The two great theorists of this school are Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This guide will concentrate on Lacan. For more complete guides to Freudian criticism you are recommended to consult Katy Guinness' excellent study guides to Freud on Bibliomania. While many different systems have been used to understand human psychology, the most influential on literary criticism in the twentieth-century has been that developed by Freud and expounded and related more closely to the Theory of literature by Lacan. Freud's is a pathological psychology that seeks to diagnose the problems of dysfunctional individuals who have failed to establish healthy social lives or to develop socially acceptable behavioural patterns.
Freud's concepts have often caused controversy, and his theories continue to be reviewed, refined, revised, and even rejected. In recent years, many psychologists and literary scholars have debated how tainted Freudian psychology is by gender bias. Some have emphatically rejected Freud's approach to psychology because of its focus on sexuality. While some concepts (like "penis envy" and "phallic phase") establish a male normative base, many literary critics (including feminist critics) continue to find in Freud's ideas useful tools for interpreting the imagery, conflicts, and characters of literature.
Freudian Assumptions and Methodology
Below is a brief introduction to some central Freudian concepts concerning human psychology:
Most human mental processes are rooted in the unconscious, and most human behaviour is driven by the libido. While libido is often equated with sexuality, it is less a physical sex drive than the pursuit of pleasurable self-fulfilment and self- expression.
Individuals struggle to integrate into society and find a niche that allows for healthy self-expression. When this process of social integration is stifled or frustrated, the individual suffers an internal conflict or neurosis.
This neurosis can be described using a triad of psychic forces termed by Freud as the id, the ego, and the superego. In the healthy, socially adjusted individual, these forces work in a balanced partnership. In a disturbed individual, these forces are not balanced.
Under the influence of the id, the ego, and the superego, the normally developing individual traverses several stages of development. From the dependency and self- gratification of the oral phase, the individual moves through the more self-disciplined but also rebelliously self-consumed anal phase to the more self- assertive but potentially creative genital phase. However, the drives of any of these phases can get out of control, preventing the individual's healthy integration into society.
In dreams, the unconscious of the individual expresses itself, dramatizing the unresolved conflicts connected with the pursuit of self-expression and social integration. Even though these tensions are masked in the manifest content recalled by the conscious mind, the images of the dream remain signs that point to the latent content. The psychoanalyst seeks to unravel the dream-work by which the unconscious obscures the latent psychological conflict. Through this interpretation of the residual signs of the dream, the psychoanalyst seeks to diagnose the psychic predicament of the patient.
The psychoanalytic critic responds to the work of literature as a kind of dream, assessing the imagery and the characters and their relationships in an effort to understand the root conflicts being dramatized. The early practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism focused on using literature to psychoanalyse the author, assuming that all artists are neurotic. However, more recently and now perhaps more commonly, psychoanalytic criticism has focused on interpreting and articulating the motivations and conflicts that determine the predicaments of characters within a work of literature.
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