Textual Criticism & Psychoanalysis

This paper will attempt to summarize some of the points mentioned by Petter Berry in the chapter of his book, Beginning Theory, that deals with Psychoanalytical criticism. Some areas, specifically those dealing with Lacan, are supplemented with quotations from The Critical Imagination In African Literature in order to flesh out certain concepts mentioned by Berry. The paper gives a brief overview of the architects of these two strands of psychoanalytic theory: Freudian and Lacanian, compares and contrasts their methodologies, and looks at how they view literature. This paper closes with a cautionary note on the limitations of psychoanalytical criticism.

Before diving into what psychoanalytic criticism it would be proper to first define formalist literary criticism. Literary criticism, as embodied in formalism, used to focus on the text itself, word choice, character development, plot, etc. This is not the case in post-structuralist criticism which “derives ultimately from philosophy” and emphasizes “the difficulty of achieving secure knowledge”(Berry 61). One of the forms of criticism that arises from this field is Psychoanalytic criticism, which Berry describes as “a form of literary criticism which uses the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature”(92). Psychoanalysis itself is “based on specific theories of how the mind, the instincts and sexuality work”(Berry 92). Initially developed by Sigmund Freud, it would later be challenged by Jaques Lacan who “called to a ‘back-to-basics’ Freudianism”(Berry 92,104). This type of criticism is of two types: Freudian and Lacanian.

Berry alleges that all of Freud’s ideas depend “upon the notion of the unconscious” which  “has a strong influence upon our actions”(92). That is, Freud claims that our actions are influenced by urges that are beyond the human perception. Freud, it seems, views the unconscious as merely a storage space for socially unacceptable drives with the conscious self “regarded as the primary self”(Berry 107). He developed the notion of “repression”,  “sublimation”, “the Oedipus Complex”, “libido”, “Eros”, and “Thanatos”(Berry 92-93). While these terms describe human conditions, they are useful in exploring literature which “is not involved with making direction explicit statements about life, but with showing and expressing experience through imagery, symbolism, metaphor, and so on”(Berry 98). Thus, Freudian analysis is adept at digging up hidden meanings and conflicts buried within literary works.

Though Jaques Lacan started “training in psychiatry in the 1920s”(Berry 104), and “learned about Freud’s theories for the first time in 1923… nine years before he defended his doctoral thesis”(Obiwu 77), he never had “any physical contact with Freud”(Obiwu 75). Lacan’s works emphasized “the unconscious itself, as ‘the nucleus of our being’”(Berry 104). This is one of the differences between Lacan and Freud: the importance placed on the unconscious, with Lacan claiming true selfhood lies in the unconscious (Berry  104, 108). Notorious for what Obiwu describes as “linguistic obscurantism”(78), Lacan is noted for expressing his ideas in an “often intimidatingly obscure”(Berry 105) manner. Nevertheless, Lacan alleges, that language is “a matter of contrasts between words and other words, not between words and things”(Berry 106). He claims that uncovering the truth of the unconscious, and thus underlying meanings in literary works, “def[ies] penetration without knowledge of their provenance, and traditions and legends”(Obiwu 85).

The idea of the unconscious manifesting itself through symbols is probably best illustrated through the “dream work, the process by which real events or desires are transformed into dream images”(Berry 94). From this idea springs the concepts of displacement and condensation. The former is “one person or event” being “ represented by another which is in some way linked or associated with it”, while the latter is “a number of people, events, or meanings” consolidated into “a single image in the dream”(Berry 94). Lacan likens these Freudian terms to “the basic poles of the language identified by the linguist Roman Jakobson, that is, to metaphor and metonym, respectively”(Berry 107). What is not mentioned by Berry is the African influence on this area of psychoanalysis, especially in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams which is a “trove of African ethnographic materials”(Obiwu 77). In fact,  Jacques Lacan “compares Freud (especially in The Interpretation of Dreams) with the French  Jean-Francois Champollion, who reputedly deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics”(Obiwu 90)  In any case, “since dreams do not show things, they say things…they are very like literature. Hence the interest of literary critics in Freudian methods of interpretation”(Berry 95).

Literature often includes conflict between characters, a device that is sometimes used for dramatic effect. These conflicts can be read by Freudians “as having Oedipal overtones…reproducing the competition between siblings for parental favour”(Berry 93). In describing the various stages of human development, Lacan lists a stage of “socialization, with its prohibitions and restraints, associated with the figure of the father”(Berry 109). This concern with the role of parents, and specifically the father, is “a recognition of the father in human experience as an essential sublimation toward the apprehension of reality”(Obiwu 85). From this, it would seem that the father in literature may have a symbolic role and can be seen as an antagonist who drives the protagonist forward through the plot, especially when using Laconian psychoanalysis. This is explained by Berry, who writes:

“…[A] major consequence of accepting the Lacanian position would be to reject the conventional view of characterization in literature. Since Lacan deconstructs the idea of the subject as a stable amalgam of consciousness, we can hardly accept novelistic characters as people but must hold them in abeyance, as it were, and see them as assemblages of signifiers clustering round a proper name”(108).

Freudian critics “make large scale applications of psychoanalytic concepts to literary history in general… [identifying] a ‘psychic’ context for the literary work, at the expense of social or historical context”(Berry 101).  When viewing a literary work, they give priority to the “‘covert’ content” which is linked to the unconscious, taking it “as being what the work is ‘really’ about, and aiming to disentangle the two”(Berry 100). On the other hand, Laconian criticism pays “close attention to unconscious motives and feelings, but instead of excavating for those of the author or characters, they search out those of the text itself”(Berry 110). This methodology “results in favoring the anti-realist text which challenges the conventions of literary representation”(Berry 110).

An interesting point is hinted at when Berry describes how Lacanian criticism handles “the literary text in terms of a series of broader Laconian orientations, towards such concepts as lack or desire”(Berry 110). The concept of desire, or lack thereof, brings up the issue of “jouissance” which Lacan alleges “is at the core of the ego of frustration and the alienation of desire”(Obiwu 93). Jouissance, analogous perhaps to the nafs with its insatiable appetite, is seen “as a place of anguish and defect”(Obiwu 93).  Obiwu describes the “scehma of jouissance” as being what “enables Lacan to arrive at the meconnaissance of the notorious discontent and ‘aggressivity of the slave whose response to the frustration of his labor is a desire for death’”(93). Where it seems that Freudian notions of “Eros (the Greek word for ‘love’), which roughly means the life instinct, the opposite of which is Thanatos (the Greek word for ‘death’) which roughly means the death instinct”(Berry 93) are universals, jouissance is not.

This brings up the final point. Psychoanalytic criticism is ‘culturally relative’. That is, symbols and words that may carry a specific connotation in one culture may not, and often do not, mean the same thing in another culture. Thus, one should utilize caution, and avoid overextending this tool beyond its true capabilities. Berry does not mention this explicitly in his chapter on psychoanalytic criticism, but it is alluded to when Obiwu states that  Lacan “insists that the… European mode of jouissance should not be imposed on the jouissance of the other”(92). If the “primary language is that which the subject negates or elides in his discourse with the analyst”(Obiwu 90), then care should be taken that the analyst is acquainted with the true language of the subject’s unconscious and the cultural framework which it rests on, else they may slip and misinterpret the text according to their own cultural norms and not that of the subject.


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