The psychological approach is a unique form of criticism in that it draws upon psychological theories in its interpretation of a text. Linking the psychological and literary worlds bring a kind of scientific aspect into literary criticism. The three branches of psychological criticism that we have discussed in class are Psychoanalytic criticism, trauma and Cognitive criticism.
The first approach that we have discussed was psychoanalytic criticism. According to our Dictionary of Critical Theory, psychoanalysis is, “1) a discipline founded on a procedure for the investigation of mental processes that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unconcious; 2) a therapeutic method for the treatment of neurotic disorders; and 3) a body of psychological data evovling into a new scientific discipline.” Freud believes that society sublimates, or channels its unconscious through the creative process. This is where literature come into play. When criticizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry a psychoanalytic approach can be utilized. Take for example Dickinson’s poem There’s a certain slant of light,:
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.
The psychoanalytic critic would look of the unconscious desires sublimated by Dickinson in her poem. In the psychoanalyst’s mind everyone’s actions are governed by sexual/pleasure seeking motives. Dickinson would have these desires and since they cannot be expressed in society she must sublimate them in her creative outlet, poetry. For example, with Freud’s theories in mind, we might draw the conclusion that Dickinson got a sexual pleasure from pain.
The second approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is trauma. According to Caruth’s article “Trauma and Experience: Introduction”, “…in trauma the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it, that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of belatedness.” The affects of trauma on an author can manifest itself in their writing. Say for instance we learned that Emily Dickinson’s mother had killed herself in front her, this traumatic experience would be influential on her writing and we could interpret her poems with this in mind. (Trauma does not stand so much on it’s own as it is linked to psychoanalysis. The unconscious desires, perhaps influenced by trauma, of an author are the true meanings underlying all of their work.)
The third approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is the Cognitive Approach. Whereas the psychoanalytic approach focused on the author and why they wrote what they wrote, the cognitive approach focuses on the reader and how their mind works while reading literature. This approach explains why humans associate certain mindsets with situations. The process is scientific in nature and draws evidence such as evolutionary findings to support its claim. The cognitive critic would read Dickinson’s poem, There’s a certain slant of light, and focus on what mindsets the reader associates with each line and why they do so. Through an understanding of a cognitive approach on literary works such as Dickinson’s poetry the reader can reach a better understanding of the poem’s intellectual complexity and the logic behind how easily they can follow what is going on in the poems.
Dickinson’s poem: http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/830/
Dictonary of Literary Theory by David Macey
Trauma and Experience: Introduction by Cathy Caruth