From the Imaginary Portrait to the Case History : Pater and Freud

Benedicte Coste

University of Montpellier


"The bear and the whale never quarrel for they never meet. Could this be possible that they would hardly have anything to say to each other " : this is the apologue quoted by the French psycho-analyst H. Rey-Flaud to warn us from unduly confusing psychoanalysis and literature.
Through its structure, topics and characters, the literary text can give form and interest to the the creations of neuroses, perversions or psychoses; however literature should not be mistaken for nosography. Yet, there is a literary genre whose birth was parallel to the birth of psychoanalyis, akin to Freud's case histories and which is the literary portrait as Walter Pater (1839-94) invented it and raised to the dignity of a work of art at the close of the XIXth century (Imaginary Portraits, 1887). The imaginary portrait as the direct ancestor to Freud's cases histories will be the topic of my presentation. I shall focus on the genre of the literary portrait, itself a by-product of Sainte-Beuve's literary portraits, which Pater transformed into a reflection on the relationships between men and destiny. These portraits are also to be read as precursors of Freud's meditations on the rapport between the subject and the signifier. What matters in Pater's portraits is not so much his characters's failures as their relationship to the Other as the text articulates it. His method of casting a (seemingly) retrospective glance on a life (whether imaginary or not) in order to define the existential position of the subject will be echoed by Freud, who, at the same time, wrote his Studies on Hysteria (1894). The Studies pertain to the aesthetics of the fragment, again a feature of the Decadence, but they also herald the 20th century's great cases (Dora, President Schreber) and partake of the genre of the literary portrait whose psychoanalytical aim is therapeutic, explanatory and exemplary. The literary aspect of Freud's texts is often neglected as is the existential character of Pater's portraits. We would like to revise that judgement in order to rearticulate the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis in an interdisciplinary perspective.