Review of “Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan” – Julia Reinhard Lupton

pages 88-105 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she has taught since 1989. She is the co-author of After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (with Kenneth Reinhard, 1992) and the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature (1996) and Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005). She is the founding director of Humanities Out There, a nationally recognized educational partnership between the University of California, Irvine and local schools.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

I remember a funny moment in a third-year drama class Professor Laurel Bowman was teaching. She was talking about Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and she listed on a PowerPoint slide the things she wanted to cover: comparing Oedipus to the Athenian statesman Pericles, comparing the plague in the play to the plague in Athens, narratological approaches to interpreting the play, and so on. The next slide had the heading: “What we will not be talking about,” and under the heading, with a big cross through it, were the words “Freud and psychoanalysis.” This drew a laugh from the students. Freud and psychoanalysis, in vogue for so much of the twentieth century, have fallen out of favour.

Psychoanalysis entered the mainstream in 1899 when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this work, he grounded the phenomenon of the unconscious mind that writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun and philosophers such as Nietzsche had begun exploring on a scientific and medical basis. Though psychoanalysis was developed to treat mental disorders, because Freud used literary texts–primarily Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet–to introduce his ideas on the unconscious, repression, fantasy, and neurosis, psychoanalysis also became a vehicle to interpret literature. “Putting the character on the couch,” as Lupton calls it.

The Basis of Psychoanalyzing Literary Persons

Lupton identifies four directions in psychoanalytic literary criticism that Freud launched with his comments on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are: character analysis, hermeneutics, narrative structure, and the dynamics of the psychoanalytic situation (how the unconscious brings about catharsis).
Character analysis is the act of putting the character on the couch. It is, as Lupton describes, what “unfolds between the poles of brute personification or impersonation.” In English that means pretending that the character is a real person you could psychoanalyze. Of course, the character is not a real person, but hey we can look over this small detail, right? In the old day before psychoanalysis, character analysis would be a study of a character’s conscious motives and intentions. In psychoanalytic criticism, character analysis consists of looking at the unconscious or repressed neuroses that influence action.

Hermeneutics is the study of hidden meanings. Psychoanalytic interpretation, according to Lupton, “follows the operations by which meanings are transformed and redistributed in their passage between conscious and unconscious planes, replacing the search for latent contents with the dynamism of rhetorical transformations.” In English that means proposing that each thought and action in drama plays out on a dual stage: the conscious stage and the unconscious stage. For example, when Lady Macbeth says:

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty

She could be wishing for more power and capacity. Or, there could be a hidden, hermeneutic meaning underlying her words. Perhaps her language breaks out as an ejaculation of repressed desires. In the old day before psychoanalysis, the study of hidden meaning consisted of looking at allusions to other works, the significance of metaphors and images of light, darkness, or colours, repetition, allusion, and other literary devices. In the old day, the study of hidden meanings was grounded to the text and its relation to other texts. Psychoanalysis freed up interpretation and looked for hidden meaning between the text and Freud’s discoveries in the unconscious realms of dreams and inhibitions.

Lupton’s third point of discussion–narrative structure–consists of mapping milestone events in the medical practise of psychoanalysis onto dramatic milestones in the plot. It was Freud himself who provided future critics the initial cue when he wrote: “The action of the play is nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement–a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis–that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta.”

One of the theorists who took Freud up on the psychoanalytical approach to narrative structure was Jacques Lacan. Lacan turns to Sophocles’ play Antigone and, using psychoanalysis on the plot, traces how all of Antigone’s actions return to one defining moment: her troubling declaration of her single-minded devotion to her brother:

Antigone: Had I had children or their father dead,

I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen

In such a case to cross the states’ decree.

What is the law that lies behind these words?

One husband gone, I might have found another,

Or a child from a new man in first child’s place,

But with my parents hid away in death,

No brother, ever, could spring up for me.

Here, Antigone says that she would have risked all for her brother. But not for her children or husband.  In Lacan’s analysis, Antigone’s subsequent actions can all be traced back to this one shocking pronouncement. What is more, in this announcement, Antigone reveals how she is the living personification of the incestuous union between Oedipus and Jocasta.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, structural interpretations consisted of looking at elements of the plot and comparing them with other plots in the same genre and with how plots unfold in different genres. The difference in psychoanalytic structural readings is that, in a psychoanalytic structural reading, the structure of the text is compared with the medical process of psychoanalysis.

The fourth and final direction psychoanalytic criticism has taken, according to Lupton, is to demonstrate how drama brings about Aristotle’s catharsis–the purging of pity and fear through pity and fear–in the audience. In this way, Freudian thought is an extension, and not a replacement of Aristotle’s Poetics.

If the narratological or structural approach of psychoanalysis identifies the root cause for a character’s behaviour, the fourth direction of psychoanalytic criticism called “transference” shows how the structure of tragedy has a social function: to cure the audience of pity and fear. Lupton here turns to the work of Lacan again. On Antigone’s terrifying decision to honour her brother, but not her children or husband (were she to have children and a husband), Lacan writes:

Through the intervention of pity and fear . . . we are purged of everything of that order. And that order, we can now immediately recognize, is properly speaking the order of the imaginary. And we are purged of it through the intervention of one image among others.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, we had all heard about Aristotle’s theory that tragedy purges the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. This was not new. It was never, however, entirely clear what Aristotle meant by the process of catharsis. The contribution of psychoanalysis is that it provides us with a mechanism of tragedy brings about catharsis. It is brought about by transference:

Transference in its imaginary function encourages us to identify with characters at the level of ethos or character–the function of pity as com-passion or sym-pathy that forms one strand of catharsis in Aristotle’s famous formula. Transference in its symbolic and real dimensions, however, locates us in contradictory places within the mythos of the drama, and the mythos of our lives, corresponding to the fear or terror that wrenches us out of imaginary identification with a character and forces us into contact with the unconscious plot and repressed words that shape our desire.

Hermeneutics, narrative structure, the dynamics of the psychoanalytic position, and catharsis: Lupton has identified these four areas as the major points of psychoanalytic criticism.

Psychoanalysis and Citizenship

Lupton ends her essay with a surprising discussion bringing together psychoanalysis and the question of citizenship. Politics and citizenship are thought, generally, to lie outside the realm of psychoanalysis, which examines not the state, but the interior workings of an individual’s unconscious. That Lupton’s question occurs, however, is less surprising if we consider the political aim of this Blackwell companion to tragedy. Here’s how the back cover blurb reads:

The companion is based on the premise that the genre of tragedy is inseparable from history, insofar as it was born in the Greek city-state, and its life has been intertwined with the fate of dynasties, revolutions, and crises of social change.

Since tragedy dramatizes the emergence of democratic sensibilities, the triumph of citizens, and the institution of citizenship over monarchs, tyrants, and despotic rule, then there should be overlap between the unfolding political and psychological action. A psychoanalysis of the dissolving kinship ties holding together monarchies and tyrannies is possible, argues Lupton, where the political and psychological action overlaps.

Psychologically, argues Lupton, both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Oresteia move from pre-Oedipal to Oedipal formations. In the beginning of both plays, the father figure character–Agamemnon in the Oresteia and King Hamlet in Hamlet–perishes. The son–Orestes in the Oresteia and Hamlet in Hamlet–must assume a new relation to the phallus.

In Hamlet, Hamlet assumes a new relation with the phallus and finds a new sense of citizenship in his friendship with Horatio. And in the Oresteia, Orestes assumes a new relation with the phallus by bringing about the trial that transfers the adjudication of murder from the family to the state. In Lupton’s reading, the singular force of repressed and hidden neuroses in an individual can explode onto a national level.

The Future of the Psychoanalysis of Literary Persons

Have you ever read Freud? He is a beautiful stylist. He writes deliberately with clarity and focus. Take this passage. It is beautiful to read:

If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes, becomes intelligible . . . The Greek myth seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy, and this dream-fulfillment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror.

His writing makes me want to believe him, to believe his story. Now compare Freud with one of his followers, Lacan:

[Antigone invokes] a right that emerges in the language of the ineffaceable character of what is–ineffaceable, that is, from the moment when the emergent signifier freezes it like a fixed object in spite of the flood of possible transformations. What is, is, and it is to this, to this surface, that the unshakeable, unyielding position of Antigone is fixed . . . To put it in the terms of Lévi-Strauss–and I am certain that I am not mistaken in evoking him here, since I was instrumental in having had him reread Antigone and he expressed himself to me in such terms–Antigone with relation to Creon finds herself in the position of synchrony in opposition to diachrony.

While Freud was the soul of concision, Lacan is anything but. Here is what I think Lacan is saying:

In burying her brother, Antigone invokes an immutable and unique right. While the world changes around her, the right she invokes is timeless and knows no change. By anchoring herself to the timeless, immutable, and unique right, Antigone herself becomes timeless. To put this in the terms of one of the gods of my field, by this act of invocation Antigone freezes the ever-flowing stream of language while Creon is swept away by the changes. I know Lévi-Strauss is correct in saying this because it is I, Lacan, myself who encouraged him to reread Antigone. Without me, he probably would have overlooked this important finding.

The way Lacan presents himself makes me want to disbelieve him and, what is more, run away as fast as I can.

Lacan, and many of these other practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism remind me of the quants on Wall Street who, from time to time, trigger flash crashes with their financial alchemy. They take an idea, even a viable idea, and dress it up in the finery of mathematics. They flash their equations and formulas to the doubters to silence them. They’re dangerous, because their equations and formulas, even though dependent on many unproven assumptions, have the seeming of certainty. So too the language of the psychoanalytic critics after Freud reminds of the mathematical models and algorithms of the quants. Dense language raises suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I think, if psychoanalytic criticism is going to revive in the future, its practitioners will have to rediscover Freud’s gifts as a stylist. Freud’s followers liked reading Freud, but would Freud have loved reading his followers?

Freud’s Error

Psychoanalysis rests on two emotions: love and jealousy. In a letter to his friend Fliess, Freud lays down the emotional basis of psychoanalysis: “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood.” Tragedy became useful to Freud when he saw in Oedipus rex an unmistakable reference to this belief:

In the very text of Sophocles’ tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend originates in an extremely old dream material, which consists of the painful disturbance of the relation towards one’s parents by means of the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus–who is not yet enlightened, but who has become worried on account of the oracle–by mentioning to him the dream which is dreamt by so many people, though she attaches no significance to it–

“For it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles” (Act iv. sc. 3).

Jocasta’s words seem to anticipate Freud and psychoanalysis. But do they?

Let’s consider the entire passage. The Corinthian messenger has arrived, and tells Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne: his father has died. Since he’s left Corinth a long time ago, Oedipus begins to question the prophecy that he would kill his father. But he still fears the other half of the prophecy that said he would sleep with his mother:

Oedipus: But my mother’s bed, surely I must fear–

Jocasta: Fear?

What should a man fear? It’s all chance,

chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth

can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.

Better to live at random, best we can.

And as for this marriage with your mother–

have no fear. Many a man before you,

in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed

Take such things for shadows, nothing at all–

Live, Oedipus,

as if there’s no tomorrow!

Oedipus: Brave words,

and you’d persuade me if mother weren’t alive.

But mother lives, so for all your reassurances

I live in fear, I must.

As Freud notes, Jocasta is attempting to comfort Oedipus, who has becoming increasingly agitated. Characters in tragedy use a stock device to comfort one another. Tragedy’s stock consolation is formulaic, taking this form: “Not to you alone has this suffering come. Many others have also suffered this.” In antiquity, the consolation was such a commonplace it was called the non tibi hoc soli “not to you alone” consolation. It was popular enough for Cicero to write about it (an effective consolation, though some spit it out) and for Timocles to base a theory of tragedy around it.

The non tibi hoc soli consolation is a commonplace of consolation in tragedy. Examine the chorus’ consolation to Theseus, who has discovered his wife has committed suicide:

Theseus: What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless man that I am, the greatest of woes! O fate, how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, an unperceived blight sent upon me by some avenging power! Nay more, it is the very destruction of life!

Chorus: My lord, it is not upon you alone that these ills have come: you have lost a trusty wife, but so have many others.

Consider as well Danaus’ consolation to his daughters when they feel the heartbreak of exile: “Pure Apollo, too, who, though a god, was exiled once from heaven.” The pang of exile has not come to the Danaids alone: even the gods felt it. And, for a more recent example, turn to Claudius’ consolation to Hamlet on the death of his father:

Claudius: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father;

But you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

Again, note the formulaic “not to you alone” expression of consolation. Hamlet should feel consoled, once he realizes that he’s not the only one who has lost a father. The consolation works by diluting grief by the pain of others. When the sufferer suffers, there is something in their suffering that wants to exalt itself as the greatest burden that has ever been experienced. The sufferer, with this weight of burden, wants to be the king of pain, wants to take this pain as a proof against existence, wants to cry out: “Look on me, and see what wrongs I have suffered!” The commonplace of consolation brings the sufferer back to the ground. “Your sufferings,” it says, “are not at all unique. Bear it with the others.”

Now, let’s return to the scene where Jocasta is consoling Oedipus. Oedipus is worried that the prophecy that he would sleep with his mother may be fulfilled. If Jocasta were to console Oedipus with the stock non tibi hoc soli (“not to you alone”) consolation of tragedy, it would come out something like this: “You’re not the only one, Oedipus, who’s slept with his mother. Many others have slept with their mothers.” Can you see the problem here?

The first problem of using the stock consolation is that Oedipus hasn’t slept with his mother–at least that’s what Jocasta and Oedipus both believe at this point. Unlike the other sufferers in tragedy who have lost a wife or a father, Oedipus is worried about something conjectural. And the second problem of using the stock consolation is that it just sounds bad. It’s completely inappropriate, as Oedipus doesn’t want to sleep with his mother. What Sophocles has to do is to alter the stock consolation to fit the action. And so he adds a twist. The consolation, like Oedipus’ fear, has to become conjectural. To make the consolation conjectural, Sophocles places it into the realm of dreams, rendering it thus: “Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

Freud thought that Jocasta’s consolation was an universal acknowledgement of a son’s jealousy of his father and love of his mother. Far from it. That would have been the last thing Jocasta would have wanted to convey to Oedipus at this critical moment. Her consolation, in my analysis, takes the form that it does because Sophocles takes the commonplace of consolation the audience expects to see and gives it a little twist to make it work in his play. That’s all. It isn’t some gnostic and universal declaration of the Oedipus complex. It’s taking and adapting the commonplace of consolation so that it makes sense. There’s nothing really complicated or profound in her consolation at all. Freud has overanalyzed the line, and beautifully, I might add.

We often take literature to be more profound than it actually is. Most of the time, if you ask artists, they’re not thinking about universal truths, hidden meanings, or creating a legacy to persevere through time. They’re just trying to make things fit. I think Milman Parry showed us this when he analyzed the oral tradition behind Homeric epic. He argued that Homer and the bards in the epic tradition composed on the fly. They drew on formulaic groups of words to fit the metre in which they were reciting their poems. So, when they used these formulas–such as “Rosy-fingered Dawn” or “Cow-eyed Hera”–that doesn’t mean that they thought Dawn was rosy-fingered or that Hera was cow-eyed or that the sea was wine-dark or that Achilles was swift-footed or that Menelaus was loud. They were just looking for a way to finish the line in the correct metre. We can see this in the instances where Achilles is said to be “swift-footed” even when he’s sleeping.

So too, Jocasta’s consolation to Oedipus is like one of these Homeric epithets–with one exception. Sophocles, unlike the Homeric rhapsode, isn’t composing on the fly. Sophocles has time to adapt. Here’s what happens: Oedipus is upset. The audience is expecting Jocasta to console him. Tragedy uses a stock “not to you alone consolation.” But the stock consolation doesn’t work. So, Sophocles adds a line “in his dreams” to make it work.

There you have it. Was Freud correct in that Jocasta’s line anticipates psychoanalysis? Or am I correct in thinking Sophocles has modified the commonplace of consolation? A good test for Occam’s razor.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

1 thought on “Review of “Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan” – Julia Reinhard Lupton

  1. Len Bergantino

    The aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy.


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