Saturday, February 26, 2011

Psychoanalyzing Writers

One of the most difficult things that the teacher has to achieve in introductory literature courses is convincing the students that trying to psychoanalyze writers is a bad idea.

Benito Jeronimo Feijoo, one of the greatest thinkers of the Spanish Enlightenment, did not write his famous feminist essay "In Defense of Women" because "his mother was nicer to him than other writers' mothers and she spent more quality time with him." Both Feijoo and his mother have been dead for centuries, and their relationship is neither interesting nor relevant.

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Pagan Topologist said...

I do not understand this. When reading Casar's Gallic War, is it not relevant that Caesar was a general and not a slave with a vivid imagination? Is it not relevant that Shakespeare was an actor, and so his phrases were shaped by a deep understanding of how they would sound? Is it not relevant that Homer was blind, and so his visual images are sort of formulaic? (At least they seem so to me, but I have read only translations.) Is it not relevant that Chaucer travelled a lot and so had a good sense of the differing dialects of English in different areas?

I just don't get the idea that one analyzes a text in vacuo, so to speak. If someone reads my papers, they should know that I am a topologist educated in the second half of the twentieth century, not a fourth century Irish monk who happened to love crazy symbols and meaningless words in his poetry.

Clarissa said...

The problem with analyzing literature through the lens of the author's biography is that if we do that, every book will have to come out accompanied by the detailed biography of an author. That's not very practical.

The examples of Homer and Shakespeare that you give are very significant. We still do not know if Homer even existed, whether his work was created by many different people. The authorship of Shakespeare's works has been just as much in dispute.

Trying to use what we think are "facts" from the author's life is dangerous because we don't know which of those facts are true and / or relevant. We simply cannot know.

Pen said...

Another problem occurs--especially in more modern work--when you have people like Robert Heinlein, who wrote in contrasting ideologies. For example, while one novel might have been about anarchy and its virtues, another might have expounded upon anarchy and its weaknesses. Because of the contrasting viewpoints present within his writing, no detail from his biography is ever really relevant.

Rimi said...

You're both right, as I'm sure you know, Pagan Topologist and Clarissa. You're just speaking of slightly different things.

To take an inordinate interest in the author's personal relationships and analyse every text he wrote purely through the lens of his class/gendered interactions is an analytical fallacy, I think. One is, after all, capable for feeling more than one sentiment towards a certain group of people. Having a brawl with one's butcher, or professing dislike for one's bachelor lawyer uncle, is not proof that one:
1. detests small business owners/has a secret yearning for a vegetarian palette.
2. Is deeply committed to the heterosexual marriage-model OR is a closeted self-hating homosexual man who thinks bachelorhood is an admission of guilt.
3. Or somene whose dislike of lawyers is rooted a repressed desire to flout the laws of society and live a free, adventurous life.
But these are more or less the approach taken by biographical analysts. The interpolate freely (which probably says more about them than their subjects) and they almost never allow for the fact that biographies are frequently interpretive and contested.

The New Historicist reading, on the other hand, is one that I greatly prefer, and which puts each text in it's historical and cultural context, analysing the author's own location in his religious/cultural/political milieu from his public and private canon (all published works vs. letters and diaries and so on). There are no personal interpolations from thin data, but a slow building-up of a whole from the fragments found both within a man's mind and without it. So not a New Criticism vaccum, no, but not a flight of fancy about what having a leg of mutton every Sunday indicated about the author's political radicalism, either.