The matter of epistemology in literary criticism is closely tied to the question of what end the discipline is supposed to serve. How critics decide what standard of truth to adhere to is determined by the role they see their work playing, both in academia and beyond. Freud stands apart as a literary theorist, professing in his works a commitment to scientific rigor in a field that generally holds belief in even the possibility of objectivity as at best naïve and at worst bourgeois or fascist. For the postmodernists, both science and literature are suspiciously shot through with the ideological underpinnings of capitalist European male hegemony, which they take as their duty to undermine. Their standard of truth, therefore, seems to be whether a theory or application effectively exposes one or another element of that ideology to “interrogation.” Admirable as the values underlying this patently political reading of texts are, the science-minded critic might worry lest such an approach merely lead straight back to the a priori assumptions from which it set forth. Now, a century after Freud revealed the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, his attempt to interpret literature scientifically seems like one possible route of escape from the circularity (and obscurantism) of postmodernism. Unfortunately, Freud’s theories have suffered multiple devastating empirical failures, and Freud himself has been shown to be less a committed scientist than an ingenious fabulist, but it may be possible to salvage from the failures of psychoanalysis some key to a viable epistemology of criticism.
A text dating from early in the development of psychoanalysis shows both the nature of Freud’s methods and some of the most important substance of his supposed discoveries. Describing his theory of the Oedipus complex in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud refers vaguely to “observations on normal children,” to which he compares his experiences with “psychoneurotics” to arrive at his idea that both display, to varying degrees, “feelings of love and hatred to their parents” (920). There is little to object to in this rather mundane observation, but Freud feels compelled to write that his
discovery is confirmed by a legend…a legend whose profound
and universal power to move can only be understood if the
hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of
children has an equally universal validity. (920)
He proceeds to relate the Sophocles drama from which his theory gets its name. In the story, Oedipus is tricked by fate into killing his father and marrying his mother. Freud takes this as evidence that the love and hatred he has observed in children are of a particular kind. According to his theory, any male child is fated to “direct his first sexual impulse towards his mother” and his “first murderous wish against his father” (921). But Freud originally poses this idea as purely hypothetical. What settles the issue is evidence he gleans from dream interpretations. “Our dreams,” he writes, “convince us that this is so” (921). Many men, it seems, confided to him that they dreamt of having sex with their mothers and killing their fathers.
Freud’s method, then, was to seek a thematic confluence between men’s dreams, the stories they find moving, and the behaviors they display as children, which he knew mostly through self-reporting years after the fact. Indeed, the entire edifice of psychoanalysis is purported to have been erected on this epistemic foundation. In a later essay on “The Uncanny,” Freud makes the sources of his ideas even more explicit. “We know from psychoanalytic experience,” he writes, “that the fear of damaging or losing one’s eyes is a terrible one in children” (35). A few lines down, he claims that, “A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes…is a substitute for the dread of being castrated” (36). Here he’s referring to another facet of the Oedipus complex which theorizes that the child keeps his sexual desire for his mother in check because of the threat of castration posed by his jealous father. It is through this fear of his father, which transforms into grudging respect, and then into emulation, that the boy learns his role as a male in society. And it is through the act of repressing his sexual desire for his mother that he first develops his unconscious, which will grow into a general repository of unwanted desires and memories (Eagleton 134).
But what led Freud to this theory of repression, which suggests that we have the ability to willfully forget troubling incidents and drive urges to some portion of our minds to which we have no conscious access? He must have arrived at an understanding of this process in the same stroke that led to his conclusions about the Oedipus complex, because, in order to put forth the idea that as children we all hated one parent and wanted to have sex with the other, he had to contend with the fact that most people find the idea repulsive. What accounts for the dramatic shift between childhood desires and those of adults? What accounts for our failure to remember the earlier stage? The concept of repression had to be firmly established before Freud could make such claims. Of course, he could have simply imported the idea from another scientific field, but there is no evidence he did so. So it seems that he relied on the same methods—psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, and the study of myths and legends—to arrive at his theories as he did to test them. Inspiration and confirmation were one and the same.
Notwithstanding Freud’s claim that the emotional power of the Oedipus legend “can only be understood” if his hypothesis about young boys wanting to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers has “universal validity,” there is at least one alternative hypothesis which has the advantage of not being bizarre. It could be that the point of Sophocles’s drama was that fate is so powerful it can bring about exactly the eventualities we most desire to avoid. What moves audiences and readers is not any sense of recognition of repressed desires, but rather compassion for the man who despite, even because of, his heroic efforts fell into this most horrible of traps. (Should we assume that the enduring popularity of W.W. Jacobs’s story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” which tells a similar fated story about a couple who inadvertently wish their son dead, proves that all parents want to kill their children?) The story could be moving because it deals with events we would never want to happen. It is true however that this hypothesis fails to account for why people enjoy watching such a tragedy being enacted—but then so does Freud’s. If we have spent our conscious lives burying the memory of our childhood desires because they are so unpleasant to contemplate, it makes little sense that we should find pleasure in seeing those desires acted out on stage. And assuming this alternative hypothesis is at least as plausible as Freud’s, we are left with no evidence whatsoever to support his theory of repressed childhood desires.
To be fair, Freud did look beyond the dreams and myths of men of European descent to test the applicability of his theories. In his book Totem and Taboo he inventories “savage” cultures and adduces the universality among them of a taboo against incest as further proof of the Oedipus complex. He even goes so far as to cite a rival theory put forth by a contemporary:
Westermarck has explained the horror of incest on the
ground that “there is an innate aversion to sexual
intercourse between persons living very closely together
from early youth, and that, as such persons are in most cases
related by blood, this feeling would naturally display itself
in custom and law as a horror of intercourse between near
To dismiss Westermarck’s theory, Freud cites J. G. Frazer, who argues that laws exist only to prevent us from doing things we would otherwise do or prod us into doing what we otherwise would not. That there is a taboo against incest must therefore signal that there is no innate aversion, but rather a proclivity, for incest. Here it must be noted that the incest Freud had in mind includes not just lust for the mother but for sisters as well. “Psychoanalysis has taught us,” he writes, again vaguely referencing his clinical method, “that a boy’s earliest choice of objects for his love is incestuous and that those objects are forbidden ones—his mother and sister” (22). Frazer’s argument is compelling, but Freud’s test of the applicability of his theories is not the same as a test of their validity (though it seems customary in literary criticism to conflate the two).
As linguist and cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker explains in How the Mind Works, in tests of validity Westermarck beats Freud hands down. Citing the research of Arthur Wolf, he explains that without setting out to do so, several cultures have conducted experiments on the nature of incest aversion. Israeli kibbutzim, in which children grew up in close proximity to several unrelated agemates, and the Chinese and Taiwanese practice of adopting future brides for sons and raising them together as siblings are just two that Wolf examined. When children from the kibbutzim reached sexual maturity, even though there was no discouragement from adults for them to date or marry, they showed a marked distaste for each other as romantic partners. And compared to more traditional marriages, those in which the bride and groom grew up in conditions mimicking siblinghood were overwhelmingly “unhappy, unfaithful, unfecund, and short” (459). The effect of proximity in early childhood seems to apply to parents as well, at least when it comes to fathers’ sexual feelings for their daughters. Pinker cites research that shows the fathers who sexually abuse their daughters tend to be the ones who have spent the least time with them as infants, while the stepdads who actually do spend a lot of time with their stepdaughters are no more likely to abuse them than their biological parents. These studies not only favor Westermarck’s theory; they also provide a counter to Frazer’s objection to it. Human societies are so complex that we often grow up in close proximity with people who are unrelated, or don’t grow up with people who are, and therefore it is necessary for there to be a cultural proscription—a taboo—against incest in addition to the natural mechanism of aversion.
Among biologists and anthropologists, what is now called the Westermarck effect has displaced Freud’s Oedipus complex as the best explanation for incest avoidance. Since Freud’s theory of childhood sexual desires has been shown to be false, the question arises of where this leaves his concept of repression. According to literary critic—and critic of literary criticism—Frederick Crews, repression came to serve in the 1980’s and 90’s a role equivalent to the “spectral evidence” used in the Salem witch trials. Several psychotherapists latched on to the idea that children can store reliable information in their memories, especially when that information is too terrible for them to consciously handle. And the testimony of these therapists has led to many convictions and prison sentences. But the evidence for this notion of repression is solely clinical—modern therapists base their conclusions on interactions with patients, just as Freud did. Unfortunately, researchers outside the clinical setting are unable to find any phenomenon answering to the description of repressed but retrievable memories. Crews points out that there are plenty of people who are known to have survived traumatic experiences: “Holocaust survivors make up the most famous class of such subjects, but whatever group or trauma is chosen, the upshot of well-conducted research is always the same” (158). That upshot:
Unless a victim received a physical shock to the brain or
was so starved or sleep deprived as to be thoroughly
disoriented at the time, those experiences are typically
better remembered than ordinary ones. (159, emphasis in
It seems here, as with incest aversion, Freud got the matter exactly wrong—and with devastating fallout for countless families and communities. But Freud was sketchy when it came to whether or not it was memories of actual events that were repressed or just fantasies. The crux of his argument was that we repress unacceptable and inappropriate drives and desires.
And the concept of repressed desires is integral to the use of psychoanalysis in literary criticism. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud distinguishes between the manifest content of dreams and their latent content. Having been exiled from consciousness, troublesome desires press against the bounds of the ego, Freud’s notional agent in charge of tamping down uncivilized urges. In sleep, the ego relaxes, allowing the desires of the id, from whence all animal drives emerge, an opportunity for free play. Even in dreams, though, full transparency of the id would be too disconcerting for the conscious mind to accept, so the ego disguises all the elements which surface with a kind of code. Breaking this code is the work of psychoanalytic dream interpretation. It is also the basis for Freud’s analysis of myths and the underlying principle of Freudian literary criticism. (In fact, the distinction between manifest and latent content is fundamental to many schools of literary criticism, though they each have their own version of the true nature of the latent content.) Science writer Steven Johnson compares Freud’s conception of repressed impulses to compressed gas seeping through the cracks of the ego’s defenses, emerging as slips of the tongue or baroque dream imagery. “Build up enough pressure in the chamber, though, and the whole thing explodes—into uncontrolled hysteria, anxiety, madness” (191). The release of pressure, as it were, through dreams and through various artistic media, is sanity-saving.
Johnson’s book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday life, takes the popular currency of Freud’s ideas as a starting point for his exploration of modern science. The subtitle is a homage to Freud’s influential work The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Perhaps because he is not a working scientist, Johnson is able to look past the shaky methodological foundations of psychoanalysis and examine how accurately its tenets map onto the modern findings of neuroscience. Though he sees areas of convergence, like the idea of psychic conflict and that of the unconscious in general, he has to admit in his conclusion that “the actual unconscious doesn’t quite look like the one Freud imagined” (194). Rather than a repository of repressed fantasies, the unconscious is more of a store of implicit, or procedural, knowledge. Johnson explains, “Another word for unconscious is ‘automated’—the things you do so well you don’t even notice doing them” (195). And what happens to all the pressurized psychic energy resulting from our repression of urges? “This is one of those places,” Johnson writes, “where Freud’s metaphoric scaffolding ended up misleading him” (198). Instead of a steam engine, neuroscientists view the brain as type of ecosystem, with each module competing for resources; if the module goes unused—the neurons failing to fire—then the strength of their connections diminishes.
What are the implications of this new conception of how the mind works for the interpretation of dreams and works of art? Without the concept of repressed desires, is it still possible to maintain a distinction between the manifest and latent content of mental productions? Johnson suggests that there are indeed meaningful connections that can be discovered in dreams and slips of the tongue. To explain them, he points again to the neuronal ecosystem, and to the theory that “Neurons that fire together wire together.” He writes:
These connections are not your unconscious speaking in
code. They’re much closer to free-associating. These
revelations aren’t the work of some brilliant cryptographer
trying to get a message to the frontlines without enemy
detection. They’re more like echoes, reverberations. One
neuronal group fires, and a host of others join in the
Mind Wide Open represents Johnson’s attempt to be charitable to the century-old, and now popularly recognized, ideas of psychoanalysis. But in this description of the shortcomings of Freud’s understanding of the unconscious and how it reveals itself, he effectively discredits the epistemological underpinnings of any application of psychoanalysis to art. It’s not only the content of the unconscious that Freud got outrageously wrong, but the very nature of its operations. And if Freud could so confidently look into dreams and myths and legends and find in them material that simply wasn’t there, it is cause for us to marvel at the power of his preconceptions to distort his perceptions.
Ultimately, psychoanalysis failed to move from the realm of proto-science to that of methodologically well founded science, and got relegated rather to the back channel of pseudoscience by the hubris of its founder. And yet, if Freud had relied on good science, his program of interpreting literature in terms of the basic themes of human nature, and even his willingness to let literature inform his understanding of those themes, may have matured into a critical repertoire free of the obscurantist excesses and reality-denying absurdities of postmodernism. (Anthropologist Clifford Geertz once answered a postmodernist critic of his work by acknowledging that perfect objectivity is indeed impossible, but then so is a perfectly germ-free operating room; that shouldn’t stop us from trying to be as objective and as sanitary as our best methods allow.)
Critics could feasibly study the production of novels by not just one or a few authors, but a large enough sample—possibly extending across cultural divides—to analyze statistically. They could pose questions systematically to even larger samples of readers. And they could identify the themes in any poem or novel which demonstrate the essential (in the statistical sense) concerns of humanity that have been studied by behavioral scientists, themes like status-seeking, pair-bonding, jealousy, and even the overwhelming strength of the mother-infant bond. “The human race has produced only one successfully validated epistemology,” writes Frederick Crews (362). That epistemology encompasses a great variety of specific research practices, but they all hold as inviolable the common injunction “to make a sharp separation between hypothesis and evidence” (363). Despite his claims to scientific legitimacy, Freud failed to distinguish himself from other critical theorists by relying too much on his own intuitive powers, a reliance that all but guarantees succumbing to the natural human tendency to discover in complex fields precisely what you’ve come to them seeking.
Also read Absurdities and Atrocities in Literary Criticism
Also read Absurdities and Atrocities in Literary Criticism