Psychoanalysis in 1950s New York


Lionel and Diana Trilling see anxiety ooze

from every shiny tile of the Empire State

and Chrysler. The uncanny subway

is ridden at night by giant smiling dolls,

Jazz musicians invent crazy dissonance

with libido sevenths and sublimation minors.

Darkness can surprise you like that.

Diana writes a comic play for fun and Lionel

calls it ‘vulgar babble’, then throws his pipe

out the window in pique. A night city’s

narcissism feeds on fluorescent light

with a brilliance that dazzles the moon.

But it can’t penetrate the inky unconscious.

When their young son tells them he is afraid

of elevators, they insist it is his fear of losing

his penis ‘in the endless chasm of female genitalia’.

(As an adult he explains, in a self-deprecating way,

that he was worried the steel cables might break).

So much latency, Oedipus berserk in the suburbs,

just to go on living requires a suspension of disbelief.

Before bed Lionel repeats Freud’s mantra:

‘The artist is not like the neurotic.

He knows a way back from his fantasy.’

But so hard to find the way back, the mouth

of the cave that is always more than a cave.

Any hope of dreamless sleep is murdered

by the niggling natter of young editors,

passive-aggressive reviews, the insouciance

of over-sexed squirrels in Central Park,

the creaking of cables in that dark lift shaft.

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