Professorfangirl's Bordello of Learning

Because every pleasure deserves to be taken seriously

Sigmund Freud, literary theorist

anononthewater: “The question: am I understanding correctly that classic Freudian theory is living a zombie life in the hidden corners of lit-crit theory? (Mutated versions generated for analyzing texts instead of healing people, thus untested on humans, do also count, if they are still considered valid descriptions of how actual human minds work). If the answer is yes, could you please explain, why the fuck is it so?”

Here’s the quick & dirty answer (and sorry I don’t have time for more): in my mind, Freud is a lousy psychologist, but a great literary theorist. I and other lit crits use him not to talk about psychology, but about representation. We refer to the school of literary criticism rooted in Freud not as psychological but as psychoanalytical. It’s an important difference: Freud’s practice was based in interpretation. It was all about listening to the stories people told of themselves and interpreting the hidden meanings there, the things people couldn’t say because of anxiety or shame or repression. When you can’t say something directly, what do you do? You symbolize it. What could Freud’s society not talk about? Sex. So all these sexual ideas and emotions and desires got pushed underground, and when people got emotionally ill because of sexual trauma or such, they couldn’t talk about it directly, but it showed up in their speech or behavior, symbolically. A woman on the couch compulsively opens her coin purse and slips her fingers in, again and again; she likes the feeling of entry. Does she also like to masturbate? Could be, but she could NEVER say so, even to herself.

As a real psychological case, this is ridiculous. Freud’s most important contribution to culture wasn’t the Oedipus complex, though that’s gotten the most airplay. It was the idea of the unconscious, that we have ideas, needs, and desires that we can’t yet recognize as our own. There are things that want saying, but can’t be said directly. For Freud’s time, that was sex, so Freud’s theory came up with models for the kinds of stories people tried to tell themselves about sex, and about what happened when they couldn’t face their own desires. This is why Freud seemed to see everything as a symbol for sex. But here’s the thing, what no one remembers: he also said that sex itself was a system of signs for other, deeper needs that we can’t find sufficient words for: love, safety, pleasure, acceptance. Sex represents these things for us, so in representations, that’s what it stands for.

Sorry, this is all brutally oversimplified (and probably incoherent, because I haven’t had my coffee yet). The thing to take away: Freud wasn’t a good psychologist, but a great literary theorist, not a good doctor but a great interpreter, and his case histories are lousy clinical documents, but some of the great 19th-century novels.

I hope that comes close to answering your question. I’m sorry I don’t have time to engage more fully. (And please, everybody, before you argue with me about Freud and literary theory, read Terry Eagleton’s introduction to him in Literary Theory, or at least “In Praise of Freud,” a good overview by a couple of feminist scholars. I do not have the time for the Freud fight.)