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Psychoanalysis and "The Discipline of Love"

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 24, Number 2, October 2000
pp. 261-279 | 10.1353/phl.2000.0033

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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 261-279

In the past three decades, psychological approaches to literature, including feminist interpretations, have been overwhelmingly psychoanalytic, and this is still the case even as cognitive psychology emerges as a relevant and fruitful secondary field for literary scholars. The dominance of psychoanalysis holds true for Wordsworth scholarship, an area in which, given the poet's developmental concerns, psychological orientations seem particularly apropos. Unfortunately, Freud's most basic assumptions about infant experience, still credited in various forms by Lacanian and many feminist scholars, are no longer accepted by developmental psychologists, who regard the infant as a self-organizing system engaged in a fundamentally productive and social relationship with his primary caregiver, usually his mother. By contrast, psychoanalysis, which opposes union with the mother in the state of primary narcissism to separation and individuation, envisions the mother-infant relationship as paradigmatically conflicted. Though both psychoanalysts and literary critics have pointed to the methodological weakness of placing "pathomorphically chosen clinical issues . . . in a central developmental role," the implications of this insight for literary criticism have not been fully examined.

In misconstruing infant psychology and growth along the lines suggested by Freud and his followers, many of Wordsworth's interpreters unintentionally misrepresent and devalue both the poet's conscious understanding of that interaction as well as the unconscious motivations for the poet's attachment to nature. Most especially, the adoption of this conflict model has hampered interpretation of the "infant Babe" passage in Book II of The Prelude, a passage whose central importance has not, by all accounts, received its due recognition. In the following pages, I will review the Freudian and neo-Freudian readings of Wordsworth, critique commonly employed psychoanalytic assumptions about infant experience and, demonstrating the correlations between the current research model and Wordworth's description of infant experience, make a case for the foundational importance of mother-infant interaction in The Prelude.

Since much of Wordsworth's poetry is manifestly concerned with the formative character of childhood experience, Freudian and neo-Freudian notions about the stages and nature of infant development have been applied to the poetry with great regularity. In accord with the procedures of depth psychology, these readings seek to uncover latent meanings, yet in addressing the "infant Babe" passage, a manifest statement about infant development, they find it, curiously, consistent with the latent dynamics. Thus a common theme of psychoanalytic readings is that nature and Dorothy are mother-substitutes who reveal the poet's regressive libidinal desire for union; in construing the attachment to the mother or mother-substitute as infantile by definition, all such readings correlate pathology with union with the mother. In Freud's formulation, "there are regressions of two sorts: a return to the objects first cathected by the libido, which, as we know, are of an incestuous nature, and a return of the sexual organization as a whole to earlier stages." Even critics such as Barbara Schapiro, James Heffernan, and Thomas Vogler, who discern the emotional and imaginative efficacy of mother-infant interaction, are paradoxically and simultaneously obliged by the psychoanalytic paradigm to interpret representations of mothers or presumed mother-figures as informed solely or chiefly by infantile sexual desires.

More recently, feminist readings influenced heavily by the modified psychoanalytic models of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan, which focus on the hypothesized pre-Oedipal phase and its implications for feminine development, continue to detect the poet's regressive desire for union with the mother -- again symbolized as nature and/or Dorothy -- but, in a new turn, seem especially to observe a specifically masculine desire for control over the mother, a critical theme lent further support for some critics by Kleinian notions of infant aggression and the Lacanian identification of language with the Symbolic order of the father. Romanticists including Diane Hoeveler Long, Alan Richardson, Anne Mellor, Margaret Homans, Marlon Ross, and Mary Jacobus, among others, emphasize the appropriative and destructive impulse of the masculine toward the feminine, thus employing a theoretically driven gender dichotomy that is the inevitable result of the Freudian agon.

A strong theme, then, in thirty years of psychoanalytic Wordsworth scholarship, is that of the poet torn between the regressive desire for union with...

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