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Moi, T. (1989). Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, edited by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, London/New York: Methuen, 1987, xvi + 240 pages, pb £8.95. Free Associations, 1R(17):126-132.

(1989). Free Associations, 1R(17):126-132

Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, edited by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, London/New York: Methuen, 1987, xvi + 240 pages, pb £8.95

Review by:
Toril Moi

What exactly is the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis? This central concern of Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's representative selection of essays, is one of the most hotly debated issues in contemporary literary criticism. Peter Brooks's opening essay, ‘The idea of a psychoanalytic literary criticism’, provides an excellent presentation of the issue at stake. Traditionally, psychoanalysis has been viewed with scepticism by many literary critics, not primarily because they reject it as a theory or as a clinical practice (although that may also be the case) but because psychoanalytic critics have produced some spectacularly bad literary criticism. The reason for this failure, Brooks argues, is that ‘psychoanalysis in literary study has over and over again mistaken the object of analysis, with the result that whatever insights it has produced tell us precious little about the structure and rhetoric of literary texts’ (p. 1).

Literary criticism, Brooks argues, is primarily the study of rhetorics — that is to say, the ways in which language produces its effects on us. From this perspective, traditional psychoanalytic literary criticism has been perceived as singularly unproductive in its disconcerting tendency to reduce every fictional plot to an oedipal triangle and every fictional phenomenon to a symptom of the author's unconscious hang-ups. For Peter Brooks, purely thematic readings of this kind neglect the particular expertise of literary critics. In this context, Freud's own readings are no exception. Or, as Brooks puts it:

We would probably all agree that Freud speaks most pertinently to literary critics when he is not explicitly addressing art: the most impressive essays in psychoanalytic criticism have drawn more on The Interpretation of Dreams, the metapsychological essays and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, than on Delusion and Dreams, ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’ or the essays on Leonardo and Dostoevsky.

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