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Psychoanalytic Criticism

Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral, Alice in Wonderland, Interpretation of Dreams, reading

psychoanalysis freud unconscious empson

Psychoanalysis is both a theory of the mind and a practice of interpretation. Its early applications to literature, by Freud himself and by disciples like Marie Bonaparte and Ernest Jones, concentrated on the presumed psychology of the writer, on the repressed or displaced psychic material uncovered by textual analysis and recombination. This work was often reductive, too eager to crack the case, and none too faithful to psychoanalysis' own best clinical practice, which insists on the patient's collaboration, and the fullest, most carefully constructed context for each individual instance, seen as quite different from all others. Far more influential in the long run was Freud's sense of large forces other than conscious ones at work in literature, and elsewhere. Criticism learned to listen for the half-said and the unsaid, and works like William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral, although not obviously psychoanalytic in tendency, are very much indebted to Freud. To make the story of Alice in Wonderland sound Freudian, Empson said, one has only to tell it. Psychoanalysis, as deployed in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and elsewhere, was also a method of reading, and much contemporary literary criticism is psychoanalytic in the sense of being influenced by this method: seeking not the unconscious of a writer or of a character but something like the unconscious of the text, whatever is revealed in those places where the text misspeaks or contradicts itself, or appears to get agitated without cause. Psychoanalysis in this form, through the writing of Jacques Derrida, has made common ground with Deconstruction. In his clinical and theoretical work, Jacques Lacan gave psychoanalysis a French face and manners and home, and an alliance with Structuralism was forged. ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’, Lacan memorably (and cryptically) said, meaning among other things that the concept of structure may take us further, and dominate us more imperiously, than we are inclined to think. In Britain the work of Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose has been of great importance in exploring and furthering these insights, particularly in relation to the politics of feminism. Julia Kristeva's Black Sun (1987) considers poetry and novels and paintings, and constitutes a brilliant revision of Freud's great themes of melancholy and mourning.

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