Psychoanalytic criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Psychoanalytic criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism: A type of psychological criticism that emerged in the early twentieth century and that analyzes the relationship between authors or readers and literary works, emphasizing the unconscious mind, its repressed wishes and fears, and sublimated manifestations in the text. Better known and more widely practiced than its “parent” approach, psychoanalytic criticism originated in the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who developed a theory of human psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and pioneered the technique of psychoanalysis, a therapeutic method that has been called the “talking cure.”

Freud’s theories are directly and indirectly concerned with the nature of the unconscious mind. Although Freud didn’t invent the notion of the unconscious — others before him had suggested that even the supposedly “sane” human mind was conscious and rational only at times, and even then at possibly only one level — he expanded it, suggesting that the powers motivating men and women are mainly and normally unconscious. He also identified three components of the human psyche: the id, the inborn, unconscious part of the psyche and the source of our instinctual physical (especially libidinal) desires; the superego, which internalizes the norms and mores of society and almost seems outside the self, making moral judgments and counseling sacrifice regardless of self-interest; and the ego, the predominantly rational, orderly, and conscious part of the psyche that mediates the often competing demands of the id and the superego. The id, insatiable and pleasure-seeking, is ruled by the pleasure principle; the ego, based on the reality principle, must choose between or balance liberation and self-gratification on one hand and censorship and conformity on the other.

Freud argued that we often repress what the id encourages us to think and do, thereby forcing these “unacceptable” wishes and desires into the unconscious. According to Freud, we are particularly likely to censor infantile sexual desires, which then emerge only in disguised forms: in dreams, in language (so-called Freudian slips), in creative activity that may produce art (including literature), and in neurotic behavior. One commonly repressed unconscious desire is the childhood wish to displace the parent of the same sex and take his or her place in the affections of the parent of the opposite sex, which Freud referred to as “Oedipal” (after the Greek tragic hero Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother). Notably, Freud viewed the manifestation of the Oedipus complex as a universal experience, a normal stage of psychosexual development central to the development of the superego, and for much of his career attributed neurosis chiefly to unresolved Oedipal conflicts.

Freud used dream analysis as a tool for uncovering our repressed feelings and memories. He believed that the repressed urges of the id surface in dreams, masked in symbolic form, and that analysis is therefore required to reveal their true meaning. Although Freud’s belief in the significance of dreams was no more original than his belief that there is an unconscious side to the psyche, it was the extent to which he developed a theory of how dreams work — and the extent to which that theory helped him, by analogy, to understand far more than dreams — that made him unusual, important, and influential.

The psychoanalytic approach to literature not only rests on the theories of Freud, it may even be said to have begun with Freud, who believed that writers write to express their personal, repressed wishes and who was especially interested in writers who relied heavily on symbols. Such writers cloak ideas in figures that make sense only when interpreted, much as the unconscious mind of a neurotic disguises secret thoughts in dream stories or bizarre actions that need to be interpreted by an analyst. Freud’s interest in literary artists led him to make some unfortunate generalizations about creativity; for example, in the twenty-third lecture of his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1922), he defined the artist as “one urged on by instinctive needs that are too clamorous.” But it also led him to write creative literary criticism of his own, including an influential essay on “The Relation of a Poet to Daydreaming” (1908) and “The Uncanny” (1919), a provocative psychoanalytic reading of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s supernatural tale “The Sand-man” (1817).

Freud’s application of psychoanalytic theory to literature was imitated and then modified by numerous critics. In 1909, Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, theorized that the artist turns a powerful, secret wish into a literary fantasy; Rank used the Oedipus complex to explain the similarities between the popular stories of so many literary heroes. A year later, Ernest Jones, a Welsh psychoanalyst and, later, Freud’s official biographer, drew on the Oedipal conflict in “The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive” (1910), suggesting that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a victim of strong feelings toward his mother, the queen. In the next forty years, many other critics adopted the new approach; some of the most influential included I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and Edmund Wilson.

Several writers of poetry and fiction have also relied on Freudian models. For instance, Conrad Aiken, W. H. Auden, and Robert Graves applied Freudian insights when writing critical prose. Novelists William Faulkner, Henry James, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, and Marcel Proust have all written criticism influenced by Freud or novels that conceive of character, conflict, and creative writing itself in Freudian terms. The poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) was actually a patient of Freud’s and provided an account of her analysis in her book Tribute to Freud (1956).

Probably because of Freud’s characterization of the creative mind as “clamorous” if not ill, psychoanalytic criticism written before 1950 tended to psychoanalyze the individual author. Works were read — sometimes unconvincingly — as fantasies that allowed authors to indulge repressed wishes, to protect themselves from deep-seated anxieties, or both. For instance, in The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1933), Marie Bonaparte found Poe to be so fixated on his mother that his repressed longing emerges in his stories in images such as the white spot on a black cat’s breast (said to represent mother’s milk) in “The Black Cat.” A later generation of psychoanalytic critics analyzed the characters in novels and plays rather than authors, though ultimately these critics viewed characters as potential or projected authorial selves.

Some psychoanalytic critics have viewed literary works as analogous to dreams and have used Freudian analysis to help explain the nature of the minds that produced them. Such critics employ Freud’s dream-analysis procedures to reveal subconscious motivations. The literal surface of a work is sometimes called its “manifest content” and is treated as a Freudian analyst would treat a “manifest dream” or “dream story.” Just as the analyst tries to figure out the “dream thought” behind the dream story — that is, the latent or hidden content — so the psychoanalytic literary critic tries to expose the “latent content” of a work. Freud used the words condensation and displacement to explain two of the mental processes with which the mind disguises its wishes and fears in dream stories. Condensation involves the consolidation of several thoughts or persons into a single manifestation or image; displacement involves the projection of an anxiety, wish, or person onto the image of another. Psychoanalytic critics treat metaphors as dream condensations, metonyms as dream displacements. Figurative language is viewed as arising when the writer’s conscious mind resists what the unconscious tells it to picture or describe. For instance, in The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction (1985), Daniel Weiss defined a symbol — one type of figurative language — as “a meaningful concealment of truth as the truth promises to emerge as some frightening or forbidden idea.”

Freud’s theoretical models have been challenged by other psychoanalytic theorists. Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, for instance, argued that writers write out of inferiority complexes, rather than to express repressed wishes. Carl Jung, a Swiss analytic psychologist who broke with Freud over the latter’s emphasis on sex, postulated a human collective unconscious that manifests itself in dreams, myths, and literature, an idea that influenced archetypal and Jungian critics. Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s controversial writings about personality, repression, masks, and the double or “schizoid” self blurred the boundary between creative writing and psychoanalytic discourse. Critics influenced by English psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, an object-relations theorist, have questioned the tendency to see reader / text as an either / or construct, instead viewing reader and text (or audience and play) in terms of a relationship taking place in what Winnicott called a “transitional” or “potential space” — a site in which binary oppositions like real / illusory and objective / subjective have little or no meaning. Such critics see the transitional space as being like the space between psychoanalyst and patient or even mother and infant: a space characterized by trust in which categorizing terms such as knowledge and feeling mix and merge.

Although Freud saw the mother-son relationship in terms of the son and his repressed Oedipal complex, object-relations theorists, who focus on interpersonal relations and see the development of the psyche as stemming from the subject’s relation to others during childhood, stressed the primacy of a still earlier relationship to the mother. For example, in works such as The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), Melanie Klein dated this relationship back to the first days of infancy. And whereas Freud saw the analyst-patient relationship as a one-way process in which the analyst scientifically extracted repressed “truth” from the patient, object-relations theorists viewed the relationship, like that between mother and infant, as dyadic — i.e., dynamic in both directions. Consequently, they have sought to avoid the depersonalization of analysis. Contemporary literary critics who apply object-relations theory to texts go even further, refusing to categorize their interpretations as “truthful,” given that interpretations are constructed from language, itself a transitional object.

Like Winnicottian critics, French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan focused on language and language-related issues. In so doing, Lacan did more than simply extend Freud’s theory of dreams, literature, and their interpretation; he added the element of language to Freud’s emphasis on psyche and gender. Lacan treated the unconscious as a language; consequently, he viewed the dream not as Freud did (that is, as a form and symptom of repression) but rather as a form of discourse. Thus we may study dreams psychoanalytically in order to learn about literature, even as we may study literature in order to learn more about the unconscious. For instance, Lacan employed a psychoanalytic technique to arrive at a reading of Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter” (1845). In the process, he both used and significantly developed Freud’s ideas about the Oedipal stage and complex.

Lacan pointed out that the pre-Oedipal stage, in which the child at first does not recognize its independence from its mother, is also a preverbal one in which the child communicates without the medium of language, or — if we insist on calling the child’s communications “language” — in a language that can only be called literal. (“Coos” cannot be said to be figurative or symbolic.) While still in the pre-Oedipal stage, the child enters what Lacan called the “mirror stage” of human development, in which it comes to view itself and its mother (and, later, other people) as independent selves. The mirror stage, which Lacan associated with the Imaginary order, involves projecting beyond the self and, by extension, constructing one’s self (or “ego” or “I”) as others view one — that is, as another (sometimes written as “an Other”). Such constructions, according to Lacan, are just that: constructs, products, artifacts — fictions of coherence that hide what he called the “absence” or “lack” of being.

For Lacan, as for Freud, the Oedipal stage begins when the child, having come to view itself as self and the father and mother as separate selves, perceives gender and gender differences between its parents and between itself and one of its parents. Lacan, however, found significant the fact that the Oedipal stage roughly coincides with the entry of the child into language, for the linguistic order is essentially a figurative or Symbolic order; words are stand-ins or substitutes for things. Hence boys, who in the most critical period of their development have had to submit to what Lacan called the “Law of the Father” — a law that prohibits direct desire for and communicative intimacy with the mother — enter more easily into the realm of language and the Symbolic order than do girls, who have never really had to renounce that which once seemed continuous with the self.

For Lacan, the father need not be present to trigger the Oedipal stage; nor does his phallus have to be seen to catalyze the boy’s transition into the Symbolic order. Rather, Lacan argued, a child’s recognition of its gender is tied up with a growing recognition of the system of names and naming, part of the larger system of substitutions we call language. A child has little doubt about who its mother is, but who is its father, and how would one know? The father’s claim rests on the mother’s word that he is the father; the father’s relationship to the child is thus established through language and a system of marriage and kinship — names — that form the basis of rules for everything from paternity to property law.

Lacan’s development of Freud’s theories influenced other critical approaches. First, his seemingly sexist association of maleness with the Symbolic order, together with his claim that it is harder for girls to enter the order easily, prompted feminist critics to examine the relationship between language and gender, language and women’s inequality. Some feminists have suggested that the social and political relationships between males and females will not change until language itself has been radically changed. Second, Lacan’s theory proved of interest to deconstructors and other poststructuralists, in part because it holds that the ego (which Freud viewed as necessary and natural) is an artifact, i.e., a product or construct. The “ego-artifact,” produced during the mirror stage, seems unified, consistent, and organized around a fixed center but is actually a fiction. The yoking together of fragments and destructively dissimilar elements takes its psychic toll, and it is the job of the Lacanian psychoanalyst to “deconstruct” the ego, to show its continuities to be contradictions as well.

Psychoanalytic theory has continued to permeate modern-day life, including popular culture. For example, films strongly influenced by psychoanalysis include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), whose killer suffers from a split psyche; David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), which foregrounds Oedipal themes; David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), which explores the release of repressed desire; Yorgos Lanthimos’s Lacanian Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (2009), which addresses how language and socialization affect the development of consciousness through the story of three teenagers whose parents have never allowed them to leave the family compound; and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), in which a variety of pressures, including an overbearing mother, cause a dancer to lose her ability to distinguish between dreams and reality. The Dana Fradon cartoon below, from the March 3, 1973 issue of the New Yorker, both pays homage to and sends up psychoanalysis.


An homage to (and send-up of) psychoanalysis.

The dream bubble reads, Cast of Dream, The monster — your fathers, kind woman — your mother, Policeman — your analyst, First stranger — your brother, second stranger — your sister, little boy — you. A caption reads, An homage to (and send- up of) psychoanalysis.