Text: Llewellyn Ligocki, “Poe and Psychoanalytic Criticism,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:54-55


[page 54, column 1:]

Poe and Psychoanalytic Criticism

Arthur Lerner. Psychoanalytically Oriented Criticism of Three American Poets: Poe, Whitman, and Aiken. Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press 1970. 130 pp. $6.50. 

One will be disappointed if he looks to Lerner’s book for a systematic analysis of the strengths and limitations of psychoanalytic approaches to literary criticism. He will be even more disappointed if he expects to discover there insights into the significance of psychoanalytic criticism of Poe, Whitman, and Aiken. For despite Lerner’s attempt to treat both psychoanalytic criticism in general and psychoanalytic criticism of these three poets in particular, the book is essentially a random collection of critical quotations. It has no consistent point.

Lerner prefaces his discussions of the three individual poets with a section entitled “Historical and Literary Patterns: Freud in America.” This section, while it might be valuable in another book with another purpose, serves as a dead end in this one. Although Lerner presents enough long quotations from the works of Freud that the reader can see in some measure what some of Freud’s beliefs entailed, the chapter functions mainly as a long justification for psychoanalytic criticism as a genre: its incidence and its need to be studied. In giving us a semi-guided tour through selected comments by psychoanalytic theorists (i.e., Freud) and by selected psychoanalytic critics, Lerner misses the chance to marshal! his materials toward a thesis. It would be most helpful, in this chapter, to have a concise summary of Freud’s most important theories as well as a discussion of which theories are most used in criticism and how they are used. It would be helpful, also, to have a brief discussion of the effects on literary criticism of the deviations from his theories by his co-workers; although Lerner mentions Jung in this chapter and Adler later in the book, he does not show the effects of their theories, and he does not take up Rank and Stekel at all. What we need most here is a rigorous demonstration of the kinds and gradations of psychoanalytic criticism and a detailed discussion of the province of the psychoanalytic critic (something that Lerner apparently attempts at the end of the chapter but does not complete) .

Of the discussions of the individual poets, the section on Poe is by far the weakest, demonstrating all the faults of the introductory section and none of the modest virtues exhibited in the discussions of Whitman and Aiken. Lerner’s intention is to present “a discussion of selected psychoanalytically oriented criticism of Edgar Allan Poe. The focus is on what selected critics have said about Poe and/or his poetry, through a study of his poems” (pp. 27-28). But when one compares Lerner’s intention with his practice, he finds that Lerner is so selective that his discussion has little value. Concentrating on studies by Bonaparte, Pruette, Lindsay, and Krutch, among whose views he does not discriminate, he ignores a large body [column 2:] of psychoanalytic criticism devoted to Poe. A much more valuable study for the Poe scholar and for the general student of this genre is Roger Forclaz’ “Edgar Poe et la Psychoanalyse,” Revue des Languages Vivantes, 36, Nos. 3 and 4 (1970), 272-288, 375-389, a thirty-page article that demonstrates the theory and practice of psychoanalytic criticism more effectively than does Lerner’s book. Focusing on Bonaparte’s work, which he discusses in elaborate detail, Forclaz mentions — in addition to Pruette and Krutch — works by Jaloux, Wood, Tello y de la Pena, Filloux, Basler, Daly, Fernandez, Rein, Fiedler, Mordell, Weber, Marcel, Lauvriere, Praz, and Lerner. His study examines carefully the nature of and the relative validity of critical assumptions made by the psychoanalytic critic.

Incompleteness and lack of discrimination among critics, however, are not the only flaws in Lerner’s chapter on Poe. Lerner exhibits here, as elsewhere, a refusal to present his own commentary. Of approximately 370 lines of text in the chapter, excluding poems quoted, nearly half (170) are undigested direct quotations from other critics. This tendency towards scissors-and-paste nearly reaches absurdity when he quotes first Poe, then Norman Foerster on Poe, to establish merely that Poe’s critical statement indeed applies to his other criticism and his noncritical writings (pp. 47-48). Similarly, in his discussions of chosen poems by Poe, Lerner rarely goes beyond quoting a poem and appending a critical quotation lending a psychoanalytic interpretation of the themes in the poem. Whatever conclusions Lerner draws about his materials are often relegated to the footnotes: “Incidentally, the concept of happiness as expressed in the above poem ‘Dreams’ does not blind Poe to stark reality. For at the base of this poem is a wish-fulfillment” (p. 50, n. 14). In general the chapter suffers from inconclusiveness. If Poe had any basis in demanding “autorial comment” from novelists (review of Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes “Harrison, X, 218]), one can all the more strongly demand this commentary from one who purports to explain literature and literary analysis. An “exploratory study” is not exempted from a presentation of the conclusions drawn from the exploration.

While the chapters on Whitman and Aiken exhibit some of the same faults as the Poe chapter, these chapters are somewhat stronger because the materials are more homogeneous. The chapter on Whitman is organized around the principle of the relationship between the individual and democracy. Thus the chapter advances, at least by implication, a consistent psychoanalytic rationale for Whitman’s concentration on democratic themes: he identified his own search for individuality with the collective individuality that he saw in democracy. The chapter on Aiken, too, has a consistent focus: the demonstration that Aiken consciously drew on depth psychology in the writing of his poetry — though Lerner does not make much here of the discussion in his introduction of Freud’s visit to America. Because these chapters suggest an organic relationship between psychoanalytic theory and poetry, they potentially provide materials that can lead to our improved understanding of Whitman and Aiken. One wishes, in fact, that Lerner had devoted the whole book to Aiken. It is too bad, however, that he does not develop [page 55:] his discussions fully. Again, he refuses to invest his own mind in his materials.

Finally, a few inaccuracies and problems in procedure further weaken the total effect and value of the book. First, the book is weak stylistically. Two sentences will serve to demonstrate the diffuseness and awkwardness in the writing: “This meant that in a period of approximately thirteen years a full-length work dealing with some aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis and poetry appeared on the American scene” (p. 38). (In installments one paragraph at a time?) “Poe’s poetic endeavors were based on a definite belief that he had of poetry” (p. 47). (No comment.) Second, Lerner does not cite standard works for his references to primary and secondary Poe materials. For example, for Poe’s “Letter to B —” he cites Davidson’s edition instead of the standard Harrison. Similarly, he tells us that Hubbell’s “Poe” in Eight American Authors is the main source of “comprehensive bibliographical information” (p. 43, n. 1), ignoring entirely the bibliographical studies by Robertson, Leary, and Dameron. One wonders, in addition, about the editorial assistance provided by the press. In addition to numerous mechanical errors in style that passed the editors unnoticed (dangling modifiers, references, agreement), the book contains potentially more serious errors, such as the statement that Keble delivered his St. Mary’s sermon in 1883 instead of in 1833; probably this is a matter of proofreading.

The general conclusion to the little volume is symptomatic of the effect of the entire book. Although Lerner tries to incorporate his materials on the individual poets into a total assessment of the value of psychoanalytic criticism of poetry in general, it is the failure to do just this that is the most significant failing in the book. Lerner’s conclusions are nearly self-evident: (1) psychoanalysis should not be “grafted onto” a literary work for its own sake, and that (2) the poets he has chosen (somewhat arbitrarily) lend themselves to psychoanalytic analysis. Lerner further states in his conclusion that psychoanalysis, as one of a number of literary tools, should be carefully used in conjunction with other modes of literary analysis, but the body of the work does not bear out this belief (the work is inconsequential, Poe would say if it were a novel; the parts do not lead to an understanding of the whole) .

A person trained professionally in both psychology and literature should be able to do better in helping us understand what is admittedly an uneven body of criticism. Although Lerner tries to do the right things throughout the book, providing extensive notes and source materials, he is not able to get beneath the surface to give us a perceptive and well-developed statement. Continually, in the first chapter and in the chapters on the individual poets, Lerner presents and treats psychoanalytic criticism as though it were all of equal merit and high merit indeed: “No attempt is made to evaluate the merits of a critic’s particular psychoanalytic persuasion” — or his practice, one might add. It should not bother one to have a critic believe in a given mode of literary analysis; but it certainly should disturb one to have a critic plead for his readers to be discriminating and then not be discriminating himself.

Llewellyn Ligocki, Washington State University


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]