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To Plow the Sea: A Note on the Unconscious

Simón Bolívar once said that all who serve the revolution plow the sea. The Surrealists, who presumed to teach the unconscious to be revolutionary, sailed the surface of a placid lake. For they had no sense of the unconscious, no feel for it. They had only a concept, a theory as shallow as any wielded by the writers of October magazine. In the words of Holden Caulfield, the Surrealists were “big phonies.” To say that you know anything at all about the unconscious, that you have a method for getting it to do what you want or tell you what you need to know, is as silly as saying that you know what God thinks. Or wants. Or that you can prove that God exists.

But what about Freudian slips, you say. What about the winning forward pass on the gridiron of mental health, the breakthrough to the end zone of recovered memories and redemptive insights? What about the revelations of dreams? Aren’t these all signs, even proofs, that the unconscious not only exists but can be known? The answer is yes, but only if you define the unconscious in a way that gives you that answer. The answer is no if you make what I see as a crucial distinction between “un” and “non.”

The nonconscious is what we know but have forgotten, repressed, or otherwise banished from consciousness. What has been banished can often be persuaded to return, though the motives for banishment are sometimes so violent that certain bits of nonconsciousness remain permanently hidden—permanently but never completely. One always feels intimations of the nonconscious, which one ignores or not. The unconscious, by contrast, gives us nothing to ignore. It is not in the intimation business.

I am willing to use the word “unconscious” only as a name for all that no one can explain about what I say and do, think and perceive. Physiology and neurology tell us interesting and useful things about seeing, for example, but they cannot say even the most rudimentary thing about our power to attribute meaning to what we see. We can, of course, account in a rough and ready way for the particular meanings we attribute to particular things. Because I am American I understand the wide open spaces as sublime. Because I am an American of a certain temperament I view the sublime with a touch of irony. That sort of thing falls within the range of reasonable—or at least plausible—explanation. But nothing explains how it is that I find meaning in anything in the first place.

Meaning, value, intention—we can explain them in particular but not in themselves. These and other “contents” and functions of the conscious mind are inexplicable in a way that the functions of the nervous system, for instance, are not. From this inexplicability comes my idea of the unconscious as the ground and origin of all the world requires of consciousness, if it—the world—is to be intelligible. Naturally a compulsive theorizer like André Breton, the pope of Surrealism, would claim to have understood and harnessed the unconscious. Just as naturally he failed. The ground of our conscious being has little inclination to buckle down to tasks assigned by an egomaniac of the avant-garde. I know that much about the unconscious but little more, aside from its reliability. I know I can count on it—as a poet, especially—so long as I do not theorize or try in any other way to manage it. I would do better to plow the sea.


Carter Ratcliff

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and art critic who lives and works in Hudson, New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

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