Tuesday, February 4, 2014

And Finally... Freud

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from the annals of the Literary Theorists. That's right everyone, today We're talking about Freud!

I'm sure that lots of us can quote a line or two from Freud:

"Sometimes a Cigar is just a Cigar"

"The Oedipus Complex"

"Psychoanalytic Theory"

"Freudian Slip"

But what actual theory do these snippets entail? A lot of it has been discredited in the world of clinical therapy, but Freud is still widely used in literary criticism, and his theories have influenced the western world more deeply than many realize. For instance, Freud drastically changed the way we read, interpret and perform Hamlet. (Oh yes, there ARE a lot of references to Shakespeare. I'm writing my thesis on him, so deal with it. Also, Freud intentionally misreads Hamlet, which is INFURIATING.)

What we're going to do this time is  quick, boiled-down overview of Freud's main theoretical texts. So, without further ado, here we go!

The Oedipus Complex (From The Interpretation of Dreams)

The quickest way to describe the Oedipus complex is that young boys are born with a desire to marry their mothers and kill their fathers. Which also happens to be the plot of Sophocles' Oedipus. Rather than commenting on a classic Greek work, however, Freud is looking at this as a developmental stage that children go through, and can be the basis for the later development of neuroses.

Some problematic quotes (From The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition):
"Being in love with one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed at that time and which is of such importance in determining the symptoms of the later neurosis."

"It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father."

"The play is built up on Hamlet's hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him: but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations and an immense variety of attempts at interpreting them have failed to produce a result."

Clearly, there are a couple of problems with Freud's theory. Like, for instance, what on earth do you do if you're a female? Or, quite frankly, anything other than a heterosexual, white male? Freud addresses this late in his career, or tries to. He disdains the Electra complex, and attempts to create a rather tortured argument to demonstrate how boys and girls develop in the same manner. Obviously this is considered some of his weakest work.

As for his blatant misreading of Hamlet and complete ignorance of the critical storm that revolves around that play, all I will say is that Laurence Olivier had clearly read Freud before filming his Hamlet, and frankly the results are a weak, unbelievable Hamlet with a seriously uncomfortable closet scene.

Prior to Freud, the closet scene would have been done very differently. Like, with two chairs and a plate of sandwiches. Not in the bedroom. Without the uncomfortable Freudian subtext. (For more context, see the linked video above.)

Medusa's Head

This is a short text, about a page long that expands on the single idea that "To decapitate = to Castrate" (From The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends 3rd Edition, Edited by David Richter). Essentially, the multiple phallic symbols on Medusa's head represent castration. Freud also posits that an erect phallus on display is saying "I am not afraid of you. I defy you. I have a penis."

Oh yes, Freud did just pit the penis and vagina in an epic mythological battle and had the penis win.

The Uncanny

This text is Freud's attempt to concretize an aesthetic quality. The word in the original German is "unheimlich", which Freud goes on to lengthily define as something that is belonging to the house/family, is familiar, concealed, kept from sight... it goes on until we have such a mishmash of definitions that the word itself almost becomes meaningless. So we begin with a translation problem; Freud himself states that "uncanny" is not the best translation for "unheimlich". But the point of this first section of the essay is to define a word to describe a certain feeling.

The second half of the essay examines a short story called The Sand Man. What that analysis devolves into is Freud going back to his roots and positing that the fear of losing one's eyesight is a substitute for the fear of, you guessed it, castration!

Hopefully you've enjoyed this edition of Notes from the Ivory Tower, and if you didn't precisely enjoy it, I hope you got a few good giggles out of it. We'll be back next time with something else fun!

No comments:

Post a Comment