Psychoanalytic literary criticism

Posted: September 19, 2007 in Literary Criticsm, psychoanalysis

Psychoanalytic literary criticism is literary criticism which, in method, concept, theory or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a rich and heterogeneous interpretive tradition.

Freud wrote several important essays on literature, which he used to explore the psyche of authors and characters, to explain narrative mysteries, and to develop new concepts in psychoanalysis (for instance, Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva). His sometime disciples and later readers, such as Carl Jung and later Jacques Lacan, were avid readers of literature as well, and used literary examples as illustrations of important concepts in their work (for instance, Lacan argued with Jacques Derrida over the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”).

The object of psychoanalytic literary criticism, at its very simplest, can be the psychoanalysis of the author or of a particularly interesting character. In this directly therapeutic form, it is very similar to psychoanalysis itself, closely following the analytic interpretive process discussed in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. But many more complex variations are possible. The concepts of psychoanalysis can be deployed with reference to the narrative or poetic structure itself, without requiring access to the authorial psyche (an interpretation motivated by Lacan’s remark that “the unconscious is structured like a language”). Or the founding texts of psychoanalysis may themselves be treated as literature, and re-read for the light cast by their formal qualities on their theoretical content (Freud’s texts frequently resemble detective stories, or the archaeological narratives of which he was so fond).

References:
* Barthes, Roland. Trans. Stephen Heath. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
* Bowie, Malcolm. Psychoanalysis and the Future of Theory. Cambridge, MA: B. Blackwell, 1994.
* Ellmann, ed. Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism. ISBN 0-582-08347-8.
* Felman, Shoshana, ed. Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise. ISBN 0-8018-2754-X.
* Frankland, Graham, Freud’s Literary Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
* Freud, Sigmund. Trans. Alix Strachey. “The ‘Uncanny.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
* Freud, Sigmund. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 Volumes. trans and ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.
* Hert, Neil. “Freud and the Sandman.” The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
* Hoffmann, E.T.A. The Devil’s Elixirs. Trans. Ronald Taylor. London: J. Calder, 1963.
* Hoffmann, E.T.A. “The Sandmann.” Weird Tales. Trans. J.T. Bealby. Freeport NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
* Muller and Richardson, eds. The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading. ISBN 0-8018-3293-4
* Rudnistsky, Peter L., Ellen Handler Spits, Eds. Freud and Forbidden Knowledge. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
* Smith, Joseph H. Ed. The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.

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