‘Beyond Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: Between Literature and Mind’: Book Review

Deborah Snow Molloy reviews Benjamin H. Ogden’s Beyond Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: Between Literature and Mind (Routledge: 2018) 

Benjamin H. Ogden’s Beyond Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: Between Literature and Mind (2018) offers a direct challenge to any critical reader, regardless of tradition or discipline.  Despite being a relatively concise volume, this work encapsulates the psychological principle of Gestalt theory, the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts.

This text is not a traditional academic piece; anyone approaching it looking for an overview of current psychoanalytic literary criticism or discussion of the secondary literature will not find it here. Instead, Ogden has created a fine example of research as practice – the task he sets himself is to portray psychoanalytical criticism as a work of art, as a non-linear journey and as a provocation to thought. He asks questions about the nature of interdisciplinarity and the struggle a scholar can face when attempting to break out of preconceived intellectual norms.

Heavily influenced by continental postmodernism, Ogden makes silent allusion to a wide range of philosophical influences from Plato and Aristotle, to Immanuel Kant via Freud, Lacan and, perhaps most significantly, Deleuze and Guattari.  The structure of the piece is distinctly rhizomatic, disrupting the physical linear structure of the book by segueing prose and critique, recollection and close engagement with a text, echoing in direct form the many ways in which a reader approaches a literary work, with a nod to hermeneutics for good measure.  The result is a series of impressions which appear unconnected, but which linger in the mind long after you put them down.  There is a dreamlike quality to the work which evokes his chapter on ‘What is a dream and how do you write one?’ (Ogden 2018: 82-97).

The introduction is an extended allegory of the relationship between art and science, a fictionalised account of the difficult academic journey towards interdisciplinarity. We then proceed to consider what Ogden terms the three mysteries of literature, those of looking, of thinking and of language, set within the context of confession. The next section is given over to a discussion of correspondence between author J.M. Coetzee and psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz about the ‘redemptive and therapeutic potential of narrative’ (Ogden 2018: xiii) and the application of this discussion to the consideration of Dostoevsky’s short story ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’. From here we move on to a little-known experiment involving apes in Tenerife, investigating the impetus to thought, ‘the conditions for the coming into being of thinking.’ (Ogden 2018: 40) and the influence of this work on both Coetzee and the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (the reader may wish to discover who Bion was and why he is significant, but these facts are not directly relevant to the point Ogden is making).

It is at this stage in Ogden’s work that the reader starts to become aware of the whole, rather than the individual parts of the piece. Ogden critiques Bion’s experimental novel A Memoir of the Future (1991), describing ‘the awe-inspiring pointlessness that is the heart of an 800- page book that can’t be read’ (Ogden 2018: 48). He raises the need for ‘reading of a higher order’, and ‘the frustrations of difficult literature’ (Ogden 2018: 72), flagging the requirement for critical engagement at the heart of his own text. We then move on to more literary-facing chapters, encompassing psychological concepts of loss in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), dangerous thinking in Tarjei Vesaas’ The Birds ([1957]2016), and dreaming by such diverse authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nabakov, Borges, Dostoevsky and Coetzee, with a brief hiatus to consider what we should do with knowledge. Ogden’s concluding chapter is a transcript of a paper given to the Italian Psychoanalytic Society, and is therefore the most recognisably scholarly piece in the work, situating itself amidst recent work in the field before demarcating its own flight from the pack. Ogden exhorts psychoanalytical critics to leave behind the labels of psychoanalysis when turning their attention to works of literature, in order to create a genuine symbiosis of art and science rather than an ugly conglomeration of their respective elements.

There is a genuine sense of denouement by the end of the text, as Ogden stays true to the key aesthetics of literature he lays out in his discussion of Bion’s work, that in order to be literary a text needs to solve a problem through the prompting of interesting and sympathetic thought. The key to the preceding chapters is lain out in such a way that the reader immediately feels an urge to go back and re-read the book in light of the conclusion, as if they’ve suddenly been gifted with illumination; the distortion of the previous chapters is thrown into relief by Ogden’s closing discussion of anamorphic art.

Just as the relationship between analyst and patient is unique, and co-dependent, so, Ogden maintains, is the relationship between writer and reader.  My own perspective as a feminist critic, who studied Ishiguro and Freud whilst growing up in Norfolk, means that I react against certain elements of Ogden’s text in a particular way. Taken individually, or outside his conceptual framework as a whole, there are issues with the text which represent a challenge.  Why does Ogden cite so few works beyond his own, and those of his psychoanalyst father?  Or, why, out of the entire cannon of global literature, does he choose to represent the mystery of language with a passage from Lolita and then follow this up with a consideration of confession which revolves around the abuse and ultimate suicide of another underage girl. These purposeful choices can leave the reader feeling distinctly uncomfortable and questioning the validity of the entire project. But this purposeful choice of examples acts to highlight the argument Ogden makes later against bringing pre-knowledge to a text, and of the dangers of applying psychoanalytic devices to a work of creative writing.

Scholars in the medical humanities may find that this book raises more questions than answers, but for those who are willing to invest a certain amount of commitment, Ogden offers useful insights into the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis, and the nature of academic criticism.

Deborah Snow Molloy is a second year part-time PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, looking at depictions of female mental illness in New York fiction.  She is the winner of the Elsa Nettles Prize for a Beginning Scholar and the recipient of the William Lauchlann Mann Memorial prize scholarship.

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