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Jean Michel-Rabaté, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis

Maria Pirgerou

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1Jean Michel-Rabaté, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis

2Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 262. ISBN: 9781107423916.

3Maria Pirgerou

4University of Nottingham

5Jean Michel-Rabaté introduces his argument by referring us to the letters Sigmund Freud exchanged with Eduard Silberstein–their correspondence lasted for more than ten years—in which, Rabaté argues, Freud actually laid the foundations of psychoanalysis by means of personal introspection. Rabaté’s point rests on the fact that Freud was inspired by literary texts and his pre-occupation with literature allowed him to create great literature himself especially when he recorded and put into words his clinical errors—such as Dora. Rabaté’s main concern in this book is to establish the close connection between literature and psychoanalysis by emphasizing their overlapping parameters and their interdisciplinary affiliations.

6In Chapter 1, Rabaté studies Freud’s relationship with Shakespeare arguing that his study of Hamlet led Freud to develop his theory of the Unconscious. Rabaté compares Hamlet to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to demonstrate the relevance of crucial Freudian concepts such as the fear of castration, repression and hysteria. In his study, Rabaté argues that all subsequent analyses of Shakepeare’s play—including those by Ella Freeman Sharp, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Lacan—actually revisit Freud’s central interpretation of the play allowing, at the same time, for new and diverse psychological insights to surface. Lacan’s reading of the play, Rabaté points out, coincided with the development of the notion of the Mirror Stage shifting the emphasis in his reading from Freud’s patrocentrism to the mother as the locus of the Unconscious. Lacan’s modern rendition of the Oedipus complex as developed in Freud’s comparative analysis of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Rabaté argues, attests to the fact that reading literature “inscribes a learning curve for psychoanalysis” (45).

7In Chapter 2, Rabaté discusses the concept of “deferred action” which Freud detected in the popular literary texts of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer. According to Rabaté, Freud’s development of the concept was often grounded in the recursive temporality of literature, that is, its intrinsic staged delay of events. Freud’s elaboration of daydreaming and fantasies, Rabaté goes on to suggest, is also linked to literary texts such as Josef Popper Lynkeus’s Fantasies of a Realist, Shakespeare’s King Lear even brother Grimm’s tales of the “ Twelve Brothers” and “The Six Swans”. Another example to this end is Samuel Beckett’s texts which are prime material for psychoanalytic readings and vice versa. Rabaté establishes Jung’s influence on Beckett but also demonstrates the ways in which Beckettian polysemy actually relied on Freudian key concepts.

8Chapter 3 is based on Rabaté’s reading of Freud’s book Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’sGradiva drawing from the latter’s interpretation of Wilhelm Jensen’s narrative Gradiva, APompeian Fantasy. In his analysis of Freud’s interpretation of Jensen’s novella Rabaté demonstrates the ways in which the novella actually illustrates Freud’s tenets of “the therapeutic function of fantasy, the symbolic meaning of dreams, the sexual origin of repression” offering at the same time an allegory of the unconscious. Rabaté further links Gradiva with the tale of Hoffman’s Sandman in their similar treatment of the “uncanny”. In his investigation of the term Rabaté traces it in a number of literary texts from Edgar Alan Poe to Franz Kafka and Coetzee in an effort to pin down its semantic post-Freudian transformations and to demonstrate its significant relevance to literature.

9The fourth chapter investigates the relationship between psychoanalysis and Surrealism through André Breton’s fascination with Freud. Breton’s re-definition of hysteria as “a supreme vehicle of expression” rather than a pathological phenomenon, Rabaté contends, demonstrates the relationship between art and real life experiences including psychic disorders as tropes of artistic expression. Paranoia, then, becomes a fundamental critical tool. Defined by Freud as being rooted in a repressed homosexuality, paranoia in artistic representation, Rabaté argues, was taken up by Salvador Dali and the Surrealists in the 1930s and actually culminated in Breton’s attempt to blend automatic writing with the imitation of psychotic speech. Further, Rabaté goes on, the Surrealists’ obsession with paranoia as a source of literary production allowed literature to become the vehicle for addressing the psychopathology of human nature.

10In Chapter 5 the author proceeds to examine the genre of psychobiography and in particular, M. Bonaparte’s interpretation of Poe’s works by means of a psychoanalytic account of the author’s own life and experiences. Bonaparte’s reading of Poe and his work in Freudian terms is consistent with “applied psychoanalysis.” As is well known, psychoanalytic readings of Poe’s work have been attempted by Lacan who actually questioned earlier interpretations of Poe and rejected Bonaparte’s psychobiography. However incongruent the two analyses of Poe’s work may be, Rabaté clearly demonstrates that they both contribute to his basic point: that literature is a source of prime material for psychoanalysis and vice versa. Rabaté’s impressive connection between Poe’s characters and André Gide’s own troubled projections of a latent homosexuality in his texts only reaffirm the ways in which literature, psychoanalysis and real-life experiences actually overlap, according to the author.

11In Chapter 6, Rabaté addresses James Joyce’s literary output as criticized by Carl Jung who had identified an essential schizophrenic split in Joyce’s writings. Rabaté goes on to apply Jung’s theory of Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious on Joyce’s The Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake. Additionally, in a Lacanian reading of the same texts, Rabaté argues that Joyce’s inventive playfulness with language reveals the author’s wish to compensate for a lack on his father’s part. If writing is essential to the constitution of the subject, then Joyce had actually forced Lacan to transform his theory of the Ego.

12In the final chapter of his book, Rabaté traces the history of perversion from Kraft Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis to Marquis de Sade, and the history of trauma from Marguerite Duras to the internationally acclaimed novel by Yann Martel The Life of Pi on which the award-winning film by Ang Lee was based. In his analysis of these major issues Rabaté demonstrates how basic psychoanalytic concepts such as the fear of castration and the death drive can be translated into literary metaphors.

13Rabaté’s insightful analyses in all seven chapters of his book, his remarkable erudition as well as the broad coverage of literary works and psychoanalytic concepts restore, in my opinion, the value of psychoanalysis in literary interpretation. Rabate’s book further reaffirms the need for a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis—whether Freudian, Jungian or Lacanian—, because it clearly and most ingeniously manages to prove the Wildean dictum that “art imitates life,” attesting to the necessity to comprehend that both literature and psychoanalysis are complementary disciplines which help us address the vicissitudes of real life. A must-read for both students and scholars.

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Maria Pirgerou, « Jean Michel-Rabaté, The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and Psychoanalysis », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-1, document 1, Online since 14 March 2017, connection on 21 June 2018. URL :

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