Psychoanalytic literary criticism  

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"I favor a Shakespearean reading of Freud, and not a Freudian reading of Shakespeare." --The Western Canon (1994) by Harold Bloom, p. 22

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Psychoanalytic literary criticism is literary criticism which, in method, concept, theory or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a rich and heterogeneous interpretive tradition. Three early examples include Flaubert und seine Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (1912) by Theodor Reik, The Defeat of Baudelaire (1931) by René Laforgue, The Life and Works of E. A. Poe: a Psychoanalytic Interpretation (1933) by Princess Marie Bonaparte and more recently, The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading.




"Psychoanalysis was applied to literature long before Freud. When biographers recounted all the influences of an author's life upon his works, or probed deeply into the real meaning of his views, they gave us psychoanalytic criticism. Great literary critics like Sainte-Beuve, Taine and George Brandes traced the tendencies of authors' works to emotional crises in their lives. Critics who study the various ways in which authors have come to draw themselves or people they knew in their books, are psychoanalytic. When biographers and critics dilate especially on the relations existing between the writer and his mother, and trace the effects on the work of the author, they employ the psychoanalytic method. Any profound insight into human nature is psychoanalytic, and I find such insight in Swift, Johnson, Hazlitt and Lamb." --The Erotic Motive in Literature

A notable precursor to Freud et al was also Paul Bourget and his Essais de psychologie contemporaine of the 1880s.

Freud et al

Freud wrote several important essays on literature, which he used to explore the psyche of authors and characters, to explain narrative mysteries, and to develop new concepts in psychoanalysis (for instance, Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva). His sometime disciples and later readers, such as Carl Jung and later Jacques Lacan, were avid readers of literature as well, and used literary examples as illustrations of important concepts in their work (for instance, Lacan argued with Jacques Derrida over the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter").


The object of psychoanalytic literary criticism, at its very simplest, can be the psychoanalysis of the author or of a particularly interesting character. In this directly therapeutic form, it is very similar to psychoanalysis itself, closely following the analytic interpretive process discussed in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But many more complex variations are possible. The concepts of psychoanalysis can be deployed with reference to the narrative or poetic structure itself, without requiring access to the authorial psyche (an interpretation motivated by Lacan's remark that "the unconscious is structured like a language"). Or the founding texts of psychoanalysis may themselves be treated as literature, and re-read for the light cast by their formal qualities on their theoretical content (Freud's texts frequently resemble detective stories, or the archaeological narratives of which he was so fond).



See also

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