Monday, 3 September 2012

Sigmund Freud – Interpretations of Dreams – Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism – Overview

The method worked on by Freud is based on the principle that the meanings of physical manifestations like works of literature lie in the means of their production. Works of art lift inhibitions unconsciously and are perceived to be pleasurable.

Freud’s studies have changed the view of subjectivity in a text as the analysis of the character; writer and reader are all moved to the forefront with a thrust on a deeper understanding of the contradictory forces that lurk within individuals as they try to mask their desires and intentions. Freud has shown that literature can help hold up a mirror to these beneath the surface impulses unconsciously. The nature of attentiveness too has been redefined.
“Inside every person, he said, there was something transmitting scrambled messages in a cryptic language, trying to break through the conscious surface of life. The ‘other’ was in ourselves – indeed, it was ourselves.”

Psychoanalysis in Freud’s conception would study neurotic symptoms that manifest itself in dreams, jokes and ‘the psychopathology of everyday life’ like slips of tongue, forgetting and even art, literature as well as religion. Human reason is not a tidy little organization nor is it master of itself for unconscious desires and forces are forever motivating it and there is thus, a constant struggle between the defense mechanisms as well.  

Psychoanalysis is associated with the “talking cure” and the theory of infantile sexuality; though it is Freud’s attention to language that makes him relevant I the field of literary criticism. Language and thus, literature along with things related to it like rhetoric, poetry, narration and the like are closely intertwined with the psyche which marks the importance of the psychoanalytic approach to literary works. In fact, his very approach to psychoanalysis was a form of dialogue between patient and doctor where what was spoken had meanings rooted in the unconscious and had to be gradually unraveled.
As far as his theory of infantile sexuality goes, he found fantasies of incest to be a reality which makes one understand the implications it holds on texts such as Oedipus Rex. He named his theory of unconscious incestuous desire the “Oedipus complex” where the son has feelings of a sexual nature for his mother while the only law enforcer preventing such actions is the father.

A work of art cannot be interpreted along a single line as he notes the ‘profound transformations through which an impression in an artists’ life has to pass before it is allowed to make a contribution to a work of art’. What is ultimately expressed is a distortion of repressed impulses or wishes that are not realized. Something that is unpleasant is substituted and so the conscious mind does not perceive that things have been let through the barriers of the ego. 

Freud noticed that there were some dreams which had universality and so, could point to universal desires. Incest and its prohibition stems from culture while nature has no such law and so unconscious desire being a primeval force naturally does not recognize incest even though the society restrained ego may acknowledge it. When one observes Sophocles play Oedipus Rex there is expressed a universal law of mental life according to Freud. It is a fundamental human plot that succeeded to move even modern audiences but the question was why it was able to do so.

Literature is a form of written testimony to the fact that a work of art that can grip audiences so thoroughly must hold something that is both universally fascinating and repressed. The oracle’s prophecy is nothing less than the universal acknowledgement of the fact that universal desire is allowed in the play to fulfill itself though conscious efforts are made to prevent this from happening.   
The plot of the play and that of analysis too charts the same pattern as a patient tends to resist unconscious knowledge just as Oedipus seems reluctant to know his true identity. There are parallels to be found between Oedipus Rex and Hamlet as far as the prohibition of incest is concerned. Literary scholars have long pondered over why Hamlet shows such indecisiveness and delay in revenging his father. To this Freud replies: Because his uncle has only carried out a murder that he himself wanted to accomplish.

Freud and literature
Freud’s perspective lends newer modes of meaning to literary studies  though the correlation between literature and dreams has been studied by Macrobius as early as 360 C.E. Freud differs by moving beyond just general symbols and assigning to dreams  a type of unique rhetoric. Dreams fulfill a wish and so they are taken out of the dregs of an individual’s life. The unconscious chooses them to fulfill some wish and so it is only the dreamer who holds the key to the dream’s interpretation.

“Only the dreamer can provide a set of associations to illuminate the “dream-thoughts” behind the dreams. Beneath the composite surface, which functions like a puzzle, lies the wish, the puzzle’s solution. The dream-thoughts function like a “latent content” behind the “manifest content” of the dream.”
There is a constant need to evade censorship for the unconscious desire is considered unacceptable and so dreams and also literary texts are filled with distortions and disguises. Therefore, dreams have three ways of distortion that are condensation, displacement and need of representation.

The interpretations of dreams in psychoanalytic theory
The basic motivation of all dream matter is wish-fulfillment and so the cause of a dream can be found in the events of the preceding a day though this is not a rule. This is termed to be ‘dream residue’. The dreams of adults are more difficult to interpret as they are subjected to distortion and are heavily disguised to that the ‘manifest content’ is a derivative of the ‘latent’ dream thoughts which are rooted in the unconscious. Types of distortions are as follows:

·         Condensation: a dream object stands for several ideas and associations and so though dreams may be laconic they carry a wealth of meaning

·         Displacement: The emotional significance of a dream object is separated from its real object or content and attached to a completely different one in order to escape the censor’s suspicions and bypass the ego’s defense mechanisms

·         Visualisation: a though is translated into a visual representative or image

·         Symbolism: a symbol replaces an action, idea or person so as not to excite the censor

These distortions have been extended to literary texts also.
Creative Writers and Daydreaming

Freud views works of art as imaginary satisfactions of unconscious wishes quite akin to dreams. The psychoanalytical approach pieces together the various elements of an artist’s life and works to construct a picture of the mental and instinctual impulses residing within. Freud speaks of the creative writer as a “strange being” who is unable to fathom from where the creative impulse stems.
According to him, the first traces of such imaginative activity can be seen in a child at play who creates a world of its own and re-arranges things in this new world to suit its purpose. The child however, can make out what is the real world though it likes to link its imagined objects to what it sees around itself in the real world. This ability to link the real and imagined worlds is termed as “phantasying”.

As we grow up, play is discarded but the pleasure derived from it is sublimated or substituted by daydreams. “We can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the substitute or surrogate”.
Daydreaming in the adult world has a certain embarrassment attributes to it which is quite unlike the child at play. Due to this, adults hide their phantasies. Freud divides creative writers into two groups, one consisting of authors who take over the readymade material of previous generations while others make their own material. Most literary work is like the second revision in a dream and so though something else may be projected on the surface the unconscious is really dealing with the same universal fundamental concepts.

There is also a ‘repetitive compulsion’ present that can be seen in literary works through the repetition of a concept. Like the concept of blinding as a form of castration seen in Oedipus Rex can be noted in Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ as well. The concept of moving away from the familiar as ‘repression’ and also the Gothic elements in literature that represent the uncanny has changes the way critics analyse characters and motives.
The significance of the “Interpretation of Dreams” on literature

 “But where is he? Where shall now be read
The fading record of this ancient guilt?”

 Freud attributed the confirmation of infantile sexuality in the universal power of appeal which resides in the Oedipus play. Though on the surface the morale of the story in tune to Greek societal norms is seen to be man’s submission to divine will that reigns supreme over man’s impotence; the fact that the play is still read today means there has to be something else within the plot that is still relevant to a modern audience. As Freud put it: there must be something which makes a voice within us ready to recognize the compelling force of destiny in the Oedipus.

“His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.”
Through the enactment of the play we get to see an unconscious primeval wish fulfilled which leads us to shirk back from Oedipus as what we see through him is an unconscious recollection of wishes that have been repressed. As the poet brings out Oedipus’ guilt he also makes people aware of their own where those very impulses are hidden. Nature has forced these wishes on us but we like Oedipus refuse to recognize them and to see them revealed so openly makes as seek to close our eyes on what we ourselves have felt in childhood.

In fact, the play itself may have sprung from such dream matter or primeval dream-material for the play in itself acknowledges that such dreams existed even then in Jocasta’s speech when she seeks to reassure a troubled Oedipus:      
“Many a man ere now in dreams hath lain
With her who bare him. He hath least annoy
Who with such omens troubleth not his mind.”

So, even then men had such dreams and were discomfited by them. It in a way is a key to the tragedy and the fact that his father is dead and when such dreams lead to a feeling of repulsion we find the same feelings excited by the play along with a form of self-punishment and horror. The secondary revision of this material attempts to make it rest on divine omnipotence and the failure of man to work against the dictates of fate.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a repetition of the same dream material

In Hmalet’s changed treatment of the same theme we see an increase in the amount of repression exerted by mankind. In Oedipus the wishful phantasy of a child is brought out in the disguise of a dream but the censor of ego in Hamlet refuses to let it be treated in such an open manner and it is repressed almost as if in a case of neurosis.
The existence of such feelings can only be seen through inhibiting consequences and instead of seeing their own secret desires reflected in the hero’s mind, people are unable to see the hero’s character in clarity. The play is built mainly on Hamlet’s hesitations on taking revenge for his father’s death but why he hesitates is left for conjecture.

Some have taken up the view that he is too excessively intellectual to act or that the dramatist has shown an irresolute man. But then, Hamlet does show that he can act and be rash as well for he runs his sword through an eavesdropper without soliloquizing even as the plans the death of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Therefore, since he proves himself capable to act and plan the reason he is unable to plan his revenge or enact it is due to the nature of the task in itself.
He can do anything but extract vengeance on his uncle because by taking his father’s place, his uncle has realized Hamlet’s own childhood dream. He cannot loath his uncle as he would have to loathe himself and can’t kill him for he too has sinned in his mind and self-reproach is his only solution.

We find distaste towards sexuality increasing as Shakespeare’s plays move on and ‘Timon of Athens’ is its height. Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia too belies this. Hamlet was written after the death of Shakespeare’s father and his own son who died early was called “Hamnet”. The play Macbeth written soon after deals with the subject of ‘childnessess’ though Freud cautions that it is easy to ‘over-interpret a text’ as complex motives and impulses make up a work and one single interpretation cannot be enough.        

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