Lana Lin, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer

Lana Lin, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017) 224 pp. £22.00 Pb. ISBN:  9780823277728

For years after its surgical removal, the literary theorist Roland Barthes retained a piece of his own rib in a drawer alongside other items of sentimental value (e.g., an old set of keys, his student report card). The rib was removed from Barthes during a twelve-year bout of illness, during which he was frequently forced to spend time in hospitals and sanitoriums. According to Lana Lin, Barthes’ desire to hang onto the rib may have stemmed from a wish to maintain a feeling of wholeness, of bodily integrity. As she proposes in Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects: Fractured Subjectivity in the Face of Cancer, serious illness can threaten or outright disrupt one’s sense of bodily integrity, exposing the subject to the ‘unwanted knowledge that from the outset we have never been entirely whole, a knowledge that most of us repress in order to function day to day’ (2). Informed by psychoanalysis and Melanie Klein’s concept of reparation, Lin’s focus in Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objectsis how subjects have responded to the destabilising effects of cancer. Her interest is in three individuals’ experience of the disease – psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, poet Audre Lorde and literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The aim of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objectsis to reflect on what objects and practices Freud, Lorde and Sedgwick used to sustain their sense of psychic unity.

The first of Lin’s chapters focuses on Sigmund Freud, who suffered from cancer of the mouth for sixteen years prior to his death. As part of his treatment, Freud was subject to an aggressive surgical intervention which resulted in him losing a large chunk of his mouth. A series of prostheses were then utilized by Freud to allow him to chew, talk and smoke. Yet, as Lin shows, these prostheses were an ongoing source of difficulty for Freud. They required regular maintenance and adjustment: unlike human tissue, the prostheses were unable to adapt to the changing conditions of Freud’s mouth. They remained imperfect, and little substitute for the sections of his jaw that had been surgically excised. Lin adopts a novel reading of Freud, contending that his oral prostheses can be understood in Kleinian terms as both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects – allowing him to eat, talk and smoke, but also threatening his sense of bodily integrity by acting as a constant reminder of absence. Moreover, Lin identifies a similar life-death paradox in Freud’s fondness for cigar-smoking – it was cause of his cancer, but it was also an activity that was integral to the social gatherings of psychoanalysts that he coordinated, and also to Freud’s creative endeavours (Freud would often write with a cigar in hand).

Lin’s reading of Freud is intriguing and thoughtful, and sections of the first chapter are devoted to laying the Kleinian foundation that recurs later in Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects. Yet the chapter also feels oddly disconnected from its subject-matter: it is only around two-thirds through that reference to his correspondence and other writings allow Freud to truly ‘speak’. Moreover, Lin introduces a discussion of Freud’s daughter, Anna, too late in the chapter to properly develop. Indeed, although the chapter introduces themes and issue that recur later in the text, they are only vaguely tied back into the over-arching argument of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects.

Thankfully, these issues are largely confined to Lin’s discussion of Freud. The second chapter’s focus on Audre Lorde is much sharper and better connected to its subject. It begins with a brief discussion of the role of the breast in Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalysis, before turning to Lorde’s experience of breast cancer and mastectomy, and its effect on her internal psychic state. Lin pivots from Lorde’s work on objectification and othering, of recognizing herself as the source of another’s hatred, to a broader consideration of how the subject comes to recognize herself and form a sense of psychic wholeness. Lin notes how Lorde eschewed breast reconstruction, criticizing it for diminishing the identity of the post-mastectomy woman. Moreover, borrowing from Klein, Lin reads breast reconstruction as borne out of a desire to repair part-objects, before offering an insightful conclusion to the chapter which reads Lorde’s invocation for others to identify with her as a form of mourning for the lost part-object.

It is in her discussion of Lorde that Lin adeptly weaves in her own experience of breast cancer and a critical reading of breast reconstruction. Indeed, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects is replete with its author’s experiences and anecdotes, which would have felt divergent or off-piste in less skilled hands. Lin’s strength is in being able to include herself within the discussion yet without compromising on the integrity or focus of her argument. This comes across in the third chapter of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, where Lin writes of her transferential response to the writings of literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The chapter focuses on Sedgwick’s ‘cancer writings’ – her memoir, published in 1999, and the advice columns she published between 1998 and 2003 in MAMM, a magazine devoted to women with cancer. As Sedgwick confessed in 2000, however, no-one wrote to her for advice at MAMM, so she simply invented correspondents whom she could then respond to, writing (and then publishing) both her correspondent’s letter and her advice-column. Lin thus reads Sedgwick’s writings as performative, marveling at how Sedgwick was able to use her writings both to challenge dominant trends with the literature on cancer ‘survivors’, but also as a project of collective reparation for those living with the disease.

The final substantive chapter to Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects returns the focus to Freud – or, at least, to the two museums, in London and Vienna, dedicated to him. This marks a break with the earlier chapters, for Lin is here concerned more with materiality than subjectivity. Her interest is in understanding whether archives can ever successfully perform the work of reparation. Lin’s work is particularly rich and engaging, and not hampered by the earlier chapter’s disconnect from Freud: indeed, Lin devotes several pages to documenting Freud’s fondness for collecting antiquities. How this chapter connects to the earlier discussion of cancer is, however, never fully explained, though this is consonant with the conclusion of Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects. It offers not a space to tie everything together (for this would imply a complete whole) but acts as a space for Lin to articulate her broader argument. Indeed, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Object sends with a riling and bold assertion of the need for us to embrace disunity and to build a ‘collaborative project of survival’ (154) that allows us to prepare for an ever-more unpredictable future. As throughout Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, the conclusion hints at a set of themes that have a profound resonance, and which stretch far beyond the experience of cancer.

 Ryan Ross, University of London