Princess Marie Bonaparte is an important figure in the history of psychoanalysis, remembered for her crucial role in arranging Freud’s escape to safety in London from Nazi Vienna, in 1938. This paper connects us to Bonaparte’s work on Poe’s short stories. Founded on concepts of Freudian theory and an exhaustive review of the biographical facts, Marie Bonaparte concluded that the works of Edgar Allan Poe drew their most powerful inspirational force from the psychological consequences of the early death of the poet’s mother. In Bonaparte’s approach, which was powerfully influenced by her recognition of the impact of the death of her own mother when she was born—an understanding she gained in her analysis with Freud—the thesis of the dead-living-mother achieved the status of a paradigmatic key to analyze and understand Poe’s literary legacy. This paper explores the background and support of this hypothesis and reviews Bonaparte’s interpretation of Poe’s most notable short stories, in which extraordinary female figures feature in the narrative.
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After Poe’s death, Rufus Griswold, his literary executor, published an obituary in The New-York Tribune on October 9, 1849 that would later become known as the Memoire (Griswold, 1849). Building on his personal knowledge and privileged access to Poe’s most intimate circle, he linked the author’s literary production to his life experiences, reaching the conclusion that: “There is a singular harmony between his personal and his literary qualities” (p. XLVII). Examining his work, he concluded: “Every genuine author, in a greater or less degree, leaves in his Works, whatever their design, traces of his personal character: elements of his immortal being, in which the individual survives the person” (p. LV). For Peeples (2007) this marked “the beginning of Poe’s afterlife” (p. 1).
Barthes (1985), for example, proposed a new way of approaching a piece of writing: what he called textual analysis. In his analysis of the story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (Poe, 1845), Barthes (1985) established that a textual analysis “does not seek to know what determines a text (what brings it together as the final term of a causality), but rather how it breaks out and disperses itself.” (…) “Our aim is not to find the sense, nor even a sense of the text (…) Our goal is to come to conceive, imagine, live the plural of the text, the opening of its signifying” (p. 324). In the same line of thinking, and stressing the value of a text as a producer of meanings, Kristeva (1969) argued later that “(…) every text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations, every text absorbs and transforms another text” (p. 190).
It is evident that Lacan knew Bonaparte’s work, Edgar Poe, étude psychanalytique (Bonaparte, 1933a), yet he did not develop its arguments and limited himself to noting the corrections that “la cuisinière” (the cook)—Lacan’s name for Bonaparte—had made to Baudelaire’s established translation of Poe’s text. In his 1971 seminar, D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant (Lacan, 2006), he returned to the problem of the relation between literature and psychoanalysis, using the formula Lituraterra. He insisted that in order to understand Poe’s story it was unnecessary to allude to the contents of the letter; what was relevant was how the letter (the signifier) determined the subjective positions of the characters. The critique of psychobiography was deployed once more, but on this occasion, while omitting any reference to the Poe study, it was linked to “Marie.”
Edgar Poe was born on June 19th, 1809 and his mother, Elizabeth Poe, died on December 8th, 1811 from tuberculosis. After her death, John Allan and his wife Frances adopted little orphaned Edgar, whose father also died when he was three years old (Martynkewicz, 2005).
In January 1846, Poe wrote to Duyckinck to discuss some editorial matters and remarked, referring to Ligeia, that it was “undoubtedly the best story I have written” (Quinn, 1941, p. 496). Some months later in a letter to Cook he noted: “only ‘Ligeia’ may be called my best tale” (Quinn, 1941, p. 515).
Among the strategies adopted to relieve her tormented existence, Bonaparte underwent plastic surgery on several occasions. In 1924 she tried to remodel her breasts and had operations on her nose to remove a scar. Later, encouraged by surgical advances in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, she tried to overcome her frigidity by operations to correct the location of her clitoris (Bonaparte, 1924; Bertin, 2010, pp. 241–242). Using the pseudonym of Narjani, she had already written for a Brussels medical journal the article “Considerations on the anatomical causes of female frigidity” in which she discussed the causes of frigidity and the possible benefits of the novel surgery.
Bonaparte later published these notebooks—which she originally started on November 23rd, 1889, at age seven, until May 24th, 1892, when she was age ten—as “Five Copybooks,” in French and English, enriched by her commentaries and those of Freud (Bonaparte, 1939).
In the context of the discussions of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, on December 11, 1907, Freud spoke about the general subject of psychoanalytic biography. Freud had already made known his position about the biographical resource and the methodology traditionally applied to the psychology of writers (patography). For Freud “Every writer who has abnormal tendencies may be the object of a pathography. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, teaches us about the creative process. Psychoanalysis deserves to be set above pathography” (Nunberg and Federn, 1976, p. 281).
Responding to his critics who associated his literary production with the German tradition, Poe (1840) stated categorically that “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,—that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results” (p. 6).
In his text The Philosophy of Composition, Poe (1846b) explicitly described his methodology of short story composition: “I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect” (p. 163).
In 1927 Bonaparte had studied the problem of symbolism exhaustively in Du symbolisme des trophées de tête. She wondered how horns—an attribute of strength and potency and a symbol of virility in different epochs and civilizations—had come to symbolize the opposite in popular sayings: the weakness, blindness and impotence of the cheated husband, as expressed in several languages: cornudo (Spanish); cornu (French) gehörnte (German); cornuto (Italian).
Freud (1900) distinguishes two “profane” methods of dream interpretation: (a) symbolic dream-interpreting, a strategy that approaches “the dream as a whole and seeks to replace it by another content which is intelligible and in certain respects analogous to the original one” (Freud, 1900, p. 96); (b) the decoding method, by which the dream is analyzed “as a kind of cryptography in which each sign can be translated into another sign having a known meaning, in accordance with a fixed key” (Freud, 1900, p. 97).
This problematic is intimately related to discussions in the discipline of modern linguistics, inaugurated by Saussure (1916). A sign for Saussure (1916) refers to “the whole that results from the associating of the signifier [=sound image] with the signified [=concept]” (p.66); likewise, he emphasizes that “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary (…) it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified” (pp. 66, 69). Discussions about the definition of the sign and its relations to the signified are a recurrent theme in the development of linguistics.
Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822–1847)—Edgar Allan Poe’s first cousin—married her cousin when she was 13; she died young from tuberculosis (Martynkewicz, 2005).
For Bonaparte (1933a) the story Ligeia represented the phantasy of a fundamental desire: “the orphan abandoned by his dying mother attributes to her a wish, that is to say, a love, so that she may conquer death and return. That is the central unconscious wish that drives the story Ligeia” (p. 295).
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1Francisco Pizarro Obaid, Ph.D., is Director of Post Graduate School of Psychology at Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile.
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Obaid, F. THE DEAD-LIVING-MOTHER: MARIE BONAPARTE’S INTERPRETATION OF EDGAR ALLAN POE’S SHORT STORIES. Am J Psychoanal 76, 183–203 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/ajp.2016.10
- Marie Bonaparte
- Edgar Allan Poe
- sources of creativity