Book Reviews

Review of: The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will. Edited by Joseph H. Smith, M.D. Pp. xix+390. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1979

Notes and Queries, Vol. 28, No. 4, August 1981, p. 371


This is the fourth volume of a series with thegeneral title of 'Psychiatry and the Humanities', all of them edited by Joseph H. Smith, M.D. Doctor Smith is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the George Washington University, and he is a teaching analyst. He has enlisted a dozen other Professors (of English, French, Literature, Humanities, Psychiatry) in a symposium whose aim it is not at all easy to discover. In his Introduction Professor Smith is no help at all on this, or indeed on the purpose of the series as a whole. The majority of the contribu­tors burke the issue too. One must read 'mechanisms of defense' as Freudian ones, set up against forbidden feelings by the will of the poet. In every poem, it is supposed, there is an entity addressed by the poet, 'the imaginary Other'. Whether this be God, or The Beloved, etc., it may be metaphorically identified with the Psychoanalyst, and the poet then with the analysand. The poem is a report on uncon­scious processes, interpretable in terms of psy­choanalese. Freud himself probably would have condemned and rejected the whole forlorn enterprise. In a couch analysis the analysand cannot merely say, with Blake, 'I Dreamt a Dream! What can it mean?' He will be re­quired to expand on all the particularities till the occult meanings are laid bare. But Professor Dickstein, in all the 46 pages of his essay, does not have Blake upon his couch. The poet is shielded by death from gratuitous and unverifiable interpretation. The pathetic fallacy is near the heart of these essays, reduc­ing their value to that of speculation.

   This does not mean that they are without the merit of suggestiveness. Psychoanalysts are adepts at standing ideas on their heads, and in combining and confounding a proposition with its negation. Professor Dickstein reminds us of the notion of J. L. Borges, that writers may influence their precursors as well as their successors. 'Each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.' Dickstein goes on to show how Blake's Songs of Experience were 'influenced' by Freud. The gradual discovery of Blake in the twentieth century parallels the gradual ascendancy of Freud [in the United States]. 'As the cultural prestige of Freud declines, as psychoanalysis loses ground to other models of the mind, Blake too may well descend…”.

   There are other intrepid explorers of the Unconscious. With Bernard Shaw Professor Gordon interprets the conflicts of male and female protagonists, of realists and idealists, of the sensual and the heroic, as 'Shaw's idealiz­ation of his incestuous [sic] attachment to his mother'. This is Freudianism at its most banal. Professor Irwin travels rather deeper to resuscitate Freud's death instinct. Both Freud and Ernst Mach had the experience of mistak­ing his own mirror image for a Doppelgänger, a figuration of death. The death of the double appears again in Hart Crane's poem The Bridge. Acceptance of death for the self is made possible by repressing the possibility of annihilation for the 'written self'.

   Among so many fanciful creations it is refreshing to find a more disciplined and ob­jective essay by Shoshana Felman, a Professor of French. She asks why it is that the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe has been so widely found irresistible while it has been so widely con­demned. Looking at Poe through the eyes of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valery, T. S. Eliot found himself convinced of the importance of this poet. His influence on French literature has been immense. Professor Felman does not say so, but surely to the French mind Poe is a different poet from what he is to the English or American mind, inoculated, immunized, and allergic to the special qualities of his language. One cannot say the French are wrong and we are right in our appraisal. The poetic effect requires a subject to experience it as well as the object that is experienced, and the French and English contexts are different worlds. Professor Felman launches a refreshing and deserved criticism of the psychoanalytic critiques (Krutch, Bonaparte) of Poe as man and writer. She quotes Lacan's dictum: there is no metalanguage. 'There is no language in which interpretation can itself escape the effects of the unconscious; the interpreter is not more immune than the poet to unconscious delu­sions and errors.'