Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ibsen and Psychoanalysis: "The Compulsion to Repeat" in 'Brand' and the 'Epic Brand.' (Henrik Ibsen)

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ibsen and Psychoanalysis: "The Compulsion to Repeat" in 'Brand' and the 'Epic Brand.' (Henrik Ibsen)

Article excerpt

IBSEN IS WIDELY CONSIDERED A PRECURSOR of psychoanalysis. Gunnar Brandell argues that Ibsen's was "one of the minds that gave stimulus to Freud's imagination" (54). Georg Groddeck claims that "Ibsen knew the unconscious better than almost anyone else" (63). Discussing Rosmersholm, Michael Meyer writes that "Ibsen was, for the first time...in any play for over two centuries, overtly probing the uncharted waters of the unconscious mind" (565). For Otto Hageberg,

Ibsens genialitet som dramatikar ikkje minst ligg i dette at ban i sin skapande fantasi, ubunden av teoretiske referansar av noko slag, grip--eller gjerne foregrip--grunnleggjande forstaingsmatar innan vart bundrears djuppsykologi, spesielt psykoanalysen, lenge for dei er vitskapleg funderte, forst av Freud, seinare vidareforte av andre.... [Ibsen] ser det andre ikkje badde sett, men som likevel er grunnleggjande realitetar om menneskelivet. (135)

(Ibsen's genius as dramatist lies not least in that through his creative imagination, not bound by theoretical references of any sort, he grasps--or better anticipates--methods of understanding fundamental to depth psychology, especially psychoanalysis, in our century long before they were scientifically grounded, first by Freud, later by his followers.... [Ibsen] sees that which others had not seen, but which are nevertheless fundamental realities of human life....)(FN1)

Here Hageberg identifies the basic assumption underlying the psychoanalytic interpretive project: Ibsen's texts reveal "grunnleggjande realitetar om menneskelivet." Essentially, these fundamental realities are the psychological principles later theorized by Freud and his followers.

The attempt to see fundamental psychological principles in Ibsen's texts has recently come under sharp criticism: in the last decade, Brian Johnston, Thorkill Vangaard, Vigdis Ystad and Fredrik Engelstad have attacked the methodology and conclusions of psychoanalytic literary research. Vangaard articulates perhaps the major point in this critique: psychoanalysis reduces the complexity of a literary artwork.

Man kan kommer til at tolke stof ind i dramaet, som ret beset ikke indeholdes i dets tekst; eller hvis stof forefindes, som inbyder til analytisk tolkning, kan man komme til at trakke det for meget frem og give det en plads, som ikke harmonerer med helheden.... Resultatet kan blive en tendens til at ville forsta og forklare en kompliceret helhed gennem reduktion af den til en enkelt af dens dele. Dette vil jeg kalde reduktionisme. (163)

([Psychoanalytic critics] can come to interpret material in the drama which all things considered does not appear in the text; or if material be found that invites analytic interpretation, they will emphasize it too much and give it a place which is not in harmony with the whole.... The result can be a tendency to understand and interpret a complicated whole through reduction of it to a single one of its parts. This I will call reductionism.)

For Vangaard and the others, psychoanalytic reductionism usually involves cramming the dramatic text into a pre-ordained psychological model of understanding. The coercive critical practice distorts the text in numerous ways: it suggests that dramatic characters are living persons with real (unconscious) psychological systems; it displaces the actual unfolding of the dramatic event in favor of a sequence of hypothetical events offstage; it constricts the text's philosophical and metaphysical scope, etc. Vangaard and the others are right to observe that psychoanalytic critics have had a disappointing tendency to maim Ibsen's texts in these ways. But must psychoanalytic interpretation be reductionist? I think not and offer the following essay as a case in point.

Ibsen's Brand has provoked vehement and contrary critical responses. This interpretive conflict tends to center on the figure of the protagonist. Charles Leland, for example, regards Brand an alter Christus, another Christ, while George Bernard Shaw considers the character a savagely idealistic murderer. …

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