PRINT May 1995


Klaus Theweleit's Object-choice: All you need is love...

THE MESSAGE AND TONE of Klaus Theweleit’s engrossing new book can be gathered from a line concluding his second chapter, “Lexicon of Love”: “The unalloyed love that any old male dipshit has for himself is one of the current capital crimes in the face of history.” In Object-choice (All you need is love . . .), Theweleit suggests that male behavior in “love” is organized to protect and expand the domain of a fundamental masculine “self-love.” He hardly needs to argue this point in detail, as it is so familiar; rather, he explores the implications of male “self-love” for people’s choice of partners in specific sexual and social institutions, especially long-term “relationships” and marriage.

According to Theweleit, a man’s object-choice consists largely in identifying, wooing, using, and abandoning female partners who serve his interests and technical needs as a male “producer” in a mostly male world of competition and creation. Women working in the male marketplace (for example, as craftswomen, intellectuals, or artists) will be drawn into the role of what he calls “medial women” for a male authority, or authority wanna-be, by being asked to edit his movies, type his manuscripts, and so forth. Correlatively, female object-choice consists in large measure in identifying with and-by linking with the man who guarantees it—successfully occupying this role of subordinate coproducer or, in a slight permutation, “sister-daughter” assisting in the birth of a male institution or male creation. These are familiar constellations, and Theweleit’s attention to them is not novel. Nonetheless, Object-choice offers a distinctive and sometimes fresh approach.

In general, it is a high-spirited book—fun to read, politically and artistically astute, topical, and richly expressive of the author’s personality. Oddly enough, Theweleit reserves his own loving marriage, as he portrays it, from the destructive male narcissism he takes as his principal target. This kind of self-indulgence could have used an editor. Indeed, the book as a whole would have benefited from a more systematic and less religiously sensitive approach.

Theweleit proposes a number of riffs on a reading of Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” This text suggests that a man will love, that is, intensely idealize and attach himself to, “(a) what he himself is, (b) what he himself was, (c) what he himself would like to be, [and] (d) someone who was once part of himself.” Theweleit assumes that we have a good (not to say cliched) idea of the relation between (a) and (c): a man is a “male”—to some degree anxious and frustrated—who would like to be a Male (a King). Theweleit is surely right, however, that the relations between positions (b) and (d) in Freud’s scheme need redefining.

It is tempting to see object-choice simply as a repetition of the child’s earliest relations with its parents; the latest love-partner is someone who positions the lover as he was when he was a child and evokes the parent(s) who originally fashioned him this way. But Theweleit would like to move away somewhat from this simplified Freudianism. Drawing on the American psychoanalyst Lloyd de Mause’s work on “psycho-classes,” Theweleit urges that “the transmission networks and fishhooks of the sibling level play a more significant role in love-choices and marital forms for the majority of people here (i.e., in contemporary Germany and the United States) than the constellations in the Oedipal triangle, namely the mother-father-child level” (my italics). Oldest children, he believes, will be attracted to and will tend to attach with oldest children, middle children with middle, and younger with younger. Precisely because parents treat their first-born in ways quite different from the way they treat their last-born, children of different “psycho-classes” will have different erotic chemistries and will tend to bond with their birth-order peers—they will “smell” them out. (Theweleit is not afraid to approach the “transmission networks” of erotic object-choice in the terms Freud also toyed with—as telepathy or chemical signaling.)

Moreover, the dynamics of sibling relations in the late-19th- and 20th-century Western family will set the pattern for adult object-choice. Theweleit suggests, for example, that male “brothers”—“best friends” or comrades-in-arms—will trade their “sisters,” providing comparatively accessible women for one another. The “sister” is the girl constantly in the background of a boy’s friendships with his male peers, and one whose chastity, competence, and obedience will be guaranteed by his friends, whose virtue, intelligence, etc., are, in themselves, never questioned. And when “boy friendships” disintegrate or a man moves on to new spheres of competition and creation in the male world, the first “sister-wife” (the sister of his best friend) will cease to interest him. He will locate a sequence of such women as he advances through male institutions, hierarchies, and careers—a pattern in which Theweleit is especially interested.

In 20th-century cultural criticism, tremendous emphasis has been and probably will continue to be placed on Oedipal dynamics. More recently, attention has been turned to the pre-Oedipal dyad-to the earliest mother/ infant relation- which establishes patterns for identification and conflict in the Oedipal “triangle.” Theweleit would not deny that the dyad and the triangle will be reproduced in the history of the “psycho-classes,” with their own embedded dyads and triangles like the “male producer”/ “medial woman” and “best friend/sister/suitor.” But such early identifications and conflicts, though repeated, must be quite transformed by the time people begin (psychically) to leave the family-to have, for example, “best friends. ” Therefore the analytic value of invoking dyadic and Oedipal events for the understanding of adult relations—the social relations of production and exchange, including reproduction—must be fairly minimal.

When considering an adult male’s production of a cultural artifact, then, we should not rush to depth-psychological interpretation of his primordial bisexuality as it was managed by mother and father (as traditional Oedipal criticism has it) or to a chronicle of his “imaginary” identifications (as some current Lacanian criticism has it). Rather, we should attend to the circulating eroticism, egoism, and aggression of his action and fantasy in more adult worlds. Indeed, Theweleit applies the analytic language of the most adult, “male” world (by his definition) to the description of object-choice: a man’s partner is a question of “strategy,” of instruments, uses, and ends, of payoff, payout, and payback—all unconscious to be sure, but impossible without reference to rationalities of the social system really learned (at least in modern Western society) only in adolescence. Theweleit’s job in all this is to express the idea that adolescent sexuality—the first era of “object-choice” as society defines it institutionally in “coed dorms” or “age of consent” laws—does not simply rehearse the maternal and Oedipal history. It has its own novel psychic determinations, its own laws, identifications, and representations. (Hence the importance of the “psycho-classes”: they supposedly constitute an independent psychic-social level on which the full subject—the culture-producing subject—is founded. Speaking for myself, I don’t believe they exist.) Rock ’n’ roll appears throughout Object-choice to remind us, among other things, that we are dealing less with the subject’s inaugural “entrance into language” and more with his entrance into the social-strategic uses of language. Perhaps we could say that the jouissance of entry into rock ’n’ roll marks the emancipation from—the attenuation of—the dyadic and Oedipal determinations; it is the fantasy construction of love-objects who do not, wholly, repeat Mom and Dad because they are actually available sexually.

Theweleit is pretty successful in his bit of juggling. I do, however, suspect a tendency to downplay unconscious sexuality and primary process in the Freudian sense. The lovers Theweleit portrays would seem to be as well described by an MBA or vice-president for personnel as by a psychoanalyst—and this because they seem to fantasize rationally, if you will. There is certainly a basis in Freud for Theweleit’s emphasis. Basically he is describing the vicissitudes of the egoistic and perhaps to a lesser extent the aggressive drives that Freud set alongside the sexual drive. As in Male Fantasies, Theweleit describes sex inflected by ego and aggression, a healthy antidote to the more usual (and by now tedious) description of ego and aggression inflected by sex. What remains unanalyzed here, however, is the ego-thought that drives male fantasies in object-choice. In Object-choice, the ego’s cognition often (though not always) appears to be nothing but reason applied to desire and not the reverse. In Theweleit’s hands, although object-choice must be thought about sex (a thought often ingenious and subtle in its sense of means and ends), it is not necessarily, for all that, sexual thought. In brief, it strikes me that fantasy—in the Freudian sense—has almost disappeared.

One gap within the stated psychology of Object-choice will probably strike many readers: despite the obvious points at which male object-choice replicates a man’s fears of other men, his desire to be like them, his fantasy that they fear or desire him, and so on, homoeroticism—in specifically homosexual as well as homophobic realizations—hardly enters Theweleit’s account. This absence can be felt at every level of the book: in the analyses of wife-taking through the circuitry of male “best-friendship” and of men seeking female partners closely related to the older men whose social positions they crave; in the reading of “On Narcissism” itself, which ignores its close relations with Leonardo and a Memory of His Childhood (1910) and From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (drafted 1914), where “narcissism,” following the work of lsidor Sadger, was invented by Freud specifically to explicate homosexual object-choice; in Theweleit’s provocative attempt to constitute Freud’s letters (dated 1882–86) to his fiancée Martha as the proto-self-analysis that created “Freud,” with no mention of the earlier letters to Eduard Silberstein and just a nod at the 1890s letters to Wilhelm Fliess. One gets the point of Theweleit’s dogged attention to male-female relations and specifically to heterosexual “object-choices”: male object-choice, for Theweleit, is the circuitry—both means and end—of protecting masculinity and patriarchy. But his account simply seems to be poorer, less realistic and subtle, for neglecting not only the superficial fact that many attachments in the social circles he describes are homoerotic but also the deeper reality of the structural role of homoeroticism (from homosexual to homophobic realizations) in the reproduction of patriarchy.

Theweleit’s evidence for his psychological and social-historical scenarios is drawn, not surprisingly, from the early history of psychoanalysis itself. A long central chapter, “Fragment of a Freud Biography,” interprets aspects of Freud’s relations with his fiancée Martha, his student Jung’s wife Emma and Jung’s lover Sabina Spielrein, his daughter Anna and her lifelong companion Dorothy Burlingham, his analysand Hilda Doolittle (the writer H. D.), and other women in his circle. Theweleit believes that Freud’s “model of female love-choices [was] tailored to the kinds of women with whom he was associated in the course of his private and institutional life.” They were all templates for male narcissistic preservation and aggrandizement, though the specific roles played and liaisons formed need to be portrayed in some depth precisely in order to show that Freud’s theory was finally a theory received from and projected toward “his women. ” In tracking childhood points of reference in Freud’s psyche, Theweleit owes a lot to Marianne Krüll’s important book Freud and His Father (1976), which tries to pin down Freud’s archaic identifications with somewhat shadowy men and women, such as an early nursemaid. The accounts of the adult relationships are fascinating if sometimes too sketchy. Here Theweleit has been upstaged by some more recent and far more detailed contributions—Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester’s Freud’s Women and John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. These books do, however, tend to confirm the kind of approach he has adopted. Thus Object-choice manages to link aspects of the “new history of psychoanalysis” with contemporary cultural and social analysis; for this reason alone, it should be widely read.

Whitney Davis is an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University.