The study of literature and psychoanalytic theory have much in common. Both involve a quest for meaning, for understanding, and both have the potential to enable catharsis and healing for traumas inherent to human existence. I remember the first term paper I wrote, in high school. I was assigned William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” and I was required to explicate the work, applying support from published critiques. This experience taught me that language is layered with meaning, and while a writer chooses language to express a particular thought or convey a particular sentiment, the cultural and historical context of the writer’s life expands the meaning of the work. Likewise, the cultural and historical context of the reader impacts the interpretation of the work. All this serves to enlarge–to elongate–the effects of the literary work. The creator finds meaning through creating. The reader finds meaning by engaging with the creation.
At the same time, psychoanalysis unearths and interprets the meaning of behavior. Psychoanalytic theory can be applied to the interpretation of dreams to unearth unconscious drives. Likewise, psychoanalysis can be applied to the interpretation of human behavior to liberate individuals from unhealthy compulsions driven by buried trauma. In psychoanalysis, trauma doesn’t necessarily mean catastrophe. In my opinion, it relates more to a subject’s (individual’s) internalization of experience which later impacts his/her personality and behavior. Behavior, like dreams, are outward symbols of internal struggle. Psychoanalytic theory helps interpret these symbols, in the same way that literary analysis interprets the symbols in a work of literature.
With that said, you can see why someone like me, who is a student of literature and also a writer of fiction and poetry and lots of symbolic texts, would have a growing fascination with the symbolism of life. Literature and life are woven together, and I enjoy the exploration of the interactions–the relationships–between them. For years, I have interpreted literature through a psychoanalytic lens. Now, I am interpreting myself. At the same time, I am writing my very own novel, so there is something transcendent occurring there, as well. I am creating a story replete with symbols. I am aware of how these symbols relate to my own experience on a conscious level; however, I did not decide on the symbols in advance. They came to me–like a dream–from my unconscious, and the process is unfolding in a way that I cannot control. To attempt to would destroy the work itself. The other transcendent element of this experience is that as I revisit passages I wrote several months ago, I interpret them further, unearthing meaning of which I had no knowledge while I was writing.
This is important for two reasons. For starters, it proves (anecdotally, but still) that writers create and intend a particular message, but even they are not completely aware of the infinite scope of meaning produced by their work. Second, readers should feel liberated to bring their own knowledge and context and understanding to the texts they read, without shame. This goes for any interaction with any art, I believe. The meaning intended by the creator is important, but once the work is gifted to the public, the work itself becomes something altogether different as audience members extract significance of their own. The process of sharing art is itself a creative one.
In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek states “in working through the symptom we are precisely ‘bringing about the past’ – we are producing the symbolic reality of the past, long-forgotten traumatic events” (59). In short, he is saying that the interpretation of our psychological symptoms brings meaning to the experiences of the past. I argue, likewise, that the interpretation of art brings new meaning; the work is never complete. Every interaction expands its scope.
Symbols are beautiful and wonderful things. We should not be afraid of them. A man bleeding from his wrists and ankles on a cross is a horrific image. Grotesque and macabre, but it symbolizes something, and the symbolism is what compels and brings meaning to the lives of many. My symbol is a cornflower–it can be trampled and it withers, but there is something else about the symbol endearing it to me. It may represent something altogether different for you. I accept that. We are all becoming ourselves, and within this creation lies the freedom, as well as the tension, of the human experience.