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Origins of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis originated in the writings of Sigmund Freud from the last decade of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century. In its classical sense, psychoanalysis consists of theories and, more practically, techniques that are concerned with recognizing and handling, in various ways, the mental constraints of the analysand that arise from conflicts between his or her conscious and unconscious mind. This view of the field can engender a more structurally focussed discipline that makes use of narratives and analogies to gain an understanding of the self. The birth of psychoanalysis was greatly influenced by Freud’s background as a neurologist, which made him acutely aware of the fact that there are mental processes that do not take place consciously. As such, psychoanalysis has its roots in diagnosis and treatment, which has bled into some schools of psychoanalytic literary criticism, such as the subset of psychoanalytic literary criticism that sees the text as revealing the unconscious mental processes of the author. Psychoanalysis remained a field of popular medical interest through the first half of the 20th century and onward, with Freud’s initial theories beginning to be challenged and scrutinized even before his death. Other psychoanalysts, such as Carl Jung and, later, Jacques Lacan continued to add to the body of work that constituted the orthodoxy of psychoanalysis as it transitioned from a predominantly practical to a predominantly theoretical discipline. Jacques Lacan’s theories, in particular, were integral in establishing psychoanalysis as an important tool for literary criticism as they merged the ambiguity and multiplicity that would become prevalent in Derrida's theoretical writings with many of the key tenets of classical psychoanalysis. Today, psychoanalytic literary criticism makes use of Freud’s theories as well as Lacan’s revisions and deconstructions of those theories in order to form a powerful and productive tool for the analysis of texts.

Biographies of Key Figures

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud LIFE.jpg

Sigmund Freud is commonly known as the father of psychoanalysis. Freud lived from 1836-1939. Much of his life was spent in Vienna where he went to school, started a family, worked as a doctor and set up a clinical practice for psychoanalysis. As a student, Freud initially studied biology and physiology. He specialized in neurology and received his medical degree in 1881. Soon after being married, Freud went to Paris for almost a year in which he carefully observed the French neurologist Jean Charcot who specialized in using hypnotism to treat patients. When Freud returned to Vienna he established his own clinical practice, he experimented with hypnosis however he found that it did not have long lasting effects. Instead, Freud developed the “talking cure”, a method of open dialogue with his patients in which they were encouraged to discuss any dreams, thoughts or ideas through “free association”. Through such therapeutic techniques, he established many of his theories. Dr. Freud published several books and essays on various topics such as dream interpretation, psychopathology and theories of sexuality. In 1923, Freud developed cancer of the jaw due to his excessive smoking. In 1930 after Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Freud was forced to flee to London to escape increased anti-Semitism. Although Freud’s conditions worsened, he continued to see patients until the time of his death in September of 1939.

Jacques Lacan

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Jacques Lacan is known as one of the most controversial psychoanalysts since Freud. He was born in Paris to a Catholic family; however, later in his life he became an atheist. He studied psychiatry and worked in clinical psychiatric institutions. Lacan was elected to the SPP, The Societe Psychanalytique de Paris. When the Nazis occupied France, the SPP was disbanded and Lacan served in a military hospital in Paris during the war. Lacan's most famous clinical work is his study of the “mirror phase,” as formative of the self. After the war, In 1951, Lacan held weekly seminars on “the return to Freud,” in which he examined and expanded upon the works of Freud. In 1953, Lacan left the SPP and created a seprerate group that was denied membership to the International Psychoanalytical association. In 1963, he founded L'Ecole Freudienne de Paris (EFP) in which he trained psychoanalysts. Lacan died in 1981.

Key Terms

Free association

In free association, psychoanalytic patients are invited to relate whatever comes into their minds during the analytic session, and not to censor their thoughts. This technique is intended to help the patient learn more about what he or she thinks and feels, in an atmosphere of non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance

Manifest Dream Content

Dream content that is recalled, essentially what happens in the dreams

Latent Dream Content

Dream content that is interpreted

Dream Work

Turning manifest dream content into latent dream content

Oedipus Complex

A desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex; a crucial stage in the normal developmental process.

The Tripartite Model of the Psyche

Also called the structural model of the psyche, consisting of the Id, Ego and Super Ego. Central to "ego psychology" studies in the 1950's and 60's and is often talked about it popular culture, however it no longer pays a major role in literary and cultural criticism.


Id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends, it involves basic primitive drives, selfish unorganized state.


Ego is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.

Super Ego

plays the critical and moralizing role, with rules of right and wrong. it is the opposite of the id.

The Unconscious

the reservoir of feelings, thoughts and memories outside of the subjects awareness

The Mirror stage

The stage in childhood development when the infant sees its reflection and identifies with that reflection. The infant recognizes its subjective unity and begins to develop an image of the ego.

The Law of the Father

The father’s opposition to the son’s desire for the mother. The Law of the Father challenges the full and unopposed self that exists in the Imaginary order of reality.

The Imaginary

the order of reality which is characterized by fullness and immediacy. There is no absence and no difference, and no sense of the other. The ego has no boundaries in this order of reality. This fullness develops from the infant’s identification with the imago that they encounter in the mirror stage.

The Symbolic

the order of reality which is characterized by distance and incompleteness. The symbolic realm can be related to Derrida’s Differance, in that it is rent by the gap between the signifier and the signified. As such, the Symbolic is a linguistic realm. Whereas in the Imaginary realm, the self exists because it is omnipresent; in the Symbolic, the self exists only because it could cease to exist.

The Real

A mysterious order that cannot be defined or signified. The real is the raw kernel over which the Symbolic and the Imaginary operate. It can only be inferred as the source of hunger and trauma that can never reach meaning.

The Phallus

A general symbol of patriarchal authority, only tenuously related to the male organ. The Phallus is possessed by the subject who has patriarchal authority.

The Gaze

Related to Freud’s “Scopic Drive,” the Gaze refers to a way of looking that is steeped in the erotic drive. The Gaze is the Symbolic pursuing the Imaginary in order to collapse the distance between the subject and the Objet Petit a, or the object of desire. This concept features heavily in Laura Mulvey's feminist analysis of cinema.

Objet Petit a

The Objet Petit a is the object of desire that directs the erotic drive. It is the unattainable remnant of the Real expressed in Imaginary or Symbolic terms.

Key Ideas


Sigmund Freud was very interested in the motivation behind human behavior. As a practicing doctor, he encouraged his patients to speak openly and freely through free association. "everything that occurred to a patient setting out from a particular starting point must also stand in an internal connection with that starting point" [1] Freud’s famous illustration compared the mind to an iceberg, in which the conscience is what we see floating above the water while the unconscious mind is the bulk which we do not see under the surface. The importance of this analogy is to show that there are many motives behind human actions that need to be explored. In a more structural model, Freud explains the ego, id and superego. In this model the id represents the natural human instincts, the superego is the morality and the ego is what mediates the two. The ego is responsible for repression of disturbing or threatening thoughts- this comes to play in the Oedipus complex: "in the very earliest years of childhood(approximately between the ages of two and five) a convergence of the sexual impulses occurs of which, in the case of boys the object is the mother This choice of an object in conjunction of a corresponding attitude of rivalry and hostility towards the father is known as the Oedipus complex"[2] Freud also theorized that Dreams contained universal symbols which could be interpreted and analyzed. Today, the scientific community disregards many of Freud’s theories, however, he has paved the road for other theorists such as Lacan.


Relationship Between the Imaginary and the Symbolic

For Lacan, we reside both in the Imaginary and the Symbolic realms, while striving towards the Real. We are operating in the Imaginary when we consider ourselves as a part of something larger, although we never truly recapture the feeling of wholeness that exists when we are in the mirror stage. For example, we are partially operating in the Imaginary order when we feel patriotism for a certain country. However, the truth of the matter is that we are simply expanding our Symbolic understanding of our situation: we feel patriotic both because we belong to a larger, political context; but also because we don’t belong to a similar, external political context (Think of the joke in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “For He is an Englishman”). As such, Lacan states in his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” that “it is the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject”[3]. Lacan demonstrates, in the same seminar, how the Real figures into this dynamic. He frames the purloined letter as the object of desire, the Objet Petit a, the unattainable remnant of the Real; and, speaking of the characters in Poe’s story, he states that “it is the letter and its detour which governs their entrances and roles” [4]. Therefore, we reside partly in the Imaginary order, largely in the Symbolic order, and we strive towards the Real.

"The Unconscious is Structured Like a Language"

For Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language (in a purely Saussurean sense), in that it relies on order, differentiation, and signifiers in order to be expressed. Although the signifiers of language work largely to segregate (we see here how language and the Symbolic order are linked: difference and absence arising from a reliance on signifiers), they are necessary for us to begin to gain an understanding of ourselves. According to Lacan, “it is with the appearance of language the dimension of truth emerges” [5]. But this is not because once we follow the signifier we can understand the signified, the real. In Lacan’s orientation of signification, the signifier leads to another signifier leads to a chain of signifiers, and it is in following this chain of signification, by continuing the perpetual search, that truth emerges.


  1. Freud, Psycho-Analysis in Critical Theory: A Reader For Literary And Cultural Studies Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford, 2012. Print. p.183
  2. Freud, Psycho-Analysis in Critical Theory: A Reader For Literary And Cultural Studies Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford, 2012. Print. p.188
  3. Lacan, "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" in Critical Theory: A Reader For Literary And Cultural Studies Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford, 2012. Print. p. 195
  4. Lacan,"The Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" in Critical Theory: A Reader For Literary And Cultural Studies Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford, 2012. Print. p. 207
  5. Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection 172