Reconceptualizing Freud

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Reconceptualizing Freud

Second Edition 2005

Classical Freudianism was reconceptualized by four literary theorists who argued that the content of psychic fantasy was relevant to literary study as well as to therapy. Because they derived from sigmund freud evidence for extralinguistic ontologies, they are also distinguishable from strict Lacanian theorists. For Melanie Klein, literature and fantasy reflect the drive; for Simon O. Lesser and Norman N. Holland, texts evoke in readers intrapsychic struggles characterized chiefly by strategies of defense; for Norman O. Brown, such struggles are also observable in history. The impact of these theorists’ writings challenged the postwar hegemony of new criticism; their work continues to be invoked in contemporary literary debates, including those that concern deconstruction.

Melanie Klein (1882–1960) was a prominent member of the interwar "English school" of psychoanalysis in London, which modified Freudian theory in significant ways. Following her intuition of a parallel between dreams and children at play, Klein undertook the first serious and extensive analyses of young children, work that culminated in The Psycho-Analysis of Children (1932). There Klein hypothesized the existence of a pre-Oedipal phase (or "position" in her terminology) in which children introject their first object, the breast, splitting it into ideal and persecutory (or "good" and "bad") modes, an action that corresponds to the genesis of ego and superego. This introjection and splitting presupposes the existence of a nonlibidinous aggressive drive. Children later experience "the depressive position," in which the final loss of the good object becomes the prototype of all subsequent mourning. Psychic life consists of symbiotic anxieties (at the prospect of annihilation or loss) and defenses (expressed in mature love as alternations between guilt and reparation).

Aside from a posthumously published essay on The Oresteia, Klein wrote no literary interpretation; however, her modifications of Freudian theory have been of interest to contemporary critics. In challenging the supremacy of the Oedipus complex, Klein presented an alternative psychoanalytic account of feminine sexuality. Rather than conceiving girls as arriving at sexuality through deprivation or lack, Klein redefined penis envy as a defense against a more primordial fear, the attack from either parent (as introjected in the nascent superego). In La Révolution du langage poétique: L’Avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle, Lautréamont et Mallarmé (1974, Revolution in Poetic Language, 1984)julia kristeva draws on the Kleinian theory of the drive to argue that such pre-Oedipal processes correspond to the semiotic (27, 151–52). Toril Moi argues that hélène cixous’s mother figure may be based in part on Klein’s "Good Mother" (115). Kleinian theory is invoked by Margery Durham in her explication of samuel taylor coleridge’s "Christabel," and Simon Stuart applies Klein’s theories to Romantic poets, especially William Blake and william wordsworth. Alison Sinclair studies the literary theme of cuckoldry from a Kleinian perspective, arguing that deceived husbands both deny and reenact the childhood experience of dispossession; she concludes that literature itself may be understood as a continuation of that denial.

Defenders of Klein’s influence on contemporary intellectual life cite her greater emphasis on the social and ethical implications of a self originally grounded in dependence, as opposed to the robust individualism of Freud’s paradigm. Michael Rustin described the way Kleinian analysts in Britain have retained political perspectives on development in the midst of Thatcherism and the passivity sometimes associated with postmodernism. In the writings and therapeutic practices of Wilfred Bion and Betty Joseph, Rustin finds Kleinian responses to these trends vindicated. For such writers, Klein’s heritage makes possible a mature acceptance of the arbitrary first experienced in the "depressive" position. On the other hand, feminist adaptations of Kleinian thought have been questioned. Janice Doane and Devon Hodges describe the evolution of object-relations psychology running from Klein through D. W. Winnicott to Kristeva as an increasing literalization of fantasy that now may unwittingly serve regressive political agendas because of the promotion of the idea of the "good enough" Mother (developed in the work of Winnicott and Nancy Chodorow). Doane and Hodges warn that this trend, which sacrifices the rich ambiguity of the mother as originally outlined in Kleinian theory, risks reinstating stereotypical models of feminine development that collapse differences among and within women.

Like Klein, whom he cites with approval, Simon O. Lesser (1909–79) found in the developmental aspects of Freudianism its greatest explanatory power. Lesser was one of the first American critics to argue that the experience of reading and interpreting literature should be understood psychoanalytically, as a function of the ego’s defenses against prohibited impulses, especially as these impulses are stimulated by fantasies evoked by the text. Relying on the work of Klein, Ernst Kris, and Otto Fenichel, Lesser advanced this thesis in articles written between 1952 and 1976, collected in Fiction and the Unconscious (1957)and in The Whispered Meanings (1977). There he argued the superiority of his psychoanalytic approach over the methods of New Criticism on the grounds that formalist criticism (e.g. , that of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren) was naive in its misunderstanding of the source of the reader’s identification with the narrators and protagonists of fiction. Lesser’s best-known demonstration of his case is his reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," which he sees as depicting unacknowledged Oedipal and aggressive forces in its hero, Robin. Lesser contends that readers implicitly identify with Robin’s unconscious quest for sexual adventure and his fantasy of escape from authority even while consciously denying any such identification. Lesser finds similar dyads of fantasy and defense in works by Sherwood Anderson, t. s. eliot, and Herman Melville. Following Klein, he sees literary form as functioning to enable the ego to contemplate otherwise repugnant or offensive material. Hence, Lesser accuses New Criticism and other formalisms of evading the powerful instinctual drives expressed in literature at the latent level. For example, Lesser repudiates Elder Olson’s interpretation of W. B. Yeats’s "Sailing to Byzantium," which he faults for ignoring the speaker’s duplicity and ambivalence about sexuality (see chicago critics).

Lesser’s influence on Norman N. Holland (b. 1927) has been explicitly acknowledged: the younger critic recognized his predecessor’s innovation in using the tenets of psychoanalysis to understand the act of reading literature. Holland developed his strategy with diverse, increasingly sophisticated tactics. He began his career as a student of the drama—Reformation comedy and Shakespeare—in books that analyzed the function of costume, disguise, and role in the metamorphosis of identity. With Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (1966)his criticism became overtly Freudian, although his objectives were still text centered. But in The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968)and afterwards Holland developed a reader-response criticism that drew upon psychoanalytic and psychological traditions of ego development (see reader-response theory and criticism). The continuity between his earliest and latest work is in his concern to elaborate some fundamental human identity in and through the study of literature.

Holland’s argument in Dynamics was close to Lesser’s in Fiction and the Unconscious: readers experience literature as a transformation of unconscious fantasy materials. However, in later works Holland denied that the text actually "contained" as a totality the core of fantasies that would induce readers’ individual, partial transformations of them. In works since Five Readers Reading (1975) he exchanged his earlier text-centered model for a wholly interactive one that defines text as promptuary and the experience of reading as part of infinitely recursive feedback loops in which readers are located. In Five Readers Reading Holland saw his interactive model as part of a twentieth-century tradition that includes Ernst Cassirer, Edmund Husserl, and John Dewey and that "bridged the gap" of Cartesian dualism (see rené descartes); in The I (1985)identity as theme and variation is viewed less epistemologically, more as the construct of an interpreter and an interpretee.

Holland’s goal is to unify and synthesize reader-response criticism by articulating its affinities with psychiatry, psychology, phenomenology, and aesthetics. At the same time, his work has accorded increasing importance to individual variations in interpretation. In "The Delphi Seminar" (1975, coauthored with Murray Schwartz)and in later works, Holland advocates a pedagogy according to which diversity of interpretation is never divorced from individual psychology. He advocates and exemplifies the view that critics must acknowledge their own anxieties, defenses, and even sociopolitical biases in dealing with texts. In his most recent work he calls for reader-response criticism to become conscious of such unacknowledged presuppositions by learning from questions raised by feminist, Third World, and gay critics. One example of his engagement with feminist discourses is his dialogue with Leona Sherman on the nature of gothic fiction. On the other hand, Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio Schweickart suggest that his reader-response criticism may embody inherently male approaches to the text (xxi–xxv). His position has also been criticized at length by David Bleich (111–21), who sees it as an attempt to reinstate objectivism. Holland distinguishes his own work from the reception criticism of Hans Robert Jauss or the reader-response criticism of Wolfgang Iser by arguing that those theorists seek to define a more generalized receiver of texts, created by culture or even by the text itself, whereas Holland’s "reader" is irreducibly individual and idiosyncratic (see reception theory). A complete account of his critical position, together with his assessment of related ones, is available in Holland’s Guide to Psychoanalytic Psychology and Literature and Psychology (1990).

Of the works discussed in this group, Norman O. Brown’s is the most idiosyncratic, but his vigorous interpretation of Freud remains influential. Brown (1913–2002) made two principal contributions to contemporary criticism: Life against Death (1959)and Love’s Body (1966). In Life against Death he offered a radical interpretation of Freud drawing on classical literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, friedrich nietzsche, and Continental writers of the Freudian Left, especially Wilhelm Reich and Geza Roheim. Brown argued that Freud’s importance lay in his depiction, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), of a universal neurosis; that the institution of repression implied the seemingly permanent human subjugation to a life of illusion and sublimation; that repression was evidenced in the fall from the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality through oral, anal, and phallic stages to the tyranny of genital organization; that orthodox academic or clinical interpretations of Freud colluded with the forces of repression by emphasizing the necessity to adapt to societal norms that were by definition sick; and that the only chance for some "way out" of this dilemma was to be found in Freud’s metapsychological speculations on Eros and Thanatos, the life and death drives (or libido and Todestrieb).

The "way out" that Brown adumbrates is set forth in the last chapter of Life against Death, "The Resurrection of the Body." There he argues that psychoanalysis must situate itself inside the larger tradition of Occidental and Oriental mysticism, which he valorizes in works of Christian gnosticism, Jewish cabalism, Taoism, Jacob Boehme, Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, and dissident psychoanalytic theorists. Such a reconceptualization will disclose that the dual drives Freud postulated can themselves be subsumed into one unity; Brown interprets Freud’s "oceanic feeling" —from The Future of an Illusion (1928)—to denote a desire for union between self and world that, once recovered, can heal the divisions created by repression. (Brown sees repression itself as equiprimordial with the separation of the infant from the mother; hence, the "resurrection of the body" would imply the restoration of that time "before the fall" into repression. In this way he links his "way out" with Christian eschatology.)

One of the most influential sections of Life against Death has been its fifth part, "Studies in Anality," in which Brown analyzes Protestantism, the scatological poems of Jonathan Swift, and the representation of money in literature. He argues that poetry dramatizes the horror of sublimation and repression. Regarding Protestantism, he holds that the Lutheran equation of the world with the devil, born of the link between money and excrement, anticipates his own indictment of a world given over to the death instinct. He finds support for both theses in the recurrent theme of "filthy lucre" in literature.

Brown’s intent in Love’s Body is to pursue to its logical conclusion the "way out" briefly sketched at the end of Life against Death. The path to the realization of his hypostasized absolute unity is traced through psychological, historical, and social stages, beginning with a perception of separateness and the repression of political society, through intellectual rebellion to the achievement of fulfillment, freedom, and—perhaps ominously—nothingness. The book exemplifies and urges such an inner journey or quest, but its advocacy (based loosely on the fugitive anthropology of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, 1913 , and Moses and Monotheism, 1939) is no less idiosyncratic than its composition and style: Brown paraphrases and quotes directly from more than 300 works in the mystical tradition he celebrates, but apart from free association and a general relevance to his chapters’ broad rubrics, these excerpts are not otherwise connected. The result is a mosaic in which the intellectual affinities of various authors are asserted through juxtaposition. Brown’s mosaic technique is a consequence of his attack on sequential logic and rationality, in both books, as exacerbations of repression and sublimation.

After Love’s Body, Brown persevered in the critical trajectory he always followed. Closing Time (1973)continues the mosaic technique of Love’s Body, this time juxtaposing the life and work of giambattista vico with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in an effort to disclose in each writer a cyclical eschatology that aims at the saying of some ultimate word. (It is likely that Brown was drawn to Vico in part by virtue of the latter’s ambivalent relations with the academy, a constant motif in all of Brown’s writings.) He later argued that the Western prophetic tradition must be defined as including Islamic as well as more conventional Judeo-Christian texts and movements, in order to locate the Blakean unity—Brown’s grail—under its apparently diverse surfaces.

Christopher D. Morris

TOP Bibliography

See also sigmund freud and reader-response theory and criticism. Primary Sources

David Bleich, Subjective Criticism, (1978); Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis, (1993); Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind Harper’s May, (1961); Norman O. Brown, Closing Time, (1973); Norman O. Brown, Daphne, or Metamorphosis Myths, Dreams, and Religion Joseph Campbell (1970); Norman O. Brown, Hermes, The Thief, (1947); Norman O. Brown, Hesiod’s Theogeny, (1953); Norman O. Brown, Life against Death, (1959); Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body, (1966); Janice Doane, Devon Hodges, From Klein to Kristeva: Psychoanalytic Feminism and the Search for the Good Enough Mother, (1992); Margery Durham, The Mother Tongue: Christabel and the Language of Love The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation Shirley N. Garner , Claire Kahane , Madelon Sprengnether (1986); Elizabeth A. Flynn Patrocinio P. Schweickart Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, (1986); Phyllis Grosskurth, Melanie Klein: Her World and Her Work, (1986); Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response, (1968); Norman N. Holland, Five Readers Reading, (1975); Norman N. Holland, Holland’s Guide to Psychoanalytic Psychology and Literature and Psychology, (1990); Norman N. Holland, The I, (1985); Norman N. Holland, Laughing: A Psychology of Humor, (1982); Norman N. Holland, The Nature of Psychoanalytic Criticism Literature and Psychology Volume 12 (1962); Norman N. Holland, The New Paradigm: Subjective or Transactive? New Literary History Volume 7 (1976); Norman N. Holland, The Prophetic Tradition Studies in Romanticism Volume 21 (1982); Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, (1966); Norman N. Holland, Twenty-five Years and Thirty Days Psychoanalytic Quarterly Volume 55 (1986); Norman N. Holland, Unity Identity Text Self PMLA Volume 90 (1975); Norman N. Holland, Murray Schwartz, The Delphi Seminar College English Volume 36 (1975); Norman N. Holland, Leona F. Sherman, Gothic Possibilities, Flynn and Schweickart, ; Melanie Klein, The Writings of Melanie Klein, 4 vols., (1984)Volume 1 Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works, 1921–45 Volume 2 The Psycho-Analysis of Children Volume 3 Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946–1963 Volume 4 Narrative of a Child Analysis ; Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique: L’Avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle, Lautréamont et Mallarmé 1974, Revolution in Poetic Language Margaret Waller, trans. , 1984; Simon O. Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious, (1957); Simon O. Lesser, The Image of the Father Five Approaches of Literary Criticism Wilbur Scott (1963); Simon O. Lesser, The Language of Fiction A College Book of Modern Fiction Walter B. Rideout , James K. Robinson (1961); Simon O. Lesser, Some Unconscious Elements in Response to Fiction Literature and Psychology Volume 3 (1953); Simon O. Lesser, The Whispered Meanings: Selected Essays of Simon O. Lesser, Robert Sprich Richard Nolan (1977); Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory 1985, 2d ed., 2002; Michael Rustin, The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Culture, (1991); Alison Sinclair, The Deceived Husband: A Kleinian Approach to the Literature of Infidelity, (1993); Simon Stuart, New Phoenix Wings: Reparation