Saturday, February 27, 2010

Negotiating the Oedipal Complex

According to Freud, every person must surmount his Oedipal Complex by repressing his desires into the subconscious. In his pre-Oedipal stage, a child harbors an incestuous love for his mother, which he overcomes when his father enters the picture. The father possesses the mother completely and represents the ultimate authority which has the power to punish and castrate. Unable to replace his father, a child learns to identify with him, sublimate his desires and channel his repressed energies into socially acceptable forms of expression. His father, "symbolizes a place, a possibility, which he himself will be able to take up and realize in the future…the boy makes peace with his father, identifies with him, and is thus introduced into a symbolic role of manhood" (Eagleton, 134). Freud also outlines the steps a female child takes in moving past the Oedipal Complex; however, in this blog entry, we will focus on Freud's analysis of the male child.

What happens when a child is unable to successfully navigate the treacherous waters of the Oedipal Stage? Freud argues that the Oedipal Complex is the "nucleus of the neuroses" and in certain cases sublimated desires can cause sexual deviance and confusion, phobias, obsessions, hysterics, paranoia, and schizophrenia (Eagleton 137-138). To demonstrate what can happen when a child never transitions out of what Freud calls the Phallic Stage of the Oedipal Complex, I included a clip from Sex and the City, where Charlotte York walks into her bathroom and finds her husband with his mother, Bunny, who is giving him a bath. In the television series Bunny is portrayed as Trey's strong, interfering mother, who retains a powerful hold over her son and refuses to relinquish any of that power to her new daughter-in-law. In this scene, Bunny is smoking a cigarette next to her naked son and tells Charlotte how much she reminds her of herself. Charlotte realizes that in choosing her, Trey has married his mother. Her husband's inability to separate from his mother is a constant source of tension in their relationship and eventually leads to their divorce.

Another example of a child's failed transition out of the Phallic Stage can be seen in the movie In Dreams, where Robert Downy Jr., who is obsessed with his dead mother, abducts Annette Benning in an attempt to recreate his childhood. Robert Downy Jr., who in a previous scene appeared in his mother's clothes, dresses Annette Benning in the same clothes so that she resembles his mother. He tells her that he will not hurt her if she loves him like his mother loved his father. When Annette Benning refuses to become his mother/wife, he tries to kill her.

Sometimes, the target of a person's neurosis is the father because the child continues to resent the father's authority and never learns to identify with him or the patriarchal role he is expected to assume as an adult. I included a clip from Hamlet 2, which is a movie about a play of the same name, written and directed by Steve Coogan's character, who is a frustrated actor turned high school drama teacher. In choosing an acting career, he disappointed his father and these father issues manifest themselves in the play, which is mostly about how the two main characters, Jesus and Hamlet attempt to gain independence from their strong fathers. In the final scene of the movie, Steve Coogan's character, Hamlet, and Jesus are conflated and become "The Son" who finally gains an independent identity from his father and finds freedom and happiness in the separation.

Another problem that arises from the failure to resolve the Oedipal Stage is when a man transfers his fear of castration to women. In other words, he may believe that a woman can drain his life force during the act of sex—a common belief among Classical and medieval scholars. Aristotle and Galen believed that sexual activity would drain a man's vitality, leaving him permanently debilitated (Blamires 38). I included a clip from Dr. Strangelove; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In this scene, General Jack D. Ripper holds a giant gun in his hand while he tells Mandrake that because he once felt a "profound sense of fatigue" after sex, he believes that sex can lead to a "loss of essence" and has taken great care to avoid losing any more of his vital power to women during sex.

Works Cited

Woman Defamed and Woman Defended. Ed. Alcuin Blamires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign

Attempting to divine the meaning of a text is a slippery business. One may favor the approach that Husserl's phenomenology takes, which seeks to explore human consciousness to find the universal essence of things through the particulars that instantiate them, or Heidegger's hermeneutics, which teaches that meaning does not originate in the artist, but reveals itself in language. Hirsche states that meaning lies in whatever the author intended when he was writing the text; while Gadamer's reception theory posits that meaning is "actualized" by the reader (Eagleton 59-86).

The theories are complex, numerous, and diverse; therefore, for the purposes of this blog entry, we will focus on Ferdinand de Saussur's structuralist approach, which posits that meaning is derived from language and that, "poems are to be viewed as 'functional structures', in which signifiers and signifieds are governed by a single complex set of relations. Also, meaning is not 'substantial' but 'relational' and concentrates on form rather than content (Eagleton 86). One problem with this approach is that if every text is reduced to its structure, then there is a danger of equating a work like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Beach Blanket Bingo because they both have the same "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" structure. Structuralism misses a lot by privileging structure over content. It judges a work by its skeletal structure and pays no attention to how the author fleshes out the story with tone, setting, and character development(Eagleton 86).

The text is reduced to a series of signifiers (sounds or images), signifieds (concepts), and the formulas that connect them. And it is important to note that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. Concepts, such as photo or playground, are not linked by any "inner relationship" to the sounds or letter symbols that signify them, as the signifiers change over time and vary across different cultures and languages (Rivkin and Ryan 62). Each sign in the system is defined by its difference from other signs and its meaning is relational. One can understand the meaning of individual words by their context, how the word is constructed, and by their syntactic position. If a word is placed in a certain position in a sentence, then it may function as a verb as opposed to an adjective. If moved, then it may become a noun. In this way, structure can give meaning to words—even nonsense words. Saussur's Course in General Linguistics mentions Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem The Jabberwocky to illustrate this point (Rivkin and Ryan 61). For example, let us examine the line where the narrator warns the boy about two different monsters by stating, "Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch" (7-8). The words "Jubjub," "frumious," and "Bandersnatch" are all nonsense words; however, we are able to determine their meaning by their position in the sentence. "Bandersnatch" is a noun because it is in the direct object position and "Jubjub" and "frumious" are adjectives because they modify the nouns that they precede. We can further define these nonsense words by their context. Since the boy is being told to beware the "Jubjub bird" and to shun the "frumious Bandersnatch," we know that the words must represent something sinister or evil and can replace them with words such as "evil" or "man-eating" or "monstrous" in order to make sense of nonsense. I included a clip of a reading of The Jabberwocky to illustrate that meaning can be derived from the underlying structures of language and that our tacit understanding of these structures allows us to find meaning in a text, even if it is largely nonsensical.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. "Course in General Linguistics." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 59-71.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The ssǝuuʍop ǝpısdn of Carnival

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, Carnival blurs the boundaries between life and death, old and new, master and subject, and order and disorder. In the world of Carnival, opposites can occupy the same space because there are no absolutes and everything is in a constant state of flux. He states that the world is, "eternally unfinished: a world dying and being born at the same time, possessing as it were two bodies…the transfer from the old to the new, from death to life. Such an image crowns and uncrowns at the same moment" (Rivkin and Ryan 690).

Bakhtin contrasts the Carnivalesque with the world of the established ruling classes, where boundaries are maintained and a strict hierarchal order dictates a specific place for everything. This world is sometimes turned on its head, however, during certain seasonal festivities, such as Saturnalia in the winter– later called the Feast of Fools in the Middle Ages—and Beltane in the spring. The Feast of Fools took place during the Christmas festivities and was presided over by a Lord of Misrule, who was a courtier or peasant, appointed to serve as mock king for the night. The Lord of Misrule carries a mock scepter and wears a three pointed cap that resembles a crown.


Bakhtin explains that although the Feast of Fools was at first sanctioned by the Church, it was outlawed by the late Middle Ages and that, "Nearly all the rituals of the feast of fools are a grotesque degradation of various church rituals and symbols and their transfer to the material bodily level: gluttony and orgies on the altar table, indecent gestures, disrobing" (Bakhtin 74-75). This subversive holiday turned everything upside down by allowing people to imitate and mock their king and clergy and by allowing them to engage in every "sin" imaginable.

It is important to note that the Feast of Fools coincided with the winter solstice, which was celebrated by the Romans –more specifically the cult of Mithras-- as a time of renewal when the light overcomes the darkness and when the cold winter season gives way to spring renewal and rebirth. Bakhtin states that Carnival is a time when there is a descent into the "reproductive lower stratum" where one simultaneously digs a grave and merges into its lowest depths to die, conceive and reproduce (Rivkin and Ryan 688).

The solstice and equinox holidays were a time of transition between the old and the new where death and rebirth occurred simultaneously. The gods of the solstice and equinox were the dying and rising gods of the pantheon, such as Attis, Adonis, and Mithras. They were gods of transition who died each year and were reborn, blurring the boundaries between matter and spirit, embodying both time and eternity as they became flesh for a night. The Beltane festival, which takes place during the spring equinox, is also an example of the Carnivalesque. For a single night everyone is allowed to give in to the demands of the flesh in honor of the lengthening of days. It is no surprise, therefore, that the ruling classes banned these subversive activities that threatened the existing power structure.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Shklovsky, Viktor. "Art as Technique." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 15-21.

The Art of Defamiliarization

One of the concepts of Formalism is defamiliarization, which Victor Shklovsky argues makes objects, "unfamiliar to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" (16). Defamiliarization causes the audience to confront the object on a different level, elevating and transforming it from something ordinary or practical into work that is considered art. Shklovsky points out that Tolstoy's Kholstomer is an example of defamiliarization because the narrator is a horse, making the work seem strange and "unfamiliar" (16).

Animal Farm is another example of defamiliarization because all of the characters are animals. This rescues the work from becoming just another political piece about the evils of Communism and the corruption of power and transforms it into artistic literature. Defamiliarization not only forces the audience to see Animal Farm as art, but allows the author and audience to distance themselves from the seriousness of the message so that the piece can be enjoyed as art and does not become just another political rant.

According to Shklovsky, defamiliarization can also be achieved through the use of unique or difficult language. He states, "According to Aristotle, poetic language must appear strange and wonderful; and, in fact, it is often actually foreign: The Sumerian used by the Assyrians, the Latin of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Arabisms of the Persians, the Old Bulgarian of Russian literature, or the elevated, almost literary language of folk songs" (19). An example of this is T.S. Eliot's use of Greek, Latin, German and other languages in The Wasteland, which forces the reader to become a more active participant in the process by having to make an extra effort to decode the strange and exotic words in order to understand the poem. One is never allowed to fall into a comfortable lull and be a passive listener/reader when dealing with T.S. Elliot.

Whether an object is rendered unfamiliar by the kind of language used, the unique portrayal of characters in the story, or how a particular event is illustrated, the goal of defamiliarization is to make the object strange and unfamiliar so that the piece is transformed from ordinary prose to extraordinary art.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984

Shklovsky, Viktor. "Art as Technique." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 15-21.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Milton and The Sublime

The writer who achieves sublimity is a boundary crosser, whose work stands the test of time and bears up under careful scrutiny, lifting the souls of its audience and filling them with, " a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy" (Longinus, 120). John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, exemplifies the sublime, transporting its audience through the medium of blank verse to heaven and hell and into the minds of G-d and Satan, where the audience is allowed to experience firsthand the wrath of an angry G-d and feel the despair of Lucifer, who has been cast into outer darkness for his great transgression. In the opening passage of Book III, the narrator invokes the Muse for the second time and states:

From Book III Paradise Lost:

Hail holy light, of spring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee, [ 5 ]
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest [ 10 ]
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight [ 15 ]
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend, [ 20 ]
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs, [ 25 ]
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath [ 30 ]
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year [ 40 ]
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark [ 45 ]
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out. [ 50 ]
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. [ 55 ]
(III.1–6; 21–29; 51–55)

In this passage, Milton leaps the span of more than three centuries and reaches across generations to plunge his audience into the terrifying darkness of a blind man's world as he pleads with his Muse to see the light. The narrator's blindness is both physical and spiritual and the light is a metaphor for G-d. In asking to see the light, the narrator is seeking the inner light of divine wisdom so that he may tell the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.

In his work, Milton employs what Longinus calls, "the five… fruitful sources of the grand style" (121). The first two sources, the author's mental faculty and his ability to inspire emotions, are innate. The third source is the use of rhetorical figures, the fourth is the effective use of diction, and the fifth is unity through the successful arrangement of words. Longinus warns that although emotions contribute to the sublime, emotions alone do not make a work sublime and that a writer should be careful not to overdo it.

The passage's tone is not overly emotional, but restrained and sober. The horror of the narrator's physical and spiritual blindness is conveyed through the vivid description of the light and all of the beautiful things his blindness prevents him from seeing. The author's word choice and sentence structure successfully communicates the narrator's feelings of sadness and allows the audience to participate in his darkness.

Longinus states, "…dignity, grandeur, and urgency are to a very large degree derived from visualization (phantasia)…the current usage of the word is applied to passages in which, seeing the subject of your description, and bring it before the eyes of your audience…to produce vividness of description, though indeed both seek to stir the emotions" (133). A sublime work also crosses boundaries by stirring emotions and causing a synesthetic mixing of the senses. The audience feels with its eyes and sees with its psyche the images the work presents. In his vivid description of light and beauty, the blind narrator in Paradise Lost provides the audience with the same kind of vision he possesses. Neither the narrator nor the audience is physically able to see the light, but through the medium of the written word, the audience is able to visualize his world.

The sublime transcends time and all of the limitations of this physical world, uniting artist with audience and allowing them to experience the work with every part of their being.

Classical Literary Criticism. Eds. Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch. London: Penguin Group, 2000.

Milton, John. The Major Works Including Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


My name is Kathy Torabi and this blog is dedicated to sharing ideas about literary theory as we study the various theoretical movements that shaped how we read and understand literature. I look forward to an interesting semester…