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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Against Explanation

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 09/21/06 at 09:00 PM

My dissatisfaction with certain prevailing notions about literary criticism reached a boiling point at four in the morning, in a car on the way home from IHOP.

It appears that even in a car, traveling at forty miles an hour, full of passengers who are themselves full of pancakes and imitation maple syrup, one is not protected against the following clichés:

1. The value of Sigmund Freud’s work lies in his influence on certain modernist and post-modernist writers. Of no value in himself, Freud is nonetheless an important historical figure for literary critics.

2. Freud’s theories about the psyche have been thoroughly discredited by modern science, partly because of new data on how the brain works, and partly because of the high failure rate of Freudian therapies in psychiatric clinics. The fact that scholars in English departments continue to accept Freudian “truths” is a sad comment on the insular, pretentious nature of the field.

I am inclined to go halfway with both statements. Whatever works best in a clinic ought to prevail there. Although, in my last post, I did link Freud to contemporary neurological theory, such continuities are few and far between. Furthermore, I am more comfortable using Freud in a paper on Invisible Man than I am applying him to Chaucer. Nonetheless, the way many contemporary scholars have turned on Freud reveals a flawed ideology at work in their criticism, and also at work in his.

Freud and some of his detractors have made the mistake of thinking of literary criticism as an act of explanation, focused on the forces that supposedly give rise to the work. Freud usually produces readings in which art substitutes meagerly for impossible desires, and quells anxiety. Thus his reading of King Lear revolves around the fear of death and the need (both rational and passionate) to be reconciled to it. Anti-Freudian historicists produce readings in which a variety of social concerns inspire the “dramatization” of an argument: perhaps an argument by Dickens about sanitation (Our Mutual Friend), or a defense of the aristocracy by Yeats (“Upon a House shaken by the Land Agitation”), or a progressive representation of oppression by Zola. A critic considers how the novel adopted or modified popular “discourses,” and in so doing provides a convincing explanation that pierces the veil of the work’s seeming gratuity. In many cases the author herself is eventually dispensable: if it is not the insatiable unconscious producing the work, it is the anonymous hand of history, gilding a plaincloth argument with the stories and images that delight readers.

In re-considering this “explanatory” stance, I am inspired by Daniel Green’s recent post on Jerry Saltz, in which Dan argues that art is “about experience,” not ideas. Let us consider the proposition that all attempts to explain art take ideas to be art’s most important content. They become Platonic readings, contemptuous of the aesthetic. The aesthetic shows up as a detour that obscures the argumentative core of the work, or else as propagandistic embroidery.

Staying with Freud for a moment, in “The Theme of the Three Caskets” he quickly reduces Cordelia to a symbol of Death, and makes the Platonic move from the concrete to the purer Idea. In my view, a better reading would preserve Lear’s ambivalent emotions towards a daughter whose very health and good sense are painful reminders of his own failing powers, even as they reflect back to him the best part of his legacy.

The reductive interpretative style of “The Theme of the Three Caskets” isn’t limited to psychoanalysis. Most of us have encountered Marxist readings in which the specific character is a condensation of her entire class, and in which the entirety of T. S. Eliot is dismissed as an extended guitar solo in the middle of the same old bourgeois song. Stephen Greenblatt puts the matter well in Renaissance Self-Fashioning:

If [...] literature is viewed exclusively as the expression of social rules and instructions, it risks being absorbed entirely into an ideological superstructure. Marx himself vigorously resisted this functional absorption of art, and subsequent Marxist aesthetics, for all its power and sophistication, has never satisfactorily resolved the theoretical problem raised in the Grundrisse and elsewhere.

Greenblatt is right on the money here, and yet his own preface and introduction suggest that he is in conflict with himself over the conditions of possibility for Renaissance Self-Fashioning. In the Preface, he writes:

Many of the anecdotes with which I attempt to illuminate Renaissance texts had a special contemporary resonance. To take a single example: the burning of the village in Sierra Leone, with which I begin the chapter on Marlowe, would at the time have inevitably evoked the famous television images of American soldiers lighting the thatch roofs of Vietnamese villagers´ huts. Does it still have the same resonance? I do not know. But the passion with which I seized upon the story and wove it into my account of Tamburlaine was directly shaped by the queasy historical moment.

Then in the Introduction:

It is everywhere evident in this book that the questions I ask of my material and indeed the very nature of this material are shaped by the questions I ask of myself. I do not shrink from these impurities—they are the price and perhaps among the virtues of this approach—but I have tried to compensate for the indeterminacy and incompletely they generate by constantly returning to particular lives and particular situations, to the material necessities and social pressures that men and women daily confronted, and to a small number of resonant texts.

Notice how the tone has changed. In the first quote, Greenblatt congratulates himself (fairly, in my opinion) for a political sensitivity that gives his analysis of Renaissance texts a “special contemporary relevance.” In the second, he laments the impurity of his subjective contributions, and apologizes for “the impossibility of fully reconstructing and reentering the culture of the sixteenth century.” He promises to compensate for the imbalances of his mind by his scrupulous attention to historical details.

In the process he becomes identical to the purveyors of functionalist Marxist aesthetics against whom he invokes Marx. He makes the art of Shakespeare, Marlowe, More and the rest symbolic of something – namely, the cultural realities of the 16th Century – and wherever he feels himself drawn towards “a conception of art as addressed to a timeless, cultureless, universal human essence,” one in which Vietnam and Marlowe could be simultaneously comprehended, he apologizes for the lapse.

This suggests two conclusions. First, treating art as experience means accepting that art, like experience, is what it seems to be. Art is its surfaces: it is beautiful at one moment, symbolic the next, and political a moment after that. It is even the retrospective unity that might be achieved between these things. The appearance of “depth” that is provided by psychoanalysis, Marxism, or historicism is real for the work in question, but cannot be taken to be definitive. The observer’s intuition of a beautiful moment, or of a timeless human essence, within the work, is neither conclusive nor epiphenomenal – the two poles to which causal explanations usually assign an artwork’s effects, in imitation of Plato. Nor are ideas the epiphenomenon, and dissymmetry the truth and guarantor of aesthetic quality, as is sometimes argued in critiques of Henry James or Thomas Mann. It would be as absurd to deny art its didacticism, as to deny the idealistic component of decisions made by real people in real life. Artwork is anti-foundational because it is multiply founded.

It may be that the only guide to this dialectical expansiveness in art is the evident fallacy of negations: art is not this, art is only that. For example, consider Derrida’s rejection of structuralism, in Writing and Difference:

Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create. That is why literary criticism is structuralist in every age, in its essence and destiny. [...] Thus is explained the low note, the melancholy pathos that can be perceived behind the triumphant cries of technical ingenuity or mathematical subtlety that sometimes accompany certain so-called “structural” analyses. Like melancholy for Gide, these analyses are possible only after a certain defeat of force and within the movement of diminished ardor.

Derrida writes out of patent admiration for force, and tries to wrench away from structuralism the literature he loves. But did he never recognize, in Gide’s writings, the desire for peace? There have been very few great artists who did not juxtapose force with closure, and reconciliation. There are moments in the work that reach for the whole, and so there must be a persistent form of criticism to succor those moments.

More exciting than Derrida’s obsession with force is the responsibility he gives the critic for his criticism. This is the second principle of criticism that treats art as a form of experience: criticism has to justify its decisions when it re-creates that experience. Greenblatt’s “compensatory” version of historicism is only the latest in a succession of methodologies that have tried to erase the observer from the scene; I think it is reasonable to insist that Greenblatt explain why we should attend to the particularities of the sixteenth century. At his best, he does so, by giving (in the Preface) a political reasoning, and in the Epilogue a personal anecdote about the shaping power of language. In other words, he marshals new parallels with our own age by using history to enrich our reading. At his worst, Greenblatt is a historian who apologizes for being a literary critic, writing that it is all he can do well: “whatever interpretative powers I possess are released by the resonances of literature.”

It would be highly irresponsible to write historical criticism using Freud, without owning up to our skepticism about him. (Why are modern readers so appreciative of Sade? Because he gives us a vehicle for expressing all that is uncanny and frightening about applying Newtonian physics to human nature – that is, all that we now find uncanny and frightening about the eighteenth century. At least that’s what I hope is the reason people like Sade.) Rather than asking, Does psychoanalysis cure schizophrenia?, we should be asking whether we want to continue to inhabit Freud’s world, with its pleasures and terrors, and its relentless quest for a victory over compulsion. I respect Deleuze and Guattari for rejecting that world out of a philosophically considered exuberance. I have not forsaken it yet. For me, psychoanalysis is not a cure, or an explanation, but an experience: the symptomatic repetition, suddenly recognized as such, and the difficult journey from there to freedom.


Comments

Why are modern readers so appreciative of Sade...

That business about Newton or prurience, one of the two.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/21/06 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Irvine some kind of hotbed for people with an ambivalent relationship to psychoanalysis?

By Adam Kotsko on 09/21/06 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the interesting post.  I admit that I may not fully understand it—I’m not up on Derrida, for one thing.  But by the end of the post, we seem to be back where we started.  As I take it, Kugelmass argues against reductive theories about art, ones which reduce the artwork to a mere postulate about psychology or society.  In making this reduction, the critic seeks to erase himself as an observer from the scene—the critic’s analysis simply reveals how a Shakespeare play symbolizes sixteenth-century culture (or “superstructure,” in Marxist terms).  So Stephen Greenblatt, say—when he’s at his worst—is a Marxist historian in a literary critic’s guise.  What Kugelmass terms the “aesthetic” is thereby devalued.  “Let us consider the proposition that all attempts to explain art take ideas to be art’s most important content. They become Platonic readings, contemptuous of the aesthetic.”

Against this type of reductive analysis, Kugelmass argues for an experiential criticism—one in which the critic does not efface himself as an observer in order to reveal psychological or sociological truths:  “art, like experience, is what it seems to be.” We aren’t looking for historical or sociological depth in the work anymore; rather, according to Kugelmass that depth seems to be in the perceiving reader/critic, insofar as this critic intuits a beautiful moment, or brings his own historical context to bear on the work itself (Greenblatt at his observer-acknowledging best). 

But in order to advocate this type of criticism, hasn’t Kugelmass himself resorted to reduction and abstraction?  Kugelmass says art is “anti-foundational” because “multiply founded,” but he seems to have a unitary perceiver that experiences these multiple foundations.  “Art is its surfaces: it is beautiful at one moment, symbolic the next, and political a moment after that. It is even the retrospective unity that might be achieved between these things.” Presumably this “retrospective unity” is located in the critic, this experiencer of the text.  But I’m not at all sure who the “critic” is—someone whom Kugelmass alternately refers to as “the observer,” or “we”; some entity who experiences “our own age”; who gets a vehicle from Sade intended for “us.” Who, exactly, is this experiential critic who must then be “responsible” for his experience?  If “art [is] a form of experience,” and criticism’s task is to “re-creat[e] that experience,” how many experiences will end up being narrated? 

Kugelmass seems to be in the position of Stanley Fish earlier in his career (“Literature Is in the Reader”), postulating a single, unitary experiencer of texts.  In Kugelmass’s case, this construct enables an argument for the legitimacy of the aesthetic, as the construct “experiences” art’s beautiful, political, and symbolic surfaces.  But Fish came to acknowledge that there couldn’t be *one* observer—that people in different times, or in different ideological camps, experienced different things when reading a text.  Hence, the later model of interpretive communities.

The reason why I say we’re back where we started is:  aren’t we once more in the car driving home, our stomachs upset after bad food, grousing about each other’s theoretical perspectives?  I mean, *of course* one’s Marxist seatmate would acknowledge that a novel can represent “the idealistic component of decisions made by real people in real life.” But why should the Marxist experience beauty, or an ideal, or whatever when reading a text?  The vulgar Marxist will probably want to “see through” various opiates of the people, and will want to reduce the text to a social argument (perhaps deceptive ideology, or in Greenblatt’s non-vulgar effort, art that subversively questions social structures and then ends up as ideology anyway).  So the Marxist passenger in the car will assault Kugelmass’s talk of the aesthetic as being so much extended guitar soloing for the same old bourgeois critical song. 

I’m sympathetic to a more stripped-down version of Kugelmass’s argument:  literary critics should have some kind of appreciation for form, characterization, style, etc.  Otherwise, why not just go into history, or sociology, or psychiatry?  Why, as Kugelmass says, be a historian who apologizes for being a literary critic?  After all, if I’m not wrong Marx himself (this was one side of his divided attitude) compared Milton’s writing to the self-directed activity of a silkworm:  Paradise Lost was to be linked to craftsmanship.  It wasn’t subdivided labor, or mere ideology. 

But on the other hand, when a Barbara Foley (on the other side of the divide) says Invisible Man is basically a Red-baiting blow against socialist alternatives, I admit it’s hard to think of how to defend the novel with an argument for “aesthetics” or a reader who “feels” without “explaining.” These arguments inevitably run into the problems outlined above.

By on 09/22/06 at 02:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, fixed this for you:

Is Irvine sure is some kind of hotbed for people with an ambivalent relationship to psychoanalysis everything.

That said, I recognize myself in some of those clichés, so we’re idiosyncratically ambivalent, at least. What often bothers me about psychoanalytic interpretations is that they lack humility, reducing the roiling incompatibilities of life and art into the strutured antipodes of psychoanalytic thought.  My personal dissatisfaction stemmed from the sudden explicability of, well, everything; novels became dull (or interesting) variations in the key of Lacan, &c.  Life made too much sense, as did the experience of it, because I had channels to handle its excesses.  At a certain point, I recognized those channels as a moat and made a mad dash for the other side, lest the moat become an ocean while I dallied.  My metaphor’s gone loopy, yes, but my point’s made, I think.

Of course, now I have the opposite problem, in that I’m near-paralyzed whenever I have to account for the motivations of a particular author.  Benn Michaels’ defense and prioritization of intent is wonderful for grounding it, but now I’m at forced to explain the motivations for these intentional statements ... and I can’t.  I’ve become, at times, a purely descriptive critic; Cleanth Brooks against my will, I focus on my experience of a work of art while simultaneously try to ground it in a distant historical moment.  One of the reasons I’ve taken to academic blogging is to work through these issues in a more thorough manner, and in quasi-professional fora – by which I mean, an informal forum full of professionals of one sort of another.

Still, coming at this problem from a different angle, I can tackle this objection:

Greenblatt is a historian who apologizes for being a literary critic

Or he’s an historicist who believes the literary object produces unique knowledge about a historical moment, one that a professional historian isn’t trained to observe.  (That, of course, merely passes the buck to historians to justify their existence.) Point being, I need to think through my response more thoroughly ... which I’ve been doing for almost two years now, and still haven’t reached a satisfactory conclusion.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/22/06 at 04:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Furthermore, I am more comfortable using Freud in a paper on Invisible Man than I am applying him to Chaucer.

Why? Because Chaucer couldn’t have read Freud?

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

“...New Historicist Greenblatt’s desire to talk with the dead, in which Greenblatt eventually realizes much of their talk is his own voice come back to him...”—Delaney via Holbo

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

... criticism has to justify its decisions when it re-creates that experience.

But can criticism actually do that, re-create the experience of art? And why should it, why should it want to? Is not the experience of art sufficient unto itself? in which case the critic is a superflous narcissist attempting to efface the artist.

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Borges’ Pierre Menard rewrote Quixote word-for-word, but the meaning changes because the context does. Are you saying the Quixote critic aspires to capture-invoke-create the very same Quixote-experience, but through different words (and at a different time and place)?

<CENTER>* * * * *</CENTER>

Have you looked at Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey.

By Bill Benzon on 09/22/06 at 07:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For me, psychoanalysis is not a cure, or an explanation, but an experience: the symptomatic repetition, suddenly recognized as such, and the difficult journey from there to freedom. But doesn’t that beg the key question, whch is whether psychoanalysis does enable or assist a “journey to freedom”? I take it that the severe critics of Freud claim not only that psychoanalysis is based on false ideas about human selfhood, but also doesn’t even have the merit of being useful — so that again and again in his case histories we see Freud leaving people in worse circumstances than he had found them (and blaming them for it) or else simply lying about what he achieved with them. I think what Crews et al. would want to say is that psychoanalysis may be an “experience,” but a really lousy experience that no reasonable person would want to have.

By on 09/22/06 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Freudian concepts and images have become an element of literature, like alchemical concepts in the renaissance, independently of their intrinsic truth value. If your goal is to produce ever more, ever more complex discourse, psychoanalysis is tremendously useful. Sort of a little theme-generator for deadended writers.

But then, recently I was wondering whether the Freudian “primary process” might be describable in ev psych terms—or perhaps, whether some of the innate dispositions claimed by ev psych might be understandable in terms of the primary process. A degree of blindness and incoherence seems common to both.

I’ve always been partial to the idea that psychoanalysis and Marxism should be junked, knocked down, and stripped, not only because they are unviable as wholes, but also because they may have usable parts.

By John Emerson on 09/22/06 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Freudian concepts and images have become an element of literature, like alchemical concepts in the renaissance, independently of their intrinsic truth value. If your goal is to produce ever more, ever more complex discourse, psychoanalysis is tremendously useful. Very true, John, and I think we all owe a debt to Foucault for elaborating the concept of “founders of discursivity.” But maybe we should also ask whether founding and generating more discourse is always and necessariy a good thing. Don’t you ever think it would be nice for the academy to run a little low on discourse for a change?

By on 09/22/06 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All the time, Alan.

By John Emerson on 09/22/06 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My response here:

http://vunex.blogspot.com/2006/09/et-in-arcadia-ego.html

By Conrad H. Roth on 09/22/06 at 10:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, you articulated very well and wittily the dullness of easy explanations, including psychoanalytic ones. Derrida’s commentary also touches on the excruciating boredom these “structured antipodes” produce.

I take your point about Greenblatt’s ability to uncover alternate histories; that is an excellent way of explaining why a historically-minded thinker would be drawn to the resonant texts of an age. My only concern is the curious absence, in Greenblatt, of literary history. Authors are influenced by their predecessors, across the epistemic lines we might otherwise wish to draw. Greenblatt’s model is, to my way of thinking, too synchronic, even if it helps to correct a long-standing emphasis on the canonical timeline. It is as though daily rituals have a “present” in Greenblatt’s England from which libraries are excluded.

John, I think your notion of the “usable parts” of psychoanalysis explains very well my reason for being ambivalent towards Freud’s work, instead of simply dismissive.

Alan, perhaps a distinction could be drawn between discourse elaborated for its own sake, and discourse that brings something to light. Before reading Freud on King Lear, I hadn’t considered the threat Cordelia might seem to pose in her father’s eyes; I only object to Freud’s reductive way of hypostatizing this insight.

On the usefulness of Freud’s therapies: for me, the person who gets the most of Freud appears to be Freud. The moments from his texts that convince me the most are moments like the one from his essay on the uncanny, where he sees a disagreeable old man through a glass, and then realizes he is not looking at a glass, but rather at a mirror. Even if they are fictions, these seem to be fictions about integrity predicated on self-doubt. That is probably a lousy feeling, but it might be a worthwhile experience.

That said, anybody who has spent a month in the academy understands the exhaustion to which you refer.

Bill: not only couldn’t Chaucer have read Freud, but he is also far removed from Freud’s specific cultural contexts. For example, since I think (along with others) that Freud was influenced by Romanticism, I would be much more willing to do a “Freudian reading” of John Keats—though that would truthfully mean looking in Keats for prefigurements of Freud.

As for why criticism should re-create the experience of art, one reason is to create communities among readers. I would echo Scott’s point about the value of such communities, including ones like this online, for refining one’s own thinking and discovering common projects. (I don’t mean just critical projects; political and social communities count here as well.)

I’m certainly not arguing for the recreation of an original textual experience. I’m arguing for the creation of ek-static readings: readings that illustrate how a text surpasses itself towards the political, the psychological, the historical, and so on, without becoming either an abstraction or the province of a single discipline. Greenblatt does this very well when he writes about Sir Thomas More’s letters from prison: we see More breaking free from the ideological confinement of his days in court, while remaining aware of the irony that only his impending death makes this attainable.

Thank you for recommending the Gumbrecht, I’ll follow up.

Fiendish Adenoid, I’m not sure I disagree with the notion of interpretive communities. If there is a unitary observer in my post, surely she is one among many.

As for why a Marxist should look at a text from more than a purely “political” standpoint: reductive abstractions tend to undermine themselves. It’s sort of amazing that a text as thoroughly disappointed in the bourgeoisie as The Waste Land could be considered conservative; the fact that it is read that way shows that the a priori dismissal of emotional (here elegiac) content leads to a misunderstanding of the political potential of the work. The political, one can perhaps argue, does not survive in a vacuum. But the matter requires more thorough investigation than is possible in a comment.

(Of course, the mere feeling of disappointment is not the same thing as political action or a political agenda. On the other hand, reading Zola or watching Eisenstein is not political action, either.)

Were we to take Foley seriously, we would have to believe that the ultimate authority on proper political action is a man who has imprisoned himself in a tiny room full of lightbulbs. Ellison simply does not give Invisible Man sufficient authority to allow us to draw the conclusion she imputes to his novel.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"It’s sort of amazing that a text as thoroughly disappointed in the bourgeoisie as The Waste Land could be considered conservative; the fact that it is read that way shows that the a priori dismissal of emotional (here elegiac) content leads to a misunderstanding of the political potential of the work.

It looks like you’re saying, here, that the elegaic and emotive cannot be conservative.  On the contrary, surely!  Or am I misunderstanding you?

By Adam Roberts on 09/23/06 at 03:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, say more? All I meant to suggest is that, depending on how the elegy is constructed, it is not necessarily conservative, and specifically that in Eliot it is better to read it another way—as an act of mourning for something still existent (the bourgeoisie) and therefore as a potentially progessive abandonment.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 04:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: not only couldn’t Chaucer have read Freud, but he is also far removed from Freud’s specific cultural contexts. For example, since I think (along with others) that Freud was influenced by Romanticism, I would be much more willing to do a “Freudian reading” of John Keats—though that would truthfully mean looking in Keats for prefigurements of Freud.

It seems to me that here you are treating Freud as fundamentally a literary figure. You aren’t treating Freud’s work as a source of ideas about how the mind works, however flawed those ideas might be, but as a writer of texts that can be imitated or reacted against or be prefigured by earlier literary writers.  This deprives Freud—and psychoanalysis in general?—of all explanatory value.

As I’m sure you know, Greenblatt wrote a very nice article—“Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture”—in which he argued that psychoanalysis was not appropriate to Renaissance texts because it presupposes a notion of the self that was not (well) established at the time. Actually, its rather more subtle than that. He argues that “psychoanalysis was, in effect, made possible by (among other things) the legal and literary proceedings of the sixteenth and seventheenth centures” and concludes that sentence by thus suggesting that “its interpretive practice is not irrelevant to those proceedings, nor is it exactly an anachronism.” It’s hard to see just what that means, but whatever it is, it’s well-hedged.

Alas, the psychoanalysis Greenblatt invokes in that essay is a rather rarefied discourse that seems emptied of everything but some concept of self.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 01:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I had no idea about the Greenblatt article. What a good citation. It appears as though Greenblatt is saying something about Shakespeare (or whomever he classes under literary and legal proceedings) similar to what I was trying to suggest about Keats. Is this so? Certainly, there appears to be support for Greenblatt’s argument in the way Freud continually returns to Shakespeare.

It seems to me that here you are treating Freud as fundamentally a literary figure.

That sounds right to me.

One could historicize Freud, and regard him as a literary figure, without nullifying his explanatory power. Freud has the capacity to be an acute observer of his fellow men and himself—acute in the same way as Virginia Woolf, though not with the same sensibility. The way the mind works is historically and culturally determined, at least in part, and art is a very sensitive instrument for registering those determinations. That’s Greenblatt’s point in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, as helpfully clarified by Scott.

Freud’s creation of a method (psychoanalysis) and a theory of mind has a historical starting point; it does not necessarily have an end point. Presumably, Foucault recognized the historical foundations of “the use of pleasure” in classical Greece. He wanted to re-create those foundations and that aestheticized set of practices in the present, using the texts that have preserved it for us. Through Freud’s body of work, what might otherwise have been silent historical trends are now explicit, such that they are not only historical explanations, but also possibilities for how the mind could work. In other words, a (now) continuously available way of seeing and acting.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 02:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not speaking for Joseph, but that’s my judgement on Freud. His science is most relevant to his contemporaries and to people who have read him or have been exposed indirectly to his ideas.

The thing that Freudians and Marxists most admire about Freud and Marx, their ambitious, systematic, all-inclusive reach, is for me the worst. People keep tinkering with their systems to make them finally work, instead of starting from scratch and scavenging parts as needed.

I am, in fact, an advocate of inclusive generalism, but inclusive generalisms should always be regarded as transients. A lot of Freudians and Marxists effectively transform themselves into specialists in their author’s works, which is not the kind of thing that Freud and Marx were trying to do.

By John Emerson on 09/23/06 at 02:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Freud’s creation of a method (psychoanalysis) and a theory of mind has a historical starting point . . .

Chomsky’s grammatical theories have a historical starting point. Are they thereby inapplicable to sentences written before that starting point? Pribram’s ideas about neural holography have a historical starting point, are they thereby inapplicable to minds (such as Proust’s) that existed before that starting point?

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 02:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ouch, apologies for the grammatical error ("has" instead of “have").

There is a difference between Chomsky and Pribram, and Freud. Chomsky and Pribram still strike me as scientists, and purveyors of valid scientific theories. Before I even mentioned Pribram with respect to Proust and Freud, I did as much research as I could to ascertain whether his holographic theory had been challenged or discredited. To the best of my knowledge, it has not.

Freud is an unusual figure in science. When I try to explain how Freud is still valuable, despite research that challenges his science, I end up talking about his narratives as if they were literature. The cosmologies that influenced Alexander Pope are gone, and the “science” of Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s treatises has been almost totally disproved, but that does not bar them from commenting on the phenomena of life as we live it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 02:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How about, “Yes for Freud, no for Chomsky and Pribram?” Chomsky was working with a well-defined formal system and speculated about its relationship to the mind in general. Freud was talking about all of consciousness, all of society, and all of history.

Chomsky distinguished “problems and mysteries” and said that science discusses problems only. Freud did not make that distinction.

By John Emerson on 09/23/06 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, as goes Freud, so goes all of psychoanalysis? What of Harry Stack Sullivan, Erik Erikson, D. W. Winnicott, John Bowlby?

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m concerned that, in answering these questions, I may be creating the impression of antagonism where none exists. What role do you see psychoanalysis playing, in literary studies and elsewhere?

Actually, I’m partial to a lot of variations on Freud. I think Jung is underrated. I’ve read sentences by Wilhelm Reich, for crying out loud, that I thought passed muster. I don’t know Sullivan, Erikson, or Bowlby. I have read Winnicott, and thought he did an exceptional job on a dialogue between a baby and an object the baby feels ambivalently towards. It was much too articulate for an actual baby, but it did express the psychological conflict between wanting control, and wanting something worthy of love—therefore something beyond control and legitimately other.

Which probably makes Winnicott’s Baby a generalized literary character, and the “analysis” something like a short one-act play. Also, I’m in a rock band by that name, as of right now.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One could historicize Freud, and regard him as a literary figure, without nullifying his explanatory power. Well . . . such a move would completely nullify all the “explanatory power” Freud cared about and claimed for himself, which is worth noting, I think. It just seems to me that there’s something a little odd about agreeing that thinkers like Freud and Marx were wrong about everything they believed in (after all, both claimed a scientific certainty for their core ideas) and yet remain valuable because they generate discourse for literary critics.

But even if one were to grant that this is a legitimate afterlife for figures who have lost the authority they once claimed, I think it still remains important to ask whether the kinds of readings a thinker like Freud enables are truly useful ones. Joseph, you write, “Before reading Freud on King Lear, I hadn’t considered the threat Cordelia might seem to pose in her father’s eyes,” and in response I would suggest that you hadn’t considered that notion because it is nonsensical, and only even thinkable according to a fundamentally misguided and inattentive model of how family dynamics work. In other words, it is precisely because Freud is an inept psychologist that he is also a poor guide to the reading of texts.

By on 09/23/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What invincible ignorance might explain the belief that Freud and Marx were wrong about everything they believed in? Can this survive even a superficial (re-?)exposure to the original texts? As a mildly hyperbolic corrective, I’d say that the intellectual gap between Freud or Marx and, for example, C. S. Lewis is as incommensurable as that between aleph null and a natural number.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/23/06 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all, there is no evidence that “Freud and Marx were wrong about everything.”

Second of all, all the people busy discrediting Freud neglect the fact that psychoanalytic research took place *after* Freud, that immediately after the man published his findings, even his supporters would revise and re-think them.  Until a research project tests the *latest* in psychoanalysis, I want a moratorium on all these “science trumps Freud” generalizations.  At the same time, literary critics who insist on using Freud rather than, say, better supported findings of Melanie Klein and others, should also be soundly thrashed.  The world won’t be safe until the last Freudian and the last positivist run each other through with their swords.

Third of all, if the mind is more socially and historically adaptive than either Freud or anti-Freudians believed, then we might want to determine if Freud gave an accurate picture of a certain set of culturally and historically specific psychological phenomena.

Fourth of all, who cares about psychoanalysis?

By on 09/23/06 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps you failed to notice, Jonathan, that I didn’t say that I think Freud and Marx were wrong about everything they believed in. I said that I find it an odd rhetorical move to grant that Freud’s psychological theory is hogwash, or that Marx’s notions of political economy are hopelessly misbegotten, or just to waive the question of the validity of their theories, and yet celebrate them as founders of discursivity. (And I thought the comment by Joseph that I quoted verged on making thaat move.)

However, as it happens, I do confess that — after many years of teaching and even writign about Freud — I’ve come to think him almost worthless, in great contrast to Marx.

By on 09/23/06 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I happen to think Pribram’s work on neural holography is brilliant, with qualification. It’s one of the cornerstones of a paper I published some years ago, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence—look at the discussion of diagonalization. But, while a few neuroscientists (such as Walter Freeman, who studied under Pribram) still value Pribram’s work on neural holography, mainstream neuroscience has forgotten about that work. If you really want to follow up on those ideas you might want to take a look at Freeman—How Brains Make Up Their Minds, and Societies of Brains.

Starting back in the mid-60s John Bowlby began re-thinking psychoanalytic notions of mother-infant attachment in terms of primate ethology and systems theory. His magnum opus is a three-volume work, Attachment and Loss. In the first volume he reviews psychoanalytic work on object relations and reviews ethological work on imprinting in birds and attachment in monkeys and apes. He also says a bit about systems theory, using ideas from Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960)—a classic, but now dated, text—and coined the term “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA), much beloved in evolutionary psychology.

As for the current use, see the use I make of Winnicott and Bowlby in this analysis of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The world won’t be safe until the last Freudian and the last positivist run each other through with their swords.

Luther, this could be my all-time favorite Valve comment.

By on 09/23/06 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think that I implied that you did, Alan, unless you claim C. S. Lewis metonymically.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/23/06 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther’s witticism relies on a false dichotomy and might be said to be objectively pro-fascist in more innocent times.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/23/06 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Please forgive me for the misreading, Jonathan. (But you might want to get a good psychoanalyst to help you deal with your strange C. S. Lewis fixation. . . .)

By on 09/23/06 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a committed Stapledonian, I find Pullman soft on the C. S. Lewis issue.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/23/06 at 04:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just remember, Jonathan: C. S. Lewis loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life — you just have to accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior. And there’s no better time than the present!

Now, back on topic. . . .

By on 09/23/06 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t really understand why literary studies people are concerned with whether Freudian theories hold up as science or not.  I would be concerned with it because I care about whether ideas from science (which is what I take Freud’s ideas to be) still represent something close to a current scientific understanding or not.  But is this necessarily important for a “useful” literary reading? 

I suppose that one reason it might be is if you think that literary readings tell you anything about the nonliterary world.  Do people generally believe this?  I know that there’s a poorly supported shorthard process by which literature becomes language, and language becomes everything, and that therefore literary studies people claim to know something about everything, but I’ve never found it to be very convincing.

By on 09/23/06 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I guess I’m trying to turn your question on its head. Are human experience and human-experience-as-refracted-through-literature so completely different that a model of human psychology discredited in one sphere could nevertheless be useful in the other? Again, I am not trying to argue whether the Freudian model of the human psyche is or is not bankrupt; I’m just saying that if you do think it’s bankrupt as a model of the psyche, wouldn’t you also have some reason to suspect its usefulness as a guide to the reading of literary texts? (Unless, of course, you think more critical discourse is always a good thing, in which case, never mind.)

By on 09/23/06 at 04:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, not to get all Bill Benzon on you, Alan, but a text is not a psyche.  Literary texts sometimes seem to try to depict the human psyche, true.  But Freudian theories are fully present as folk-psychology (or folk-psychoanalysis, though Scott seems to laugh at that one) in the minds of most readers, so they seem plausible to readers as parts of literary depictions of the human psyche whether they’re true or not.

By on 09/23/06 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

<iWell, not to get all Bill Benzon on you, Alan, but a text is not a psyche.</i> Well, who thinks it is? Not sure how that comment relates to my question. . . .

By on 09/23/06 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, I meant to quote Rich’s comment: “Well, not to get all Bill Benzon on you, Alan, but a text is not a psyche.”

By on 09/23/06 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Freudian theories are fully present as folk-psychology . . .

Well, some Freudian terms, and some loosely derived Freudian notions are certainly all over the place. But Freudian theories? I don’t think so. Parlor psychoanalysis has much the same intellectual value as parlor memetics. Both are good for casual conversation, but no more. In the case of memetics, there doesn’t seem to be much other than the parlor version, nor has there ever been.

Psychoanalysis is a different matter. Problems? Yes. They may even be terminal. That is to say, current efforts to reconstruct psychoanalytic thinking in neural terms may end up as a complete failure. But psychoanalytic thinking started as a serious attempt to understand the human mind and to provide therapy. Memetics originated as a passing idea in The Selfish Gene and has yet produce either empirical results or sophisticated conceptualization—though people have taken a crack at the latter.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 06:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, you seemed to think that some people might find a connection between the bankruptcy of a model of the psyche and the usefulness of this model as a guide to reading literary texts.  I suppose that saying that one was not the other was a short way of saying that I don’t see the connection.  Some texts use alchemical imagery, for instance, and it may be very useful to do an alchemical reading of those texts, even though we know that alchemy is false—because a text is not a chemical.  The false theory about how chemicals work can’t really apply to it.  It can only be found more or less plausible, more or less aesthetic, more or less of a coherent organizing principle, by readers.

I do think that literary critics might have an obligation to truth within criticism—true in the sense of a) not misrepresenting facts about the work (i.e., misquotation), b) not misrepresenting known biographical facts about the author, c) not misrepresenting the historical period within which the work was set or written, d) not misrepresenting current science.  But they can only run afoul of that last one if they imply that their use of scientific concepts within their criticism is intended to support the scientific truth of those concepts.

By on 09/23/06 at 06:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My last comment was a reply to Alan, not Bill, if that’s not clear from context.

Bill, do you really think that when literary studies people use Freudian theories, they’re doing so at anything but a casual level?  They aren’t (generally) psychoanalysts.  Judging from the use of physics terms within literary studies here (a field I know more about) it’s not like any particularly rigor is really used.

By on 09/23/06 at 06:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alas, Rich, I fear you’re right on that. And I suspect that your analogy with physics terms is right. I’m no physicist and don’t have substantial technical knowledge of it. But I’m dead serious about science. Many of the physics and math and computer analogies that literary people use are, as far as I can tell, flat out nonsense.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hear you, Rich, but might we not consider some middle ground between “text = psyche” and “there is no connection between the understanding of texts and the understanding of psyches”? Let’s remember that a Freudian analysis isn’t a psyche either, it’s an interpretation of a psyche, and if Freudian theory generates inept readings of psyches, then we might reasonably suspect its usefulness in literary interpretation. I don’t think the question is settled by any means; I just wonder why people who admit that Freud’s theories are discredited yet wish to use those theories to read literature aren’t a little more skeptical. I’m not quite sure what an “alchemical reading” of a text might look like, but if someone told me that while alchemy isn’t true, nevertheless it’s useful to interpret the characters in Henry James’s stories as embodiments of alchemical transformation, I would be . . . doubtful. And I would be doubtful in part because I know that alchemy is a discredited discipline.

By on 09/23/06 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan, to start from the end of your comment, there are a number of literary works written when alchemy was still believed to be true that use alchemical imagery, for which an understanding of some basic alchemy can help you understand the work.  But that sounds too historical.  For something more recent, take, for example, Michael Moorcock’s book _The Alchemist’s Question_.  It’s part of his Cornelius Chronicles series—a set of works that I think is worth some literary criticism (whatever that means).  The reference to basic alchemical concepts involved in the mergeance of the main character in the book and his sister expresses a certain attitude towards politics, and modernity, that is subtly different than the more general scepticism expressed by the variety of mystic beliefs in something like his _Mother London_.  Therefore, if anyone wanted to write literary criticism of the book, an examination of the alchemical ideas in it would seem to me to be useful—although I have to admit that I’ve never really understood what people mean by “useful” in this context either.

Going back to the beginning of your reply, how does the reader really know that a fictional depiction of a psyche is inept?  Psychoanalysis can be proved to be inept either descriptively or in terms of its medical effectiveness.  But there’s no way in which reader can really say (to use your example above) that Lear didn’t really see Cordelia as a threat.  You can only find it more or less credible.

By on 09/23/06 at 07:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to make myself absolutely clear on this, when I talk about using psychoanalysis in the study of literature I certainly am not invoking some literary exception. Nor do I think anyone has acused or even remotely implied that I hold such a position. But, given that things are getting fast and furious in here, I feel a need to be explicit.

I think that psychoanalytic thinking is one of the major achievements of 20th century thought. I also think it’s riddled with flaws. When I express measured support for it, that support is across the board and not confined to literary uses.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I certainly don’t want to say that alchemy is irrelevant to a book about an alchemist. I was just trying to follow up on an example you used, which probably wasn’t a good idea, because it’s really a red herring in this context.

On your other point — which may be closer to the issues raised by Joseph’s post — your view is a real conversation-stopper. On your account, what could one say about a reading except “I find it credible” or “I don’t find it credible”? I’d like to think that critical debates can go beyond that. For instance, surely there are some interpretations of texts that are just wrong — even if Freud’s reading of Lear and Cordelia may not be one of them.

By on 09/23/06 at 07:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your clarifications and distinctions have been very helpful, Bill.

By on 09/23/06 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Alan, the book’s not really about an alchemist; its use of alchemy is, I think, best read as a reference to a particular era of thought, and as a shorthand for a particular type of feminist politics.  But, not important.

I’ve never found my view to be a conversation-stopper.  Different readings bring different points of view to a work, if nothing else, and may allow you to see something in it that you might not have seen on your own.  I did outline above the four things about which I think that one can say that a reading is really wrong or not.  Most of the casual critical debates that I’ve seen that focus on whether an interpretation is wrong or not focus on whether the interpreter has properly understood some interpretive schema propounded by a literary theorist.  That seems to be to be both dull and a sort of professional defense mechanism.

By on 09/23/06 at 08:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most of the casual critical debates that I’ve seen that focus on whether an interpretation is wrong or not focus on whether the interpreter has properly understood some interpretive schema propounded by a literary theorist.  That seems to be to be both dull and a sort of professional defense mechanism.

Amen to that!

By on 09/23/06 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just started reading Bertram Malle, How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Cognition (MIT 2004). The jacket copy says that “Malle describes behavior explanations as having a dual nature--as being both cognitive and social acts . . . When people try to understand puzzling behavior, they construct behavior explanations . . .  [such explanations] are also overt verbal actions used for social purposes.” I’m not far enough into it to have any particular evaluation of Malle’s work.

I bring it up because all of us, by definition, have some sort of folk psychology that we use in negotiating our way through life. Obviously, so do the authors of literary texts. And those folk psychologies are going to show up in those texts. In the case of a post-Freudian author, the folk psychology may well be indebted to psychoanalysis (e. g. The Confessions of Zeno, which I haven’t read in years). One of the things that I suspect happens in literary texts is that the text itself demonstrates patterns of interpersonal behavior that somehow “escape” or “go beyond” the folk psychology that is explicit or implicit in the text. If you’re looking for a (utilitarian) purpose surved by literature, this might be one of them, to give people some “purchase” on behavior that transcends the categories of their folk psychology. In turn, explicating that “gap”—between the behavior exhibited in a text and the explanations offered within the text—is one thing a critic can do. That is one of the things I argued in an early essay of mine on Shakespeare’s sonnet 129.*

To do that effectively, however, the critic needs a psychology that is more sophisticated than the one in the text or texts under examination. In particular, the critic needs a psychology that is able, in some sense, to represent or model a folk psychology and its situation within the mind-brain. That is a difficult demand to meet, perhaps, in the current state of our knowledge, impossible. There’s no reason we can’t try. And, if we stick with it long enough, surely we’ll obtain useful results.

I will say this about Malle, he does write as a psychologist. That is to say, he writes as though there were more or less a single folk psychology that is pretty much the same from one culture to another and at all times in history. He doesn’t say that in so many words—at least, he hasn’t done so yet. Nor would I expect him to. But I can also imagine that, if one put the question to him, he might admit, in principle, the need to qualify the scope of his theorizing. In any event, I would not myself assume that folk psychologies are the same from place to place and time to time. I would expect non-trivial variation—now that I think of it, Julian Jaynes presents some relevant discussion in his brilliantly odd The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1967).

Given the afore-mentioned gap, I can now begin imagining something to “drive” literary history is a certain direction. Namely, attempting to close that gap by changing the folk psychology. Given, however, that folk psycology must always exist within the mind, how can it ever “catch up” to the full powers of the mind itself?

*Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics.  MLN 91:  952-982, 1976. For that matter, see also, Lust in Action:  An Abstraction.  Language and Style 14:  251 - 270, 1981.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To do that effectively, however, the critic needs a psychology that is more sophisticated than the one in the text or texts under examination.

Bill, this sounds like you’re ruling out the possibility that a literary text may embody a more sophisticated psychology than ours, such that we should learn from that text and adapt our psychology in light of what it reveals. Are you? Or are you just saying that we need the more sophisticated psychology in order to perform the particular task of “explicating the gap” you refer to?

By on 09/23/06 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Try this:

To do that effectively, however, the critic needs an analytic and descriptive psychology that is more sophisticated than the folk psychology in the text or texts under examination.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 11:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon: “One of the things that I suspect happens in literary texts is that the text itself demonstrates patterns of interpersonal behavior that somehow “escape” or “go beyond” the folk psychology that is explicit or implicit in the text.”

I’m doubtful about that, Bill.  Writers generally want their texts to produce the impression that people are being depicted.  In the service of this, they use four kinds of tricks that I can think of offhand: 1) purely technical-writerly written forms that experience has shown help to produce the impression of a psyche, such as various stylized methods of depicting introspection; 2) mimicry of whatever folk-psychological ideas are current in the audience; 3) use of the writer’s observation of real people; 4) the writer’s feel for how people would act under the influence of the plot and the character’s imagined personalities.  You might find something beyond folk psychology by observing the effects of 3), under the age-old presumption that a writer is a skilled observer of people, and 4), on the assumption that the writer’s own feel reflects a more or less universal one.  But it’s very indirect, and if you’re looking to explain behavior, you’re better off just studying behavior.

By on 09/24/06 at 07:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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