Family-Systems Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: A Comparative Critique

Article excerpt

After considering some limitations of psychoanalytic criticism, this essay argues for family-systems psychotherapy as a developing paradigm for psychological literary criticism. The essay then analyzes differences between Freud's "family romance" and family-system therapy's "family dance."

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For almost a hundred years, psychologically oriented literary criticism has been largely dominated by varieties of Freudian, neo-Freudian, or, more recently, Lacanian paradigms. At the same time, mainstream psychology itself has gone through several major shifts in thinking, ranging from behaviourism of the 1920s to B.F. Skinner of the 1950s, phenomenology in the 1960s, existential analysis in the 1970s and the cognitive-cum-cybernetic revolutions in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently still, contemporary psychology now looks to the biological sciences and the work of neo-Darwinians, life-span developmentalists, and to brain and biochemical researchers. Of course, as Eleanor Rosch has taught us, these categories oftentimes tend to overlap and blend, at least initially. Although several European scholars began as long ago as the 1970s to employ empirical research methods to examine literary works, only recently have such developments been seen in mainstream literary theory. Typical is Norman Holland's pioneering work in literary cognition, the cognitive stylistics of Jonathan Culpeper and his analysis of characterization in drama (see my review, "Talking," in Style 37.1), and the biopoetics research of Joseph Carroll and Robert Storey; all have begun to modify profoundly the thinking of mainstream criticism. Psychoanalytically oriented literary critics need, therefore, to reconsider their near total allegiance to a psychological science of fifty or a hundred years ago and to explore the ramifications of the newer psychologies of this new century.

In this essay, I argue that recent developments employing the clinical psychology known as family-systems therapy (most critics use the abbreviation FST) can be quite useful for literary criticism. Indeed, several critics have been applying family-systems theory as an exciting new tool for understanding literary characters and, as such, are not only developing alternative answers to issues concerned with mimetic characters but are also asking rather different questions (see: Piercy and Sprenkle; Rychlak).

Family-systems therapy is a type of clinical social psychology and so turns most of the questions hitherto asked by psychoanalytic critics toward social rather than intra-psychic directions. Those of us using family systems in the act of criticism are always asked, Is it not really little different from psychoanalytic theory and critical practice? Is not the "family dance" the same basic idea as Freud's "family romance"? Is not family-systems therapy just a variation of what psychoanalytic critics have been doing most of the twentieth century? Our answer is emphatically no to all. To answer such questions requires first a discussion of the problems that writers from a family systems paradigm see in Freudian criticism. I should make clear at the outset that I am referring specifically to literary critics employing the Collected Works of Freud as psychological/critical anatomies. Most practising psychoanalytically oriented therapists think of themselves as eclectic, grounded in neo-psychoanalysis, but borrowing from whatever clinical tradition appears useful.

So, what is wrong with applying Freudian insights to great works of literature? To begin, I argue that, since Freud's psychological science is over a hundred years old, literary critics should recognize that, like all human endeavours, the psychological sciences have evolved beyond the thinking that created such mentalistic entities as the unconscious. The unconscious, as a unitary entity of mind was one of the cornerstones of Freud's understanding of human motivation, a concept borrowed from Eduard von Hartman's Philosophy of the Unconscious. …