Special Issue:
Psychoanalysis &
La Femme
January '10


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Psychoanalysis and La Femme: Special Issue Home

In Praise of Freud: An Introduction
Linda Belau and Ed Cameron

January 2010

Within the landscape of western philosophical and theoretical discourse, Dr. Sigmund Freud, the Father of modern psychoanalysis, emerges as an enigma.  For he is, arguably, one of the most contested figures in western thought.  He is, on the one hand, hailed by literary theorists of the poststructuralist persuasion as one of the three greatest thinkers in the western tradition.  And yet, at the same time, never has a thinker been more maligned: he was a drug addict, he abused his women patients, he was profoundly Eurocentric and misogynistic, etc.  Depending on whether one loves him or hates him, Freud always seems to elicit extreme responses.

If you were to read any one of a number of introductory theory texts that provides a basic historical overview of the development of contemporary literary theory, Freud, along with Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx, will always be credited as one of our most radical and innovative thinkers.  From Peter Barry to Donald Keesey, Freud is seen as a paradigm shifter, one of those rare thinkers who truly turn the system on its head.  In Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton puts Freud on the same level as Copernicus and Marx as one of the three most important pioneers in social thought since each in his own way introduced the idea that the “apparent meaning is not necessarily the real one” (108).  Eagleton goes further, however, as he places Freud at the forefront of most, if not all, contemporary theoretical thought.  Almost every school or methodology he outlines in his introductory text is, in Eagleton’s view, somehow indebted to Freud and the radical contribution he made to western thought.  This in and of itself is fairly remarkable since Eagleton blames practically every thinker he discusses in this text for not being political, radical, historical, or Marxist enough.  Freud has his shortcomings, of course, but Eagleton credits him with introducing a radical notion of negation into western thought with his discovery of the unconscious.  

Eagleton isn’t all praise where Freud is concerned, however.  Especially in his discussion of Freud’s attitude toward women and their relation to the Oedipus complex, Eagleton deploys his usual socio-cultural critique:  “It should be said right away that Freud was nowhere more typical of his own male-dominated society than in his bafflement in the face of female sexuality,” he warns us (155).  Rebuking Freud for his “demeaning, prejudiced attitudes toward women which disfigure his work,” Eagleton maintains that Freud’s “account of the girl’s process of oedipalization is by no means separable from [his] sexism” (155).  While Eagleton can’t seem to help himself from making this critical turn toward Freud, a turn which is as ideologically motivated as his critiques of other thinkers in this text, he does, for the most part, keep on track and focused on the facts in his overview of Freud, at least as they can be drawn out of a more careful analysis and reading of Freud’s work.  Countering the popular indictment of Freud as the great normalizer, for example, Eagleton writes, “as far as Freud’s views on ‘normality’ are concerned, the accusation is largely misdirected” (162).  Eagleton further implores us to “remember the sheer bizarreness of the unconscious…before rushing to dismiss Freud on intuitive grounds” (162).  And, while this last comment certainly directs our attention to Freud as a thinker and asks us to consider his work and theories carefully before making judgment, Eagleton shows even more regard for Freud as he counters the critique that Freud is too “individualist” in his thought:  “This accusation,” says Eagleton, “reflects a radical misunderstanding of Freudian theory” since Freud’s work “makes it possible for us to think of the development of the human individual in social and historical terms” (163).  In the end and despite his ambivalence about Freud, Eagleton makes his strongest claim in support of Freud: “What Freud produces,” he tells us (and, again, this is a truly remarkable statement coming from a progressive, culturally conscious thinker like Eagleton), “is nothing less than a materialist theory of the making of the human subject” (163; emphasis added).

Such a politically enthusiastic view of Freud would certainly rankle a number of other progressive, culturally conscious thinkers, especially American feminists who attack Freud for his misogynistic perceptions of women and his phallocentric analytic practices.  While much of this criticism is, again, based on ideologically motivated misunderstanding rather than analysis, it does, nonetheless, hold American feminism in a kind of dependent relation to Freud, for condemnation of the phallocratic and damaging psychoanalytic theory is at the very foundation of much feminist thought.  In the same way that Freud is a seminal thinker for Eagleton, Freud emerges as a kind of raison d’être for American feminism in its early articulations; Freud, however, becomes that figure that the discourse mobilizes its identity against.  In this way, Freud is, ironically enough, also a kind of force of negation at the heart of this discourse.  This negative appropriation of Freud is especially ironic since the American feminist’s mis-recognition of his thought is largely the result of Anna Freud’s ego psychology and the misreading of Freud that has come to America from that avenue.  However, the very fact that Anna was the one of Freud’s several children with whom he chose to work and share his analytic vision would seem to give the lie to the idea that Freud was just a male chauvinist pig who thought women were intellectually and socially inferior to men.  Freud’s enthusiastic support of Anna’s development and success as a psychoanalyst in her own right would, rather, indicate his belief in woman’s equality, especially where her intellectual and professional capacities are concerned. 

Nonetheless, Freud gets bad press with many feminist thinkers, especially in America, as he is accused of dismissing women as hysterical and full of penis envy.  Beyond that, however, many of his critics simply refuse to read his work and even boldly attribute ideas to Freud that do, indeed, make him sound like a terrible chauvinist, even though these ideas are far from true.  Think of the critics’ insistence on “Freud’s Electra complex” that parallels the Oedipus complex.  Of course, Freud never adopted or theorized such an idea.  In fact, it is mentioned only twice in the entire corpus of his work, and both times negatively.  And, while Freud’s critics engage much of the clinical terminology he introduced as if these ideas were simply to be taken at face value without a history specific to Freud’s thought, there does seem, paradoxically enough, a persistent refusal on their part to seriously engage Freud’s work.  Of course, this is nothing new.  Over fifty years ago Lionel Trilling bemoaned this same refusal.  Remarking the cultural backlash that Freud’s ideas have provoked, Trilling points out that they remain entirely unthought even though these same ideas are in constant circulation among us:

If they [Freud’s ideas] have become part of what we might call the slang of our culture, it is also true of them that they are ideas which, taken at first hand, seem very startling, very radical, calling for instinctive resistance.  How seldom they are taken at first hand, from Freud’s own exposition of them!  How easily they are misunderstood—how strategically they are misunderstood!   [...]  Yet when we go back to the works in which Freud sets forth his ideas, we are confronted again by their original force and difficulty, by their original aggressive novelty.  We know that we have not yet begun to comprehend what they discovered. (12)

Clearly a great admirer of Freud, Trillling does make a salient point.  Freud’s ideas are everywhere around us, yet they are nowhere since much of our academia seems almost willfully to misread and misrepresent Freud.  His thought is difficult, and its radical novelty is nothing short of revolutionary.  Consequently, it irritates and infuriates and, therefore, as Trilling says, is strategically misunderstood.

Misunderstanding and dismissing Freud is fashionable, though, and anti-Freudianism, despite the admiration of Trilling or the intervention of poststructuralist thinkers, continues, even in the popular culture.  Recently, we were both quite surprised, and amused, to see Freud evoked when watching an episode of the television program Criminal Minds (yet another instance of the cultural slang Trilling mentions), which dramatizes the crime-solving activities of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, a fictitious FBI unit of criminal profilers.  When one of the main characters is being bothered by dreams and begins a quasi-self analysis, his colleague is taken aback since his partner never before seemed to give that sort of malarkey much credence.  “Freud has been discredited,” the American viewing population is informed through the voice and vision of our young psychologist crime fighter, “but Jung still has some merit.”  Popular culture aside, Freud takes his major hits from the American feminists, who, unlike French feminists, have no intellectual or theoretical interest in Freud and, in a truly conservative way, seem rather to embrace that same instinctive, unthought resistance that Trilling points out.  And while French feminism, which is deeply indebted to Freud, critiques or moves beyond Freud’s theories, it does not simply attack Freud out of hand without any serious reading.  American feminism, however, is typically more reactionary when it comes to psychoanalytic theory and usually simply dismisses Freud as nothing more than an abusive primal father.  So, when we tell our students, for example, that Freud was a radical thinker who introduced an entirely new paradigm into the realm of both philosophy and psychology with his discovery the unconscious, they often respond with disbelief and skepticism.  How could this be the case since Freud was completely Euro-centric, they have asked.  Whenever we query our students about Freud, just asking general questions to solicit their attitude about a thinker that they are largely unfamiliar with, the responses are generally the same as many of the reactions outlined above:  Freud was a charlatan, he cheated his patients; Freud was addicted to drugs and, therefore, a bad man (Nancy Reagan’s influence is still pervasive!!); Freud mistreated women and was, therefore, a bad man; Freud was sexist and, obviously, was a bad man; Freud is not a valid part of psychology studies, and, therefore, is irrelevant (and a bad man).  And so on.   It is always astounding how a group of people who, amongst them all may not have read one word of Freud’s writings, have the strongest opinions about his thought. 

This disbelief in Freud’s legitimacy does not restrict itself to students, either.  In fact, a colleague recently asked how Freud could be taken seriously as a legitimate intellectual since his theory of the unconscious imposed a universal perspective that disregarded ethnic and class difference.  It is truly remarkable how the complaints, the suspicions, and the presumed exposés go on and on.  How is it that Freud became the object of so much distrust and derision?  At some point in the academic setting, Freud changed from the brilliant father of psychoanalysis, the inventor of the talking cure, to the abusive pervert who silences his analysands and takes too many liberties with his enjoyment.1  Freud, it seems, has somehow transformed into a menacing primal father who enjoys at our expense.  Freud’s followers and psychoanalytic theory in general are also attacked: Lacan’s notion of the gaze, for example, is typically seen as objectifying and oppressive toward women.  Even though the attacks can approach the level of the ridiculous, we feel that much of this suspicion and, especially, the dismissive attitude about Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis is the consequence of an uninformed relation to Freud.  If nothing else, we can see in this dismissal the perfect union of American feminism and American psychology as these two divergent discourses come together, perhaps unaware of the other, in a perfect unity to discredit Freud. 

Given the rancorous relation between many feminist discourses and psychoanalytic theory, especially Freudian theory, it may seem strange to see an approach to women writers through the lens of Freud and psychoanalysis.  It is our position, however, that Freud is not now nor has he ever been the enemy of feminists or the feminine.  His scientific drive overcame any potentially chauvinistic attitudes or desires he may have had as a person and, consequently, he was able to listen to women and to hear the voice of what he would recognize as the feminine hysteric.  Despite the pejorative connotations that the term has taken on over the years, the theory of hysteria is not an insult toward women.  In fact, it would be more correct to assume that Freud’s theory of hysteria developed indirectly in response to his regard for and respect of women.  After all, Freud should be considered one of the first western male feminist thinkers with the approach that he ultimately took toward women in his clinic and in the practice of psychoanalysis.  As Paul Verhaeghe points out in Does the Woman Exist? From Freud's Hysteric to Lacan’s Feminine, Freud was one of the first of our medical practitioners to actually listen to women’s discourse, which he named hysteria.  Therefore, the psychoanalysis that emerged from his analysis of hysteria is not a silencing of women but rather a recognition of the significance of woman’s language. 

According to Verhaeghe’s account, Freud began his career as “a neurologist without a job,” a talented young Jewish doctor who had difficulty finding patients in anti-Semitic Vienna in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  “Benevolent older colleagues referred patients to him,” Verhaeghe tells us, and “for them it was a unique chance to rid themselves of hysterical, meaning bothersome, clients” (7).  These ‘benevolent colleagues” were, in fact, the ones who discredited woman’s speech, not Freud, who took his female patients at their word.  Unable to make sense of the supposed neurological issues that these outspoken and troublesome women brought to his medical clinic, Freud was at his wit’s end:

His painstakingly gathered and repeatedly tested neurological and anatomical knowledge was being undermined by those who were supposed to give him confirmation of it: the patients.  They are simulating, his wiser and older colleagues suggested.  They are suggestible.  Or degenerates, tainted hereditarily.  Perhaps they have a lesion which has to be there but which we just cannot find.  Freud was reminded of the joke about the cauldron and concluded that, when logic does not succeed, one has to start anew. (7)

In the end, Freud gave up the visual-empirical approach, discarded the misogynistic advice of his mentors, and decided to listen to his female patients in order to develop a dynamic rather than a descriptive explanation.  Thus, while “others had already observed there was a traumatic aetiology to hysteria,” Verhaeghe explains, “Freud would be the first to listen to this trauma and to interpret it as having an effect on the psyche and hence on the soma” (8-9).   This, of course, would give birth to the talking cure and Freud’s revolutionary new practice of psychoanalysis, revolutionary both because of its unique philosophic-scientific approach and because of the credibility it bestowed on his female patients and their hysterical symptoms.  Friend to woman and her psychic woes, Freud became the champion of the feminine oppressed.

This story, focused as it is on the more personal side of things, never fails to make an impression on those same students of ours who had been so full of criticism for Freud.  These critiques, of course, were never really responsible, though, and perhaps not that important in a discussion on the relevance of Freud for reading women writers.  Our concern with these critiques is certainly relevant, however, because this irresponsible stance seems to be quite prevalent in the, presumably, more academic discourse of feminism. As a kind of gentle corrective, then, we believe that an issue dedicated to Freud and the psychoanalysis he founded is more than called for, especially since Freud’s supposed shortcomings are never adequately addressed (at least not from a theoretical perspective) by most of his critics.  In fact, most of the criticisms leveled against Freud are pure character assassination and have nothing to do with his thought.  This “politics of the personal” may account for the oddity that those who criticize psychoanalysis are so easily moved once they learn that Freud was more the victim of oppression than the perpetrator.  And while it may not be relevant to understanding his thought, it is, nonetheless, true:  Freud was a victim and, perhaps, it was his experience as such that made him open to the voices of the oppressed women who came to his clinic to air their complaints, to voice their malady. 

Regardless, our task in this Special Issue is to embrace and explore the relation between Freud, the psychoanalysis he founded, feminism, and women’s writing.  To this end, we endeavor to embrace Freud’s thought in all it radicality, to resist the instinctive resistance and to take psychoanalysis seriously in the context of its original force, its “original aggressive novelty.”  Given the significance of the important relation (for better or for worse) between feminist theory and psychoanalysis, we are interested in considering the ways in which women’s/feminist writing is implicated, to borrow a term from Shoshana Felman, in psychoanalysis while we conversely explore how psychoanalysis is elemental to an understanding of several issues that are central to an analysis of women’s writing.  We are, in other words, interested in considering the way that women’s writing has contributed to the development of psychoanalysis and also how psychoanalysis can be used as a theoretical model for an understanding of women’s writing.  While we are concerned with the relation between psychoanalysis, feminism, and women’s writing, we do not necessarily limit our approach to a feminist one.  Instead, this collection seeks to explore, articulate and even celebrate the rich connection between both Freud in particular and psychoanalysis in general and the larger stage of women’s writing.  To this end, we have gathered a number of essays that address the relation between psychoanalysis, feminism, and women’s writing from either a theoretical argument or from a literary analysis. 

Our first theoretical essay, Kristine Klement’s “Feminism beyond Hysteria: Reading Feminine Ethics,” introduces us to a view of Freud as the one doctor who listened to his women patients.  Through her analysis of Freud’s notion of hysteria and the implications it has had for feminist theory, Klement argues for a Freudian/Lacanian theory of ethics and for a way to approach the Other jouissance that figures woman’s experience in the symbolic order as she offers a reading of a number of feminist thinkers from Luce Irigaray to Shoshana Felman.  Ed Cameron’s essay, entitled “Severing Sound from Sense: The Sacrifice of Drive in Butler’s Critique of Kristeva,” continues the analysis of feminist thinkers, especially the tension between French and American feminists.  Reading Judith Butler’s reading of Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, Cameron argues that Butler’s preoccupation with the social construction of femininity necessarily misses the point of Kristeva’s more Lacanian theory of femininity and language since Butler is unable to acknowledge the force and the significance of the unconscious in her analysis.  Cameron further explores Lacan’s notion of the ethical dimension, especially as it is highlighted in his reading of Sophocles’s Antigone.  Our final theoretical piece, Catherine Peebles’s “Antigone’s Dead Mother: On a Clinical Interpretation of Enid Balint and its Implications for Feminist Thought,” pursues this meditation on Antigone and the ethics of psychoanalysis through her reading of Antigone as an embodiment of the void of being in relation to Enid Balint’s notion of “being empty of oneself.”  Through an analysis of both Antigone and Balint’s patient, Sarah, Peebles challenges Irigaray’s presumption that Antigone, in her supposed fidelity to a death-dealing pahllo-imaginiary, is the ultimate phallic woman.  Arguing for a mothering of the corporeal, Peebles further explores the significance of what she calls a bodily and a psychic maternity, which opens a space for an understanding of death and the limit of the human that is intimately tied to the question of sexual difference.

Moving beyond the theoretical exploration of psychoanalysis and its relation to feminism, the second part of the issue, which is dedicated to women’s writing and the relevance of psychoanalytic theory for literary analysis, begins with Erica Galito’s reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  In her essay entitled “Female (Mis)Identifications: From Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Jealousy to Beloved’s Shame,” Galito considers how the emotions conveyed to the readers of Stowe and Morrison command very different affective responses.  Galito’s essay further considers how psychoanalytic inquiry can help us approach the issue of 19th Century Sentimentalism in a more problematic way in order to understand both the masochistic element of racism that Stowe’s text allows and the shame that Morrison’s text evokes so that her readers bear witness to the atrocities of slavery.  Focusing on the representation of atrocity and traumatic experience in Oto Yoko’s autobiographical memoir, City of Corpses, the next essay by Linda Belau considers the significance of sublimation in Ota’s text.  In her essay “Traumatic Suffering and Superegoic Demand: Ota Yoko’s Hiroshima Testimony,” Belau further explores the role of the symptom and the superego in both trauma and hysteria.  The next essay by Alex Howe considers Japanese women’s writing from the perspective of modern detective fiction.  In “Monstrous Femininity and Oedipal Nostalgia: Miyuki Miyabe and the Japanese Femme Fatale” Howe considers how Miyabe’s femme fatale stands in for the bind faced by all subjects in a post-oedipal world.  Through his analysis of All She Was Worth, Howe argues that through her non-assumption of the registry system and her consequent free-floating identity, the main female character, Kyoko, injects a deadly jouissance that threatens all aspects of the social which is countered by the band of brothers who carry a strong nostalgia for the Oedipal order of the father.  Shifting focus, Todd Hoffman’s essay, entitled “Emma as a Masquerade: Womanliness and Power in Jane Austen’s Emma,” offers a reading of Austen’s novel that illustrates how the main character resists phallic authority in both the technical psychoanalytic sense as well as the political sense.  Hoffman explores how Emma uses her womanliness as masquerade, in the way that Joan Riviere famously argued.  The final essay, “Jane on the Couch Again: Lacanian Psychosis in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Melinda Mejia returns us to the Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective with her reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story.  Mejia argues that if we use Lacanian theories of language and psychosis to trace the protagonist’s decline into madness, we can reassess the work’s political value by engaging strictly feminist readings of the story with a more psychoanalytic reading of the text.  Mejia further explores how such a reading reopens certain questions about the oppression of the western “Other” and how we can inaugurate a new reading of the story that is as psychoanalytically invested as it is politically responsible.


1. It is interesting to note that the shift from authority figure to perverse perpetrator that characterizes the academic attitude toward Freud is precisely the perceptual shift that the contemporary symbolic father figure has suffered.  As Paul Verhaeghe tells us, “since the 1960’s, any form of authority has become automatically suspect.”  He continues: “the function of authority, which used to be a self-evident truth embodied in many different figures, has now disappeared” (Love 74).  Nowadays, a stern father is more likely to be seen as abusive; any power he attempts to wield is immediately dismissed as illegitimate.  Perhaps the loss of symbolic authority might be able to account for the maligning of Freud the Father since he seems to be a victim of this trend.


Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry.  Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P,1996.

“Memoriam.” Criminal Minds. By Jeff Davis. Perf. Joe Mantegna, Paget Brewster, Shemar Moore, Matthew Gray Gublar. CBS. 12 November 2008.

Trilling, Lionel. Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

Verhaeghe, Paul. Does the Woman Exist? From Freud's Hysteric to Lacan's Feminine. Trans. Marc du Ry. New York: Other, 1999.

---. Love in a Time of Loneliness: Three Essays on Drive and Desire. Trans. Plym Peters and Tony Langham.  New York: Other, 1998.


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