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  • Is It Possible to Apply Literature to Psychoanalysis?
  • Pierre Bayard
    Translated by Rachel Bourgeois

If I make myself elaborate the reasons why I tried ten or so years ago to invent a new approach to literary texts, I fear that I would have to recognize reasons that don’t bear mentioning, such as the concern to find something new at all costs, to mark myself out. Yet at that time in France the currents of Freudian criticism left little room for new openings. Numerous works that renewed our perception of the links between life and artistic creation issued from psychobiography. Charles Mauron cleared an original path with psychocriticism, which took the author into account without confusing him or her with the real person. As for refocusing on the text—or text analysis—it had already been carried out, to my great regret, by Jean Bellemin-Noël. In short, there were no heuristic possibilities, at least not moving from psychoanalysis towards the text.

However, the concern to create something new was not the only motivation behind my research. Equally involved was my awareness—as a psychoanalyst and critic—of a whole series of reproaches that had for a long time been addressed toward the psychoanalytical approach to texts, reproaches that, despite excesses, did not seem unfounded to me. The same applies to the uniformity of the results obtained that were often repetitious and similar to one another, as is the feeling of arbitrariness that certain interpretations provoked. Finally, the reproach of subjectivity seems fair to me, even if it is in principle applicable to every interpretative process.

One type of criticism seems to me to dominate the others, synthesizing them all the while. As it is often practiced, the psychoanalytical approach to texts places knowledge on the side of psychoanalysis and not on that of literature. In doing so, it risks diminishing literature and underestimating literature’s own [End Page 207] ability to produce knowledge. It is by trusting the possibility of restoring this ability to innovate, while remaining in a Freudian framework, that I have tried to put in place what I have proposed to call, in my work over the last years on Romain Gary, Laclos, Maupassant, Proust, and Agatha Christie, literature applied to psychoanalysis.

The expression “applied literature” is an attempt to express, by means of a paradoxical formulation, the hope of or claim to a reversal in perspective. And yet, for several reasons, I am not sure that this is either an autonomous method, or a true method in the sense of psychocriticism or textanalysis. Besides the fact that “applied literature” is irreconcilable with the prevalent existing methods, it is probable that these claims could be shared among most analysts of literary texts. Nevertheless, I have a sense, rightly or wrongly, of the specificity of my work, and I do not always recognize myself in many of the current approaches to the literary text, as much in their presuppositions as in their formulations.

Therefore, I will try to clarify, for lack of the exposition of a method, those elements which seem problematic to me in classical approaches and at the same time show how new directions in research could open up. Three points seem to me essential. One—negative—stems from a refusal or mistrust and concerns my differences with existing methods, in part or in whole. The two other more positive points indicate in which direction it is possible, and even desirable, to attempt to renew the Freudian approach to texts.

Against Hermeneutics:

The negative element of my proposal consists in the refusal of hermeneutics. By this I understand, at the very heart of the critical activity (and well beyond Freudian criticism), an almost religious mode of producing meaning, one that posits it as double, divided between a literal meaning and a profound meaning. I evoke religion because, as I see it, hermeneutics is the inheritor of biblical exegesis. And this dual way of conceiving meaning obviously found itself regenerated in [End Page 208] Freud’s work on the dream and the distinction that he advocates between manifest content and latent thoughts.

Before going into further detail, I would like to explain, with a slightly...