Interfering with Literature

The Ordinary Universe

by Denis Donoghue
Macmillan, 320 pp., $6.95

Seeing into literature without losing sight of it altogether is a problem of critical focus; it involves us with literary energies and façades. Any man who offers to reduce these slippery variables to a single formula merits at least a prize for bravery. The Dynamics of Literary Response by Norman N. Holland, is a vigorously reductive Freudian argument, of the kind more frequently encountered twenty or thirty years ago. The book begins with a joke of sorts, modified to suit the author’s special interests, from the pages of a 1964 Playboy; when ground exceedingly small, this joke proves analogous, in the mechanism of its fantasies, to the Wife of Bath’s Tale in Chaucer. The successful promotion of this parallel (designed to show the importance of fantasy to all literature) is not without its perils, since one could readily give it this twist: fantasies which underlie both a piece of literary garbage and a literary masterpiece can have little to do with specifically literary responses. Mr. Holland, however, keeps well away from this argument; having established that fantasies underlie the “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he finds characteristic of both the joke and the Tale, he proposes that the psychoanalytic reading of a work of art has “special status,” that it involves “the deepest roots of our cumulating lives,” and is indeed “the ultimate form of the fantasy that generates our response.” “Special,” “deepest,” and “ultimate” are the key terms here; and, alas for the argument, most literary readers won’t be disposed to grant Mr. Holland these large claims quite as blithely as he makes them.

The argument tends, in fact, to unravel even as it’s being woven. The “deeper”, and more “ultimate” the causes one discovers, the less relation they have to a particular effect. Even if it could be established that a fantasy prompted a work of art, it wouldn’t follow that we should give the fantasy primacy in contemplating the finished product—unless we’re prepared to argue that a grain of sand is the “special,” “deepest,” and “ultimate” form of a pearl. An artist commits himself to artifice when he writes (particularly when he advertises his deep personal “sincerity”), and he often has more interest in the associational patterns of words than of psyches, more interest in the distances between images than in their proximity. Besides, the very process of talking about fantasies converts them, all too often, into something else—the artificial moral constructions of the Freudian critic. Like many of his Freudian predecessors, Mr. Holland talks finely of fantasies as deep wellsprings of our buried instinctual life, but in practice he categorizes them with the mechanical rigidity of an early scholastic philosopher. Dividing up the poets into oral, anal, urethral, phallic, oedipal, latent, and genital types is as harmless an exercise as working out their horoscopes; but “special status” and “ultimate form”—really, somebody’s got to be kidding if he proposes to find much imaginative vitality in these erogenous pigeonholes. The fantasy to which the Wife of Bath’s Tale…

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