46.2 Feature: Craft Essay by Jessica Lanay

Aug 3, 2020Feature, Fiction Print, Poetry Print

Jessica Lanay is an art writer, poet, librettist, and short fiction writer. She is a frequent contributor to BOMB Magazine where you can find her interviews with Howardena Pindell, El Anatsui, Alan Michelson, and others. Her poetry can be found in Poet Lore, Indiana Review, The Common, [PANK], Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, and others. Her debut poetry collection am●phib●ian won the 2020 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize from Broadside Lotus Press. Her short fiction can be found in Tahoma Literary Review, Duende, and Black Candies. In 2020, the opera she libretted, Virgula Divina, composed by Karen Brown, will premiere with Pittsburgh Festival Opera. She is a 2018 recipient of a Millay Colony Residency. Also, in 2018, Jessica Lanay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poem “Milk. Milk. Milk,” that appeared in The Normal School.

Letter from the Patient: Freud’s Antiquities &…

I knelt down in the library beside the bottom row of books filled with letters. There were volumes of correspondence. Each book about 500 pages. Back and forth, back and forth. Here before me, relatively untouched, the personal imaginings of the Father of Psychology, Sigmund Freud, and his once best friend, protege, maybe more, Sándor Ferenczi. I do not remember how many volumes there were because there were so many; I read three.

Humans are always desperately communicating: with their finger movements, their mouth ticks, their speaking, their art. Most of our human ingenuity is spent trying to figure out how to make knowing one another easier. At that moment, in the library, I smiled because even with the advent of social media and the ability to mash text, video, and image, we still fail. As a writer, I will always have a job because of that failure.

I was not looking for Freud. Freud did not need any finding. But Sándor did need finding. In a class I took with Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson, we were assigned an article that briefly mentioned Sándor’s writing on organ speech: the phenomenon of unspoken or unexpressed trauma resulting in physiological happenings absent conscious efforts; the body speaking without you, not being refused its right to respond.


Pinch your tongue between your teeth all you want, my friend, here it comes.


After class, Dr. Gill-Peterson and I spoke more about Sándor and his Thalassa theory. Thalassa states—almost opposite what Freud asserts about penis envy, and our societal structures dancing around the phallus like a cursed maypole—that all we are trying to do with and to each other is recreate the aquatic, g-force, encasement and comfort of the womb. We go to water because the sea is our blessed vagina. We smack into each other like Milton’s angels desperate for that encasement. I grew up a part of and close to Caribbean religions with ancestors of sliding gender and rolling relations. The idea that people actually come from the sea or are in any way of the sea undermines the pathological societal belief that some are close to animal/monkey while others are higher and closer to God. I fell in love. It was obvious that Sándor had fallen in love too, academically or otherwise, with Freud. And Freud left Sándor standing at the altar of a conference at which he then disowned and destroyed the interdisciplinary philosopher.

They were racist. They were eugenicists. They believed in and built their life careers on the false ladder of hierarchy amongst humans. By some evidence they were also rapists. But while Freud stubbornly held onto his theories, Sándor Ferenczi could be swayed. In one letter Ferenczi wrote to Freud, he says, “The persecution of {B}lacks in America reminds me of the case that Jung so sagely presented, according to which the {B}lacks represent the ‘unconscious’ of the Americans thus the hate, the reaction formation against one’s own vices…” The letter does not give insight into whether Sándor, equating Blackness with animality, means that Black people represent the animal within all of us and that the systemic and interpersonal attacks on Black people are an effort to suppress that animal OR if Black people, on their conceptual and live flesh, bear witness and are conscious witnesses to the vile, oppressive, unconscious roots of America and so are attacked to eliminate that evidence. He did not write much more on the matter. So—the interpretation is left to us. Nonetheless—the openness and fearlessness of the man made me want to find him. And also, just the simple metaphysics: He was lonely, I am lonely. He felt abandoned, I feel abandoned. He was told he is crazy, I am told I am crazy. He believed in more, I believe in more. His imagination was his religion, and so is mine.

Since I realized I was in the world I always wanted to know where Black people were and are. This drive, inherited from my family, raised up in me like a Monkey Puzzle tree, was braided, among other threads, with this desire to know how Sándor came to ask the questions found in his writing. The questions formed in science, psychology, and life begin with received truths and knowledge reproduced in our societal structures; our hypotheses are the desires we did not have a chance to choose and the desires we truly chose. The man had no fear or shame in his work. Even the poetry he wrote to his wife, that I found during my research, was permeated with vulnerability, passion, danger, a teetering between. Through my hyper-amature translations of Hungarian to English, I witnessed him wanting to be desired. I could not find the resources to send me to the Ferenczi House in Budapest, but I did find the resources to take me to London to visit the Freud Museum and the archives of the Institute of Psychoanalysis. I went to the Freud Museum first. Like most homes of those we wreath as greats, it was in pristine condition. Freud fled Austria as World War II brought the Holocaust to his door. He recreated as much of his life in London as he could, even down to reconstructing his office exactly as it was in Vienna. Upon his death, his daughter Anna preserved everything as it was, even leaving Freud’s mouth piece from where his teeth rotted out due to cancer, on his desk.


Grief is please don’t touch it, leave it like it is.


Also left reconstructed on his desk, were a series of statuettes, antiquities from Eastern Asia, Northeastern Africa, Greece, and other locations. I was fascinated as the bulk of these statuettes were “Egyptian” or rather, Northeastern African (Egypt reached as far as Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Ethiopia through its history). I went to the gift shop, bought some clever pins for my backpack that have long since popped off. I bought a book written specifically about Freud’s obsession with these Egyptian statuettes, it included a diagram of their arrangement. At the Institute of Psychoanalysis I copied and scanned different edits of Thalassa, Sándor’s poetry, and letters between Freud and him where Freud specifically asked Sándor to procure, even illegally, some of these statuettes. I took my documents back to where I was staying, an attic office in a house with a lovely and complicated family that treated me as if I were family. And I began to scour the internet for an answer to the question: who were Sándor’s and Freud’s Black patients?

The findings were scant: an article by Hortense Spillers citing French psychoanalysts in Dakar, Senegal attempting to use Freud’s methods on a patient who would be considered outside of his normal patient sampling pool in Europe, a personal butler of sorts who traveled with him who he denigrated for being late by saying “12 o’clock and still no negro,” and of course an abundance of theorizing around psychoanalysis in general as a Western European phenomenon and how it alienated and monolithized Western African cultures as a way to define itself. But evidence of a Black person entering Sándor’s or Freud’s offices to sit down and talk about their trauma? None—that I have found. In one letter, Freud mentions seeing a Black patient in a mental institution in France, but with a little digging anyone can discover that the institutionalization of Black people as animals, or criminals, or deviants is mostly a form of oppression.

I opened the publication focused on the Egyptian statuettes, the diagram showed clearly how each was arranged, and each individual page represented one of the figures with an estimated time of making, origin, purpose, mythological history, and relationship to the other Egyptian statues around it. From the beginning of the book however, it was mentioned that Freud took little to no notes on the Egyptian statuettes. For the other figurines, he took copious notes, and did copious research, but for the Egyptian statuettes, he wrote very little outside of his directions for their procurement to Sándor, who lovingly brought them. Since antiquity, there had been a trade in materials considered medicinal from the continent of Africa to Greece and Rome. Whether that medicinal material was spiritual knowledge (the Egyptian Goddess of the Night and Chaos, Nut=Greek Goddess of Night and Chaos, Nyx=The Roman Goddess of Night and Chaos, Nox) or actual material has varied wildly over the centuries. During Freud’s life, however, there was a resurgence of the trade of powdered mummies for the purpose of imbibing. And yes, I mean the pounding down, the turning to dust, of mummified flesh to a power to be ingested. Perhaps Freud laced some in his cocaine. But these statuettes were surely a part of that resurgence.

My gut wants to say that he never wrote about them because they were only important insofar as they were there to serve him with their power; how often do we only pray to God(s) when we need them to do something? What is prayer? Is it the enslaving of a power when only for a purpose unto yourself? Enslaving something to your will? Never just praising and appreciating it for what it is. What do you think?

I became possessed with the determination that these statuettes could speak, could undermine, and could confront Freud. I thought of their singing voices, I thought of how they would look out upon the history of the world, I was convinced at how offended and yet understanding they would be of Freud’s own condition; his ego the shark ever circling him to death. I also needed to balance, I began writing epistolary letters to Sándor, asking him questions, arguing with him, loving him, shaming him. I could not address Sándor and not confront Freud, almost as if finding a way to protect a friend. After London, I went to a writing residency at the Millay Colony. I finished up my one-way correspondence with Sándor, built the bones to my debut poetry collection am•phib•ian, then sat and wrote persona poems from the perspective of as many of the Egyptian statuettes I could stand. Each of them observing Freud from the desk, seeing his patients, Bird Man, Wolf Man, and H.D. Each of them conspiring to spread his cancer until he was dead so that they could be free and no longer bound to the material. They developed a family history, a conversation, a gossip, a socius amongst themselves. I attempted to add that series to the end of an already five section poetry collection, an awkward backflip out of writing focused on exiting an intergenerational history of domestic violence, sexual brutality, rejection, and abandonment. In the end, I lopped it off. Not because it didn’t belong, but because I wanted my talk with Sándor to be discreet and discrete from Freud. Because that section is for another project on the horizon.

I still search the internet, trying to find a copy of that letter Freud wrote about encountering a Black patient in a mental institution. I lost my copy; I hope that some slip of paper somewhere scanned their existence as a patient of Freud or Sándor into the Cloud. But now, when I search—Freud Black people patient—or—Ferenczi Black people patient—all I find are the documents I found before…and the poetry I wrote.


To read Jessica Lanay’s “Freud’s Antiquities” and more, purchase a copy of issue 46.2 here.