Academic journal article German Quarterly

Attachment, Patriarchal Anxiety, and Paradigm Selection in German Literary Criticism

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Attachment, Patriarchal Anxiety, and Paradigm Selection in German Literary Criticism

Article excerpt

Any review of the relationship between the field of psychoanalysis and German literary critical paradigms should take into account the differences between the Anglo-American and German context of that relationship. just as Freud's reception in England and the United States differed from his reception in Germany, especially of course in Fascist Germany so too are there differences in the way that psychoanalytically informed literary studies have been conceptualized on both sides of the Atlantic. Instead of these differences, however, this article focuses on a common thread that runs throughout German literary criticism.

Progressive German literary criticism (both German and American Germanistik) has historically sought to link literary production and reception to social-historical and political forces. When progressive criticism has availed itself of psychoanalytic paradigms at all, especially as it did in the wake of the Frankfurt School, it has generally favored Freud's elaboration of the oedipal complex because it lends itself so easily to political interpretation. By analyzing the conflict between fathers and sons, Freud also provided, it was assumed, a paradigm for understanding the relationship between rulers and subjects in patriarchal culture. Problems of patriarchy that have been thematized in German literature for at least 300 yearsnamely, aggression, authority, control, and dominance-all seemed more amenable to analysis with some application of Freud's oedipal model. As subsidiary theories, critics drew on Freud's concept of repression, which was frequently conflated with the political phenomenon of oppression;1 and finally, his notion of melancholy, which is usually understood, however, less in terms of Freud and more in terms of Lepenies, that is, melancholy as the state of insatiable desire for that which the culture of the father denies to the child.2

By focusing on the possible political applications of Freud's metapsychology (that is, his model of how the mind works),3 progressive literary criticism steered clear of what it viewed as the culturally conservative implication of Freud's theories, namely, a supposedly universalist thrust of his work.4 In avoiding this issue, progressive criticism left a void that was then filled with the 1983 publication in English of the enormously influential work of postmodern criticism, Anti-Oedipus by Gilles DeLeuze and Félix Guattari, which explicitly tackled the problem of the Oedipus myth as the master narrative of capitalism and fascism.5 Attacking what it called "the incurable familialism of psychoanalysis" (p. 92), Anti-Oedipus critiqued the entire psychoanalytic discipline for "talcing part in the work of bourgeois repression at its most far-reaching level, that is to say, keeping European humanity harnessed to the yoke of daddy-mommy and making, no effort to do away with this problem once and for all" (p. 50, emphasis original). Whether or not this book actually "does away" with the "problem" that children have to have parents is itself an interesting question. It might be noted that precisely the desire to "do away" with the "problem" of the master narrative is a very tricky proposition indeed when one is arguing, with all the authority of a master, that the desire to destroy the master should not be the focus of our psychic energy.

The dilemma for the literary historian or literary critic coming on the heels of Anti-Oedipus is as follows: psychoanalysis, when understood as the Freudian science of analyzing triadic familial conflict, promises to explain a host of social-historical conflicts represented in modern literary works, but at the same time it presents us with a reductionist master discourse. The way out of this dilemma taken by some of the most sophisticated postmodern practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism is to historicize psychoanalysis itself and turn it back onto its object. In other words, as a bourgeois master narrative it may be used to explain literary works that are the creation of the bourgeois mind, which flourished somewhere between 1700 and the advent of postmodern criticism. …

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