Speaking Out: Dialogue and the Literary Unconscious

By Wexler, Joyce | Style, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Speaking Out: Dialogue and the Literary Unconscious


Wexler, Joyce, Style


Freud's concept of the unconscious is the foundation of psychoanalysis, but it is also the primary obstacle to psychoanalytic literary criticism. The originality of Freud's method in The Interpretation of Dreams is to ask patients to free associate to each element of a dream as if it were a rebus rather than attempt to interpret the dream as a whole. He regards the dream itself as manifest content that screens latent and unconscious meaning. Unlike the analyst, however, critics lack a subject who can free associate or elaborate, so their first task is to define whose unconscious they seek. Then, since all textual evidence is manifest, critics must determine how to gain access to latent meaning.

An early strategy of psychoanalytic literary critics was to treat the text as the author's dream and attempt to find repressed material by reading the text against the author's biography. More recently, reader-response critics such as Norman Holland have invited the reader to free associate to the text. In contrast, Peter Brooks distinguishes the unconscious of the text from that of the author or the reader. Brooks treats the relationship between the narrator and the reader as a version of the transference between analyst and analysand:

The text conceived as transference should allow us to illuminate and work through that which is at issue in the situation of the speaker, or the story of the narrator, that is, what must be rethought, reordered, interpreted from his discourse. (345)

Like the analyst, the reader must develop "hypotheses of construal," which are "valuable when they produce more text, when they create in the text previously unperceived networks of relation and significance, finding confirmation in the extension of the narrative and semantic web" (Brooks 346). Instead of associating to the text, the reader must associate in the text. Thus, the reader is limited to the associations textual "networks" support. Nonexplicit links between explicit passages become the source of latent content. I To speak of the unconscious of the text is to allow all its elements to count as manifest content and to allow links among any of them to count as latent content.

If the unconscious in literary interpretation belongs to the text, how can we interpret it? A literary text is the product of codes of generic conventions that affect every formal structure - plot, character, narration, description, and diction. All these elements can be overdetermined, but dialogue is an especially rich site at which to seek unconscious meaning. Like the patient's speech in an analytic session, dialogue is governed by social conventions that provide the unconscious with a ready-made disguise. Since my reasoning is based on linguistic analyses of conversation and dialogue and their relation to the unconscious, the strategy I propose should be valid in any narrative or dramatic work to the extent that dialogue represents social usage. To illustrate the interpretive value of this claim, I have chosen two texts that express homosexual desire in contrasting ways - latently, in Henry James's story "The Beast in the Jungle" and manifestly, in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.(2)

Although Freud emphasizes the importance of the individual's own associations to the elements of a dream, he also recognizes that certain symbols have common meanings. As Michel Arrive notes in Linguistics and Psychoanalysis, Freud affirms not only the capacity of the unconscious to create its own symbols, but also its ingenuity in expressing itself in preexisting, that is, conventional forms. While Freud explicitly rejects theories that posit a fixed relation between a symbol in a dream and a particular meaning, he nevertheless depends on the meaning of the dream-symbol that is, as Arrive says, "'always already there,' like the words of language, for the dreamer as for the interpreter of the dream. And it is precisely this which makes it possible for the dream to be interpreted, despite the silence which the person under analysis . …

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