Study Guide

Psychoanalysis Critics

  • Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer

    For we found, to our great surprise at first, that each individual hysterical symptom immediately and permanently disappeared when we had succeeded in bringing clearly to light the memory of the event by which it was provoked and in arousing its accompanying affect, and when the patient had described that event in the greatest possible detail and had put the affect into words. […] Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences.

    This is a real Eureka moment. Here Freud and Breuer are at the threshold of devising what their patient Anna O. called "the talking cure." (Anna O.'s name for psychoanalysis stuck, and with good reason. It's catchy, right?)

    They're discovering—for the first time, and to their "great surprise"—the power of recollection to heal past traumas.

    The doctors do stress, though, that recollection alone is not enough. If a patient gives a cold and clinical account of what happened to her, she's unlikely to be healed; she has to re-experience the trauma again, within the safety of the analytic setting, in order for the analysis to really work. Sounds scary, but kind of nice, we guess.

    And we know: it's crazy to think that anyone would "suffer from […] reminiscences." To our ears, it may sound like Freud and Breuer are saying that hysterics' panic attacks, paralyses, tics, twitches, and terrible phobias are all in their heads. And in a sense, this is precisely what the doctors are saying.

    But that doesn't mean they're dismissing hysterical symptoms as unreal. Not at all. That hysterics "suffer mainly from reminiscences" is, from the doctors' point of view, good news. It means that these women can be cured by talking.

    We wish all of our problems could be cured by talking. And chocolate.

    Anyway, this moment in Freud's early writings is key because it marks the beginning of psychoanalysis. Freud would refine his techniques throughout the rest of his career, and he would broadly expand the theory underpinning his techniques.

    But the set-up and key players of psychoanalytic treatment were already in place. No matter what else would change, there would always be an analyst who listened and a patient who spoke, reliving the past in order to be relieved of it.

    Pretty poetic, if we do say so ourselves.

  • Sigmund Freud

    As a rule one underestimates the amount of compression that has taken place [in dreams], since one is inclined to regard the dream-thoughts that have been brought to light as the complete material, whereas if the work of interpretation is carried further, it may reveal still more thoughts concealed behind the dream. […] It is in fact never possible to be sure that a dream has been completely interpreted. Even if the solution seems satisfactory and without gaps, the possibility always remains that the dream may have yet another meaning. Strictly speaking, then, it is impossible to determine the amount of condensation.

    Just so you know, "compression" and "condensation" are being used as synonyms here. In order to understand dreams, one must try to unravel the compression/condensation process: how various associations from waking life are combined into the stuff you see when you're asleep.

    Your dream about buying flowers, say, might arise because you simply forgot to buy some flowers for the house on your way home from work the other day. But the flowers in the dream might also represent your sister or your friend Iris. Or they may be about that girl Lily who teased you mercilessly in middle school. Or they may represent all of the above.

    Freud's main point in the passage above is that no one of these possibilities necessarily excludes any other. There's no way to know, "strictly speaking," that all the possible meanings of a dream have been discovered. The possibilities are, in theory, endless.

    Sweet. And you want to know what's even more awesome? This way of thinking about has obvious implications for literary criticism.

    Some texts—old epic poems, say, as opposed to later, elliptical and elusive lyrics—might not seem to share much with dreams. But Freudian theory drew heavily on strategies for literary analysis. And it legitimized critical readings of all "texts," including dreams, as a totally cool thing to do.

    Literary criticism was heartened, in other words, by Freud's insistence on the open-endedness of all interpretation. Just as we could theoretically go on interpreting our dreams forever, literary texts are also open to potentially endless reading and rereading.

    This makes reading less a matter of right and wrong, and more a matter of ongoing (analytic) fun, fun, fun.

    One feature of the popular view of the sexual instinct is that it is absent in childhood and only awakens in the period of life described as puberty. This, however, is not merely a simple error but one that has had grave consequences, for it is mainly to this idea that we owe our present ignorance of the fundamental conditions of sexual life. A thorough study of the sexual manifestations of childhood would probably reveal the essential characters of the sexual instinct and would show us the course of its development and the way in which it is put together from various sources.

    Eyes forward, you dismissive eye-roller, you. And wake up, yawner in the back. These claims are bolder than they seem to be.

    In this quote, Freud is not simply refuting the idea that children are asexual until puberty. He's holding this idea responsible for his contemporaries' "ignorance of the fundamental conditions of sexual life." To be blunt: he's blaming the stuffiness of those good old Victorians for messing up people's understandings of human sexuality.

    In addition to pointing the finger at the prudish, Victorian view of child sexuality, he's framing his own undertaking as something far, far better than that. He thinks it's a "thorough study" capable of revealing "the essential characters of the sexual instinct." (If he does say so himself.)

    If Freud were a less cautious writer, this passage might say: "Watch out, world. The time for prudery is over, now that I'm on the scene to rearrange all your ideas about sex. People start getting in touch with their sexiness in infancy. Take that, you prim and proper types."

    Psychoanalytic criticism is, as we've said, often ridiculed for being sex-obsessed (remember that serpent in Genesis that was also a penis?). What's not a phallic symbol, psychoanalysis is thought to say, must represent a breast. Any cave or other enclosed space is a womb, and even the bluntest butter knife poses a serious castration threat.

    Yikes. To be fair, Freud really did think sex was everywhere.

    But the insights of psychoanalysis go far beyond sexuality. Freud understood the omnipresence of sex as a given—and that was the beginning, not the end, of his theories. What he was really interested in was how people's sexual desires shaped their adult characters and relationships.

    There are thus good reasons why a child sucking at his mother's breast has become the prototype of every relation of love. The finding of an object is in fact the refinding of it.

    This is exactly the kind of statement that makes people run screaming from Freud's theories.

    It seems so absurd to reduce "every relation of love" to the model of the "child sucking at his mother's breast." It's as if Freud were inviting people to criticize his work. But the often-cited sentences above, read carefully, get at something crucial about psychoanalytic theory.

    (The second sentence is one many theorists as well as practicing psychoanalysts know by heart.)

    Here's the essential kernel of truth in this quote: the first intimate relationship—the one between an infant and his mother—models all subsequent intimate relationships. So the search for love as adults is essentially a quest to regain what was lost when we had to separate from our mothers.

    So love, really, is about a primal kind of communion that we once had but will never have again. How tragic: even "true love" can't replace the truest love that we had as infants. That thought is sad enough to make a grown man cry, no?

    Take it or leave it, that's Freud for you.

    And what's literature got to do with all of this mother-loving, you might ask? Pfft. To ask what literature has to do with love is like asking whether or not the Pope is a catholic.

    So let's just agree to learn from whatever has the potential to help us better understand love and its mysterious ways… even if we have to suspend disbelief about some of Freud's loopy ideas regarding infancy.

    Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought—disillusionment.

    That dash is dramatic, huh? Well, Freud means for it to be, because that dash marks the end of an era.

    Up until World War I, it was common for many Europeans—especially those living in the "great nations"—to believe that great wars were things of the past. But people couldn't go walking around with their heads in the clouds after the outbreak of total war in 1914.

    Freud's "disillusionment" was therefore literal: the Great War spelled the end of people's faith in inevitable historical progress. On an upward trend? Nope, there's a war happening.

    The First World War made people rethink what it meant to be a "modern citizen." The most advanced nations of the day were putting their citizens to death by the tens of thousands.

    And for what, Freud wondered?

    Well, certainly the war was a time of great horror. But Freud argued that good could come from the fact that, as a result of this war, people were finally facing the realities of death. And Freud thought this opportunity for reflection on the preciousness of life might lead to better futures.

    Freud gave readers some reason for hope even in the face of disaster. War is terrible, no doubt; but even "disillusionment" can open up possibilities not previously foreseen.

    For it is indeed too sad that in life it should be as it is in chess, when one false move may lose us the game, but with the difference that we can have no second game, no return-match. In the realm of fiction we discover that plurality of lives for which we crave. We die in the person of a given hero, yet we survive him, and are ready to die again with the next hero just as safely.

    Here, we get a sense of the starring role that Freud assigned to literature in psychoanalysis.

    Far from merely decorative, literature was, for Freud, therapeutic—in the strongest, least touchy-feely sense of the word.

    (Freudian psychoanalysis is anything but a feel-good kind of therapy, as you've noticed. It requires hard work by both the analyst and the patient, and it regards cure as the product of this work rather than what automatically follows from warm and fuzzy talk about feelings.)

    Recall that the sentences quoted above appear in a book that reminds us why we need to be able to imagine death (in order to value life). So when Freud says, "We die in the person of a given hero," he's not just talking about the thrills and chills we get from a great book.

    He's arguing that that we really experience death—we really confront it, just in a safe environment—when we read about it. So, for Freud, we become real people in part through our relationships to fictional characters. Literature lends shape to life.

    See that, Shmoopers? Books really can transform us. We tried to tell you.

    And since the characters created by authors are modeled on real people's personalities, literary critics actually have crucial roles to play in a society. They're not just archivists or librarians or schoolmasters. They're key interpreters of the human condition.

    And given that job description, who could resist becoming a lit critic? Huh? Huh?

    What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.

    What a counter-intuitive claim, right? But after you read this line a few times, it starts to make a lot more sense. Allow us to explain.

    Freud uses the language of chemistry and biology throughout Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But he does so in ways that counter scientific common sense. Here, he upends the notion that life strives to preserve itself.

    I mean, every living thing cares about its own survival, right? Not so fast, says Freud.

    Freud claims, instead, that what organisms really want is to revert to the inanimate state from which they first arose. Like, you started as nothing more than a twinkle in your parents' eyes, so all you want to do is go back to being nothing. Crazy, we know.

    But here's the hitch: "the organism" wants to do this "in its own fashion." As in, on its own terms, according to its own desires and needs.

    Let's set aside our skepticism about whether single-celled organisms can really be said to have "desires and needs" for a moment. Reading Freud generously—like reading lots of great literature—requires, as we've said, a willingness to suspend disbelief. Here's a good example of when and why this is the case.

    The claim quoted above had major implications for subsequent thinkers in a range of disciplines. If people wish to die, then death can no longer be seen as the thing that "comes after" life. It's actually a crucial part of life, propelling us forward like a motor.

    Sure, there's a lot to make fun of in Freud's claim that living things are out to stop living. Critics have had a field day with the vivid passages in this book where he imagines single-celled organisms merging and striving to die.

    But this "death drive" idea has had a huge effect on lit crit. Novels often present us with characters who want to die on their own terms. Think of Antigone, or Flaubert's unforgettable Madame Bovary. So for all his faults, Freud was probably onto something here.

    Aggressiveness is […] internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back to where it came from—that is, directed towards his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself over against the rest of the ego as the super-ego, and which now, in the form of 'conscience,' is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals. The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment. Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual's dangerous desire for aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.

    Aha: Freud is interested in whole groups of people—societies, even—not just the individual.

    "Civilization… obtains mastery" over the measly individual psyche through a punishing agency that Freud calls the super-ego. A super-ego is a kind of societally imposed guilt that's installed in every ego; in this way, our own little minds are lorded over by collective pressures.

    So, as Freud's most astute commentators have noted, the interpretation of psychic life becomes an interpretation of civilization as well. In Civilization and its Discontents, the ego is framed as needing punishment for crimes it would commit, were it not for fear of looming penalties.

    Kind of like how proponents of capital punishment hope it will dissuade future crime-committers from doing their deeds.

    Now, if it looks like there is very little that's literary here, look again. The point of Freud's argument here is that societal norms live inside of our heads—the power of the masses lives inside the individual.

    This means that psychoanalytic critics also attempt to think through problems that plague real-world individuals, whether or not those individuals would be likely to end up on an analyst's couch. Like this whole issue of guilt/the super-ego. Lit critics analyze characters in texts in part to loosen the grip that the super-ego has on all of us.

  • Virgil

    Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo. [If I cannot bend the heavens above, I will move Hell.]

    Freud took this declaration from a character in Virgil's Aeneid and used it as the epigraph to his unprecedented study, The Interpretation of Dreams. The line appeared in the original Latin as a sort of motto, on the title page of Freud's text. It stood alone as a bold statement of Freud's belief in his own ability to change the world.

    But not the world as it appeared in the cold, clear light of day. Instead, the world that Freud wanted to "move" was the underworld: "Acheron," in the line from Virgil, refers to a river surrounding Hades.

    So Freud's use of this epigraph indicated that he was leaving behind the safer and better-known territories of the conscious mind and into the shady world of dreams. And, perhaps even more boldly, into the dark realms of the unconscious.

    Dun dun dun.

    And there are even more meanings to dig into here. On another level, this epigraph illustrates what a literate guy that Freud was. He had read his Virgil. Furthermore, Freud's choice to cite the Aeneid can be understood as an indication that psychoanalysis and literature are inseparable.

    Freud was always reading poetry, even when he wanted to claim that this psychoanalysis business was clearly and absolutely a science. And this epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams really worked as a rallying cry—a promise and a threat that a lot of things were about to change.

    Whether you love or hate it, take or leave it, there's no denying that psychoanalysis has moved the underworld. It's made us feel how the mind moves beneath our conscious thoughts, while shifting our understandings of both literature and culture.

  • Jacques Lacan

    I propose that, from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire. […] Doing things in the name of the good, and even more in the name of the good of the other, is something that is far from protecting us not only from guilt but also from all kinds of inner catastrophes. To be precise, it doesn't protect us from neurosis and its consequences. If analysis has a meaning, desire is nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme, the very articulation of that which roots us in a particular destiny, and that destiny demands insistently that the debt be paid, and desire keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given track, the track of something that is specifically our business.

    If this passage seems clear as mud to you, you're in good company.

    We've already warned you that Lacan's seminars were delivered in a notoriously difficult style. And a lot of Lacan's critics say that his dense language is there to mask the fact that his work is lacking real substance. But stick with us, okay?

    It may help to think of Lacan in the way he thought of himself: as a defender of desire. Lacan believes desire is what opposes "the good"—that is, what gets recognized as good in society.

    According to Lacan, society dictates that we renounce our desires in order to act in accordance with abstract principles. Paradoxically, it's our acting in accordance with these principles—not our violating them—that makes us feel guilty. And that leads, in Lacan's vivid language, to "inner catastrophes."

    We're not exactly sure what an inner catastrophe is, but it sounds bad.

    The only way around these catastrophes is to relate to our desires differently, in a way that's not just about denial. (If this sounds like what Freud said about death, then good. It should, since The Ethics of Psychoanalysis is very much a response to Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.")

    So Lacan said we had to be willing to put desire first—even before our ideas of what's normatively good or bad. Now, Lacan isn't commanding his readers to become monstrous narcissists. He is trying to be provocative, that's for sure.

    But what he really seemed to want was force readers them to ask themselves what they've done for their desires lately.

    Lacan goes on to call desire "the metonymy of our being," borrowing a literary term to characterize the force that determines our "particular destiny": desire. This is typical of Lacan. Language is arguably even more central to his ideas and our beings than desire, since desire doesn't exist without language, either.

    We guess you could say Lacan was desirous of language.

    All of this may seem beside the point, but it's just a lot of words to say: Lacan loved literature. And like Freud, he assigned literary texts key roles in teaching us about the psyche's dark n' dirty corners.