Family Systems Psychotherapy, Literary Character, and Literature: An Introduction

By Knapp, John V. | Style, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Family Systems Psychotherapy, Literary Character, and Literature: An Introduction


Knapp, John V., Style


The grammar of narrative is . . . fraught with the same ambiguities - arising from the same social ambivalences - that distinguish the biogrammar itself. Male versus female, self versus kin, kin versus non-kin, group versus group - these gene-bred antagonisms are embedded in a social life that is always demanding (through gene-bred imperatives) their resolution.

Robert Storey

I no longer believe in individuals; rather, I think of scapegoats, sent out by their families-of-origin to do battle with their new spouse over whose family they will recreate.

Carl Whitaker

I

Psychological literary criticism has sent out generations of scholars to do battle with recalcitrant imaginative texts, armed most often with the psychological tools of an early twentieth-century intrapsychic psychology that no longer answers all the interesting questions posed by those standing on the brink of the twenty-first (Livingston 93; Storey, Review 354; Mimesis 207). While classic psychoanalysis and its variations are all widely used in literature departments these days for the analysis of character, and have been for several generations (Almond and Almond, 1996; Bleich, 1996; Skura, 1981, 1992; Wright, 1984), most practitioners of real-world therapy have long since moved on to many other theoretical models (Corsini et al., 1989). Even very recent psychoanalytic literary models that seek to incorporate contemporary psychological thinking - including recent versions of ego psychology (Kohut, 1984), language-oriented Lacanian theory (Gallup, 1985), and narrative (Brooks, 1994; Bowie, 1993) - are still tied to many classic and, in my opinion, no longer tenable Freudian ideas such as the Oedipus complex, the (singular) unconscious, and drive-reduction versions of mental processes (Eysenck and Wilson, 1973; Grunbaum, 1984, Validation 64-65, 178-79, 204-28; Masson, Assault 113; Morson and Emerson 28-30; Spence 112-17).

One of the more widely used therapeutic models in the "real world"family systems therapy (hence, fst) - has barely made a ripple in the ocean of literary criticism from which most of us try to keep from drowning (Bump, 1991, 1993; Cohen, 1991; Knapp 1983, 1996; Womack, 1996). Indeed, why this is so - why the discipline of literary criticism has virtually ignored the contemporary social sciences while at the same time deifying one pseudoscientific model from the nineteenth century - remains somewhat of a mystery to this day (even though there has appeared in recent years a certain restlessness with the status quo) (Morrison, 1968).(1) Elsewhere I have asked this same question and tried to give some answers (Knapp, Striking, chapter 2), but, beyond attributing such a massive cultural lag to the negative reasons associated with cognitive authority (hero worship), sheer inertia, and careerism, as well as the more positive one of loyalty to an ideational system one finds personally congenial, I have not been able to fully resolve this question in my own mind even though others besides me have tried (Holzner and Marx 109-10; Crews 55; Storey, Mimesis 37-38; Murray 93). Hence, the reader will have to proceed without an imprimatur from what Robert Pirsig might call the contemporary psycho-critical Church of Reason, and to explore actively some hitherto unfamiliar yet highly interesting new territory.(2) Since literary characters are endlessly fascinating anyway, one may well profit, when thinking about them, by looking at this most ancient of literary conventions (or codes) with newer spectacles (Milowicki and Wilson 219; Margolin 105).

However, the issue before us here is less to finish certain old and perhaps unresolvable matters but to pose new and fascinating questions. What would happen to our understanding of many literary characters in/and imaginative texts if critics were to analyze them using the intellectual tools and insights from family systems theory (fst)? What shifts in thinking would be required, especially if one grants that psychoanalysis and almost all of contemporary literary criticism are one and the same?

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