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50 Shades of Psychology

By Peter D. Kramer / Washington Post

Now that EL James’s bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey is appearing as a movie, I will confess to a fascination with the novel’s theory of mind. Some time back, a dinner party conversation led me to download the text and do a search for the word “subconscious.”

Anastasia Steele, the heroine of the series, has an active and chatty one: “Up and down like whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly.” Like the psychoanalytic superego, her subconscious serves as a scold: “My subconscious sneers at me, loud, proud, and pouty.”

When it is not “figuratively tutting,” Ana’s subconscious “hisses,” “whines,” “mocks,” “glares” and “glowers.” Her subconscious can be “Medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ ”

Yes, her subconscious is a homunculus, a woman within the woman — with an extensive wardrobe. On one occasion, Ana finds her subconscious “doing her happy dance in a bright red hula skirt.” This subconscious favors Nike sneakers and half-moon spectacles. She has “manicured nails” and a “finely plucked brow.”

There’s a whole world of little creatures — cosmeticians, opticians and the like — serving the subconscious. And she has a rival: the inner goddess, accoutered, variously, in “leather driving gloves,” “flat shoes,” “harlot-red nail polish,” “a pink feather boa and diamonds” and a “gladiatrix outfit.” In one scene, the inner goddess has an “inner b—-,” so it’s layers within layers.

Evidently, the inner goddess, an athlete, has access to an exercise suite. She does “a triple axel dismount off the uneven bars” and “a perfect triple Salchow in her ice skates.” Often, she performs arabesques, although the occasional pas de basque is not beyond her.

There is neuroscience behind this populated region. At least, Ana refers to “the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells.” Sometimes, thank goodness, the parts of Ana’s mind are in accord: “My inner goddess, my subconscious, and I all gape.”

In these matters, I don’t know how well science competes with popular fiction. In his early works, Sigmund Freud referred to a “subconscious” only to abandon the concept and write dismissively of those who employed the term. Instead, he proposed an “unconscious,” a region of mind with complex functions — few of which have been borne out in modern research.

Clearly, there are not little people, tiny duplicates of ourselves, running around in our brains or minds, but concepts along these lines have proved tenacious. Contemporary psychology, focused on why we misestimate risk and worth — in economics, politics or romance — points to competing areas of mind that perform something like reasoning. Research on the topic refers to brain areas. The prefrontal cortex is a favorite, but for all we really know, the medulla oblongata would serve.

Psychotherapy depends on the notion that parts of the self are not in accord and that familiarity with our competing impulses will do us good. I don’t suppose that throwing in the odd hula skirt would worsen our theories.

What’s annoying about Ana’s mind is the coyness. In James’s narrative, the subconscious serves to make its mistress seem more ambivalent than her actions prove her to be. And Ana has the disingenuous habit of casting some of her subconscious’s drama as merely figurative — “My subconscious is metaphorically screaming at me, arms, folded, leaning on one leg and tapping her foot in frustration” — as if her subconscious’s other actions took place in the physical world.

But there is one function of Ana’s subconscious that I find appealing: The little termagant is working her way through Dickens. Early in “Fifty Shades Freed,” the subconscious, in her half-moon glasses, is immersed in Vol. 1 one of his “Complete Works.” Later, she’s on Vol. III. In my own kinky fantasy, I’d swap roles. Let the subconscious slog through this trilogy. I’ll read “Bleak House.”

Language of Desire

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