The article below is a long, but interesting analysis of Patrick Suskindís Perfume (originally published in German as Das Parfum).† Immediately below is a citation for the article.† I hope you enjoy it.
The Germanic Review, Fall 2000 v75 i4 p259
Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Suskind's Das Parfum. (Critical Essay) JEFFREY ADAMS.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Heldref Publications
The Poetics of Melancholia and Mourning
One of the most celebrated younger writers in contemporary German literature, Patrick Suskind owes his fame mainly to his literary debut, the monodrama Der Kontraba[Beta], an overnight success and the darling of the German stage in the 1980s, and to the novel Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Morders, an international best seller that quickly became one of the most read German novels since Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and Erich Maria Remarque's Nichts Neues im Westen. Suskind's literary fame stands in sharp contrast to his secretive personal life. An ascetic recluse who rejects public recognition for his success, Suskind does not grant interviews and almost never comments on his work. When he does, as in a rare self-reflexive essay entitled "Amnesie in litteris," he remains evasive about his identity, especially his literary persona. Addressing the question of literary influences, Suskind claims to be a blissfully ignorant epigone whose memory is so poor that he barely remembers what he has read, much less who wrote it, which, it seems to him, is a fortunate handicap for a creative writer since it frees him from the anxiety of influence and creates an uncomplicated relation to plagiarism, without which, he paradoxically insists, nothing original can be written.
In what has become a definitive example of
German literary postmodernism, Suskind projects his
concern with personal identity and literary persona onto the themes and
characters of Das Parfum.
Set in eighteenth-century
The novel has been read variously as an
indictment of Enlightenment rationality, as an allegory of the fascist mind, or
simply as a cynical postmodern pastiche that serves the reader titillating but
derivative kitsch. Whatever their view of the novel's
thematic intentions, all critics agree that Das Parfum's rich intertextuality
invites a search for the novel's literary sources. Despite its immense
popularity among an international readership, the response to Das Parfum in
Given the tyrannical insistence of
traditional literary aesthetics that the author be identified as the voice of a
singular and unified subject, it was predictable that the shell game with
authorial identity played out in the ostentatious borrowings of Das Parfum would be considered a
Germanic version of the deconstructive ecriture that
Roland Barthes had defined decades ago as a
"neutral, composite, oblique space" where conventional notions of
human subjectivity slip away and identity is lost (Barthes
142). Barthes's reduction of the author's identity to
an effect of literary discourse found little resonance among German
intellectuals, especially in the years immediately preceding Das Parfum's publication in 1985.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the counter-Enlightenment impulses that fed
deconstructive theory were considered suspect and their influence was limited,
in particular by the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, who called for a completion of the unfinished
project of modernity grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of individual
autonomy. To dismiss the author as an effect of
literary discourse, especially for postwar German intellectuals, is to subvert
the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous selfhood needed to construct and maintain
liberating social institutions. Certainly, the Germans have good historical
reasons for fearing a counter-Enlightenment that, in its philosopical
attacks on the "myth" of the autonomous subject, encourages dangerous
backsliding into the Romantic irrationalism often cited as the precursor of the
amorphous collective identity of fascism. After Hitler's exploitation and
contamination of the German cultural tradition, vast portions of its
intellectual heritage, especially those relating to Romanticism, were
Less anxious critics, most notably the American Germanist Judith Ryan, have argued that the novel's pastiche implies a critical strategy that forces an overdue reassessment of established literary values, especially of conventional notions of creativity. As such, the pastiche citationality of Das Parfum challenges the notion of artistic autonomy that had emerged in the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant and Schiller and was elaborated by certain Romantics and their modernist successors. Indeed, by this late date it ought to be clear that our perception of creativity has changed substantially. Increasingly, we witness the emergence of writers who construct their texts as hybrid reproductions of prior texts assimilated into a synthetic pastiche. Moreover, not all such writing can be dismissed as meaningless epigonal play across the textual surfaces of anteriority. Even though the parodic qualities of a novel like Das Parfum tend to obscure its critical function, its pastiche still effectively exposes illusions of creative mastery and textual ownership encoded in the precursor texts that it seems to exploit. More than a parasitic parody that feeds on dead poets, Das Parfum can be productively interpreted as an enactment of literary anamnesia that contributes to a working through of complex psychic and social issues.
In this respect, several critics have usefully explicated the novel's allegorical critique of the epistemic mechanisms of the Enlightenment. Following early Foucault and the proto-deconstructive thought of Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialektik der Aufklarung, these analyses treat the novel as a cautionary fable revealing how the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy is all-too-easily subverted by instrumental reason to produce the ego pathology that increasingly infects modern society (Butterfield; Grey). Grenouille's coldly rational plundering of the human body to create an ideal perfume is undeniably an allegory of the "murder" that instrumental reason commits on the objects of its reifying analysis and thus also a parable of the perversion of reason that led Germany into the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, Suskind's alleged plundering of what is to a large extent a Romantic canon suggests that the narcissistic ego spawned by Enlightenment reason infected the aesthetic imagination as well, extending the perverse myth of autonomy to the artistic realm and producing the aberration of "original genius." A principal aim of this essay will be to trace Suskind's recourse to certain Romantic and neo-Romantic precursor texts that present the artistic genius as an aesthetic avatar of the Enlightenment's pathological tendencies and to elucidate them as case studies of ego pathology in allegorical disguise, rather than, as is often thought, depraved glorifications of aesthetic narcissism. As such, these precursors provide constructive models for a redefinition and restitution of a disavowed Romantic tradition without which, Suskind seems to say, the contemporary creative mind is incapable of self-comprehension and therefore also of useful self-criticism.
To formulate the terms for such a redefinition of creativity it is instructive to revisit the psychopoetics of Harold Bloom, whose theory of intertextuality has altered our conceptions of the literary imagination in important ways. Because he has argued against the notion of an autonomous creative imagination, saying that "there are no texts, only relationships between texts" (Map of Misreading 3), Bloom is often associated with the deconstructive aesthetics of literary postmodernism. Yet, while Bloom concedes the primacy of textuality in the formation of the writing subject, he still struggles to rescue the human(ist) subject from complete absorption into the vortex of ecriture. Agreeing with the deconstructive idea that all creative writing is an instance of Freudian Nachtraglichkeit or retroactive meaningfulness, by which an "afterpoet" creates identity from the traces of prior poetry, Bloom also insists that the creative writer in the modern tradition can still achieve the illusion of originality by repressing influential precursors, even if there can never be an absolute autonomy of poetic meaning. Bloom envisions the literary text not as a mere "gathering of signs on the page" that marks the vicissitudes of ecriture, but as a "psychic battlefield upon which authentic forces struggle for the only victory worth winning, the divinating triumph over oblivion" (Poetry and Repression 2). Incorrectly identified as a deconstructive critic, Bloom has always sought to reassert the essential validity of Romantic conceptions of original genius, even if what actually survives the agon of creativity is a skeletal post-Freudian subject, rivaling, as one critic remarks, "a Giacometti figure in severity of diminishment" (Leitch 132). Nevertheless, against the "serene linguistic nihilism" of deconstruction Bloom declares poetry to be "an art that will not abandon the self to language" ("The Breaking of Form" 37).
In the wake of the Enlightenment's demand for self-legislating subjectivity, so Bloom argues, the Romantic poet could no longer unquestioningly imitate previous models to develop a literary identity. Thus Bloom casts the Romantic poet as a version of the oedipal son who contests the father's priority, not in direct conflict, but by a defensive repression of the precursor's voice. To achieve authentic identity, the artistic imagination must define itself by rejecting anterior discourse and narcissistically seeking its own voice, constituting an ego by love of its own figurations. Unlike the Freudian oedipal son, however, who resolves his conflict by incorporating paternal authority as superego, the Bloomian epigone dare not identify fully with the ancestral poet. Instead, the paternal element, the parent-poem, must be drained of its authority. Freud considered the oedipal reconciliation a crucial step in the ego's progression toward the goal of psychic individuation and wholeness; the resolution of the son's incestuous fixation on the mother must be enforced by the paternal threat of castration. But the Romantic poet, thinks Bloom, cannot complete such a development and remain a poet since "a poet's stance, his Word, his imaginative identity, his whole being, must be unique to him, and remain unique, or he will perish, as a poet" (Anxiety of Influence 71). Instead of a progressive model of identification, culminating in the formation of a superego, Bloom posits the necessity of creative regression: "Freud humanely saw the Oedipus complex as only a phase in the development of character, to be superceded by the uberich (superego) as mock-rational censor. Yet no poet-as-poet completes such a development and still remains a poet. In the imagination, the Oedipal phase develops backwards, to enrich and make yet more inchoate the id" (Anxiety 109-110). In Bloom's scheme, then, the authentic or "strong" poet must return to an "antecedent stage of psychic organization" where it is possible to limit the precursor's presence and clear imaginative space for a new creative identity. What Bloom describes is, in psychoanalytic terms, the illusory self-cathexis of primary narcissism, in which the infant has not yet emerged from a maternal symbiosis to begin the process of individuation. For the Bloomian poet the literary equivalent of this narcissistic symbiosis is an initial affiliation with a central precursor: "the strong poet's love of his poetry, as itself, must exclude the reality of all other poetry, except what cannot be excluded, the initial identification with the poetry of the precursor." Thus, "the mystery of poetic style" is reduced to the "mystery of narcissism" (Anxiety 146-147).
The result of this imaginative narcissism is
a creative melancholia that promotes a literary amnesia. Because originality
becomes the post-Enlightenment law of creativity, Bloom argues that writers in
the Romantic tradition (which he interprets broadly to include most canonical
literature since the late eighteenth century) must refuse to mourn the loss of
the idealized precursor by a process of self-defensive repression.
"Poets," Bloom contends, "do not exist to accept griefs" (Yeats 5). Inevitably, such repression leads
to an enormous diminishment of the creative ego, making Romantic poetry
"the result of a more prodigious sublimation of imagination than Western
poetry from Homer through
In the ongoing assessment of postmodern creativity, Freud's distinction between mourning and melancholia has been largely overlooked. Based on Romantic aesthetics and a canon of modernist literature that opposes the implied agenda of postmodern art, Bloom's widely acknowledged theory of intertextuality constructs the writing subject as a melancholy narcissist. Postmodernism, on the other hand, redefines creativity as a variant of the therapeutic Trauerarbeit advocated by Freud. By means of a desublimated reincorporation of parodied precursors, postmodern texts such as Das Parfum create an intertextual transference in which the self-destructive Romantic dream of creative omnipotence is subverted. Undoing melancholic repression, citational play creates a discourse of mourning that undergirds and sustains both the philosophical and aesthetic practices of a postmodern culture confronted with the disintegration of Enlightenment master codes of unity and totalization. Shifting the focus from Bloom's repressive melancholia to a mode of commemorative grieving, I hope to show that the postmodern work of mourning has important antecedents in Romantic literature. Subverting notions of mastery, purity, and originality associated with the Enlightenment genius, Romantic ironists who favored hybrid texts, shared authorship, and plagiaristic play contributed heavily to an aesthetic philosophy that is revived by contemporary writers like Suskind.(2) As openly acknowledged and thus mourned antecedents, Romantic stories of genius can be incorporated or ingested by the creative writing subject to reformulate identity, strengthening the ego, rather than as Freud and Bloom think, poisoning it.
In this sense Suskind can be included in a larger constellation of postmodern artists whose creative projects seek to recuperate aspects of Romantic discourse as a part of a contemporary revision of German cultural identity. German visual artists have addressed this issue most directly, possibly because, as Andreas Huyssen notes, "Nazi culture had most effectively occupied, exploited, and abused the power of the visual" (Huyssen 217). A notable example is the German filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, who contends that post war German intellectuals used rationalism to repress the Romantic tradition, blaming modern fascism on the Romantic glorification of the irrational.(3) Some critics remain skeptical of efforts to reclaim German Romanticism because, as they insist, the grieving in much neo-Romantic art is merely melancholic nostalgia which compulsively repeats regressive fantasies rather than geniunely working through the psychological and social wounds that created the fantasies (Brockmann; Kaes 66-72; Santner 147). To cite Romanticism as the source, rather than a symptom, has thus far been the error of such criticism, which (like Bloom's) defines Romantic creativity as a pathological melancholia and neglects its attempts to mourn and to reinterpret the image of original genius as a symptom of psychic illness in Enlightenment culture.
Mourning a Romantic Antecedent
Das Parfum's popular success
owes much to its wicked protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a compelling character designed to exploit a
deeply embedded cultural fascination with the criminal genius extending back to
the Romantic period. Certainly, Grenouille's appeal
derives from the similarity of this homicidal predator of eigtheenth-century
Many of the novel's numerous citational allusions, particularly the one that emerges in the very first sentence, signal Suskind's incorporation of Romantics who authored allegories linking artistic genius with the criminal mind. When Grenouille, a child of the Enlightenment, is profiled as "ein Mann, der zu den genialsten und abscheulichsten Gestalten dieser an genialen und abscheulichen Gestalten nicht armen Epoche gehorte" (5), the schooled reader hears echoes of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, described as "einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und furchtbarsten Manner" of the sixteenth century (Kleist 9). The wording of Grenouille's initial profile is also very close to the description of Rene Cardillac, the mad genius of E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale Das Fraulein von Scuderi, who is characterized as "einer der kunstreichsten und zugleich sonderbarsten Menschen seiner Zeit" (Hoffmann 179). Like Grenouille, Kohlhaas and Cardillac are Promethean individuals, geniuses of their respective eras, but also criminals whose excessive and transgressive acts are the by-products of a disintegrating and defensive ego. Since Kleist's Kohlhaas has already been identified as an allegory of antisocial aggression resulting from a weakened self-structure (Kohut 531; Dettmering), I will focus on Hoffmann's Cardillac, whose strange acts of aesthetic terror offer a useful point of entry into a discussion of narcissism and creativity.
Like Kleist, but also Tieck and Jean Paul, Hoffmann's predilection for depictions of abnormal psychology addresses psychic conflicts with an allegorical technique that prefigures contemporary texts like Das Parfum. Furthermore, Hoffmann's satirical critique of Enlightenment ideals and his predilection for parodic citationality also suggest him as a precursor of literary postmodernism. Citing postmodern parody as a productive and transformative return to precursor texts, critics have interpreted Suskind's global allusion to Hoffmann's Das Fraulein von Scuderi as a homage that subsumes and heightens themes and effects of its model with ironic deference (Whitinger and Herzog). Indeed, this parodic stance, along with Hoffmann's precocious intuition of art's relation to psychopathology may best explain Suskind's attraction to the story.
Of particular interest is the prefiguration of modern theories of art suggested by the homicidal jeweler, Rent Cardillac. In a brief digression at the heart of Das Fraulein von Scuderi we learn that Cardillac's artistic talent and criminal tendencies are both linked to a prenatal trauma. According to Cardillac himself, during the first month of his mother's pregnancy with him she encountered a former suitor whose previous amorous advances had been denied. This time, obsessively attracted to a bejewelled chain around his neck, the cavalier seems to represent to Mme. Cardillac "ein Wesen hoherer Art, der Inbegriff aller Schonheit" (211) and she allows him to seduce her. As she grasps for the jewels in the moment of her desire, the suitor dies of unknown causes, throwing Cardillac's mother into a disabling hysteria which is then mysteriously communicated to the in utero fetus. The implication is that the mother's erotically charged desire for the sublime beauty represented by the gems is transmitted to her son, whose resulting prodigious talent for the artistic creation of jewelry elevates him to the "der erste Meister" of this art form (212). As a result of this trauma, Cardillac comes into the world with a congenital compulsion to steal gold and jewels, an antisocial tendency that later alienates him from his father, who must subject him to cruel punishments to suppress this instinct.
The prenatal trauma and the resulting conflicts with the father and his societal agency, the law, are tantalizing clues to the mystery of Cardillac's violent acts, suggesting that the mother's infidelity breached not only her relationship with her husband but also, and in a far less mediated way, the emotional attachment with her unborn child. According to this logic, the intervention of a rival for maternal affection at such an archaic juncture preconditions Cardillac to act out an unconscious oedipal conflict with his male clients. Compelled to repossess the masterpieces of jewelry he creates for handsome suitors, Cardillac's homicides can be construed as revenge on a paternal order and as reappropriations of precious self-representations invested with incestuous libidinal energy.(5) The unmediated loss of the maternal symbiosis, exaggerated by the in utero trauma, triggers the formation of a creative imagination obsessed with fetishized works of art whose violent retrieval compensates a primal narcissistic wound. Such an allegory implies a vision of creativity that exceeds Freud's sense of art as a sublimation of drives, bringing it closer to Bloom's image of the artist as oedipal murderer. The crucial element in Hoffmann's portrait of the artist is a compensatory mechanism: Cardillac creates works of art precisely so that he can take them back. His artistry is thus a perpetual recreation of a lost narcissistic unity for which there is no liberating Trauerarbeit. The regressive nature of Cardillac's art fetish makes him a textbook example of Bloom's Romantic genius: To satisfy his infantile urge to be merged with the maternal element and possess it exclusively, the mad goldsmith must develop backwards toward an antecedent stage of psychic organization. Cardillac identifies himself with his jeweled masterpieces, which simulate the gems that his mother had idealized. He cannot accept an ego ideal because the idealized maternal object is still fused with a primitive grandiose self.
The account of Grenouille's birth and the genesis of his creative genius in Das Parfum reiterates both the physical circumstances and the emotional logic of Cardillac's trauma, but with certain important modifications that heighten the significance of loss and compensation for the creative process. Although the novel's opening scene seems to situate Grenouille's abandonment trauma at the moment of his birth, when his mother discards his newborn body on a pile of rotting fish, the narrative subsequently informs us that he has been prenatally conditioned for this rejection by an intrauterine hostility that was emotionally just as traumatic as his appalling rejection at birth. In a later chapter, suffused with images of regression to prenatal existence, Grenouille, curled up like a fetus in the womb-like depths of a mountain cave, claims that he has neve elt so secure, "schon gar nicht im Bauch seiner Mutter" (156). Following Hoffmann, who implies that the mother's fixation on the idealized gems contributes to the formation of Cardillac's superhuman talents, Suskind invokes an idealized feminine scent the "master scent" of Grenouille's first murder victim, to trigger his grandiose self-perception as revolutionary genius: "Mit dem heutigen Tag aber schien ihm, als wisse er endlich, wer er wirklich sei: namlich nichts anderes als ein Genie; und da[Beta] sein Leben Sinn und Zweck und hohere Bestimmung habe: namlich keine geringere, als die Welt der Dufte zu revolutionieren" (57).
In Hoffmann's tale the psychic catastrophe
caused by the mother's erotic desire transcribes her optical fixation onto the
fetus, resulting in Cardillac's obsession with
glittering gems. While Suskind changes the sensory
modality, investing his wunderkind with a superhuman sense of smell, the primal
cause of the artist's "genius" remains the same: Grenouille's
instinctive olfactory talent is linked to the site of his traumatic wounding,
the profoundly odiferous environment of eighteenth-century
The essence of Suskind's primal scene of the artist is of course already embedded in Hoffmann's story: the intruding male rival who upsets Cardillac's prenatal environment causes a catastrophic separation from the mother, sensed by the in utero embryo as a rupture of fetal symbiosis. Enlarging Hoffmann's interlude to epic proportions, Suskind builds his entire novel around a detailed narration of Grenouille's postnatal ego development, which is played out in a repetitive series of abandonments and betrayals by primary caretakers that reinforce the traumatic consequences of primal wounding. As the events of Das Parfum make clear, Grenouille's genial fixation results from a defect of primary identity caused by a traumatic separation from the maternal matrix, a loss repeated and underscored by the grossly unempathic treatment he receives from all subsequent caregivers. Not only is Grenouille unable to bond with his biological mother, but all his surrogate parents are themselves narcissists incapable of emotional bonding. Mme. Galliard, the mistress of the orphanage, is a particularly obvious example. As a child her father had struck her across the forehead with a poker, thus robbing her not only of all sense of smell but also of all human warmth and passion. More than mere physical harm, that traumatic blow leaves its recipient emotionally disabled, without empathy and without the ability to mourn. Her numbness and olfactory deficiency are a metaphorical mirror-opposite of Grenouille's powers. Parodying the Enlightenment conception of Bildung as a progression toward an autonomous ego, Grenouille's formative relationships promote only regressions to primitive ego states in which compensatory fantasies of infantile omnipotence replace the mature resolution of dependency issues.
Though it is less obviously worked out in Hoffmann's tale, the compensatory aspect is apparent in both stories: The artist creates as a result of a deeply rooted need to restore structural deficits in the core self. On this point Suskind's text is unambiguous: To tame and structure his incoherent internal universe, Grenouille must assimilate an idealized feminine scent. His most urgent need is to reinscribe a feeling of symbiotic unity into his disintegrating self-structure: "Er wollte wie mit einem Pragestempel das apotheotische Parfum ins Kuddelmuddel seiner schwarzen Seele pressen" (55). In this way he can erect "planvoll[el Geruchgebauden" in his psyche, "eine taglich sich erweiternde, taglich sich verschonende und perfekter gefugte innere Festung der herrlichsten Duftkompositionen" (58). Unable to mourn the loss of the maternal symbiosis, Grenouille remains trapped in a state of melancholic depression, which produces an idealizing fixation on the maternal. Like Cardillac, whose mother perceives the cavalier as the embodiment of ideal beauty and transmits this idealization to her son, Grenouille seeks the ultimate scent, which he first discovers in the pure, unviolated body of the girl in the rue des Marais. This one scent, thinks Grenouille, "dieser eine war das hohere Prinzip, nach dessen Vorbild sich die andern ordnen muBten. Es war die reine Schonheit" (55).
In such an allegory of creativity, regression
to an antecedent stage emerges as a psychopoetic
metaphor consistent with the Bloomian notion of the
creative genius who unconsciously reactivates a primal affiliation with a
central precursor and imaginatively regresses to a state of primary narcissism.
Although Bloom seems unaware of it, his idea finds support in the aesthetics of
object relations theory, which shifts the conception of creativity from
classical Freudian sublimation to a compensatory idealization of the self. In
post-Freudian psychoanalysis it has long been the consensus that artists work
to restore a lost beauty and perfection that was once their own. By inventing
an idealized object onto which primitive fantasies of omnipotence are projected,
artists enact a mourning of the lost omnipotence of the primitive grandiose
According to Julia Kristeva, whose view of art as an imaginative conquest of melancholia provides a useful complement to Bloom's more orthodox Freudian psychopoetics, the depressive symptoms of narcissistic self-disorders result from the failure of a primary identification in the pre-oedipal stage. Revising Freud, Kristeva argues that the bedrock of personal identity develops when the emotional matrix of child and primary caretaker is triangulated by a mediating ideal (usually personified as a paternal metaphor).(6) If the matrix is broken without the assistance of a nurturing, rather than castrating, parental agent, the core self fails to develop sufficiently, resulting in a "borderline" personality prone to psychic fragmentation. Without such pre-oedipal triangulation, the child remains suspended in a regressed state of primary narcissism. In Das Parfum the image used to convey this emotional stunting is the tick, a parasite that withdraws into itself and survives on a single drop of blood for years. Like the tick, Grenouille requires only a minimum of nutriments, especially in the psychological sense: "Fur seine Seele brauchte er nichts. Geborgenheit, Zuwendung, Zartlichkeit, Liebe--oder wie die ganzen Dinge hieBen, deren ein Kind angeblich bedurfte--waren dem Kinde Grenouille vollig entbehrlich" (28). In the total absence of empathy and love, the narcissistically wounded child becomes, according to Kristeva, "an amphibian being of boundaries," a liminal creature bereft of "sexual, subjective, or moral identity" (Moi 207). In this metaphorical description of the regressive borderline personality the psychoanalytic significance of Grenouille's name emerges: Grenouille (French for frog) is Suskind's metaphor for the liminality and failure of identification that characterize the narcissistic condition.
Unlike Freud, whose patients suffered neurotic symptoms thought to result from unresolved oedipal guilt (like the hysterical reaction of Cardillac's mother to the intruder), contemporary psychoanalysts typically confront a depression signifying wounds to a primitive ego preceding the Oedipus. According to Kristeva, this profound sadness, the melancholia of the borderline personality, is perceived by its sufferer, as a "fundamental lack," or "congenital deficiency" ("On the Melancholy Imaginery" 107; my italics). In both Das Parfum and its Romantic antecedent, the key moment in the formation of genius is just such a congenital deficiency. As psychopoetic allegory, Suskind's parodic recreation of Hoffmann's Cardillac generates an implicit critique of Bloom's theory of Romantic repression and originality. When Bloom claims that the original and therefore authentic poet must return, via repression, to a state of primary narcissism, he is in effect saying that the illusion of creative priority is purchased by an imaginative regression to pre-oedipal melancholy, a phase in which the ego is not yet formed because it has not successfully mourned the loss of narcissistic Alleinheit by entering the paternal order of a cultural tradition. Bloom's version of the Romantic genius, so Suskind seems to imply, is based on a narcissistic urge for perfection that has dire consequences in the social as well as the artistic sphere. Thus, a progressive view of creativity, one that uncomplicates the artist's relation to precursors and allows for the reformation of creative and cultural identity, is an implicit agenda of Suskind's allegorical novel. By means of an openly citational reincorporation of Romantic precursors, Das Parfum sets up an intertextual anamnesia that not only deconstructs the Romantic fantasy of creative omnipotence, but also assists a working-through of complex sociocultural issues.
Citationality as Alchemical Transmutation of Creative Identity
As the organizing allegory of a postmodern Kunstlerroman, the metaphor of perfume is particularly well chosen, for what would be a more appropriate trope for the self-deconstructing text than a composite mixture distilled from canonical essences, a parodic blend of the tradition's master codes and most seductive stylistic voices? Hoffmann's Das Fraulein von Scuderi, itself a synthesis of artist's story, crime narrative, and psychoanalytic case history, is only one of numerous intertextual constituents that Das Parfum comprises. Indeed, given the seemingly innumerable citational traces in the novel, it is tempting to imagine that Das Parfum is nothing but a complex construction of parodied codes and citations by means of which the author is able to write himself out of the text, an aesthetic ploy that is consistent with Suskind's public (and presumably philosophical) self-effacement. To analyze such acts of creative self-abnegation Harold Bloom proposes the concept of kenosis, which in Bloom's gloss means the belated poet's attempt to empty himself of his own "imaginative godhood," so that the precursor, whom the belated poet has introjected to achieve creative identity, is also emptied of his creative divinity (or originality) (Anxiety 77-92). By so de-idealizing the precursor who inhabits the belated poet's imagination, the later poet can overpower the precursor and establish the illusion of creative priority. In postmodern writing this ebbing of the creative ego undergoes a crucial revision. As the blatant citationality of Das Parfum shows, in postmodern kenosis the creative psyche is diminished not to clear space for a narcissistic genius who represses fetishized precursor texts but to dissolve the fantasy of omnipotence and redefine imaginative subjectivity as the fluid space of ecriture where singular authorial identity disappears and its repressed other, the citation, emerges in a hybrid intertextual construct. Troping multiple precursors, Suskind's pastiche foregrounds the creative process as an evacuation of literary identity and its reconstitution as a plurality of voices.
Such postmodern kenosis also offers the reader an opportunity to reconsider, perhaps redefine, previously fixed identities. As Freud theorized, an effective mourning of ideals and the ensuing self-reconstitution must take place in an intersubjective context--there must be a public acknowledgement of pain and loss. In the psychoanalytic session, the emotionally secure environment created by the therapist's empathic response serves this function, but in literary transactions such a confrontation and resolution of trauma is enabled by the distance created by parodic pastiche, which allows the reader to decathect fetishized cultural artifacts and reappropriate them as part of a Trauerspiel, a playful enactment of bereavement.(7) Portraying Grenouille as a psychopathic genius capable of mesmerizing the masses and whipping them into a depraved frenzy, for instance, evokes in contemporary readers the image of Hitler as the collective ego ideal of a society deluded by narcissistic dreams of purity and mastery, allegorically uncensoring the psychopathology of National Socialism and inviting a recognition of its lingering traces in various cultural practices of the present. In this sense Das Parfum can be said to elaborate the allegorical technique of Gunter Grass's novel Die Blechtrommel. The fairy-tale image of Grenouille as a regressive life-form (tick or frog) is a self-conscious variation of Oskar Matzerath, the stunted child of Grass's popular novel, whose refusal to grow up parodies the political retardation of postwar Germans who repressed all memory of the fascist period (cf. Hoesterey 173; Donahue 37).
In a German novel such as Das
Parfum such Trauerspiel
represents an aesthetic elaboration of the social Trauerarbeit
called for by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, whose 1967 study Die Unfahigkeit
zu trauern examined postwar
Germans' refusal to remember and mourn the National Socialist period. The Mitscherlichs' central idea is that the Germans experienced
the fascist period not as politically oppressive, but rather as a phase of
intense societal narcissism. The grandiosely staged public spectacles and the
idealization of the Fuhrer, so obviously parodied in the final chapters of Das Parfum (cf.
effects of the novel's pastiche technique also apply to the dilemma confronting
the contemporary German-speaking writer who must reconcile the avoidance of a
politically contaminated tradition with the need to preserve connections with
viable cultural antecedents. If, as Kristeva
maintains, genuine mourning is achieved by a process of triangulation, which in
the contemporary literary imagination implies an
identification with the patriarchal canon, how is this possible in what
Alexander Mitscherlich has called the
"fatherless society" of post-Nazi
This bonding of multiple precursor-texts to create a hybrid authorial identity has its analogy in the special alchemical process Grenouille requires to produce perfumes. According to the premodern science of alchemy, natural materials can be distilled to their essence and combined to create a synthetic substance, transmuting lower materials into higher ones, lead into gold for instance. Psychologically, Grenouille's fascination with capturing the "soul" of corporeal matter by distilling its olfactory essence signals his unconscious desire to create a human essence or core identity. Intertextually, the transmutation of pre-existing materials to create a new substance mirrors the citational process of the novel itself, which, distilled from myriad canonical essences, produces the literary equivalent of a perfume. In Das Parfum this alchemy of decomposed citations is initiated in the novel's opening sentence, which describes Grenouille as one of the "most gifted" yet "most abominable" men of his era. As previously discussed, this is a double citation of Das Fraulein yon Scuderi and Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas. Significantly, Hoffmann's phrase is already a self-conscious citation of Kleist, marking Hoffmann's appropriation as an example of postmodernism avant la lettre. By reduplicating Hoffmann's citation of Kleist, Suskind shows that ironic citation of pre-existing literary materials is hardly a new phenomenon. Even in the Romantic era, when according to Bloom the demand for creative authenticity was pervasive, parodic citation was common practice among Romantic ironists. Like the vampiric Grenouille, Hoffmann grafted himself onto precursors.(9) Moreover, by double-voicing the citation, Suskind avoids an exclusive identification with either precursor and so preempts the oedipal conflict.
In a similar fashion, the novel's concluding image of self-extinction mirrors the postmodern kenosis of subjectivity. After achieving his highest ambition of being loved unconditionally and then realizing that this love is only a manufactured illusion, Grenouille commits suicide by drenching himself with his ideal perfume and throwing himself to a crowd of riffraff, who tear him to pieces and consume his body in an act of "love." The corporeal sacrifice and redemptive reincorporation suggested by this cannibalization is amplified by a cluster of allusions including, most obviously, the Christian crucifixion, as well as the Euripidean dismemberment of Pentheus by the Dionysian maenads, the latter representing the defeat of the rational ego in both the classical text and its postmodern adaptation. Additionally, the image resonates with Kleist's Penthesilea, which also ends with the devouring of a wounded hero (Achilles) in an orally sadistic Liebestod. Reinhabiting ancient and sacred myths, these images of ingestion, communion, and redemption converge with the psychic necessity of introjective Trauerarbeit as a cure for wounded cultural identity. Grenouille's Christian name, Jean-Baptiste, further reinforces the interpretation: John the Baptist preached the gospel of redemption achieved by an identificatory communion performed in the name of the Father.
In the middle chapters of the novel the image of John the Baptist resonates in another, especially dense, citational cluster. After a seven-year hibernation in a mountain cave, Grenouille emerges looking like a fantastic mixture of man and bear:
†† Er sah furchterlich aus. Die Haare reichten ihm bis zu den Kniekehlen, der
†† dunne Bart bis zum Nabel. Seine Nagel waren wie Vogelkrallen, und an Armen
†† und Beinen, wo die Lumpen nicht mehr hinreichten, den Korper zu bedecken,
†† fiel ihm die Haut in Fetzen ab (176).
Not only does his wild appearance suggest descriptions of the biblical John, who lived the crude existence of a penitent in the desert, it is also reminiscent of the Barenhauter of Grimms' folktales, whose story resembles Grenouille's in important particulars. Like Grenouille, Bearskin is rejected by bis family and wanders as a social outcast. A Faustian figure, Bearskin wagers with the devil for his soul and (like the titular figure of Chamisso's tale Peter Schlemihl Wundersame Geschichte) must forfeit his shadow (a token for his soul or personal identity). In the end (like the fairytale frog-prince and Faust) Bearkskin is redeemed by the empathic mercy of a maternal figure. Without love and therefore without soul or identity, these fairytale creatures are, to borrow Musil's phrase, "men without qualities," liminal beings who wander the borders of society. What binds these figures together, generating the resonance that holds them in the constellation of pastiche, is precisely the liminality of their identity, a result of the traumatic abandonment that each of their stories records. Largely derived from the folktales favored by the Romantics, these figures of narcissistic loss and failed identity coalesce here to extend the lengthy cultural history of the borderline personality.
The literary history of the narcissist can be said to reach one of its high points in the Symbolist aesthete, whose characteristic fantasies of self-origination provide the literary-historical context for understanding the hibernation chapters of Das Parfum. In a remote cave at the uninhabited peak of the highest mountain in France, "Grenouille der GroBe," as he calls himself, withdraws into a radically autistic dream world, a paradis artificiel of the imagination, over which he reigns with god-like omnipotence. In fantasies of perverse grandiosity he conjures a race of slaves whom he dominates tyrannically and destroys with infantile rage. In his "purple castle" he indulges himself in drunken debaucheries by flooding his imagination with scented recollections of personal experience recalled from the storehouse of his vast olfactory memory. He refers to these regressive reveries as vintage wines, which he addictively imbibes to fortify himself against the painful emptiness of his depleted psyche. Sometimes these scented memories are called "books," which his servants retrieve from a "great library" implying that he, the aesthete, intoxicates himself with an excessive consumption of literary art. Ironically, despite this retreat from reality into the inner sanctum of his imagination, he is unable to defend himself against external influences, least of all from painful memories of rejection and abuse, which return in the scented memoirs he obsessively peruses. Similarly, the return of repressed Romantic and Symbolist texts is so pervasive in these chapters that many passages seem to consist of almost nothing but blatant plagiarizations (Ryan 399). Thus the aesthete's narcissistic fantasy of a self-enclosing realm is defeated by an underlying web of citations, commenting parodically on the perverse impossibility of self-origination.
Although scholarly assessments of Das Parfum have mentioned Baudelaire only in passing, the significance of his poetics for an understanding of Suskind's citational technique is of more than passing interest. Here a reference to Kristeva's psychoanalysis of Baudelairean metaphor is useful. According to Kristeva, Baudelaire's intoxicating lyricism, achieved in his hallmark metaphorical synesthesia, is the poet's attempt to merge disparate representations into a constellation of correspondences. In the context of the present analysis, synesthesia's destabilization and remixture of conventional signifiers represents a poetic regression to the symbiosis of primary narcissism. For this reason, perfume is Baudelaire's premier trope, representing as it does the dissolution and blending of metaphor in the poet's imagination. In Kristeva's analysis, synesthesia is the infrastructure of Baudelaire's conception of lyric style, producing a liminal semiosis of language that evokes the fluid subjectivity of primary narcissism rather than the fixed meanings of a symbolic discourse produced by the inflexible rational ego. Kristeva suggests that the fundamental significance of perfume in a discussion of narcissism and creativity is its psychosomatic connection to the maternal body: Perfume has "fusional connotations that condense the intoxicated memory of the maternal body" (Tales of Love 329). Smell is the sensory apparatus that best mediates the recollection of primary merger with the mother's body that precedes the acquisition of other symbolic codes. As smell's artificial or aesthetic representative, perfume is a metaphor for the earliest recognition of the (m)other and thus, according to Kristeva, "the most powerful metaphor for that archaic universe" (Tales of Love 334).
In view of Kristeva's analysis, Grenouille's olfactory genius and his obsession with creating an ultimate perfume from the distilled fragrances of idealized women emerges as a potent allegory for the pathological narcissism of the borderline personality. Presenting Grenouille as a parody of the aesthete deepens this allegory, for as Kristeva theorizes, such bizarre expressions of individuality manifest the dandy's exaggerated need for autonomy. The aesthete asserts himself in such strident style precisely to defend his fragile ego against the loss of identity constantly threatened by a regressive merger with the maternal. Beyond that, however, the conception of perfume as a metaphor for a synaesthetic writing also applies to Suskind's style. Translating Kristeva's thinking into intertextual terms, one can say that, like Baudelaire's alchemical play with metaphor, Suskind's citational play promotes a dissolution and reformulation of authorial identity. Like the decompositional process of synesthesia that displaces figural elements from one domain to another, mixing and fusing them to create new imaginative structures, the bonding of citational composites in Das Parfum suggests the possibility of restructuring the writing subject. To avoid the self-fetishizing tendency of the melancholy creative ego (personified by atavistic geniuses like Grenouille and his precursor Cardillac), the postmodern writer must revisit the canon of narcissistic literature and, supported by the ironic mediation of parody, reinvent such discourse as an alternative identificatory object. In this sense, Suskind assimulates Baudelaire's practice of alchemical writing, and, amplifying its psychological connotations, applies it to his version of postmodern pastiche. By so inhabiting the literary other's imagination, the belated writing subject dissolves fixed authorial identity while regenerating a Romantic conception of psychopoetological writing.
The analogy of transmutation is also suggested by recent advances in psychotherapeutic treatment of the borderline personality. In the clinical theories of Heinz Kohut, for example, the narcissistic personality is restored to healthy functioning by a psychic transmutation in which the analyst becomes the patient's transitional ego ideal, sustaining the weakened identity-structure of the patient who undergoes a healing change of personality during the therapeutic process. Expanding his theory into aesthetics, Kohut argues that creativity cannot be the affair of a radically isolated imagination, but is sparked by the affirming presence of an ego ideal. Identifications with mentors, in a so-called transference of creativity, provide cohesion for the "fluid" subjectivity common to creative persons ("Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology"). This transitory attachment to ego ideals assists the artist's retrieval of the lost omnipotence of primary narcissism, recreating a liminal psychic condition in which identity and creative impulses are thought to originate. The narcissistic wound is best healed at the irrational level of affect, where substantive changes in psychic structure are possible. It is perhaps in this sense that we must undertand the plea by German artists such as Syberberg for a return to Romantic irrationalism as a way of restoring identity to a culture without a Heimat (cf. Kaes 68).
Situated in a discussion of intertextual creativity, such concepts can clarify the difference between the perceived plagiarism of postmodern art and a new psychology of creativity. Taken in aggregate, the global pastiche of a novel like Das Parfum provides a "facilitating environment" where creative identity can be reformed (Winnicott). Rereading Bloom through Kristeva and Kohut supports the hypothesis that, much like the restoration of depleted ego structure in psychotherapy, authorial identity, though dependent on primary identifications with precursors, can be modified by the incorporation of clustered citations. In the artificially induced regression and fluid kenosis of the citational imagination, a transmuting internalization of precursor texts can contribute to a reconstruction of authorial identity, which may also suggest to the reader an alternative social subjectivity. This revision of the creative imagination implies a reassessment of certain Romantic and Symbolist texts as explorations, and not merely nostalgic glorifications, of the narcissistic condition, and thus as models for a critical rehabilitation of Romantic discourse rather than as compulsive repetitions of the pathological state that Harold Bloom describes. Such a revision is at odds with a conception of the Romantic poet as a melancholy genius who refuses to mourn the separation from tradition resulting from Enlightenment aesthetics and fixates on the grandiose illusion of self-divination. Rather than repressing the ancestral voice blocking the epigone's access to some imagined Ursprache of poetic language, the postmodern imagination liberates itself from the narcissistic delusion of originality, converting creative anxiety into intertextual productivity. Thus, the postmodern writer, no longer the mythic, self-aggrandizing genius, is restored to the status of virtuoso, a term that in the premodern era signified a collector of art and highly skilled player. This is, in a productive sense, what the writing subject appears to become in the intertextual artistry that distinguishes Das Parfum as an allegory of postmodern creativity.
(1.) Joachim Kaiser compares Das Parfum with Thomas Mann; Marcel Reich-Ranicki reads Das Parfum in relation to E.T.A. Hoffmann's writings; Michael Fischer comments on the influence of Balzac, Baudelaire, and Flaubert.
(2.) As Kathleen M. Wheeler notes: "Contrary to received opinion about romantic poets, authors were not seen as essentially discrete individuals originating new and individual works of art; individuality was seen as `portions of one great poem' (to use Shelley's words)." "Like Derrida," Wheeler adds, "the ironists were reminding their readers that influence and tradition permeate even the most apparently original texts" 31. For a discussion of German Romantic irony in relation to deconstructive thought see 26-49.
asserts that without irrationalism
(4.) The homicidal psychopath is, however, only the most extreme form of a sociopathic type now considered by many to be pervasive. See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1979). Also interesting in this context is the fact that Kurt Cobain, grunge rock icon and spokesman for the alienated youth culture of the 90s (who committed suicide for apparently the same reasons as Grenouille), had read and idealized Das Parfum. He wrote a song alluding to the novel entitled "Scentless Apprentice" for the album In Utero.
(5.) Cf. Peter Schneider, "Verbrechen, Kunstlertum und Wahnsinn. Untersuchungen zur Figur des Cardillac in E.T.A. Hoffmanns Das Fraulein von Scuderi," Mitteilungen der E.T.A. Hoffmann-Gesellschaft 26 (1980): 34-50.
(6.) Following Freud, Kristeva calls this agent the "father of individual prehistory." Tales of Love, 33-34.
(7.) The reference here is to Walter Benjamin's Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, a work in which Benjamin analyses the "melancholy gaze" as an allegorical vision that empties the object of artistic representation of its meaning, making it available as a vessel for transmitting renewed meaning.
(8.) Harold Bloom calls this apophrades, a Greek word meaning "dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to reinhabit the houses in which they had lived." The Anxiety of Influence, 15. The final chapter of The Anxiety of Influence treats this concept (138-155).
(9.) Kater Murr is a particularly good example of Hoffmann's playful citationality. See Kropf, 201-210. Hoffmann's story "Die Rauber" is a prose remake of Schiller's famous play of the same title, and story "Das Gelubde" feeds off Kleist's Die Marquise von O. There are numerous other examples.
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Full Citation For This Article
The Germanic Review, Fall 2000 v75 i4 p259
Narcissism and Creativity in the Postmodern Era: The Case of Patrick Suskind's Das Parfum. (Critical Essay) JEFFREY ADAMS.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Heldref Publications