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.

The main uncertainty facing a Freudian critic, however, is procedural rather than theoretical. The very abundance of “Freudian materials” in literature prompts him to ask what he should make of them, and here the theory cannot tell him which way to turn. Is the artist sicker, or is he better off, than those of us who observe his regressive forays at a distance? Nothing is easier than to “prove,” by means of certain of Freud’s premises, that art is a purely symptomatic activity, or to “prove” with equally Freudian premises that “the artist is not neurotic.” The truth is that a literary critic is in a disadvantageous position for making such judgments. A text may open its fantasy-life to him but it cannot, like an analyst’s patient, react to his presence or delve for still-hidden evidence that would support or refute his interpretive hunches.

Indeed, because the regressiveness of art is necessarily more apparent to the analytic eye than are its integrative and adaptive aspects, psychoanalytic interpretation risks drawing excessively pathological conclusions. When this risk is put together with the uncertainties plaguing metapsychology itself, one can see why Freudian criticism is always problematic and often inept.

This point has not been lost on psychoanalytic theorists of literature, who have looked for ways of putting Freudian discussion on a sounder logical and empirical basis. The results to date, however, have been somewhat quixotic. The only apparent means of ensuring against the literary equivalent of “wild analysis” is to suppress all interest in pathology, bypass ambiguities of theory, and concentrate on a circumscribed range of evidence. But as soon as this exchange of investigative freedom for a higher degree of certainty has been made, a trivialization seems to occur, and some of the spirit of psychoanalysis is lost. The very routine of one’s method becomes a barrier to the deep involvement that should energize all criticism, Freudian criticism above all.

Not even the most coherent and ambitious attempt at Freudian aesthetics, Norman N. Holland’s The Dynamics of Literary Response, 15 avoids this pitfall. Holland assumes that literature, on the analogy of the dream and the joke, is essentially understandable as the disguising and discharging of an infantile fantasy—not, however, in the author’s mind, which he deems too conjectural to bother with, but only in the reader’s. “Literature transforms our primitive wishes and fears into significance, and this transformation gives us pleasure” (Holland, p. 30). If this is so, then something approaching scientific accuracy appears within the reach of criticism, for psychoanalysis tells us much of what we need to know about the two most relevant categories of understanding, namely fantasies and mechanisms of defense.

Holland develops a theoretical model that does succeed in differentiating among our responses to various kinds of literature, from entertainments to works of calculated absurdity; this is a substantial contribution. Yet the effect is to promote a predictable form of discussion geared to the model’s limited scope. Glossaries of readers’ fantasies and defenses, illustrations of their possible combinations, and proof that any work can be assigned a spot in the scheme do not capture the literary enterprise much better than manuals of sex postures capture love. In both cases the inadvertently fostered attitude is resignation: Here we go again, what will it be this time?

This objection does not arise from the common but unreasonable demand that a theory “feel like” what it describes; all theories are of necessity abstract. The quest for total certainty, however, seems to inhibit the first requisite of good criticism and good psychoanalysis, the capacity to be moved. A literary work may impress us with a complexity and economy, an energy and restraint, a precision and reverberation whose ultimate reference is not simply to the “nuclear fantasy” correctly isolated by Holland, but to the whole state of mind evoked by the text. Instead of presenting a disguised infantile wish that acquires “significance,” great literature typically invites us to undergo a symbolic process of self-confrontation in which infantile solutions are resisted even as they are indulged. We identify with the pain as well as with the release involved in this process. “Beauty,” as Rilke said, “is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still just able to bear.”16 A criticism that cheerfully catalogues the unconscious tricks we play on ourselves and equates literary power with a judicious recipe of wishes and tactics, introjection and intellection, cannot avoid becoming a new version of anaesthesia—a version using Freud’s terminology but lacking Freud’s sympathy for the way great artists court unconscious engulfment in order to recreate the conditions of a human order.

This is to say that literature registers and arouses conflict, and that no theoretical preparation can spare a critic the necessity of submitting himself to that conflict. Norman Holland would, I am sure, agree with this statement, yet in practice he empties psychic defenses of their shame and anxiety and treats them much like the formal devices of rhetoric. When this is combined with ground rules discouraging biographical inquiry and value judgment, psychoanalytic discussion becomes what Holland has called “The Next New Criticism,” a mere consolidation and deepening of the formalistic close reading of recent decades.17 Such a tactful presentation seemingly makes room for us Freudians in the kingdom of polysemous meaning, but in actuality no one is placated. Conventional scholars remain quite aware that psychoanalysis constitutes a threat to their style of reading, and they are scandalized by the very claims (for instance, that literature is after all much like joke-telling) by which Holland hopes to make Freudian criticism seem more-agreeable.

Freudian criticism can become generally agreeable only by disavowing the idea of unconscious causation. Holland would never do this; he simply avoids authors’ minds18 and keeps his Freudianism well-mannered by showing magnanimity toward the shortcomings of “English.” Yet those shortcomings must be directly challenged if “the connection between knowledge and the zest of life”19 is to be preserved. Psychoanalysis would be yet another scholastic distraction from art if it were assimilated to the current ethos of academic departments. To move from collecting pastoral elegy motifs to collecting instances of phallic mothers would be a smaller step than most professors could imagine, a mere exchange of one indifferent taxonomy for another. The value of literary psychoanalysis is that it can embolden us to be alone with books, to recognize our own image in them, and from that recognition to begin comprehending their hold over us.

The represented mind to which we respond in literary experience is not precisely the one we could infer from biographical data, but is improvised from what Keats called negative capability. This capability, however, is temperamentally limited by the persisting conflicts that must be managed in any creative process. The ego-state suffusing the work must borrow heavily from the “countercathected system”—that is, the cluster of defenses preventing inadmissible actions and expressions—that makes up the author’s habitual character, and his career will escape redundancy only to the degree that he can vary his defenses. So, too, our ability to participate will rest on whether we can afford to trade part of our character-armor for an imagined equivalent. Fear of psychic dissolution, of surrender to the repressed, is thus the paramount obstacle both to creative freedom and to a reader’s capacity for involvement.

It is in this light that we can grasp the significance of fixed genres, with their coded assurances that psychic activity will be patterned and resolved along familiar lines; the genre itself is a ready-made countercathected system. For this very reason, however, art that strives for originality is always restless within its formal borders and frequently generates new forms, which imitators are bound to misunderstand as embodying permanently valid principles of beauty. 20 While the works favored by posterity are not invariably those that defy tradition, their traditional elements always prove to have been adapted to a new vision of reality. This point is familiar in non-psychological criticism; what psycho-analysis can show is that the new vision amounts to a reconciling of competing claims so as to fuse perception with the expression of conflict.

Criticism starting from an infantile fantasy rather than from this task of reconciliation will not be able to do justice to the cognitive aspect of literature, which is just as “psychoanalytic” as fantasy itself. The crucial difference between literary creation and symptom-formation resides in the extra demand we make of literature that it confirm and extend our sense of truth. Whereas symptoms are rigidly stereotyped, are usually accompanied by guilt, and subtract from an individual’s rapport with his surroundings, in the highest literary enjoyment we feel that our pleasure is being sanctioned by reality itself, whose principles have been set before us. This is an illusion, but the illusion can be practiced only by artists whose perceptiveness has not been obliterated by ego-needs. A work that flouts our conscious intelligence, as symptoms do, may have an “escape” interest but will soon be rejected for its crudeness or empty conventionality.

To recognize the importance of cognition is not of course to say that doses of unadulterated social or historical truth are found in literature and account for its power. Neutral-seeming literary material always conveys unconscious apologetics, and the latter turn out to be more compelling than any amount of faithful description. Hence the shallowness of criticism that evaluates books by their correspondence to approved political facts, and hence the folly of assuming that literature naïvely mirrors the conditions of the age in which it was written. Whatever historical knowledge we can glean from literature is knowledge of the way objective circumstances were apprehended by one sensibility at the sufferance of all other psychic demands. This awareness can be illuminating once its restricted province is understood, but here again the proper point of vantage is neither fantasy nor facts, but the negotiating ego.21

Regarded psychoanalytically, literary works are very far from being simple lessons or exhortations decked out in poetic language; yet they are messages of a cryptic and intricate sort. Since our common plight is to be forever seeking acquittal from the fantasy-charges we have internalized as the price of ceasing to be infants, we share an eagerness for interpsychic transactions that seem to promise such an acquittal, or at least an abatement of guilt by means of establishing a confessional bond. Rather than being merely an unconscious release within the author or a similar release within the reader, literary process establishes a transitory complicity between the two.

The forms this tie can assume are various. Milton’s sensuality is hedged with law while Keats’s is proclaimed as an imperious right, but both authors are posing ways for us to assert a measure of libidinal freedom. Swift implicates us in his aggression while Hemingway asks us to believe that life is castrating; both allow us to feel that our misanthropic sentiments are neither so unique nor so unfounded as we might have feared. Stendhal admits to a certain hypocrisy but easily wins our agreement that this is the way of the world; Joyce’s Stephen tells us that his, and our own, creative ego must brush every hindrance from its path. In each instance we are invited, not to experience a fantasy, but to share a posture toward questionable impulses, and in the act of sharing to diffuse responsibility and stake out some unconscious territory free from the taxation of conscience.

Among the countless possibilities for literary exchange, one relationship seems frequent enough to merit special emphasis. An author often places his reader in the role of parent and begs his absolution. By revealing what has been on his mind, mixing oblique confession with a reassertion of commitment to decency and reality and beauty, and by involving the reader in everything he discloses, the author claims the right to be accepted as he is. But since everyone remains filial on the deep level where literature is registered, the reader does not use the communication quite as it was meant; he welcomes the represented self-exculpation, not as applying to someone else, but as a subtle brief in his own defense.

The tendency of critics to exaggerate the moral, social, or realistic content of literature becomes more comprehensible in this light. Every critic is first a reader who turns the text to the purposes of his beleaguered ego. By transmuting the author into a paragon of conscience or documentary literalism he completes the covering of his tracks; the literary self with which he has identified has been placed beyond reproach. Not even psychoanalytic theory, with its open attention to such unconscious tactics, is a sufficient preventive against their use. By bottling and labeling the repressed contents that Freud thought were so noxious, a Freudian can preclude the self-risk that literature asks of us. Literary art is then revealed as benign parlor magic and nothing more.

“The charm of knowledge would be small,” said Nietzsche, “were it not that so much shame has to be overcome on the way to it.”22 Any system of propositions tends eventually to dissipate that shame, either by evading anxiety-provoking matters or by assimilating them to the sense of the ordinary. The latter course is obviously preferable if a choice must be made yet knowledge about literature has a curious way of ceasing to be wholly true when such a regularization has been accomplished; the loss of uncertainty is also a loss of humanity. This is the kernel of truth in the widespread but largely foolish worry that psychoanalysis will “ruin” our favorite books. While literature is not so easily destroyed by critical remarks, any critic can temporarily make an engaging text seem dreary—not, however, by revealing too much of it, but by revealing too little and claiming this to be the whole. The very success of psycho-analytic theory in anticipating predictable aspects of literature leaves the Freudian peculiarly vulnerable to this coasting on his assumptions. His unusual advantage of method must be matched by an unusual susceptibility to the restless life of art if psychoanalysis is not to become a narcotic in his hands.

This Issue

March 12, 1970