« As a writer, I’m in love with Freud. I can’t imagine any serious writer not being. Freud, ultimately, concerned himself not with the mind, nor with the individual, but with the question of meaning’s emergence in the world, and of the mechanisms through which this emergence takes place. What, according to him, are these mechanisms? Why, they’re substitution and elision, condensation and displacement, metaphor, metonymy — in short, the very mechanisms at work in a poem or a novel. For Freud, if you want to understand mental and social life you don’t take a biopsy of a murderer’s brain or observe groups of people in a room: you study Antigone and Hamlet. That’s why his case-histories read like Gothic novels. It’s why his best patients are fictional characters like Jensen’s Norbert and Goethe’s Werther. And it’s why his preferred model for memory is a mystic writing pad.
Which leads me to my second claim: that Freud’s legacy has little or nothing to do with psychology. If this claim seems to fly in the face of reason, then so be it. Psychology, with its overwhelmingly rationalist and positivist demeanour, is a minor offshoot of the Freudian revolution, one that has, to a large extent, mutated to assume a counter-revolutionary character. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, sets its sights much higher, lays the scope and range of its ambitions so much wider. Emerging at a time when the borders between medicine, hypnosis, mesmerism, magic, cabaret and art were porous to say the least, Freud’s vision applied itself to everything from dreams to tribal ritual, Egyptology to photosynthesis in jellyfish. What runs through all these fields, binding them together, is a concern for structure and pattern, for the way events unfold along trajectories of drive and prohibition, totem and taboo.
Which, in turn, leads me to my third claim: that literature, rightly understood, has little or nothing to do with psychology either. As Gabriel Josipovici has recently pointed out so lucidly, the real hero of the Oresteia is not an individual person, with their thoughts and fears and so on — but rather a house: its secrets, repetition cycles, shored-up traumas, playing out over generation after generation. This is as true of Faulkner as of Aeschylus: what we’re encountering in The Sound and the Fury is the drama of space and time, cached fetishes and unpardonable transgressions unfolding across landscapes that morph from the domestic to the public, navigating their boundaries, pockets, kinks. It’s even true of that most supposedly ‘personality’-centred nineteenth-century novelist Dickens. Forget the BBC adaptation: go and actually read the opening passage of Great Expectations. It’s about the rites of patrilineal name-passing and the failure of speech (’My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing…’). It’s about the dense, muddy insistence of terrain (’marsh country… the dark flat wilderness… the low leaden line beyond…’). It’s about inscriptions carved in tombstones. It’s about ‘the identity of things.’ In short, it’s about subjectivity finding its assignations within material space and transmitted (or occluded) history, experience being dragged and catapulted along their ineluctably death-driven arcs.
Literature, in short, is not made up of ‘characters’: it understands that existence, whether individual or collective, is formed and unformed within networks of language and ceremony, spread across topographies whose axes, or gravitational force-fields, are law, pleasure and mortality, subject to the exigencies of topography itself. As such, it offers, at its deepest, neither commentary nor entertainment; rather, it is the very source-code of our being, index of its contingencies. Freud understands this too, of course, and directly articulates it more brilliantly and systematically than anyone before or since. Which is why psychoanalysis, and not psychology, can lay claim to an intense, perhaps even an incestuous, relationship with literature. »
MCCARTHY, Tom, “Remember Freud” (Titre original: “Against Psychology – in Praise of Freud”), Scotland on Sunday, 15 August 2011.