From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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Freud valued art as one of humanity's great cultural institutions, and dedicated many papers to discussing both the process of artistic creation in general and certain works of art in particular. He explained artistic creation by reference to the concept of SUBLIMATION, a process in which sexual libido is redirected towards non-sexual aims. Freud also dedicated a number of papers to analysing particular works of art, especially works of literature, which he argued could be useful to psychoanalysis in two main ways. Firstly, these works often express in poetic form truths about the psyche, which implies that creative writers can intuit directly the truths which psychoanalysts only discover later by more laborious means. Secondly, Freud also argued that a close psychoanalytic reading of works of literature could uncover elements of the author's psyche. While most of Freud's papers on particular works of art concern works of literature, he did not entirely neglect other art forms; for example he devoted one paper to discussing Michelangelo's statue of Moses (Freud, 1914b). Lacan's works also abound in discussions of particular works of art. Like Freud, Lacan devotes most of his attention to works of literature of all genres: prose (e.g. the discussion of The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe in S2, ch. 16, and Lacan, 1955a), drama (e.g. the discussions of Shakespeare's Hamlet in Lacan, 1958-9, and of Sophocles' Antigone in S7, chs 19-21) and poetry (e.g. the discussion of Booz endormi by Victor Hugo in S3, 218- 25; S4, 377-8; E, 156-8; S8, 158-9). However, Lacan also discusses the visual arts, devoting several lectures in his 1964 seminar to discussing painting, particularly anamorphotic art (Sll, chs 7-9, where he discusses Holbein's The Ambassadors; see also S7, 139-42). There are, nevertheless, significant differences between the ways in which Freud and Lacan approach works of art. Though Lacan does speak about sublimation, unlike Freud he does not believe that it is possible or even desirable for psychoanalysts to say anything about the psychology of the artist on the basis of an examination of a work of art (see his critical remarks on 'psychobiography'; Ec, 740-1). Just because the most fundamental complex (Oedipus) in psychoanalytic theory is taken from a literary work, Lacan says, does not mean that psychoanalysis has anything to say about Sophocles (Lacan, 1971: 3). Lacan's exclusion of the artist from his discussions of works of art means that his readings of literary texts are not concerned to reconstruct the author's intentions. In his suspension of the question of authorial intent, Lacan is not merely aligning himself with the structuralist movement (after all, authorial intent had been bracketed by New Criticism long before the structuralists appeared on the scene), but is rather illustrating the way in which the analyst should proceed when listening to and interpreting the discourse of the analysand. The analyst must, in other words, treat the analysand's discourse as a text:

You must start from the text, start by treating it, as Freud does and as he recommends, as Holy Writ. The author, the scribe, is only a pen-pusher, and he comes second. . . . Similarly, when it comes to our patients, please give more attention to the text than to the psychology of the author - the entire orientation of my teaching is that. (S2, 153)

Lacan's discussions of literary texts are thus not exercises in literary criticism for its own sake, but performances designed to give his audience an idea of how they are to read the unconscious of their patients. This method of reading is similar to those employed by formalism and structuralism; the signified is neglected in favour of the signifier, content is bracketed in favour of formal structures (although Jacques Derrida has argued that Lacan does not in fact follow his own method; see Derrida, 1975).

Besides serving as models of a method of reading, which Lacan recommends analysts to follow when reading the discourse of their patients, Lacan's discussions of literary texts also aim to extract certain elements which serve as metaphors to illustrate some of his most important ideas. For example, in his reading of Poe's The Purloined Letter, Lacan points to the circulating LETTER as a metaphor for the determinative power of the signifier. A new branch of so-called 'psychoanalytic literary criticism' now claims to be inspired by Lacan's approach to literary texts (e.g. Muller and Richardson, 1988, and Wright, 1984; other works dealing with Lacan and cultural theory are Davis, 1983; Felman, 1987; MacCannell, 1986). However, while such projects are interesting in their own right, they do not usually approach literature in the same way as Lacan. That is, while psychoanalytic literary criticism aims to say something about the texts studied, both aspects of Lacan's approach (to illustrate a mode of analytic interpretation, and to illustrate psychoanalytic concepts) are concerned not with saying something about the texts themselves, but merely with using the texts to say something about psychoanalysis. This is perhaps the most important difference between Lacan's approach to works of art and Freud's. Whereas some of Freud's works are often taken to imply that psychoanalysis is a metadiscourse, a master narrative providing a general lutmeneutic key that can unlock the hitherto unsolved secrets of literary works, it is impossible to read Lacan as making any such claims. For Lacan, while psychoanalysis might be able to learn something about literature, or use literary works to illustrate certain of its methods and concepts, it is doubtful whether literary criticism can learn anything from psychoanalysis. Hence Lacan rejects the idea that a literary criticism which makes use of psychoanalytic concepts could be called 'applied psychoanalysis', since '[p]sychoanalysis is only applied, in the proper sense of the term, as a treatment, and thus to a subject who speaks and listens' (Ec, 747).


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