Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


These days Freudianism is not given great credence in many psychological circles. Still, one still finds a number of literary academics building theories on Freudian concepts or those of Freud's followers, i.e., Lacan. Most of them do not seem to be evoking it as I do here: as one particular archetypal complex out of many in humankind's expressive cosmology, or as a concept of the "reproductive imagination" that takes on archetypal resonance when hybridized with concepts of the "productive imagination." Rather, these academics seem to wish to validate Freudian concepts as if they were sufficient in themselves to describe the literary cosmos.

To be sure, there have been trailblazing critics who used such concepts brilliantly, like Leslie Fiedler. Others, like Roland Barthes, shed less light but at least attempted to locate Freud within a cultural cosmos of greater scope, such as crossbreeding Freud's concepts with those of Marx. But the question remains: what is the appeal of Freud for moderns?

The appeal comes down to that of security: the security of a Newtonian materialism. Though Freud was certainly not the first "psychologist," his concept of latent sexuality offered a new gloss on the theories of empiricist philosophers like Hume and Burke. By theorizing that the elements of a given psyche's sexual proclivities were set for that individual in the latent, non-sexual stage of his life, Freud promoted a Newtonian physics of the mind. As noted in Part 1, everyone had an Oedipus complex because everyone went through the stages of pre-sexual attachment to a parent (usually though not exclusively the individual's opposite-sex parent), which in turn led to the processes of sublimating one's early sexual influences:

It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.-- Sigmund Freud, "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love."

This universality offers the benefits of security; all roads lead to Magna Mater, and the roads always follow the orderly processes of Newtonian physics. Man A is, say, a cross-dresser not, as Plato's PHILEBUS would suggest, because Man A's soul resonated with the idea of cross-dressing while Man B's did not. Rather, pure historical contingency led Man A to cross-dressing, and under the right circumstances Man B could have found himself responding with the same patterns of disavowal/sublimation.

Now, though Freud's schema does not hold water for real-world psychology, it can work well as a literary myth-pattern not because the pattern itself is universal but because it arouses the strong expressive emotion a literary work, high or low, most needs. However, sometimes the patterns are simple, sometimes complex. When they remain simple, they best fit Kant's concept of the "reproductive imagination."

For instance, Freud's analysis of Shakespeare's HAMLET reduced all of the complex motives of the play's characters to the Oedipus complex. As I noted in this review of Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (1948), the film largely follows Freud's interpretation and thus compromises some of the deeper ethical issues of the play. I assign it "fair" in its mythicity simply because Freud's concepts have become quasi-myths in their own right, and thus Olivier does realize this symbolism, albeit excluding a more expansive reading of Shakespeare.

As noted above Freud's empiricist concept can take on greater symbolic resonance when hybridized, as I said above, with concepts of the "productive imagination." In Part 3 of FINDING SIGMUND, I'll cite an example of this "productive-reproductive" hybridization.

No comments: