"Let the impressions come": H.D., illness, and remembrance of the traumatic past

by Steve Schessler

October 17, 2010


One frequently finds that identity – personal, social, national – is built on the idea that histories and narratives constitute an entity of Self such a postulation drives much of the current memoir market along with the scandalous nature of its falsification, as well as the recent return to “official” national histories in more totalitarian states. [1] This particular use of memory often aims to locate the self within a historical continuum, frequently employing a chronological narrative as a means of explaining history and identity. Through poetry and memoir, American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., aims to break that understanding of the narrative self-construct. Her memoir, Tribute to Freud, developed from her analytic sessions with Freud from 1933-1934, most forcefully iterates her belief. “I do not want to become involved in a historical sequence,” she writes in the memoir “Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own sequence.” This article offers an analysis of H.D.’s non-narrative, non-chronological construction of identity as she works through trauma, history, and Freudian notions of memory work. Through these efforts, she develops a strain of psychoanalytically inflected semi-autobiographical poetry that would help shape the course of the more fully autobiographical writers to come.


I do not want to become involved in a historical sequence. . .

                                                Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own


                                                                -H.D., Tribute to Freud

In her 1956 memoir, Tribute to Freud, author, poet, intellectual adventurer Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., explores the difficult terrain of war, trauma, memorial, and tribute as cast onto her own mindscape during the period of her psychoanalytic sessions with Sigmund Freud in 1933-1934.   H.D. turned to Freud while still grappling with the horrors of World War I, and a sense of the oncoming disasters of World War II left her in danger of breaking down while at the same time blocking her from writing.  Her work with Freud allowed H.D. to explore her mind; as Richard Terdiman notes in his work Present Past, “memory is the heart” of psychoanalysis (241), and that joint exploration became a journey into H.D.’s fractured, fragmented memory.  In order to better understand the role psychoanalytic theory played in freeing H.D.’s creative process, one can follow Freud’s theories which most affected H.D.’s conception of her own illness and treatment, and then trace that influence as it works through H.D.’s artistic production.  While one must acknowledge the wealth of material on mourning and loss that follows Freud, the focus here remains on information available to H.D., and known to her as a serious scholar of psychoanalytic theory and participant in its early practice.  The memoir represents much of what H.D. has learned  - along with some teachings she has rejected.  Tribute to Freud stresses the importance of memory and dreams in H.D.’s personal and poetic life, and links dreams and prophesy to H.D.’s sense of history itself.  This sense of history manifests as either palimpsest or a cycle of repetition and reenactment.  Freud, in their analytic sessions and in his theory, most relevantly set forth in the 1914 essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” considers H.D.’s repetition cycle as a symptom of repression.  H.D. agrees with this view, and sets out to recover repressed material, lost memories, and fragmented thoughts.   

As she blurs the distinction between action, image, and memory, H.D. builds a monument to loss and death that reinstantiates her lost loved ones in the present moment through these poetic memorials.  The idea of the memorial gains precedence in H.D.’s work, with this “Tribute” one part of her monument-building.  In outlining the original goal of her sessions with Freud, H.D. writes, “I wanted to free myself of repetitive thoughts and experiences, my own and those of my contemporaries” (H.D. 1956, 17).  Constant repetition appears as the system from which H.D. needs to break free, to save herself and everyone else.  The notion of repetitive thoughts and experiences brings to mind much of the recent work on trauma, including the intrusion of repetitive psychic events.[2]  Much of H.D.’s traumatic symptoms can be connected to her experiences in London during World War I; coupled with tremendous family losses, H.D. sees a world decimated by death and absence.  Her refusal to acknowledge the permanence of loss leads to a rather complicated experience of mourning, in which she at once refuses to acknowledge her loss and sees her loss everywhere.  This developing obsession with preserving the memory, and therefore the psychic existence, of lost loved ones leads H.D. to erect mental memorials and overconnect her dead to objects or people currently existing.  She locates these lost figures in poems, memoir, dreams, and symbols, all open to the interpretation that allows the lost, the past, to remain present in her mind.  Rather than freeing herself of repetitive thoughts and experiences, H.D. turns psychic disturbance into the basis of her work.  As one of the first writers to adopt psychoanalytic theory as a principle motivator of her work, H.D. charts an early course through explicitly psychoanalytic imagery and narrative content.

“old breaks in consciousness”: Sorting through illness and trauma

            The trauma of World War I defined much of H.D.’s life, along with the lives of her contemporaries in London and other parts of Europe.  “The war closed on us,” she writes in Tribute to Freud, “before I had time to sort out, relive and reassemble the singular series of events and dreams that belonged in historical time, to the 1914-1919 period” (138).  The advent of the war suspended “historical” time, an approach to time in which narrative construction was easy, the future could be planned (more rather than less), and one could speak of “tomorrow” with a rather greater certainty that tomorrow would exist for those one loves.  The war instead brought the march of unpredictable day upon day and unpredictable year upon year.  What happened during these years, 1914-1919, belonged to historical time, H.D. acknowledges.  And yet, for her, these years refuse to remain in history, or rather they fail to fit into a chronological narrative that not only makes sense of events but also keeps the past recognizably in the past. 

 The march of historical time leaves H.D. with fragments of memory and impressions ordered only by the chaos of the war.  H.D. realizes that “Fragmentary ideas, apparently unshelved, were often found to be part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory, therefore to belong together” (1956, 18).  This notion of memory as archaeology certainly owes a debt to Freud’s own metaphors; Nicola King, in her work on Memory, Narrative, Identity, bases one strain of her argument particularly on Freud’s “frequent use of the analogy between the recovery of the buried past and the excavation of an archaeological site” (11).  To follow that archaeological strain, however, one also realizes that two fossilized bones found near each other are not necessarily from the same year, much less the same creature.  For H.D., the common psychic impact of these fragmentary ideas –

 their disrupted processing – alone unite them in this layer of disorder; for H.D., that tenuous connection will suffice.  As Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes in her article “Language Acquisition,” H.D. makes “the medium of endless interpretation, intellectually bold. . . palimpsest. . .plenitude” (261), a disorder written out of her own mindscape. This disorder becomes the memoir, this Tribute to Freud, and permeates much of her poetry. 

            Such acknowledged confusion calls for some attempt to reorder the mind, or at least allow a review of the thoughts and memories jumbled together during these years.  The memoir rises out of this war event.  H.D. describes Tribute to Freud as an intended “personal reconstruction of intention and impression” (141-2).    She makes clear that “my actual personal war-shock (1914-1919) did not have a chance” (142), but that she turns to Freud “in order to fortify and equip myself to face war when it came, and to help in some subsidiary way, if my training were sufficient and my aptitudes suitable, with war-shocked and war-shattered people” (142).  H.D. had become a war-shocked and war-shattered person herself over the course of the First World War, miscarrying her first pregnancy, and losing both her brother and her father during the period that Europe disintegrated into chaos.  As H.D. felt the onset of War World II approaching, her own nervous conditions returned.[3]  H.D. aimed to “calm as best I could my own personal Phobia, my own personal little Dragon of war-terror,” knowing that her attempts likely only would last “for the time being” (142).  When girding herself for the oncoming war, to battle this little Dragon in herself and the war’s “inevitable aftermath of neurotic breakdown and related nerve disorders” (142),  H.D. studies her own neuroses through a review of her memories.  She uses her past and her present to formulate a response to the horrors of the coming future.  The crisis of her mind reflects the crisis that soon will come to the world; her hope is that psychoanalysis could be the solution to the crisis inside and out.[4]

“till I  mold the clay”: Mourning and the palimpsest

            Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis influence H.D.’s conception of her conscious, subconscious, and unconscious.  His therapy sessions inspire the stream-of-consciousness linkages evident in her memoir and evinced by her poetry.  As the psychoanalyst “contents himself with studying whatever is present for the time being on the surface of the patient’s mind,” in Freud’s formulation in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through” (1958, 147), H.D. must first present the flux of that surface to Freud in person. H.D. describes their work together: “It was not that he conjured up the past and invoked the future.  It was a present that was in the past or a past that was in the future” (1956, 11).  Freud’s power guides H.D.’s journey through free association, and makes the very undertaking possible.  Freud and H.D. both considered her a student more than an analysand, with Freud as the “Professor” rather than the “Doctor.”  “I was a student, working under the direction of the greatest mind of this and perhaps many succeeding generations,” H.D. comments.  “But the Professor was not always right” (1956, 24-5). H.D. portrays herself as attentive to his lessons and methods yet not afraid to disagree with him – she worked under Freud’s direction, but always held her own course.  One may view the memoir as the capstone exercise, an exploration of H.D.’s mind in the process of working-through with Freud’s spirit and her own guidance.

To begin her memory-work, H.D. seems to recall Freud’s dictum that “forgetting impressions, scenes or experiences nearly always reduces itself to shutting them off” (1958, 148).  H.D. sets out to recover all those impressions, scenes, and experiences she may have shut off during the war period, or more generally throughout her entire life.  If “forgetting is mostly restricted to dissolving thought-connections, failing to draw the right conclusions and isolating memories,” as Freud claims, then H.D. will create those connections with superabundance, not only linking disparate memories but drawing many conclusions and leaving no memory in any form of isolation (1958, 149).  This test becomes a “seamless web:  to pick up any one point is to involve oneself in all,” writes Norman Holland in an essay on Tribute to Freud (1969).  One might recognize H.D.’s success at connection-making in Holland’s metaphor of the web, but one realizes that web idea becomes reductive with its firm placement in one location, one time, its very physical (even metaphorical) fixity.  The overconnection between memories disallows a narrative model that maintains a fiction between past and present; for H.D. every connection is at once new and always existed.  Again, H.D. reiterates a conscious awareness that she will avoid the fictive lies of narrative construction and instead follow that desire to return to the moment before a traumatic event, or experience the stillness to be found within it – all before and during, no after.

            This decision to ignore the after – or, rather, repress the psychological effects of the after – touches again on Freud’s theories of repression as it concerns memory.  Freud writes that “we may say that the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out.  He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it” (1958, 150).  Here H.D.’s sense of repetition or the palimpsest fully lodges within Freud’s theories, at least at the beginning.  Her crisis of memory forms this cycle of reenactment and the belief in temporal coexistence for the past, present, and future; all actions from these temporal modes can be repeated, acted out, through all times.  “This is [the patient’s] way of remembering” (150).  H.D.’s way of remembering must change if she wishes to break the cycle of repetition and reinscription.  She must work through all that has been forgotten or disconnected.  The poems and Tribute to Freud, viewed as that working-through, create an “intermediate region between illness and real life through which the transition from the one to the other is made,” in Freud’s writing, by allowing H.D.’s therapeutic transference to take place through literature (158).  Attributing the same qualities to her memoir and poems as H.D. ascribes to her dreams, one may describe these writings as the “shapes, lines, graphs, the hieroglyph of the unconscious, and the Professor had first opened the field to the study of this vast, unexplored region” (H.D. 1956, 140). 

The problem, of course – at least in terms of Freudian psychological health – is that H.D. finds that she likes repeating, re-enacting, re-living the past.  H.D. has no interest in working-through. Freud of course refers to the compulsion to repeat in his later work on the death drive, and H.D. decides to transform that pleasurable repetition into art and her psychic core. Terdiman, in a consideration of “Memory in Freud,” writes that “memory constitutes us and undoes us simultaneously” (241). That pleasurable compulsion to repeat, to undo and reconstitute, is at the heart of H.D.’s obsession with memory; these repeated enactments of loss and recovery are her own metaphorical version of Freud’s grandson’s fort – da game.[5]  The crucial difference between H.D. and the grandson, Ernst, however, is that Ernst will continue to mature and master this stage; H.D. evinces little evidence of wanting to move on. 

            Early in the memoir, H.D. calls Freud’s psychoanalysis “the science of the unraveling of the tangled skeins of the unconscious mind,” and notes the “healing implicit in the process” (16).  Here the shuttle of time can be ordered, the fragments on the shelves lined up and sorted carefully away.  “Healing” is implicit – but at no point explicit.  There remains an unnamed (and unknown) mechanism by which H.D. assumes “healing” will take place within the Professor’s safe space of therapy.  This process takes place with a “sense of outer security”; during therapy sessions “no words were spoken to recall a devastatingly near past to evoke an equivocal future” (1956, 15).  Psychoanalysis, lying on Freud’s couch, allows H.D. a safe space in the present in which she can move between that devastating past and the frightening future.  Freud, even in pre-war Vienna, is her protector, the “master-musician. . .[who] would charm the very beasts of the unconscious or subconscious mind, and enliven the dead sticks and stone of buried thoughts and memories” (1956, 160).  This creator of the safe space also pacifies the “beasts” of memory and experience, or tries to tame the thoughts of recent traumas and the traumatic incidents sure to come.  That taming, at least, was H.D.’s goal in her sessions.  One might think of H.D. now with these beasts of memory at her beck and call; now she can summon them, now she can send them away.  Freud’s ability to enliven the tamed dead in H.D.’s mind carries even greater significance as the response to those traumas themselves.

Before that happy day of taming and resurrection could come, she first must work-through the fluctuating mass, or mess, of memory.  The first area of flux, shifts between “dimensions” of Time and perceptions of reality, may be found within H.D.’s own work of mourning and her involvement in melancholia.[6]    Surveying the Freudian understanding of mourning, one finds a simple reason for H.D.’s “confusion” or lack of differentiation between past and present:  H.D. considers that “the dead were living in so far as they lived in memory or were recalled in dream” (1956, 18).  The dead remain alive only in that moment in which the past is restored to the present.  Like the dead sticks and stones, H.D. wants Freud to resurrect her lost loved ones.

            H.D. had lost two infant sisters, her mother, brother, father; witnessed the horrendous losses of World War I; and her first (miscarried) daughter, “In 1915, from shock and repercussions of the war news broken to me in a rather brutal fashion” (1956, 59).  In the early 1930s, H.D. is a woman surrounded by the death of the people and ideals of beauty that she loved.  Upon the death of a loved one, Freud describes the demand of libido withdrawal  and the resulting psychic opposition (1957, 244).  The opposition aroused by the demand could be negotiated by a turn to the past as a well as an emphasis on memory sites and memory objects, such as a “tribute” or other memorial work.  Freud also writes that

Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of someone who is loved, contains the same painful frame of mind, the same loss of interest in the outside world – in so far as it does not recall him – the same loss of capacity to adopt any new objects of love (which would mean replacing him) and the same turning away from any activity that is not connected with thoughts of him. (244)

Perhaps within this framework one best understands H.D.’s goals in her memorial attempts and her frequent slippage between temporal modes.  The love object not only must continue to exist but also become connected with everything possible – hence the creation of the palimpsest, a metaphor based on the classical case of a parchment from which the inked surface has been scraped and the new layer used as a new writing surface.  As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, this scraping is not always successful, leaving the “original text. . .partially erased, and then overwritten by another,” leaving a “manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing” (“Palimpsest”).  Critic Deborah Kloepfer recognizes in the “palimpsest” the “division of selves and consciousness. . . the seepage of past into present,” and H.D. exploits the concept of the past coming through the unconscious into consciousness (555).  That “seepage,” to use Kloepfer’s term, implies an uncontainability, a pollution of the present mind with past images.  What H.D. experiences, or encourages, even, is more a flood than a seepage, a casting open of the dam of past memory into the psychic space of the present.  To fight a “loss of interest in the outside world,” H.D. makes the outside world recall her lost love objects: father, mother, brother, sisters, daughter, peace, beauty, and hope.  H.D. consciously is not following Freud’s teachings – which would aim to move her beyond mourning, and away from the position of the profound mourner.  She instead glories in that position, and it becomes the basis for much of her work.[7]

            When a cycle of repetitions comprises one’s life, as H.D. welcomes it to, then every new encounter maps onto an old encounter, every new acquaintance can double for an acquaintance lost.  This doubling is not restricted to active objects of the present world; H.D.’s palimpsestual desire finds satisfaction in ancient stories, and relies heavily on the writing-over of Greek myth.  Her papyrus is the fluctuating surface of Time, on which she inscribes her memories of her present relationships and her experiences over the mythological stories of ancient Greece.  “Hallucinatory wishful psychosis,” in Freud’s terms, may set in, or the boundaries of Time may be redrawn to adjust to these new demands –  and thus one has H.D.’s palimpsest as solution to traumatic memory and loss.  H.D. believes history to be equally present at all times and freed of chronological strictures.

Following this belief, she can write herself over Thetis, for example, the grieving nymph goddess and mother of Achilles.  H.D.’s daughter, and more generally all her lost dead and all the lost ideals, can become Achilles whom eternal Thetis has lost.  Within that scheme, H.D. can become “I, the mother, Thetis self,” the goddess who first sought to make her son immortal, thus preventing of course the necessary mourning after his death (H.D. 1983, 162).  Frustrated in her attempts to secure his physical immortality, Thetis experiences her son’s death; following his death, she immortalizes him in memory and worship.  The Thetis story is rather convenient for H.D. as she seeks to immortalize her own dead in elegy and tribute, and turn her obsession with the lost and recovered past into art.  In her poem “Thetis,” the sea goddess flings herself from the sea toward the footprint of now-dead Achilles, left on the empty shore.  This Thetis “stretched and lay, a river’s slim / dark length / a rivulet where it leaves the wood, / and meets the sea, / I lay along the burning sand, / a river’s blue.” (H.D. 1983, 162).  In this transformation to a classic Greek goddess, H.D. instantiates the repetition of time, life, and history, calling up that loss and creating a sea of memory beneath all figures at all times.  Each loss is every loss, but a trace, a footprint, of every lost love object – person or idea – will be found again, in the present or in the future; or found again in a recovered past.  The Thetis image expresses that linkage as the sacrifice of selfhood – here, the goddess body – to act as a medium between the burning sand and the cooling sea.  The Thetis rivulet connects land and sea, life and death, though at the same time her memorial gesture threatens to erase the actual evidence (footprint) of Achilles’s life. 

Thetis is invested – by the Greeks, and by H.D. –  with this sacred duty, immortal memory and memorial.  Susan Sanford Friedman notes that Thetis, at the end of “Pallinode,” in the later work Helen in Egypt, speaks of woman’s “intangible, invisible, omniscient” power (177).  Thetis herself is as intangible as that transfigured water, and omniscient as an eternal goddess; the power of her memory work lies beneath the surface, waiting only for recognition. 

Through a process similar to that of H.D. turning herself into Thetis, H.D. transforms her mother, Helen Wolle Doolittle, into Helen of Troy, the maid who could be loved “only if she were laid, / white ash amid funereal cypresses” (1983, 154).  Helen becomes eternal beauty and eternal strife; she becomes Hellas, Greece itself, the birther of culture and art and these elegies.  Helen Doolittle appears in Tribute to Freud repeatedly; “The Professor had said in the very beginning that I had come to Vienna to find my mother.  Mother?  Mamma.  But my mother was dead.  I was dead; that is, the child in me that had called her mamma was dead,” she writes (1956, 23).  Freud initially diagnoses H.D.’s quest for memory, her attempt to break the cycle of repetition, as a search for her dead mother.  In that explanation of Freud’s first claim, H.D. equates the death of her “mamma” with her own death, the death of her childhood, the death of her past.  The recuperation of that childhood past through analysis and recalled memory allows for the recuperation of the mother, or “mamma.” Helen Doolittle is brought back to life.

            H.D.’s childhood memories take on a very real presence as she (perhaps) relates them to Freud and writes them in tribute.  H.D. remembers “There is an earlier occasion and again the sun is shining. . .It is not summer, for we go into summer clothes as regularly and as inevitably as people in the tropics. . .It is summer anyway in my mother’s face, for she is laughing” (39).  The tense of the memory is present:  she is laughing, the mother is present.  In this memory, “these pictures are so clear.  They are like transparencies, set before candles in a dark room.  I may or may not have mentioned these incidents to the Professor.  But they were there” (1956, 42).   While one conceives of memory coming from the past, H.D. posits pictures, or visions, of the moment located within the present – they were there.  These pictures of her mother laughing in the sunlight, whether she mentioned them to Freud or not, are objects that exist in all their tangibility, their tested and accepted reality.  H.D. can write, “My mother was dead,” and understand her death as an event in itself.  And yet the mother cannot remain dead or in the past.  This temporal shift, mother resurrection, and mother / Freud conflation continue.  “The Professor is speaking to me very seriously,” H.D. writes.  “This is in his study in Vienna a few weeks after I had first begun my work there.  ‘I am asking only one thing of you, he said.’. . ‘I ask only one thing of you children’ – my mother’s very words” (1956, 129-30). Even when H.D. talks to Freud, her own psychoanalyst, she cannot avoid transforming his words into her mother’s, transforming Freud into her mother.  Any phrase or vision can bring Helen Doolittle back to the present. 

            Helen is not alone in her resurrection.  Freud becomes an even stronger surrogate for H.D.’s father; H.D. calls Freud “papa” in letters to friends, even in their conversations.  The movements between Freud and her father are extremely fluid.  The offices of each man correspond; H.D.’s relationships with each man corresponds; their age difference from her own fits them into the same role.  For the office correspondence, she writes “one may walk into that room, as the Professor invited me to do one day, to look at things on his table.  On my father’s table there were pens and ink-bottles and a metal tray for holding the pens” (1956, 30).  With as small a fulcrum as a table, H.D. can move between men and memories.  Much as H.D. remains aware of Helen’s death, she also remains aware of her father’s death, which “followed closely on the news of the death of my older brother in France. . .My father died, literally, from the shock” (1956, 37).  The father dies from the shock of this war loss; H.D.’s unborn daughter died of H.D.’s own shock from grief and loss; H.D.’s memories have become disordered from shock and psychoanalysis is her attempt to fend off the shock again.  Freud, however, proves stronger than the Doolittle family.  H.D. continues:  “The Professor had had shock upon shock.  But he had not died” (1956, 37).  The father and Freud become further associated through their series of shocks.  Freud emerges as the victor capable of viable libido investment.  He becomes a vessel for his own identity as well as the identity of the dead father, or the voice of the dead mother.  Freud’s role allows the work of mourning to be sidestepped as H.D. transfers her parents onto him.

            H.D. allows for this process to be reversed, offering herself as a substitute for Freud when he loses another analysand.  When H.D. expresses discomfort at her legs hanging over Freud’s couch, he put her “at ease by saying that the analysand who preceded me was ‘actually considerably taller’” (1956, 28).  That previous analysand occasions H.D.’s subsequent return to Freud in 1934 after their 1933 sessions; H.D. explains “I came back to Vienna because I heard about the man I sometimes met, coming down the stairs.  He had been lecturing at a conference in Johannesburg.  He flew his own plane there.  On the way back, he crashed in Tanganyika. . .He was very tall” (1956, 3).  Freud conflates H.D. with this predecessor through their shared height.   Again when H.D. tells Freud “I came back to Vienna to tell you how sorry I am”; Freud responds, “You have come to take his place” (1956, 6).  In addition to their common tallness, H.D. and “the Flying Dutchman,” as her predecessor is nicknamed, are also joined by their relationship to Freud (1956, 4).  From the outset of Tribute to Freud, H.D. immediately identifies herself within the position of this dead man. 

H.D.’s greatest loss, though, figures in her brother, a brother who populates Tribute to Freud through many disguises and many lines, a brother who motivates some of H.D.’s most elegiac poems.  When she writes that “the Professor put me at ease by saying that the analysand who preceded my was ‘actually considerably taller,’” she immediately follows that line by noting, “My brother is considerably taller” (1956, 26).  The Flying Dutchman – first identified with H.D. – now becomes identified with this lost brother. As Adelaide Morris notes, “every figure” in H.D.’s life is rendered “a stand-in for someone else, every love a deflection, every trauma a replay of earlier disaster,” this transference “not a condition of cure but of compulsion” (425).  In “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Freud describes one aspect of the writing process thusly:  “A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfillment in the creative work” (Freud 1957, 151).  H.D. takes this connection between the Flying Dutchman and brother, and turns to the past.  She continues, “I am 5 and he is 7, or I am 3 and he is 5.  It is summer.  The grass is somewhat dry, a few leaves crackle under our feet.  They have fallen from a pear tree that has large russet pears.  The pears have been gathered.  (Pears?  Pairs?)”  H.D. is tall; her brother is tall.  Age (Time) separates them by two years, and yet they stand together on the pear tree’s leaves, paired together by common parents, common height, common experience.  H.D. is tall; her brother is tall; the Flying Dutchman is tall.  H.D. has come to replace the Flying Dutchman.  H.D. has come to replace her brother, to absorb her brother in this quest for memory. Through her, H.D.’s brother can live.

            “My brother has the answer. . .He does not give the answer.  I stand beside him.  My brother is very tall” (1956, 36).  If her brother has the answer, and H.D. has become her brother, perhaps she can have the answer, too.  H.D. also declares, multiple times, that her brother was her mother’s favorite; as the brother, H.D. can be Helen’s favorite, too.  These repetitions and replacements of the brother are played out not only in this psychoanalytic text of a memoir, but also in the poems.  “Charioteer” engages a memorial to a brother, to whom “only the gods / have such love / as I bring you.” (H.D. 1983, 191). 

I will fashion a statue

of him, of my brother,

out of thought

and the strength of my wrist

and the fire of my brain;

I will strive night and day

till I mould the clay,

 and in so doing create this poem of memorial to the lost brother, a statue of the “Charioteer.”  The writing, the work of the wrist and the creative power of the mind, not only creates the memorial poem but moulds the clay, the very physical statue that will represent the brother lost on the battlefield in France.  The poem’s narrator will “stake my soul / on that beauty” of the brother, dead, praying “let him come / back to us” in victory over this race of Death.  For the narrator here, “When death comes / I will see / no vision of after. . .  /but thou, / O my brother.”  The brother occupies heaven, he occupies the afterworld.  The vision of him, the beauty of this statue, becomes the reward for the sibling’s own death and then creates the possibility of his resurrection.

“we are here today in a city of ruin”: Expanding the tribute

            H.D. expands on the notion of substitution, moving from the individual to collective, and from the concrete to the metaphysical.  In “The Tribute,” H.D. rekindles the memory of “the boys our city has lost” (1956, 65).  These boys include the dead of World War I, as well as the Flying Dutchman and the brother.  The tribute of the poem takes place through a ceremony:  “We will choose for each lad of the city / a flower or a spray of grass” so that they “may know of our love and keep / remembrance and speak to us.”  The work of mourning remains “alive” in that drive for remembrance, the assignation of agency to the dead boys as well as the hope that a memorial will provide a connection to the lost loved ones.  The lines “And this we will say for remembrance, / speak this with their names” precedes nine stanzas about the infinite quality of beauty, a beauty these boys’ sacrifice has “kept. . .alight.”  While this transformation of a tribute into a declaration of the endurance of Beauty may seem strange, H.D. has managed to assign a purpose to the sacrifice of the dead.  Dying for a cause allows the one who dies to “live” through the success of that cause; dying in defense of an eternal conception – Beauty, liberated Europe – transforms the meaninglessness of death into a focused energy of positive change.  Death becomes “For the Good,” and one can build a memorial for this Goodness that comes from death and from the boys of the city who have gone into that death. 

            This abstraction at first may seem too tenuous (though with a kind of tenuousness H.D. would have enjoyed), but the notion of death as an exchange beauty returns in a poem of 1919, “I Said.”  Here H.D. declares “anyone to-day who can contemplate / the idea of death, abstract death,. . . /anyone to-day who can die for beauty,. . . /is and must be my brother” (1983, 323).  Here, now, in “I Said,” the emphasis on death-for-beauty enters the previous discourse of the palimpsest as an avoidance of losing a cathected love object.  If all those dying for beauty become H.D.’s brother, then H.D.’s brother can never die.  He will always exist.  He will always be reborn to fight again.  The figurative level of speech, identifying a fellow-thinker and a man (or woman) willing to die for an ideal as one’s brother, allows that brother who died to be reborn metaphorically in a multiplicity that assures the constant presence of a love object.  Who can mourn for someone who will never die?  In her extreme avoidance of closure for the mourning process, H.D. mimics the melancholic by broadly applying a sense of loss across a spectrum of possible objects:  relatives, friends, ideals, Beauty.

            In praising Freud, in her tribute, H.D. writes, “He had dared to say that the dream came from an unexplored depth in man’s consciousness and that this unexplored depth ran like a great stream or ocean underground” (1956, 76).  Freud had dared to make the claim for a vast unconscious or subconscious, and H.D. dared to explore it with him, and then continue that exploration with herself.  By time of the writing of the text, Freud “was a handful of ashes, cherished in an urn or scattered among the grass and flowers in one of the Gardens of Remembrance” (1956, 99).  The body of Freud, so plurisignificant and filled with explanation, had also left H.D., at least in “present” “reality.”  In this process of working-through, H.D. recognizes the loss of her “Master,” her “Professor” or “papa” to the Gardens of Remembrance.  Freud, too – of course – lives in H.D.’s memory, and in her memoir – a textual form of memory – and in her poems and understanding of the mind’s functions.  In a poem, “Sigil,” from the time period of her sessions with Freud, H.D. captures the essence of this understanding: “There is no sign-post to say / the future is there,/ the past lies the other way,/ there is no lock, no key” (1983, 411).  The path, then, remains open, undetermined, with no actual distinction to be made between the directions of travel.  A Tribute, then, whether it be to Freud, her family, the dead of the war, becomes a timeless offering that brings the past into the present, and through its duration, extends the present into the future.  While H.D.’s work with Freud did not free her from a repetitive cycle (in “Sigil” she writes, “Now let the cycle sweep us here and there, / we will not struggle”), it provided her a way to understand her own interpretation of mourning and enabled her to construct the enduring identity of herself as the poet of memorial and tribute to all the loved ones lost.

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[1] One here might think of James Frey and the controversy over his fictionalized memoir A Million Little Pieces, and the Russian Federation’s recent proposal, as reported in Newsweek, that “‘questioning the Soviet victory in World War II’ should be made a criminal offense” (Matthews).

[2] Cathy Caruth, for one, notes in her introduction to Trauma: explorations in memory, that trauma includes a “literal return of the event” (5). 

[3] H.D. describes her “nervous condition”: “There was something that was beating in my brain. . .I wanted it to be let out” (16-7); post-partum depression also has been suggested following the birth of her daughter, Perdita (Holland).

[4] In his preface to On Collective Memory (1992), Maurice Halbwachs advances an early articulation of memory’s externality.  Here, he writes, “it is in society that people normally acquire their memories.  It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories. . .it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection” (38).  For Halbwachs, memory becomes possible only outside the individual, through social frameworks - the “hedging” of H.D.’s memory further can be seen as indicative of the stress of the war years and society’s attempts to avoid their collective memories of the traumatic past. 

[5] Freud describes his grandson creating a game out of the disappearance and reappearance of a wooden reel, celebrating both its being “gone” and “there,” an object-relation’s peek-a-boo, in his 1920 text Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  One might recognize in H.D. the troubling tendency to ignore object permanence, or rather to substitute almost any other object (or person, or memory) for the absent.  Wither her characteristic superabumndance, one may imagine her playing a version of the game closer to fort – da – da – da – da – da.

[6] Freud defines mourning as “the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an idea, and so on” (Freud 1957, 243).

[7] One may find here a starting point for one of H.D.’s legacies – an awareness of mental illness or “unhealthy” patterns and thought processes and a simultaneous reveling in that condition, c.f. Sylvia Plath and suicidal ideation, Anne Sexton and hallucinatory psychosis, suicidal ideation, and mania.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Steve Schessler ""Let the impressions come": H.D., illness, and remembrance of the traumatic past". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/schessler-let_the_impressions_come_hd_illness_and_. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 9, 2009, Published: October 17, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Steve Schessler