Sunday, March 16, 2008

Freud's Debt to Literature: Sunday Salon

It's hard to imagine anyone arriving at insights like those in the passage from Civilization and its Discontents, quoted in my previous post, solely from clinical observation--not coming from a mind, like Freud's, widely conversant with literature from antiquity to his own day. Unless we limit ourselves to purely formal or linguistic considerations, we read narrative in terms of reconciling present action and reaction with causes rooted in the past. When we look at dramatic or narrative representation of fate and free will, for example, what else do we mean by freedom, if not action that arises sui generus out of relationships entirely of the present, unbound by any chain of consequences originating in the past? The opposite of freedom: action governed by the past--or by forces unbound by time as mortals are--which amounts to the same thing. Human action is rendered meaningless at both extremes. If we are left no other place for free will, we must at the very least believe that we have the freedom to affirm what the gods or the rules of nature have chosen for us: amor fati. At the other extreme--existence purely in the present tense is equally absurd. In the the world of Becket, or Ionesco, the two poles come together and are indistinguishable. How do you tell the difference between the purely arbitrary and the purely determined? Our ideas on the vicissitudes of the human condition change over time and vary according to whatever theory we use to frame and define them; this is as true of Freud's psychoanalytic ideas as any other. What endures in Freud's thought, and on the most general level, is perhaps a source of their power to regenerate in new manifestations, is their insistence on the multi-variant, inherently dialectical tension between synchronic and diachronic forces which determine human action, a concern which is in turn, one of the universal foundations of literary and dramatic narrative.


  1. Yes, I think you are right, that Freud does understand the cross-currents human beings stand in, buffeted this way and that. But I think he also felt his patients could be freed from the chains of the past, that (I'm borrowing a phrase of Adam Phillips here) we might not be acceptable to ourselves, but we could be intelligible, and this meant finding out exactly where we were bound, and loosening those ties. What's been notable for psychoanalysis in the second half of the twentieth century is the way that Freud's discovery of the unconscious has driven home the absolute lack of self-mastery that is its full implication. We are now creatures of the gap, full of hiccups and lacunae. I think that's played out in literature too, which bears every bit as much debt to Freud.

  2. While we may loosen some of those ties, bring them into relation to the present, we are not ever going to be free of them... nor would we want to. Isn’t the burden of what Freud is saying in Civilization and Its Discontents?

    It would be interesting to examine how Freudian theory in its more recent manifestations has worked its way into literature... Lacan, et al...