Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Psychological Speculation in Literature

"I have done that," says my memory. "I cannot have done that," says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually - the memory yields."
- Nietzsche, Epigrams and Interludes #68 (Beyond Good & Evil)

Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle is supposedly one of his least scientific works. All the better for those who hold literature to be the proper laboratory for the exploration of human psychology. Freud himself makes several references to various works of literature throughout the book, particularly when at a loss for clinical verification for his often ambiguous and controversial theories. While this ultimate reliance on "the poets" may frustrate psychologists pretending to scientific credibility, it delights those who appreciate that literature is an avenue for the exploration of human psychology unmatched by clinical trials.

The ancients knew this well, which is perhaps why earlier cultures devised poetry and theatre rather than psychology. Psychoanalysis, Freud teaches in Part III, is "above all an interpretive art." As such it is closer to literature than to methodological science. Or, more accurately, literature - as a field for imaginative psychological interpretation both  on the part of readers as well as writers - is the proper field for psychology.

Freud was of course no dogmatist. His endeavor followed in the great liberal arts tradition. His method as well as his form are reminiscent of Nietzsche's opening to Beyond Good and Evil, where dogmatism is attacked for overwhelming wonder and healthy erotic love as the motive forces of philosophy. Nietzsche's 56th aphorism is of particular interest given the centrality played by the eternal return in Freud's book.

Freud provides only two practical illustrations of his unique development of the Pleasure Principle, both of which pale when juxtaposed with his literary references. References to Jerusalem Delivered or Faust are far more powerful tools for illustrating the insightfulness of Freud's theories than any actual human case Freud brings up in the book. Likewise Freud's forays into the field of biology risk seeing the tree for the forest as far as the principle of life goes and make an error common amongst psychologists: seeking an explanation for human action which is volitional in the realm of the involuntary. Nevertheless, for all of the faults of Freud's analysis in terms of biology or even the weakness of his cases - there is no doubt that as literary art - his theory is magnificent.

The collapse of the simple economic Pleasure Principle into the Reality Principle in Part I is the perfect backdrop for an exploration of the thin line between happiness earned through patience and self-destructive hedonism. The trials and tribulations of frustrated youthful eros yielding repressive tendencies in the adult as presented in Part III by way of his own findings and those of Marcinowski is fit for, if not belletristica, a Greek tragedy of soap-operatic proportions.

It is in the same third section of the book that we find an explicit reference to and meditation on the Nietzschean principle of "the eternal return of the same things" as Freud calls it, illustrated by Tasso's poetic hero Tankred. By the end of the third part, the Eternal Return and the Pleasure Principle seem to be "bound up in an intimate whole." What follows, from reflections on the anatomy of the brain to embryology, reflections on the nature of death and the relation between stimuli, consciousness and the evolution of outer-defenses against stimuli - while perhaps not completely accurate science - inspires excellent science fiction.

Freud's skepticism of Kant's contention that time and space are the necessary forms of human thought, his ambitious and ambiguous contention that metapsychology is an unexplored "great X which we must carry over into each new formula" raises exciting questions which psychology may be at a loss to answer anywhere except in the realm of literature. The fifth part of the book, which delves into political philosophy - specifically the nature of the yearning for change or stability and the psychological foundations of the conservative and progressive predisposition - is likewise perhaps poor political science but the plot of a masterpiece of literary arts.

In the end, however, Freud's work likewise risks what many works of literature - particularly realistic literature - risk: holding a lens to the mundane because it is common and mistaking the common with the real. Freud himself writes that:

For many of us it may be difficult to resign from our faith in the human urge for self-perfection which has led Mankind to its present spiritual achievements and a sublime ethics on the basis of which we may expect the human race to progress towards a super-human level. For my part, I do not believe in such an internal urge and I see no way to save this pleasant illusion. I do not believe that the progress of Mankind requires explanations that go beyond those which we use to explain the progress of other animals. What we can observe in a minority of human individuals as an unceasing urge to progress towards further self-perfection can, with little effort, be interpreted as the effect of the repression of urges - which is itself the basis for that which is most valuable in human culture.

The psychologist wishes to understand the human mind, but independent of whether or not Freud is right about Mankind and its' urge to self-perfection, the question for that "minority of human individuals" who usher along the progress of the human race remains: should art subordinate itself to painting an image of Mankind - or to human greatness? Should Mankind be the context within which we explore greatness in Man and can psychology make such an exploration and survive? Literature for the masses is bad enough; but psychology seems impossible without putting a lens to them. Freud's work may be answering Nietzsche's 23rd aphorism in The Prejudices of Philosophers from Beyond Good and Evil, but in the spirit of the Eternal Return, we may throw the question of this aphorism back at Freud - and at psychology in general - and ask whether, following decades of effort, psychology is any closer to being "again" the queen of the sciences? Or could it be that the best we can say of Freud is that his work is an eternal well for literary matter to be brought to the surface by great writers?

All psychology so far has got stuck in moral prejudices and fears; it has not dared to descend into the depths. To understand it as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power, as I do - nobody has yet come close to doing this even in thought - insofar as it is permissible to recognize in what has been written so far a symptom of what has so far been kept silent. The power of moral prejudices has penetrated deeply into the most spiritual world, which would seem to be the coldest and most devoid of presuppositions, and has obviously operated in an injurious, inhibiting, blinding, and distorting manner. A proper pysio-psychology has to contend with unconscious resistance in the heart of the investigator, it has "the heart" against it: even a doctrine of the reciprocal dependence of the "good" and the "wicked" drives, causes (as refined immorality) distress and aversion in a still hale and hearty conscience - still more so, a doctrine of the derivation of all good impulses from wicked ones. If, however, a person should regard even the affects of hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule as conditions of life, as factors which, fundamentally and essentially, must be present in the general economy of life (and must, therefore, be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced) - he will suffer from such a view of things as from seasickness. And yet even this hypothesis is far from being the strangest and most painful in this immense and almost new domain of dangerous insights; and there are in fact a hundred good reasons why everyone should keep away from it who - can. On the other hand, if one has once drifted there with one's bark, well! all right! let us clench our teeth! let us open our eyes and keep our hand firm on the helm! We sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage there - but what matter are we! Never yet did a profounder world of insight reveal itself to daring travelers and adventurers, and the psychologist who thus "makes a sacrifice" - it is not the sacrifizio dell' intellecto, on the contrary! - will at least be entitled to demand in return that psychology should be recognized again as the queen of the sciences, for whose service and preparation the other sciences exist. For psychology is now again the path to the fundamental problems.

Notes: Nietzsche quotes come from Basic Writings of Nietzsche translated by Walter Kaufmann (1992 Modern Library edition). Freud quotes are translated by me from the Polish edition of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Poza Zasadą Przyjęmności) translated into Polish by Jerzy Prokopiuk PWN 1976). Photograph is of the cover to the aforementioned Polish edition of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (from my own collection)

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