When Sigmund Freud arrived in America for a speaking engagement in the early 20th century, he uttered the following words: “I am bringing them the plague.”* This happy, joyous statement is one of my all-time favorite quotes. Years ago, a good friend who shares my sense of irony gave me a little pillow – crisp, pristine white cotton cover; a ruffle, edged in pink, all the way around; a minute sprinkling of tasteful pastel flowers in the corners – with those words embroidered in baby blue. I love to see people pick it up, expecting some sweet sentiment; it’s always amusing to watch their expressions change.
Freud’s terms are bandied about with great regularity by folks who have never read a word he wrote; I admit up front I’ve read only a small sampling of his work, enough to insure I didn’t appear stupid when discussing or reading psychoanalytic criticism and to insure that I would appear moronic to anyone with a serious grounding in Freud, Jung, or Lacan. But like Marx and Marxists, Freud and Freudians are separate things altogether. People have a tendency to take source theory and muscle it into their own agendas. They become infected with the plague of self-importance and groundless certainty.
But I digress. This isn’t an entry about Oedipus or how a foot fetishist (or a political extremist on either end of the spectrum) is born.
What is it about? Rorschach tests or iPod playlists, the 21st century version of the inkblot.
I’m a literal person. I am, to my knowledge, un-hypnotize-able. I have trouble with traditional forms of mediation. Am I a control freak? I don’t think so (although others who know me may disagree). Am I fearful? Maybe…fearful of misinterpretation. I tend to choose consciously. Or at least I think I do. Dr. Freud would likely disagree.
My iPod holds several playlists. Those of you in my age group may remember making mix tapes. Playlists are like that. I agonized over each of them, choosing songs very carefully, vetting lyrics. I once had a playlist ready to send to a friend, but threw the entire idea out because one song out of twenty - Billy Joel’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Light as the Breeze” - had the phrase “[t]here is blood on every bracelet” and I’d just learned about a suicide attempt in his family. I was terrified he might think I was making some kind of “statement,” when the truth was I’d just picked the song because I liked it and I thought he would, too.
A couple of months ago, however, I thought I’d try something different. I opened a playlist – I left it labeled “untitled playlist” on purpose – and began to scroll through my iTunes library, picking songs without much thought, simply because they appealed in the moment. Sixty-eight songs and a few weeks later, I decided to look at the songs and see what they told me.
I’ll keep my conclusions private (although I was, for a moment, surprised by the many lyrical references to water), but I will say that letting go of a script and letting my heart make choices led to an entirely different set of songs. They told an interesting story, a surprisingly accurate depiction of my current state of mind. For once, I saw a story in the blot of ink on the page.
In my last entry I wrote about my inability to create visual representations of things (more on this in a future entry). I’ve also mentioned the tendency toward self-censorship that has inhibited my writing. Not to overdramatize, but this particular playlist represents, I think, a tiny breakthrough.
It is nothing if not an aural collage. I had to cede control, abandon a plan, and merely move songs from one place to another as fancy directed. What resulted was beautiful. And, more importantly, fresh and liberating.
Which brings us back around to Freud’s “plague.” I know I’m guilty of the kind of theory appropriation I derided early in this post, but perhaps the plague is introspection. It can make you very ill. It can cripple you in a cycle of endless navel-gazing and prevent you from living. If you avoid it, you trap yourself in a surface existence. But if you use it, inhale awareness into yourself and exhale it into the world, you emerge from the illness stronger, with your immunity enhanced.
After all, the Black Death left some survivors.
* I am a stickler for documentation, so I am compelled to say that I no longer have the source document. My recollection is that Freud was speaking to a colleague in response to an American audience’s enthusiasm for his theories. The full quote, I think, is “They do not know I am bringing them the plague.” While I’m not sure on the year, I’m almost positive it was either 1909 or 1913. Mea culpa.