Literature and Psychoanalysis: Freud, Juan, Lacan
Freud was born in the region Moravia in 1856. However, his family shifted to Vienna when he was three and it is in this city that Freud continued to live and work till he was eighty-two. In 1873 Freud enrolled as a medical student in the University of Vienna and by the late 1880s he had already established himself as a consulting doctor for psychological disorders. However, we will have to remember here that when Freud started his career as a doctor, what we today consider psychological disorders were primarily understood and treated as disorders of the nervous system. But Freud started moving away from this purely physical understanding of psychological disorder quite early in his medical career. He believed that these disorders were forms of mental illness which required a special kind of medical approach that was very distinct from how physical ailments are usually approached by the doctors. This departure from the mainstream medical approach of the day ultimately led Freud to the formulation of his theories of human mind and mental diseases that we today study under the rubric of psychoanalysis. The first major step towards this direction came in the form of a book titled Studies in Hysteria which Freud wrote with another Viennese physician named Josef Breuer. But the most well-known manifestation of this new field of psychoanalytic study came in 1899. This was the year when Freud published the landmark book which bore the German title Die Traumdeutung and was translated in English under the title The Interpretation of Dreams. However, it is interesting to note that during the time of its publication, the reception of this book was rather muted. And the reason for this is not very difficult to guess. Firstly, the fundamental theory of psychoanalysis that Freud laid out was such a radical departure from the existing ways in which human ailment was understood that it aroused obvious skepticism. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the reason why the book received muted reception was because of Freud’s insistence that it was sexual desires that guide our psychological life. Placing such tabooed subjects like sexual desire and incest at the heart of his theories was deeply troublesome for the conservative Viennese society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and this aspect of Freud’s writing might still make it unacceptable for some. However, the acceptance of Freud and his theories saw a gradual rise over the years, and by 1908, when the first international psychoanalytic congress was held in Salzburg, Freud was already recognized as a major intellectual figure. Freud’s fortunes however turned for the worse when the Nazis came to power and annexed Austria. Freud himself was an atheist, but since he was born to Jewish parents the Nazis came to regard his publications as expressions of what they believed to be the decadent and immoral Jewish culture. His books were therefore ceremonially burnt in 1933 along with those of several other major intellectuals including Karl Marx. Freud himself was however able to escape Nazi Germany in 1938 and seek exile in London were he stayed till his death in 1939.
Since Freud inaugurated an entirely new field of enquiry and since this field of enquiry has its own unique concepts and distinct vocabulary, scholars have to familiarize themselves with the broad outlines of Freudian psychoanalysis before moving on to a discussion of how psychoanalysis can provide us with a new understanding of the literary process. The term hysteria comes from the Greek root word hysteron which literally means womb. The reason the disease identified as hysteria got a name derived from the root word womb is because it was originally believed to be a disease caused by the “wandering” of a womb away from its original place in a woman’s body. In the mid-1880s, when Freud started working on hysteria, the mainstream opinion about the disease had moved away from the theory of wandering wombs. But it was still believed that the disease had something to do with the female reproductive organ, and consequently, hysteria was believed to be an affliction that was suffered exclusively by the females. This established theory was, however, already being challenged by a French doctor by the name Jean-Martin Charcot who believed that hysteria had nothing to do with the reproductive organ. Charcot argued that hysteria was a result of inherited brain damage and as such the disease could be found both in males and females. Though Freud briefly worked with Charcot on hysteria, he did not agree with Charcot’s attribution of hysteria to an impairment of the human body. On the contrary, Freud believed that hysteria was a psychological disease which cannot be traced back to any specific problem in the patient’s body. Freud argued that to cure hysteria what needs to be looked into is the patient’s mind. In the book Studies in Hysteria that Freud coauthored with Breuer, he asserted that hysteria was caused by the patient’s efforts to repress a traumatic memory – that is to say forcefully refuse to acknowledge in a conscious state of mind the memory of a past trauma. This analysis of the disease led Freud to work on a kind of cure that was very different from how hysteric patients were treated by doctors who believed in the biological cause of the disease. This new cure involved allowing the patient to talk about his or her own past till the repressed memory of the trauma is brought to the consciousness. What Freud and Breuer argued was that remembering and confronting the memory of the past actually produced a release of emotions and resulted in a cathartic effect which ultimately led to the cure of hysteria. The role of the doctor, according to this line of treatment, consisted in carefully listening to the narrative produced by the patient and helping her to interpret them. The aim of this interpretation was to sift through the narrative in such a way that the patient can identify the repressed traumatic event which was at the root of their suffering.
Freud found that the repressed traumatic memory that was causing the hysteria was very frequently being related by his patients to some incident of sexual violence experienced in childhood. The very fact that something can be so repressed in our mind that it goes beyond the grasp of our consciousness meant for Freud that our mind has a large area beyond what is available to our consciousness – and this area which could only be indirectly approached was identified as the unconscious. Freud discovered that there was a common pattern underlying the narratives of his hysteric patients. They almost inevitably ended up talking about how as children they were seduced and sexually engaged with by an older figure, which was in most cases identified as the father. This led to Freud coming up with what he called the seduction theory. The child who was seduced by the father figure would not usually be traumatized at the time. But later, as she grew up, the memory of that childhood seduction would become too traumatic to recall, leading to its being repressed in the unconsciousness.
This was a neat enough theory, but Freud would pretty soon reject this seduction theory and come up with another theory regarding the cause of psychological disorder. And this new theory would effectively reverse the earlier understanding of seduction drama. In this new theory Freud proposed that the sexual event in the childhood might not be a real event at all but a phantasy. In psychoanalysis, phantasy means creating an imaginary scene that would allow someone to fictively enact out a desire that is too problematic to be admitted or enacted in reality. According to Freud, the scenes of seduction by the father depicted by the patients were actually phantasies which enabled the patients to enact in their imagination and in a distorted form their own sexual desire towards the parent figure.
The Interpretation of Dreams includes the narration and analyses of a number of dreams including many dreamt by Freud himself, can be read at one level as an elaboration of his theory of psychoanalysis. But the book has a number of other facets and can equally fruitfully be read as an autobiography or a history of dreaming and interpreting dreams.
The problem with conceptualization of the unconscious is that since it exists beyond the pale of our consciousness it is very difficult to know anything about it. Indeed, one might even doubt its very existence. Freud realized that the unconscious can be approached through studying a person’s dream which usually plays out in the grey zone between our consciousness and unconsciousness. When we go to sleep the boundaries of our consciousness are relaxed and a limbo between the conscious and the unconscious is exposed. Dreams are products that get generated within this limbo. But what is interesting is that they are still frequently available to us even when we wake up and even when the boundaries of our consciousness crystallize again. That is to stay we can still remember some of our dreams that we had dreamt in our sleep even after we have woken up. Freud discovered that these remembered dreams can act as “the royal road to the unconscious”, and in The Interpretation of Dreams, this royal road to the unconscious leads one to the seat of uninhibited sexual desires, which according to Freud animates all human mental life.
Freud argues that dreams do not transparently mirror the unconscious but rather reflects them in a distorted form. This translation of the unconscious content into the dream is what dream-work. The latent content is the unconscious content that underlies a dream and because it remains hidden Freud refers to it as the latent content. The manifest content is what we register as the dream which is a distorted version of the latent content. This transformation or dream-work primarily involves two main processes, namely condensation and displacement. One of the ways in which the dream work distorts the latent content is by clubbing together a number of objects, people and places and representing all of this variety through a single dream image. So the images that we see in our dream most often act as a kind of short hand symbol which signifies in a compressed form a variety of things. It is this process of fusing together different things in the form of a single image that Freud refers to as condensation. This process of condensation results in dream images being over determined. Over determination happens when a single thing is related to multiple causes. Since a condensed dream image has a number of constituent elements which fuses to form it – Freud refers to the manifest content of our dreams as over determined. Freud argues that certain aspects of the latent content often gets represented in the manifest content through images which are not connected to it in any integral manner. In fact, the connection is so flimsy between the manifest representation and the latent thing that is represented that when the connection is revealed, it “gives the impression of being a bad joke or of an arbitrary and forced explanation dragged in by the hair of its head.” Indeed, the very purpose of displacement seems to be the obscuring of the latent content through a moving or a shifting away from it.
The unconscious and its workings became central elements in Freud’s study of the human mind right from the days when he started his research on hysteria. And whereas his book Studies on Hysteria referred to the unconscious only vis-à-vis the mental world of psychological patients, in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud was using this concept of unconscious and repression of sexual desires as a universal phenomenon. If dreams are accepted to be manifestations of an unconscious latent content, then it is to be accepted that all of us have an unconscious because all of us dream.
Freud asserted that the unconscious informs our lives in an even more ubiquitous manner than was earlier suggested. The argument was that it was not only psychological diseases or dreams that were connected with the unconscious but even our more mundane forgetfulness or everyday errors in speech had their roots in the drama that was playing out in our unconscious mind. The book in which Freud delineated this thesis was, therefore, aptly named The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The key word that Freud introduced in this new book to discuss the ubiquity of our unconscious was parapraxis. One must have noticed that in our day to day conversations we often forget names or words that are otherwise very commonly known, or make errors in pronunciation, or substitute a wrong word for a right one. Freud names these slips or errors as parapraxis and argues that these errors are manifestations of the repressed emotions and memories that are shunted out from the conscious mind and relegated to the unconscious. So just like the hysteric symptoms or the dreams are distorted manifestations of an unconscious content, the everyday parapraxis or Freudians slips too are distorted manifestations of a hidden unconscious content.
The incident of parapraxis that Freud narrates has to do with the forgetting of a foreign word. Once on a train journey, Freud struck up a conversation with a young man who, like Freud, was of Jewish ancestry. He believed that being a Jew in contemporary society put him at a disadvantage. As Freud writes, he “bemoaned the fact that his generation, as he expressed it, was destined to grow crippled, that it was prevented from developing its talents and from gratifying its desires”. To underline his lament, he brought in the reference to the lament of Dido as narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. In Virgil’s epic, Dido is a queen who falls in love with the protagonist Aeneas. Her love is initially reciprocated by Aeneas and they start living like a couple. But this was resented by King Iarbas, who had earlier tried to unsuccessfully woo Dido. Iarbas’s father was the mighty god Jupiter, and Iarbas appealed to him to separate Dido and Aeneas. Jupiter, in order to keep his son’s request, ordered Aeneas to leave the land in which he was living with Dido and Aeneas obeyed him. This in turn infuriated Dido who threw herself in a funeral pyre while cursing Aeneas with the Latin line : [Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor] In English this line translates into the sentence: “Let someone arise as an avenger from my bones”. The young man of Jewish origin whom Freud met in the train, wanted to end his lament by quoting this line from Virgil, but could not recall the word aliquis which was later pointed out to him by Freud. This forgetting of the Latin word is interpreted by Freud as an instance of parapraxis. The way Freud connects this parapraxis with the repressed unconscious is through “free association”.
Free association was a method that Freud had devised during his research on hysteria and then used extensively throughout his career. It is a method in which one is encouraged to say unhesitatingly all that comes to the mind without trying to control either the stream of thoughts or trying to create a logically coherent discourse. When Freud asked his fellow traveller to do a free association and tell him whatever comes to his mind when he thinks of the word aliquis, the young man came up with a string of words like “reliques – liquidation – liquidity – fluid”. This reveals that these other words though initially absent from the discourse had cast a shadow on the word aliquis which the young man had wanted to utter but could not apart from the chain of words that are mentioned, the young man also comes up with the names of a number of Christian saints including most notably that of St Januaris. He even narrated to Freud a ritual associated with the saint. The young man told that a phial containing some blood is kept in a church in Naples as the relique of St Januaris and every year at certain specified dates a miracle happens and the blood of the saint transforms from its clotted state to a liquid state. The young man also told that if this liquefaction of the blood does not happen then it gives rise to great consternation and worry among the believers. Finally, the young man mentioned to Freud that the word aliquis also reminded him of a woman that he knew. Indeed, he was dreading that he might receive a message from her which can be very worrisome to him.
Freud connected all these thoughts, ideas, and words that the free association has thrown up and that has haunted the young man’s remembering of the word aliquis by relating it to his worry about the woman of his acquaintance becoming pregnant. The fear that the young man had repressed from his conscious mind is that the woman might have missed her regular menstrual cycle which would be a sure sign of her being pregnant by him. This fear had got attached with the word aliquis because the young man associated it with fluid and with the process of liquification. In his chain of association, this was further connected with the ritual liquification of St Januaris’s blood which in itself is evocative of a woman’s menstrual cycle. In the Dido story Aeneas went away from Dido like an unfaithful lover much like the young man was going away from the woman. The word aliquis appears in the speech of Dido which she used to curse Aeneas. For the young man the fear of this curse gets transmuted into the fear of an embarrassing incident of pregnancy. Since the young man was trying to repress this fear it became difficult for him to remember the word aliquis which had got entangled in his unconscious mind with the feared pregnancy. This is what according to Freud led to the particular instance of parapraxis resulting in his inability to remember the word.
One of the most controversial claims made by Freud was that sexuality is not something that develops in human beings with the onset of puberty. Rather, according to Freud, sexual desire was something that characterizes every human being even while he or she is a baby. This basic instinctual sex drive which informs our existence right from our childhood is what Freud identifies as libido. Freud argues that as a child, each of us directs this libido towards our mother who, being our first caregiver and provider of food, is the closest person that we know. The focus of this libido is initially on the activity of breast feeding. As Freud points out, a baby comes to feed on the breasts of its mother not merely to draw nourishment but also to experience pleasure which goes beyond the mere requirement of food. In Freud’s own words: The baby’s obstinate persistence in sucking gives evidence at an early stage of a need for satisfaction which, though it originates from and is instigated by the taking of nourishment, nevertheless strives to obtain pleasure independently of nourishment and for that reason may and should be termed sexual. Within the family structure, a baby soon realizes that the mother is not exclusively occupied with it. The father is also someone who demands and receives the attention and care from the mother. This leads the baby to conceive its father as an opponent, who vies with him for the love and attention of the mother. And this result in what Freud famously terms as the Oedipus complex. Oedipus was a figure who killed his own father, Laios, and married his own mother, Jacosta. According to Freud, a baby, while growing up, resembles something like this mythic figure Oedipus who wants to “kill” its father – or at least remove the father from the scene so that it can receive the undisrupted love and care from its mother. With the introduction of the father in the scene, the baby’s desire for its mother also gets underlined by a sense of fear. It realizes that the father is a much stronger person and can potentially cause harm. For the baby, who by this time has discovered its penis as one of the primary locus of sexual pleasure, this fear of being harmed by the father takes a more specific shape – it translates into the fear of being castrated by the father. This fear of castration or castration complex is, for Freud, one of the fundamental aspects informing our psychoanalytic life. As the baby grows up and gets acquainted with the social expectations and prohibitions it realizes that harboring murderous intentions towards one’s own father is socially tabooed. The baby therefore represses this desire into the unconsciousness and rather than treating the father as a competitor comes to regard him as a role model. The baby comes to believe that if it can become like the father someday it will be able to win the complete love and affection of someone like its mother. “Someone like its mother” and not the mother herself is because the baby also realizes that sexually desiring one’s own mother is again a social taboo and therefore that too needs to be repressed in the unconscious.
Throughout his career, Freud kept revising the structure underlining the human mental activities so we don’t really have a definitive version of Freud’s map of the mind. But more or less the basic contour of this mind map created by Freud is well established. Our mental activities, according to Freud, when taken together have three aspects. They are Id, Ego, and Super-ego. According to Freud, id is constituted of all our instinctual desires which are identified as libido. The main guiding principle of id is what Freud calls the pleasure principle. In other words, the instinctual drives informing the id always seeks pleasure and it comes across as something like a petulant and demanding child who keeps repeating the phrase “I want…”. Indeed, this metaphor is not very superfluous because if we look at it from the Freudian perspective then the unchecked manifestation of the desires informing the id is what characterizes our childhood. At this early stage, we do not need to control or repress the id because we are at the centre of our parents’, especially our mother’s attention and all our demands for pleasure are almost immediately satisfied. It is only when we grow up and learns to negotiate the world as independent social beings that we realize that all our desires cannot be instantaneously met. And some desires like the killing of one’s own father or the marrying of one’s own mother cannot be met at all. At that stage, we form what Freud calls the ego which tries to negotiate between the constant demands of the id and the social realities. This is how Freud explains the relationship between the id and the ego: Thus in its relation to the id [ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.
The final aspect that informs the human mental processes is super-ego. Super-ego is constituted by an awareness of all the restrictions, taboos, demands and interdictions that the society imposes upon us. This is the borrowed force that was mentioned by Freud in the quoted lines. It is a scholar must remember here that according to Freudian psychoanalysis, while growing up we first learn to restrict and suppress our desire out of the fear of our father. Consequently, at a later stage, when we have a strongly developed superego we often associate it with the dictum of the father. And since God is often assumed to be our universal father, super-ego is often perceived as the moral restrictions lay down by God himself.
In Freud’s 1907 work titled “Delusion and Dream in Jensen’s Gradiva” we find an analysis of Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gradiva from a psychoanalytic perspective. Freud shows, through his reading of the novel, how the hero suffers from psychological complications arising out of repression which is gradually cured as the novel progresses. Apart from this psychoanalytic profiling of fictional characters, appearing in novels and plays, psychoanalytic theory can also be used to profile the author. One of the finest examples of this approach where a piece of artistic creation is used to delve deep into the recesses of the creator’s mind is Freud’s 1910 psychobiography titled “Leonardo de Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood”. In this essay, Freud relates how Leonardo de Vinci’s repressed childhood sexual fantasies animates his creative works in later life. And though Freud accesses the unconscious of the creator, Leonardo de Vinci, via an analysis of one of his paintings, the same method may also be applied to literature in which a particular piece of text may be analyzed to interpret the repressed structures of desires and fears framing the psychological life of the author.
One of the best pieces through which we can study Freud’s interpretation of literary creativity, in general, is his essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming”. It was first delivered in 1907 as an informal lecture at the house of the bookseller and the member of Vienna Psycho-Analytic Society, Hugo Heller. And it came out in its final published form in 1908. The essay broadly divides itself into two parts. The first part works out the relationship between child’s play, phantasy and day-dreaming, and the second part connects this relationship with the process of literary creativity. To begin with, Freud draws our attention to the aura of uniqueness that usually surrounds the creativity of a writer. Some of us can author wonderful stories, poems and other literary pieces while others cannot. So within almost every society, creative writers are regarded as special beings and, as Freud writes: “we laymen always intensely curious to know from what sources that strange being, the creative writer, draws his material, and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which, perhaps, we had not even thought ourselves capable.” In this quotation, Freud focuses on two aspects of the creative writer. The first aspect is the way in which the creative writer creates his literary product by drawing upon certain kinds of materials, and the second is the way in which that literary product influences the readers by arousing in them strong emotional responses
In order to study this unique creativity tries to equate it with a more mundane and more universally occurring psychological phenomenon so that it can become relatable to everyone. He finds this universal phenomenon in the play of children, and he discovers in the psychological dynamics underlying the mind of a child at play the equivalence of an author’s creative energy.
Quoting from the essay here: “Should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood The child’s best-loved and most intense occupation is with his play or games. Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him?”
For the child at play, this imaginative recreation of a world of its own is not a jest. As Freud observes, the child is in fact quite serious when it is playing and treats the world created by him through his imagination with utmost earnestness. A child’s play is therefore not to be contrasted with its other activities performed in seriousness. In Freud’s words, “[t]he opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real”. This distinction that Freud draws between child’s play and reality brings us to the already familiar terrain of wish fulfilment.
One of the crucial aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis is the study of how those wishes are engaged with and at least partially satisfied which cannot be enacted or admitted in reality. These wish fulfillments therefore always proceed by creating a cleavage with reality and opening up a zone akin to that of phantasy.
Freud explains that a child’s play is an early form of phantasy. Or rather, it is the other way round. Phantasy is the adult substitution for the child’s play. A child usually wants to be like the adults that he sees around himself. The way in which the child fulfils this wish is through creating an imaginary scene in the form of play, in which he enacts out his desire of being an adult. If, for instance, a child has seen his father driving, then in his play he might create an imaginary scene in which he assumes the role of a driver and keep zooming across the room sitting on a chair and pretending that to be a car. This fictional situation that the child plays out-produces for him a high yield of pleasure, which is otherwise denied in reality. Freud argues that as the child grows up, such a mechanism of wish fulfilment through playing games is no longer available to him. Yet, the pleasure that the playful creation of an imaginative scene of wish fulfillment offered someone as a child cannot be very easily forfeited by him as an adult. So rather than give up playing, an adult transforms it into the activity of creating phantasies. As Freud writes: “As people grow up, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing. But whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate. In the same way, the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead playing, he now phantasies. He builds castles in the air and creates what are called day-dreams.
Freud observes that one of the key distinctions separating child’s play from phantasy is that the imagined objects and situations that constitute the former are often linked with tangible and visible things of the real world. Thus for instance the child trying to fulfil his wish to be a driver like his father might make use of a real chair and pretend that it is a car. In case of phantasy, however, no such linkages can be observed. Indeed, the adult very carefully protects his fantasies from any external manifestations. So much so that if asked, he would even deny the existence of his phantasies. This is however sharply different from how a child behaves at play. A child may not have any desire to exhibit his play in front of the adults but then he doesn’t make any special effort to hide his play either. A child at play is indifferent to whether someone else is observing him or not. This contrast between the child’s indifference to observers spying on his play and the adult’s desperate attempt to keep his phantasies a secret is not very difficult to understand. The wishes that the child enact in his imaginary world while playing are not particularly repressed wishes because the entire mechanism of repressing desires only gradually develops as one grows up. However, for an adult the mechanism of repression is already well established and consequently, the imaginary engagement with wishes that cannot be fulfilled in reality becomes an embarrassing fact. These imaginary engagements or fantasies are pleasurable, but they represent a form of guilty pleasure which the adults need to keep hidden. Thus, as Freud notes, the form of phantasy, which he identifies as daydream, is rarely admitted by anyone in spite of being universally engaged in. This gives a clue as to what kind of wishes and desires constitute our daydreams.
Dreams which arise from within the limbo between consciousness and unconsciousness manifest our libidinal desires and allow us to engage with them. Since these are desires which an adult person has come to regard as shameful, they appear in the dream only after being sufficiently distorted by the mechanism of dream-work. The phantasies of a daydream are also similar engagements with “shameful” desires, with the only difference being that in daydreams these desires are engaged in the woken state itself. The stigma associated with these desires nevertheless remains very strong even in a daydreaming person and consequently, it becomes very difficult to make a person confess his phantasies. Indeed, as Freud notes, it is often easier to make a person confess his misdeeds than to make him confess the phantasy that plays out in his day-dream.
Freud states that the nature of daydreams differ from person to person depending on their sex, character, and circumstances. But irrespective of these individual variations, day-dreams primarily fulfill two different kinds of desires or wishes. The first Freud calls ambitious wishes and the second he calls erotic wishes. The former relates to a person’s desire to be regarded as socially elevated and powerful, whereas the latter relates to a person’s repressed sexual desires. According to Freud, in the day dreams of young men the ambitious wishes mostly surface whereas a young lady’s day dream is more likely to be dominated by her erotic wishes. And this distinction also makes clear the motives of concealing one’s day dream. Thus, as Freud writes, a young lady is allowed only a minimum of erotic desires by the patriarchal bourgeois society. Therefore, any excess of erotic desire has to be repressed by her and engaged with only in the private imaginative space of day- dreams. A young man on the other hand needs “to suppress the excess of self-regard which he brings with him from the spoilt days of his childhood, so that he may find his place in a society which is full of other individuals making equally strong demands”. But having made this distinction Freud also goes on to point out that the distinction does not mean an absolute opposition or rigid compartmentalization. Often the day dreams overlap both these wishes. Thus, for instance a young man might phantasize in his day dreams of performing some heroic exploits which satisfies his ambitious wish. But in the same day dream he might also imagine himself performing those exploits to win the affection of his lady-love, which in turn satisfies an erotic wish. Now, we need to note one thing here, which is that though day-dreams might have at their core either the ambitious wish or the erotic wish, the setting of the day dream of each individual person differs. This is because day- dreams “fit themselves in to the subject’s shifting impressions of life, change with every change in his situation, and receive from every fresh active impression what might be called a ‘date- mark’”.
In Freud’s words, the relation of a phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it were, between three times – the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From there it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish.
Freud argues that just like the phantasies of the day-dream are transformed forms of child’s play, popular novels, romances and short stories are transformed forms of day-dreams. The argument that is being made is that the popular fiction produced by authors is similar to day-dreams produced by each one of us. Thus, just like a day – dreamer, the creative writer too gets inspired by a strong experience in the present which triggers in his mind some earlier childhood memory. This childhood memory appears in the present as a desire or wish which then finds fulfilment in the creative work. In other words, just like a day- dream, a creative work too is underlined by its authors desire for wish fulfillment, and again just like a day-dream the creative work too strings together the past, present and the future. Moreover, popular creative writings like novels, romances and short stories also resemble day- dreams in having ambitious wish and erotic wish at their core. Thus for instance the hero of a popular romance or a novel seldom comes to any harm or seldom dies. Even if he is found to be injured or in trouble at the end of a chapter, he is soon discovered to have fully recovered or miraculously rescued from trouble. This is a manifestation of the ambitious wish in which the subject always imagines himself as powerful and absolutely invincible.
The erotic wish also plays an important part in popular creative writing. In these stories we see the hero being imbued with a charm that is so irresistible that all the young beautiful women around him inevitably fall in love with him. And this clearly connects to the subject’s repressed sexual phantasies. But having pointed out these similarities between day dreaming and creative writing, Freud brings up for discussion a very crucial difference between the two. A day-dream is the phantasy of an individual and is associated with the fulfillment of his very personal desires. Indeed, as Freud points out, that if we were to tell our day-dreams to others our narration would most probably repel them or at the very least leave them cold. Yet, a popular novel, in spite of being akin to the day dream of its author seems to yield pleasure to the reader as well. How does this happen. Well Freud argues that a creative writer allows others to participate in his day-dreams and reap pleasure from them by two different ways. The first way is that the creative writer uses his ability to write and to structure the narrative beautifully, and this formal beauty of the creative writing attracts the readers to it. Freud calls this the “incentive bonus” or the “fore-pleasure”. This fore-pleasure experienced through the literary form leads the reader to experience a still greater pleasure from the content of the creative writing. And a reader can experience this pleasure from the content because the creative writer is able to “soften the character of his egoistic day-dream by altering and disguising it”. In other words, the creative writer narrates his own day-dream in such a way that it loses its private or personal character and allows the reader to participate in it. The personal phantasy of the author is sufficiently altered and disguised for us the readers to project our own images on to the hero of the fiction and fulfill through him our ambitious and erotic desires. And since through literature, we can indulge in these wishes more openly than through our day dreaming, we feel liberated from the tensions of our minds. That is to say the feeling of shame that is attached to day-dreaming is gone when we engage with literature. Yet, in both the cases the goal remains the same – fulfillment of our repressed desires.
Thus interpreting, Freudian psychoanalysis can help us create not only an author centred literary theory but also a reader-centred literary theory. And indeed, as Freud tells us in his essay, approaching literature through the lens of psychoanalysis and through such psychological phenomena like daydreaming brings us to the threshold of new, interesting and complicated enquiries.
Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 in Switzerland to a family of German descent. He was by training a physician. But from very early in his career as a doctor, he was interested in psychological diseases primarily because it allowed him to access from a scientific perspective the phenomenon of spiritual experiences. Being the son of a clergyman and a mother who frequently complained of being possessed by spirits, both the spiritual and the supra-rational played a formative role in his childhood. This in a way explains his doctoral work which was published in 1903 under the title On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomenon. By 1906, Jung’s work on human psychology had already attracted the attention of Freud and for more than eight years after that Jung remained one of the closest associates of Freud. But Jung’s approach to psychoanalysis proved to be crucially different from Freudian psychoanalysis and this divergence became prominently expressed in Jung’s 1912 publication Psychology of the Unconscious. The two most impressive figures of early twentieth-century psychoanalytic movements, Freud and Jung, therefore parted ways in 1913. The dissociation with Freud was a significant blow to Jung and he could recover from it only after the First World War. However, from 1920s onwards, Jung was again prolific in his research output. This period in Jung’s career was also marked by travels to distant places which included the United States, Africa, as well as India.
As early as 1912 we find evidences of Jung engaging with Hindu religious philosophy and folding in interpretations of passages from Upanishads and the Rig Veda into his psychoanalytic theories. This interest in Indian religion and philosophy only deepened during the course of the next few decades and culminated in his visit to India in 1936-37. But even before he visited India, Jung delivered a series of lectures on India yogic practices to the Psychology Club in Zurich, which were published in 1932 under the title The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. In the winter of 1936-37 Jung toured India and extensively discussed about Indian religion and spiritual practices with its various practitioners. On his return, Jung kept up his interest on India, and we can see interesting glimpses of his sustained engagement with this country and its spiritual heritage in pieces like the 1939 article “What India Can Teach Us” or the 1943 essay “The Psychology of Eastern Meditation”. Jung died in 1961 in Zurich and left behind not only copious volumes of published materials but also a significant amount of unpublished texts which are gradually being made public today. Out of these unpublished materials which are now seeing the light of the day, the most enigmatic is perhaps a text which is usually referred to as Jung’s Red Book or Liber Novus which literally translates into the “new book”. This is a book which records Jung’s imaginative experiences between 1913 and 1917 and was only published in 2009. The book is interesting for a number of reasons, one of them being that it helps Jung scholars to understand more clearly what was going on in Jung’s mind during the period after his break-up with Freud when he had retreated into a cocoon.
Jung was deeply influenced in his conceptualization of human psychology by Freud. But there were also crucial differences. And one of the best ways to understand both the linkages as well as the difference between Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis is through one of his own dreams that Jung describes in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. In this particular dream, Jung finds himself in a two-storied house which he immediately identifies as “my house” though the house is unknown to him. Looking around Jung could see that he was in an elegantly furnished salon or living room situated on the second storey. It was decorated in the luxuriant rococo style, which dominated European taste during the eighteenth century, and it had a number of precious old paintings hanging from the wall. Jung is then struck in his dream by a desire to explore the whole house and he climbs down to the ground floor. The ground floor is decorated in a style that is different and historically older to the style which had been predominant in the second-storey living room. Here, in the ground floor, the furnishing looks medieval and everything is rather dark. While exploring these rooms, Jung encounters a door that leads him to the cellar or the basement which has walls dating back to the ancient Roman time. But Jung soon discovers that the cellar is not the lowest level of his dream house. Indeed, he finds in this floor another narrow stairway that leads him to a cave which is scattered with bones and broken potteries that are reminiscent of some primitive culture. It is while he is at this level of the house that Jung wakes up and his dream breaks.
In his autobiography, Jung explains this dream as a representative of a new model of human mind which was both derived from the Freudian model and was importantly different from it. Quoting from the text: “It was plain to me that the house represented a kind of image of the psyche […]. Consciousness was represented by the salon. It had an inhabited atmosphere, in spite of its antiquated style. The ground floor stood for the first level of the unconscious. The deeper I went the more alien and the darker the scene became. In the cave, I discovered remains of a primitive culture, that is, the world of the primitive man within myself–a world which can scarcely be reached or illuminated by consciousness. The primitive psyche of man borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of prehistoric times were usually inhabited by animals before men laid claim to them.
Well as far as Freud was concerned, the mind was divided into two sections – the conscious and the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious was purely personal. In other words, the constitution of each individual’s unconscious was determined by that individual’s personal experiences and memories especially during the childhood years. These are the experiences, which for Freud determined the unique nature of an individual’s repressed desires. Jung, on the other hand, asserts that the Freudian personal unconscious is only a part of the totality of the unconscious that forms the human mind. Indeed, there are deeper levels of unconsciousness than those elaborated by Freud. These are the levels that Jung seemed to be accessing as he went down the staircase first to the cellar and then to the cave beneath it. And what is important to note here is that as one keeps descending into the deeper layers of unconscious one keeps moving from the personal memories, experiences and repressions to an “animal soul”. This soul is not shaped by one’s individual experiences but seems to be the residue of the primitive mind of our ancestors from whom we evolved. And thus this is an aspect of the unconscious that is shared by every one of us who constitute the human race. This deeper layer of the unconscious is what is referred to as the “collective unconscious” and this is one of key aspects of Jungian psychoanalysis.
Describing his use of the term “collective unconscious”, Jung writes: “I have chosen the term “collective” because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us.” What Jung is saying here is that all of us collectively carry in our minds a psychic substratum that is formed not by our personal development but rather by the development of human beings as a race.
But how do we know that a collective unconscious exists? Well we know it by observing the influence of archetypes in our psychological life. Archetypes are the primordial images and patterns which create the basic groves for human behavior, motivation for action and development of personalities. One of the archetypes that Jung talks about is the Persona archetype. One of the basic characteristic features of human personality, irrespective of his or her individual upbringing, is an attempt to portray his image as likeable and socially acceptable. This is what Jung refers to as the “persona”. This is shaped and maintained meticulously by an individual to protect his ego from any negative criticism and according to Jung it is a psychological imperative that is imprinted in our collective unconscious. Another example of the Jungian archetype will be the Father archetype. According to Jung, we all carry the image of an authoritative, stern, and powerful figure in the deeper levels of our psyche which is identified as the Father archetype. Now, here please note that this father archetype exists in all of us irrespective how our individual relationship with our own father is. Indeed, this archetype would also influence the psychological dynamics of a person who has lost his father before his birth and therefore has no personal memory of his own father. This Father archetype has its origin in the primitive human experiences of social life and is therefore part of our racial memory. The reason why these archetypes are important from the perspective of literary theory is because according to Jung these archetypes form the basis of our literary narratives, especially of narratives like myths and fairy tales. This marks a profound shift from Freud’s analysis of literature as modified day-dreams. Day-dreams are connected to, what we are now calling after Jung, the “personal unconscious”. This means that as far as Freud is concerned, day-dreams provide the specific individual who is engaged in the dreaming process with a high degree of pleasure by allowing him to imaginatively fulfill his personal wishes and desires. This, however, creates a problem if we read literature as day-dream of the author. That is because if say a novel emerges out of the day- dream of the novelist then how does it manage to give pleasure to the reader? A novel should only give pleasure to its novelist. To bypass this problem Freud had to come up with concepts like “incentive bonus” and the softening and disguising of the author’s ego. The Jungian answer to why literature is enjoyed by people other than its author is straight forward. From the Jungian perspective, literature is an expression of the author’s unconscious but not merely the personal unconscious. Literature is informed by the deep recesses of the collective unconscious possessed by the author. And this collective unconscious finds expression in literature through the underlying presence of the archetypes. In other words, if we were to study literature from the Freudian perspective we would try to look beneath the surface of the narrative to find the seething forces of the author’s personal desires, fears and wishes. But if we were to study literature from the Jungian perspective, we would find beneath the surface of the literary narrative archetypal images and patterns. Since these archetypes are expressions of the collective unconscious they, are much more relatable by the reader. That is because the reader too shares the same collective unconscious with the author and is psychologically guided by the same set of archetypes as the author and his text. This approach towards literature via archetypes has in fact come to form an independent strand of literary theory called archetypal criticism.
In spite of the differences observed between works of Freud and Juan, we have also observed a significant commonality, which is that the object of psychological study – be it the symptoms of hysteria, or dreams, or parapraxes, or phantasies –are all presented in the form of a narrative.
But in both the cases, the strategy remains the same— language leading us to desires, wishes, fears and memories repressed or imprinted in our subconscious. Jacques Lacan radically revised this strategy by arguing that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. In other words, our language uses do not reveal our unconscious. Rather language is our unconscious. Lacan, whose dates are 1901 to 1981, first achieved recognition with the publication of his doctoral thesis on paranoid psychosis in 1932. In 1936, he came up with his first major idea that will form one of the key pillars of Lacanian psychoanalysis. This was the idea of the mirror stage, which Lacan presented in the fourteenth conference of the International Psycho-Analytic Association. While presenting this paper, Lacan was stopped midway by the president of the congress Ernest Jones, who was a close associate of Freud and also his biographer. Indeed, Lacan’s paper was barely mentioned in the conference publication that came out later. This event has been interpreted in two different lights. One interpretation is that in that conference each speaker was allotted ten minutes for their papers and therefore Ernest Jones was not trying to especially gag the content of Lacan’s paper by stopping him midway. Moreover, the conference publication did not carry Lacan’s paper simply because Lacan did not submit it for publication. Some, however, do not believe in this rather mundane interpretation and read into the events of the fourteenth congress of the International Psycho-analytic Association Lacan’s first major rift with the mainstream institutions of psychoanalysis. This interpretation is given credibility by referring to Lacan’s later conflicts with the International Psycho-analytic Association which refused to recognize Lacan as a practising psychoanalyst. Freud had introduced a standard practice of analyzing the patients for sessions that lasted for 50 minutes. Lacan converted these standard fifty-minute sessions into sessions of variable lengths. What this meant was that Lacan would spend different amounts of time with his patients that were not pre-determined. This might vary from just a few minutes or even a few seconds on the one hand to several hours on the other. Such experimentation with the length of sessions proved to be too scandalous for the psychoanalytic orthodoxy represented by International Psycho- analytic Association. And in 1963 Lacan’s name was struck off as a member of IPA and its affiliate societies.
The lucid narrative style of Freud is in sharp contrast with Lacan’s writings, which often appear to be deliberately obscurantist and filled with mathematical equations and cryptic diagrams that thoroughly disrupt any sense of a narrative flow. Yet, despite of these surface differences, Lacan always claimed himself to be Freudian. In fact, his argument was that the psychoanalytic orthodoxy of his time was not Freudian enough. He therefore asked his audience to look at his works as an effort to return to Freud and to his true teachings. This attachment of Lacan to Freud can be well observed from the fact that when IPA and its affiliates struck off Lacan’s name from their membership list, he went on to establish his own psychoanalytic organization which he named École Freudienne de Paris which literally translates as the Freudian school of Paris. This institution, founded in 1964, gained significant prominence during the next few decades establishing what may be called a Lacanian school of psychoanalysis. But in 1980, a year before his death Lacan, dissolved this school that he founded while famously telling his followers, “It is up to you to be Lacanians if you wish. I am a Freudian.”
Indeed, it was his charismatic originality that made Lacan into a cult figure in the post-second world war decades within the intellectual circles of Paris. At the heart of this cult status was the seminar series which Lacan started delivering in 1953 and with which he continued till 1980. This lecture series was attended by various French intellectuals of the day which included figures like Michel Foucault Gilles Deleuze, Luce Irigary and Julia Kriesteva. One interesting piece of information about this seminar series was that between 1964 and 1969they were held in Paris’s École normale supérieure or ENS. Now ENS was the intellectual hotbed during the 1960s. A number of scholars associated with the events of 1968 were affiliated with the ENS. And indeed, while Lacan was delivering his lectures in ENS in which he was reinterpreting Freud, at the same institute, Louis Althusser was working on his interpretation of Marx’s Capita which produced the two seminal texts Reading Capital and For Marx. And both these contemporaries in their powerful reinterpretation of Marx and Freud were heavily influenced by the wave of structuralism which had swept through France following the publications of Claude Levi Strauss’s works on structuralist anthropology. So an important thing to note here is that though text books on literary theory would usually present figures like Levi-Strauss, Althusser and Lacan under three different chapters dealing with structuralism, Marxism and psychoanalysis as distinct though-categories, yet we can discover very intimate linkages between the works of these intellectuals. And therefore one innovative way of approaching literary theory might be to group literary theorists according to their locational proximity in terms of space and time rather than according to their acclaimed ideological affiliations.
Apart from his doctoral thesis, Lacan only published one book in his life time which was titled Écrits and which was a collection of all the major essays that Lacan had written till 1966. The notes of his seminars, which represent the chief part of Lacan’s oeuvre is in the process of being published. According to Lacan, our psychological life is guided by three different orders or registers which he referred to as the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. These three orders form a kind of interlocking matrix, which Lacan depicted through the image of the Borromean rings Borromean rings famously formed part of the court of arms of the Italian aristocratic family of the Borromeo. What is noticeable about this structure is how the rings are intertwined in such a way that if any one of the rings breaks, the entire structure will fall apart. From the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Imaginary, Symbolic and the Real are intertwined like the three Borromean rings and our psychological phenomena play out in the space created between these intersecting orders.
The term Imaginary derives from the word “image” and this order has at its centre the process of the development of the ego with reference to the image of one’s own body as a coherent whole. As far as Lacan is concerned, the most crucial aspect of this process of ego development, that is to say, the development of the sense of one’s own identity, is what is referred to as the mirror stage. The mirror stage happens in the life of a child when it is between six and eighteenth months and when it starts recognizing the image of its body on a mirror as its own self. To understand the major implications that this recognition has in the psychological life, we will however have to start from the phase that precedes the mirror stage. In this preceding phase, the child does not have any coherent sense of its own body or any sharp sense of distinction between its own self and the external world. This is why Lacan wittily refers to a child in this phase as a hommelette. This word is what is called a portmanteau configuration which yokes together two different French words and their meanings. The first word is “homme” which in French means man. The second word is omelette which is also commonly used in English and which refers to a preparation of beaten eggs that is spread out on a frying pan and then allowed to gradually solidify over heat. Now, a very young child is not yet a man or a “homme” but an hommelette in the same way that a small book is a booklet or a small pig is a piglet. At another level, this very young child in the phase that precedes the mirror stage does not have a very well defined notion of its bodily identity and is thus something akin to an omelette of beaten eggs where the liquid mixture keeps spreading over the frying pan without any definite shape. Thus, the portmanteau word hommelette is used by Lacan as a pun operating on both these levels of meaning.
When between the age of six and eighteen months, the child learns to recognize its bodily image in the mirror or any other shiny surface, then two important things happen. The first thing is that the baby gets to recognize its body as a comprehensive entity with a well-defined shape that is distinct from shapes of other things or persons around him. The second thing is that the baby gains a semblance of mastery over this image of its own self. This is because the baby realizes that it can manipulate the image on the mirror by shifting its own arms, legs, head etc. Now both of these ideas of a distinctly shaped body and a sense of mastery over it that the baby acquires vis-à-vis its mirror image is in contrast with the lack of motor skills and sense of bodily fragmentation that the baby otherwise experiences. Therefore, the mirror image starts becoming for the child a site of pleasure—a site which gives it a sense of completeness and of being in control that it otherwise lacks. This leads the baby to identify with that image. In other words, as far as the baby is concerned, its image on the mirror comes to stand for who he or she is. From the Lacanian perspective, the ego or what is also referred to as the Ideal-I is, therefore, identified as this self-image acquired during the mirror stage. Consequently, according to Lacan, this ego has two characteristic features – one is misrecognition and the other is alienation. Why is ego associated with misrecognition by Lacan? Well, the mirror image, which becomes the basis of ego or the Ideal-I is at the final instance only an illusion. It gets prioritized in the psychological world of the baby because it gives the baby a sense of wholeness and mastery but then this wholeness and mastery is missing from the actual experiential world of the baby. The identification of the baby with the image thus happens at the cost of putting aside the actual experiential sense of being, which is why Lacan classifies it as a deliberate misrecognition. The reason why ego is associated with alienation must have already become clear from this discussion. The ego is alienated because the image which forms its basis is an external projection that is located outside the subject. Lacan makes a distinction between the subject and the ego because the latter is actually an alien idea, or an external image, that the subject latches on to and invests with a sense of identity.
Lacan’s work on this symbolic order was heavily influenced by the structuralist insights provided by Levi Strauss. Levi-Strauss in his study of the human kinship structure noted that the kinship relations are underlined by a sort of grammatical structure which was above and beyond the actual human beings who performed the kinship roles. According to Lacan, it was not only the kinship relations that represented the symbolic order but all other aspects of human social and psychological life as well. This is because human existence is inextricably associated with the symbolic order of language which precedes our individual existence and continues beyond the end of our individual existence. In other words, we become fully humans only when we are subjected to the symbolic order of the language. Thus, language is the medium or template on which we articulate our identity, and this “I” which we utter from within the language to identify ourselves, operates just like the mirror image. It is external to us but it is the mark on which we project our sense of selfhood. Thus, both the mirror image and the language, from within which we enunciate the “I” that identifies us, are alien or “other” to us.
To distinguish these two “others”, Lacan refers to language as the big other. The reason he does that is because with the mirror image there is a very tight fit between the image and the subject’s identity. My mirror image begins and ends with me. Language on the other hand is an “other” which precedes me and which will continue after me. Therefore language cannot be completely assimilated to my individual identity. And this is why it is referred to as the big Other.
When Lacan asserts that our human identity is articulated from within the symbolic order of language he is not just speaking of the conscious part of our identity but also the unconscious part. This is because Lacan believes all our wishes, desires and fears, even when repressed are structured by the force field of language. In other words, desires, wishes, fears are all generated within the symbolic order of language irrespective of whether they get repressed or not. Lacan reinterprets the Freudian idea of oedipal complex.
It is important to note here that this idea of the unconscious being structured like a language of course radically revises the relationship between literature, or any other concrete language use for that matter, with the unconscious. With Freud or even Jung, instances of language use were probed to reach the unconscious that lay beyond the linguistic structure. But with Lacan, we reach an understanding of the unconscious, which is linguistic in nature.
This is a typically structuralist move where everything gets folded within the language structure and there is no transcendental signified outside the structure. With Freud and Jung, the unconscious stood beyond the structure of language, imparting layers of meaning to it while itself remaining above and beyond that meaning-making process. With Lacan, however, the unconscious itself comes within the structuring process of language. So just to give you an example, the two processes of condensation and displacement which in Freud plays a key role in the unconscious dream-work is understood in Lacan as the language tropes of metaphor and\ metonymy. The tissue of language which constitutes literature thus becomes here the same tissue that constitutes the unconscious of the author and the reader. So, here we again come back to the core idea of structuralist literary criticism – there is nothing beyond language and its structuring principles in the form of a transcendental signified.
The reason why Lacan kept himself vague when talking about the Real is that the Real is that which continuously escapes the articulation of the symbolic order or language. So let me elaborate on this statement. Though Lacan asserts that the whole of our psychological life is structured by the symbolic order of language, he also admits the presence of a reality that is beyond this symbolic order. This is the reality that consistently escapes articulation through language and constitutes the order of the Real. An example of our encounter with the Real would be for instance our encountering a near-fatal accident or a life-threatening situation. In that encounter, we are left speechless. It causes a trauma that is beyond articulation and that stuns us into absolute silence. Sooner or later we overcome this stunning state and get back to the symbolic order of language and articulation, but that moment of shock represents the moment of our encountering the Real.