Stuff of Sleep and Dreams
Stuff of Sleep and Dreams, like much of Leon Edel’s work, most notably his multivolume Henry James (1953-1972), combines probing analysis of extensive, complex, yet always trustworthy data about literary figures with intense imaginative sympathy with those figures as human beings. The yield of this fusion of analysis and sympathetic imagination, combined with the consistent power and grace of Edel’s prose, is a rarity in literary criticism: a critical work that itself attains the status of literary fine art. Rarer still, this is a readable and engaging book addressed to the general reader and not merely to a coterie of college professors and graduate students.
Edel’s book has qualities—coherence, continuity, organic wholeness—that seem to belie the history of the work as a collection of essays, all but five previously published separately, on a variety of authors (among others, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Edmund Wilson, Rex Stout, James Joyce, and Henry James). The seeming integrity of the book, though it arises in part from the transitions between essays that Edel has developed and in the cross-references he has scattered among them, can be attributed above all to the coherence of his critical enterprise as a seeker of the hidden links between the writer’s life (especially the buried life of the psyche) and his or her work.
In a sense, what Edel seeks to achieve in this collection is a codification, with wide-ranging exempla, of his practice as a literary biographer since the 1930’s. In the first three essays in the volume, and in the prefatory “A Mini-Lexicon for This Book,” Edel develops a vocabulary and rationale for his lifelong enterprise of literary interpretation based on psychological investigation. At the outset, he gives a name to a critical genre, new to this century, of which he has been perhaps the chief practitioner: he calls it “literary psychology,” and he defines it as “the adaptation of psychology and psychoanalytic concepts to the study of mankind’s ability to create and use myths, in essence a study—without therapeutic purpose—of what literature expresses of the human being who creates it.” Edel is at pains throughout Stuff of Sleep and Dreams to make it clear that his approach is free of psychoanalytic jargon and that it is capable of transcending, in the hands of qualified practitioners, the spectre of reductiveness that looms large for some more purely “literary” critics as soon as psychological approaches to literature are broached.
The book as a whole bears out his contentions. Edel never suggests that a writer’s artistic decisions and preoccupations can be explained away as a record of neurotic or pathological compulsions. Rather, he stresses again and again the ways in which writers conquer and transform the “tristimania” (mania of sadness) that he sees as the catalyst in the creative drive of many of the figures he treats (Eliot, James, Tolstoy, Yeats, Woolf, Wharton, and others). Such writers, in Edel’s view, surmount their unhappiness, forging out of their personal experience of depression—out of feelings of loss, dispossession, powerlessness, guilt, and rage—immortal triumphs of art in acts of imagination that, at least for the major artists he treats, are enduring affirmations of the resilience and life-giving power of the human imagination. As for jargon, Edel’s language is almost wholly free of the catchwords of Freudian criticism: the only essay in which there appears what Edel calls “’label’ language, these clinical verbal shortcuts I would not ordinarily use,” is one in which he discusses W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970), a book in which the poet groups various memories and musings under such alphabetical headings as “Castration Complex” and “Penis Envy.” Here it is Auden’s language, and not Edel’s, that smacks of clinical reductiveness.
The understanding of psychology on which Edel’s “literary psychology” is based is not strictly Freudian. The first essay in Stuff of Sleep and Dreams recounts Edel’s chance encounter in Vienna, at age twenty-two, with Alfred Adler and his circle. Edel attended a seminar of Adler’s, followed by evening talks with the sixty-year-old psychologist at the Café Siller. Adler, more interested in clinical practice than in the general theories of his mentor, Sigmund...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)