Freud and Fiction: The Psychological Thinking about Literature

Posted by NikH

Thought and speech are constituted by language. The medium of our consciousness, also known as our psyche, can be understood from verbal thought, as Lacan says, “the unconscious is structured like a language.”

In this blog, I re-post an interesting lecture “Introduction to Theory of Literature ” by Fry (2009). Fry talks about the essay of Peter Brook, “Freud’s Masterplot: a Model for Narrative”, a chapter in his book, “Reading for Plot, Design and Intention in Narrative“. From this essay the psychological meaning of discourse is developed and discussed.

 

Brooks on Jakobson and de Man

 

Plot vs. the Story: The Plot, which Brooks calls, syuzhet  in Russian. The story, fabula, it is the subject matter out of which the plot is made. 

Metaphor and Metonymy: 

Metaphor unifies, brings together different ideas, situations.

Metonymy brings things together “by a recognizable gesture toward contiguity but which nevertheless does not make any claim or pretension to unify or establish identity” — without unifying. Metonymy is a figure of speech which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.

Reading Jakobson and de Man, Brooks helps us understand the terms described to us above.  In Brooks’ essay, “Freud’s Masterplot,” the that the framework for argument is psychoanalytic and that the author is draws primarily from the text of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

On Freud

So what does Brooks take from Freud? What interests Brooks about Freud?

In this essay Brooks takes from Freud is the idea of structure. The idea that the unconscious is structured like a language. Hence in psychoanalysis is considered a “talking cure”, in which the unconscious is revealed via narrating and free association. “Talking cure” was first coined in the case of Anna O.

In terms of creating fictional plots, in terms of the nature of fiction, which is what interests Brooks–well, what does this mean?

Aristotle tells us that a plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. It seems almost logical, but we should consider this … A beginning, of course–well, it has to have a beginning and it has to have an end… but why does it have a middle? What is the function of the middle with respect to a beginning and an end? Why does Aristotle say, that a plot should have a certain magnitude? Why shouldn’t it be shorter? Why shouldn’t it be longer?

What does the middle have to do with the necessary connection with the beginning and the end, in such a way that resolves a kind of logic that makes the story worth being?  How does all this work? Brooks believes that he can understand it in psychoanalytic terms.

From Freud’s  The Interpretation of Dreams, Brook finds the methodological idea that text can be “mechanized”.

The central two mechanisms of the dream work are simultaneously:

  1. Condensation : takes essential symbols of the dream and distills them into a kind of over-determined unit, so that one can see the underlying desires and wishes expressed in a dream, manifest in a particular symbolic unity.
  2. Displacement: essential symbols of the dream, the way a dream attempts to manifest that which it desires, are not  expressed in themselves but are displaced into obscurely related ideas or images or symbols.

Displacement is a detour of understanding. Condensation is a distillation of understanding. SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Jacques Lacan probably noticed that the work in every day discourse, and also in our dreams, and our narratives, can be understood as operating through these two mechanisms, condensation and displacement.

Condensation is metaphorical in nature, and displacement metonymic in nature. Metonymy is delaying, and a “différance of signification”– or deferring to a later time. Metaphor is in trying to bring together meaning “in a statement of identity of the discourse that’s attempting to articulate itself”, bringing together identity, “affirmation of resemblance”.

brooks freud

So we can see how Brooks combines Freud’s structure in the interpretation of dreams, showing its correlation with Jakobson and de Man’s structure of literature.  Brooks is not interested in the psychogenesis of the author, nor the characters.

The text is not there to tell us about the author or the character. The text is alive, to express desire, put in motion. The structure of the text is there to manifest desire. Freud has a particular desire to fulfill a desire for reduced excitation. can be associate the death wish as the reduction of excitation.

Brooks’ Departure from Freudian Criticism

Brook is taking a different angle with his essay by not getting involved in freudian criticism nor does he talk about how freudian ideas are used in literature.  

“I would remind you in passing that although we don’t pause over traditional Freudian criticism in this course, it can indeed be extremely interesting: just for example, Freud’s disciple, Ernest Jones, wrote an influential study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which he showed famously that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. Think about the play. You’ll see that there’s a good deal in what Jones is saying; and in fact, famously in the history of the staging and filming of Shakespeare–as you probably know, Sir Laurence Olivier took the role of Hamlet under the influence of Ernest Jones. In the Olivier production of Hamlet, let’s just say made it painfully clear in his relations with Gertrude that he had an Oedipus complex. Again, there were actual sort of literary texts written directly under the influence of Freud. One thinks of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, for example, in which the central character, Paul Morel, is crippled by an Oedipus complex that he can’t master and the difficulties and complications of the plot are of this kind.”

“Moving closer to the present, an important figure in literary theory, Harold Bloom, can be understood to be developing in his theories of theoretical text, beginning with The Anxiety of Influence, a theory of the author–that is to say, a theory that is based on the relationship between belated poets and their precursors, which is to say a relationship between sons and fathers. So there is a certain pattern in–and of course, I invoke this pattern in arguing that Levi-Strauss‘ version of the Oedipus myth betrays his Oedipus complex in relation to Freud. Plainly, Freudian criticism with these sorts of preoccupations is widespread, continues sometimes to appear, and cannot simply be discounted or ignored as an influence in the development of thinking about literature or of the possibilities of thinking about literature.”

The text is there to express desire, to put in motion, and to make manifest desire or a desire. Brooks says that he has a particular desire in mind.

The structure of the text, or the way in which the text functions is to fulfill a desire for reduced excitation.  This means that the desire which can be associated with the pleasure principle in sexual terms and can be associated with the idea of the death wish that Freud develops in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

In these ways Brooks understands the structure, the delay, the arabesque, or postponement of the end.

Within the text there involves a kind of coexistence between the possibility through “desire of reducing excitation, being excited, and reducing excitation.”

Dreams and stories don’t just express this desire; they also delay it.

Many of the dreams we have are neither exciting, and are tedious. Fiction, as art, has structure, and is thus precisely designed to create delay to a desired degree but not unduly beyond that degree.

Middle of fiction involve this process of delay, they seem also to revisit un-pleasurable things.  The experiences that constitute the middles have a tendency to un-pleasurable. The middles are not un-interesting, but they are page turners because they reflect un-pleasant episodes… which we seem to be fascinated with.

Why, in other words, return to what isn’t fun, to where it isn’t pleasure, and what can this possibly have to do with the pleasure principle?

Brooks p. 96-97

Brooks p. 96

Brooks p. 96-97

Brooks p. 97

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle,  Freud considers the phenomena experienced with trauma victims. Written at the end of the First World War,  many of the contemporary books written in that time dealt with the subject of war experiences: Virginia’s Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that her treatment of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway is a treatment of a traumatized war victim and Rebecca West, wrote one in particular called The Return of the Soldier, the protagonist of which is also a traumatized war victim. It seemed to be the theme of the period and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle contributes to this theme.

Brooks himself likes to refer to the text of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as itself a master plot–in other words as having a certain fictive character, like The Return of the Soldier or Mrs. Dalloway.

Freud begins by saying, “The weird thing about these trauma victims whom I have had in my office is that in describing their dreams and even in their various forms of neurotic repetitive behavior, they seem compulsively to repeat the traumatic experience that has put them in the very predicament that brought them to me. In other words, they don’t shy away from it. They don’t in any strict sense repress it. They keep compulsively going back to it. Why is that? How can that possibly be a manifestation of the only kind of drives I had ever thought existed up until the year 1919, namely drives that we can associate in one way or another with pleasure–with the pleasure principle, obviously; with a sort of implicit sociobiological understanding that the protraction of life is all about sexual reproduction and that the displacement or inhibition of the direct drives associated with that take the form of the desire to succeed, the desire to improve oneself, and the desire to become more complex emotionally and all the rest of it? All of this we can associate with the pleasure principle. How does this compulsion to return to the traumatic event in any way correspond to or submit itself to explanation in terms of the pleasure principle?”

“The Aim of All Life is Death”

The compulsion to repeat, manifests itself in adults in various forms of neurotic behavior.  We can think of it in terms of effort at mastery of something, like a rehearsal of the inevitability of death. The trauma of death which awaits and which has been heralded by traumatic events in one’s life, a near escape: for example, in a train accident or whatever the case may be. So Freud in developing his argument eventually comes to think that the compulsion to repeat has something to do with a kind of repeating forward of an event which is in itself unnarratable: the event of death, which is of course that which ultimately looms.

Freud’s argument is that there is somehow in us a compulsion or a desire, a drive, to return–like going home again or going back to the womb to return to that inanimate state. “The aim of all life,” he then says, “is death.”

Brooks says:

We need at present to follow Freud into his closer inquiry concerning the relation between the compulsion to repeat and the instinctual. The answer lies in “a universal attribute of instinct and perhaps of organic life in general,” that “an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.“…

This function [of the drives] is concerned “with the most universal endeavor of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world.”

 

But there’s a reason as to why novels are long: “not too long, not too short, but of a certain length–of a certain magnitude, as Aristotle puts it.”

The organism doesn’t just want to die. The organism is not suicidal. That’s a crucial mistake that we make when we first try to come to terms with what Freud means by “the death wish.” The organism wants to die on its own terms, which is why it has an elaborate mechanism of defenses–“the outer cortex,” as Freud is always calling it–attempting to withstand, to process, and to keep at arm’s length the possibility of trauma. You blame yourself as a victim of trauma for not having the sufficient vigilance in your outer cortex to ward it off. Part of the compulsion to repeat is, in a certain sense–part of the hope of mastery in the compulsion to repeat is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you failed to have in the past and therefore fail to ward it off.

According to Freud, the organism wants to evolve toward its dissolution.

So there is this tension in the organism between evolving to its end and being modified prematurely toward an end, a modification which in terms of fiction would mean you wouldn’t have a plot, right? You might have a beginning, but you would have a sudden cutting off that prevented the arabesque of the plot from developing and arising.

Now what Brooks argues following Freud is that to this end, the creating of an atmosphere in which with dignity and integrity… this is where the pleasure principle and the death wish cooperate.

Hence Freud is able to proffer, with a certain bravado, the formulation: “the aim of all life is death.” We are given an evolutionary image of the organism in which the tension created by external influences has forced living substance to “diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated détours before reaching its aim of death.” In this view, the self-preservative instincts function to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, to ward off any ways of returning to the inorganic which are not imminent to the organism itself. In other words, “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.” It must struggle against events (dangers) which would help to achieve its goal too rapidly–by a kind of short-circuit.

 

… [W]e could say that the repetition compulsion and the death instinct serve the pleasure principle; in a larger sense [though], the pleasure principle, keeping watch on the invasion of stimuli from without and especially from within, seeking their discharge, serves the death instinct, making sure that the organism is permitted to return to quiescence.

Two differing drives coexist in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

The problem in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, is that it’s awfully hard to keep death and sex separate. The reduction of excitation is obviously something that the pleasure principle is all about. The purpose of sex is to reduce excitation, to annul desire. The purpose of death, Freud argues, is to do the same thing.

For example,  the compulsion to repeat nasty episodes, to revisit trauma, and to repeat the un-pleasurable.  It could be called something which is a kind of pleasure and which therefore could be subsumed under the pleasure principle and would obviate the need for a theory of the death drive as Freud develops it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

As with the plot: desire emerges or begins as the narratable.

What is the unnarratable? The unnarratable is that immersion in our lives such that there is no sense of form or order or structure. Anything is unnarratable if we don’t have a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end to bring to bear on it. The narratable, in other words, must enter into a structure. So the beginning, which is meditated on by Sartre’s Roquentin in La Nausee and quoted to that effect by Brooks. The narratable begins in this moment of entry into that pattern of desire that launches a fiction. We have speculated on what that desire consists in, and so the narratable becomes a plot and the plot operates through metaphor, which unifies the plot, which shows the remarkable coherence of all of its parts.

In narrative theory there’s no such thing in fiction as irrelevant detail. Nothing is there by accident. The nature of the underlying desire that’s driving the plot forward; but on the other hand, metonymy functions as the principle of delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure; the settling upon bad object choice and other unfortunate outcomes, the return of the unpleasurable–all the things that happen in the structure of “middles” in literary plots. The plot finally binds material together, and both metaphor and metonymy are arguably forms of binding. Brooks says:

To speak of “binding” in a literary text is thus to speak of any of the formalizations (which, like binding, may be painful, retarding) that force us to recognize sameness within difference, or the very emergence of a sjužetfrom the material of fabula.

 

Tony the Tow Truck Revisited

Tony the Tow Truck. I would suggest that in the context of Beyond the Pleasure Principle we could re-title Tony the Tow Truck as The Bumpy Road to Maturity. It certainly has the qualities of a picaresque fiction. It’s on the road, as it were, and the linearity of its plot–the way in which the plot is like beads on a string, which tends to be the case with picaresque fiction, and which by the way is also a metonymic aspect of the fiction–lends the feeling of picturesque to the narrative. Quickly to reread it–I know that you all have it glued to your wrists, but in case you don’t, I’ll reread it:

I am Tony the Tow Truck. I live in a little yellow garage. I help cars that are stuck. I tow them to my garage. I like my job. One day I am stuck. Who will help Tony the Tow Truck? “I cannot help you,” says Neato the Car. “I don’t want to get dirty.” “I cannot help you [see, these are bad object choices, right?],” says Speedy the Car. “I am too busy.” I am very sad. Then a little car pulls up. It is my friend, Bumpy. Bumpy gives me a push. He pushes and pushes [by the way, this text, I think, is very close to its surface a kind of anal-phase parable. In that parable, the hero is not Tony in fact but a character with whom you are familiar if you’re familiar with South Park, and that character is of course the one who says, “He pushes and pushes…”] and I am on my way.” [In any case that is part of the narrative, and then:] “Thank you, Bumpy,” I call back. “You’re welcome,” says Bumpy. Now that’s what I call a friend.

So that’s the text of Tony the Tow Truck. Now we’ve said that it’s picaresque. We can think in terms of repetition, obviously, as the delay that sets in between an origin and an end. We’ve spoken of this in this case as–well, it’s the triadic form of the folk tale that Brooks actually mentions in his essay; but it is, in its dilation of the relationship of beginning and end, a way of reminding us precisely of that relation. He comes from a little yellow garage. The question is, and a question which is perhaps part of the unnarratable, is he going back there? We know he’s on his way, but we don’t know, if we read it in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whether he’s on his way back to the little yellow garage or whether–and there’s a premonition of this in being stuck, in other words in having broken down–whether he’s on his way to the junkyard.

In either case, the only point is that he will go to either place because the little yellow garage is that from which he came; in either case–little yellow garage or junkyard–he’s going to get there on his own terms, but not as a narcissist and not as the person who begins every sentence in the first part of the story with the word “I,” because you can’t just be an autonomous hero. On your journey, and this is also true of the study of folklore, you need a helper. That’s part of fiction. You need another hero. You need a hero to help you, and having that hero, encountering the other mind as helper, is what obviates the tendency, even in a nice guy like Tony, toward narcissism which is manifest in the “I,” “I,” “I” at the beginning of the story. Notice that then the “I” disappears, not completely but wherever it reappears it’s embedded rather than initial. It is no longer, in other words, that which drives the line in the story. So the arabesque of the plot, as I say, is a matter of encountering bad object choices and overcoming them: neatness, busyness–choices which, by the way, are on the surface temptations. We all want to be neat and busy, don’t we? But somehow or another it’s not enough because the otherness, the mutuality of regard that this story wants to enforce as life–as life properly lived–is not entailed in and of itself in neatness and busyness. Resolution and closure, then, is mature object choice and in a certain sense there, too, it’s a push forward, but we don’t quite know toward what. We have to assume, though, in the context of a reading of this kind that it’s a push toward a state in which the little yellow garage and the unnarratable junkyard are manifest as one and the same thing.

Now as metonymy, the delays we have been talking about, the paratactic structure of the way in which the story is told–all of those, and the elements of repetition, are forms that we recognize as metonymic, but there’s something beyond that at the level of theme. This is a story about cars. This is a story about mechanical objects, some of which move–remember those smiling houses in the background–and some of which are stationary, but they’re all mechanical objects. They’re all structures. In other words, they’re not organic. This is a world understood from a metonymic point of view as that which lacks organicity, and yet at the same time the whole point of the story is thematically metaphoric. It is to assert the common humanity of us all: “That’s what I call a friend.” The whole point of so many children’s stories, animal stories, other stories like this, The Little Engine that Could, and so on is to humanize the world: to render friendly and warm and inviting to the child the entire world, so that Tony is not a tow truck–Tony’s a human being, and he realizes humanity in recognizing the existence of a friend. The unity of the story, in other words, as opposed to its metonymic displacements through the mechanistic, is the triumphant humanization of the mechanistic and the fact that as we read the story, we feel that we are, after all, not in mechanical company but in human company.

That’s the effect of the story and the way it works. In terms of the pleasure principle then, life is best in a human universe and in terms of–well, in terms of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the whole point of returning to an earlier state, the little yellow garage or junkyard, is to avert the threat that one being stuck will return to that junkyard prematurely or along the wrong path.

What is interesting?

Narratives are interesting. We compulsively repeat the unpleasant, return to the un-pleasurable… why? In order to gain mastery of what might otherwise be a moment of helplessness in the face of traumatic experiences. I am not sure if it is a death-wish as much as a defying of death. It is as if repeating the event is a means of making “banal” that which has caused so much “excitement” in the form of anxiety. 

As in psychotherapy, patients with psychological issues talk away their suffering. How does the talk do this? Talking or narrating, is a form of repeating unpleasant events. It is not the mere talking about something, but talking to someone who is listening. If there are more people listening, the healing effect gets better.

There is also an effect of hearing another person’s narrative on the listener. The listener is touched by the unpleasant narrative of the other. There is a vicarious effect (something to do with our mirror neurons) and our sense for empathy. Hearing another’s narrative, has a spiritual effect on the listener. This is the reason why we are drawn to such stories and narratives, of plots in literature.  NIk

References:

Brooks, P. (1992). Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative. Harvard University Press. p. 90. 

Fry, P. (2009). Introduction to Theory of Literature. Lecture retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnnWbVvnYIs.