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Anaesthetic Criticism: II

The answer to the question whether it is anti-humanistic to look outside literature for principles of literary understanding must be a further question: What is meant by humanism? The humanism that purports to defend classical and Judaeo-Christian values by cherishing the texts in which those values supposedly reside is indeed jeopardized by extraliterary knowledge, but such a humanism amounts to little more than the confusion of a book list with an education, and its practical results are hardly worth preserving.

Suppose, however, that humanism were taken to mean a concern for knowing (and protecting) man as an evolved species, embarked on a unique and possibly self-abbreviated experiment in the substitution of learning for instinct. In that case there would be no need to build walls between one discipline and all others out of fear that the alleged autonomy of one’s specialty might be challenged. On the contrary: the search for universals underlying all cultures and traditions would be everyone’s business, and proof that one category of human production, such as literature, is functionally consistent with others would be welcomed as significant.

The starting point of this humanism might be a comparison of man to the nearest primates. Such a comparison seems at present to indicate that man’s emergence was accompanied by the suppression of much of his forerunner’s patterned behavior, the prolongation of his infantile dependency, the postponement of his sexual maturity but also a rich complication and intensification of his sex life, and the diversion of part of this heightened sexuality into substitutive aims and bonds.

The delay and detour of instinctual discharge, while not in themselves an explanation of man’s capacity to form concepts and modify his behavior experientially, are almost certainly preconditions for it; yet this same interference with animal function dooms man to self-disgust and neurosis, even making normal mating a precarious achievement for him. Each individual must recapitulate for himself, as if it had never been done before, the species’ accommodation to social discipline, and this accommodation is always grudging, never finally settled before the moment of death. A true appreciation of man’s works would take note of the renunciations and risks they inevitably entail.

Many lines of study could contribute to such an appreciation, but the postulates of Freudian psychoanalysis would be bound to command interest, for they alone have weighed the motivational effects of man’s emergence as a species.1 This was not Freud’s original intent, but it was what he stumbled upon, with a disoriented retreat to fabulous reasoning, when he grasped the astonishing sameness of the repressed unconscious across all recorded eras and civilizations. Whatever its therapeutic or even its conceptual disadvantages, only psychoanalysis has registered the psychic costs involved in man’s prolonged dependency and his improvising of culture out of thwarted desire.

Man, in a Freudian view, is the animal destined to be overimpressed by his parents, and neurosis is comprehensible as “abnormal attachment to the past.”2 Freud discovered that human beings can neither freely accept nor freely deny the parental demand that sexual and aggressive urges be tamed. All men, he saw, struggle not only against unregenerate impulses but also against their guilt for continuing to harbor those impulses. The fantasies and modes of infantile striving corresponding to the earliest experiences of nutrition, social training, and genital assertion are never wholly overcome and are reactivated when later crises strain the adaptive resources that have been pieced together through a traumamarked development. It is not so much man’s mortality as his inability to keep from being haunted by his repressed longings that makes him “a baby who is afraid of being left alone in the dark.”3

The prevalence of mass as well as individual delusion, the tendency of groups to unleash murderous hostility against other groups that have been projectively designated as embodying banished wishes, the orgies of ascetic penance and the ranges for spiritual or material perfection that occupy much of recorded history exemplify the more general rule that men, tormented by the persistence of what they have forsworn, necessarily regress together.4 They do so at their best as well as at their worst. A pooling of fantasies to impose bearable contours on the world seems to be a minimal requisite for all human achievement, even the achievement of those who work alone. By sanctioning certain regressions a culture enables its members to reculer pour mieux sauter.

This perspective indicates that the primary function of art may not be instructive or decorative or sedative. Originating in what Ernst Kris called a “regression in the service of the ego,”5 art uses symbolic manipulations to reconcile competing pressures. The artist is someone who provisionally relaxes the censorship regnant in waking life, forgoes some of his society’s characteristic defenses, and allows the repressed a measure of representation, though (as in strictly unconscious symptom-formation) only in disguised and compromised form. His social role and his own equilibrium dictate a sign of victory for the ego, if not in “happy endings” then in the triumph of form over chaos, meaning over panic, mediated claims over naked conflict, purposeful action over sheer psychic spillage. In this sense the making and the apprehension of artworks reenact the entire human project of making a tenuous cultural order where none existed before.

Assuming for the moment that this view is right, we can see that much “impersonal” literary criticism and theory tend to isolate and redouble the defensive activity in literature while ignoring its barely mastered elements of fantasy, desire, and anxiety. A criticism that explicitly or implicitly reduces art to some combination of moral content and abstract form and genre conventions is literally an anaesthetic criticism. It insulates the critic and his reader from a threat of affective disturbance—a threat that is perfectly real, for there is no reason to suppose that a reader’s ego will prove more flexible and capacious than the artist’s was. All literary criticism aims to make the reading experience more possible for us, but anaesthetic criticism assumes that this requires keeping caged the anxieties that the artist set free and then recaptured. The effect is often to transform the artist from a struggling fellow mortal into an authority figure, a dispenser of advice about virtue and harmony. “They all swear by the name of the great invalid,” Thomas Mann said of any major writer’s admirers, “thanks to whose madness they no longer need to be mad.”6

Someone who wants to look more closely into literature’s buried contest between impulse and inhibition will require a method for interpreting his own responses. As a richly overdetermined compromise formation, an art work can only be obliquely and dialectically truthful; so, too, our reaction to it will be a compromise demanded not only by the work’s conflicting signals but also by the habitual bias of our ego. The nearest approximation to critical objectivity would seem to consist of gauging those factors both theoretically and intimately and of applying in reverse the principles by which artistic effects came about. This involves open preconceptions about psychic structure, disposition, and defenses and an expectation that certain thematic strands will prove important to follow because of their probable roots in early psychic development. Perhaps the key anticipation of psychoanalytic criticism is that art will borrow some of its real internal unity from repressed material, which “proliferates in the dark” in producing linked derivatives.7

Such preconceptions can of course be stigmatized as reductionistic, but all systematic research is comparably governed; the only logical way of getting beyond commonsense impressions is to sharpen one’s focus and then see whether new evidence has come into view and an intelligible order has been revealed. To apply deep structural rules to literary analysis is no more reductionistic intrinsically than to apply them to the study of language.8 Establishing predictable patterns can become a basis for showing the intelligibility of expressions that seemed inert and arbitrary because the wrong questions were being asked about them. Thus the validation of a psychoanalytically oriented criticism rests on whether, at its best, it can make fuller sense of literary texts than could the most impressive instances of a rival criticism.

The likelihood of this result rests on the psychoanalytic anticipation that even the most anomalous details in a work of art will prove psychically functional. Being at bottom a theory of how conflicting demands are adjusted and merged, psychoanalysis is quite prepared for literature’s mixed intentions, dissociations of affect from ideational content, hints of atonement for uncommitted acts, bursts of vindictiveness and sentimentality, and ironies that seem to occupy some middle ground between satire and selfcriticism.

In much literary commentary such phenomena are either overlooked or treated as nuisances to be forgiven or condemned, yet they are pervasive. (“A novel,” said Randall Jarrell, “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”9 ) The fact that we can be moved by literary elements that are rationally incoherent or formally clumsy is puzzling to the non-psychoanalytic commentator—so much so that T. S. Eliot, finding no adequate manifest referent for the clogged emotionality he perceived in Hamlet, reluctantly declared the play an artistic failure. Freudian discussion, by contrast, can locate the universality of the play’s appeal and show how its very indirection, paralysis, and strangely overcharged language are enlisted in the task of coping with a powerful, relatively unelaborated Oedipal fantasy.10

Of course such a demonstration can never be more convincing than the reader wants it to be. Although psychoanalysis is not the wholly selfvalidating system described by some of its detractors,11 the very nature of its attempt to interpose metaphorical psychic agencies between unconscious activity and overt behavior renders its unamenable to logical proof. Only those of its concepts that are closest to naked observation can be experimentally tested, and the few experiments thus far undertaken, while generally supportive of the theory, hardly close off other interpretations.12 The skeptic is free to say, with the instrumentalists, that Freudian theory is unscientific because its assertions cannot be tested; or to join the positivists who relegate emotive matters to the harmless and meaningless realm of “poetic truth”; or to take refuge among the behaviorists who ensure that nothing so complex and uncontrolled as a human mind can become an object of their attention. All these versions of what C. Wright Mills called “abstracted empiricism”13 shrug off the conclusions of psycho-analysis instead of attempting to replace them with better ones.

Unfortunately, Freud’s achievement is entangled in an embarrassingly careless scientific tradition. The slowness of psychoanalysis to purge itself of unsubstantiated folklore and outmoded concepts cannot be denied. We no longer hear much about the primal crime, phylogenetic memory traces, Eros and Death, the Nirvana principle, or the infant’s “primal hating” of the world, but we still find analysts deriving character traits solely from the vicissitudes of drives, dealing in hydraulically conceived sums of libido, and reifying Freud’s oversimple tension-discharge model.14 The virtual hibernation of psychoanalysis during the current period of revolutionary gains in natural science is cause for dismay. Yet there is no rival set of concepts covering the important ground that Freud appropriated seventy years ago. The literary student can hardly undertake a revision of clinical theory, but for the present he must try to ascertain which are its most essential and best-verified points.

  1. 1

    This point is elaborated by Weston La Barre, “Family and Symbol,” in George F. Wilbur and Warner Muensterberger, eds., Psychoanalysis and Culture: Essays in Honor of Géza Róheim (New York, 1967), pp. 156-167. La Barre’s The Human Animal (Chicago and London, 1960) and Alex Comfort’s The Nature of Human Nature (New York, 1968) are helpful books for the layman.

  2. 2

    Freud, “Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, eds. James Strachey et al. (hereafter abbreviated as S.E.), 24 vols. (London, 1953-1966), XI, 17.

  3. 3

    Géza Róheim, The Origin and Function of Culture (New York, 1943), p. 100.

  4. 4

    See especially Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psycho-analysis and History (New York, 1958) and Childhood and Society, 2nd. ed. (New York, 1963); and Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, New Jersey, 1957) and Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London, 1967). The last of these books may remind us that more than a methodological quarrel stands between those who analyze the projective content of myths and those who celebrate them as awesome powers.

  5. 5

    See Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (London, 1953).

  6. 6

    Quoted by Roy P. Basler, Sex, Symbolism, and Psychology in Literature (New Brunswick, 1948), p. 4.

  7. 7

    Freud, “Repression,” S.E., XIV, 149.

  8. 8

    Indeed, the theoretical difference between Chomsky’s linguistic rationalism and Skinner’s linguistic behaviorism is entirely parallel to the difference between a psychoanalytic view of literature and an anti-motivational view that treats any given work as a product of “influences” derived in an unknown manner from previous works. Like innate linguistic capacity, innate psychic disposition must be posited to account for ascertainable regularities. This is not of course to say that Chomsky’s refutation of Skinner justifies Freud. The point is that a relatively “constrained” notion of psychic uniformity may prove flexible where a relatively “free” notion breaks down. Skinner’s shunning of hypotheses about linguistic capacity leaves him with no choice but to ascribe an incredible causative weight to the mere hearing of words and sentences; so, too, literary theorists who sidestep the unconscious often end by deifying tradition and memory. See Noam Chomsky, “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” in Jerry A. Fodor and Jerrold J. Katz, eds., The Structure of Language: Readings in the Philosophy of Language (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964), pp. 547-579.

  9. 9

    Introduction to Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, 1965), p. xl.

  10. 10

    Academic critics have made characteristic rhetorical use of Ernest Jones’s Hamlet and Oedipus (New York, 1949), taking its outdated scholarship and its literalism regarding fictional personages as reasons for dismissing the whole relevance of psychoanalysis to Shakespeare criticism. Meanwhile Jones’s (and Freud’s) central insight about the play has been confirmed and refined by other observers. See Simon O. Lesser, “Freud and Hamlet Again,” American Imago, XII (Fall 1955), 207-220, and the studies summarized by Narman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York, Toronto, London, 1966).

  11. 11

    On this point see David Rapaport, The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory (New York, 1960), Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (San Francisco 1964), and Michael Sherwood, The Logic of Explanation in Psychoanalysis (New York and London, 1969).

  12. 12

    See especially E. Pumpian-Mindlin, ed., Psychoanalysis As Science: The Dixon Lectures on the Scientific Status of Psychoanalysis (Stanford, 1952); Helen D. Sargent, “Intrapsychic Change: Methodological Problems in Psychotherapy Research,” Psychiatry, XXIV (1961), 93-108; and L. A. Gottschalk and A. H. Auerbach, eds., Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (New York, 1966).

  13. 13

    See The Sociological Imagination (New York, 1959).

  14. 14

    See generally Norman S. Greenfield and William C. Lewis, eds., Psychoanalysis and Current Biological Thought (Madison and Milwaukee, 1965). The essays by Herbert Weiner, John D. Benjamin, and Robert R. Holt are especially important.

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