In a Nutshell
Over-Analyze Me, Maybe?
Ever wish you could find a theory that encourages you to read way too much into every little thing other people say or do? Yes? Well, psychoanalysis just might be the theory for you.
Did your friend just make a bad dating decision? Clearly it's because she has jealousy issues and tons of sexual repression. Do you ever feel frustrated at work? Yeah, that's definitely because you have some unresolved childhood conflicts that are coming back to haunt you.
Okay, we may be exaggerating a bit. But psychoanalysis really does have a bad rap when it comes to over-interpretation. Can the serpent in Genesis just be a serpent? Or is it really a penis as well? Psychoanalysis says: definitely a penis.
We have our buddy Sigmund Freud to thank (or blame, depending on your perspective) for this school of thought. According to that guy, the unconscious is always going to crop up in everything you do. Translation: nothing you do, say, or feel is simple.
There's always more to your motivations in life. A lot more, actually, if you care to find out.
Now, as everyone knows, Freud devised a therapeutic treatment for "hysterical" women whose tics had gotten totally out of hand. He put his patients on the couch and instructed them to free associate—like, blurt out words in reaction to words he told them—so that he could interpret what was really going on in their heads.
Because you know women are, like, totally helpless in life, and mostly all they do is blubber and bump into walls until a really smart old white dude tells them who they really are. Sexism much? Absolutely. Alright, let's put that issue aside for a moment.
The aim of psychoanalysis as Freud understood it was not to map the unconscious entirely. He didn't want to figure out every tiny thing that happens in your mind. Psychoanalysis worked, instead, to bring patients' repressed memories and wishes to the surface. Doing this, Freud said, would make patients able to work through these memories and wishes.
But unconscious motives and desires always remained at the end of this treatment, which aimed to explore rather than do away with the unconscious. Mainly because doing away with the unconscious is impossible. Human brains are pretty complex, as it turns out.
Luckily for anyone getting paid to probe your minds, this complexity meant that further adventures into the unconscious would always be possible. As Freud said, analysis is, strictly speaking, "interminable." The unconscious was and would always be a fact of psychic life.
Watch out, though: the "psychic" in Freud-land was all about the psyche (which is Greek for the soul). No hotlines to predict the future in the world of psychoanalysis, sadly. But speaking of hotlines, right about now you may be thinking: what does all of this therapy stuff have to do with lit crit?
We're so glad you asked.
The Lit Critic's Best Freud… We Mean, Friend
Freud himself applied psychoanalytic insights to the study of literature and culture, and later generations of psychoanalysts continued this tradition. These guys and dolls—whose ranks included intellectual heavyweights and serious hotties like Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan—turned psychoanalysis into a critical school as well as a form of therapy.
It's true that Freud trained as a psychiatrist, and he was always all, "psychoanalysis is a science, you guys. Really, I mean it." But today, his writings are more widely read by literary critics than by practicing psychologists. And this, we think, says it all.
Obviously psychoanalysis is valuable for literary interpretation if contemporary scholars in this field are more into Freud's shtick than psychologists are.
Sure, it's tempting to resort to dismissive eye-rolling when you hear, say, that the biblical serpent is also representative of a penis. It can be difficult, in other words, to take psychoanalytic readings of texts seriously.
It's easy to write these readings off as over-interpretations. It's also easy to write the practitioners of psychoanalytic theory off as seriously sex-obsessed weirdos.
At its best, though, psychoanalytic criticism doesn't try to diagnose characters and authors, as in: that Hamlet was a total nervous wreck with a massive guilt complex, and poor Ophelia was hysterical. Or, as in: Shakespeare must have suffered from obsessive neuroses as well as death wishes.
Instead, the best psychoanalytic criticism tries to trace the movements of readers' and writers' desires in texts. (It does so whether the texts in question are sexy or not, but as we've seen for psychoanalytic readers, almost all texts can be made sexy.) And it uses concepts like ambivalence and latency to account for the open-endedness of literary works.
(Check out our "Buzzwords" sction for more on those ideas).
After all, it is really interesting that texts can generate new readings—and change new lives—thousands of years after they were written. Awesome? We thought so.
And we believe this critical school can help you to become a better reader of texts, and of your everyday interactions. If you have ever been tempted to decode a chewing gum commercial or discover hidden motivations in a text message—if ever, looking at this message, you have, Ophelia-like, gone back and forth between "he loves me" and "he loves me not"—then you may already be practicing psychoanalytic reading without knowing it.
Put that in your Freudian cigar and smoke it.
Why Should I Care?
Why Should Readers Care?
So maybe you're not an aspiring interpreter of weirdly phallic TV commercials. Maybe you don't feel compelled to spontaneously blurt out complex interpretations of the text messages you receive from your best friend. And maybe, just maybe, you've never even gone back and forth between "she loves me" and "she loves me not."
(If you're honest with yourself, though, chances are you've played some version of this game. Even if you were like five years old the last time that happened.)
Anyway, we hear you. We really do. No one is going to force you to drink the psychoanalytic Kool Aid, let alone join the Lacanian cult. But since psychoanalysis is all about interpretation—as in the title of Freud's game-changing Interpretation of Dreams—even skeptical readers can learn a whole lot from this theory. We promise.
We don't know (and don't care to know) your feelings about penis envy, castration, and the death drive. Maybe you buy into these founding myths of psychoanalysis. Maybe you think they're craycray.
Either way, we can assure you that Freud and Friends, the originators of these myths, will give you more insight into lit than you ever thought possible.
What kind of insight, you ask? This is a fair question, but a difficult one to answer concretely in advance. For patient and doctor alike (or: analysand and analyst, as they're called in the technical language of the theory) psychoanalysis is always an adventure.
And just as you never know what's going to emerge from the practice of an analysis, you can rarely anticipate what you're going to take away from an encounter with psychoanalytic theory.
A lot depends on what you bring to the table as a reader. Your own private preferences, desires, fantasies, fears, wishes, resistances, and all the rest. This is one kind of insight you can gain, then, from psychoanalysis: insight into yourself. (Ooh, aah.)
We're not saying that psychoanalytic theory can teach you everything about where you come from and who you are. But it's hard to think of another critical school that invites readers so openly to connect literature and life.
If you're still not convinced that psychoanalysis can teach you something about yourself, then consider its benefits this way: the theory's arguments will sharpen your mind. Guaranteed.
And besides, its influence on later criticism makes it unavoidable. You're not truly literate in lit crit until you've spent some time couch surfing with Freud and company. So why not open up your mind and reread that text message, with psychoanalytically trained eyes?
This personal touch will help the (theoretical) medicine go down.
Why Should Theorists Care?
Okay, we admit it: psychoanalysis is not the latest in Geek Chic. But for anyone serious about literary theory, there's no getting around Dr. Freud. His work crucially influenced later critics working in traditions as disparate as deconstruction and post-colonial studies.
Even trending post-Derrideans like Catherine Malabou find themselves returning to Freud's couch as to a primal scene. (In psychoanalytic jargon, a "primal scene" happens when a child sees his parents having sex. Imagine trying to get that image out of your head, and you'll have some idea how hard Freud's thinking has been to forget for subsequent generations of theorists. Ouch.)
Freud gets props, together with Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, for having perfected the hermeneutics of suspicion. This mouthful-of-a-word is a fancy name for theories that insist the true meaning of texts is invisible to the naked eye—it's buried just beneath the visible surface.
This is why a theory is required to delve beneath surfaces and uncover true meanings. Now, hermeneutics may be old (or dead) news in theory today. But, we repeat: Freud's writings are still indispensible for anyone wanting to understand continental philosophy or most literary theorists writing today.
More props are due to Sir Freud. Why? He overturned the Cartesian cogito, which was the model of the mind that René Descartes left us with in Western philosophy.
Freud showed that this model was severely lacking because it made subjectivity (the experience or fact of being a subject, an "I") a matter of intention. Of deliberation. Freud's discovery of the unconscious meant that thoughts and actions would always exceed intention.
Like it wasn't already obvious that there was a whole lot more goin' on in our heads than what we want to be thinking or feeling? Jeez.
Anyway. The point is that the deepest wishes and desires of your unconscious will erupt into your life whether you invite them to or not. And actually, the idea that you're never fully "master of the house" in your own head was a real thorn in the philosophical establishment's side, back in Freud's day.
And if you had any doubts about the impact of Freud's theory, we're here to tell you that since psychoanalysis emerged on the scene, theorists have always been interested in what exceeds a person's conscious intentions. Theorists keeping it real today still see this as an essential part of their job description.
For lit critics, this means setting aside questions about what the author meant to say. That way, we can ask more interesting questions about the effects of an author's work, as well as the psychic factors that made the work possible. Yay.
Missing an appointment with Dr. Freud—you know, bypassing his works and ideas—in order to get to more recent theory would be the lit crit equivalent of trying to learn calculus before learning algebra. Or trying to write HTML before learning how to click a mouse.
So you better prepare yourself for some serious quality time on that (theoretical) therapist's couch. You'll be a better theorist, if not a better person, for it. Or your money back. (Not really. This isn't REI.)