Literature with the start of the 1970’s underwent a sea of change. Literature started to be influenced with the strands of Philosophical thought. Here I would like to philosophize literature from the various readings I have collected. The various philosophical trends in literature are New Criticism, Psychoanalysis, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post Structuralism, Marxism, Feminism and Post Colonial Literature. I would like to examine each of these philosophical perspectives and their impact on literature by a critical reading of literary works that I have perused.
Now what exactly is New Criticism? New Criticism is a philosophical school of thought that emphasizes those literary artifacts should be read for aesthetic merit. Thus New Criticism emphasizes the figurative concerns of language. Tropes are language sculptures which are the result of an afflatus of the pen. For example if I say that my body is in the Diaspora of a Palestine desert— at a figurative level, the meaning would render into an aesthetic, that is a metaphor which describes the scattering of the body, the libidinal urges into a homeland, a territory which is barren as a desert. This would be the aesthetic effect of reading the metaphor. But reading the metaphor with reference to figurative meanings alone creates also problems of interpretation in singularity. The same metaphor can also be read politically and psychoanalytically. The same metaphor juxtaposes the political and psychoanalytical consciousness and weaves them seamlessly into an enlightened aesthetic of experience. For a political reading of the metaphor we would have to plunge into the history of Palestine which is the voice of the repressed in a struggling political territory which aspires to a homeland. Reading the metaphor through a psychoanalytic lens, we can refer to the theories of Freud and Lacan and rerouting there would make us search the vestiges of the unconscious of the author which is caught up in the prison of sublimating the baser needs of the libidinal ID to a literature of creative expression. Therefore New Criticism cripples readings of interpretative discourse in other fields.
Psychoanalysis is caught up in a monsoon rain of differing showers of intensity. There are two schools of thought, one the Jungian one and the other the Freudian one and also a one which involves a rereading of the theories of Freud by Jacque Lacan.
Now first let me explicate Jungian psychoanalysis and its workings in literature. Jungian psychoanalysis delves into what is famously known as archetypes. Archetypes are models, patterns or traces and according to Jung they are embedded in the collective unconscious of the mind and are universally recurring motifs in the culture of consciousness. Some common examples of archetypes are most commonly found in fairy tales and they include the wizard, the witch, the fairy, the fairy Godmother, the seer, the magician, the demon etc the Father, the Mother etc. To prove the existence of collective unconscious would be too virtually impossible a task. However in an analytic mode these Jungian archetypes exhibit certain personality traits. For example let’s take the case of the Witch. A witch has been classified as ugly, treacherous, covetous, and greedy. It’s very interesting to note that on the other hand Wizards have been elevated on the binary chain to an exalted, virtuous status. It is disheartening to note that during the inquisition witches were hunted, tortured and executed. What happens here is the psychoanalytic archetypal model of Witch becomes a paradigm of creating the ‘other’ who is misunderstood and becomes the other as being culturally oppressed. It needs a post modern philosophy of deconstruction to understand that the witch archetype is a personality type that has been culturally victimized. This victimization would have its unholy roots in the literature of fairy tales which marginalized witches as the wicked other. The archetypal model of the witch would be a misnomer for radically oriented feminists and they would label the attributes of witches as misunderstood products of masculine imagination.
The next psychoanalytic school of thought is the Freudian one and to a later trend, one being revision of Freudian theories by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Freudian theories of the libido are taken as interpretative constructs for the reading of literature. I happened to be teaching students the famous play of George Bernard Shaw the Arms and the Man. I have been peculiarly surprised by his construct of male characters who are obsessed with oedipal fantasies which they invest on their feminine amours. The lovers especially the feminine are role played upon with dialogues that portray them as lovable nurses and mothers. What is amazing here is that these fantasies are not made by George Bernard Shaw with conscious intent but are manifestations from his own unconscious. This raises the question for feminists—was Shaw Oedipally fixated?
During the 70’s the notorious Jacque Lacan made a sea of change in psychoanalysis with critical rereading of the works of Freud. Lacan created a storm of controversy not only in psychoanalytic circles but also created a problem of interpreting the language which in his psychoanalytic terms disturbs the paragon of the unity contained in a realized self. For him the self was body of constructs and it has to struggle to establish a coherent unity. Lacan is famous for having proclaimed that the unconsciousness is structured like language. Lacan has introduced his most celebrated concept being that of the mirror stage. The mirror stage is a stage of development in the child where the child is psychologically weaned from a fragmented body to an imaginary body that has the process of a created self. The mirror stage is the stage when the child enters into the realm of language and it marks a separation from comfort zone of the mother which is a lullaby of language which feminist philosopher Julia Christeva calls the semiotic realm, a realm where language is not a judiciary of expression, a realm where language functions with poetic subjectivity. Along with the mirror stage came into expression the concept of the gaze, a concept in psychoanalytic literature meaning more than a casual look, a look with intentionality that is a look which appropriates. Today literature has acquired many gazes like masculine gaze, the feminine gaze the queer gaze and so forth. The gaze and the mirror image are used as critical interpretative readings in literature, films and advertising.
Existentialism was a philosophy that marked its hay day with an enlightenment that is synonymous in the works of John Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. For Sartre the individual is solely responsible for the choice she or he makes and the responsibility of making a choice for an existential experience fills him or her with euphoria or angst. By shifting the burden of choice to a being or entity like God is resorting to bad faith. For Sartre there is no metaphysical or transcendent being who exercises a will into the universe and in spite of life being meaningless we have to authenticate our existence. According to Sartre negation is great tool for self realization and through negation we can exercise responsibility of our choice and also be condemned to experience angst. A higher meaning or purpose of life would for existentialist be a creative anarchy of nihilism. In literature we can dissolve the fragmentary tropes from their creation and experience creatively a narcissistic anarchy of experience that can be as profound as the mystic and saintly. For Albert Camus we are the ironic tragic, machine metaphor Sisyphus who for an unknown cause is forced to roll a boulder uphill and sadly to his fate it plunges downhill and he is forced to carry out his life repetitive monotony.
Now I would like to analyze structural thought on literature. Structuralism rose into prominence with the works of Ferdinand Saussure. For him all language is a system of signs. A sign is made up of the signifier and the signified. For example if we connote dove as peace, dove is the signifier and peace the signified. The signifier is the physical tangibility and the signified is the abstract idea. Poststructuralist philosopher Roland Barthes dissected signs in literature, philosophy, media and fashions. The problem with structural approach is that it overlooks the hermeneutic of the aesthetic in literature and makes literature a mere machine. Literature engages the reader into a phenomenological, experiential aesthetic. It would be sheer madness to read literature as a machine of signs. Literature has to read poetically with cathartic subjectivity.
When Marxian though entered into the hermeneutic reading of literature we came to understand that literature is also a product of ideology. The author, text, and the reader are all ideological apparatuses. Literature can unknowingly promote class consciousness. For example the works of Shakespeare are all bourgeoisie that is they deal with works, lives and cultures of the upper echelons of the society. For a Marxian, the popularity of an author may lie with the fact that he or she wants to promote class interests which again are commoditized with popular culture. What is popular in a culture may be in fact be the hidden agenda of particular society to promote a class consciousness in which there is a dominant class and the class which is dominated.
I would like to write on post structuralism by mentioning its phenomenal pharaoh, the guru of deconstructionism Jacques Derrida. From Derrida we have understood the process of division of language into a binary divide. According to Derrida, it’s normal for language to privilege one term and marginalize another. For example, Man is a privileged term over the woman, and patriarchical discourses marginalize the woman in the philosophies and literatures of the occident. Again we have God almighty in religions identifying with the dominant mode of discourse that is light and heaven while the Devil is marginalized into darkness and hell. It is the duty of the reader to explore and excavate meanings of a text which are privileged. Again Derrida is critical of occidental philosophies which privilege writing over speech.
It is difficult to unify the compartmentalized models of feminist discourse cause there are many philosophers and with never agreeing strands of thought. I would like to take into the field of discourse the narratives of Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Judith Butler. Julia Kristeva evolved a narrative of language as the semiotic and the symbolic. The semiotic is a realm of language that discards syntax but awakens the poetic subjectivity of the interactivity. A classic example of language being in the semiotic mode would be streams of consciousness narrative and this is seen very much in the work of Ulysses by James Joyce. Music and dance can also be realms where the semiotic is engaged. A semiotic realm can also be in language like talking to one self. The symbolic is a realm of language where language becomes judicial, scientific or philosophical or even medicinal. Helene Cixous’s article ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ opened my eyes to thoughts of how language is: that is the language of the Father. Language is steeped in patriarchal discourse. She encourages women to explore their bodies and their selves and liberate them from phallic mode of discourse. Judith Butler has gone to the extent of creating a feminine phallus, de-signifying Freudian constructs of the women to be oedipal fixations for men. Women are no longer in the dark continent of Freud but liberated messiahs no longer constructed as a self, body and gender by dominant mode of phallic discourse. Women instead of developing penis envy for lack of penis can construct themselves with a lesbian phallus. For her orientation is not being bodily but being gender mute. Orientation is a participatory process for bodily explorations.
Nobody can ignore post colonial discourse. Post colonial discourses aim to analyze the schism of the colonized in colonial texts. Colonies who have become liberated from the colonized have learnt to adapt, innovate and use the English Language to creative conceptions. Many novels though criticize colonial mentality end up ultimately being discourses of colonial rule. Notable are the works of Rudyard Kipling and those of Joseph Conrad. Homi Baba in is post colonial literature has put forth some interesting perspectives. And they are, the relation between the colonist and colonized was based on cultural anxiety. The colonist wanted the colonized to mimic their behavior but at the same time be subservient to them. Edward Said in the ‘Discourse of the Orient’ criticized the way the Orient was constructed as discourse of the Occident. The orient in construction was made an exotic place where culture and civilization are in its lowest ebb. The native in Occidentalism was a dark fantasy. A post colonial reading of a text would be an archaeology of reading where the script is dissected as being a political, religious, cultural subjugation.