Michael R. Finn, Figures from the Pre-Freudian Unconscious from Flaubert to Proust

Michael R. Finn, Figures from the Pre-Freudian Unconscious from Flaubert to Proust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 250 pp. $80.00 PDF, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107184565

In Figures from the Pre-Freudian Unconscious from Flaubert to Proust, Michael R. Finn explores the cultural meaning of the unconscious between 1850 and 1920. Framing society as defined by two main tendencies — views of the unconscious as morally dangerous or aesthetically productive — Finn unravels a series of responses from medical practitioners and literary writers, and raises awareness of how reflections revolving around the unconscious were alive and well, long before Freud.

The book is constructed as a chronological series of case studies on Flaubert, Maupassant, the female unconscious, hypnosis, and Proust. Each chapter analyses adaptations, confrontations, or creative stances of the unconscious in fiction, tracing contemporaneous links with studies on male hysteria, the fascination with the paranormal, the woman question, the emergence of anthropology, and anti-intellectualism. The first chapter hangs these cases together: Finn sets up ‘the quarrel of the unconscious’ (24), a major cultural debate from the first third of the twentieth century, in which the physiologist and main advocate of French psychotherapy, Pierre Janet, successfully championed the view of the unconscious as pathological and automatic. Janet held reservations about Freud’s ideas regarding the creative possibilities of the unconscious, yet Finn adroitly makes a counter-intuitive move against Janet’s triumphal theory of willpower. It was precisely the cultural anxiety revolving around the possibilities of the unconscious which had elicited the medical and literary explorations of second personalities in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The chapters reveal that primordial explorations of the unconscious led by French doctors actively amalgamated with fictional discourse well into the early twentieth century.

The second chapter analyses Flaubert’s dualities of bi-genderness and creative raptures in both his fiction and his life. Finn challenges feminist readings which have placed Flaubert’s narrative as essentially egocentric, and connects his dualism with contemporaneous research on male hysteria, particularly with Landouzy’s Traité Complet de L’Hysterie. Finn argues that Flaubert’s epileptic delirium — recorded by Hippolyte Taine in De L’Intelligence — influenced not only his physical makeup, but also his fiction in general. In this respect, Flaubert’s raptures of reading are similar to what Proust would later call the unconscious through reading (63).

Finn turns next to Maupassant. He challenges the scholarly interpretation of this author’s debt to the Salpetrière’s director, Jean-Martin Charcot, and rereads stories like ‘Magnétisme’ and ‘Le Horla’ in the medico-cultural context of French infatuation with paranormal phenomena during the 1880s: Bernheim’s school at Nancy; Janet’s works on telepathy; the mushrooming of literary works which attempted to understand human faculties via the paranormal. Confronting the scholarly idea of Maupassant’s unconscious as a kind of ‘psychic strangeness’ (96), Finn argues that Maupassant’s musings about the unconscious opens up the paradoxes behind attempts — both novelistic and medical — to find objectivity in the elusive drives of the human mind.

Finn goes on to read the female as the epicentre of the medical discourse, particularly within research on hysteria. He considers three women and a female doctor who supported the generally accepted concept of female inferiority and who explored women’s education in terms of the nature of their brains. Finn argues that emergent discourse from the 1880s to 1900 about the inferior status of women hinged largely on the cultural anxiety over the fear of the female unconscious.

In the next chapter, Finn explores the relationship of ‘the most spectacular characteristics of hypnotism’ (134) with dual personalities, and its impact within French popular fiction. During the 1880s, hypnosis quickly gained attention outside the medical realm, percolating into the courtroom and the press. The fascination for hypnotic states was contemporary to the explosion of crime stories and the emergence of theories of degeneration. Here, Finn recounts a series of best-sellers which dramatized the potentialities of dual personalities in order to argue that these novels, many of which were reviewed by doctors themselves, unravel the confused state of medical thinking about the unconscious during hypnotic states.

Taking into account the increasing interest in human psychology from popular novelists like Paul Bourget and Marcel Prévost at the turn of the century (147), Finn places Proust in the context of anti-intellectualism, a cultural trend formed by writers who reacted against the experimental method, naturalism, and the socialist novel, and who generally had a taste for the paranormal. In this final chapter, Finn reads Proust’s earliest works to analyse his primal connections with Maurice Maeterlinck. He concludes with an analysis of Proust’s intuitive language based on the interpretation of sensations, in which the metaphor became a symbol of the irrational which generated, Finn anticipates, ‘one of those great poetic figures of the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries’ (186).

The most commendable aspect of this original and important book is the manner in which the author goes beyond literary representations of the unconscious, unravelling how both biographical details and processes of writing were enmeshed in the medical debate. The fascinating deployment of authors, titles, and dates demonstrates Finn’s rigorous research. Nonetheless such comprehensiveness might at times weaken some of his arguments. On the one hand, the chapter where he summarizes bestsellers concerning hypnosis risks becoming a form of literary review. On the other hand, the chapter on the female unconscious, because of the wide range of texts analysed and the general pervasiveness of the female as a medical object in history, seems a little dislocated from other chapters. What happened to women’s medicalization during the early twentieth century? Were early twentieth-century authors counter-balancing late nineteenth-century views? Apart from these minor limitations, Finn’s major investigation is nevertheless of deep importance to literary critics and historians of medicine working across a range of fields: Why and how did the unconscious permeate late nineteenth-century society? As Finn demonstrates, studying the interconnections between fiction and the medico-psychological discourse, before psychology became a field in its own right, is to formulate an answer to this important question.

Marta Ferrer, Columbia University in the City of New York