restricted access Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction (review)
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Reviewed by
George M. Johnson. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2006. xxx + 240 pp.

In her essay "Modern Fiction," Virginia Woolf famously wrote that the primary interest of modernism should be in "the dark places of psychology" (qtd. In Johnson 3). This statement, and Woolf's identification of psychological realism as the breaking point between modernists and their predecessors, has been generally accepted by modernist scholars. However, in Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction, George Johnson challenges this assumption, showing how attention to "the dark places of psychology" was not the purview of the modernists alone. Dynamic Psychology presents a revised history of both psychology and literature in the early twentieth century—one that dismantles the monolithic view of the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and the originality of narrative experimentations involving psychology by such writers as Woolf and Joyce. Johnson frequently uses the phrase "expansionist view" (for example, see p. 7) to describe a philosophy that addresses both materialist and spiritual or metaphysical issues rather than the narrowly defined materialist view of contemporary psychology. By endorsing an expansionist view, Johnson rejects a progressive view of the history of psychology, claiming that "valuable information has been lost in this movement" toward a more materialistic approach to psychology (7). This study offers a more fluid view of this history, where pre-Freudian dynamic psychological theories that were later erased or challenged by the dominance of Freud and Jung had significant impact on and wide dissemination in [End Page 905] British culture, including influence on such Edwardian writers as May Sinclair, J. D. Beresford, and Arnold Bennett.

While addressing other histories of psychology and their treatment of psychical research, Johnson writes of one history in particular, "She works from the assumption (not made in this study) that telepathy and other forms of paranormal communication are false" (11). Most readers, however, probably do operate from that assumption. Therefore, readers skeptical of such phenomena or the validity of psychical research may find it easy to dismiss this study, but Johnson's work does merit serious attention as an excavation of the influence of dynamic psychological discourse on modernist fiction writers. As Johnson argues, psychical research did lead to a more expansive mapping of the inner world even before Freud's identification of the id, ego, superego, and so on. Perhaps more importantly, fiction writers of the period—many unjustly neglected—incorporated psychical discourse into their writing to expand the potential for developing characters and innovating narrative styles. It is in the recovery of such neglected writers as May Sinclair and J. D. Beresford that Dynamic Psychology yields the most value.

The term "dynamic psychology" combines "academic psychology, psychoanalysis . . . and psychical research." All three areas were not as distinct in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they are today. Dynamic psychology contained psychical research because "it applied scientific method to phenomena not normally perceivable by the five senses," thus giving it scientific legitimacy in relation to the other disciplines (4). While later mainstream psychological discourse ignored or rejected psychical research, "this more inclusive, complex, and speculative approach to the human psyche or self provided [fiction] writers with richer material for portraying characters in relation to the world around them than a materialistic approach to human behavior could do": that is, an approach that is not limited to the material world, but includes the "psychical, spiritual, and mystical dimensions of humanity" (6).

Much of Johnson's study focuses on the importance of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization founded in 1882 and dedicated to the scientific study of supernatural phenomena including telepathy and communication with the dead, but also involved in disseminating and popularizing new concepts in dynamic psychology. The SPR featured a membership list that included many key figures in both psychology and literature of the period from England, continental Europe, and America, such as William James, Frederic Myers, Freud, Jung, and May Sinclair. According to Johnson, the result of the SPR's influence was that Freud's theories did not meet with complete acceptance in England during the first decade of [End Page 906] the twentieth century. The version of psychoanalysis that emerges in...


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