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Sigmund Freud, Renowned Psychologist or Literary Giant?

May 6, 2011 in European Writers, LIterary Traveler Birthdays, Psychology

Sigmund Freud, LIFE Photo Archive

Sigmund Freud is primarily recognized as an influential psychologist who developed the theory of psychoanalysis and famously authored The Interpretation of Dreams.  Then why have I received lectures on the Id, Ego, and Superego in multiple English Literature classes over the years and studied little to nothing about Freud’s works in Psych 100?

It seems that the field of psychology has changed drastically since Freud graduated from medical school in 1880. His subjective interpretations of patient sessions and his sweeping conclusions are no longer considered valid in a discipline where objective experiments employing scientific method, statistical surveys, and qualitative data are the norm. However, it is impossible to deny that Freud has had a significant influence on popular conceptions of psychology, as the common conception of the “therapist’s couch” is attributed to him and his use of talk therapy.

I believe W.H. Auden summarized Freud’s influence best in his poem, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”:

If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, /to us he is no more a person /now but a whole climate of opinion

In the public eye, Freud has become so influential that he is seen less as a man and more as a collection of concepts and arguments; though these ideas vary from the commonly accepted (repression) to the outrageous (penis envy) it is impossible to ignore their presence and influence in a variety of disciplines, including that of literary criticism.

For instance, I have always loved the writing of Ernest Hemingway, but whenever I read his work I can’t help but imagine the typical, high-school-English-class diagram of an iceberg. Though Freud never described human consciousness as “just the tip of the iceberg,” the analogy has become strongly associated with Freudian ideology as well as Hemingway’s minimalist style. When reading the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the tension and constraint present in Hemingway’s simple language suggests that the depth of the characters’ unconscious reaches far below the water’s surface.

Thus, perhaps it is not so surprising to find Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis present in critiques of even the most contemporary literature, since many would argue that good literature struggles to depict humankind in all its repression, oedipal impulses, and oral fixations. After all, Freud’s writings, as farfetched as they may seem, are like many great works of literature in that they strive to understand and make sense of the incredibly complex human condition.

Happy Birthday, Sigmund Freud! (b. May 6, 1856)


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