The Erotic Motive in Literature
William Cowper's poem on the receipt of his mother'spicture is a remarkable document in support of one ofthe tenets that are among the pillars of Freud's system,the theory of the Œdipus Complex. As is well known,Freud traced the nucleus of the psychoneuroses to anover-attachment that the patient had for the parent ofthe opposite sex, a fixation which was very strong ininfancy but from the influence of which there had neverbeen a healthy liberation. This fixation which is oftenunconscious plants the seeds of future neuroses. Thevictim's entire life, even his love affairs, are interferedwith by this attachment. Any one who knows his Freudand has read Cowper's poem can see in it the cause ofmost of the latter's unhappiness and most likely hisinsanity. His mother died when he was a child, andmany years later he was writing to her, almost withpassion.
Both Stevenson's essay and Cowper's poem are self-explanatoryto the disciple of Freud. If we had knownnothing about the authors' lives, we would have seenbeyond doubt that in the one case there was in actuallife a hostility to the father, revealed by the dreamer'smurdering him; and in the other case we would haveknown that a hysterical overattachment to the motherexisted and that the writer's life would have been neuroticand that he might possibly experience an attachmentto some older woman who replaced the mother.
Further, just as there are typical dreams from whichalone the psychoanalyst can judge the wishes of hissubject without asking him any questions about himself,so there are literary compositions wherefrom wecan learn much of the author's unconscious, withoutprobing into the facts of his life. Typical dreams inwhich certain objects like serpents or boxes appear, orin which the dreamer is represented as flying, swimmingor climbing, have a sexual significance. Freud has shownthis after having investigated thousands of such dreamsand noted the symbolic language and customs of ourancestors. Literary works also speak per se for the authorwhen they abound in similar symbolical images.
We now come to another species of literature that isimportant for the psychoanalytic critic. This is a classof writing which delineates primæval and immoral emotions.It often shows us the conflicts between savageemotions still lurking in man, and the demands of civilisation.Either force may triumph, but the real interestof these works is that they show the old cave dwelleris not yet dead within us, and that civilisation is achievedgradually by suppressing these old emotions; sometimesthese needs are strong and must not be extirpated toosuddenly; in fact in some specific cases must be grantedsatisfaction. Among some of the interesting books inrecent years have been tales where primitive emotionshave been depicted as conquering their victims. NoteConrad's Heart of Darkness, where it is shown how theold barbarian instincts and the cry of the forest are partof us and may be revived in us. Jack London's Call ofthe Wild is an interesting allegory on the subject. It iswell known that we are descended from forbears whowere wilder than the most savage tribes of to-day. Naturallysome of the emotions they felt are not altogetherextinct in us. Civilisation is after all but a veneer andslight causes may stir up brutal sensations in many people.They are still in our unconscious and form for theliterary man very fascinating though often dangerousmaterial. Shakespeare understood this when he drewCaliban.
Poe once said that no writer would dare to writetruly all his inner thoughts and feelings, for the verypaper would burn beneath them. What he meant wasthat all writers, even the bravest, suppress those unconsciouselements in their nature that are related toimmorality, indecency, degeneracy, morbidity and cruelty.It may not be advisable for writers continually toremind the reader of the remnant echoes and memoriesof our primitive state, which have fortunately beenmade quiescent but not been completely exterminated byculture. In the confessions of criminals, in the pathologicaldisclosures of sexually aberrated people given tophysicians, in the records of atrocities committed intime of war, we have illustrations of the atavisms of ourday. Often a diseased literary man ventures far inbaring his soul and we get the morbid and immoral materialthat provides food for the unhealthy.
As a rule the author's sense of propriety and prudenceact as a censor for him and hedge in his dormant savagefeelings, so as not to allow them to find a directvoice in his art. Yet we can often pierce through theveil and observe exactly where the censor has beeninvoked and guess fairly accurately what has beensuppressed.
Some authors who relax the censorship voluntarily andappear to be without a sense of shame, give us someof the immoral literature which the world publicly abhors,but which individuals often delight in reading inprivate. I do not refer to the really great literaturewhich has been stamped "immoral" by prudish people,because its ideas are too far advanced for them to appreciate,and are different from the conventional moralsof society. I do not refer to the hundreds of greatworks which give us true accounts of the natural man,books whose irresistibility cannot be evaded except byhypocrites. I do not include novels and plays whereinthe authors have realised that we are exerting too greata sacrifice upon our emotions and that many souls arestarved by lack of normal gratification on account ofthe harsh exactions of conventional society. But thereis a real immoral (or rather indecent) literature wherethe author allows his savage instincts to come to thesurface and trespass on those aspects of his personalitywhich civilisation should have tamed. He may sufferfrom the vice of exhibitionism and think he is frank,when he is merely showing he has no sense of shame;and he may cater to a market merely for money, inwhich case he acts like a mercenary harlot. He may tryto gratify himself by sexual abandon in art because hehas never had the craving for love satisfied in life. Hegives vent to instincts that are still ruling him becauseof his own atavistic or neurotic state. Psychoanalyticliterature puts in a new light immoral literature, whichhitherto has been dealt with from a moral, and not apsychological, point of view. This literature should beexplained and its sources traced; these will be found inthe infantile love life of the authors. Such writingsshould not be condemned offhand just because they stirour moral indignation. They must be interpreted so thatwe may learn the nature of their authors.
I have also made a study of so repulsive a feature inthe lives of our earliest ancestors as cannibalism. Itis one of the most primitive emotions. The discoveriesof archæologists show that cannibalism prevailed in Europebefore the dawn of history; Greek plays show itsearly existence in Greece; and we know that it still prevailsamong savage tribes to-day.
Many of the views here presented will be strange andnovel to those unacquainted with or hostile to Freud'stheories, or to those who wish to ignore the fact of theexistence of primitive emotions in man. The ideas advancedhere will displease the puritanical opponents ofscientific research. But it should be borne in mind thata study of the unconscious must necessarily deal withmuch that is obnoxious in human nature.[A] A study ofthis unpleasant element leads to the attainment of amore natural and moral life. But we should also rememberthat the unconscious, besides containing theseeds of crime and immorality, also is the soil of allthose finer emotions that the church and the state cherish.Conscience, self-sacrifice, moral sense, love, areunconscious sentiments.
I should have liked to treat of the literature of metempsychosis.In this literature where people are depictedas remembering past existences, as in Kipling'stale, The Finest Story in the World, George Sand's Consuelo,and Jack London's The Star Rover, there may bepossible avenues to race memories. Needless to say, Ido not believe in the transmigration of the individualsoul as some of the Greeks and early Christians did. Butthe Buddhistic conception of metempsychosis with itsdoctrine of the Karma, the scientific theory of heredity,and the conception of psychoanalysis are all dominatedby a similar idea; this is, that the manners of feelingand thinking of our progenitors are exercised by us.We carry their souls, not the individual, but the collectiveones; we are the products of their sins and virtues;we have all the idiosyncrasies, mental make up,emotional tendencies, that they had; we have stampedon us our race, our nation, our religion. We cannotremember isolated events of past ages, but the effectsof happenings then are registered in our nervous system.No one has done more than Hearn to show this, and heis, both because of his life and work, one of the fittestsubjects for psychoanalytic study. The only possiblerival he has is Edgar Allan Poe.
If any one wishes to see an adroit application of themethod of reading between the lines in a poem, let himread Lafcadio Hearn's interpretation of Browning's poemA Light Woman in the Appreciations of Poetry. Hearnhad probably never heard of Freud, but in his lecture tohis class, he showed that the unconscious of the authorand the character could be discovered by probing carefullyinto the literary work. Hearn tells in prose Browning'sstory of the young man who claimed that he stolehis friend's mistress to save him, and on tiring of herpretended he had never loved her. Hearn shrewdlyobserves:
"Does any man in this world ever tell the exact truthabout himself? Probably not. No man understandshimself so well as to be able to tell the exact truth abouthimself. It is possible that this man believes himself tobe speaking truthfully, but he certainly is telling a lie,a half truth only. We have his exact words, but theexact language of the speaker in any one of Browning'smonologues does not tell the truth, it only suggests thetruth. We must find out the real character of theperson, and the real facts of the case, from our ownexperience of human nature."
Psychoanalysis was applied to literature long beforeFreud. When biographers recounted all the influencesof an author's life upon his works, or probed deeply intothe real meaning of his views, they gave us psychoanalyticcriticism. Great literary critics like Sainte-Beuve,Taine and George Brandes traced the tendencies of authors'works to emotional crises in their lives. Criticswho study the various ways in which authors have cometo draw themselves or people they knew in their books,are psychoanalytic. When biographers and critics dilateespecially on the relations existing between the writerand his mother, and trace the effects on the work of theauthor, they employ the psychoanalytic method. Anyprofound insight into human nature is psychoanalytic,and I find such insight in Swift, Johnson, Hazlitt andLamb.
It is, however, Freud who first gave complete applicationof that method to literature. He first touched onit in his masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams in1900, when he saw the significance of the marriage ofŒdipus to his mother in Sophocles's play Œdipus. Heshowed that it was a reminiscence of actual incestuouslove that was practised far back in the ages of barbarism,and that the play shows horror as a reaction to such attachmentto the mother. The first treatment of anæsthetic theme from the new point of psychoanalysiswas made by Freud in his book on Wit and the Unconsciousin 1905. The first sole application of psychoanalysisto a work of literature was undertaken by himin connection with Jensen's novel Gradiva in 1907,where he shows the similarity between the emotions ofthe hero and the psychoneuroses. (The novel andFreud's essay have been both translated into English.)[B]Freud also studied Leonardo da Vinci and showed theinfluences of the artist's infantile love life upon his latercareer and work. Psychoanalytic methods have beenapplied to music, mythology, religion, philosophy, philologyand morals, and indeed to almost every sphere ofmental activity. Many monographs have been published