Freud founded the field of Psychoanalysis on the assumption that pathology, far from being a field of exceptional aberrations, is essential to the structure of the human psyche. Freud wrote about art and literature in various essays, including 'The Theme of... [more]
Freud founded the field of Psychoanalysis on the assumption that pathology, far from being a field of exceptional aberrations, is essential to the structure of the human psyche. Freud wrote about art and literature in various essays, including 'The Theme of Three Caskets' and 'The Moses of Michelangelo,' in which he analyzed culture to reveal the psychological mechanisms at work.
When his French disciple Jacques Lacan formulated the psyche as a kind of text, inseparable from the structure of language and organized along the two fundamental axes of metaphor and metonymy, the scope of the psychoanalytic field broadened to include, quite surprisingly, the totality of the world.
In this sense, Psychoanalysis goes far outside the realm of mere individual psychology. Its discoveries have been applied to entire cultures, to ancient myths, to films, to popular culture, to any and almost every text.
As a genre of literary criticism, Psychoanalysis seeks out the pathological kernels around which a text is organized. It presumes that these kernels are not immediately and directly apparent, but cloaked with tropic language, displaced, condensed, and distorted, and must therefore be divined and unmasked through careful reading.
For the Psychoanalytic critic, normality is a tenuous and rather unimportant facade in relation to more primordial pathological impulses. These impulses appear in the form of detectable symptoms -- slips of the tongue, twitches, ticks, elisions, avoidances -- signs that provide essential clues to understanding the machinery of a text.
Perhaps most importantly, Psychoanalysis destroys the primacy of consciousness in psychic life. The forces that dominate us are largely unknown to us; consciousness is a mere means of protection, of self-defense; and self-knowledge is more often than not self-deception. By relentlessly insisting on the predominance of unconscious, pathological drives and instincts over conscious ideas and intentions, Psychoanalysis questions the very definition of individuality, overturning the classical definition of the self, putting in its place the unknown, unfathomable other of the unconscious. Consciousness, it turns out, is little more than a series of superficial symptoms.
And the author, in this sense, isn't the only authority on his or her text. If it's true that we are ruled by unconscious forces, forces whose true depth is concealed from us, then the voices we hear at the surface of the text might always be saying something other than what the author wants them to say. Meaning cannot be limited to the meaning the author intends; the perspective of the critic or the analyst may offer as much insight as the insight of the artist, if not more. Hence Psychoanalysis plays a fundamental role in pronouncing the "death of the author," the refrain that we hear resonating throughout Poststructuralism.
Not all Psychoanalytic criticism has been Lacanian, however. Harold Bloom adopted Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex to describe the relationships of influence between poets, or the "anxiety of influence." [show less]