Psychoanalytic Theory


Clinical Origins of Psychoanalysis

Freud’s Experiments with hypnosis

The unconscious mind reveals itself in actions, words and mental images, the meaning of which is barred from conscious knowledge because of repression, the process of psychic censorship which consists in simply turning away and keeping something at a distance from consciousness.

The contents of the unconscious mind derive from the sexual body and are driven by a dynamic energy which strives to bring them into consciousness.

The force of repression demands that any release of unconscious material assume a disguised character.

It is in physical symptoms, dreams, jokes, parapraxes (“Freudian slips”), and accidental gestures that the unconscious reveals itself, disguised, in everyday life.

The artist, by virtue of his openness to the power of fantasy in the production of his work, has always had a privileged relation to the unconscious.



Freud defined three major models of the psychic apparatus:

The dynamic describes the conflict within the mind between unconscious drives, which strive for release, and the equally powerful forces of repression, which strive to keep unconscious urges from surfacing. From this struggle emerge derivatives of the repressed material which satisfy both forces: it is these clusters of mental images, actions, and words which reveal themselves as symptoms.

The economic model considers what Freud called “cathexis”: the distribution and circulation of the psychic energy or excitation which is attached to certain ideas, objects, bodily parts, and so on. Within the human subject, there is a certain quantifiable amount of instinctual energy which must be variously distributed among objects, the body and mental content in order to maintain psychic equilibrium—leading to Freud’s notions of “displacement” (the intensity of affect once connected with a certain idea or image is detached from it and passed onto other ideas or images which hold only an associative connection to the original idea) and “condensation” (which, on the other hand, occurs when one idea comes to represent a cluster of associated affects.

The topographical theory divides the psychical apparatus into various subsystems according to a spatial metaphor. Freud first divided the mind into three systems: the conscious (the realm of perceptions, sensory apprehension of the external world), the preconscious (the realm which can be called up by consciousness, usually associated with memory and that which can be accessed through language), and the unconscious (the realm of the censored which is barred from conscious and preconscious knowledge). The second topology, also called the structural model, divides the mind into three agencies: the id (the center of instinctual drives), the ego (the agency which represents the subject’s identifications and mediations with external reality), and the superego (which represents internalized parental and social injunctions—also known as the “conscience”).



Freud’s conception of psychosexuality depends on his understanding of “libido” or the available sexual energy which directs both human development and human action. His notion of sexuality, however, must be understood to encompass the entire range of human experiences directed by the drive to achieve bodily and mental satisfaction—also known as the “pleasure principle.”

Three major stages of psychosexual development:

The oral stage, in which the infant derives most pleasure from the mouth’s sucking and biting.

The anal stage, in which the infant is preoccupied with the anus and its productions.

The phallic stage, in which genital primacy throws the child into the Oedipus complex. The positive Oedipus complex identifies the child’s desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a consequent rivalry with the parent of the same sex. In its negative form, the parent of the same sex is loved, while the parent of the opposite sex is identified as the rival.


Psychoanalytic Process

The child’s movement away from purely narcissistic investment in his or her own body to the family cluster is the central crisis in human development and that which remains the center of neurotic conflict.

Through “transference,” the conflict is relived and the analysis becomes the opportunity to “re-work” the original crisis, this time with clinical insight.

The analyst comes to understand the patient’s “Free-associations,” or uncensored repetition in a patient’s speech of whatever is in his or her mind, as the revelation of the unconscious in fantasies, spontaneous associations and dreams.


Psychoanalytical literary criticism

Early applications of psychoanalysis to the literary arts tend to the biographical, whereby the text and its creator fall on the side of the patient being analyzed and the critic on the side of the analyst. Freud extended this to suggest compromise formations,” by which an unacceptable wish becomes, through the construction of an acceptable form, not only conscious but a highly pleasing work of art.

The work of art reveals a pattern of unconscious figures which represent memories and parental personas. As with the dream, the surface or manifest content of the work contains within it a latent meaning which can be deciphered through interpretation.


Archetypal Criticism: Carl Jung

Whereas Freud’s theory of symbolic meaning centered on the individual within his cultural context, Carl Jung developed a theory of “universal symbols.” The individual unconscious participates in its images and fantasies in a “collective unconscious” which cuts across all time and culture to contain the inheritance of the entire human race. Certain primordial images issue from this collective unconscious to the individual’s psyche, which Jung called “archetypes.”

Jung postulated that creative energy in the artistic process follows an autonomous course through the individual consciousness but ultimately derives from the collective unconscious. This process makes the true artist a vehicle for a universal language.


Structural Psychoanalysis: Jacques Lacan

“The unconscious is structured like a language.” The text itself as a linguistic structure has its own psyche. Lacan posits the existence of what he calls three “orders” in human experience: the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.

In Lacan’s theory of the “mirror stage,” the human infant experiences an imaginary state of narcissistic mastery and bodily unity. The child recognizes its own physical unity in the mirror: the infant makes an imaginary identification with its reflection and takes this as a model for its interaction with the external world and especially the mother. The child then misidentifies the “other” in the mirror as the object of desire, further contributing to the split in the subject’s psyche.