The work of Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) laid the foundations of psychoanalysis as a method of treating mental disorders that encourages patients to confront repressed fears and anxieties often manifest in the interaction between conscious and unconscious elements of the mind. It is frequently associated with the so-called talking cure.
Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious — especially his elaboration of its working through the interpretation of dreams — had important implications for our understanding of human consciousness and subjectivity. Freudian psychoanalysis implies a host of hidden or “repressed” motivations for human behaviour that undermine the unity and coherence of the bourgeois subject.
Some have noted a parallel between psychoanalytic accounts of human subjectivity and the Marxist critique of class society, insofar as “repression” plays an important role in both theories.
Freud’s psychoanalytic writings often take the form of case studies, analysing the neurotic behaviour of particular individuals. He also used literary texts as a source for psychoanalytic interpretation. For instance, Freud’s essay “Das Unheimliche”, translated into English as “The Uncanny” in 1919, is organized around a reading of E.T.A. Hoffman’s (1776—1822) short story “The Sandman” (1816). In the essay, he interprets the fear of losing one’s eyes — a running motif in Hoffman’s story — as a symbolic manifestation of the fear of castration, bound up with Oedipal guilt.
Freud also made use of literary examples in formulating his theories of human subjectivity, famously drawing on the narrative of Oedipus — familiar from classical mythology and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex — in elaborating the Oedipus complex, which was central to his view of the human condition.
Freud defined the basic elements of what he would later characterize as a “complex” in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess (1858—1928), with a startling self-analysis:
I too have fallen in love with my mother and felt jealous of my father, and I now regard it as a universal event of early childhood.
He also speculated whether the Oedipus complex might help explain Shakespeare’s Hamlet. According to Freud, Hamlet’s hesitation in killing his uncle Claudius (who murdered Hamlet’s father) stems from Hamlet’s own unconscious awareness that he harboured the same desires as Claudius, i.e. to kill his father and possess his mother.
Literary texts continued to provide a source of theoretical insight for later key psychoanalytic figures, developing Freud’s work in new directions. For instance, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901—81) examined “The Purloined Letter” (1844) — a short detective story by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809—49) — in two lectures: “Seminar on ’The Purloined Letter’” (1956) and “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud” (1957). Influenced by structuralist linguistics, Lacan suggested that manifestations of the unconscious (such as dreams or neurotic symptoms) could be interpreted as if they were texts.
The unconscious is structured like a language.
Many point to the way in which psychoanalytic clinical practice — which revolves around the relationship between patient and analyst — structurally mirrors the practices of literary interpretation in which the critic (or analyst) teases out latent meanings from the literary text’s (or patient’s) manifest content.
More broadly, psychoanalysis offers a way of thinking about human subjectivity that disturbs the notion of a centred, rational, thinking subject for whom thought is a transparent medium. Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious fundamentally undermined the influential axiom of Cartesian subjectivity (I think, therefore I am), breaking the link between thought and being, or between the interior world of the subject and the external world of appearances and actions.
This has prompted literary critics to reconsider ways of approaching the problem of authorial intention. If an intention is assumed to be unconsciously present, rather than stated, this assumption will require a hermeneutical approach that treats statements as symptomatic rather than expressive utterances, and that does not naively assume a transparent relationship between author and text, or between statement and intention.
Look! In my book, I said——
Oh! Is that what you meant? I interpreted it differently …
Questions of narrative perspective in a realist novel, or of strategies of self-representation in a lyric poem, appear in a different light if we can no longer safely assume that human consciousness is straightforwardly knowable.
The insights of psychoanalytic theory have informed the work of a wide range of 20th-century literary critics. In an essay that first appeared in 1977 in a special issue of Yale French Studies devoted to literature and psychoanalysis, Shoshana Felman (b. 1942) re-reads Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) — ostensibly a ghost story — as a psychological case study in neurosis, locating moments of linguistic ambiguity that point towards interpretative possibilities within the text.
Felman built on Edmund Wilson’s argument in “The Ambiguity of Henry James” (1938) that James’ narrative actually depicts a neurosis resulting from sexual repression of the narrative’s protagonist, a young governess.
I explored whether the ambiguity identified by Wilson might, in fact, be fundamental to the process of all literary interpretation.
The insights of psychoanalysis could help reveal the way in which such ambiguities are deeply embedded in human consciousness.