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The New International, September 1947


Arthur A. Diener

Psychoanalysis and Literature

A Discussion of Writers and Madness


From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 7, August 1947, pp. 188–189.<
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Of late, the critical trend in literature has taken a turn toward a self-avowed psycho-analytic approach. The results of this trend have usually been long-winded essays on the creative impulse per se. Absent from consideration or merely referred to in broad outline to substantiate an a priori premise has been the product of that creative impulse, the creation. [1] Also, implicit in these discussions one may find a disparagement of serious literature as being an offshoot of a basically neurotic and therefore irrational impulse. This in turn has done a great deal to bolster the sterile intellectual’s belief that all artistic creation is a form of neurosis, and has helped compensate him for his lack of fertility.

In an article, Writers and Madness, printed in the Partisan Review, Jan.–Feb. 1947, William Barrett speculates on what constitutes the literary creative process. A brief analysis of this article would be appropriate for it is one of many representative of this “analytic” tendency. However, it should be noted that the entire tone of what Barrett has to say is one of defensive demurity, echoed in fine phrases that are almost completely empty of clear thinking and sound conclusions. Barrett begins by posing the question: “Is my title [Writers and Madness] extreme?” In answering, he states that he is dealing with the same subject that has been discussed under the titles Art and Neurosis, Art and Anxiety, but chose the “ancient and more extreme term ... to maintain continuity with all the older instances.” Characterizing the modern writer [2] as “that estranged neurotic,” he finds that “if one characteristic of neurosis is always a displacement somewhere, then perhaps the test of a writer’s achievement may be precisely the extent and richness of displacement he is able to effect.” (Italics mine.)

As examples, direct or indirect, of the proximity of artistic greatness and “madness,” he introduces the names of Swift, Joyce, Kafka and sundry others. After sparring cryptically with Swift’s ego and getting exactly nowhere, he waxes metaphorical and sings that “the great writer is the victorious suitor who has captured a beautiful bride in an incomparable marriage [!].” Not satisfied with this, he injects, in a long footnote, a statement of his “main point,” which is, that the literary process “does, in a certain way [what way?], imitate the neurotic process and does exploit neurotic material.” In the same footnote Joyce is explained as one who “moves us ... by the powerful charge he is able to lay on the most banal episode.” (Italics in original.)

At another point, he deems as “unguarded from an analytic point of view” the notion which implies that the “writer attains [or seeks to attain] through the work, health and wholeness [???] in his life too.” (My italics.) To disprove this, he cites a counter-example from the realm of painting. Von Gogh after writing to his brother Theo that the country was “healthful and strengthening” committed suicide. Here we have conclusive proof that “the triumph of the ego ... is in the work and not life.” The only example provided, however, is one of Barrett’s own shoddy thinking and irrelevance. Van Gogh also wrote before his death: “I am in a mood of nearly too great calmness ... Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half-foundered.” [3] Further, while painting, as one of the arts, is allied with writing, it is commonplace to point out that it differs widely in its mode of creation. Heedless of this, Barrett crosses frames of reference for the sake of one untenable “counter-example.”

What Freud Wrote

Throughout the article Barrett mentions Freud with whom he says he disagrees on a number of points. This adds to the prestige of the article. It adds little else. The mere mentioning of Freud’s name and a distortion of his work contribute nothing to our understanding.

In his autobiography, Freud stated, apropos of psycho-analysis and literature:

“The lay man may perhaps expect too much from analysis in this respect, for it must be admitted that it throws no light upon the two problems which probably interest him. It can do nothing towards elucidating the nature of the artistic gift nor can it explain the means by which the artist works.... What psycho-anal ysis was able to do was to take the interrelation between the impression of the artist’s life, his chance experience and his works, and from them to construct his constitution and the impulses at work in it – that is to say that part of which he shared with all men.”

In Totem and Taboo Freud also gave us an insight into the arts which is especially pertinent here. He wrote:

“In one way the neuroses show a striking and far-reaching correspondence with the great social productions of art ... while again they seem like distortions of them. We may say that hysteria is a caricature of an artistic creation, a compulsion neurosis, a caricature of a religion, and a paranoic delusion a caricature of a philosophic system.” (My italics)

While Barrett all too readily accepts this correspondence between art and neurosis (and neglects their equivocal relationship), he sees the philosopher as free from a “fatal tendency toward aberration.” The philosopher deals concepts which with he may elaborate upon and revise at will like, say, a child playing with blocks. For this reason he accords him a clean bill of mental health. But the writer “mus tmake such discoveries as to secure the completeness of release necessary to achieve authenticity. If he repeats what is already discovered he has no chance of making it his.” (Italics in original) And to find his authenticity, the writer’s unconscious that is released “must be at deeper and deeper levels.”

It is clear that “authenticity” is used in this sense merely as a shabby substitute for “originality.” Originality is that relative something that has obsessed the less in telligen t cri tics of our time and which Barrett implies, more or less, when he speaks smugly of the writer “capable of satisfying our severe demands.” As if the writer really cared! All that one can ask of the writer is that he be serious and truthful. For some writers this is a very “severe demand.” For some critics it is next to impossible. But no, the writer must be “authentic.” By being authentic he must be original and not “imitate” any of his predecessors. If he does, all that he has written has been in vain. For it is not his. How can it be his? Only if he “imitates” the neurotic process “in a certain way” and somehow salvages the “very world of experience.” But this is simpler than it sounds. He can write with the same compulsive stupidity that Barrett displays and solve his problem.

In a lecture on Psychology and Literature, C.G. Jung (who nevertheless has flagrantly distorted Freud in the name of psychology and Jung) correctly maintained that every great work of art is objective and impersonal. Of the writer he said:

“He may go the way of a Philistine, good citizen, a neurotic, a fool or a criminal. His personal career may be inevitable and interesting, but ... we can only understand him in his capacity of artist by looking at his creative achievement.”

A facile evasion o[ this responsibility is noticeable in Barrett’s pronouncement that “Joyce did not write Finnegans Wake out of a free decision taken in the void, but because his experience of life and Western culture was what it was, and he had to write that book if he was to write anything.” (My italics)

All this has nothing to do with the contents of Joyce’s masterpiece. A glance at this work will tell us why, instead of elucidating on the work itself, critics dabble in abstractions concerning free will or the lack of it, neuroses, and ex post facto nonsense. The time has come for critics, if they are serious, to drop their guises and come out to meet art face to face. There have been too many critical abortions perpetrated in the name of science, Freud, Marx and who knows what else. The time has come for critics to cast aside all pompous pretenses. Critical tendencies such as the one set forth in Partisan Review and other “modern” periodicals must be foregone. For such tendencies only confuse and divert the young artist from his efforts to “find himself.” They have nothing to offer but petty insinuations none of which are borne out by what evidence is presented.

In conclusion, it would be well to remember what Freud wrote in An Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy:

”For psycho-analysis is not an impartial scientific investigation, but a therapeutic measure. Its essence is not to move anything but merely to alter something.” (My italics.)


1. This may suggest to the reader a parallel with the so-caIled Marxist criticism that ran wild in the ’30’s and still “functions” today in a lesser degree. Then, the “reviewer” “critic,” “commentator” unleashed a barrage of home-made Marxism that did away with everything in reach, including whatever book was in review. Further similarity is evident when one realizes how poorly equipped critically the professed Marxists were and how feeble are the attempts of some at coordinating psycho-analysis and literature today.

2. Barrett draws no distinction between the realist and the experimentalist of the Symbolist and Fanatasist schools.

3. This was a calmness that usually preceded his epileptic attacks. Dostoevsky was also a victim of epilepsy. He is often brought forward as “proof” of the existence of an abnormal psychology in the great literary artist, (See the introduction to The Short Stories of Dostoevsky, Dial Press, New York. This introduction was written by William Phillips, an editor of Partisan Review. For a review of this book and a refutation of Mr. Phillips’ assertions by James T. Farrell, I refer the reader to The New York Times Book Review, December 29, 1946.)

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