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Freudian Dictionary

I am of opinion that all the aesthetic pleasure we gain from the works of imaginative writers is of the same type as the "fore-pleasure," and that the true enjoyment of literature proceeds from the release of tensions in our minds.[1]


the primary place that Freud assigned to literature in the formation of the psychoanalyst - an insistence that is overlooked by many present-day analysts. Yet how can they fail to recognize its importance when their "whole experience must find in speech alone its instrument, its content, its material, and even the background noise of its uncertainties" (1977, p. 147/494)? Since the origins of psychoanalysis, the field has displayed a powerful set of connections to literature, one that might even be called a mutual fascination. Literary criticism, primarily in its academic form, has been the major mediator between the two disciplines. The three domains of psychoanalysis, literature, and literary criticism (or literary theory) intertwine and seek to use each other in distinctive ways. Psychoanalysis has occasionally sought to explain literature but far more often uses literature as a source or exemplar for psychoanalytic conceptions themselves. Literary criticism has sought to use psychoanalytic theory to explain literature, and even literature itself has sometimes sought to exploit psychoanalysis for creative purposes.

The relation of these three domains manifests particular predilections. For example, the fascination of literary critics with psychoanalytic theory from Sigmund Freud to Jacques Lacan has been far greater than the interests of historians in the same conceptions despite the fact that such theories can be as easily applied to historical phenomena as to literary ones. The field of psycho-history remains relatively marginal in American and European universities, while psychoanalytic concepts permeate most branches of literary studies. Within literature departments, interest in psychoanalytic theory eclipses attention (when there is any at all) to other systems of psychology, like behaviorism or neurological/biological approaches. Yet this does not echo the balance of forces in the same universities' psychology departments, where the situation is almost opposite.

Affinities between literature and psychoanalysis are both cultural and structural. Culturally, it is not a coincidence that the two greatest literary dissections of the modern soul (James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu) appeared around the same time as Freud's foundational Interpretation of Dreams. This temporal connection is less a question of influence than of participation in a common culture. Structurally, psychoanalysis elicits and tells stories. Like most of literature, it is structured around narratives. Talk therapy is necessarily mediated by language. Psychoanalysis explores the complexities of the human soul, long a major preoccupation of literature. Already true for Freud, this structural affinity was deepened by Jung, whose system of archetypes is linked both to the creative imagination and to myths, using the universality of myths to demonstrate the collective unconscious. Lacan continues the trend with his notion that the unconscious is organized on the principles of human language (as these were conceptualized by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson). Language is transformed by Lacan from a mediator between the unconscious and the therapeutic realm to something that defines the unconscious itself.

Freud turned to literature both for evidence of his mappings of the unconscious and to explain what he found there. The Oedipus story, which reached Freud through the literary medium of Sophocles's tragedy to become the Oedipus complex, is the best-known example of this phenomenon. Bruno Bettelheim's classic The Uses of Enchantment similarly exploited the world of fairy tales to illuminate child psychology, and vice versa. More recently, in the Jungian school, Helen M. Luke in her Dark Wood to White Rose uses Dante's Divine Comedy for evidentiary, explanatory, and psycho-therapeutic purposes. Lacan himself turned his attention to Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. A legion of writers from the therapeutic community has explored the psychoanalytic bases of fairy tales, popular literature, and even the texts of the Bible.

Such connections are possible because psychoanalytic theory has always seen literature and the arts generally as owing much of their appeal to their ability to express unconscious content in masked form, as well as their ability to act as vehicles of fantasy, and, in Freud's case particularly, as socially acceptable sublimations of erotic drive.

The greatest influence of psychoanalysis on literary production has probably been to add legitimacy to the already-existing trends towards greater psychological introspection and towards more prominent and franker discussions of sexuality. Though Freud was never an exponent of sexual freedom, merely arguing that his own culture took sexual repression too far, wider circles have treated him as a liberator of sexual expression, whether to blame him or to laud him for this. (Would we have had Henry Miller without Freud?)

Between the world wars in the twentieth century, the politico-artistic school of surrealism championed psychoanalysis as an overture to new aesthetic domains. This impact has probably been clearest and longest in surrealist visual arts. But the surrealist literary school developed the practice of automatic writing as a way of tapping into the unconscious, all this under the influence of the Freudian revolution in psychology.

The closest connection between literature and psychoanalysis has always been articulated by the academic field of literary criticism or literary theory. In the United States, where the acceptance of Freud was earlier and greater than in Europe, Frederic C. Crews, Norman Holland, and Harold Bloom were among the most visible members of a large school of literary criticism that sought to apply Freudian concepts to the explication of literary texts. Crews and Holland later shifted positions. Crews to a more critical view of Freud, and Holland, more recently, to an interest in cognitive psychology and neurobiology.

Following the fashion for French theory, Jacques Lacan became increasingly prominent, contributing, for example, to a fascination with the idea of desire as fundamental to the nature of literary texts. The Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, who uses Lacan (along with Marxist theory) in his literary and cultural analyses, has become increasingly influential in Europe and America. While feminist literary critics have challenged specific conclusions of psychoanalytical schools from Freud to Lacan, they have generally done so more in an attempt to redefine and recuperate the psychoanalytic universe than to set it aside.

Perhaps most typical of the affinities between literature, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis has been the fact that some figures have been able to master all three. The protean writer Julia Kristeva, for example, is at once a trained psychoanalyst, a well-known literary critic (whose writings use both literature and psychoanalysis to deepen the understanding of each), and a successful author of imaginative fiction. Thus, while in the mass media interest is increasingly turning to drug therapies and neurobiological explanations of behavior, elite culture manifests a continuing interpenetration of the worlds of psychoanalysis and literature. The case of Norman Holland, though it may portend future trends, remains atypical.


See also: Applied psychoanalysis and the interaction of psychoanalysis; Autobiography; Literary and artistic creation; Shakespeare and psychoanalysis. Bibliography

   * Felman, Shoshana (Ed.). (1982). Literature and psychoanalysis. The question of reading: Otherwise. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (1966). Ecrits (Vol. I). Paris: Editions du Seuil.
   * Luke, Helen M. (2000). Dark wood to white rose: Journey and transformation in Dante's Divine Comedy. New York: Parabola Books.
   * Žižek, Slavoj. (1989). The sublime object of ideology. London, New York: Verso.

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