What’s your problem, Hamlet?

Lyndsey Stonebridge writes in Part III, Chapter XV, of The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature:


In January 1939, Sigmund Freud presented Virginia Woolf with a narcissus. The gift, we can suppose, was a token of appreciation from the analyst to his English publishers. Thanks to the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, Freud’s writings not only received a British audience, but were also introduced into the heart of the Bloomsbury enterprise. Perhaps unconsciously (or perhaps not) Freud’s choice of a narcissus was particularly apposite for a writer who so often put the self at the centre of her work. Narcissus, the self-centred image-lover, speaks eloquently to certain strands of literary Modernism and to the psychoanalytic project. Both put the self at the centre of their enquiries, and both try to find a new language to describe that self or, to be more precise, try to render what is most obscure about that self newly intelligible. Indeed, one way to think about the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature in this period is as a joint venture in forging a new language for the unconscious. From the science of the psyche and the art of the modern writer emerges a distinctly modern materialism for the dreamworld. But, and this is a paradox that lies at the heart of both psychoanalysis and literary Modernism, the self that both return to endlessly in this endeavour is not, as it were, in full possession of itself, but is rather characterised by a recognition of the limits of its own self-knowledge. What the Modernist poet and the free-associating patient both do, the psychoanalyst and critic Adam Phillips has argued, is inject ‘something irreducibly enigmatic into the culture, something no one quite knows what to do with’.”

Michael Delahoyde, Clinical Professor of English at Washington State University, write in his Introduction to Literature:

“Psychoanalytic criticism adopts the methods of “reading” employed by Freud and later theorists to interpret texts. It argues that literary texts, like dreams, express the secret unconscious desires and anxieties of the author, that a literary work is a manifestation of the author’s own neuroses. One may psychoanalyze a particular character within a literary work, but it is usually assumed that all such characters are projections of the author’s psyche.

One interesting facet of this approach is that it validates the importance of literature, as it is built on a literary key for the decoding. Freud himself wrote, “The dream-thoughts which we first come across as we proceed with our analysis often strike us by the unusual form in which they are expressed; they are not clothed in the prosaic language usually employed by our thoughts, but are on the contrary represented symbolically by means of similes and metaphors, in images resembling those of poetic speech” (“On Dreams.”).

Like psychoanalysis itself, this critical endeavor seeks evidence of unresolved emotions, psychological conflicts, guilts, ambivalences, and so forth within what may well be a disunified literary work. The author’s own childhood traumas, family life, sexual conflicts, fixations, and such will be traceable within the behavior of the characters in the literary work. But psychological material will be expressed indirectly, disguised, or encoded (as in dreams) through principles such as “symbolism” (the repressed object represented in disguise), “condensation” (several thoughts or persons represented in a single image), and “displacement” (anxiety located onto another image by means of association).

Despite the importance of the author here, psychoanalytic criticism is similar to New Criticism in not concerning itself with “what the author intended.” But what the author never intended (that is, repressed) is sought. The unconscious material has been distorted by the censoring conscious mind.

Psychoanalytic critics will ask such questions as, “What is Hamlet’s problem?” or “Why can’t Brontë seem to portray any positive mother figures?” “.

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