My class, an upper-level undergraduate and master’s seminar, read Constantius & Pulchera in the second week of the semester. In the course, entitled US: Fever Fantasy Desire, we had already read a Charles Brockden Brown story, which I affectionately call “Pig! Pig! Pig!,” but more properly is Letter IX from Series of Original Letters published in the Weekly Magazine on May 26, 1798. The readings for week 2 included Peter Brooks’ “The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 13.2 (1987): 334-348, and selections from Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. “Pig! Pig! Pig!” is an intense three page anecdote in which a mischievous childhood game turns deadly when repeated in the present. In fact, the storyteller is nearly killed as a consequence of reliving the original pleasures of his sophomoric behavior. As many will know, a famous anecdote from Beyond the Pleasure Principle involves Freud’s observations of his grandson’s play. The child throws a spool out of his crib—perhaps representing the child’s mother who comes and goes or perhaps a fetish of self—repeatedly associating its travel away with “gone!” and it’s recovery, gathering it back by the thread, with “here!” In the context of Freud’s study, the so-called Fort-Da game serves as the entry into the curious question of why people sometimes repeat unpleasant experiences, how unpleasant experiences may be refashioned to provide pleasure (through mastery or revenge), and the limits of the Pleasure Principle to explain this compulsion to repeat. After pages of suggestive but inconclusive interpretive feints, Freud decides the child’s game is of ultimately no use for his primary concern. But it is here we may wonder at the lengthy attention given to it. What an indulgence! Why does Freud delay his meaty discussion of war trauma for an anecdote that he will only in the end dismiss? The retelling, we may note, has a formal structure that mirrors its content. That is, Freud repeatedly offers illuminating interpretations (the stuff for which he was already famous) only to find them personally unsatisfying and this formal repetition then delays Freud’s return to the main, and difficult, issue at hand, “the dark and dismal topic of traumatic neuroses.” Peter Brooks calls this type of dilatory and recursive activity the erotics of form. In the experience of a literary text, he writes, “we seek to advance through [it] toward the discharge of the end, yet all the while we are perversely delaying, returning backward in order to put off the promised end and perhaps to assure its greater significance.”
Our study of Constantius & Pulchera began, then, with the riddle of its repetitious plot and the diversionary tactics the author uses to keep us reading even as we found ourselves disgusted with the sentimental excess, the implausible coincidences, and the seemingly endless captivities and escapes. Following Brooks, we wondered if it were the form itself, and not the assembled details of plot, that generated the perverse pleasures and repulsions of reading.
We found ourselves, then, attending to precisely those parts of the narrative that seemed to bring us both closer and paradoxically farther away from the expected conclusion, the reunion of the star-crossed lovers. Among these, Pulchera’s fantasy of seeing Constantius again even if only to catch him in the agonies of death, “to wash his mangled limbs, and kiss the departing soul from his quivering lips.” And later, Pulchera’s death wish…to find a state of “changeless retribution” from which to haunt her father’s remaining days until he would have to “stand at the bar of the Omniscient Judge.” Neither of these fantasies comes to fruition. Instead, and unfathomably, the story keeps churning so that a final arbitration may be delayed. As Valorus and her companions “wreck their invention to determine what to do next,” so too does the author postpone the end of the story. As we near the end, we may feel as if we, too, have taken a nauseating journey through a dirty drain and emerged “bedaub’d with filth.” But the author gives us, in Brooks’ provocative phrase, another “clocktease” as Pulchera/Valorus extends the revelation of her survival and thus her marriage to Constantius for another few pages. Is this not the transformation of the repetitive and catastrophically uncomfortable episodes of plot into a type of pleasure for itself? It’s as if Pulchera knows that the movement toward the end is more satisfying then the ultimate goal.