Review of Elisabeth Bronfen’s Night Passages: Philosophy, Literature, Film

Posted by Dale Townshend on August 04, 2014 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Night Passages: Philosophy, Literature, Film. By Elisabeth Bronfen. Trans. Elisabeth Bronfen with David Brenner.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
ISBN: 978 0 231 14799 6

Reviewed by Scott Brewster

Elisabeth Bronfen has long had something of the night about her. So much is apparent from the landmark study Over Her Dead Body (MUP, 1992), whose cover image is Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. Fuseli’s phantasmagoric imbrication of fear, imagination and death epitomizes the Gothic and its ambivalent relation to the nocturnal. The woman sprawled on her bed is not dead, but sleeping; she is imperilled by the incubus seated on her breast, but the threat is suspended or, if she is dreaming, turned inward from the physical to the psychical. Above all, nighttime is active, and not just the threshold to oblivion. In her most recent book, originally published in German in 2008, Bronfen shows how the spiritual vision privileged by night can bring forth either ‘ecstatic visions or horrific nightmares’ (178): her study represents a sustained exploration of the nocturnal scene, or event, conjured by Fuseli. She reads the night as representing that which the Enlightenment denies; it constitutes a ‘blind spot’, a trace of unreason, at the centre of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment subject. The night is thus more than a trope; rather, it is a means ‘to think about what the Enlightenment project designates as unthinkable’. As such, the night has clear affinities with Gothic, and it is no surprise that Night Passages devotes a whole section to ‘Gothic Nights’. These four chapters ‘explore a gothic sensibility of the night’ (178), and the ways in which the contest between night and day transforms into a night-time struggle between good and evil, between the risk of a fall from grace and a promise of redemption. While vision might be impaired by darkness, the night shines with a different light, and illuminates familiar Gothic tensions: threat and opportunity, danger and pleasure, loss of control and liberation (178). Even as the advance of artificial light promises to drive out nocturnal demons, the Gothic night reawakens the magical thinking banished by Enlightenment thought (179). The night it performs ‘not only doubles the day, but is itself doubled’; as an ‘uncanny chronotopos […] the night is not only divided, but also sustains its own negative dialectics’, liberating ‘the everyday from its ordinary securities’ (181).

Night Passages is dedicated to Bronfen’s mother, from whom she first learned ‘the charm of living the night’. The book is richly evocative, and the analysis is rangy and associative rather than programmatic: ideas flicker with a haunting insistence. To trace the ways in which Western culture has consistently rediscovered the night, there are crossings between cosmogenic narratives, including Hesiod (the story of Nyx and her daughters shows night as a creative power), Hegel (all thought voyages constantly through darkness towards illumination) and Freud (the unconscious is the night side of the psyche), film noir, Milton, Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. At the outset, Bronfen establishes her argument by using Emmanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) to exemplify how modern ideas of the night were constructed by an Enlightenment that sought to ‘deplore’ night by ‘exiling it from the realm of reason’ (2). In the opera, ‘doomed night’ is codified as ‘maternal power, magical thinking, transgression of rationality and strict discipline’ and, through the Queen of Night, the libretto demonstrates how the Enlightenment’s project to safeguard paternal sovereignty ‘must produce again the very regime of nocturnal power it seeks to defeat and replace’. Bronfen sees the late eighteenth century as a cultural moment when names, and stories, had to be found for ‘those dark psychic, social, and cultural energies that bourgeois society had worked to overcome, or at least restrain’ (3).

In the ‘Gothic Nights’ section, Bronfen first discusses Macbeth, a play that confronts the nocturnal battle between good and evil at an historical moment when ‘modern subjectivity found itself entering into a state of moral and psychic confusion and was compelled to experience the night side of the soul before salvation could be found’ (185). The play unfolds in the night, which operates as both a stage and a state of mind. The next chapter examines Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, which ‘refigures the Christian struggle between good and evil in terms of a modern understanding of the psyche’. In the novel, the nocturnal side of life will not be banished from diurnal consciousness, and the night’s ability to evade repression ensures that ‘no one is immune from the risk of drawing guilt upon himself’ (194). This leads onto a discussion of Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’, where night is the time of prophetic visions of horror and catastrophe. The story is shaped by Nathaniel’s nocturnal sight, which is at once deluded and all-too-true. The paternal authority figure presides over his night vision, and means that Nathaniel will never securely orientate himself by the rational light of day. Nonetheless, as Clara, the clear-sighted bride of the tale and a model psychoanalyst avant-la-lettre, points out, one can choose to resist the call of the creatures of the night: the spectres must be treated as real so that they can be confronted and their malign power disarmed. One must inhabit, but not succumb, to the lure of the night (204). Yet what is seen in the day can provoke irresolvable doubt: there is no balance, no truce, between a diurnal worldview and nocturnal state of mind, no satisfying cure or clearing of confusion.

Bronfen then entwines Breuer’s analysis of the ‘hysteric’ Anna O. with Freud’s interpretation of ‘The Sandman’, having earlier suggested that in Gothic texts – and their counterpart, the psychoanalytic case history – the night transforms the moral battle between damnation and salvation into a struggle between illness and its treatment. In Studies on Hysteria, Freud and Breuer identify demons to be tackled and exorcized, and the case studies ‘follow the narrative dramaturgy of a gothic novella’. The analysis of Anna O. discloses the ‘nocturnal side of her soul’, her treatment taking place in a ‘psychic night’ produced by the analyst (210). Breuer adopts a ‘gothic mode’ in his therapy, as the patient’s night state appears to be ‘the only mode of self-articulation in which she could find a language for her distress’. Not only is the nocturnal side of the psyche both a catalyst and source of illumination for the uncanny, the case history of Anna O. ‘turns’ on ‘the mutual implication of rational insight and phantomatic delusion’ (213). As Anna reflects, even her ‘bad’ night self is capable of calm observation and clear thinking. Bronfen then analyses Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ as a fictional case history of hysteria; the governess, like Anna O., confronts her inner demons in isolation, lodged in a ‘murky interface between ghost seeing and will to truth’ (214). The governess’s night vision not only overwhelms the imagination of her younger self, but also shapes the poetic language of her retrospective confession (218). The governess’s plight reveals that, as in so many of psychoanalytic case histories, lying and telling the truth – and, one might say, obscurity and illumination – are mutually dependent.

The next chapter, dealing with the double, focuses primarily on Jane Eyre and Frankenstein, novels in which ‘a reduplication of the self that floods the ordinary day with traces of the nocturnal aspect of the psyche opens up a dreamscape in which imaginations can take shape as though they were real’ (225-6). The doppelganger, inseparable from diurnal consciousness, ‘embodies night’s complex duality par excellence’; the figure is not only a counterpart to the day, but is also itself doubled, offering temptation and redemption (222). Milton’s Satan offers a parallel; like the double, Satan represents the return of an ‘allegedly vanquished force from a realm of darkness’ (224). At the end of Brontë’s novel Jane and Rochester enter a day that is no longer void, and where Jane needs no doubles. Contrastingly, in Frankenstein ‘the nocturnal conversation the ego has with its moral reason produces a complete eclipse of all diurnal light’. Victor looks at the day ‘through the eyes of the night’, away from the enlightenment of natural science, and the devastation of his world discloses the reality that an Enlightenment ambition to ‘recode’ death in the service of life ‘can only produce more death’ (241).

The final chapter locates the modern version of the battle between good and evil battle in the uninhibited pleasure of nocturnal flaneurs. The nocturnal city replaces the ‘gothic forest of romantic imagination’ (246), its diffuse light producing a flaneur whose privileged night vision perceives the connections that become apparent ‘only in artificial illuminations’ (247). The discussion surveys fiction and film, from Poe and Arthur Schnitzler to Martin Scorsese. These narratives embody ‘a double meaning of freedom’; to traverse the urban night without restraint ‘means to arrive both everywhere and nowhere’ (250). In Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’, the uncanny doppelganger allows the narrator to experience the thrill of modern urban anonymity, while in Schnitzler’s ‘Dream Story’, nightwalking can make imagination real, bringing the flaneur to the brink of the abyss his fantasies have summoned up, yet protecting him from its ‘impenetrable nothingness’ (255). Scorsese’s Taxi Driver portrays Travis Bickle as self-reliant and yet utterly exposed to the infinity of the urban night. Cinema, the projection of light onto a white screen in a darkened auditorium, can be construed too readily as ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, but in film the salvation from darkness is only made possible through darkness (264). The film’s closing images show Travis gazing intently into his rear-view mirror, the images on the windowpane blurring before the screen finally splits in half, shutting us off from his vision. The spectators leave Travis behind in his endless cinematic night, one that ‘recedes from our grasp’ but allows us to regain ‘our self-certainty’.

Bronfen finds an anchoring point for her rhetorical claims about the Gothic night in the ‘psychic peregrinations’ of the various characters she examines; their confessions ‘draw attention to the textuality of their night vision, the aesthetic production of their nocturnal knowledge by someone who reconceives them after the event in a different medium, whether novella, novel, or cinema’ (265). As Bronfen observes, the unavoidable haziness and partiality of this reconstruction of night confronts the spectator at the end of Taxi Driver: Travis may tarry in the darkness, but ‘we are irrevocably outside’. The night will not ‘let itself be read’ or, to put in Freud’s terms, it – like the dream – does not wish to be understood. To cross into, or intrude upon, the other’s night is to undertake a loose translation without a secure point of reference or comparison: we spectate rather than inhabit. The desire to reconceive is both a seduction and an irreducible limitation for the work of analysis, as Freud acknowledged, and it marks Bronfen’s intricate, acute and compelling study. There is a tendency to work through loose analogy, with things often couched as ‘not unlike’ or ‘congruous with’, as if acknowledging the blurred clarity of night vision. The uncanny and the unconscious, for example, are treated as almost synonymous, each viewed as ‘not unlike’ Lucifer, in that ‘the expelled drives bring something to light’. These fleeting connections and perceptions recall the fascination, and the challenge, of the enigmatic Fuseli image. What is the relation of the incubus and the horse to the sleeping woman? Are these figures threats or exemplars? A warning, or an invitation to the imagination? This is, perhaps, the only story we can tell when we return from our night passage. As Bronfen suggests in her Prologue, we carry something from the dark of night into the morning after; to think about this new day ‘brings with it an ongoing exchange between dreaming and awakening; between dissolving boundaries and drawing new demarcations’ (xiv). Night Passages acknowledges and celebrates ‘the resilient aftereffect the night has on the day’ (xiv), but the ‘nocturnal knowledge’ it reveals is visible only as the shadowy outline or the receding tail-light.

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