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Literature on the Couch

The Quest for Love

by David Holbrook
University of Alabama, 376 pp., $5.95

Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare

by Norman N. Holland
McGraw-Hill, 412 pp., $9.95

It is a little-noted curiosity that lay intellectuals are on the whole more interested in psychoanalytic theory than the psychoanalysts themselves. The latter are understandably concerned with pragmatic medical results instead of with nuances of metapsychology, and the wearing clinical routine does not make for long perspectives. There is also a certain feeling that the higher concepts of psychoanalysis are superfluous or askew. For the theorist of history or culture, however, these concepts have an almost magical appeal, and in recent years we have seen the most scientifically vulnerable aspects of Freudianism—Eros and Death, quantified and differentiated libido, the “Nirvana” model of the nervous system—appropriated for the proof of special moralities and apocalyptic fears. Much excitement and much silliness have been generated behind the psychoanalysts’ backs. But we can hardly blame the intellectuals for trying; it has become increasingly clear that Freudian theory has something significant and perhaps revolutionary to tell every branch of the humanities and social sciences. Both books under review are efforts, vastly different in their scope and degree of success, to deal with the implications of psychoanalysis for literary criticism.

IN THIS BOOK,” begins David Holbrook, “I try to make connections between recent findings of psychoanlysis about love and our dealings with reality, and the poet’s preoccupation with these.” It soon appears, however, that by “psychoanalysis” Holbrook means only the work of Melanie Klein, her recent followers in England, and a few other English opponents of Freudian instinct-theory. Holbrook feels qualified to endorse these parochial sources on the grounds that he has been “in love with and married to the subject of treatment.” He shows no awareness whatever that Melanie Klein’s ideas about the introjection of “good” and “bad” objects in early infancy have been continually challenged since 1930; any doubts would be disrespectful to “those psychoanalysts who have had the courage to encounter and live in these terrible areas of primaeval spirit.”

Many of Holbrook’s citations, in any case, do not refer to the disputed timetable of mental development but to what he calls “psychoanalytical philosophy”: He has gone through the published papers of the pediatric psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott and culled the most uplifting thoughts about creativity and love. Winnicott’s “great value as a psychoanalytical philosopher is that he portrays [the formation of infantile guilt] as positive and triumphant…” When Winnicott does sound like the unspiritual mechanist Freud, for instance in isolating the aggressive component of the sexual act, Holbrook imagines that he is really discussing “that need for mutual regard, in freedom and ‘separate, separate’ togetherness such as we have seen Chaucer and Shakespeare exploring…” This, to put it mildly, is neither the language nor the dynamic insight of psychoanalysis.

Like all Holbrook’s works, The Quest for Love is a cri de coeur muffled by theory—in this case, sectarian theory that he has grossly moralized. Readers who know his most impressive book, English for the Rejected, will recall his passion for deepening feeling and abolishing decadent values; those familiar with his attacks on Dylan Thomas will know that he has already shown himself proficient at using psychoanalytic terms abusively. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the present book is not a work of systematic knowledge but only a more elaborately pretentious testament of outrage. Good Leavisite that he is, Holbrook converts psychoanalysis into a set of stocks in which the enemies of life must sit and be instructed; nothing in the modern world is exempt from his instant Kleinianism. The fantasies and defenses originating in the infantile feeding situation are adduced to explain, among other things, “Führer-worship, astrology, cigarette filter-tips, prayers for rain, pharmaceutical preparations containing no effective ingredient, gambling, the use of clergy to exorcize ghosts, belief in ‘racial purity,’ space fiction and so forth.” Where Swift’s modern professors would have said lusus naturae Holbrook says “depressive position.”

THE FIRST QUARTER of The Quest for Love is concerned with the idea that the language of object-relations is more fruitful for psychoanalysis than the language guage of psychobiology. In Holbrook’s mind this idea, which is not the property of a few English analysts, as he implies, becomes a cliché: “it is truly love that makes the world go round.” On this basis he undertakes a literary study in which writers are naively estimated according to whether or not they do justice to love. Where he once contrasted Dylan Thomas’s “oral sensationalism” convincingly but tritely with the normal tenderness of Geoffrey Chaucer, he now calls upon Chaucer and Shakespeare to double-team D. H. Lawrence. The chapters on Chaucer’s marriage tales and The Winter’s Tale are sensitive studies of imagery, arguing that both writers passed beyond irony to resignation and hopefulness; but it is clear that these exercises are chiefly meant as a foil to the terrible case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence’s ideas about sex are so peculiar that they call for some retrospective pediatrics: possibly, “when he was a baby, his food was forced on him before he was ready…”

Holbrook’s negative involvement with Lawrence seems to have been intensified by certain likenesses between the two men. Both are given to fervent sermonizing about ideal states of body and spirit; both see the failures of the modern age according to a streamlined psychoanalysis which purports to refute Freud’s pessimism; and both write poems about their martial love—Lawrence with honest anguish, Holbrook with contentment at his normality: “Bedfellowship is good…/Your hair in my eyes, our fundaments together…” In the present book, however, Holbrook maintains that literary descriptions of intercourse are inadvisable, since the episodes seem too tediously the same; and a good part of his immense, rambling chapter on Lady Chatterley’s Lover consists of exclamations against Lawrence’s belief that Mellors and Connie are doing it right.

Holbrook’s moral case against Lawrence may nevertheless be sound. Anyone who finishes The Quest for Love is likely to accept the thesis that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a work of frightened narcissism which ill serves as a guide to conduct; and who will disagree with Holbrook’s encomiums on motherhood, tenderness, and respect? But we should bear in mind that his zeal for condemnation (C. S. Lewis, he remarks in passing, hated life; Kingsley Amis is a schizoid voyeur) is foreign to the spirit of psychoanalysis, whose terms he borrows and distorts. Nor can The Quest for Love be regarded as a serious addition to Lawrence commentary. A psychoanalytic approach has already been succinctly outlined by Daniel Weiss in Oedipus in Nottingham and recently broadened by H. M. Daleski in The Forked Flame—books that Holbrook may never open, since his absorption in “unraveling my attitudes to love” has made him prefer “not to read the comment of anyone else on the subject, beyond F. R. Leavis in his book D. H. Lawrence, Novelist…” Holbrook is certainly entitled to unravel his attitudes to love in print, so long as the reader understands that the result is primarily neither science nor criticism, but an extended act of self-definition.

HOLBROOK’S EXAMPLE may well suggest the need for a book like Norman Holland’s Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, in which psychoanalytic theory is taken dispassionately rather than as a moral weapon. Whereas Holbrook knows only the English school and nonetheless feels ready to give the official message of psychoanalysis on any topic, Holland looks at the entire movement and appreciates its internal disputes, its blind spots, and its ontological uncertainties in handling literature. He raises these issues because he is himself a Freudian critic who has been embarrassed by his colleagues’ pratfalls. And he is equally aware of the confusion that can be wrought by intellectual dabblers who transform clinical theory “into innocuous philosophy which can be accepted or rejected simply as an act of taste…. Acceptance without a sense of the data of psychoanalysis is no acceptance at all.”

Holland argues so tentatively that many readers will not immediately see that he has written something more than a factual survey of Freudian Shakespeare criticism. No doubt the usefulness of Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare will be mainly encyclopedic; its large central section, after a lucid and detailed review of what Freud and others have said about artistic creation and response, consists of a fairly neutral sorting and description of some 400 comments. Only in the two concluding chapters—one of which is for some reason designed as a refutation of the other—does Holland arrive at his critical credo. In effect he proposes to his fellow psychoanalytic critics a way of becoming more widely believable without compromising their unique method of inquiry.

Much of what Holland asks of Freudian criticism amounts to a plea for rational use of evidence. “Beware the psychoanalytic reading,” he says, “that rests heavily on a single word and requires a good deal of stretching to get from the word to the psychoanalytic interpretation.” Beware, for example, a certain statement that Aemilia in The Comedy of Errors is a phallic mother—not because phallic mothers strike you as odd, but because the reading depends on nothing more than fanciful associations with two isolated images. In contrast, the statement that Lear deals in fantasies of infantilism deserves a hearing—not because it sounds more dignified, but because it brings into focus such demonstrable facts as Lear’s dependence on his daughters, his uncompromising demands, the Fool’s explicit remark that he has made his daughters his mother, and the prevailing image of a body helplessly subjected to physical stresses. “In this reading four rather large elements of the play are interrelated, and in all four cases it is only one step from the play to an oedipal attitude, well known from clinical experience.”

This is a fine start toward a consensus among critics who do not blanch at the word “oedipal,” but the matter is more complicated than it appears. In its original formulation by Ella Freeman Sharpe, the “infantile” view of Lear is made the basis of outlandish speculations about the rivalry of “the infant poet-to-be” with his sisters. “Categorically I have to assert,” said Miss Sharpe, “that the mother-Goneril’s pregnancy [she isn’t pregnant, but Freud thought so and therefore Miss Sharpe does too] is the cause of the child Lear’s ‘storm’ in the play.” The storm is one of anal incontinence, and Lear’s knights are feces. Another pregnancy, she deduces, led little Will to run away from home. “It was certainly harvest time. He was found exhausted, dirty, and decked with the flowers of late summer. Cordelia commands: ‘Search every acre of the highgrown field.’ ”

INSTEAD OF RESPONDING with the expected gasp at such foolishness, Holland seriously inquires how the critic was led into it. Freudians, he realizes, have never been able to agree on whether their findings refer to the author’s mind, the hero’s character, or the reader’s response. Often a simple identity is assumed between the author and his hero, who is supplied with a putative prehistory which in turn reveals the repressed materials of the author’s own infancy. On the one hand the hero is taken as absolutely real, a personality who exists independently of the lines he is permitted to speak; on the other hand some of his traits are inferred from symbolic externals (knights equal feces), as if he had dreamed his surroundings into existence. Holland argues that the critic cannot have it both ways. If the whole play lends itself to a kind of dreaminterpretation, then the hero is not a simple stand-in for the author but a piece of manifest content with no reality apart from the pattern in which he appears.

Thus Holland finds himself in momentary agreement with those who protest that psychoanalytic criticism pretends to know more than it can about the lives of fictional characters. Like the New Critics he regards the work as a tissue of images rather than a meeting-ground of personalities. But here the resemblance ends, for Holland really wants to develop a way of handling the entire text as a product of unconscious impulses and defenses. He thinks that the Freud-Jones view of Hamlet, for example, unnecessarily restricts the oedipal theme to Hamlet personally, whereas the whole play, including the very existence of its dramatis personae, expresses “the interaction of oedipal and other infantile sexual impulses (spying, for example) balanced by defenses, chiefly projection, but also splitting, intellectualization, and regression.” The psychological appropriateness of these strategies is not so much to Hamlet’s conflicts as to Shakespeare’s conflicts and ours.

Holland’s stress on defensive patterns takes its justification from Freudian ego psychology, which he treats as a body of established truth. The task ahead, in his view, is not to straighten out metapsychology but to apply the theory in a scrupulous way. Not everyone will agree, but on Holland’s behalf I can point out what he himself is perhaps reluctant to say: His critical method tacitly by passes the higher and more controversial points of theory, and rests on mechanisms whose existence is hardly open to question. Essentially he is recommending, not a system of ideas, but a technique of analyzing specific defensive structures to see what underlies them. I should think that anyone who grants that literature registers a play of psychic forces would allow the validity of such an approach.

One is still entitled, however, to ask the Freudian critic about his literary values. Having diminished our respect for surface illusion and for conscious intention, what does he offer in return? Norman Holland’s implicit answer is: objective knowledge. We now have, he says, “a moderately clear picture of [Shakespeare’s] personality, scattered insights into twenty-two plays and two poems, and, in addition, full accounts of eleven major plays.” But will we ever have a “full account” of any great work, and is this what we are looking for in criticism? Will our taste be better when an army of drudges has earned advanced degrees by tracking the inspiration of each Shakespearean play to a repressed infantile wish? It seems necessary to add the obvious remark that such exercises will be no more interesting than the minds producing them. Holland would certainly endorse this, but his book is generous to a fault toward critics who have “applied” Freudianism with mechanical propriety. The true usefulness of critical psychoanalysis, in Norman Holland’s work and elsewhere, is that it makes engagement with the emotional workings of literature more possible and more precise.

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