Freud and Modernism

Rather than an essay on narrative, which is, ordinarily, a formative component of any exploration of the short story form, this discussion orientates on the ideals, forms and models of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic case studies and their methodology in comparison with the modernist story form. The Interpretation of Dreams was published on the cusp of the twentieth-century in November 1899 and explores an inner world that interacts and jostles with the literature of the time. A seminal year in the rise of the modernist age, this work mirrors the deep philosophical changes that were taking place initially across Europe and later on the other side of the Atlantic. Modernism cemented itself as a movement, developing both a set of implied ideas and aesthetic which were constantly blasted and challenged based on critical and social reaction and so too by the artists and writers who were supposedly demarcating this movement. Christopher Butler has highlighted that ‘the development of new languages for the arts was therefore part of a larger change in ideas about the nature of human nature itself’.[1] Although Anthea Bell has identified that the essay on ‘Little Hans’ ‘hardly counts as a case history, since Freud met the five-year-old Herbert Grad only once and relied mainly on reports from his father Max Graf’, the surprising scarcity of published case studies and its relevance to this consideration will see its inclusion alongside ‘A Case of Hysteria’ (henceforth referred to as ‘Dora’), ‘Rat Man’, ‘Wolf Man’ and the case of ‘Anna O’.[2] Freud was himself struck with the reality that his case histories were ‘‘like novellas’, and ‘they lack, so to speak, the serious stamp of scientific method’.[3] His essentially literary method of interpretation moves towards a Nietzschean preoccupation with the role of archaic impulse within the psyche. For as the dream narrative is ‘scientifically’ explained and systematized as an allegory, within which ‘incidental detail can always be significant’ its levels of interpretation emerge and the ‘manifest and the latent content’ of the dream, once the ‘psychical material that has been supressed comes to life’.[4] Freud’s psychoanalytic practice and mode of writing came about in a culture that was increasingly challenging the mythological and patriarchal structures of the past. However, as Maud Ellmann identifies ‘it is well documented that Freudian ideas were “in the air” at the time that Joyce, Woolf, and James were composing their novels, yet none of these novelists set out to write psychoanalytic fictions’.[5] This observation is noteworthy as it highlights the necessity to look for similarities and difference between Freud’s founding principles, methods, and writings in relation to Modernism, but also to go beyond Freud, and recognise him as one of many other pioneers alongside Jung, Eliot and Lewis to name but a few, all looking for new ways to be read and to read the world around them. The provisionality of labels such as ‘Modernism’ and ‘psychoanalysis’, necessarily prefixes this consideration and any conclusions drawn as hypothetical and mutable. ‘It is precisely because Modernism is still, in some fashion, a shaping art behind the art of our own times that, for all our exhibitions and archives, the task must stay’.[6]

These initial contextual remarks have created a background to the development of modernist modes of thought and therapeutic models. However, the movement was not a steady transition from earlier models and Realist schools but was a rupture from them, with its appearance the result of crisis. Within this register of medical and scientific progression, it is intriguing that the etymological root of ‘crisis’ in the fifteenth-century denoted a ‘turning point in disease’. In this manner, the work of Freud as well as the impulses of the Modernist movement more generally could be considered as symptoms of the attempt to heal the ruptures caused by real and intellectual warfare at the close of the nineteenth-century. In ‘Dora’, Freud argues that a strong experience in the present awakens in the writer the memory of an earlier experience, usually belonging to his childhood; from there proceeds the desire that finds its fulfilment in the literary work. Crisis and repression of trauma is seen in the patterns of narrative expression in Freud: for repression is often achieved by means of an excessive reinforcement of the thought contrary to the one which is to be repressed. This concept of modernism employs David Trotters’s language of ‘crisis’ and ‘encourages us to think of literary experiment not as a constant focus of creativity and self-definition throughout history, but as the product of a specific crisis’.[7] The standard view of modernism is as a ‘revolution of the word’ and as a response to the breakdown in social order and continuity which is evidenced in the prevalence of dramatic breaking points and movements in modernist literature. Malcolm Bradbury characterises the restorative ‘passion in Modernism to see the universe as contingent, poverty-stricken, denuded until it has been reimagined, its local virilities apprehended through the panes an conjunctions available to the fictionalizing mind’.[8]

As much as these fields of modernism and psychoanalytic science emerged from an international period of crisis, so too, was this a time of increased focus on the interiority of the self. Modernist writers, including Freud, Joyce, Woolf and James confront the entangled nature of the self, ‘caught in the nets of intersubjectivity and intertextuality’.[9] Freud gives the example of what he terms psychological novels where only one character, the hero, is ‘described from within’. This highlights the spectrum of interiority from an inward-looking society to an authorial impetus to develop a corpus of work from an internalised stand-point. Indeed, the ‘Dora’ case study helps us better understand how our unresolved internal conflicts influence our psychological and physiological health as we follow the progress of Freud and Dora’s interrelations with father, Kerr and psychiatrist and the romantic trysts and fall-out that corrodes the female participant from her core. On a wider platform, it is necessary to hold what Mark Micale calls to mind: ‘both psychiatric medicine and the creative arts during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by a massive “turn inward” and a thoroughgoing psychologization of their methods, subjects, and intentions’.[10] This quotation readily draws the parallel between medical and literary narratives, as well as highlighting that it was not only humanity that was the subject of introspection and detailed attention, but so too the modes of this inquiry and focus. Perhaps the terms most commonly associated with Freud’s theory of the self include: ‘the unconscious’, ‘Id’, ‘Ego’ and ‘Superego’. ‘Unconscious’ is particularly resonant in that it represents the ‘nature-in-man, the basic stuff behind human consciousness, as prehistoric man stands behind the history of culture’.[11] That is to say, the unconscious is part of the realm that modernist thought was aware of and tried to access, through a literary, investigative introspection.

This growing focus on interiority is felt both at a personal and didactic level. From 1900 with the advancement of printing technologies and circulation, that there was a strengthened interest in and awareness of the reader, or public audience, is evident in the case histories and short stories modelled by the often explicity and self-conscious role of ‘writer’. ‘Dora’, ‘Little Hans’, ‘Rat Man’, and ‘Wolf Man’ frequently articulate a self-referentiality that points towards a reader, which is party to the instructive role that was a motivation behind Freud’s documentation of notable treatment experiences. For instance, in ‘Little Hans’, he writes ‘to the reader who has not yet undergone analysis himself, I can only offer the advice that he should not attempt to understand everything straight away, but should give a certain unbiased attention to everything that comes along and wait to see what will happen next’.[12] This imperative to clear the mind in the reading approach accords itself with recent aesthetic theory in which one is advised to approach the literary piece or artwork as itself, without conflating background information. Elsewhere he writes: ‘let me remind the reader once again that our therapeutic work was directed towards a later neurotic episode of recent occurrence and that information about those earlier problems could only emerge if the course of the analysis led us away from the present for a while, obliging us to take a detour through the pre-history of the patient’s childhood’.[13] This extract zones and labels history through prefixes of ‘pre’, so highlighting the necessity to move from the present temporal moment into the past of the individual and their inner self. A Freudian reading of a piece of literature would psychoanalyse the writer and ascribe symbols and themes in that writer’s piece of work to unfulfilled wishes and desires. The writer, through writing, is attempting to attain the wish-fulfilment that we experience while dreaming. This can shift the focus from the literary text to the writers themselves, because everything that is written links back to the author’s psychical make-up in some way.

Moving from the narrow focus within the space of a modernist text and the performance of roles of reader and writer, one can extrapolate this idea out to the performance of reading and analysing a text through the lens of a modernist theorem, or psychoanalytically. By the end of the Great War, psychoanalysis had increasingly become not merely a way of reading literature, but a methodology of writing in its own right. Gillian Beer explains: ‘Freud was alert to the ways in which words convert themselves into things, and things into words’ and in his own modelling of a lens through which to read short stories as well as being the performer of narrative itself.[14] Commenting on the nature of narrative and plot, Peter Brooks notes that plot ‘is the organizing line and intention of narrative, thus perhaps best conceived as an activity, a structuring operation elicited in the reader trying to make sense of those meanings that develop only through textual and temporal succession’.[15] In this manner, he suggests that plot and its interpretation is subject to the capacity of the reader to perform the textual cues. Much as the presented findings of psychoanalysis (i.e. in a case history) demand applied effort to work them out, so too a story demands input from the reader. Bell elucidates: ‘the text demands to be read against the grain, and Freud must be considered an unreliable narrator, whose judgements, and even many of his factual assertions, require constant alertness on the part of the reader. His use of free indirect speech can also mislead us by making the patient seem to report thoughts and motives which are actually attributed to her by Freud as analyst and narrator’.[16] Modernist writers frequently considered it a flagrant waste of narrative if one presented the reader with baldly assumed facts and the entirety of the story. Instead, the equivocal details were favoured in this work of interpretation. It seems natural to think about literature in terms of dreams. Like dreams, literary works are fictions, inventions of the mind that, although based on reality, are by definition not literally true. Like a literary work, a dream may have some truth to tell, but, like a literary work, it may need to be interpreted before that truth can be grasped. However, Freud himself warns against a teleological reading in the ‘Wolf Man’, writing ‘I do not wish to be understood’.[17]

Perhaps the most obvious starting point for a comparison between the modernist short story form and the framework of Freud’s short stories is to consider the structure. ‘Story’ invariably recalls childhood tales with the expected plot trajectory of beginning, middle, and end. However, as the first printed usage of the label ‘Short-Story’ in 1885 by Brenda Matthews suggests, there was a deliberate contemporary effort to differentiate short stories from stories that just happened to be short (i.e. tales). By the end of the nineteenth-century there was a case being made that the short story was decidedly modern, relevant to contemporary commerce, and the related elements of uncertainty. This unsettling uncertainty is witnessed at the level of narrative structure, with parallels being drawn between the unexpected and, to appropriate Freud’s terminology, ‘the uncanny’, in both the modernist short story and these psychoanalytic case studies. It is important to highlight that these studies have also variously been critically referred to as ‘case histories’ with the lexicon of ‘history’ inextricably bound up with the language of story-telling frameworks. The loosening hold of formalism led critical focus to the work of Freud, which ‘presents a dynamic model of psychic processes and thus may offer the promise of a model pertinent to the dynamics of texts. Psychoanalysis after all, is a primarily narrative art, concerned with the recovery of the past through the dynamics of memory and desire’.[18] Much as an author would, Freud employs narrative signs to guide our reading. Take, for instance, this passage from ‘Little Hans’: ‘I must put in a few words here. Hans’s father asks too many questions and is pursuing his own ideas rather than allowing the boy to express himself freely. In this way the process of analysis becomes opaque and uncertain’.[19] This authorial intrusion notes that the case histories themselves are, to an extent, the product of a fictionalisation and therapeutic fiction, whose uncertain status as fact or fiction align them with the disturbed basis of modernist texts. Brooks continues, ‘we look to a convergence of psychoanalysis and literary criticism because we sense that there ought to be a correspondence between literary and psychic dynamics, since to an important degree we define and construct or sense of self through our fictions, within the constraints of a transindividual symbolic order’.[20] Freud believed in completing the story – both a therapeutic and literary one. His case histories frequently employ foreword and afterwords, with the body text broken into dream or treatment episodes. Of course, ‘how we move from beginning to end in a significant way – creating a pattern of transformation in the sequence leading from beginning to end – demands further reflection, and a more fully elaborated model of understanding’ which is present in Freud’s model and his belief in the ability to re-create personal experience for that same person.[21] Notwithstanding, the interpretation of these re-visited histories require multiple voices to interpret them, as indicated by the collective pronoun ‘we’: ‘we must try to imagine the constellation of circumstances in which this great compulsive idea was formed’.[22]

Much as the structure of Freud’s case studies and of the modernist short story evidenced a rupture from realist, traditional modes of narration, so too they were exempla of experiments, at times productively referred to as the products of a detective model and self-diagnostic texts in their own right. In ‘The Three Caskets’ Freud identifies his treatment method as a combination of three strands: pure observation, scientific empiricism, and simply uncovering what is already there. Brooks has highlighted the problems associated with this method, not least with questions of departure points: ‘Freud apparently was fully aware of the analogies between psychoanalytic investigation and detective work. Faced with fragmentary evidence, clues scattered within present reality, he who would explain must reach back to a story in the past which accounts for how that present took on this configuration’.[23] According to Freud, the creative writer does the same thing as a child at play. As a child creates an imaginary world, but one she or he takes very seriously, so does the writer. The essence of unreality in a writer’s world is very important, because it allows pleasure to be found in things that might not be thought to be enjoyable if they were ‘real’. Within these interconnected images at ‘play’, these case histories have the narrative thrust of a detective story, with the interpretative effort and conclusive findings or spotting of leitmotifs the driving action. Bell has emphasised that ‘Freud’s case history has been much admired for its narrative skill. Dora’s domestic situation is unveiled gradually. Freud presses further into her family secrets and into the secrets of her own psyche, drawing away successive veils of mystification, and disclosing unexpected correspondences between different incidents’.[24]

Externalisation and the therapeutic aspect of ‘transference’ and its affective quality is also pertinent to the author-reader relationship in the modernist literary form. The ‘Anna O.’ case remains one of the major studies in psychoanalysis. We may say that Anna O. is the first patient treated through therapy. Today, the phenomena of transference and free association are still the major techniques used in psychoanalysis therapy. Technically, transference signifies the projection by the patient of the cause of his or her symptoms onto the analyst. The interaction between the patient and the analyst is structured or constructed by the patient as one in which the cause of the hysterical symptoms is transferred to the relationship with the physician. This interpretation can be coupled with Brooks’s reading of a case history as ‘the story of an individual presented to the public for didactic purposes: it is a form of exemplary biography. In the course of his use of the genre, Freud encounters all the problems of narrative design and exposition faced by biographers historians, and novelists, and the issues of functionality that have haunted literature since Plato’.[25] In his narratives – as in all his writings – Freud shares with such other modernists as Conrad or Joyce an internal pessimism about life stories and their supposed plots. His vision of man insists on the barriers and limits to man’s self-knowledge and mastery of its own, individual biography. The unstable lexicon of ‘stable’ and ‘limits’ is purposefully chosen to channel what Richard Ellmann describes as the modernist and Freudian awareness ‘that personal causes may undermine universalizing pretensions’.[26] Questions of authenticity and probability also arise in the case history of ‘Wolf Man’, which exposes the limits of storytelling while nonetheless demanding that the story must be related. ‘The plots of narrative have become extraordinarily complex, self-subversive, apparently implausible’.[27]

Publishing concerns oscillate across the Freudian case histories as well as modernist literature more widely, resulting from an often intangible concern with the contemporary boom in print culture that was considered both beneficial and potentially dangerous in terms of the incurred rapidity of change and breadth of dissemination. In the ‘Wolf Man’, Freud writes: ‘I have already published this dream elsewhere because of the fairy-tale elements it contains and so I shall begin by reproducing what I wrote at that time’.[28] This offers a fascinating prompt from which to question whether the process of writing in hindsight affects the content’s authenticity. So too, the language of publication and reproduction is self-consciously overlapped, affording this writing and production process with the natural quality of fertilisation, development and final birth – or rupture. The publication process was evidently an area to which Freud devoted much practical and psychoanalytic thought, as he devotes much space to its consideration. ‘Even if I do not spare another thought for those who lack any understanding of me and wish me ill, I always find the publication of my case histories a hard task. The difficulties are partly of a technical nature, arising from the nature of the circumstances. […] I am sure that my patients would never have told me anything if the possibility of scientific evaluation of their confessions had crossed their minds, and equally sure that it would be wholly useless to ask the patients themselves for permission to publish’.[29] Aside from the logistics of publication, this extract registers the hostility and phobic notions that surrounded the development of psychoanalysis as a ‘science’ rather than a talking therapy. The possibility of being investigated – of ones own self being turned inside out – was still contemporaneously troubling in spite of the increased interest in the self.

In addition to similarities between the narrative structure of Freud’s case studies and the modernist short story, so too there are parallels in the publication trajectory. Serialization of Freud’s work is closely related to the fragmented but consecutive publication of short stories in magazine runs. Beer elucidates: ‘the techniques of production in nineteenth-century fiction, particularly serialization, also help to shape Freud’s account of his working method, and perhaps the method itself with its series of encounters. In serialization may be found the same suspension of the next instalment, the use of repetition and of the nicknames and catch-phrases to sustain narrative continuity that the reader meets in Freud’s case histories’.[30] Freud was remarkably free in his assimilation of fictional examples to the lives of his patients and his own interpretative processes. This filling in of gaps is precisely what readers of serialized short stories do in the interim between published episodes. Of course, this is a contentious space, with the individual’s thoughts, hopes and anticipations, conflating and colouring the actual textures of the fictional work. Freud also acknowledges the difficulties of relying on memory, reported events and of not recording ‘in medias res’. ‘While I have called this record the fragment of an analysis, the readers will have discovered that it is incomplete to a much wider extent than might be expected from the title. It is only right for me to try to explain the reasons for omissions that were far from being a matter of chance’.[31] Freud was his own greatest editor and revisionist. It is noteworthy that he wrote down these notes to ‘Dora’ the year after the analysis when they were supposedly still fresh (in 1901) but only published the case in 1905.

Moving finally from the people, places and problems posed and experienced in Freud’s histories to equally tenuous and multivocal conclusions, it can be said that Modernism functions as explanatory as well as a criterion of value, and most importantly, a descriptive function in a similar way to Freud’s written work. It seems only fitting to leave off with his own thoughts on the interrelation of word and deed, of medicine and literature, of Modernism and formalism. ‘After a lengthy sojourn with the poets we can now return to the experiences of medicine. Only to establish in a few words, however, that the two are in complete agreement’.[32]

 

References:

[1] Butler, Christopher, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994), p. 78

[2] Freud, Sigmund, A Case of Hysteria (Dora), A new translation by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), p. vii

[3] Sigmund Freud with Sodef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria (London, 1953), 160

[4] Butler, Christopher, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994), p. 93

[5] Ellmann, Maud, The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010), p. 10

[6] Bradbury, Malcolm and McFarlane, James (eds.), Modernism A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (Penguin Books: London, 1991), p. 12

[7] Trotter, David, The English Novel in History: 1895-1920 (Routledge: Abingdon, 1993), p. 3

[8] Bradbury, Malcolm and McFarlane, James (eds.), Modernism A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (Penguin Books: London, 1991), p. 51

[9] Ellmann, Maud, The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Sigmund Freud (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2010), p. 1

[10] Micale, Mark S. (ed.), The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Art in Europe and America, 1880-1940 (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2004), p. 2

[11] Ellmann, Richard and Feidelson, Charles Jr. (eds.), The Modern Tradition: backgrounds of modern literature (Oxford University Press New York, 1965), p. 539

[12] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 51

[13] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 215, ‘Wolf Man’

[14] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. xvi

[15] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. 37

[16] Freud, Sigmund, A Case of Hysteria (Dora), A new translation by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), p. xxviii

[17] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 250

[18] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. xiv

[19] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 51

[20] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. 36

[21] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. 89

[22] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 171, ‘Rat Man’

[23] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. 270

[24] Freud, Sigmund, A Case of Hysteria (Dora), A new translation by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), p. xxvii

[25] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), p. 284

[26] Ellmann, Richard and Feidelson, Charles Jr. (eds.), The Modern Tradition: backgrounds of modern literature (Oxford University Press New York, 1965), p. 105

[27] Brooks, Peter, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Harvard University Press: London, 1984), pp. 284-5

[28] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 287

[29] Freud, Sigmund, A Case of Hysteria (Dora), A new translation by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), p. 3, ‘Dora’ [Foreword]

[30] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. viii

[31] Freud, Sigmund, A Case of Hysteria (Dora), A new translation by Anthea Bell (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2013), p. 96

[32] Freud, Sigmund, The ‘Wolfman’ and Other Cases, Translated by Louise Adey Huish with an Introduction by Gillian Beer (Penguin Books: London, 2002), p. 345

Image Credit: Ungry Young Man, Flickr

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