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Psychoanalysis and Literary Archives with Erikson Scholar Nancy Kuhl

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by Aaron Beatty

Nancy Kuhl is the Winter 2016 Erikson Scholar at the Austen Riggs Center.Recently, the Erikson Institute of the Austen Riggs Center welcomed Nancy Kuhl as its latest Erikson Scholar. She will be spending 3-1/2 months at Riggs, working on what she calls “a long essay” exploring the intersection of literary archives and psychoanalytic thought.

According to her bio, Kuhl is curator of poetry of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. She is the author of exhibition catalogs, including “Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts.” An award-winning poet, she is the author of poetry collections including Pine to Sound, Suspend and The Wife of the Left Hand. She has been a research fellow at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis since 2012.

In a presentation titled Psychoanalysis and Literary Archives she recently gave to the Riggs staff, Kuhl spoke of libraries being “like mirrors” that reflect the “appetites” of their owners. In this way, she views libraries as agents that provide “a way of seeing.” At the same time, she points out that there is a false notion of archives or libraries existing as things that are “complete,” when, in fact, it is us, the people using libraries or gathering archival information, who are tasked with the challenge of making sense of and finding meaning in what we see and what we find. “I am interested,” Kuhl noted, “in the ways psychoanalytic ideas and methods may be useful in making meaning from the gaps, inconsistences and contradictions we find in literary archives.”

During her presentation, Kuhl highlighted three particular archival projects she has worked on to further explore the relationship between archival work and psychoanalytic thought. 

H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) - Kuhl has long admired H.D.’s poetry, but it was H.D.’s interactions with and writings about Freud that served as a focal point in Kuhl’s talk. H.D. spent several months in daily analysis with Freud, initially with the goal of relieving writer’s block. During this time, she wrote daily letters to a friend of hers (Bryher) recounting her sessions (which now live in the Beinecke Library at Yale). Kuhl related that while these daily accounts provide wonderful insight into H.D.’s life during this time, they are simultaneously “scraps of history we have to piece together.” 

Alfred Stieglitz - In exploring Stieglitz’s work as a photographer, Kuhl examined the photograph as art, as archive and as a document. Additionally, she presented several portraits of Stieglitz that each seem to uncover something different about his life. So, not only does it matter what materials the archivist finds, but the lens (or lenses) through which the archivist views the materials matters. Highlighting the complexity of attempting to create a unified portrait based on many different views, Kuhl quoted modernist writer Gertrude Stein, who said of her friend: “how could I know, how could I not know what Stieglitz is.” 

Richard Wright - When looking at drafts of Wright’s manuscript for Native Son, which appear as a cut and paste mess of typed passages, readers are confronted with versions, plural, to consider. There are the manuscript drafts, the heavily edited Native Son from the 1940s, the film version that Wright starred in and the unedited version not released until 1991. As Kuhl remarked, there is “nothing at all inevitable about creative work.”  

Making meaning out of the past and recognizing past events as having an important impact on the present are central concepts in psychoanalysis. Working as a curator and author of exhibition catalogs, Kuhl is constantly engaged in reviewing artifacts from the past to create a collection or narrative that can be accessed by people in the present. As she tells it, “Facts are real and have consequences, but they don’t always provide a complete picture. My work at Riggs will explore the ways psychoanalysis may provide a useful context for thinking about the acts of empathy, imagination and interpretation that allow us to make life stories and literary histories from archival documents and records.” 

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