Free Literary Criticism: The Psychoanalytical Mode Order 229838249 Essay Sample
The twentieth century was as unique and fertile for literary criticism as it was for literature. The common taste saw a general crumbling of moralistic attitudes and a freer tendency towards experimentation. The high moral ground assumed by the Arnoldian school faded into the background, and also, literature ceased to be regarded as a sublimation of genius of the noblest kind. In its place it came to be regarded as an act of neurotic obsession driven by inscrutable impulses. This debasement of literature must have shocked many high priests of classicism and conservatism, but for many it was a triumph of the analytical genius of man which finally turned its tools upon itself by probing the unfathomable human psyche. Thus was born the unprecedented discipline of psychoanalysis under the stewardship of a young doctor of Vienna, Sigmund Freud. Freudian psychoanalysis, in spite of breaking new ground, is unfortunately remembered more for its limitations and pitfalls rather than its merits. Its singular merit is its encouraging acceptance of the dark or seamy side of human personality and its suggestion of deliverance by knowing the recesses of the mind which act as caves of confinement for personality. This foresight has been much abused as pessimism about mankind in general and overall reductionism. Much ado is made of libidinous impulses which Freud suggested were the mainsprings of personality conflict. This man of science has marvellously contributed to understanding not only life, behaviour and motivation, but also to the understanding of literature. He has, in fact, given explicit interpretations of dreams, symbols, metaphors and poetic language. His disciple Carl Gustav Jung has carried psychoanalysis a step further by extending the unconscious from the individual to the race, naming it the collective or racial unconscious.
Freud and Jung, then, were the founding spirits of the astoundingly expedient mode of literary investigation called the psychoanalytical school. When applied to literary criticism it is labelled psychoanalytical criticism. The votaries for Freudian analysis were Ernest Jones, Kenneth Burke, Lionel Trilling, and many others, while the Jungians who called themselves the Archetypal Critics, were Erich Auerbach, Frank Kermode, Northrop Frye, Leslie Fielder, and their tribe. Ernest Jones’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the chief trophy of Freudian psychoanalysis. Jones brought in the idea of the Oedipus complex that Hamlet bore his mother to explain the delaying of his revenge and sparing his mother despite being convinced of her complicity. This was not welcomed as plausible at all, but the fact is that there was more of a willing release of disbelief than suspension, considering the unnaturalness of the context. Considering this as a scholarly explanation it is quite laudable. Leaving aside our assumptions of character, what happened in the court of Denmark was something that could have happened anywhere in the world. The royal status does not alter biological predispositions. Jones’s reading cannot be called theoretically flawed. This was just one of the many readings of the character and motives of Hamlet that never ended the eternal debate. Similarly, Leslie Fielder applied Jungian psychoanalysis to bring out the racial inter-dependence of Huck and Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The all-forgiving Jim calls guilty Huck who informed on him in the words which form the title of Fielder’s essay, “Come Back to the Raft ‘Gain, Huck Honey.”
Other texts too can be examined in terms of Freudian insights. Let us take the example of Sylvia Plath, the Jewish-American woman poet who struck verbal terror with her neurotic idiom reflecting the wartime hallucinations of the Nazi regime. She is ruthless on herself in “Daddy” as she hurls expletives of neurosis and anathema in the angst of her troubled memory. The despotic father who is absent during the address becomes an invisible tyrant of the holocaust, who elsewhere makes his daughter harbour the most horrible images of her skin being a Nazi lampshade and her foot a Nazi paperweight. So also, in “Metaphors” the poet is a gravid woman who thinks of all possible metaphors to describe her onerous state like a stored house or an elephant lugging its weight round or a melon on tendrils, all on the side of a quaint surrealism. Freudian readings would hint at a verbal veneer for morbidity, a bid to distract from the horror of a life for which one is scarce prepared. To Freud symbolic language is an enlivening of a struggling emotion that the unconscious mind instinctively tries to calm down by an organic thought. Samuel Taylor Coleridge too had a similar insight when he talked of the primary imagination that responds to the already shaped instinct ( which was shaped by the unconscious mind at the secondary imagination level ). Freudian readings are therefore not just hermeneutic insights but also those that showcase the very act of prosody as a therapeutic process.
Arthur Miller likewise has a protagonist in his eponymous play Death of a Salesman who never gets over his inferiority inherent in his symbolic name, Willy Loman. He aims high for a limousine and high-end articles of living, but is constantly pressured by preconditioned attitudes of lowliness. The expressionistic devices of sound and lighting bring out the chaos well till he is led to his low rest in the grave. Language and emotion play an aria of stasis throughout the play. The Freudian reading of the hedonistic principle leading to the avoidance of pain is at work throughout. Even destiny is an act of the bedevilled mind.
Thus psychoanalysis provides meanings for complex mental processes, but eventually makes known that it is not a judgemental activity but a purely interpretive one. It presumes human fallibility and culpability, and assists the truth-seeker to overcome his shackles. It is indeed a defensible approach.