The Context of English Literature, 1900-1930

By Michael Bell | Go to book overview

5

Freud and
English literature 1900-30

R. A. GEKOSKI

'The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.'

Considerations of the work of Sigmund Freud, and of its implications for the arts, frequently begin with the above quotation, 1 from a short speech given by Freud during the celebration of his seventieth birthday. The restraint and humility of the claim (however much it implicitly places him with Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Goethe) are often felt to be a just indication of Freud's stature as a man and thinker. But it is, surely, a curious assertion; its modesty perhaps a little disingenuous — as if made by an early American railway magnate in deference to Christopher Columbus. For there is no rigorous sense of the term 'unconscious' which Sophocles or Shakespeare — in both of whom Freud was well read — would have acknowledged himself the discoverer of. That men are motivated by profound and frequently inexplicable surges of passion, and can be the unwilling agents of their own destruction, both knew and compellingly demonstrated. But to neither would this have entailed the location of a distinct and isolatable aspect of our humanity corresponding to what Freud was much later to label the 'unconscious'.

There is, however, ample evidence that a profound concern with, if not the unconscious, then at least with unconsciousness, has been a constant concern of artists and philosophers since the Greeks; Galen

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