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. 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.” Freud discovered that …

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