Manual Critique of Psychoanalytic Concepts and Theories

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It is important to point out that among those who relied on Freud's models were a number of critics who were poets and novelists as well. Auden applied Freudian insights when writing critical prose.


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Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Toni Morrison are only a few of the novelists who have either written criticism influenced by Freud or who have written novels that conceive of character, conflict, and creative writing itself in Freudian terms. The poet H. Hilda Doolittle was actually a patient of Freud's and provided an account of her analysis in her book Tribute to Freud. By giving Freudian theory credibility among students of literature that only they could bestow, such writers helped to endow psychoanalytic criticism with the largely Freudian orientation that, one could argue, it still exhibits today.

The willingness, even eagerness, of writers to use Freudian models in producing literature and criticism of their own consummated a relationship that, to Freud and other pioneering psychoanalytic theorists, had seemed fated from the beginning; after all, therapy involves the dose analysis of language. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren included "psychological" criticism as one of the five "extrinsic" approaches to literature described in their influential book, Theory of Literature Psychological criticism, they suggest, typically attempts to do at least one of the following: provide a psychological study of an individual writer; explore the nature of the creative process; generalize about "types and laws present within works of literature"; or theorize about the psychological "effects of literature upon its readers" Entire books on psychoanalytic criticism even began to appear, such as Frederick J.

Hoffman's Freudianism and the Literary Mind Probably because of Freud's characterization of the creative mind as "clamorous" if not ill, psychoanalytic criticism written before tended to psychoanalyze the individual author. Poems were read as fantasies that allowed authors to indulge repressed wishes, to protect themselves from deep-seated anxieties, or both.

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. A later generation of psychoanalytic critics often paused to analyze the characters in novels and plays before proceeding to their authors. But not for long, since characters, both evil and good, tended to be seen by these critics as the author's potential selves, or projections of various repressed aspects of his or her psyche.

For instance, in A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature , Robert Rogers begins with the view that human beings are double or multiple in nature. Using this assumption, along with the psychoanalytic concept of "dissociation" best known by its result, the dual or multiple personality , Rogers concludes that writers reveal instinctual or repressed selves in their books, often without realizing that they have done so. In the view of critics attempting to arrive at more psychological insights into an author than biographical materials can provide, a work of literature is a fantasy or a dream--or at least so analogous to daydream or dream that Freudian analysis can help explain the nature of the mind that produced it.

The author's purpose in writing is to gratify secretly some forbidden wish, in particular an infantile wish or desire that has been repressed into the unconscious mind. To discover what the wish is, the psychoanalytic critic employs many of the terms and procedures developed by Freud to analyze dreams.

What is Psychological Criticism?

The literal surface of a work is sometimes spoken of as its "manifest content" and treated as a "manifest dream" or "dream story" would be treated by a Freudian analyst. Just as the analyst tries to figure out the "dream thought" behind the dream story--that is, the latent or hidden content of the manifest dream--so the psychoanalytic literary critic tries to expose the latent, underlying content of a work. Freud used the words condensation and displacement to explain two of the mental processes whereby the mind disguises its wishes and fears in dream stories.

In condensation several thoughts or persons may be condensed into a single manifestation or image in a dream story; in displacement, an anxiety, a wish, or a person may be displaced onto the image of another, with which or whom it is loosely connected through a string of associations that only an analyst can untangle. Psychoanalytic critics treat metaphors as if they were dream condensations; they treat metonyms--figures of speech based on extremely loose, arbitrary associations--as if they were dream displacements.

Thus figurative literary language in general is treated as something that evolves as the writer's conscious mind resists what the unconscious tells it to picture or describe. A symbol is, in Daniel Weiss's words, "a meaningful concealment of truth as the truth promises to emerge as some frightening or forbidden idea" In a article entitled "The 'Unconscious' of Literature," Norman Holland, a literary critic trained in psychoanalysis, succinctly sums up the attitudes held by critics who would psychoanalyze authors, but without quite saying that it is the author that is being analyzed by the psychoanalytic critic.

By level I mean the familiar stages of childhood development--oral [when desires for nourishment and infantile sexual desires overlap], anal [when infants receive their primary pleasure from defecation], urethral [when urinary functions are the locus of sexual pleasure], phallic [when the penis or, in girls, some penis substitute is of primary interest], oedipal. While not denying the idea that the unconscious plays a role in creativity, psychoanalytic critics such as Holland began to focus more on the ways in which authors create works that appeal to our repressed wishes and fancies.

Consequently, they shifted their focus away from the psyche of the author and toward the psychology of the reader and the text. Holland's theories, which have concerned themselves more with the reader than with the text, have helped to establish another school of critical theory: reader-response criticism.

Elizabeth Wright explains Holland's brand of modern psychoanalytic criticism in this way: "What draws us as readers to a text is the secret expression of what we desire to hear, much as we protest we do not. The disguise must be good enough to fool the censor into thinking that the text is respectable, but bad enough to allow the unconscious to glimpse the unrespectable" Whereas Holland came increasingly to focus on the reader rather than on the work being read, others who turned away from character and author diagnosis preferred to concentrate on texts; they remained skeptical that readers regularly fulfill wishes by reading.

Following the theories of D. Winnicott, a psychoanalytic theorist who has argued that even babies have relationships as well as raw wishes, these textually oriented psychoanalytic critics contend that the relationship between reader and text depends greatly on the text.

The Relationship between Freud’s Theory and Literary Criticism

To be sure, some works fulfill the reader's secret wishes, but others--maybe most--do not. The texts created by some authors effectively resist the reader's involvement. In determining the nature of the text, such critics may regard the text in terms of a dream. But no longer do they assume that dreams are meaningful in the way that works of literature are. Rather, they assume something more complex.


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  4. Dreams are viewed more as a language than as symptoms of repression. In fact, the French structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan treats the unconscious as a language, 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. In Lacan's seminar on Poe's "The Purloined Letter," a pattern of repetition like that used by psychoanalysts in their analyses is used to arrive at a reading of the story.

    According to Wright, "the new psychoanalytic structural approach to literature" employs "analogies from psychoanalysis. Lacan, however, did far more than extend Freud's theory of dreams, literature, and the interpretation of both. More significantly, he took Freud's whole theory of psyche and gender and added to it a crucial third term--that of language. In the process, he used but adapted Freud's ideas about the oedipal complex and oedipal stage, both of which Freud saw as crucial to the development of the child, and especially of male children.

    Lacan points out that the pre-oedipal stage, in which the child at first does not even recognize its independence from its mother, is also a preverbal stage, one in which the child communicates without the medium of language, or--if we insist upon calling the child's communications a language--in a language that can only be called literal. Then, while still in the pre-oedipal stage, the child enters the mirror stage.

    During the mirror period, the child comes to recognize itself and its mother, later other people as well, as independent selves. This is the stage in which the child is first able to fear the aggressions of another, desire what is recognizably beyond the self initially the mother , and, finally, to want to compete with another for the same, desired object.

    This is also the stage at which the child first becomes able to feel sympathy with another being who is being hurt by a third--to cry, in other words, when another cries. All of these developments, of course, involve projecting beyond the self and, by extension, being able to envision one's own self or "ego" or "I" as others view one--that is, as another.

    For these reasons, Lacan refers to the mirror stage as the Imaginary stage. The Imaginary stage, however, is usually superseded. It normally ends with the onset of the oedipal stage, which it makes possible.

    Psychodynamic Approach

    The Imaginary stage makes possible the oedipal stage insofar as it makes possible not only desire and fear of another but also the sense of another as a rival. The oedipal stage, as in Freud, begins when the child, having recognized the self as self and the father and mother as separate selves, recognizes gender and gender differences between its parents and between itself and one of its parents. For boys, that recognition involves another, more powerful recognition, for the recognition of the father's phallus as the mark of his difference from the mother involves, at the same time, the recognition that his older and more powerful father is also his rival.

    That, in turn, leads to the understanding that what once seemed wholly his and even undistinguishable from himself is in fact someone else's: something properly to be desired only at a greater distance and in the form of socially acceptable substitutes. The old song "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad" is a clear and straightforward restatement of the psychoanalytic theory that men's lives are searches for adequate and sufficient substitutes for the lost mother. The fact that the oedipal stage roughly coincides with the entry of the child into language is extremely important, even critical, for Lacan.

    Freudian criticism

    The gap that has been opened up for boys, which includes the gap between signs and what they substitute for--the gap marked by the phallus and encoded with the boy's sense of his maleness--has not opened up for girls, or has not opened up in the same way, to the same degree. Lacan, moreover, takes Freud a step further in the process of making Freud's gender-based psychoanalytic theory a theory of language as well. He suggests that the father does not even have to be present to trigger the oedipal crisis; nor, then, does his phallus have to be seen to catalyze the boy's easier transition into the Symbolic order.

    Rather, he argues, a child's recognition of his or her gender, gender that may be the same as or different from that of the now separate-seeming mother, is intricately tied up with a growing recognition of the system of names and naming.

    B. F. Skinner, Critique of Psychoanalytic Concepts and Theories - PhilPapers

    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 in fact the father; the father's relationship to the child is thus established through language and a system of marriage and kinship--names--that in turn is basic to rules of everything from property to law.

    Thus gender, for Lacan, is intimately connected in the mind of the developing child with names and language. Or, rather, the male gender is tied to that world in an association analogously as intimate as is the mother's early, physical including umbilical connection with the infant. Lacan's development of Freud has had several important results. First, his sexist-seeming association of maleness with the Symbolic order, together with his claim that women cannot therefore enter easily into the order, has prompted feminists not to reject his theory out of hand but, rather, to look more closely at the relation between language and gender, language and women's inequality.

    Some feminists have gone so far as to suggest that the social and political relationships between male and female will not be fundamentally altered until language itself has been radically changed. That change might begin dialectically, with the development of some kind of "feminine language" grounded in the presymbolic--the literal-to-imaginary--communication between mother and child.