Guide to Week 3: Tuesday

        In the web page hyperlinked to this week's reading in Tyson, I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that identify various authors who helped create this critical theory and its interpretive methods.  After you have read Tyson, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them and can give examples of how to use them.  These "terms of art" are essential elements for mastering any interpretive theory.  Accept no substitutes or near synonyms.  Terms of art have no synonyms, and their correct use immediately signals the interpreter's successful mastery of the theory's application.  The first portion of our discussion will be a review of Tyson, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below.

        If you are unfamiliar with Sigmund Freud's life and work, you should consult this timeline, produced by the Freud Museum (London), which situates his work within the historical developments of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Note, however, that this site actively recruits visitors to undertake Freudian analysis, and for this reason it must be considered a  lobbying organization with ideological and pecuniary interests in representing Freud's work, rather than a scholarly site.  Consider this aspect of the site as evidence of the powerful long-term effects of psychoanalytic theory and critical methods which live on long after their founder's death.  Think about the forces which produce these effects, from irrational teacher-student loyalties to practitioners who have discovered genuinely productive results from applications of the theory to interpreting unusual patterns in works of literature.  If you have not already done so, click here for a survey of common psychoanalytic interpretive terms necessary to using the theory's methods.

        Be aware that interpretations which argue that a psychoanalytic approach reveals a hidden truth about a work of literature bear a hidden burden of proof that becomes obvious the moment the readers ask, "Why does this behavior/speech/event have to be the product of hidden psychological causes rather than obvious rational causes?"  Two tests will help you determine whether your psychoanalytic insight will withstand that scrutiny:

  1. Is textual evidence you are explaining part of a larger pattern of behavior that is not likely the product of rational processes?  (and why not?)
  2. Can you predict other non-rational events elsewhere in the text based on that pattern?

The first question involves weeding out the likely proposed rational counter-explanations, and doing that succinctly in your introduction will put your readers' minds at rest regarding your thoroughness--you are not merely following an irrational hunch, yourself.  The second tends to clinch the argument, since the ability to predict non-obvious traits of the text is a quasi-scientific test of an interpretation's legitimacy.

        When arguing the applicability of any interpretive theory to literary texts, you often can appeal to the literary texts' authors' knowledge of the theory, itself, as an indicator that they might have woven elements of the theory into their works.  Students of classical lyrics and drama written after Aristotle's Poetics, for instance, might expect Aristotle's thinking to influence the authors of those later works, especially in the Renaissance when "Neo-Aristotelianism" openly proclaimed the philosopher's maxims as rules for composing literature.  The publication dates of Freud's major works can suggest similar points of guidance for using psychoanalytic criticism for works composed after their publication.  Freud would argue that artists have always been uniquely gifted with psychoanalytic insight, but you are on more solid ground as a psychoanalytic interpreter if you can demonstrate that the author and the author's readers probably could have been exposed to Freud's theories by the time the work you are interpreting was written or published.

        Of Freud's later followers and interpreters, the most durably influential have been Jaques Lacan (1901-81) and René Girard (1923- ).  Lacan's theories and their application are covered by Tyson in her revised second edition or Critical Theory Today, but for a real taste of his work, try Écrits, first published in English translation as "A Selection" by Alan Sheridan (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1977), now available in its entirety as  Écrits : the first complete edition in English, translated by Bruce Fink (N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 2007) 150.195 L129eBf 2007.  Curiously, though Lacan's title translates as "Writings," Lacan only lectured.  His students transcribed his lectures for him, a European teaching practice we will encounter again in the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure.

        Girard, who writes his own prose, published Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1966, tr. Yvonne Freccero, 1969)  808.3 G51Bf. The student's quickest and most lucid introduction to Girard's theory, together with an interesting critique of its attempted universal explanation of literature, may be found in The possessed : adventures with Russian books and the people who read them by Elif Batuman (1977- ).  Batuman is a former Stanford University doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literature whose final essay applies Girard to Dostoevsky's The Possessed (also translated as Demons), to Dostoevsky, and to her own life and colleagues while studying at Stanford (891.709 B336p 2010).

        Psychoanalytic criticism's description of the primary motive for all human creativity, and of readers' relationship to literature, might be distilled to a J. Geils Band song, "Looking for a Love to Call My Own."  The theory's description of how that search is thwarted, disguised, and covertly achieved, gives the psychoanalytic critic the interpretive method for describing those moves in literature, in the imagination, and in life.  Curiously, Tyson misquotes the famous Rolling Stones lyric which captures the twisted striving which accompanies the erotic search, leaving out the bracket clause in the sentence, "You can't always get what you want, but [if you try some time, you just might find], you get what you need" (12).  Is this misquotation a meaningless error, or is it a "Freudian slip" which tells us something about Tyson's unconscious?  To make such an argument, you would have to catch her elsewhere in the book writing a sentence which unconsciously omits something important, thereby revealing one of Freud's collection of unconscious processes like denial, repression, avoidance, displacement, etc.

        Every theory we study will rise or fall based on its power to predict patterns or pattern breaking elsewhere in the literary work.  This is what makes interpretation based on intentional use of a theory and method different from waiting for a visit from Ion's "muses."  Unlike wild guesses or haphazard assertions ("Everyone has his/her own interpretation!"), interpretations based on coherent theories can be tested and compared based on their predictive scope and utility--how much of the work does the interpretation explain and what does its explanation enable us to do as a result?

        For David Ford, and Altamont.