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My dear Douglas, Mary Butts and a performance of letters

Butts and Psychology

Nina Bradley (UVic)


"Have done little else than read Jung...I think that I am a fair example of libido rising freely into the conscious"

– Mary Butts


The above quote is from a journal entry Mary Butts wrote on Boxing Day, 1918, after spending the day reading Carl Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious (Butts, Journals 110). In 1918, psychology was still a new, exciting field and becoming increasingly normalized in popular culture (Poplawski 337-338). Thus, it is unsurprising that Butts engaged with the topic. References to Freud and Jung, and their theories, are found throughout Butts' journals; evidently, she remained interested in the subject and up-to-date with the most current theories for many years. Notably, Butts was vocal about her disagreements with Freud's theories. Freud believed that "supernatural experiences," superstition, mythology, and religion were all symptoms of primitive societies and minds; psychology and the rational thinking of the modern mind could explain these phenomena (Blondel, Mary Butts 82-83). Conversely, Butts felt that these primitive features were still central to human life and could not be reduced to science (Blondel, Mary Butts 82-84). Beyond such explicit references, reading Butts' letters to Goldring and literary texts with this knowledge in mind reveals various aspects of her writing that implicitly explore elements of psychology. In particular, the collection of psychological associations in Butts' writings demonstrate that she engages with various concepts in this field.


Psychoanalysis in Butts's Journals and Letters

"Now for his faults: or 'inherited or acquired characteristics' as it is now fashionable to call them"

– Mary Butts, Letter to Douglas Goldring


Freud’s earliest work focuses on the analysis of dreams: he argued that all dreams are a "fulfillment of a wish" or, in other words, a representation of a person's unconscious (Interpretation 102). Dreams are a prominent topic in Butts’s journals and she seems to find Freud's theory useful or, at least, compelling. In one entry, Butts collects themes and ideas that will later form the basis of her text Imaginary Letters (Butts, Journals 93-94). Among the various subjects she lists is Freud: “Freudian theory of the subconscious. Dreams & wit—expression of unfulfilled desire” (Butts, Journals 94). The notion that a person’s dreams reveal their “unfulfilled desire[s]” resonates through Butts’s descriptions of her own dreams. For example, while recalling two dreams from the night of December 13th, 1919, Butts explains that one contained the “usual Freudian imagery” of sexual desire: “I was the neglected, suspected housewife of a teutonic gentleman of position” (Butts, Journals 126). She continues to explain that, because this dream represents what she wants subconsciously, she would “be in love” with the gentleman from her dream if she ever saw him (Butts, Journals 126).

Letter from Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring, n.d. Regarding Hugh Goldring's characters

Butts continues to employ psychological theories to understand the lives of others in her letters to Douglas Goldring. Her primary subject for analysis here is Goldring’s son, Hugh Goldring, who stays with Butts for extended periods of time. In one particular letter to Goldring, Butts provides a thorough review of Hugh’s character ("No date").

One component of early psychology that Butts incorporates into her analysis of Hugh is the importance of childhood experiences on an individual’s development. Jung, in particular, emphasizes childhood as a stage of life for “remaining dependent upon parents…and building up emotional resilience” (Williams 66; Jung, Collected Works para. 756). Adversities, including problems within the family unit, in childhood can have a negative impact on an individual's psychological growth (Jung, Collected Works para. 761-762). Butts encourages Goldring to consider Hugh’s life experiences before judging him harshly for his behaviour: “he was a rude infernal idle little nuisance, I don’t doubt it. But remember his age, the complex of circumstances that has helped make him” ("No date"). Butts’s correspondence with Goldring provides some clues as to the circumstances she is alluding to here. Specifically, Hugh is of “delicate health," an “orphan”—presumably a reference to him living with Butts rather than either of his parents—and has a strained relationship with his mother (Butts, "7 December"; Butts, "no date"). Jung also describes how the process of “individuation,” becoming oneself over time, can be difficult for youth if they suffer from a “disturbance of psychic equilibrium” (Jung, Collected Works para. 111, 430, 762); Butts appears to agree with this idea when she suggests that Hugh’s behaviour is a representation of “the dis-equilibrium his mother is finally responsible for” ("No date"). However, Butts also alludes to Jung’s suggestion that the transition to adult independence can be improved through adequate preparation to suggest that Hugh’s future is not doomed by his life thus far (Jung, Collected Works para. 761). For instance, she insists that “all the fine, decent, honest instincts” are present in Hugh and that Goldring “might reasonably hope for an exceedingly fine career from him” (Butts, "7 December").

Butts’s analysis of Hugh’s character and behaviour demonstrates that she seriously engages with psychology to understand people in her life. Moreover, this approach results in a multidimensional perspective of the individual in question; psychological theories provide a reasonable account for Hugh’s difficulties and negative traits without disparaging all hope for his future. Thus, Butts’s knowledge in this field makes her a particularly considerate caregiver for someone who is in need of “patience, loving criticism, & infinite affection” (Butts, "7 December") for their development.


Psychology in "Armed with Madness"

"'Good old Freud'"

– Mary Butts, "Armed with Madness"


Photographic Portrait of Sigmund Freud

“Armed with Madness” provides a compelling example of Butts applying her knowledge of psychology to her literary work. Although Butts explicitly references Freud several times, and parodies his theory of Free Association, her treatment of the character Clarence is a more nuanced demonstration of psychology weaving through Butts’s text.

Clarence exists on the periphery of the novel’s main cast of characters and only becomes central to the plot in the latter half of the text. In addition to being a Black, queer artist, the reader is informed that Clarence is a war veteran (Butts, “Armed with Madness” 21, 31) and bears physical evidence of this experience: his body is “branded with shrapnel and bullet and bayonet thrust” (115). In addition to being physically scarred, Clarence is psychologically scarred from the war as well. For example, he is described as feeling “horribly shy, raw, ill-adjusted, and sick to assure himself that the others thought he was good for something” (31). His inability to adjust to being a part of the group, post-war, can be interpreted as an allusion to his psychological distress. Butts also includes several scenes in which Clarence has disturbing dreams. Although they do not explicitly depict scenes of war, they appear to be related to this experience; they are violent, distressing, and contain symbols such as a “shrapnel helmet” (30-31).

To a modern reader, it is clear that Clarence suffers from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, at the time Butts was writing, this condition was only beginning to be understood. Freud played a critical role in investigating and theorizing PTSD. In his seminal text Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud outlines his understanding of “traumatic neurosis”: this is a condition exhibited by World War I veterans, among other groups and individuals, that includes symptoms such as “hysteria,” “general enfeeblement,” and “disturbance of mental capacities” (Freud, Beyond 10). Interestingly, Freud emphasizes how “traumatic neurosis” affects people’s dreams. Specifically, the “function of dreaming,” which is to express unconscious wishes, is interrupted and dreams instead depict the traumatic experience “constantly forcing itself upon the patient” (Freud, Beyond 11-12). This theory was published in 1920, eight years before “Armed with Madness” was published (Freud, Beyond).

Considering Butts’s interest in Freud’s theories, this historical context illuminates her depictions of Clarence. For example, like sufferers of "traumatic neurosis," Clarence is haunted by the trauma of war through his dreams: “Clarence, by himself, was simply and terribly afraid. Not of individuals, but of a menace that walked hand in hand with night” (Butts, “Armed with Madness” 115-116). This understanding of Clarence is reflected in Butts’s treatment of his violent episode at the novel’s climax. During this episode, Clarence is overcome with anger, leading him to kill a gull, destroy his sculpture of Picus, and torture Scylla until he is stopped by Carston (126-133). However, in the aftermath of this outburst, the text’s other characters treat Clarence with care and compassion. Scylla embraces him, distracts him from his distressing memories, and they all agree to take him to the nearby village so he can recuperate (138-140). There is a consensus among Clarence’s friends that he is not to be blamed for what he did. Significantly, Picus characterizes the event as a dream: “I think you know, that you actually did a dream” (137). This reference to dreaming, along with the descriptions of Clarence’s psychological distress, strengthens the notion that Clarence suffers from PTSD; since his episode was a dream, and Freud argues that dreams do not function as they should when an individual has “traumatic neurosis,” Clarence is absolved of any blame for his actions.

These references to psychology, both explicit and implicit, taken from Butt’s letters, journals, and texts reflect Butts's multifaceted use of psychological theories. Her psychoanalysis of Hugh Goldring largely offers a positive view of his characteristics and prospects; in this sense, psychology allows Butts to approach Hugh in an empathetic, considerate manner. Butt’s inclusion of psychology in "Armed with Madness" to underpin Clarence’s character is similarly nuanced and empathetic. Consequently, this approach suggests that psychology is a tool through which Butts understands others.


Works Cited

Blondel, Nathalie. Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life. McPherson & Co, 1998.

Butts, Mary. “Armed with Madness.” The Taverner Novels, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 11–142.

Butts, Mary. “Letter to Douglas Goldring”. 7 December 1934. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. "Letter to Douglas Goldring". No date. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.

Butts, Mary. The Journals of Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel, Yale University Press, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=3420118.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Standard ed.,Translated by James Strachey, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A A Brill, Third ed., Allen & Unwin, 1923.

Jung, C. G.. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 8: Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, edited by Gerhard Adler, et al., Princeton University Press, 1970. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=1573474.

Jung, Carl, and William McGuire. Psychology of the Unconscious: A Study of the Transformations and Symbolisms of the Libido, a Contribution to the History of the Evolution of Thought. Translated by Beatrice M Hinkle, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Poplawski, Paul. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=492233.

Williams, Ruth. C. G. Jung: The Basics. Routledge, 2019.

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