Just don’t argue anymore

I don’t know much about psychoanalysis. One thing I do know now is that, practised outside of the doctor’s office, it turns into quackery — as a rule. Psychoanalytical studies of fiction often read like ravings of a mental patient. (I’m leaving aside similar attempts at Christianity for now.) As the disturbed go, the practitioner can be an expert — in this case, at the letters, language and history of the writer’s native country — and be able to put together a thoroughly reasoned chain of arguments. But it takes one look from a person fit for jury duty to see the analyst’s logic is plainly insane.

And here’s where Kafka kicks in: the common guy knows little about psychoanalysis, like me, so he can’t offer a valid critique, yet the lunatic logic drives him mad, and soon enough he is in no better condition than his opponent.

Judge for yourself. One such practitioner — a professor of Russian literature at a West Coast university — has indicated (see archives of this mailing list) that, partly due to his “research,” the protagonist of one great piece of Russian literature has been judged a latent homosexual (on the basis of another character’s dream), and his place in the gay world is no longer disputed. I’m sure the professor has got the code wrong but… what’s the point of arguing anyway?


  1. I can’t remember any good lit crit inspired by analytical psychology. Most of it never even made it as high as “dire”. Half the time the critics were having a go at the psyches of the authors rather than the characters. I have vague and unhappy memories of one particularly ludicrous essay in which Edmund Wilson prosecuted Ben Jonson in the court of Freudian justice and found his personality – and hence his writings – “inadequate”. If Freudian analysts are prime examples of adequacy and the socially well adjusted, I think I’d rather hang out with the loonies. (Of course, I’m “in denial”).

  2. Taking stabs at the author’s phyche is bad criticism but (more or less) legitimate psychoanalysis (assuming it can be legitimate). But literary characters are often little more than shadows in a dream; to analyze them is to make unwarranted assumptions about their essence. I’m afraid I’m becoming more sympathetic with Nabokov’s derision for the Viennese charlatan.

  3. Freud is currently in vogue again, if news magazines are to believed. Apparently researchers are suggesting that one or two of his out-dated ideas might be valid.

    To which I say … even a broken clock is right twice a day.

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