one thing (fantasy) or another (reality) because perhaps those two are not as separable as we would like them to be. On the other hand, his symbolic readings of events in ‘The Sandman’, or of the human fear of death, inevitably lead towards the same arena: castration or the womb, the realm of early instinctive and sexual desires. These desires, as we have seen, are usually analysed in the same way whether they are the desires of characters in books or of the authors of those books. Why, then, if there are limits to the usefulness of these kinds of psychoanalytic readings of literature, has modern literary criticism found psychoanalysis so compelling? How do later critics pick up on Freud’s ideas and change them so as to avoid the pitfalls of putting characters or authors on the psychoanalytic couch?
PSYCHOANALYTIC LITERARY CRITICISM AFTER FREUD As we have seen, Freud’s criticism of specific works of art and literature typically examines the psychic motives of either the characters in the work or the artist him or herself (usually himself). Even when Freud strayed into other kinds of literary analysis, as he does in his analysis of the word unheimlich, the material that he analysed was inevitably the content of the work (or the content of the artist’s life). Recent theorists who have picked up on the potential of psychoanalysis for literature often focus on the form of the work, an area Freud neglected. To give examples of these two different kinds of analytic readings – content versus form – I will turn first to the readings of an analytic colleague and friend of Freud’s, Marie Bonaparte (1882–1962). Marie Bonaparte’s book-length study of Edgar Allan Poe analyses the life of the troubled author, whose poverty, alcoholism and marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin made him an ideal candidate for the psychoanalytic tendency to see an artist’s work as the reflection of his (neurotic) life. As well as interpreting Poe’s stories through his life, Bonaparte analyses many of his morbid tales individually, showing how they reveal a fixation on his dead mother which manifests itself in necrophiliac desires (sexual attraction to the dead). Bonaparte discovers female and male genital symbolism in the dungeons and tombs of Poe’s tales; according to Bonaparte, in Poe’s famous story ‘The Purloined Letter’ (in which a stolen letter is eventually discovered by the master detective Dupin in the most obvious place), the letter, which lies hidden in plain sight hanging from a mantelpiece, symbolises the much-coveted penis that hangs between the man’s legs. Bonaparte does not attend to the ways in which Poe’s stories are told, their narrative structures or rhetorical techniques; hers is an example of content-based psychoanalytic reading. As far as Bonaparte is concerned it matters not at all that Poe wrote short stories and poetry rather than novels or plays. The content – sexual symbolism – remains the same. A psychoanalytic reading of Poe that focused on form as well as content might take into account that many of Poe’s stories are told in the first person; that some of them seem like confessions of crimes; that the rhythm of his poetry affects how the reader or hearer understands it. Sexual symbolism may still enter into a reading that focuses on the form of a work, but the meaning of that sexual symbol will vary in relation to other formal factors of the work. The French analyst Jacques Lacan’s ‘Seminar on “The Purloined Letter”’ differs from Bonaparte’s reading in ways which are too complicated to summarise here, but which rely on a structural interpretation of the characters in the story; the ways in which characters take up certain positions of knowledge and ignorance; power and disempowerment, in relation to each other. I will return briefly to the ways in which Lacan’s theories reread Freud through the lens of language in the next section of this chapter (also see Lacan 1988:191–205; Wright 1984:105–7, Bowie 1991). Although readings which take the specific forms of literature into account seem preferable to ones that do not, I am not claiming that content-based psychoanalytic readings are necessarily mistaken. Overtly sexual readings of books are an easy target for critical ridicule – when every dagger in Macbeth represents a penis, the play can begin to seem a bit predictable. Yet sexual symbolism can also suggest intriguing interpretations of literature. If sexual symbolism is used in isolation, however, without reference to the specific narrative structure or techniques of a story, or the syntax or form of a poem, the chances are that psychoanalytic critics will discover nothing but what they are always expecting to find: representations of the phallus or the return to the womb endlessly multiplied. What, then, does psychoanalysis have to offer literary criticism, other than this content-based