Traumdeutung at the movies

Over at the Paris Review, I synthesize my quack science-fiction criticism and my recent reading of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams into a blog post about Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception.

Left on the cutting-room floor was a comparison between the movie’s diagram of dreaming and Freud’s—too geeky even for the Paris Review, and offered as an outtake here:

As part of a recruiting pitch, the dream invader Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, draws the following diagram in Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception:

Simultaneous creation and experiencing of dreams

While the mind is dreaming, Cobb claims, it creates a world and experiences it simultaneously, and the tightness of the feedback loop is what makes dreams so potent and intoxicating.

For comparison, here is the diagram that Sigmund Freud drew to explain dreaming:

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

Read from left to right, Freud’s diagram represents waking life. At the far left, stimuli (sounds, images, tastes, etc.) enter the human mind through the perceptual system, which Freud labels “Pcpt.” Once inside the mind, the perceptions leave a memory trace, labeled “Mnem”—a record of the sensation and of associations between them. Over the course of a lifetime, a person has many experiences and therefore accumulates many layers of memories and associations. Freud suggests these layers by adding a level “Mnem-prime” after “Mnem” and then adding ellipsis dots after that. These memories are for the most part unconscious, though many of them can be made conscious. Also unconscious (“Ucs”) are many of a person’s wishes and fears, some of the most powerful of which are the oldest, which derive from memory traces laid down in childhood, when a person is most impressionable. In responding to a new experience, a person may be motivated by his unconscious but only takes action through his preconscious mind (“Pcs”). It’s the preconscious that brings memories and associations into consciousness and controls motor activity—the downward arrow exiting the diagram on the far right.

In waking life, excitation moves from left to right, in the direction of the arrow that Freud drew along the bottom of his diagram. But in dreams, Freud suggests, excitation moves backward—from right to left. Dreams begin as wishes in the unconscious and move backward through memory until at last they reach the perceptual system, which they stimulate into hallucination.

Freud’s diagram seems at first to lack a loop like the one in Cobb’s, but in fact it does contain one. That’s because the outside world appears both at the far left of Freud’s diagram and at the far right. The world is both the source of sensation and the domain upon which a person acts. In Freud’s understanding, a dream breaks the loop through the outer world, sending excitation into a short circuit that never leaves the mind. Whereas in waking life a person acts upon the world in order to attain remembered pleasures, a dreamer merely hallucinates the satisfaction of his wishes. Freud thinks that infants for a while attempt the same psychic shortcut even while awake. But “the bitter experience of life,” Freud drily notes, forces a child to concede in time that an imaginary bottle of milk is not as good as a real one.

Interpretation and recognition

Revisiting his dream of the botanical monograph in chapter 6, Freud reveals that behind his jocular association to his favorite flower, the artichoke, lies a further association, to Italy. It isn't hard to guess the link; fried artichokes were no doubt a specialty of Roman restaurants already in Freud's day. The pertinence of Italy to the dream's underlying wish isn't hard to guess, either, given all that Freud has said in relation to other dreams about Hannibal and Rome. Oddly, though, Freud doesn't seem aware that he hasn't yet demonstrated Italy's pertinence to this particular dream. As the fastidious and tactful translator, James Strachey, observes in a footnote, the mention of Italy "seems to be a reference to an element in the dream-thoughts not previously mentioned." Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that his friend Fliess was visiting Italy without him, as he reveals in his analysis of another dream of his? What if Fliess gets to Rome first? Generals have to worry about that sort of thing. In any case the lapse suggests that Italy was so fixed in Freud's mind that it was hard for him to keep track of whether he'd already mentioned it.

Meanwhile, there's an almost self-punitive tone to Freud's continuing revelations about his feelings for Fliess. He reports that after Fliess, "a man of importance," was attacked "by an unknown young writer" in print, Freud dreamed about the great German author Goethe attacking a young man, "Herr M." In Freud's dream, he misremembered the year of Goethe's death, substituting instead the year that one of his patients had been born, and he explains that dreams sometimes include such a deliberate reversal of facts in order to signal that the dream itself is to be reversed during interpretation—that the state of affairs in the dream is to be understood under the rubric "just the reverse." Fliess/Goethe didn't deserve to be attacked; the young critic should have been. The interpretation is plausible but not convincing, and at the conclusion of his example, Freud added in 1911 this comment: "It is remarkable to observe . . . how frequently reversal is employed precisely in dreams arising from repressed homosexual impulses." Suddenly Freud's interpretation seems even less convincing. A little later, he reports a dream whose chief characteristic was the sense Freud had at the time of its startling clarity: the dream was about presenting Fliess with "a difficult and long-sought theory of bisexuality"—a theory not itself included in Freud's dream, to his sorrow. Many, no doubt, are the men who have wished for a brilliant theory of bisexuality to explain troubling feelings to themselves. That Freud eventually came up with such a theory doesn't make this dream any less telling.

One doubts, too, Freud's interpretation of his dream of seeing a placard with the sentence "You are requested to close the eyes" or "You are requested to close an eye." Freud says that he dreamt it the night before his father's funeral, that the closing of two eyes referred to the funeral, and that the closing of one expressed his wish that his relatives would "wink" at the modesty of the service that Freud had organized, in accordance with what he felt were his father's wishes. But Strachey, ever the detective, notes that Freud wrote in a letter to Fliess at the time that he dreamt this dream the night after his father's funeral. A historian is obliged to prefer the contemporaneous testimony. Instead of looking ahead to the funeral with anxiety, the dream must have looked back to his father's death with remorse, and in that case, the one eye may have been the one that his father submitted to Freud's colleague for glaucoma surgery, and the two may have belonged to Oedipus—the psychological significance of whose story Freud had just set forth, for the first time in history, in chapter 5.

Of course I can't prove that the interpretations I'm sketching here are any more valid than those given by Freud himself. Decisive proof is hard to come by, in dreamland. If dreams may mean the reverse of what they seem to represent, if affectionate feelings in dreams may disguise hostile wishes, if logical and causal relationships are dissolved in dreams, and if a word in a dream may mean either itself or its opposite or simply refer to a context in which the dreamer recently heard it's used, then it's hard to see how one could decide between interpretations impartially. There are too many variables in the equation; there's freedom along too many axes. In practice, though, the freedom proves not to be too great, or at least one doesn't feel that it is, because one experiences an almost physical relief upon solving a dream. One recognizes the answer. All the pieces of the puzzle click into place.

I had a dream last night, for example, to some extent inspired by our Freud reading group, in which a young man with a cat-like moustache said, "It's sexy," and in the dream I said to myself, Oh, he meant to say 'sexual.' The reference might have been to the erotic frisson incidental to discussing psychology with friends—to the slippage between sexual and sexy. This morning's meeting, for instance, featured a digression about male versus female wet dreams. But Freud says unequivocally that spoken words in a dream always derive from spoken words in waking life, and I couldn't at first recall hearing anything like the words "It's sexy" in our reading group or anywhere else. The notion of a cat-like moustache seemed strange, because I didn't exactly know what it meant. Cats made me think of dogs, though, and suddenly I remembered.

A few days ago, walking our dog, I crossed paths with a young man with a pit bull. The young man was taciturn; the pit bull was straining at the end of his leash ambiguously. I asked, of the pit bull,
"Is he friendly?"

"It's sexy," the man answered.

I was baffled. "It's what?" I asked.

"Her name is Sexy," he said. He had misheard my question. Sexy was friendly, as it turned out, and the two dogs played nicely together—which must have been my wish for the reading group, too.

The feeling of recognition seems superior to everything Freud offers by way of method. But his theory of recognition, like that of bisexuality, seems to have been left out.

Ambition and ambivalence

Further contributing to Freud’s charm is his candor about his ambition, which is associated in his mind—or perhaps one should say, in his case—with bedwetting, a confession that can’t help but win him powerful allies, since all the most interesting people wet their beds until an advanced age. Freud reports that when reproached for the offense at age two, “I consoled my father by promising to buy him a nice new red bed in N., the nearest town of any size.” At age seven or eight, upon urinating in his parents’ bedroom, Freud was dismayed to hear his father say, “The boy will come to nothing.” The verdict was to haunt Freud’s dreams into adulthood, when his dreams would still be endeavoring to disprove it.

In the promise to buy his father a bed, Freud sees “all the megalomania of childhood,” and his manner of confession lets the reader know that he is alert to the humor of the megalomania. He recounts that at his birth, an “old peasant-woman” prophesied to his mother that “she had brought a great man into the world”—a prophesy he deprecates by noting that the world is full of “mothers filled with happy expectations” and of old peasant-women eager for a chance to please someone. In boyhood, he confesses, he dreamed of visiting Rome in emulation of no less than Hannibal, “the favorite hero of my later school days.” Freud saw Hannibal as a fellow outsider. “To my youthful mind, Hannibal and Rome symbolized the conflict between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic church.” Hannibal, moreover, took arms against his sea of troubles, whereas, in the Moravian town where Freud was born, Freud’s father had had his cap knocked off by a Christian who shouted, “Jew! get off the pavement!” and had done no more than pick up his cap and walk on. “Hannibal’s father,” Freud recollected, pointing the contrast, “made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans.” The child Freud aspired, in other words, to vanquish Christendom and rule the world. Indeed, when pealing bells nearly awoke the adult Freud, one morning during a vacation in the Tyrol, he revenged himself on the Tyroleans’ piety by rolling over and dreaming that “the Pope was dead.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud was to famously describe the mind as resembling Rome in its juxtaposition of ancient and modern structures, but even in the Interpretation there are already hints that Freud sees psychoanalysis as his Roman campaign. In my favorite passage, Freud adds a footnoted postscript to his regret that scheduling conflicts kept him from visiting Rome before 1899: “I discovered long since that it only needs a little courage to fulfil wishes which till then have been regarded as unattainable; and thereafter became a constant pilgrim to Rome.”

Ambition isn’t all that unflattering a thing to confess. But as he did in the dream of Irma’s injection, Freud continues in the middle chapters of the Interpretation to make somewhat more imprudent confessions as well, whose effect on readers he seems less aware of or in control of. He repeatedly announces that he’s not revealing everything:

For reasons with which we are not concerned, I shall not pursue the interpretation of this dream any further.

I can assure my readers that the ultimate meaning of the dream, which I have not disclosed, is intimately related to the subject of the childhood scene.

I must desist at this point because the personal sacrifice demanded would be too great.

Nonetheless he repeatedly reveals far more than is necessary to demonstrate his ostensible point. Of his dream about a botanical monograph, for example, Freud writes that “my only purpose in reporting it was to illustrate by an example the relation between the content of a dream and the experience of the previous day which provoked it.” But it sheds light on a great deal more. It links Freud’s pride in having aided in the discovery of cocaine as an anaesthetic to his chronic self-indulgence as a bookworm and to the triumph he felt when his father—the one who didn’t think Freud would ever amount to anything—was given cocaine anaesthesia by one of Freud’s friends while another of Freud’s friends operated on his glaucoma. Freud’s feeling of triumph or perhaps defiance returns in a long dream of his with a “Revolutionary year 1848” coloring, which ends with Freud presenting a “male glass urinal” to a one-eyed man—again a reference to Freud’s ambition and to his father’s glaucoma, which blinded his father in one eye. “What [the dream of the botanical monograph] meant was: ‘After all, I’m the man who wrote the valuable and memorable paper (on cocaine)’ . . . [and] ‘I may allow myself to do this.'” The feelings of pride and entitlement are understandable, maybe even excusable, but the triumph over his father raises questions. Was it to vindicate the father whose hat was knocked off that Freud vowed to conquer Rome? Or was it to replace him? Rome, after all, is a type of power and authority. If the discoverer of the Oedipal complex did set out to seize the paternal authority, didn’t he feel a little, well, guilty about it?

In the preface to the second edition of the Interpretation, Freud writes that he came to understand later that the book constituted “a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death.” I wondered in my earlier post if Freud’s revelations in the book could be read as an invitation, but I began to wonder, while considering the middle chapters, whether this invitation might not have been an altogether conscious one—whether in communicating more than he needed to about his dreams Freud might have been acting on a wish of which he was not fully aware. In that light, consider the most disquieting revelation in Freud’s account of the dream of the botanical monograph, a daydream that he had the morning after:

If ever I got glaucoma, I . . . thought, I should travel to Berlin and get myself operated on, incognito, in my friend’s [Fliess’s] house, by a surgeon recommended by him. The operating surgeon, who would have no idea of my identity, would boast once again of how easily such operations could be performed since the introduction of cocaine; and I should not give the slightest hint that I myself had had a share in the discovery.

Like a hysteric, Freud is imagining a connection through a bodily ailment. In the dream of Irma’s injection, he had imagined a link (pain in the left shoulder) between himself and a young female patient whom he had turned over to Fliess for an operation. Now he is imagining a link (glaucoma) between himself and his father, and wishing that he could turn himself over to Fliess for an operation. The operation is to be in a strangely impersonal way a triumph for Freud, as a co-discoverer of cocaine anaesthesia, but it is impossible to keep from noticing that it would also put Freud in the position of the triumphed-upon—of the father whom he has shown up. The most disturbing element of the fantasy is the role assigned to Fliess: the man with the knife. Like the real-life Emma Eckstein who lay behind Irma, Freud is not suffering from an illness that justifies a wish to have Fliess cut him open. Perhaps he wishes to submit to punishment by Fliess as a compensation for what he feels that by writing the Interpretation he is doing to his father. Fliess, however, is proving unsatisfactory as a father substitute, because the confidence he offers—the confidence that shores up Freud’s—has little to do with evidence. Just a few pages prior, in fact, Freud in a very lengthy and rather boring footnote, added in 1911, shows that he can’t find any grounds for agreeing with Fliess that men’s dreams follow a 23-day cycle or women’s a 28-day one. It is dawning on Freud that Fliess’s confidence may be arbitrary and that he may therefore be dangerous. If, because you feel guilty about your own assault on authority, you go searching for it in others, you may make yourself vulnerable to punishments you don’t in fact deserve.

Perhaps Freud’s oversharing could be thought of as his search, after the loss of his father, for someone to submit to who isn’t Fliess. Perhaps he was redirecting his wish for submission toward an ideal. As an intentional act, The Interpretation of Dreams represents an enormous assumption of authority—the establishment of no less than a new understanding of the human mind. To compensate for the authority that he was establishing over his reader, perhaps Freud felt compelled to submit himself for analysis to that same reader—to the reader whom the book itself was calling into existence.

Naive and sentimental dreaming

I’m re-reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams with some friends. Since I’m at a loss as to what to blog about any more, or why blogging should occur at all, perhaps I’ll blog about it. No promises.

Two forces meet the reader of the Interpretation: Freud’s authority and his charm. Are they monsters? Seducers? Has-beens? The authority interferes before the book is even picked up. One reads Freud because one has heard of him; at last one has decided to make up one’s own mind. One has heard that he’s been discredited, but one has also heard that the discreditors may be motivated by obscure grudges. There’s always someone around who knows a little about Freud’s biography or about the later development of his ideas, a person who can’t help but blurt out these revelations, which are in their way further obstacles to reading the book itself.

The authority is also manifest in Freud’s style—in his judiciously structured sentences and his broad range of cultural and scientific references. The first chapter contains a lengthy survey of everything that myth and science have had to say about dreams, each datum carefully described and ticketed and slipped into what one imagines to be a row of numbered cubby holes in Freud’s rolltop desk.

Except he didn’t have a rolltop desk, and one knows because one has seen it, in Vienna or London. And this is because of the second force, his charisma, whose pull one feels even before reaching the first chapter, in the very first of the eight prefaces, when he says, as ingenuously as Montaigne or Thoreau, that science has obliged him to describe his own dreams, and therefore “it inevitably followed that I should have to reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life than I liked, or than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet.” Even without having read the book that follows—even without its instruction—the reader hears the secret message: I am more poet than scientist. Freud then asks the reader “to grant me the right of freedom of thought—in my dream-life, if nowhere else.” He’s a hero, but a hero who’s a little ironical about himself. How can such a man be resisted?

The charm, after this early twinkle, is more or less submerged for the next hundred pages, which are so methodical as to cause even a patient reader to wonder whether it’s really necessary to read this book—whether hearing about it might suffice. The uncanny thing about this literature survey—inextricable from its boringness—is that the commonsensical ideas described are more or less eternal. They still surface in newspapers and conversation all the time. One has heard them over and over without ever having felt that it was worth the trouble to challenge them. One will certainly hear them again, even after reading this book, and still let them pass. One will probably even recite a few of them oneself. Few are out-and-out wrong. It’s the notion that they are sufficient that Freud intends to puncture—the notion that there’s nothing else to dreams, nothing with a coherent meaning or of nontrivial importance.

Through this obscurity—Freud later described it as “the dark wood of the authorities (who cannot see the trees)”—the charm occasionally gleams, as in the intermperate moment when Freud rolls his eyes at medicine’s fondness for the Ebenezer Scroogian conception of dreams as mental nonsense generated by somatic disturbances, such as an indigestible dinner: “Anything that might indicate that mental life is in any way independent of demonstrable organic changes . . . alarms the modern psychiatrist. . . . But if at the moment we cannot see beyond the mental, that is no reason for denying its existence.” Unhand me, materialists! By the time we reach Freud’s description of a treatise by a mystic named Scherner, said to be “written in a turgid and high-flown style and . . . inspired by an almost intoxicated enthusiasm for his subject which is bound to repel anyone who cannot share in his fervous,” we feel that we know Freud well enough to say to ourselves that it’s just like thim to decide that the best book on dreams, other than his own, is an unreadable one.

In chapter two, Freud at last begins to set forth his own ideas, in the form of a method for understanding dreams: First, record everything in the dream, no matter how trivial, absurd, or embarrassing. Then, record every association that each fragment of the dream calls up in your mind, again refusing to judge the value or pertinence of the association. Adopt here, if possible, the grandeur of Schiller’s rebuke to all critics:

You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

Be silly like us.

Of course it isn’t safe to be silly in public—not on the internet, not even in the pages of a psychoanalytic treatise. It’s only safe in a setting designed to make it safe, where confidentiality is guaranteed, and one’s interlocutor has credibly promised neither to retaliate against any hostility that one may inadvertently express nor to take advantage of any desire. Yet Freud imprudently reveals his dream to us and its meanings: he admits that he wished for the persistent illness of a patient he calls Irma to be someone else’s fault—hers, perhaps, for remaining attached to her symptoms despite his unraveling for her of their meaning, or another doctor’s, for injecting her with a dirty syringe, or still another’s, for being ludicrously inobservant. Freud admits to being troubled by memories of patients who died while under treatment by him. He is remarkably candid but by his own admission not completely so: “If anyone should feel tempted to express a hasty condemnation of my reticence, I would advise him to make the experiment of being franker than I am.”

He shows that his dream revenges himself on colleagues whom he suspected of disapproving of his treatment of Irma, and his revelations are sufficient to demonstrate his hypothesis that “A dream is the fulfilment of a wish.” The particular wish, however, lay only in his dream’s upper strata, beneath which he declined to dig, observing in a footnote that although he knew there was more “there is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” Trust me on this, says the veteran explorer. But didn’t he just tell us to look where the critical faculties would dissuade us from looking? Haven’t we been told that the message Looking here is more trouble than it’s worth is a sign of buried treasure? A navel was once a point of contact with the mother. It is a place where contact with the mother was cut off. To whom else might Freud have been led if he had continued to follow the association that he interrupted by invoking the metaphor of the navel—an association that had so far brought him from Irma to a friend of Irma’s to Freud’s own wife—a series he characterized as women “who would also have been recalcitrant to treatment”?

More than a century after the publication of Freud’s dreambook, it is notorious that Freud left out of his account of the dream of Irma’s injection a traumatic incident that must have contributed to it. Freud’s friend and ally as he was constructing the discipline of psychoanalysis was an ear, nose, and throat specialist named Wilhelm Fliess, who developed peculiar ideas about the nose as a locus for sexual dysfunction. Freud let Fliess operate on his nose, and on the nose of at least one of his patients, a young widow who resembles the Irma of his dream. This patient, named Emma Eckstein, failed to improve after Fliess’s surgery. Like Irma, she was suspected by Freud of remaining too fond of her symptoms. But during a physical examination of her in Freud’s presence, another ear, nose, and throat specialist made a startling discovery: Fliess had left behind in Eckstein’s nasal cavities half a meter of gauze, which was rotting. As it was removed, Eckstein bled and briefly lost any pulse; Freud nearly fainted. “So this is the strong sex,” Eckstein teased Freud once he had recovered. (The details may be found on pp. 80-87 of Peter Gay’s biography, in a 2003 article by Madelon Sprengnether in American Imago, and in many other places.)

Freud’s omission could be read as a deception. In Freud’s telling, Fliess appears only as an association to the chemical trimethylamin, which appears in the dream as part of the injection given to Irma, which may have left her infected. “Trimethylamin,” Freud writes, “was an allusion not only to the immensely powerful factor of sexuality, but also to a person whose agreement I recalled with satisfaction whenever I felt isolated in my opinions.” But the partiality of Freud’s account might also be read as an invitation. Even a reader ignorant of Emma Eckstein’s story will sense the further sexual possibilities, unexplored by Freud, in such lines as Freud’s disavowal of any wish to know more about the reference in his dream to Irma’s clothedness: “Further than this I could not see. Frankly, I had no desire to penetrate more deeply at this point.” Freud shares with the dream-Irma a pain in the left shoulder. Perhaps he also shares with her a fear of being contaminated by Fliess’s sexual injection or of being harmed by Fliess’s surgery. Or a wish for that contamination or that harm. Such possibilities hardly impair Freud’s charm or even his authority. Shouldn’t a doctor be troubled nights by the question of whether he’s really helping his patients? Freud’s methods merely turn out to be more revealing than he knew; he is more the ironic hero than ever.

Uptown Girl

A review by Caleb Crain of My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum. Originally published in The Nation, 30 April 2001.

“These pieces are not confessions,” Meghan Daum declares in the foreword to My Misspent Youth, an anthology of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines. Nonsense. Maybe, as she claims, “a few of the stories I tell never even happened,” but the first time I read her book, I read it in a single afternoon, mesmerized and spluttering, because all the essays have the flavor of confession.

They taste, that is, like a hot fudge sundae: salty sweet. Or more exactly, they taste like an inside-out hot fudge sundae: sweet, then salty. The surface is chilly, pale, slick, sugary. Beneath is a dark hot goo, like half-coagulated blood. The difference, in texture and temperature, is exhilarating and probably not good for you.

Just over thirty, Daum has been anthologized in The KGB Bar Reader and championed by Thomas Beller, the novelist-scenester-editor of the literary journal Open City. Until she decamped last year to Nebraska (she writes about her new life there in the latest issue of O), Daum was as urbane a writer as they come. Like Joan Didion, to whom she is often compared, she is a nonfiction switch-hitter: an empathetic reporter and a provocative autobiographer. The reported essay on flight attendants reprinted here, which Open City rescued after a men’s magazine killed it, is a gem. She owes her fame, however, to her confessions. In print she has admitted to unsafe sex, inventoried her debts and spending habits, and chronicled her waitership at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, much the way David Sedaris chronicled his elfhood at Macy’s Santaland. In the first person lies her weakness—and her strength.

In “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” Freud explained that the egotism of most daydreams repels everyone except the person who dreamed them up. In successful literature, however, the same fantasies manage to be pleasing, because great writers are able to short-circuit or neutralize the reader’s envy and contempt—to trick readers into identifying with daydreams they would ordinarily roll their eyes at. When Charles Dickens or Jane Austen share their fantasies, you enjoy them as if they were your own.

This is not, however, how confessions work. Memoirists don’t convince you to overcome your envy and contempt; they expect and plan for those reactions. You can’t read Meghan Daum’s essays without becoming enraged. If someone tells you that she has been financially compelled to move from New York City to Nebraska because she only earned $40,000 in 1997 and $59,000 in 1998, you will roll your eyes. (In my case, patience lapsed when Daum claimed that financial anxiety had blocked her writing by rendering her unable to think “about anything other than how to make a payment on whatever bill was sitting on my desk, most likely weeks overdue.” “Weeks”? And she calls herself a writer?) She can’t hope that you will sympathize; there is another game afoot. Arousal to indignation is in fact one of the pleasures Daum is offering. Of course she’s infuriating. In real life, people always are.

Like all real people, Daum has unexamined, often self-serving ideas about herself. Unlike most real people, she writes about them uncensored. When they hurt her and those around her, the reader feels anger, as if she were a friend who needs a talking-to. But if he’s honest with himself, the reader may also recognize a few of his own self-serving ideas among Daum’s—particularly if he too is a freelance writer who has found it hard to support himself in New York City. This is the hot goo. We all know it’s wrong to believe that just because you are a writer, you deserve a high-bourgeois lifestyle and boundless love. And we know it is wrong to think that if you haven’t received these prizes yet, it is because you don’t yet write well enough. But if you are a writer, this is the sort of nonsense you believe, or used to believe until you were disillusioned. Disillusionment may have improved you, but to spend a little stolen time with the old cheats is nonetheless a sticky, high-calorie pleasure.

If it were up to me, everyone who aspired to make a living as a writer would be obliged, at an early age, to read Thoreau’s “Life without Principle,” Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-up,” Gissing’s New Grub Street, and Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. “My Misspent Youth,” the title essay in Daum’s collection, may belong in this canon, not for Daum’s insight, which is no better than Fitzgerald’s, but for her lyricism, which rivals Connolly’s.

This is the chilly, pale, slick, sugary surface. Daum says she learned how to write sentences from her father, a music composer. And on the evidence of her prose style, I have no trouble believing her claim that she was in her day the second-best high school oboist in New Jersey, even without practicing. She has the ease of a natural. Note the rhythms in the opening lines of her essay “Toy Children”:

Though I had a stuffed-animal collection that rivaled the inventory of a Toys “R” Us, I was a child that hated dolls. By hate, I’m not talking about a cool indifference. I’m talking about a palpable loathing, a dislike so intense that my salient memory of doll ownership concerns a plastic baby whose duty among my playthings consisted solely of being thrown against the wall repeatedly and then smudged with a combination of red lipstick, purple Crayola, and, when available, spaghetti sauce. This was done in an effort to simulate severe injury, possibly even internal bleeding, and this doll, who, if I recall correctly, had eyes that opened and shut and therefore had come preassigned with the name Baby Drowsy, spent most of her time in a shoe box in my closet. This was the intensive care unit, the place where, when I could no longer stand the sight of Baby Drowsy’s fat, contusion-ridden face, I would Scotch tape a folded Kleenex to her forehead and announce to my mother that Baby Drowsy had been in yet another massive car wreck.

The sentences here start off compact and declarative. The first two bring to mind the humorously flat disavowals in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Autobiographia Literaria”: “I hated dolls and I / hated games, animals were / not friendly and birds / flew away.” But then, like a beetle lifting its chitin to reveal gossamer wings, out from under these assertions Daum unfolds subordinate clauses full of color and ambivalence, linked with a delicacy that requires the reader’s attention but never flummoxes him. She segues from aphorism to excursus as gracefully as Hazlitt, who loved hate in similar cadences: “Is it pride?” Hazlitt wondered. “Is it envy? Is it the force of contrast? Is it weakness or malice? But so it is, that there is a secret affinity, a hankering after evil in the human mind, and that it takes a perverse, but a fortunate delight in mischief, since it is a never-failing source of satisfaction.”

But let’s get back to the hot goo. Nearly every piece in My Misspent Youth contains an understanding of Daum and the world that is appealing and false. She succeeds in wrecking some of them; others resist her. For a reviewer to set forth exactly why and how Daum has failed to undeceive herself would be a bit like doing the crossword puzzle as a public service. Not quite taking her at her word is part of the reader’s fun. But I can’t resist a brief look at two issues: love and money.

In her first essay, “On the Fringes of the Physical World,” and in her last, “Variations on Grief,” Daum describes relationships with men who loved and disappointed her. The first, a sportswriter she calls Pete, failed to live up to the promise of his email courtship, when he wooed her under the America Online moniker PFSlider. The second, a rich, idle aesthete she calls Brian, died of a respiratory infection at age twenty-two without having made anything of his life.

Though the men are different, their relationships with Daum are strangely alike. Both surprised Daum by spoiling her. “He gave me all of what I’d never realized I wanted. . . . I’d never seen anything like it,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I have never in my life allowed a person to cater to my whims the way he did,” she writes of Brian. Daum is aware of the lopsidedness. “I slurped up his attention like some kind of dying animal,” she writes of Pete/PFSlider. “I liked him because he didn’t hold me in contempt for refusing to reciprocate the romantic aspects of his affection for me,” she writes of Brian. But in both cases, she is reluctant to relate her longing for attention to the phoniness she experiences later, when she meets Pete face-to-face and when she tries to mourn Brian. Instead she blames the internet for disguising Pete’s nature (when, in fact, his first email, “is this the real meghan daum?” perfectly reveals the nature of his seduction), and she somewhat mystically links Brian’s death to his lack of interest in hard work (when, in fact, Brian had at least one difficult achievement to his credit: he loved a writer unrequitedly).

Compliant phoniness—and its unfailing sidekick, imperfectly muffled rage—is an occupational hazard for writers. They are, after all, people who have made a profession out of saying whatever it takes to get attention. But it is for her commentary on another hazard of the striving writer’s life that Daum has become almost famous: unsecured debt—and its unfailing sidekick, a rampaging sense of socioeconomic entitlement.

In “My Misspent Youth,” Daum explains that at age seventeen she visited a music copyist’s prewar apartment at West End Avenue and 104th Street in Manhattan. The copyist had oak floors, “faded Persian rugs . . . and NPR humming from the speakers.” I imagine he had a subscription to The Nation, too. At that moment, Daum imprinted the style of life she wanted, and like the hero of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger—the one who needlessly starves himself—she insisted on procuring it by writing.

It can’t be done, of course—not today, not on the Upper West Side, not without the innovative credit-card use that Bush and Congress are about to consign to the dustbin of history. (Memo to Vince Passaro: Cash out now.) This is no surprise. What redeems Daum’s essay from mere self-pity (I failed) or backhanded boast (If I couldn’t make it, no one can) is an embarrassing insight, which can be phrased as a question: Would you live in Thoreau’s Walden shack if it had wall-to-wall shag carpeting?

Daum would not. “When you get to a certain age you learn what the deal breakers are,” she writes. “I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.” Beneath the humor is an unbecoming truth, rarely spoken aloud. Suffering for art brings socioeconomic compromise, which, in a culture stratified by market segment, looks cheap rather than austere. Literature is a high-bourgeois taste. Even if it only brings in a petty-bourgeois salary, to accept petty-bourgeois taste would feel like giving up hope on it as a profession. Thus carpet, dust ruffles, pantyhose, Maxwell House, and Billy Joel give Daum the heebie-jeebies. When she finally runs, it’s to Nebraska. She can’t afford to stop in Jersey City.

Except for the scorn of Billy Joel, I sympathize. A writer as gifted as Daum deserves to live in a prewar UWS 1BR fully reno w/ hdwd flrs & EIK. I can’t, however, agree with the conclusion she draws from her exile. (It may, after all, be temporary. Despite “Good-Bye to All That,” Joan Didion has not made it a point of pride to stay away.) Wanting to live in a place with oak floors is an interest in being rich. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Samuel Johnson said, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” But if Daum thought it would be evident to a seventeen-year-old’s glance how a writer could pursue wealth with integrity, or combine ambition with gentility, she must have been living in an uptown world.