Psychoanalytical Theory

The discourses of literary theory in psychoanalysis are originally born out of the womb of Freud’s writings on the human psyche. Later on these discourses took diverse courses under the influence of other seminal thinkers such Jung and Lacan among others in the field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

In this short summary in this unit I will implode the main ideas of those thinkers in a way that facilitates the application of psychoanalytical theories on literary discourses. Psychoanalysis as a branch of epistemology concerns itself with the human psyche. The psyche is the immaterial part of the person. This immaterial part takes dimension from the moment of birth and continues in dimension until death. The psyche, unlike the brain, the heart or the head, is not a physical or biological component of the person; it is a socially and culturally construct. Then if it is so, how can we define it?

The Birth of the Psyche
 According to Freud the human beings are born with a natural tendency to shun work and labor, and enjoy rest, laziness and pleasure. From the moment of their materialization in the womb until their birth, human beings are taken care of completely, while lazily residing inside another body. Shortly after their birth, they instinctively realize that maintaining the same state of passivity, though sweet, will take them no where. This moment of realization splits the human psyche. This is to say the conflict between two principles begins to emerge. The first principle is the so-called pleasure principle where the child desires the total unity with the mother and her body with all the advantages enjoyed. But when the child realizes that real life does not go this way, and that the child has to work or do something to maintain his/her existence, the child starts suppressing his/her desire for the mother’s body and starts inching towards the reality principle. The reality principle involves the child’s conformation with the rules and regulations of the father or the society at large. And thus the human psyche begins by suppressing desire. The next question is about where desire is suppressed.

The Three Compartments of the Psyche

Freud designates three compartments for the psyche. He calls them the id, the superego and the ego. These are imaginary compartments the exact location of them within the body is still not known for sure.

The Id
To begin with, the id is the place where the human being, from early childhood until death, sweeps away all desires and chaotic thoughts and experiences and feelings. It is a place that accommodates all sorts of junk that a sane human being does not want to exhibit in public. In other words, this place is called the subconscious. According to Freud, the first salient component that resides in this place is the child’s suppressed desire for the parent of its opposite sex. Freud believes that a male child is born with a desire to possess his mother. However, the child’s desire for the mother is truncated at a very early stage of his development by the intimidating presence of the father. The child imagines that if he competes with the father over the mother, the father being the stronger will deprive the child of his penis. Thus for the child to preserve his penis, he accepts the father’s authority and detaches himself gradually from his mother. This negotiation between the child’s desires and fears is in essence a negotiation between the id and the Superego.

The Superego
The superego is the opposite extreme of the id. It is the force used by the father and the social and cultural institutions he represents to check and drive the person’s desires into the id. Examples on the superego include tradition, inherited values, religion and its institutions, education and its peripheries and all forms of authority. These institutions cause the person to check his/her behavior to avoid all sorts of punishment or loss of privileges.

The Ego
The ego is the self that emerges after an on going and continual negotiation between the id and the superego. The ego consequently is hardly a fixed entity; and therefore it is very difficult to define in limited terms. The ego is a byproduct of the subconscious, with all its structured or non-structured desires, and the superego, with all its repressive patriarchal institutions. Thus, if the person’s superego is far weaker than his/her id the result will be a loose, permissive, carefree, easy going, may be mad person. The difficulty in judging such a person here depends on the predisposition of the judging body and the moral and social standards they embody. If the person’s superego is stronger than his/her id, then that person will emerge to be more of a conformist to the moral and social values of the person’s medium. On the whole, according to the wizards of psychoanalysis the healthiest psyche is the one that can strike a favorable balance between the demands of the superego and the needs of the id. In any case, repression is the key element beyond the ego. Repression in itself, if not released would naturally cause neurosis or psychic illnesses. Dreams, among other elements such as creative art, jokes, and tongue slips constitute good safety valves that maintain the sanity of the ego.

Dreams and the Subconscious

Dreams are born, according to Freud, out of the material available in the subconscious. Most of the time this material is chaotic and nasty by nature. It is nasty because it is not fit in the first place as suitable for the conscious mind or the ego. As we cannot produce this material in public, we tend to exhibit it to ourselves only in our world of dreams. The original material of the dream can be so disturbing that its outright manifestation might disrupt sleep and put an abrupt end to the dream. Therefore, the id, in a clever attempt to protect the ego and maintain its function, presents its content in a way acceptable to the ego. Accordingly, the manifest dream goes through several phases of editing:

Condensation: This is to say that the dream is not actually what it is. The short dream the dreamer sees is in effect a dense summary of a much wider components and details
Displacement: This function leads the dreamer to disguise the material of the dream with other symbols or material more palatable to the ego. Consideration of representability: This function complements the previous one and enables the dreamer to transfer the basic abstract and loose components of the dream into some meaningful visual images.
Secondary elaboration: The final touches the unconscious ads to the dream in order to emphasize, mask or delete certain elements. In this respect, dreams are like literary products. The author of a literary text selects and condenses his material from among a wide variety of elements; uses metaphors and metonymy that approximate the function of condensation and displacement. The literary text then goes through the other processes of editing and revision. Thus, to Freud, a manifest dream is not what it is. This does not mean that it is its opposite, either. A manifest dream is usually zipped. To approximate its meaning, the interpreter has to unzip the dream and trace its symbols and images to their original subconscious chaotic forms. The same also applies to literary texts in the light of Freudian psychoanalysis. The manifest symbols, images and language of the text should be able to carry us, through the reversing of the dream process, to the chaotic subconscious of the author.

Psychoanalysis and Literature

There are several ways to approach a literary text in the light of this theory. One can read a text and isolate the elements in the text that reveal the inner conflicts, desires and suppressions in the person of the artist. Another way is to examine the elements that define the psychology of the characters in the narrative. A third way is to see if the text reveals the collective psychology of the people and the culture that produces the work of art. In any case, the analysis should take into consideration one or both of the two basic assumptions of the theory.