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.