Psychoanalytic literary criticism by Maud Ellmann
Psychoanalytic literary criticism by Maud Ellmann pdf
Gertrude Stein once complained that a work of art could be acknowledged as a masterpiece only when it ceased to irritate the public. ‘If every one were not so indolent/ she argued, ‘they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Yet Freud’s masterpieces – for better or worse – have never lost their power to irritate, even when their beauty is accepted and their strangeness tamed. And Freudian literary criticism causes a peculiar form of irritation, differing from other symptoms of the condition Paul de Man described as the ‘resistance to theory’.
There is nothing like Freudian theory to elicit sniggers of embarrassment or snorts of disbelief, and even the abstrusities of Lacan can reduce a classroom to cascades of giggles. Reactions against psychoanalysis tend to be visceral, the body rejecting with convulsions what the intellect refuses to assimiliate.
Yet Freud came to realise that a gut resistance to psychoanalysis often signified a deeper recognition of its dangers than a prompt assimilation of its principles. A little indigestion was a healthy sign.
He was outraged by the way the medical profession in America appropriated his ideas while stifling their controversial implications. Philip Rieff points out that liberal culture in America tends to absorb and even canonise its own detractors, reducing such masters of acerbity as Freud to hired critics or ‘entertainers in the negative’. Furthermore, the immigrants who imported psychoanalysis to the United States had compelling reasons to insist on adaptation to the social order as they found it.
Consequently, they tended to ignore Freud’s searing criticism of society and, turning their attention to the individual, perceived their task as one of bolstering the ego to alleviate the sufferings of maladjustment. Known as ‘ego-psychology’, this school of thought has been subjected to a fierce assault by Jacques Lacan, who sees the ego as the source of our delusions, rather than the key to our deliverance. While the ego-psychologists urged the conquest of the unconscious, enlisting Freud’s famous slogan, ‘Where id was there ego shall be’ ; Lacan takes these words to mean that the I is subject to the ‘it’ [Es]; and that the goal of psychoanalysis is to acknowledge the fiasco of the humanist tradition based on the Socratic dictum – know thyself.
Freud tended to regard all criticism of his theories as a symptom of resistance to unwelcome truths; so it is worth remembering that psychoanalysis frequently deserves the scorn with which it is repudiated. In literary studies, for example, psychoanalytic criticism often disregards the textuality of texts, their verbal surface, in favour of the Freudian motifs supposedly encrypted in their depths. Typically the work of art is treated as a window to the artist’s sex-tormented soul.
Frederick Crews, in a notorious analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, interprets Marlow’s pilgrimage to central Africa as a ‘journey into the maternal body’.6 He cites as evidence the rank and matted vegetation of the wilderness “‘that seemed to draw [Kurtz] to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions”.’ Kurtz, the sinner at the heart of darkness, represents the father, while Marlow is the son who interrupts the primal scene, the ‘unspeakable rites’ of parental intercourse. Marie Bonaparte comes to similar conclusions in her study of Edgar Allan Poe: in The Pit and the Pendulum’, for instance, she argues that the dungeon represents the mother’s womb, invaded by the murderous pendulum, which represents the father’s penis lunging in the act of intercourse.8 Imaginative as it is, this interpretation overlooks the literary resonances of the text and also suggests a strange anatomical naivety.
Of course, it is unfair to cite such howlers out of context, since both these critics have a subtler grasp of literature than they sometimes permit themselves to show.
While Bonaparte sidesteps aesthetic questions, she produces readings that rival Poe’s own chillers in their paranoiac intricacy and extravagance. Crews, however, seems to have talked himself out of psychoanalysis precisely by applying it too heavyhandedly, for he recently repudiated psychoanalytic criticism as a whole. What both these critics have in common, though, is that they focus on the content of the text at the expense of literary form. One consequence of this procedure is that both ignore the temporal dimension of the narrative, reducing Poe’s and Conrad’s well-paced plots to motionless tableaux; it is as if the critics, rather than the authors, were compelled to reproduce a ‘primal scene’. In this sense the stories psychoanalyse their own interpreters: the scenes of scxual possession discovered in the texts tell us less about the authors than about the critics, and less about eroticism than about the will to power over literary ambiguity.
Only by attending to the rhetoric of texts, to the echoes and recesses of the words themselves, can we recognise the otherness of literature, its recalcitrance as well as its susceptibility to theorisation. Without this vigilance to language, psychoanalysis is doomed to rediscover its own myths grotesquely multiplied throughout the course of literature.