Dahlia Krutkovich (fellow): Last week, I told my partner, N., I was planning to recommend In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm’s 1983 chronicle of a cascading set of disputes between the guardians and would-be destroyers of the Sigmund Freud Archive, the unpublished letters, notebooks, and marginalia controlled by the Freud estate. N., who has a glancing interest in psychoanalysis but mostly just puts up with my prattling on about Juliet Mitchell et al., later texted me this New York Times Styles section feature on the resurgence of Freudianism in our times. A Styles piece, she added, only telegraphs that a fad has played itself out and we should leave it for dead. But In the Freud Archives, along with the The Journalist and the Murderer and Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, the other books published at the height of Malcolm’s powers, proves “Malcolm is the best to ever do it,” in the words of Nora Caplan-Bricker, the executive editor of Jewish Currents. So I’ve decided to move ahead with my recommendation, which risks placing me behind the tastemakers but will at least please my boss.
Malcolm—who has been the subject of a flurry of profiles since her death in 2021 and the publication of her posthumous autobiography earlier this year— situates herself as a character but not a player in the unfurling Oedipal saga between up-and-coming Freud scholar Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and his erstwhile mentor Kurt Eissler, writing with an eye toward the extremely self-conscious self-styling these men engage in as they engage with her. Eissler, an Old World devotee of Freud, seeks to protect the father of psychoanalysis’s legacy from latter-day assassination attempts; Masson, whom Malcolm introduces as “a practiced hand at seeking and winning the favor of older men in positions of power,” verges on succeeding Eissler as director of the Freud Archive—a functionally tenured position from which, in his own telling, he hopes to expose the entire profession as “based on a lie”—but before his plot can come to fruition, his craven ambition and yen for the spotlight lead him to gab to a reporter (not Malcolm) and publicize his controversial theories about the Freudian paradigm. In a series of dramatic letters, Eissler blocks Masson’s full appointment to the archive, and both men, Malcolm relates, are variously heartbroken, incensed, and indignant about the betrayals at hand.
The bulk of In The Freud Archives devotes itself to reconciling factual incongruities between the different accounts of Masson’s rise and fall—including the scientific dispute at the heart of the personal drama between Eissler and Masson. The entire narrative has a functionally dialectic structure to it, in which Masson’s and Eissler’s unreliable retellings are made compatible via a third litigant, whose independent assessment of both men mostly feels like a relief by the time it comes in the book’s final act.
Malcolm’s craft reveals itself in how she structures her book around perspectives from a peanut gallery of analysts, whose diagnoses Masson refers to as “cheap parlor analysis.” As Malcolm works through what are, on their face, ego-driven personal narratives that don’t make sense, these sidebars help ground the narrative and remind the reader that, yes, the protagonists in this story are the compulsive neurotics they present themselves to be—even if no one goes as far as to say exactly that. Just as I would arrive at a point of ultimate frustration with whichever personality had Malcolm’s attention, she would pivot to an apparent straight man or woman—another analyst with little-to-no stake in the scientific squabble between characters—to comment gravely on the personalities on display. But this series of contemptible personalities is hard to bear not because Malcolm renders each a caricature or cartoon, but because you get the sense she’s distilled them into an essential impression, which is itself a clinic on reporting.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): Like everyone, I can’t seem to avoid conversations about how worried we should be about artificial intelligence. Yesterday, my husband played me a “Drake” song created without Drake—the beat, lyrics, and voice were all AI-generated. My husband is worried about the chaotic potential of deep fakes in an already unhinged political landscape. I suppose I’m worried about art—or not even art so much as its basic building blocks: language, line, sound. What will happen to our humanness when simulacrum is source, when we are “generating” from an entirely closed loop? To ask this question is to recognize the various ways this humanness has already been impoverished by our addiction to various technologies and the incessant horrors and demands of climate catastrophe and late capitalism. As philosopher Timothy Morton writes in All Art is Ecological, “Being in a place, being in an era, for instance an era of mass extinction, is intrinsically uncanny. We haven’t been paying much attention.”
This passage constitutes the epigraph for Faye Driscoll’s epic masterpiece Weathering, which wrapped six performances at New York Live Arts last Saturday. The performance—described as a “a multi-sensory flesh sculpture made of bodies, sounds, scents, liquids and objects”—evokes such anxieties about disconnect and alienation by rushing headlong into their negation. Ten dancers stand upright, somewhat apart, on a squishy, white platform. In the beginning, it’s unclear that anything at all is happening; fingertips search, chins tilt, gaze wanders. (The phone-addled audience member wonders how things could possibly go on this way.) But when the tech crew descends to rotate the platform, one notices that the picture has changed. Something is happening. The figures have begun to reach for one another. They have taken hold of each other’s clothing, they are making contact, pushing or draping or reaching with various parts of the body, forming a shifting tableau that calls to mind The Raft of Medusa. Over the next 70 minutes, the pace—and the nature of the contact—continues to intensify. The platform spins faster. Clothes are shed or clawed off by others. Powders puff and oozes smear and juices drip. Creaks and moans become sustained howls. Is this an orgy or a massacre? Is this terror or delight? Are they becoming something else—animal, undead—or rooting deeper in a basic humanness?
Driscoll has an incredible capacity to stuff the enormity of human experience into her shows. The last work I saw of hers, You’re Me (2012), was a duet which seemed to encompass every possible permutation of interrelation. And still, Weathering is on an entirely different scale, and though it seems like each performance has the potential to be quite different, there is also a sense of her mastery. Indeed, Driscoll sits in the front row, with the audience, breathing into a mic the way a maestro waves her arms, getting up intermittently to help push the raft, or swat fallen objects away from its path. In a short video about the making of the work, Driscoll calls the work “a requiem for the body,” in a rapidly changing world. By the end of Weathering, I felt as if she had drawn me through the collapse of civilization to the other side. What was left there are our bodies, our voices.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): I’m not quite sure what to make of The Passenger and Stella Maris, the pair of imperfect but deeply compelling novels by Cormac McCarthy released at the end of last year. The books center on salvage diver (and former race car driver) Bobby Western and his sister Alicia, tortured mathematical geniuses whose father was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. The Passenger opens with Alicia’s suicide and follows Bobby’s haunted, mercurial life in the wake of her death, with interstitial chapters flashing back to Alicia’s encounters with a gang of hallucinated figures whose wisecracking ringleader calls himself the Thalidomide Kid; Stella Maris, a narrative prologue and thematic postscript, comprises a series of conversations between Alicia and her psychiatrist at an inpatient psychiatric facility, where she admits herself after a car crash leaves Bobby in a coma.
The Passenger, which is nearly twice the length of Stella Maris, initially presents itself as comparatively propulsive: After Bobby surfaces a mystery about a sunken plane during a dive, he winds up being pursued by nefarious government agents. But the thriller premise is ultimately a red herring that serves only to generate a sense of ambient menace and send Bobby on the run, where he bumps into old friends for digressive conversations and has plenty of time for brooding self-torment. Despite the dramatic differences in structure and scope, each novel is organized around winding and absorbing philosophical dialogues on guilt, memory, and the nature of the universe. (I was surprised to find myself occasionally reminded of Rachel Cusk’s discursively driven Outline trilogy.) The subject matter, from the interpersonal to the historical to the cosmic, is unrelentingly heavy, but the rhythm of these exchanges generates a sense of lightness and play. At moments when I felt frustrated by the novels’ willful obscurity and irresolution or suspicious that their loose structure was a sign of underdevelopment rather than masterful subtlety, this liveliness—and the ambition that simmers beneath the surface of each page, as McCarthy confronts fundamental questions of existence—carried me through.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): The Argentine director Laura Citarella’s new film, Trenque Lauquen, is a leisurely, complex exploration of the mystery that is other people. The title of the film, we quickly learn, both means “round lake” in the Indigenous Mapuche language and is the name of the town a few hundred miles from Buenos Aires where most of the story unfolds. The drama begins by following two men and their attempts to locate their lover Laura, an aspiring biologist who did not return to Buenos Aires after her contract to survey the plants of the rural region surrounding Trenque Lauquen expired. (The film owes a debt to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the greatest of all modernist films about a woman’s disappearance, which is underlined when the word “Aventura” appears on the screen early in the first of its two parts.) This initial premise is complicated by a brilliant series of flashbacks, which trace Laura’s attempt to solve two mysteries upon which she, in turn, has stumbled. One relates to a decades-old affair between lovers whose correspondence she discovers hidden inside a book by Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai in the local public library; the other concerns the strange creature apparently being hidden by Elisa, a local physician whose every action is wrapped in secrecy.
Over the course of the film’s four hours, Citarella doesn’t entirely resolve these enigmas, as the film slips effortlessly across continents and between genres, from romance to mystery to science fiction to horror. She makes use of the lengthy runtime to unhurriedly unveil more minor revelations. For instance, Laura’s supervisor complains that she left town with a pair of her “wellies” (the subtitles are annoyingly Australian, with the Argentines exclaiming “crikey” on several occasions); in the final scenes, no attention is drawn to the high rubber boots on her feet—the lost “wellies.” Characters frequently allude to the theft of a car, while a local who has fallen in love with Laura claims it was not stolen at all. We are teased for several hours before seeing that he was right.
Throughout the film, past and present are skillfully and even drolly mixed. Laura’s work and the ultimate revelation of what’s afoot in Elisa’s home are resolutely modern, but the setting of the seemingly endless grasslands of Argentina’s Pampas evokes the country’s mythic past. Two places bear the name of the greatest of all literary gauchos, Martín Fierro, and Laura even crosses paths with actual gauchos, in their ponchos and serapes and black hats. All of this adds up to a compelling and beguiling portrait of Trenque Lauquen—a place, in Laura Citarella’s rendering, of unplumbed strangeness.