Sunday, May 08, 2005

Did Freud Kill Character in Fiction?

Lee Siegel writes an essay aboout Freud in today's NY Times. Civilization and It's Discontents is 75 years old and being reissued by Norton. In his essay Siegel makes a big claim for film and books:

For better or for worse, film's independence from character is the reason it has replaced the novel as the dominant art form in our culture. Yet Freud himself drew his conception of the human mind from the type of imaginative literature his ideas were about to start making obsolete. His work is full of references to poets, playwrights and novelists from his own and earlier periods. In the latter half of his career, he applied himself more and more to using literature to prove his theories, commenting, most famously, on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. ''Civilization and Its Discontents'' brims with quotations from Goethe, Heine, Romain Rolland, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy and others. If Freud had had only his own writings to refer to, he would never have become Freud. Having accomplished his intellectual aims, he unwittingly destroyed the assumptions behind the culture that had nourished his work.
But can Freud really be credited with a such a feat? When I was in grad school back in the early 90s and we were studying literary theory we didn't even read Freud, we read Lacan and Kristeva instead. Freud was so old news. Freud may have greased the wheels, but I always contributed the lack of character tendency in fiction to post-structuralism. It is entirely possible that I am wrong, but that is the framework which I have been laboring under. I don't know about anybody else, but I am weary of amorphous, post-structuralist books that lack character and/or plot. They are fine once in awhile, but I like a ripping good yarn. Give me multi-faceted characters and a compelling plot and you have me hooked. I think we might be slowly returning to big stories with magic and myth in them instead of psychology, witness the success of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrrell, The Shadow of the Wind and Harry Potter. I don't think you can contribute the change to a lessening of Freud's influence. I think it's more of a swing of the pendulum.