Saturday, 4 February 2012

An inexhaustible theme

''On the Nightmare', another of Jones's essays from the period 1909-10, has also endured. It was expanded into a book in 1926, with a terrifying illustration by the Swiss-born British Romantic painter Henry Fuseli. Jones wrote it as a psychiatrist who had had considerable experience of listening to patients. Unlike clinical doctors, who tend to have short attention spans, Jones was accustomed to spending an hour hearing the random thoughts and dreams of those who consulted him, and they did not always talk about sex. That he understood what fear feels like is apparent from this essay: 'No malady that causes mortal distress to the sufferer, not even seasickness, is viewed by medical science with such complacent indifference as is the one which is the subject of this book.'

His wide reading was displayed in a review of myths and legends of fiends, hags and monsters: 'The modifications which nightmare assumes are infinite; but one passion is almost never absent - that of utter and incomprehensible dread ... In every instance, there is a sense of oppression and helplessness.' The victim 'can neither breathe, nor walk, nor run'. The three cardinal features of the 'malady', in his clinical summary, were '(1) agonizing dread; (2) sense of oppression or weight at the chest which alarmingly interferes with respiration; (3) conviction of helpless paralysis'.

In mid-century the power of his prose reached someone no stranger to terror. In 1956 Sylvia Plath gave Jones's On the Nightmare to her new husband, Ted Hughes, as a present for their first Christmas together. She boldly underlined passages about sadism and sexual curiosity, and also Jones's definition of the essential characteristics of a vampire: 'his origin in a dead person' and 'his habit of sucking blood from a living one'. She starred (less than seven years before her suicide) his pronouncement that 'the interest of the living in the dead, whether in the body or in the spirit, is an inexhaustible theme'.'

Brenda Mannox: Freud's Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis (John Murray, 2006), p. 88-9.

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