Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up

I’m suspicious of literary theory, and, as you might imagine, this is a problem for someone in my profession. A lot of criticism is grounded in philosophical positions that seem to me unproven and possibly unprovable. This, of course, is not their problem, but mine. Nonetheless, I would very much like to single out one school of literary theory and beat it savagely as a warning to other schools of theory. I am talking about psychoanalytic literary theory.

The purpose of psychoanalytic theory has always eluded me. I mean, as far as I can tell, even what constitutes the object of psychoanalytic critique is in doubt. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim (and publish, fer cryin’ out loud) that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him.* I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed. Why is it so hard for literary theory to jettison Freud?

My personal objections to Freud stem from his misunderstanding of memory, which was very important to my dissertation on the memoirs and fiction of WWII combat veterans. The model of memory that Freud employs is pretty much at odds with everything that we know about how memory works from empirical studies. Central to psychoanalysis is the idea of repression, that traumatic events get displaced, forgotten from the conscious mind, but can still exert influence on the conscious life. Memory is, to Freud, similar an object that gets tucked away in the attic of memory, one which the analyst and patient must dislodge and bring to light. The memory is whole and essentially unchanging.

Most laboratory findings, however, refute this model of the mind. Memories are not mental objects; they are representations of events reconstructed anew with each remembering, subject to decay and alteration over time. Most importantly for any discussion of Freud, the more traumatic an experience is, the more likely we are to remember it, a process that seems to be governed by stress hormones. Indeed, there is no good evidence for “memory repression” in the Freudian sense. So-called “recovered” memories don’t count, because it is entirely possible to plant memories that are indistinguishable from regular memories–we can’t even in principle distinguish the two. Yikes!

If you think about it, psychoanalysis and literary interpretation have a lot in common, and depending on how far you are willing on how far you are willing to go, they may ultimately be variations of the same process. At a basic level, psychoanalytic criticism allows you to say that “A” equals “B.” That is, it is an exploration of metaphor, an examination of something expressed in terms of something else.  This also underlies an important (and true) assumption of literary criticism, that the “texts” we are examining often mean something more than what they literally say.

Often, however, I think that people run too far with the comparison and mistake the metaphor for the real thing. This is perhaps most prominent in the area of psychoanalytic theory that purports to look at “cultural or social memory,” the shared narratives that knit together large groups of people. A claim that might come out of this area of study would be, for instance, “America has expunged from its national memory the one of the greatest holocausts ever perpetrated by humanity, the displacement of Native Americans.” Academics, in this case, take an inadequate model of the human mind and use it for a metaphor for how societies remember, then they mistake the metaphor for the actual historical process of building up a national narrative. In its more flamboyant forms, what is being repressed, because it is naturally hidden, turns out to be…whatever the academic’s kink is. If it’s imperial conquest, they find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, they’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, they’ll find pandas. When A (the text) is defined and B is perfectly hidden, waiting to be “discovered” or “uncovered” by the theorist, well, you get widely divergent and often silly interpretations. When you are allowed to substitute any word or idea for any another word or idea, hell, you can make anything mean anything that you want! Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

I’m not saying that this might not be a useful exercise in some cases–I glean a lot from the historical research that informs much of this type of literary criticism. I think that the way in which that context is applied does not add much to the actual knowledge about the text the critic is analyzing. I suspect, and this has been said of Freud, that you learn more about the critic than you do about the object of criticism at this point. This in itself, however, has the potential to be a useful poetic, creative, and artistic project in its own right, and I wonder if that is not the one saving grace of psychoanalytic criticism– that it is the artistic synthesis of a creative mind.

But who’d want to read it?

So, what’s the “proper” use of Freud? I think that question is up for debate, but I would use Freud sparingly. Freud transformed all he touched, and I think that it is an important area of scholarship to show the influence that Freud’s ideas had on culture. So, you need to have his ideas in the back of your head (heheh) when surveying the art of the twentieth century, for instance. It would be nonsensical to look at the work of Salvador Dali and not consider the influence of psychoanalysis on his work and the work of other surrealists. Once we mistake his theories for useful models of how the mind actually works (say authors’ minds), however, that’s when we start to misuse him.



*Krims, Marvin Bennett.  The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

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12 Responses to Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up

  1. Pacal says:

    Well Freud was certainly a intresting thinker and his ideas have had for more than a century a signifigant impact on how we think about ourselves and on literature / art. Regarding whether or not Freud’s ideas are true that is a different matter. As the posting said Freud’s idea about how memory works is quite simply wrong and his idea of “repression”, (at least in how he defined it), is simply wrong. In fact this idea of repression is one of the sources of the notions of “repressed” memories of molestations, satanic ritual abuse and alien abductions.

    I can recomend the following books, The Myth of Repressed Memory, Elizabeth Loftus, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1994, The Memory Wars, Frederick Crews, A New York Review Book, New York, 1995, and his Follies of the Wise, Shoemaker Hoard, Emeryville CA, 2006, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis, Adolf Grunbaum, University of California Press, Berekely CA, 1984, Satan’s Silence,Debbie Nathan & Michael Snedekker, BasicBooks, New York, 1995, Seductive Mirage, Allen Esterson, Open Court, Chicago ILL, 1993.

    Of the books listed above The foundations of Psychoanalysis, goes into great detail about how it is impossible for Psychoanalysis not to be problematic about its allegedly empirical findings. This is because Psychoanalysis cannot avoid having the the practitioner contaminate what s/he gets from the person being psychoanalized and thus getting a whole slew of unreliable pseudo-confirmations.

    Seductive Mirage, is a relentless analysis of Freud’s early findings. In classic Freudian mythology Freud’s early patients told him that their father’s were molesting them at a very early age. Freud then took them seriously until he discouvered that they were just fantasies; basically screen memories of early oedipal desires. Well Esterson shows that Freud’s patients did not tell him they were molested, instead Freud told them that their sympoms etc., were screens and they were repressing the memory of such abuse. In other words it was Freud’s interpretation. Freud’s patients aparently almost universaly denied such early abuse. Later Freud decided that the patients repressed memory of abuse, (remember his idea), was a further repression of oedipal urges. Neat little trick wasn’t it. This book is not well known among the public at large I strongly recomend it.

    I personally do not think Freudism as much of an empirical basis and the tendency of Freudians to look for psychoanalytical reasons why critics reject it is super annoying.

  2. Bob says:

    I’m a fan of Crews and Loftus both.

    And now I’m going to have a snit-fit because I saw an iRenew commercial. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!@!!@#11Emphasis!!!

    • Pacal says:

      So what do you think about Grunbaum and Esterson?

      • Bob says:

        I haven’t read them, though I did read an interview with Esterson in a collection of interviews by Todd Dufresne (Against Freud: Critics Talk Back). I seem to remember Esterson talking about some falsified early case studies done by Freud, but that’s about it.

        Following up online and looking at the various arguments, I see that they refer back to Popper quite a bit, using the Popper’s rule of thumb of falsifiability and questioning whether or not it applies to psychoanalysis. Freud said that his ideas resisted empirical investigation. That suggests pseudoscience to me. (I’ve been looking through my typed notes from my diss for a few days, and I can’t find the exact quote. Damn it. I’ll update this if I do.)

  3. Nadia says:

    “Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.”

    I cried tears of joy at that statement.

  4. Bob says:

    That’s our new motto: “Skeptical Humanities: We Make Smart Girls Cry”


  5. PalMD says:

    In historical context, Freud’s influential (if not unique) advocacy for an “unconscious” had profound effects on how we view individuals and humanity. It’s hard for many of us to imagine what came before.

    Many modern shrinks who still use psychodynamic theory focus less on Freud’s concrete explanations of various symbols etc, and focus more on, “the patient’s words and expressions appear ‘as if’ they were repressing/displacing etc” without necessary believing that a quantum of memory is actually being shifted about or swept under an anatomic rug.

    Central to psychoanalysis is the idea of repression, that traumatic events get displaced, forgotten from the conscious mind, but can still exert influence on the conscious life. Memory is, to Freud, similar an object that gets tucked away in the attic of memory, one which the analyst and patient must dislodge and bring to light. The memory is whole and essentially unchanging.

    My reading may be a bit outdated, but Freud most certainly did not see memories as static. He saw a patient’s perspective of an event as “forgettable” or “memorable” but as a memory, one which interacted with the patient’s beliefs, culture, fears, etc.

    He did, of course, believe that digging up the root of motivations, memories, etc was therapeutic.

    • Bob says:

      I remember back in the day, when I was doing my dissertation, I was trying to get a handle on Freud because all of the big kids (in lit theory) were still using him, and I came across…god, I can’t remember the exact phrase (and there’s always the translation problem with Freud)…but he actually described memories as mental objects. In my opinion, he’s better studied for his effects on the conscious life than he is for his contribution to our understanding of the unconscious.

      I could, of course, be misremembering. :)


  6. Bacopa says:

    It’s probably not that hard to distinguish memories of real trauma from false “recovered memory”. In _The Boy Who was Taised as a Dog_ Bruce Perry describes how he used measurements of physiological responses to distinguish between real trauma and false memory in the last large scale Satanic Panic of the nineties. Perry’s book is simply fascinating. He was the psychatrist in charge of the Branch Davidian children, and of course tells the title story of a child who ended up in the custody of an autistic assistant dog trainer who didn’t know what else to do but raise the child with his dogs.

    Ian Hacking is another great author to check into here. Hacking’s early work is all pretty abstruse logical metatheory, and he was one of the developers of fuzzy logic. Later on he turned his interests to the social history of psychology and psychiatry. _Rewriting the Soul_ is a fascinating look at the recovered memory movement of the 70s-90s. Hacking then went on to refine the concept of “transient mental illness”, a mental illness that appears under specific historical conditions and then fades away in his book _Mad Travellers_, a history of the late 19th century fugue plague.

  7. Paul says:

    “Often, however, I think that people run too far with the comparison and mistake the metaphor for the real thing.”

    Yes. To my thinking, this is a huge problem in literary theory more generally, and it’s part of what gives literary theory a bad rap.

  8. Nicole says:

    …sorry, I’m still on the part where someone claimed Much Ado psychoanalysed him.

    See, this is why postmodernists irritate me. Nothing they say ever makes any sense.

  9. bavya says:

    psychoanalytical criticism has give a obvious idea of authour’s mentality and make the readers to know about one’s mental state.

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