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Cathy Caruth lectures on psychoanalysis, history

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Blaine Friedlander

Cathy Caruth, Cornell's M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor, presented thoughts on the archiving and erasure of history and memory as explored in the works of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida, in her lecture "After the End: Psychoanalysis in the Ashes of History," May 6 in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.

The "ashes" of her title were both literal and figurative -- Freud often compared the psychoanalytic process to excavation in Pompeii, and asserted that there is "no better analogy for repression."

Caruth shared some of the inquiries she covered this semester in her graduate seminar in English, After the End: Literature in the Ashes of History. She provided her audience with printed excerpts from key texts including three linked works: Wilhelm Jensen's "Gradiva: A Pompeiian Fantasy," Freud's "Delusion and Dream in W. Jensen's 'Gradiva,'" and Derrida's reading of Freud, "Mal d'Archive (Archive Fever)."

"Derrida's description of the archive in psychoanalytic thought alludes to a very specific and historically situated archival discovery: Freud's encounter with repetition compulsion after WWI," which led him to reformulate the content and form of psychological theory, Caruth said.

"[Freud] described in 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' his encounter with the kind of memory of events that erased, rather than produced, conscious recall -- the dreams and memories of the soldiers of World War I whose death encounters repeatedly returned to interrupt rather than enter consciousness," she said. "Freud came to understand them as repetitions of the experiences that the soldiers could not grasp."

Caruth, a professor of comparative literature and English at Emory University, is the author of "Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History" and "Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud." She was appointed the Abrams visiting professor last year for the spring 2010 semester.

"I was excited that she would be a visiting professor here and was excited to take a class with her," said Dan Sinykin, a student in the graduate seminar. "We [spent] the first five weeks tracing the subject thoroughly. We were reading what Freud was reading and what Derrida was reading -- which was a beautiful way to get at the context."

Caruth also taught an advanced undergraduate English course, Romantic Beginnings, a study of major Romantic writers including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

She called her experience at Cornell this spring "absolutely fantastic. ... The graduate students were lively and engaged; the undergraduate students were extremely smart and sensitive to literary texts."

The Department of English established the M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professorship to bring scholars to teach and interact with students and faculty. The professorship was made possible through a gift from Stephen H. Weiss '57, former chair of the Cornell Board of Trustees, to honor his longtime friend Mike Abrams, a highly respected literary scholar and the Class of 1916 Professor of English emeritus. Abrams, 97, attended the lecture and a reception in the English Department Lounge, where he chatted with students and faculty.

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