For those interested in a more visual example of how Freud worked in his theories, I really recommend this film by John Huston in 1962, with an original script written by Jean-Paul Sartre. The film is faithful to the facts and of a high quality; it shows very clear Freud’s beginnings and the reaction of his society. Enjoy!
Freud has been highly criticised by both conservatives and liberals either for being too explicit in his discoveries or too critique in his conclusions. Nowadays it is mainly criticised to be ‘politically incorrect’ whatever it may be. Indeed his ‘sexual theories’ to say so are not precisely in agreement with what is today widely accepted: homosexuality, ‘sexual liberation’, and so on. For example, to argue that a promiscuous man is more likely to become a pedophile, or that to be homosexual is to be a narcissistic are two things one cannot openly say in the street. If we look now at the most conservative part of society, it is possible to note how neglected female hysteria is as a consequence of sexual dissatisfaction within marriage. These two ideological visions of Freud’s theories are at least high unfair.
Whatever Freud said and whatever one thinks of, Europe owes a great deal to Freud. His investigations meant a completely new world to both science and humanities, and they show the root of an important number of psychological issues; not to mention that he is the father of psychoanalysis, and of a deeper understanding of sexuality. Freud was a great observer of the human mind and behaviour, and a brave man who was not afraid of his contemporaries. He faced lots of child-abuse cases within a bourgeois society and dared to dive into the human soul.
Literary studies are as well in debt with him. I would like to synthesise how can be Freud’s theories used into the literary field:
1. Aesthetics: Psychoanalysis opened the world of dreams and, particularly, its own logic. 20th century is full of artistic examples of a dream aesthetic (Kafka, Schnitzler, Dalí, Hitchcock, Welles, Brecth, among others). Freud’s influence cannot be mislead for those who approached especially the first part of the century.
2. Characters: Psychoanalysis has enhanced the understanding of literary characters and their relationships beyond the limits of the 20th century. Specially important are the familiar relationships to be approach, in many cases, from a Freudian perspective.
3. Art: The relationship between art and the artist acquires a more existential and sexual perspective; as well as the relations between sexuality, beauty and desire.
4. Sexuality: Explorations in the field of literary representations of sexual issues are facilitate by Freud’s studies on sexual behaviour which were pioneer. A quite complete analysis of all kind of sexual experiences was openly explore by Freud.
5. Unconscious: Terms such as ‘conscious’, ‘unconscious’, ‘sub-conscious’, ‘repression’ are properly born through Freud’s practice of psychoanalysis. These concepts complete the understanding of human behaviour especially in unhealthy cases.
6. Body: Literary representations of the body can be approach metaphorically, that is, as a physical representation of the mind or illness. Freud advances further postmodern theories of the body and its relationship to the illness and the text such as those of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.
7. Childhood: The importance of early experiences in life has result to be a key point in general psychology until now.
I think the seven points above are the most important. Generally speaking, psychoanalysis has brought a deeper understanding of the relationship body-mind, and it is not at all surpassed by any other posterior theory, it is perfectly complementary to a kind of more scientific studies. Freud deserves, as any important thinker, a high consideration.
Since the second half of the nineteenth century is possible to see in the history of literature an increasing prominence of the human body and its importance. It was Freud who put into words the relation between our interiority and our body and clearly talked about an interpretation of the physical signs to know our inner problems. The body talks, indeed, as we are a human unit, and it is a pity to see how nowadays medicine is just concerned with the physiological. A lot of health problems have their origin somewhere deeper within us but the fashion today is to cut off what is superficially wrong and, of course, the problem usually comes again later on. Well, the main problem in our medical system is that humanities have absolutely no importance and we find doctors with no idea of what a human being is beyond his or her flesh. But this digression was not my intention.
Coming back to literature, I would say Zola is one of the most important authors concerned with the body reactions to our own actions. In fact, Thérèse Raquin and Laurent after killing Camille do not present spiritual regret but physical regret, to say so. It is a very interesting point how, even when a person could have lost all his or her feelings, the body remains and expresses through illness the consequences of an action. They do not ‘feel bad’ but they feel ill, terribly ill until the point of desiring death. That is what Zola does wonderfully, he experiments with the most physical part of the human being and this part talks as well.
In a more linguistic approach, it is excellent the work of Roland Barthes and even of Michel Foucault regarding the language of the body. Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge finds a correlate between the body and the language and argues how illness belongs to the language of the body. Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic presents a similar approach regarding the sign found both in the body and the language. It is possible to read a human body as it is possible to read a text and until now the most wonderful example I can give of is Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes establishes a parallel between the textual and the human eroticism and seduction. Language and body are extremely related in this case but they are so indeed in a lot of situations.
Lawrence is another author dealing with the language of the body and between bodies. Most of his female characters feel their sexual needs as something which goes beyond the physical and expresses itself in the whole person, something similar happens to Thérèse Raquin. The awakening of the body has consequences all over the psyche and soul of the character and the process of attraction starts with a physical communication which usually is expression of something deeper. When the body is able to express the truly personality of the person harmony is likely to appear.
As Foucault argues in History of Madness, there is just a subtle line between reason and madness. Is the madman completely crazy or the sensible one totally reasonable? What parameters does medicine apply to place such a border? Could “madness” have periods of more lucidity than reason?
K-Pax is an interesting film which exemplifies how madness and reason can be easily confused; how the rationality of medicine is sometimes weak as disease. You can find the whole film in Youtube, by the way, please enjoy the English trailer.
Diderot shows in Rameau’s Nephew a conversation between an enlightened philosopher and a quite extravagant musician, Rameau. While the former argues for virtue and education, the latter enjoys vices and art. Several topics are discussed across the dialogue such as ethics and aesthetics, education, or moral, all them upon the light of the Enlightenment. However, one important idea, which goes across from the beginning till the end, is the acceptance of the different by the society as an expression of the genius.
Rameau explains to the philosopher his dissolute life and his unacceptable thoughts. The philosopher thinks of Rameau to be a complete madman, and Rameau says of the society to be completely hypocrite. In fact, as the philosopher realizes at the end, Rameau says what everybody think and do without saying it. Rameau has a gift, an excellence sensibility for music and, at the same time, he is terribly honest. He is different. He is different because he is not playing the social rules, he is unconventional. Instead of accepting the norms, he unmasks them and the game people play.
Therefore, madness is, until certain point, an institutional tag, and doctors are the new high caste of the Western modernity, especially psychiatrists. Medicine has become a new control of society, especially when it is ruled by doctors who serve the Pharmaceutical industry. Rameau is a genius, therefore, superior, therefore dangerous for those who attempt to avoid difference. As Tony Tanner interprets in The Novel of the Adultery: Contract and Transgression, the real occupation of the pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is to label people, among them, the adulteress. Labelling here is linked to the lack of freedom and to the adulteress’ suicide.
The different has been avoided until today. Medicine becomes stronger and stronger and there is no acceptance of the being. The popular TDAH (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), for example, affects to a great number of children and teenagers. The secondary effects of the drugs which are employed to avoid some of the TDAH symptoms are terrible. One of them is schizophrenia. But the Pharmaceutical industry makes great amounts of money with such treatments.
I propose a reflection about the difference and the individual freedom to consider if we should permit to be labelled.