Two key figures associated with psychoanalysis are Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. More recent advances in psychoanalytic theory has been made by feminist scholars. Juliet Mitchell in particular has written on psychoanalysis and feminism, and Julia Kristeva has extended the work of Lacan on psychoanalysis and language through a feminist perspective. However, because most psychoanalytic theory begins with Freud and Lacan, we'll concentrate just on those two theorists.
First developed by Freud in Vienna in the late 19th century, psychoanalysis is a theory of the human mind that describes the mechanisms by which the sexes are divided and formed. Freud's writings are extensive, however, the most enduring of his theories is the Oedipus complex, a theory of the development of sexual identity and self-preservation. In brief, the Oedipus complex is where the male infant conceives the desire to eliminate the father and become the sexual partner of the mother. Many forms of inter-generational conflict are seen by Freudians as having Oedipal overtones, such as professional rivalries, often viewed in Freudian terms as reproducing the competition between siblings for parental favour. The Oedipal phase of development is supposed to bring about conformity to social rules of kinship, that is, conformity to the taboo of incest. When a boy realises he cannot have his mother as a sexual partner, he then aspires to the social rights which will grant him his own sexual partner outside the nuclear family. This theory has been heavily criticised for its dependence on heterosexuality and the maintenance of a traditional nuclear family.Freud's work is seriously flawed as a clinical practice, but it has had huge cultural impact. Terms such as “Freudian slip” remain in frequent usage. This is the “slip of the tongue” when we say something we don't consciously mean but reveals part of our unconscious. For Freud, the “unconscious” is a repository of repressed desires, feelings, memories, and instinctual drives mostly related to sexuality and violence. The unconscious is the part of the mind beyond consciousness which nevertheless has a strong influence upon our actions.In the 1950s and 1960s Lacan developed a structuralist theory of psychoanalysis based on the linguistic theory of Saussure. Lacan re-interpreted Freud, making explicit what was implicit in Freud's theories. He made it clear that Freud could not be taken literally, but symbolically. Lacan defined psychoanalysis as “the study of the traces left in the psyches of individuals as a result of their conscription into systems of kinship”. Lacan's work itself is very difficult to read. In Lacan's own words in describing his work: “I prefer there to be only one way in, and for that to be difficult”.
Lacan is an interpreter of Freud's analytic method, who stresses the fragility of sexual identity and its links to language acquisition. Lacan's writings describe the development of the sexed self in linguistic or symbolic-cultural terms rather than in the more concrete, literal, even biological terms, sometimes favoured by Freud. For example, in Lacan's work ‘penis envy' is no longer seen as involving envy of the literal biological organ as it is in Freud's thinking, but has a thoroughly symbolic-cultural meaning, rather more along the lines of a psychological positioning as ‘lacking' in relation the authority/power associated with the masculine.
For Lacan language is the necessary first step by which the child enters culture but is also viewed as a sign system which organises or shapes culture by directing what can be known and recognised and what cannot. Language is conceived as the foundation of, or as encapsulating, culture. Moreover, in Lacanian thought, the self and sexuality are socially constructed in that there can be no sexed self - no masculine or feminine person – prior to the formation of the subject in language.
Some feminists hate Lacan because of his fixation with the phallus, others love him because they claim that Lacan's thought provides a key to understanding the socialisation and symbolisation processes which have shaped woman's specificity through the ages. Lacan thought that sexual identity is not based on biological gender, or any other innate factor, but is learned through the dynamics of identification and language.How does all this relate to literature? Psychoanalytic criticism can tell us something about how literary texts are actually formed, and reveal something of the meaning of that formation. There are four kinds of psychoanalytical literary criticism. The focus of analysis can be (1) the author of the work; (2) the work's contents; (3) the work's formal construction; or (4) the reader.
Freud notes that literary texts are like dreams; they embody or express unconscious material in the form of complex displacements and condensations. Literature is not a direct translation of the unconscious into symbols that “stand for” unconscious meanings. Rather, literature displaces unconscious desires, drives, and motives into imagery that might bear no resemblance to its origin, but nonetheless expresses it.
Freudian psychoanalytic critics see the literary work as having a conscious and an unconscious meaning, that is, the work has a surface meaning and then there is what the work is “really” about. This kind of analysis can look at the unconscious motives of both author and characters, and identify psychoanalytic features in the text, such as the existence of an Oedipus complex.
A possible limitation of this approach is that it confines the analysis to individual psycho-dramas to the exclusion of the wider social context.Lacan's theories on our relationship to language is what makes him particularly useful for literary theory. Lacanian criticism sees language and the unconscious as almost identical. For Lacan, metaphor and metonymy correspond to Freud's theories of condensation and displacement. In metonymy one thing represents another by means of the part standing for the whole, such as when “stripe” refers to a captain or person of rank. In Freudian interpretation, a single element might stand for something else by displacement, such as when Italy is represented by a bowl of pasta. Lacan says this is the same as metonymy. In condensation several things might be compressed into one symbol, just as a metaphor like “the ship ploughed the waves” condenses into a single item two different images, the ship cutting through the sea and the plough cutting through the soil.
The use by the unconscious of these linguistic means of self-expression is part of Lacan's evidence for the claim that the unconscious is structured like language. Lacan sees a linguistic aspect to Freud's work. Whenever the unconscious is being discussed, the amount of linguistic analysis increases, since puns, allusion, and other kinds of word play are often the mechanism which make manifest the content of the unconscious, the Freudian slip being one example.
Lacan rejects conventional views of characterisation. The unconscious is the “kernel of our being”, but since the unconscious is linguistic, ad language is a system already complete and in existence before we enter into it, then it follows that the notion of a unique, separate self, becomes untenable. He therefore sees characters as an assemblage of signifiers. The realist mode of literature must also be revised under Lacan. A realist novel is said to represent the real world, however Lacan sees language as fundamentally detached from any referent in the world.
Therefore, Lacanian literary critics investigate the unconscious behind the language of the text, rather than what goes on behind the author or characters, in order to discover meaning. This is also known as deconstruction. They see the literary text as an enactment or demonstration of Lacanian views about language and the unconscious, particularly the elusiveness of the signified, and the centrality of the unconscious. In practice, this results in favouring the anti-realist text which challenges conventions of literary representation.