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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Writings on Art and Literature
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1793-1794.
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

by Sigmund Freud. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1997, 290 pp., $45.00; $15.95 (paper).

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This volume consists simply of reprinted essays from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. The purpose seems to be to collect in one book Freud’s classic papers pertaining to artistic and literary works. I imagine that this collection is intended for the use of teachers in the humanities who are referring to Freud’s technique of criticism of the arts. For Freud, interpreting a work of art was less the task of assigning meanings to it than accounting for why the reader or reviewer is so powerfully affected by it. This is a very special kind of "left brain" approach, and it is typical of Freud that he attempted to analyze his own experiences and articulate them:

Works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting. This has occasioned me, when I have been contemplating such things, to spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e., to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Whenever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic or perhaps analytic turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me. (p. 122)

In these studies, Freud reveals himself to be extremely erudite, with a broad knowledge of the arts, literature, and myth­ology. There are occasional curious omissions; for example, in referring to the Oedipus Rex play by Sophocles, Freud never seems to mention the lines in the play where Jocasta tells Oedipus that most men dream of incest with their mother. Freud’s approach often moves from his general impression of the artwork and its main features to focus on many minor details, which he then attempts to analyze in the manner of his typical approach to dream analysis. As Hertz in his foreword explains,

Freud called his shots, pointing out the various ways an original content has undergone distortion—through displacement, through symbolic substitution, through the disguising of an element by its opposite, through the "wishful reversal" of active and passive roles, the replacement of necessity by choice. (p. xix)

Each individual will respond to these various essays in his or her own way. I consider the first of them, "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva," published in 1907, one of Freud’s literary masterpieces. It is my understanding that many of Freud’s generation of psychoanalysts had a reproduction of the Vatican museum relief titled "Gradiva," included as a frontispiece in volume 9 of the Standard Edition, on a wall of their offices, as Freud did himself. There is not space in a book review to recapitulate this lengthy essay; suffice it to note that it is a wonderful example of Freud’s clear prose and his superb capacity to analyze a text, whether it is the narrative of a patient or a literary work. A study of this essay is probably the simplest and most painless introduction to Freud’s general ideas and approach, and I highly recommend it to all psychiatrists.

Some of the other gems included in this volume that I find especially powerful are "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913), "The Moses of Michelangelo" (1914), "Some Character Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work" (1916), and "On Transience" (1916), along with a number of relatively minor writings. The Moses study demonstrates how incredibly keen an observer Freud was, and the way he goes about approaching this great statue is worthy of study by any psychiatrist who works with people at a level beyond prescribing drugs. The same is true, of course, about the essay on character types, which also contains a couple of "asides" of special interest. For example, at the beginning of the essay, Freud describes the psychoanalyst as one who

makes use of the influence which one human being exercises over another…let us say that the doctor, in his educative work, makes use of one of the components of love.…Side by side with the exigencies of life, love is the great educator; and it is by the love of those nearest him that the incomplete human being is induced to respect the decrees of necessity and to spare himself the punishment that follows any infringement of them. (p. 152)

Also in this essay, Freud includes one of his disparaging remarks about women and alludes to a theory of feminine psychology that has been largely discredited.

For those psychiatrists interested in Freud’s views, especially his writings on art and literature, and who do not have the complete Standard Edition, this little volume is available in an inexpensive paperback and well worth reading. However, I am not comfortable with the use of such a book in courses of an academic nature because I think those unacquainted with Freud’s basic writings will have a lot of trouble understanding, much less accepting, where he is coming from in his analyses of these artistic works. It is only with a thorough grounding in the massive clinical material from Freud’s consulting room, which generated his basic psychoanalytic theories, that one can grasp the validity of his approach to the arts. This approach, of course, is very one-sided and "left brain," and for this reason, Freud, who lived in Vienna at the turn of the century, a time and place where there was an explosion of modern art and music, seemed unable to comprehend or appreciate any of it. As Hamlet said to the "Roman" stoic materialist Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Fashions in academia come and go, and at one time Freudian criticism was "in"; in some places now, self psychology criticism is "in," while in others, deconstruction is all the rage. For those academics interested in Freudian criticism, I think it would be better to study Freud’s basic works on psychoanalysis first. Without a doubt, it is inconceivable that anyone could successfully approach works of art from a Freudian point of view without having had a thorough personal psychoanalysis of his or her own. The danger of a volume such as the one under review here is that it offers a little knowledge, which can then be used to produce a lot of superficial undergraduate and graduate essays.

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