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03 Aug

Psychoanalytic Approach to Literature

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is a form of criticism that makes use of the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature. The Freudian and the post- Freudian (especially Lacan and Foucault) psychoanalytic theories have been so influential in shaping the western thought that it has become the normative way of understanding the mind. Freud used literature to develop and illustrate some of his theories. The ‘Oedipus complex’ is one of the best-known examples that have become ingrained in popular consciousness.

Freud’s model of the individual psyche with conscious, subconscious (or preconscious) and unconscious levels of activity constituted a Copernican revolution in European thought. Previously many thinkers, following the lead of Rene Descartes, believed that we knew with complete clarity the contents of our own mind. But Freud convincingly argued that most of our actions are motivated by psychological forces over which we have very little control. Freud’s first major premise is that most of the individual’s mental processes are unconscious. The unconscious is a region in which we hide or repress our deepest desires and fears that that can only manifest itself through symbolic ways in dreaming, parapraxes or Freudian slips. Freud’s later model of personality (1923) as consisting of the ‘superego’ the ‘ego’ and the ‘id’, and his identification of the pleasure principle or the sexual drive of the eros as the fundamental force of human actions also had a powerful effect on the conception of character for both writers and critics.

Freud’s theories concerning child psychology have been highly influential in literary criticism. Contrary to traditional beliefs, Freud found infancy and childhood a period of intense sexual experience. Freud does not limit the meaning of sexuality to genital sexuality. He believed that human sexuality is not biologically programmed. It takes infinite variety of forms. Most of our desires lie repressed in our unconscious. Literature sometimes becomes a repository of the repressed desires and emotions of both the writers and the readers. Generations of psychoanalytic critics have discovered behind the manifest content of artwork a latent content of forbidden sexual desires. Freudian concepts of ‘symbolism’, displacement and condensation are particularly helpful in finding the latent content of repressed sexual desires in any work of art. Psychoanalytic critics tend to see all concave images as female or yonic symbols and all images whose length exceeds their diameter as phallic symbols.

By ‘condensation’ in dreams Freud meant the ways in which an image or word can acquire a number of meanings. It is a process by which several concepts are fused into one figure or image. In displacement a figure or concept is transformed into an apparently unrelated image, which allows the otherwise inexpressible or repressed element to be represented in disguised form. The dream, in other words, can be interpreted as showing the dreamer aspects of his/her unconscious mind. Literary texts can also be read along similar lines. Condensation and displacement have been limited to Jacobson’s language poles of metaphor and metonymy, the former working through similarity shifts and the latter through contiguity shifts. This view of literary text as a code – as ways of saying what other discourses cannot say – has been very influential in literary theory and criticism.

Psychoanalysis is a powerful form of knowledge, which can ‘explain’ hidden motives of characters and actions. It allows readers to become the analyst and the text the object of analysis or analysand. Such an approach will give the reader superiority over the text. In Freudian terms reading can be seen as unfolding of our consciousness and unconsciousness as well as that of the text. Reading is a form of self-definition, and the interaction of literary and psychoanalytic discourses can help us to understand this process. We might perhaps see literature as a kind of ‘superego’ or as an expression of the repressed desires and fears in the unconscious.

Freud sees pleasure or pleasure principle as the central motivation in human behaviour. Every individual earnestly longs for physical or sexual satisfaction but he has to control or repress these desires as he recognizes the reality principle. This concept is fundamental to the formation of the human psyche in terms of the id/ego/superego model whereby instinctual desires are controlled through the process of socialization. Freud envisages the ego as an agency negotiating between the demands of the ‘id’ (at its simplest, the unconscious drives) and the ‘superego’ (the socially constituted voice of conscience). Freud sees Oedipus complex as a key to the male child’s entry into the adult world of reality where the sexual desire for his mother is repressed through the fear of castration by the father. At this stage the male child becomes aware of gender, and is initiated into the masculine roles, which reinforce the patriarchal order. The female child, on the other hand, has to come to terms with her lack of penis (penis envy) and repress her desire to seduce her father. Identification with her mother and the substitution of baby for penis are, according to Freud, the female equivalent to the male’s experience of the Oedipus complex.

Lacan, who is known as the French Freud, takes up the Freudian unconscious and relates it to language. He asserts that the unconscious is structured like language. The unconscious is not a chaotic mass of disparate material but as complex as the structure of a language. Following Ferdinand de Saussure, Lacan believes that meaning(s)are produced by the arbitrary relations between signifiers. Signifiers are not mere labels attached to pre-existing meanings. Meaning thus becomes a linguistic construct, which goes on changing as new signifiers are added to the signifying chain. Subscribing to Freud’s notion of deferred interpretation (the notion that earlier episodes and incidents are always open to revision and deferred interpretation) Lacan argued that it is always open to, and indeed the result of, retroactive interpretation. The meaning of earlier episodes in the unconscious is constantly changing. This approach has had far reaching implications in literature. If reinterpretation is possible there can be no final readings. Every reading is partial and assumes only contextual referentiality.

Jacques Derrida, while not hostile to psychoanalysis per se, has argued that in practice its interpretations are pre-programmed to confirm its own findings. Michel Foucault also pointed out that psychoanalysis promoted a very particular point of view as the truth. Psychoanalysis, he argued, did not discover the truth of sexuality but constructed a particular notion of sexuality within its discourse.


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