to take the place, in Dora's story, of the virile figure of Herr K. In contrast with the prologue of Dinesen's story, which teaches us to investigate without furnishing reasons, Freud's insights about Dora are just the outcome of his own projections onto her text. I could not disagree more with Donald Spence when he writes about interpretation in psychoanalysis: "Gaps must be filled; explanations must be supplied; puzzles must be clarified. What we are after -it seems - is a narrative account that provides a coherent picture of the events in question" (Spence 1982, p. 180). Dora's story is a betrayed story; at the end of that case-history, silence will be emptiness.
In fact, to attribute to a text and to a patient our reasons is the mistake of a psychoanalytic or a literary approach not sufficiently sensitive to the "letter" of the text, as Lacan would say. In order to be loyal to the story, in literature as in psychoanalysis, we have to consider the act of reading, as Cixous says, as an act of "listening" ('Conversations," in Sellers 1986), rather than the endorsement and application of a theory onto a text. A state of "active receptivity" is needed, according to Cixous, in which the reader is as open as possible to bear what the text is consciously and unconsciously saying. Listening to a text in this way requires, in order to become aware as much as possible of our countertransferential response, stringent work on the self: "though no reading can ever be definitive, a reading which opens itself in this way will lead the reader to awareness of other possible threads, enabling the reader to advance further on the path of textual and self-understanding" (Sellers 1988, p.7). Reading for Cixous is "letting oneself be read" by a text (ibid., p. 147). If Freud had let himself be read by Dora, in other words, if he had remained open to the listening of her story instead of filling the gaps in it, he might have recognized Dora's bisexuality in her desire for Frau K., and his own countertransferential feelings for the young patient. Like the story-teller in the prologue, both psychoanalysts and literary critics have to be trained at a very hard school, in order to be able to recognize their own desires, their own unconscious material, which inevitably they are likely to project on their readings. The "intermediate region" in which interpretation takes place, both in the session and in the practice of literary criticism, is in fact a transferential space, as Brooks has argued (Rimmon-Kenan 1987, p. 10).
Freud's desire for a narrative coherence is typical of the 19th-century novel and its solid faith in the power of the narrator, holding tight in his hands the strings of the narration. With Dora, Freud finds himself trapped in the position of a modem or post- modern "unreliable narrator" (Stephen Marcus, in Berheimer e Kahane eds., p.66) doomed by the "incompleteness" of the story he is retelling (the word "incompleteness," together with such words as "missing," "mutilated," "omitted," return obsessively throughout the prefatory remarks to the case-history). Ironically, what Freud is left with, in spite of his desire to master the entire story, is, indeed, a "fragment," as the subtitle of the case history reads (Dora: Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria). Unable to leave the blanks in Dora's narrative open, he cannot hear her true voice speaking through silence and inconsistencies. In the emptiness of her betrayed story, Dora leaves therapy.
According to Jacques Lacan, nothing like the reconstruction of a coherent story is more distant from the final aim of the psychoanalytic "talking cure". In this regard, Lacan ambiguously and suggestively states that "the nature of the efficacious action of analysis is to bring the subject to recognize and to name his desire... But it is not a question of recognizing something that would have already been there -a given- ready to be captured. In naming it, the subject creates, gives rise to something new, makes something new present in the world." (Séminaire II, p. 267). The analysis becomes, in this view, a process of, to use Felman's words, "historical integration of the spoken - but misrecognized - part of the subject (Davis 1983, pp. 1025-1026)", the assumption of his/her history through an act of speech, since "an utterance is the misrecognized part of the subject" (S.II, p.58), and "desire emerges at the moment of its incarnation into speech" (S.II, p.273). To recognize and assume the story the patient has misrecognized, by which nonetheless he/she is played out since the beginning, means to teach the subject to recognize his unconscious, defined by Lacan as "that chapter of my history that is marked by a blank" (Écrits, p.50). This act of recognition, for Lacan, is not simply cognitive, but it is performative, it is a speech-act, whose symbolic action modifies the subject's history. The final word to name, for Lacan, the final desire to recognize is "a desire of nothing nameable" (S.II, pp. 261-62); the final word to name in the assumption of one's destiny is death.
By death Lacan means the radical de-centerment from one's own ego, the radical acceptance of one's own self-expropriation, as the recognition of the presence of the Other within oneself, and the discourse of this Other speaking through the subject. To assume this death is, for Lacan, the final aim of the analysis. That is why Lacan, reading Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, states that only at Colonus, when he accepts his own death, Oedipus reaches the end of his joumey. "You will have to read Oedipus at Colonus. You will see that the last word of man's relation to this discourse which he does not know is - death" (5.11, p.245). The connection between death and language is embodied by the unconscious as the displacement of desire which each of us undergoes as a child born to language: to symbolize, Shoshana Felman has suggestively argued (Davis 1983, p.1029) is "to incorporate death in language, in order to survive." Through the displacement of desire the child has to undergo because of the overcoming of the Oedipus complex, he/she assumes through language his/her own death, the sign of his/her renunciation, which will remained sealed in language as the site of desire, masked and twisted by the mechanisms of metonymy and metaphor, in linguistic terms, or displacement and condensation, in psychoanalytic terms. In other words, language becomes the sign left to remind us of the fundamental lack, the radical de-centerment constituting ourselves as subjects. The dialectic of desire in which human beings are trapped is in fact intended as "a relation of a being to a lack" (S.II, p. 261). This dialectic defines the transferential space both in literature and in psychoanalysis. Becoming aware of this lack shaping life for everybody is the only possible achievement of a true analysis, which cannot but be "interminable", as Freud teaches. In the same way, any critical interpretation of a text will be "interminable", structured by the dialectic of desire, defined as the relation of a being to a lack.
The Lacanian notion of "object a" is profitable here for our discourse. In Schneiderman's definition (Schneiderman 1980, pp.7-8), the object a is "not the representation of a denial of a lack; it indicates the place of the lack and its irreducibility. The object a is a trace, a leftover, a remainder. We can summarize its concept by saying that it leaves something to be desired [...]. The object a represents the step beyond the Oedipus complex. [...] Freud said in the last paragraph of The Interpretation of dreams that desire is indestructible. We may thus conclude by saying that there is always something left to cause desire." The blank page therefore becomes the symbolic representation of this lack, the place of the lack and its irreducibility, a sort of Lacanian object a.
In one of his most controversial works, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1919), Freud situates desire beyond the life cycle. The compulsion to repeat which he saw at work in human beings as well as in nature is the main evidence for a death-wish shaping nature and life. Stressing Freud's latest achievements and reinterpreting them within a linguistic frame, Lacan argues that beyond the pleasure principle, in the story of psychoanalysis, and beyond the Oedipus' complex, in the story of human beings, speech becomes the place of the inevitable symbolic castration, the death to which each of us has to submit to enter the symabolic order. Lack, death, de-centerment identify the subject as such, and force him/her to remain kept within the net of desire. Any dialogic relationship becomes a transferential one.
The fascinating blank page, then, in which there will always be "something left to cause desire", may be taken as a powerful representation of unconscious discourse itself, "that chapter of my history marked by a blank," the erased, censored chapter of the history that has to be retrieved through an act of speech. More than the representation of a Freudian "forepleasure", it exemplifies the locus where all gaps and lacks speak- It will be the place where to find, as the prologue says, a "deeper, sweeter, merrier" and a "more cruel tale," told by its very absence from the scene of writing, the place where no reasons can be furnished.
In Of Grammatology, Derrida sees difference as the result of this dialectic between presence and absence, in which the "hinge," the split, the fracture, the fragment is the main reference for articulation and meaning; the 'fundamental unconsciousness of language' and the spacing (pause, blank, punctuation, interval in general) constitutes the 'origin of signification [...] Spacing (notice that this word speaks the articulation of space and time, the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space) is always the unperceived, the non-present, the non conscious. [...] It marks the dead time within the presence of the living present within the general form of all presence.' (Derrida 1976, p. 68). The blank is . precisely the representation of spacing as writing which in Derrida's explanation is "the becoming-absent and the becoming-unconscious of the subject. ...As the subject relationship with its own death, this becoming is the constitution of subjectivity. On all levels of life's organization, that is to say, of the economy of death" (p.69).
The blank in Dinesen's story, the lack of the red spot of blood on the white linen, which is nonetheless capable of communicating the most intense, mysterious story, support Derrida's argument that "signification is formed only within the hollow of difference: of discontinuity and of discreteness, of the diversion and the reserve of what does not appear" (ibid.). The missing spot can be read and can achieve signification only through its difference from and interplay with the other spots, present. The missing stain becomes the representation of writing per se: "the hinge marks the impossibility that a sign, the unity of a signifier and a signified, be produced within the plenitude of a present and an absolute presence" (ibid.). What the blank does is, precisely, to negate and subvert the metaphysics of presence, as the "other" which testifies of "a relationship with death as the concrete structure of the living present" (p. 71). As writing in the Derridean sense, opposed to speech and presence, the blank represents death itself necessary within the discourse of difference to counteract presence and its delusions.
In literary criticism, we should listen to the gaps and lapses themselves, to the "inconsistencies, the failure of speech and significations" of the text. lf we are able to listen to the decline of the narrating voice, the silence will not be emptiness, but will give voice to the discourse of the Other speaking a desire nearer and nearer to death. Only an interpretation open to the difference in a text, to the Other- the subtext subverting the traditionally accepted ones-can be loyal to the story, in the psychoanalytic practice, as well as in the literary practice.
The place where no meaning seems possible, the blank, becomes the place of all possible meaning, the representation in absentia of the impossibility of telling the story or of the performed erasure within the story. It becomes the symbol of the accomplished "self-expropriation" in the story, the last word and the last desire, a desire of "nothing nameable," speaking through silence.
To conclude, I would say about narrative in life as in literature what Lacan says about the psychoanalysis practice: "The game is already played, the dice are already thrown, with this one exception, that we can take them once more in our hand, and throw them once again" (5. 11, p.256). All the meaning in interpretation, both in literature and in psychoanalysis, lies precisely in "this one exception," in this metaphorical "taking the dice once more in our hand" and throwing them once again, when the game of our story, of our life, is already played. At the end, we hope, silence will speak.
The Institute of the Liberal Arts, Emory University.
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|"Il Teatro delle Streghe"
Il femminile come costruzione culturale al tempo di Shakespeare
di Clara Mucci
(Liguori Editore 2001)