What were Sigmund Freud's ideas about literature?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Although Sigmund Freud was a psychologist rather than a literary theorist or literary critic, his ideas were quickly and enthusiastically applied to literature by many thinkers who are often called “Freudian critics” or “psychoanalytic critics.”

Freud’s ideas were numerous and complex.  One set of ideas basic to his thinking and to much Freudian criticism involves his emphasis on the id, the ego, and the superego. These were Freud’s terms for different aspects of the human mind or psyche. The id was the subconscious (associated with deeply felt desires and fears, often involving pleasure and pain); the ego was the conscious mind (the part of the mind that has to deal with everyday reality); the superego was the seat of the conscience, or moral principles. Freud believed that the subconscious exercised a much more powerful, irrational influence on human behavior than was normally admitted. The subconscious and the superego were often in conflict with one another. In a mentally healthy person, all three parts of the mind functioned in general harmony with one another.  Freud also believed that subconscious influences were shaped and activated at very early ages, including infancy, and that each person’s subconscious was fairly distinctive.

These Freudian ideas can easily be applied to writers, texts, and even audiences.  One can argue that the writer, when creating a text, is responding to his own deepest subconscious needs, desires, and fears, although usually by trying to bring them into some kind of alignment with his ego and superego. Characters in texts can also seem to have their own ids, egos, and superegos and their own distinctive ways of managing (or failing to manage) any conflicts between them. Finally, even audiences – especially as individuals but also as groups – can be said to have distinctive psychological characteristics.

When described in this way, Freudian theory seems eminently reasonable, but almost from the start many other kinds of critics objected to the perceived excesses of Freudian literary critics. More recent versions of Freudian thinking (such as those associated with Jacques Lacan) have provoked even more skepticism.  Norman Holland is a critic associated with the sensible application of Freudian ideas to literature (see his classic essay titled “Hamlet: My Greatest Creation”).  Frederick Crews is the thinker who has perhaps been the most stinging critic of Freudian ideas (largely because he thinks that no reputable psychologist today takes Freud’s ideas very seriously).  As his publisher described one of Crews’s books,

In Unauthorized Freud, Frederick Crews, America's best-known and most trenchant opponent of psychoanalysis, frames the revisionist case against Freud in selections by historians and critics. Drawing on such astute observers as Frank J. Sulloway, Adolf Grunbaum, Ernest Gellner, and Frank Cioffi, Crews has assembled a powerful case against the coherence of Freud's brainchild. . . . Together with Crews's pointed analysis, these chapters produce a shattering sense of finality: the Freudian revolution is now a thing of the past.

These kinds of criticisms, however, have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of people in literary studies for such latter-day Freudians as Jacques Lacan.