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Keesey, D. (2002). “Your Legs Must Be Singing Grand Opera”: Masculinity, Masochism, and Stephen King's Misery. Am. Imago, 59(1):53-71.

(2002). American Imago, 59(1):53-71

“Your Legs Must Be Singing Grand Opera”: Masculinity, Masochism, and Stephen King's Misery

Douglas Keesey

Writing is like “dreaming awake” (King 1987, 112), thinks Paul Sheldon, echoing Freud in “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” In Freud's definition, a “dream is a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish” (1900, 160). But, we may wonder, if Paul's—or Stephen King's—writing represents his wish-fulfillment fantasies, why is it so unpleasant, so unbearable? Why is it horror? Misery: “As a common noun it meant pain, usually lengthy and often pointless; as a proper one it meant a character and a plot, the latter most assuredly lengthy and pointless, but one which would nonetheless end very soon” (King 1987, 220). If there is no point to Paul's misery, why draw it out in the way that Stephen King does here, prolonging to an almost unbearable extent the spectacle of Paul in pain, the parts of his body being hacked off piece by piece even as he nearly loses his mind? What kind of sense does it make to call Misery “a novel so disgusting you just have to finish it” (179), a nightmare at which we “did not wish to look and yet could not forbear to” (215)? If it is clear why we are repulsed by horror, what accounts for its attraction?

Freud argued that anxiety dreams or nightmares were still wish-fulfillment fantasies in which the dreamer is compelled to repeat traumatic experiences that occurred earlier in life, but to repeat them with a difference: in the revision that is the dream, the dreamer is no longer a passive victim, but instead eventually gains control over disturbing past events. Repetition compulsion is thus “a matter of attempts made by the ego, in a piecemeal fashion, to master and abreact excessive tensions.

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