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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From Oedipus to Anima: Carl Jung’s `Psychology and Literature’

Carl Gustav Jung’s ` Psychology and Literature’ (1930) can be read as a critique of classical Freudian psychoanalytical approach to literary studies. 

The essay is notable for its ambitious attempt to discuss the social role of a creative writer from a psychological and psychoanalytical perspective. It is also remarkable for its similarities with the impersonality theory’ of creative process put forth by TS Eliot in the early part of the twentieth century.

Carl Jung (1875-1961) believes that though the psychologist’s approach to literature varies significantly from that of a literary critic, there is a possibility of an interesting dialogue between the two as all the sciences and arts have a common origin- human psyche.

Jung notes that the primary difference between literary critic’s approach and the psychologist’s approach is that psychologist may be interested in the works which might be of little artistic merit for the critic such as pulp romances or popular detective fiction. For a psychologist, a` psychological novel’ may be the most uninteresting one as most of the elements of fiction like motives or thoughts of the characters are explained and are made explicit by the author. The more interesting novels for a psychologist would be the works where these things are not explained and made explicit by the author and there is a room for interpretation.

Jung goes on to make a distinction between ` psychological’ literature and ` visionary literature’. Jung points out that as a psychologist, he would hardly be interested in ` psychological literature’ which primary deals with the material drawn from conscious mind. `Visionary literature’ draws its imagery, content from materials drawn from unconscious mind and hence is of great interest to a psychologist.
Jung points out that the first part of Goethe’s Faust is an example of `psychological literature’ while the second part is `visionary’ in nature.

Jung critiques Freudian emphasis on the personality of the author in interpretation of the text by stating that author’s personality is not the most important aspect of a literary work as the writer usually has to transcend the personal and the subjective in order to make his work appealing to others. Freudian approach which hardly goes beyond deriving the work from author’s neurosis, fails to explain why not all neurotics are authors. Moreover, such an approach cannot understand the function of a creative writer in the society.

Jung notes that the contents and materials of `visionary’ literature are not just drawn from the author’s psychosexual history as Freudians would insist, but are also from `racial memory’ or the collective unconscious of the entire human race. Such images, figures and symbols are primordial and not specific either to an individual or even to a culture. Such contents of `collective unconscious’ are called `archetypes’ by Jung. He gives an example of the figure of cross which becomes a sacred symbol among the Christians as well as other pagan cultures (like `swastika’ among Hindus). Archetypes manifest themselves not just in mythology, folklore or `visionary literature’ but they affect human behavior deeply.

Some of the most important archetypes in Jungian psychoanalysis are the persona, the shadow, the anima and the wise old man. The goal of human life, Jungian theory is `individuation’ of the becoming complete and whole by synthesizing the varied fragments of our being.

The persona is the mask which human beings carry around all the time and when it drops, they have to encounter their dark repellent side- their shadow. As the process of individuation continues, one comes across the anima or the creative and feminine aspect of our unconscious self. In Jung’s scheme of things visionary creative writing is often a manifestation of this feminine component of our self. The archetype of the wise old man is the archetype of guiding higher wisdom which leads us towards completion of our individuation. Individuation is often represented archetypally as closed geometric figures like the mandalas.

The function of creative artist, according to Jung, is to express the contents of collective unconscious in a society which is gradually losing its touch with this side of its personality due to the processes of modernization and secularization. A work of art, thus in Jung’s scheme would lead to man’s reconnection with the collective unconscious thus assisting him in the process of individuation.

Shifting of the focus of psychoanalysis from the personal psychosexual history to collective spiritual history in Jungian `analytical theory’ made it extremely influential among the writers and critics. However, Jungian theory fell out of favour with more materialistic oriented and relativist cultural theorists along with scientific psychologist due to its universalizing and idealistic notions and its preoccupation with vaguely spiritual orientation.

Freud himself criticized Jung of compromising with the basic principles of scientific psychoanalysis in order to make it more palatable to large section of public by reducing its emphasis on infantile sexuality and neurosis. As a doctor, Freud probably thought, giving sugar coated pills was ok but distributing sugar was definitely a form of deception and a compromise with the basic ethics of medical practice!!

However, Jung’s ideas have greatly influenced ` Myth and Archetypal’ theorist of literature like Northrop Frye and Maud Bodkins. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dostoevsky the Oedipus: Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide

Sigmund Freud’s `Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (1927) is an excellent example of application of Classical Psychoanalysis to literature. The essay is significant because it contains Freud’s classic exposition of the Oedipus Complex and its relation to literary texts. The essay can be read together with Freud’s other famous and insightful essays on literature like `The Uncanny’ (1919), `Creative Writers and Day Dreaming’ (1908) and `The Theme of Three Caskets’ (1913). That Freud should write extensively on literature is not surprising as he considers psychoanalysis as being ` art of interpretation’ and that many of his ideas are drawn from literary texts.
Freud is fascinated by complex and rich personality of Dostoevsky. He points out four facets of Dostoevsky’s personality, viz., the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner. Freud, characteristically, declares ` before the problem of creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.’ Freud is more interested in Dostoevsky the neurotic and the causes of his neurosis.

Freud argues that Dostoevsky’s epileptic attacks, compulsive gambling, his latent homosexuality and his submissive attitude to religious and state authorities are manifestations of his neurosis resulting from his `Oedipus Complex’.

The Oedipus complex is an essential concept in Freudian psychoanalysis. According to the theory, during the `phallic phase’ (the phase where child’s phallus is the centre of his erotic interest –his love object) of psychosexual development of a child, the child recognizes that he is not a sole object of his mother’s love and sees father as his sexual rival. He is jealous and directs his aggression towards his father.

During the Oedipal phase, the child wants to take place of his father and thus become the object of his mother’s love. This requires identification on the part of the child with his father to obtain his mother’s love. Freud points out that the child identifies with the father to an extent that the father becomes the part of child’s personality. This part of child’s personality formed by identification with parents is called `Superego’ by Freud.

However, during this based on his knowledge of girl’s genitals, the child develops the anxiety of losing his prized possession, of being castrated and losing his masculinity. His aggression towards his father, the desire to kill him has to be repressed or driven away beyond his conscious mind into the unconscious part of his psyche out of the fear of father and father’s power to castrate him. Freud also points out the `ambivalence’ towards father in the mind of child where there is distinct love and tenderness for the father along with the desire to kill him. This gives rise to deep guilt in the mind of the child.
In Dostoevsky’s case, Freud argues, this emotional crisis arising in his phallic phase is unresolved and gives rise to his neurosis. Dostoevsky has identified with his father and hence the wish to kill his father is also a desire to kill oneself. This unresolved and unrepressed conflict results in `epileptic attacks’ which resemble the experience of dying for Dostoevsky.

The guilt arising from his unconscious parricidal desire manifests itself in self-punishing attitudes in Dostoevsky. This severe guilt and desire for self punishment, according to Freud, is at the back of Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambling, which Freud sees as a self punishing activity. As Dostoevsky’s internalized father, his superego, Freud says, is sadistic and Dostoevsky’s ego is masochistic in its desire for self punishment.

Freud also says that gambling which is a form of play is also a substitute for masturbation and hence a cause for guilt for Dostoevsky.

Freud remarks that the three masterpieces of literature Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov should deal with parricide carried out of sexual rivalry for a woman is not an instance of coincidence. In the light of his theory, all literature embodies neurotic conflicts and unconscious instincts in a disguised and indirect ways so as to make them acceptable. 

The writers employ literary devices to make these unconscious sexual and socially unacceptable contents of psyche acceptable to people. In Oedipus Rex, the hero kills his father unintentionally, in Hamlet, it is carried out by someone else and in Brothers Karamazov the deed is carried out by the brother of the protagonist Dmitri. Freud also draws attention to a scene in Brothers Karamazov where Father Zossima bows down at the feet of Dmitri when he learns Dmitri is planning to kill his father.

Freud seems to imply that creative writing is similar to dreaming or neurotic symptoms which he sees as camouflaged and indirect expressions of conflicts arising from early sexual development of the child and unconscious instinctual wishes. This is obviously very `reductive’ view of literature which is a far more complex artifact. Freud himself does not seem to be entirely unaware of this limitation.

Another problem with such an approach is that too preoccupied with ` origins’ of work of art instead of its structure and meaning –critics term as originological fallacy or genetic fallacy. Hence, the obsession with biographical details and personal neurosis of the author.

As Jung (1930) points out the man who suffers and the man who creates are not identical and personal history of the artist is not very useful for understanding the works of art because the artist has to transcend himself in order to create so that he may reach out to the entire humanity. But, remember what Freud has said about `analysis…laying down its arms in front of creative artist’ in the beginning of the essay.

Freud’s ideas have been received very skeptically and often with hostility ever since their statement. Critics have pointed out that they cannot be proved rigorously and scientifically.  Other critics have also pointed out the deep seated gender bias in his theory especially his ideas like `penis envy’ which is feminine counterpart to man’s `castration anxiety’. However, Freud has always been very influential thinker whose influence is felt not just in literary criticism but also on the creative writers themselves.

Freud’s ideas regained prominence in literary theory in the twentieth century largely due to Jacques Lacan’s semiotic and structuralist reading of Freud.