Literary and artistic creation

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Freud considered literary creations and, more generally, artistic creations enigmatic because of their ability to produce emotion in the spectator (the essence of art) and in regard to the origin of themes chosen by authors. Far from contenting himself with applying the psychoanalytic method to the analysis of works of art, Freud emphasized the heuristic value of such works for the psychoanalytic study of the human psyche. Literature and art occupy a considerable place in his work (the works of Goethe and Sophocles being among the first), as in the work of his disciples (Nunberg and Federn, 1962-1975).

In works of literature Freud identifies and confirms several clinical observations, the most perceptive being the Oedipus complex in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and his analysis of Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Freud treats the characters of fiction, more than their authors (pathography), as true clinical cases. Freud (1907a [1906]) wrote that Wilhelm Jensen's fantasy (Gradiva) could be subtitled a "psychiatric study," although he simultaneously questions the value of the subtitle, because the author ignores (as does psychoanalysis itself) the split between the normal and the pathological. It is easy to see how novelists would interest Freud, since their literary creations are based on self-analysis: "[The author of a literary work] directs his attention to the unconscious in his own mind, he listens to its possible developments and lends them artistic expression instead of suppressing them by conscious criticism. Thus he experiences from himself what we [[[psychoanalysts]]] learn from others—the laws which the activities of this unconscious must obey" (1907a [1906], p. 92). The novelist is a psychoanalyst who lacks the technique and patients but is capable of incorporating in his art his knowledge of the unconscious acquired through self-observation. To the extent that the author projects himself into his characters, this disposition justifies describing what authors do as psychoanalytic analysis. Thus in "Dostoyevsky and Parricide" (1928b [1927]), Freud simultaneously analyzes The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoyevsky, and he deepens our understanding of the concept of castration through his analysis of hysterical epilepsy. The third element in the psychoanalytic study of literary creation, after the characters and the author, is the reader. In "Psychopathic Characters on the Stage" (1942a [1905-1906]) and "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1908e [1907]), Freud emphasizes what the reader gains by identifying with the hero. In addition to Aristotelian catharsis, such identification "gives people the sense, which they so much desire, of a raising of the potential of their psychical state" (1942a [1905-1906], p. 305). At first, it is surprising to see pleasure and tension identified in this way, but there is a simultaneous discharge of the tension involved, since the reader continues to enjoy the contrast between the tribulations of the hero and his own personal security. In literature there are several sources of satisfaction: pleasure in the heroic revolt against the father or his representations, masochistic pleasure in identification with the hero, and pleasure in not being threatened in the real world. In Freud's work, artistic creation occupies a less important place than literary creation. In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910c), Freud mainly emphasizes the conflict between artistic realization and scientific investigation. But Freud also examined the origin of the design of the painting Mona Lisa (the smile of Mona Lisa, said to be Anna Metterza). His examination led to an interpretation that associated a vulture with Leonardo's memory traces from childhood. The risks and limitations of such interpretations are illustrated by Freud's famous translation error, since the "vulture" was in fact a kite. The fecundity of such study of works of art extends well beyond the question of artistic creation, for the psychoanalytic study of works of art develops new insights into homosexuality, again attesting to its heuristic value. In turn, analysis of a work of art can implicate the analytic method, as shown in "The Moses of Michelangelo" (1914b), which is carried out as if Freud were listening to a patient, incorporating details that would generally be overlooked. Here, as elsewhere, Freud compares his point of view with those of other disciplines, especially art history. After Freud many other authors continued his work on creativity, enlarging the study to other fields (primarily music). It is worth noting that Freud did not include in his study the field he knew best, namely theoretical creativity. This oversight reflects the division he established between fantasy and critical reason, while he himself served as proof of the effectiveness of theoretical fantasies (the witch of metapsychology). Since Freud, literary and artistic creation has also been extensively studied in its relation to psychopathology (psychosis), and this has given rise to clinical developments of unequaled value in the field of "art therapy."

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1907a [1906]). Delusions and dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva." SE, 9: 1-95.
  2. ——. (1908e [1907]). Creative writers and day-dreaming. SE, 9: 143-153.
  3. ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 9: 63-137.
  4. ——. (1914b). The Moses of Michelangelo. SE, 13: 209-238.
  5. ——. (1928b [1927]). Dostoevsky and parricide. SE, 21: 177-194.
  6. ——. (1942a [1905-1906]). Psychopathic characters on the stage. SE, 7: 303-310.