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Excerpts from Chapter 2: Psychoanalytic Criticism. In Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide by Lois Tyson (1999)

Author: Lois Tyson

Tyson, L. (1999). Chapter 2: Psychoanalytic Criticism. In Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.

We’re starting our study of critical theory with psychoanalytic criticism because, whether we realize it or not, psychoanalytic concepts have become part of our everyday lives, and therefore psychoanalytic thinking should have the advantage of familiarity. If you’ve ever told an angry friend “Don’t take it out on me!” you were accusing that friend of displacement, which is the psychoanalytic name for transferring our anger with one person onto another person (usually one who won’t fight back or can’t hurt us as badly as the person with whom we are really angry). Psychoanalytic concepts such as sibling rivalry, inferiority complexes, and defense mechanisms are in such common use that most of us feel we know what they mean without ever having heard them def ned. The disadvantage of such common usage, however, is that most of us have acquired a very simplistic idea of what these concepts mean, and in their clichéd form they seem rather superficial if not altogether meaningless. Couple this unfortunate fact with our fear that psychoanalysis wants to invade our most private being and reveal us to ourselves and to the world as somehow inadequate, even sick, and the result is very often a deep-seated mistrust of “psychobabble.” Indeed, our common use of the word psychobabble illustrates our belief that psychoanalysis is both impossible to understand and meaningless. Thus, in a culture that uses psychoanalytic concepts in its everyday language we frequently see the wholesale rejection of psychoanalysis as a useful way of understanding human behavior.

I hope this chapter will show you that seeing the world psychoanalytically can be simple without being simplistic. If we take the time to understand some key concepts about human experience offered by psychoanalysis, we can begin to see the ways in which these concepts operate in our daily lives in profound rather than superficial ways, and we’ll begin to understand human behaviors that until now may have seemed utterly baffling. And, of course, if psychoanalysis can help us better understand human behavior, then it must certainly be able to help us understand literary texts, which are about human behavior. The concepts we’ll discuss below are based on the psychoanalytic principles established by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose theory of the psyche often is referred to today as classical psychoanalysis. We must remember that Freud evolved his ideas over a long period of time, and many of his ideas changed as he developed them. In addition, much of his thinking was, as he pointed out, speculative, and he hoped that others would continue to develop and even correct certain of his ideas over time. So the attempt in this chapter is to outline those areas of classical psychoanalytic theory that are particularly useful to literary criticism and to show how this view of human behavior is relevant to our experience of literature. Later in the chapter, we’ll also take a brief look at the more recent work of nontraditional psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan.1

The origins of the unconscious

When we look at the world through a psychoanalytic lens, we see that it is comprised of individual human beings, each with a psychological history that begins in childhood experiences in the family and each with patterns of adolescent and adult behavior that are the direct result of that early experience. Because the goal of psychoanalysis is to help us resolve our psychological problems, often called disorders or dysfunctions (and none of us is completely free of psychological problems), the focus is on patterns of behavior that are destructive in some way. I say patterns of behavior because our repetition of destructive behavior reveals the existence of some significant psychological difficulty that has probably been influencing us for some time without our knowing it. In fact, it is our not knowing about a problem—or, if we do know we have a problem, not realizing when it is influencing our behavior—that gives it so much control over us. For this reason, we must begin our discussion with the concept central to all psychoanalytic thinking: the existence of the unconscious.

Do you remember the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones? The idea expressed is “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” This formulation, with the addition of two words, gives us the key to thinking psychoanalytically: “You can’t always get what you consciously want, but you get what you unconsciously need.” The notion that human beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware—that is, unconscious—was one of Sigmund Freud’s most radical insights, and it still governs classical psychoanalysis today.

The unconscious is the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, those wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not want to know about because we feel we will be overwhelmed by them. The unconscious comes into being when we are very young through the repression, the expunging from consciousness, of these unhappy psychological events. However, repression doesn’t eliminate our painful experiences and emotions. Rather, it gives them force by making them the organizers of our current experience: we unconsciously behave in ways that will allow us to “play out,” without admitting it to ourselves, our conflicted feelings about the painful experiences and emotions we repress. Thus, for psychoanalysis, the unconscious isn’t a passive reservoir of neutral data, though the word is sometimes used this way in other disciplines and in common parlance; rather, the unconscious is a dynamic entity that engages us at the deepest level of our being.

Until we find a way to know and acknowledge to ourselves the true cause(s) of our repressed wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts, we hang onto them in disguised, distorted, and self-defeating ways. For example, if I don’t realize that I still long for the love I never received from my long-dead, alcoholic father, I am very liable to select an alcoholic, aloof mate so that I can reenact my relationship with my father and “this time” make him love me. In fact, even when I do realize that I have this kind of psychological issue with my father, it is difficult to recognize when I am “acting it out” with another person. Indeed, I probably won’t see the profound similarity between my father and my beloved: I’ll focus instead on superficial differences (my father has dark hair and my beloved is blond). In other words, I will experience my longing for my neglectful father as longing for my current heartthrob. I will feel that I am in love with my current sweetheart, perhaps even desperately in love, and I will believe that what I really want is for my sweetheart to love me back.

I will not necessarily realize that what I really want in wanting this man is something I never received from my father. The evidence will lie in the similarities between his treatment of me and my father’s treatment of me and in the fact that, should I succeed in gaining the kind of attention I want from my current “crush,” either it will not be enough (he will never be able to convince me that he really loves me; I will think that my insecurity is proof of his indifference), or if he does convince me that he really loves me, I will lose interest in him because the attentive lover does not fulfill my need to reexperience the abandonment I suffered at the hands of my father. The point is that I want something I don’t know I want and can’t have: the love of my neglectful father. In fact, even if my father were still alive and had the kind of psychological rebirth that permitted him to give me his love, I would still have to heal the psychological wounds he inflicted over the course of my childhood—my feelings of inadequacy and abandonment, for example—before I could benefit from his love.

As you can see in the above example, the family is very important in psychoanalytic theory because we are each a product of the role we are given in the family-complex. In one sense, the “birth” of the unconscious lies in the way we perceive our place in the family and how we react to this self-definition: for example, “I’m the failure”; “I’m the perfect child”; “I must always ‘come in second’ to my brother”; “I’m unlovable”; or “I’m responsible for my parents’ problems.” The oedipal conflict (competition with the parent of the same gender for the attention and affection of the parent of the opposite gender) and all the commonplace ideas of old-style Freudian theory (for example, sibling rivalry, penis envy, castration anxiety) are merely descriptions of the dominant ways in which family conflicts can be lived. They give us merely starting points for understanding differences among individuals. For example, in some families, sibling rivalry (competition with siblings for the attention and affection of parents) can occur, in an important sense, between a parent and child. If I feel jealous of my mate’s affection for our child, what may be going on is a reenactment of my unresolved childhood rivalry with a sibling I believed was more loved by my parents than I. That is, seeing my mate’s affection for our child reawakens some or all of the hurt I felt when I saw my parents’ affection for the sibling I believed they preferred. And so I now find myself competing with my child for the attention of my mate.

It is important to note that oedipal attachments, sibling rivalry, and the like are considered developmental stages. In other words, we all go through these experiences, and they are a natural and healthy part of maturing and establishing our own identities. It is when we fail to outgrow these conflicts that we have trouble. Here’s an example common to many women. If I remain in competition with my mother for my father’s love (a competition that can go on in my unconscious long after one or both parents are dead), I will probably be most attracted to men who already have girlfriends or wives because their attachment to another woman will allow me to replay my competition with my mother and “this time” win. Of course, I might not win the man this time, and even if I do, once I’ve won him I’ll lose interest in him. Although I probably don’t realize it consciously, his desirability lies in his attachment to someone else. Once he’s mine, he’s not so exciting anymore. On the other hand, if as a child I felt that I won my father’s affection from my mother (which he may have given me as a way of punishing or avoiding my mother), then I may be attracted to men who already have girlfriends or wives (and who don’t seem likely to leave them) because I feel I need to be punished for “stealing” Dad from my mother. Of course, another way to punish myself for stealing Dad from my mother (or for wanting to steal him or, if he sexually molested me, for feeling that it was somehow my fault) is to be unable to respond sexually to my mate.

A common way in which men replay unresolved oedipal attachments involves what is often called the “good-girl/bad-girl” attitude toward women. If I remain in competition (usually unconscious) with my father for my mother’s love, I am very liable to deal with my guilt by categorizing women as either “like Mom” (“good girls”) or “not like Mom” (“bad girls”) and then by being able to enjoy sex only with women who are “not like Mom.” In other words, because I unconsciously associate sexual desire with desire for my mother, sexual desire makes me feel guilty and dirty, and for this reason I can enjoy it only with “bad girls,” who are themselves guilty and dirty and whom I don’t associate with Mom. This view often creates a seduce-and-abandon pattern of behavior toward women. When I seduce a “bad girl,” I must abandon her (sooner or later) because I cannot allow myself to be permanently attached to someone so unworthy of marriage, that is, unworthy of being classified with my mother. When I seduce a “good girl,” two things happen: (1) she becomes a “bad girl” and, like other “bad girls,” unworthy of my permanent commitment, and (2) I feel so guilty for “soiling” her (which is like “soiling” Mom) that I must abandon her to avoid my guilt. The point is that, for both women and men, only by recognizing the psychological motivations for our destructive behavior can we hope to begin to change that behavior.

The defenses, anxiety, and core issues

Our unconscious desires not to recognize or change our destructive behaviors— because we have formed our identities around them and because we are afraid of what we will f nd if we examine them too closely—are served by our defenses. Defenses are the processes by which the contents of our unconscious are kept in the unconscious. In other words, they are the processes by which we keep the repressed repressed in order to avoid knowing what we feel we can’t handle knowing. Defenses include selective perception (hearing and seeing only what we feel we can handle), selective memory (modifying our memories so that we don’t feel overwhelmed by them or forgetting painful events entirely), denial (believing that the problem doesn’t exist or the unpleasant incident never happened), avoidance (staying away from people or situations that are liable to make us anxious by stirring up some unconscious—i.e., repressed—experience or emotion), displacement (“taking it out” on someone or something less threatening than the person who caused our fear, hurt, frustration, or anger), and projection (ascribing our fear, problem, or guilty desire to someone else and then condemning him or her for it, in order to deny that we have it ourselves).

Perhaps one of the most complex defenses is regression, the temporary return to a former psychological state, which is not just imagined but relived. Regression can involve a return either to a painful or a pleasant experience. It is a defense because it carries our thoughts away from some present difficulty (as when Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman fashes back to his past in order to avoid the unpleasant realities of his present life). However, it differs from other defenses in that it carries with it the opportunity for active reversal, the acknowledgment and working through of repressed experiences and emotions, because we can alter the effects of a wound only when we relive the wounding experience. This is why regression is such a useful therapeutic tool.

Many psychological experiences can function as defenses, even when not formally defined as such. For example, fear of intimacy—fear of emotional involvement with another human being—is often an effective defense against learning about our own psychological wounds because it keeps us at an emotional distance in relationships most likely to bring those wounds to the surface: relationships with lovers, spouses, offspring, and best friends. By not permitting ourselves to get too close to significant others, we “protect” ourselves from the painful past experiences that intimate relationships inevitably dredge up. Having more than one romantic or sexual partner at a time, breaking off romances when they start to evolve past the infatuation stage, and keeping oneself too busy to spend much time with family and friends are just a few of the many ways we can maintain an emotional distance from loved ones without admitting to ourselves what we are doing.

Of course, sometimes our defenses momentarily break down, and this is when we experience anxiety. Anxiety can be an important experience because it can reveal our core issues. Let’s begin our discussion of core issues and their relationship to anxiety with some examples of the more common core issues.

Fear of intimacy—the chronic and overpowering feeling that emotional closeness will seriously hurt or destroy us and that we can remain emotionally safe only by remaining at an emotional distance from others at all times. As we saw above, fear of intimacy can also function as a defense. If this particular defense occurs frequently or continually, then fear of intimacy is probably a core issue.

Fear of abandonment—the unshakable belief that our friends and loved ones are going to desert us (physical abandonment) or don’t really care about us (emotional abandonment).

Fear of betrayal—the nagging feeling that our friends and loved ones can’t be trusted, for example, can’t be trusted not to lie to us, not to laugh at us behind our backs, or in the case of romantic partners, not to cheat on us by dating others.

Low self-esteem—the belief that we are less worthy than other people and, therefore, don’t deserve attention, love, or any other of life’s rewards. Indeed, we often believe that we deserve to be punished by life in some way.

Insecure or unstable sense of self—the inability to sustain a feeling of personal identity, to sustain a sense of knowing ourselves. This core issue makes us very vulnerable to the influence of other people, and we may find ourselves continually changing the way we look or behave as we become involved with different individuals or groups.

Oedipal fixation (or oedipal complex)—a dysfunctional bond with a parent of the opposite sex that we don’t outgrow in adulthood and that doesn’t allow us to develop mature relationships with our peers. (Tyson 26–27)

You may notice that some of the core issues listed above seem related. Just as fear of intimacy can function as both a defense and a core issue, a given core issue can result from another core issue or can cause the emergence of another core issue. For example, if fear of abandonment is my core issue, I am liable to develop fear of intimacy as a core issue as well. My conviction that I will eventually be abandoned by anyone for whom I care might lead me to chronically avoid emotional intimacy in the belief that, if I don’t get too close to a loved one, I won’t be hurt when that loved one inevitably abandons me. To use another example, if low self-esteem is my core issue, I might develop fear of abandonment as a core issue as well. My belief that I am unworthy of love might lead me to expect that I will be abandoned eventually by anyone I love. Or my low self-esteem might lead me to develop fear of intimacy. My belief that I am less worthy than other people might lead me to keep others at an emotional distance in the hope that they won’t find out that I am unworthy of them. Of course, these are just some of the ways that core issues are connected to one another. I’m sure you can think of others.

The most important fact to remember is that core issues define our being in fundamental ways. They do not consist of occasional negative feelings, such as passing episodes of insecurity or low self-image. Having an occasional “bad-hair day,” for instance, does not indicate the presence of a core issue. Rather, core issues stay with us throughout life and, unless effectively addressed, they determine our behavior in destructive ways of which we are usually unaware. In other words, anxiety can tell us a good deal about ourselves because we are anxious in situations in which our core issues are in play. For example, I become anxious when one of my friends goes to the movies with another friend because it makes me relive the abandonment I felt from a neglectful parent whether or not I see the connection between the two events. That is, I feel abandoned now because I was wounded by feeling abandoned as a child, and I am anxious because I don’t want to admit to myself that, in some important way, I was abandoned by my parent. So I become hurt and angry with my friend without consciously knowing why. My unconscious knowledge of the reason why is what makes me anxious. In this way, anxiety always involves the return of the repressed: I am anxious because something I repressed—some painful or frightening or guilty experience—is resurfacing, and I want to keep it repressed. Psychoanalysis, as a form of therapy, is the controlled working in and with anxiety. Its goal (unlike that of ego psychology, which is a popular form of therapy today) isn’t to strengthen our defenses or restore us to social adaptation but to break down our defenses in order to effect basic changes in the structures of our personality and the ways we act.

Under ordinary circumstances, however, our defenses keep us unaware of our unconscious experience, and our anxiety, even if it is somewhat prolonged or recurrent, doesn’t succeed in breaking through our repression. How then, without the aid of psychotherapy, can we learn about the operations of our own unconscious? As I noted earlier, patterns in our behavior, if we can recognize them, provide clues, especially in the area of interpersonal relations and, within that domain, especially in our romantic or sexual relationships, because it is here that our initial unresolved conflicts within the family are reenacted. In addition, we have access to our unconscious, if we know how to use it, through our dreams and through any creative activities we engage in because both our dreams and our creativity, independent of our conscious will or desire, draw directly on the unconscious.

Dreams and dream symbols

When we sleep, it is believed that our defenses do not operate in the same manner they do when we are awake. During sleep, the unconscious is free to express itself, and it does so in our dreams. However, even in our dreams there is some censorship, some protection against frightening insights into our repressed experiences and emotions, and that protection takes the form of dream distortion. The “message” our unconscious expresses in our dreams, which is the dream’s underlying meaning, or latent content, is altered so that we don’t readily recognize it through processes called displacement and condensation. Dream displacement occurs whenever we use a “safe” person, event, or object as a “stand-in” to represent a more threatening person, event, or object. For example, I may dream that an elementary school teacher is sexually molesting me in order to express (and at the same time avoid) my unconscious knowledge that one of my parents sexually molested me. Condensation occurs during a dream when-ever we use a single dream image or event to represent more than one unconscious wound or conflict. For example, my dream that I’m battling a ferocious bear might represent psychological “battles” or conflicts both at home and at work. Or, to expand on the above example, my dream that I am being sexually molested by an elementary school teacher might represent my unconscious feeling that my self-esteem is under attack by any number of family members, friends, and colleagues. (A single dream event may thus be a product of both displacement and condensation.)

Because displacement and condensation occur while we dream, these processes are referred to collectively as primary revision. What we actually dream, once primary revision has disguised the unconscious message, or the dream’s latent content, is the dream’s manifest content. The dream images described above— images of an elementary school teacher molesting me and of myself battling a ferocious bear—are examples of manifest content. What these images actually mean is the dreams’ latent content, and that is a matter of interpretation. Is the elementary school teacher a stand-in for one of my parents, or are the images of sexual molestation a stand-in for verbal attacks on my self-esteem? Does the bear represent a psychological conflict, and if so, what is that conflict? In interpreting our dreams then, our goal is to recall the manifest content and try to uncover the latent content. However, we must remember that, at this conscious stage as well, we’re very liable to unconsciously change the dream in order to further protect ourselves from knowing what is too painful to know. For example, we might forget certain parts of the dream or remember those parts somewhat differently from how they actually occurred. This process, which takes place when we are awake, is called secondary revision.

It may be helpful to think of the dream’s manifest content as a kind of dream symbolism that can be interpreted much the way we interpret symbols of any kind, if we keep in mind that there is no one-to-one correspondence between a given symbol and its meaning. That is, while there are some images that tend to have the same symbolic meaning from dreamer to dreamer, at least if those dreamers are members of the same culture, there are also important individual differences in the ways we represent our unconscious experience in our dreams. So to increase our chances of interpreting our dreams accurately, we must learn over time how we tend to represent certain ideas, feelings, and people in our dreams, and we must know the context in which a particular dream image occurred: what happened in the dream before, during, and after a particular dream image appeared?

Certain general principles of dream interpretation tend to apply in most cases, and they are as follows. Because dreamers create all the “characters” in their dreams, there is a real sense in which each person we dream about is really a part of our own psychological experience that we project during the dream onto a stand-in. If I dream that my sister gives birth to a stillborn child, for example, I might be dreaming either that I have given birth to a stillborn child (a failed relationship? a failed career? a failed artistic endeavor?) or that I am a stillborn child (am I feeling abandoned? helpless? depressed?) . As this example makes evident, dreams about children almost always reveal something about our feelings toward ourselves or toward the child that is still within us and that is probably still wounded in some way.

Given that our sexuality is such an important reflection of our psychological being, our dreams about our gender roles or about our attitudes toward ourselves and others as sexual beings are also revealing. In order to interpret these dreams, we need to be aware of the male and female imagery that can occur in them. Male imagery, or phallic symbols, can include towers, rockets, guns, arrows, swords, and the like. In short, if it stands upright or goes off, it might be functioning as a phallic symbol. For example, if I dream that I am holding my friend at gunpoint, I might be expressing unconscious sexual aggression toward that friend or toward someone else for whom that friend is a safe stand-in (such as my friend’s mate or my mate). In addition, my sexual aggression might be interpreted in a number of ways: is the emphasis on the sexual, on the aggression, or on both? Do I desire my friend’s mate, or am I jealous of my friend’s mate? Do I want to become more assertive in my sexual relationship with my mate, or do I want to hurt my mate’s sexual self-image as my mate has hurt mine? To decide which interpretation is correct requires more data in the form of other similar dreams, patterns in my waking behavior, and an honest analysis of my feelings about the dream and about the people involved. Analogously, if I dream that I am being held at gunpoint, I might be expressing an unconscious feeling that my sexuality, or my identity in general, is being exploited or endangered.

Female imagery can include caves, rooms, walled-in gardens (like the ones we see in paintings representing the Virgin Mary), cups, or enclosures and containers of any kind. If the image can be a stand-in for the womb, then it might be functioning as female imagery. Thus, if I dream I am trapped or lost in a small, dark room, I might be expressing an unconscious fear of my mother’s control over me or an unconscious fear that I have never completely matured as a human being. Perhaps I’m expressing both, for these two problems are certainly related. Female imagery can also include milk, fruit, and other kinds of food as well as the containers in which food is delivered, such as bottles or cups (yes, there is an overlap here with womb imagery)—in other words, anything that can be a stand-in for the breast, which is itself a stand-in for emotional nurturing. So if I dream that I am trying to feed a litter of hungry kittens from a small and rapidly diminishing bottle of milk (a dream that either gender can have), I might be expressing an unconscious feeling that too much is being asked of me by my children or by my spouse or by my employer—or by all of them—or that I am putting too much pressure on myself to take care of others. Analogously, if I dream I am hungry or looking for food, I might be expressing an unconscious need for emotional nurturing.

To move to other kinds of symbols, if I dream about water—which is fluid, changeable, sometimes soothing, sometimes dangerous, and often deeper than it looks—chances are good that I’m dreaming about my sexuality or the realm of the emotions or the realm of the unconscious. So a dream that I’m about to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave probably indicates some fear of being overwhelmed by a repressed emotion that I fear is about to erupt. Of course, water is also related to our experience in the womb, so dreams that involve water, especially immersion in water, might also be about our relationships with our mothers. Dreams about buildings may refer to my relationship with myself, with the attic or the basement as the stand-in for the unconscious. Or dreams about buildings may refer to my relationship with some institution that the building represents for me, for example, the church, the school, the company for which I work, or the law (which, because it represents social rules and definitions, might be a stand-in for my superego). Although we might often dream about fears and wounds that we know we have—that are clearly part of our conscious experience—our dreams about these concerns probably indicate that we need to work further on them, that they bite into us in ways we aren’t ready to admit. Of course, recurring dreams or recurring dream images are the most reliable indicators of our unconscious concerns.

Regardless of how frightening or disturbing our dreams are, they are relatively safe outlets for unconscious wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts because, as we have seen, they come to us in disguised form, and we will interpret them only to whatever extent we are ready to do so. In addition, if a dream becomes too threatening, we will wake up, as we most often do during nightmares. However, if my nightmares begin to occur while I’m awake—that is, if the breakdown of my defenses is more than temporary, if my anxiety cannot be abated, if the truth hidden by repression comes out before my conscious self in a manner I can neither disguise nor handle—then I am in crisis, or trauma.

The meaning of death

Crisis brings into the spotlight wounds, fears, guilty desires, or unresolved conflicts that I have failed to deal with and that demand action. I am flooded by the past because I can now see what was really going on. This is how I can know myself through crisis. Trauma is also used, of course, to refer to a painful experience that scars us psychologically. Thus, I might experience the childhood trauma of losing a sibling to illness, accidental death, or suicide and, in later life, experience the trauma, or crisis, of being flooded by all the guilt, denial, and conflict I’ve repressed concerning that death. And I might also see, for example, the ways in which my parents unconsciously encouraged my guilt in order to relieve their own.

In fact, our relationship to death, whether or not we are traumatized by it in childhood, is a principal organizer of our psychological experience. Before we examine how our relationship to death operates in this way, it is important to note that death is the subject that, it seems to me, has given psychoanalytic theorists the most trouble probably because of its importance in their own, as well as everyone else’s, psychological experience. There has been some tendency to treat death as an abstraction—that is, to theorize about it in ways that don’t allow us to feel its force too intimately—presumably because its force is too frightening. So even when, or especially when, theorists have addressed the subject of death directly, they sometimes have done so in ways that tend to keep it at an emotional distance from themselves and, therefore, from us. I think this is the reason—to cite just one example—behind Freud’s theory that death is a biological drive, which he called the death drive, or thanatos.

In suggesting that human beings have a death drive, Freud’s attempt was to account for the alarming degree of self-destructive behavior he saw both in individuals, who seemed bent on destroying themselves psychologically if not physically, and in whole nations, whose constant wars and internal conflicts could be viewed as little other than a form of mass suicide. He concluded that there must be something in our biological makeup as a species to explain this death work, this psychological and physical self-destruction. Of course, when we conceptualize our death work as a drive, as something natural and unavoidable, we are off the hook of having to probe too deeply into its workings or to try to change it; after all, nothing we do can alter a biological drive. This is why I call the concept of the death drive an abstraction, an idea that operates only on the conceptual level, with no connection to the concrete world of experience. Although the concept of the death drive rests on biology, which is concrete reality, it takes our thoughts and our feelings out of the everyday world of action and responsibility, just as abstractions do. And this is exactly why I think some theorists have found abstract explanations of death attractive. Such explanations take us out of the everyday world in which our acts of psychological and physical self-destruction occur.

A more useful, and I think more accurate, way of understanding our relationship to death is to examine it in relation to the rest of our psychological experience, of which it is an integral part. If we do this, we will see that death, in particular, fear of death, is intimately connected to a number of other psychological realities. And we will see that individuals respond to death in various ways because of differences in their psychological makeup. In other words, while the processes I am about to describe probably occur in all of us, they will occur to different degrees and with different results in each individual.

First and foremost, for many of us, the thought of our own death keys into our fear of abandonment, our fear of being alone. Death is the ultimate abandonment: no matter how close we are to our loved ones, no matter how important we are in our communities, when we die we die alone. Even if we die in a plane crash with two hundred other people, we each die our own private death. Thus, one of the greatest comforts religious belief can offer is to assure us that we will not die alone and that after we die we will not be alone: God the Father will be there for us and with us. Our Heavenly Father will not abandon his children even when everyone else we know has done so.

Fear of abandonment also plays a role when we fear the death of others. When children lose a parent, when adults lose a spouse, the overwhelming feeling of loss is often a feeling of abandonment. How could you leave me? Don’t you love me? What did I do wrong? Sometimes the bereaved feel abandoned even by God. In this context, whether we realize it or not, the death of a loved one pushes our guilt buttons: somehow I must have been inadequate; I must have done something wrong or I wouldn’t be punished in this way. In fact, fear of such a loss, of such intense psychological pain, is probably the biggest reason why some of us are afraid to get too close to another person or are afraid to love too deeply. If I can hold something back, not give my whole self over to the loved one, then I will be better able to bear the loss when the beloved dies.

Fear of death is thus often responsible—along with other reasons, as we saw earlier—for fear of intimacy. This is one of the ways we can see how fear of death often results in fear of life. That is, our fear of death, of losing our life, can result in our fear of being intimately attached to life. “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” as so many blues and folk songs have pointed out. This fear of life can also be played out as a fear of risk. The ultimate loss, of which I am utterly terrified, is death. Therefore, I can’t take any risk that might result in death. But life itself ultimately and inevitably results in death. Therefore, I can’t risk living my life. I must somehow remove myself from it by doing as little as possible and by feeling as little as possible: I will try to be emotionally dead to avoid being hurt by death. Taken to its logical extreme, this relationship to death will result in suicide. My intense fear of losing my life makes living so painful and frightening that my only escape is death.

If we complicate matters by realizing that our fear of death is not merely fear of biological death but translates for most of us into fear of loss in general—loss of my mate’s attention, loss of my children’s love, loss of my health, loss of my job, loss of my looks, loss of my money—then we can see how death, emotional death if not biological death, is so attractive, at least on the unconscious level: if I don’t feel anything, then I can’t be hurt. And if we realize that our first experience of death is not biological at all, but the psychological “death” most of us suffered the frst time we felt abandoned by a parent, then we can see the ways in which our early experiences of abandonment created our fear of death. This desire not to feel, this desire to insulate ourselves from life in order to insulate ourselves from pain, is probably the most common form of death work.

Is it any wonder then, given the enormous role that death plays in our lives, that we should be fascinated with it? In fact, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the greater our fear is, the greater our fascination becomes. Put another way, the greater the role that death work plays in our psychological being, the greater our attraction is, despite the horror that accompanies it, to death in all its forms: we can’t see too many violent movies or docudramas about natural disasters; we can’t keep our eyes off the roadside car wreck; we can’t see too many news reports about child abuse, rape, and AIDS; we can’t see too many made-for-television movies about people who kill their spouses or their lovers’ spouses, or too many talk shows on which members of dysfunctional relationships display their dysfunctions apparently with no more self-awareness than children displaying their favorite toys. Our fascination with media representations of death and death work is another example of how we project our fears and problems onto people and events outside ourselves. This fascination thus operates as a defense: if I think about the child abuser on the other side of town (or from a different social class or ethnic background from mine) I divert my attention from the ways in which I’ve been abused or from my abuse of others.

The meaning of sexuality

Another area of psychological experience that has tended to elicit abstract explanations—and as we saw above, this points to its frightening power in our lives—is human sexuality. For some psychoanalytic theorists, especially in the past, sexuality was a matter of a biological pressure that is discharged in the act of sexual intercourse. Freud called that drive eros and placed it in opposition to thanatos, the death drive. However, Freud didn’t stop there. For one thing, he realized that our sexuality is part and parcel of our identity and thus relates to our capacity to feel pleasure in ways that are not generally considered sexual. This is why he believed that even infants are sexual beings who pass through stages oral, anal, and genital—in which pleasure is focused in different parts of the body. (You can imagine the furor and the misunderstanding that caused in Victorian society!) Theorists have continued to build on Freud’s insights, and psychoanalysis today sees a close connection between our sexuality and our identity because the origin of our sexual being is in the nature of the affirmation or disruption of our sense of self that occurs in childhood. Therefore, our sexuality is one of the clearest and most consistent barometers of our psychological state in general. For psychoanalysis, our sexuality is an inescapable human reality to which we must live a relationship. Our sexuality is not a matter of biological drive-discharge mechanisms but a matter of meanings. In analyzing sexual behavior then, the appropriate psychoanalytic question is “What conscious and unconscious meanings and purposes do I express or enact in my sexuality?” Do I use sex to “purchase” something I want from my mate? Do I withhold sex to punish my mate? Do I avoid sexual encounters altogether? Do I seek frequent sexual encounters with different people? It is interesting to note that these last two questions both suggest a fear of intimacy—if I get too close to someone I will lose myself or be emotionally harmed—because varying our sexual partners can protect us from getting close to any one person as effectively as avoiding sexual encounters completely.

Of course, sexual behavior is also a product of our culture because our culture sets down the rules of proper sexual conduct and the definitions of normal and abnormal sexual behavior. (For psychoanalysis, there is no meaningful difference between normal and abnormal, and the issue isn’t one of moral versus immoral behavior; there are merely psychological differences among individuals, and the issue is one of nondestructive versus destructive behavior.) Society’s rules and definitions concerning sexuality form a large part of our superego, or the social values and taboos that we internalize (consciously or unconsciously) and experience as our sense of right and wrong. Whereas the word conscience, as it is usually used, generally implies something good—as Jiminy Cricket says, “Let your conscience be your guide”—the word superego often implies feeling guilty when we shouldn’t, feeling guilty only because we are socially programmed (usually through the family) to feel so, as when we feel guilty for taking a lower-paying job even when we know that it is a more satisfying or socially important one, or when we feel guilty, as many of us still do, for having sexual relations with our beloved prior to marriage.

The superego is in direct opposition to the id, the psychological reservoir of our instincts, and our libido, or sexual energy. The id is devoted solely to the gratification of prohibited desires of all kinds—desire for power, for sex, for amusement, for food—without an eye to consequences. In other words, the id consists largely of those desires regulated or forbidden by social convention. Thus, the superego—or cultural taboos—determines which desires the id will contain. The ego, or the conscious self that experiences the external world through the senses, plays referee between the id and superego, and all three are def ned by their relationships: none acts independently of the others and a change in one always involves changes in the other two. In this way, the ego is, to a large degree, the product of conflicts between what society says we can’t have and what we (therefore) want. For this reason, the relationships among ego, id, and superego tell us as much about our culture as they do about ourselves.

Indeed, it is the cultural context that has helped us come to a more meaningful understanding of some of Freud’s early concepts that seem to contradict our own sense of how the world works. For example, many women, whether they consider themselves feminists or not, have a difficult time believing that little girls, upon realizing that little boys have penises, suffer from penis envy, or the desire to have a penis, or that little boys, upon realizing that little girls don’t have penises, suffer from castration anxiety, or the fear that they will lose their penises. The explanation for these two phenomena becomes clear, however, when we realize the cultural context within which Freud observed them: Victorian society’s rigid definition of gender roles, which was used to oppress females of all ages and to elevate males to positions of dominance in all spheres of human activity. Is it any wonder that a little girl will want (at least unconsciously) to be a little boy when she realizes that little boys have rights and privileges she isn’t supposed to even desire? In other words, when you see “penis envy” read “power envy.” It’s power and all that seems to go with it—self-esteem, fun, freedom, safety from physical violation by the opposite sex—that little girls envy. And what little boy, upon realizing his social superiority to, and power over, little girls, isn’t going to have some anxiety about losing it? “You’re a girl, you sissy!” has the power to wound little boys (and big boys!) because it threatens them with just such a loss of power. Castration anxiety is thus best understood as fear of demotion to the powerless position occupied by females.


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It stands to reason that you won’t f nd every psychoanalytic concept we’ve dis-cussed represented in every literary work you read. Our job, when we read psychoanalytically, is to see which concepts are operating in the text in such a way as to enrich our understanding of the work and, if we plan to write a paper about it, to yield a meaningful, coherent psychoanalytic interpretation. From the perspective of classical psychoanalytic theory, which is our primary focus in this chapter, we might attend mainly to the work’s representation of oedipal dynamics or of family dynamics in general; to what the work can tell us about human beings’ psychological relationship to death or to sexuality; to the way the narrator’s unconscious problems keep asserting themselves over the course of the story; or to any other psychoanalytic concepts that seem to produce a useful understanding of the text.

Some critics have objected to the use of psychoanalysis to understand the behavior of literary characters because literary characters are not real people and, therefore, do not have psyches that can be analyzed. However, psychoanalyzing the behavior of literary characters is probably the best way to learn how to use the theory. Furthermore, this practice has been defended by many psychoanalytic critics on two important grounds: (1) when we psychoanalyze literary char-acters, we are not suggesting that they are real people but that they represent the psychological experience of human beings in general; and (2) it is just as legitimate to psychoanalyze the behavior represented by literary characters as it is to analyze their behavior from a feminist, Marxist, or African American critical perspective, or from the perspective of any critical theory that analyzes literary representations as illustrations of real-life issues.


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  1. How do the operations of repression structure or inform the work? That is, what unconscious motives are operating in the main character(s); what core issues are thereby illustrated; and how do these core issues structure or inform the piece? (Remember, the unconscious consists of repressed wounds, fears, unresolved conflicts, and guilty desires.)

  1. Are there any oedipal dynamics—or any other family dynamics—at work here? That is, is it possible to relate a character’s patterns of adult behavior to early experiences in the family as represented in the story? How do these patterns of behavior and family dynamics operate and what do they reveal?
  2. How can characters’ behavior, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of psychoanalytic concepts of any kind (for example, regression, crisis, projection, fear of or fascination with death, sexuality—which includes love and romance as well as sexual behavior—as a primary indicator of psychological identity, or the operations of ego-id-superego)?
  3. In what ways can we view a literary work as analogous to a dream? That is, how might recurrent or striking dream symbols reveal the ways in which the narrator or speaker is projecting his or her unconscious desires, fears, wounds, or unresolved conflicts onto other characters, onto the setting, or onto the events portrayed? Symbols relevant to death, sexuality, and the unconscious are especially helpful. Indeed, the use of dream symbols can be very useful in interpreting literary works, or passages thereof, that seem unrealistic or fantastic, in other words, that seem dreamlike.

DMU Timestamp: November 21, 2019 20:25