Friday, 20 June 2014

You're alright, Dr Freud.

There are few people whom I truly hate. Of course, there's the obligatory hatreds that any sound-minded and clean-souled person harbors and cherishes, like hating Hitler or Henry the Eighth. There's those little personal childhood hatreds that, as an adult, you know you should be able to let go but simply can't (like that girl in my year nine class who told everyone that I had skeleton legs). But there's someone who, for three years, I hated with a passion that was unrivaled and seemingly unprovoked. That person is Sigmund Freud. While I understand that this sounds somewhat unhinged, I do have a good(ish) reason for it.

Along with my English degree, for three years I slaved away at a double major in Psychology; something which came at the expense of my mental health and well-being. While the irony of this was not lost on me, it was not until I burst into tears at my computer in a stats lab that I realised that I should stop fighting the fact that Science and I would never be great lovers. We had a good run, and my academic record is certainly better off for my ill-advised liaison with Science, but our relationship was always doomed to be short, passionate and painful – and like all such break-ups, I am a much happier person for this decision.

Like most students, I pay for my Two-Minute Noodles and file paper by working in customer service. My job in a little local news-agency is, in many ways, lovely. For one thing, we can have hours at a time with no customers, during which time I get to sit on the 1950s stool behind the counter and read my book. The downside, however, is the fact that I have to interact with the – urgh – public. I live in an area that is populated almost exclusively by students and very, very old people. Serving Oldies can often be delightful. I have one sweet old man who tells me every day that he is “all the better for seeing you, my dear.” I have a sweet old girl who cackles like the Witch of the Waste every time she wins two dollars on her lotto ticket. But I also have a lot of Oldies who ask me (up to four or five times a week) what I'm studying. And I found that almost invariably when I answered psychology, the response was “You're not going to psychoanalyse me, are you??” accompanied by a flinch and step backwards. Of course, there were other responses. I was told once that I was making a great choice because it would mean that what I would end up doing was “sitting on my arse all day, doing nothing.” This was accompanied by a tone and expression of deepest disgust. One regular once asked me incredulously, “What are you going to do with that?” When I responded “be a psychologist,” he snorted, raised his eye-brows and left. However, it is the assumption that psychology consists of Freudian, sex-crazed nutters sitting next to a futon and demanding you “tell me about your muzzer” that I most object to. And this is what Freud gave to psychology. And, while, yes, I know he provided the basis for other, important and – oh, what's the word? That's right – accurate research, pretty much every particular he said in his life about the human mind was WRONG. And yet he is the man that ninety-five percent of the world think of when they think of psychology. And I hate him for that.

This semester, however, I did a unit on literary theory – and one of our topics was Psychoanalytic Reading Theory. When I first saw this on the lecture list, I was incensed. I had a long rant at my friend, in which I think I said; “ Fraud – I mean, Freud – should not be legitimised in any discipline! He needs to be wiped from academia, or he'll never loose his poignancy in psychology, where he dose most harm! I HATE him!” To which she responded that she could tell that, and that I should get over it. Which was pretty fair advice. However, it turned out that I was quite wrong.

Psychoanalytic reading theory is actually an interesting and very useful technique for approaching literature. While there are too many critics who go straight for the psychobiographical reading (for example: oh, Heathcliffe has some ikkey necrophilial tenancies going on. That must be a symptom of Emily Bronte's repressed necrophilia), there is also a school of thought that suggests that what you find in a text is an expression of the unconscious of the text itself. While this sounds a bit wakky at first, it has some interesting reasoning behind. Firstly, the idea of making an assumption about an author's mind based on their art is, obviously, ridiculous. We can never assume to know how something got into text: did they put it there on purpose? Did it get there by accident? Or – are we reading something into the text that the author didn't put there deliberately or otherwise? Thus, making these assumptions is never legitimate. Secondly, the idea of attributing things to a character's unconscious is also not legitimate. This is because, in making this attribution, you are assuming the characters themselves to be real – and, therefore, to have an unconscious that it entirely independent and separate from that of the reader. This is also pretty clearly quite silly.

So when we attribute everything we find in a text to the unconscious of the author or of the characters, we are ignoring the fact that our own mind is actively involved in the creation of meaning in a text. But when we give credit to the unconscious of the text itself, this allows for the fact that, as readers, we have an important role in the construction of the meaning we find when we read. This means that the unconscious of the text is something constructed by the reader from a combination of what he finds in the text and what he find in his own head. As Elizabeth Wright puts it, “it is not only the author who is in transference to his medium, who has unconsciously invested it with his fantasies; [your] reading is equally subjective” (in Psychoanalytic Reading Theory; 2013, pg 40). 

I love and respect this idea of creating meaning from only what you yourself find in the words on the page. It reminds me that reading is a creative act: it is an act of conception, edifice and invention. And notice that it has nothing at all to do with sex.

What do you know, Sigmund? Looks like you told me something about myself after all.