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  • Dynamic Psychology
  • Wendy Graham
George M. Johnson. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2006. xix + 240 pp. $74.95

George M. Johnson's Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction is a book with an unusual agenda. Differentiating his project from prior elaborations of the interplay between fiction and metaphysical conjecture in the Edwardian and Georgian eras, exemplified by Frederic Myers and the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Johnson remarks that no previous study "centres on or considers the claims for legitimacy of the psychological paradigm developed by psychical research, assesses it within the broader framework of dynamic psychology, or evaluates its cultural impact, particularly on prose fiction, alongside other dynamic psychologies" (11). Johnson amply defends his claim that numerous British writers "perceived the significance of dynamic psychology through the lens of psychical research" by drawing analogies between the emerging psychological model of fluid consciousness, life after death, subliminal states, habit, and memory and the emerging literary approach to characterization and temporality in the work of May Sinclair, J. D. Beresford, Arnold Bennett, and Algernon [End Page 235] Blackwood (6). Calling attention to the multiplicity of discourses falling within the rubrics of "psychology," "new psychology," "dynamic psychiatry" between 1880–1925, Johnson recuperates the forgotten voices of late-Victorian and Edwardian psychology. Rejecting the unflattering description of research into paranormal communication, extensions of personality, clairvoyance, and telepathy as forms of "magical thinking" (11), Johnson argues that the extended circle of researchers affiliated with the SPR produced a more detailed account of the inner or spiritual life of man than other contemporary discourses and thus made a more significant contribution to literature and to culture than the materialist strain of pre-Freudian psychology (3).

Redressing this imbalance, restoring psychical research to its rightful place as the dominant shaping influence on British fiction, implicitly entails countermanding the "exaggerated Freudian impact" promulgated by literary studies of British modernism (3). To this end, Johnson dwells on the historical anachronism responsible for the placement of Freudianism at the forefront of British outlooks on psychological and psychical research before 1908–1914, when the influence of Frederic Myers, William James, William McDougall, J. F. Herbart, Pierre Janet, and Henri Bergson predominated (6). Johnson styles his approach to the reception history of dynamic psychology an "excavation" (10) or archaeology, in Michel Foucault's sense of the term (8). While disclaiming any intention of serving up a traditional study of influence (7), Johnson's book undoubtedly privileges the authors of concepts over the discursive formations, practices, and institutions that made their utterances meaningful and coherent: George Henry Lewes was first to develop the idea of a stream of consciousness (1860) and first to use the term "personality" in its proximal modern sense (21); Pierre Janet was influenced by Frederic Myers's groundbreaking conception of subliminal and supernormal states of consciousness as well as multiple personality (50); Freudians failed to give pioneers, such as Myers and William McDougall, their due (36, 42).

Johnson's study is altogether too focused on continuities, chains of influence, authors and origins, to qualify as Foucauldian. His broadsides on Freud's shortcomings are invidious, as one after another of Johnson's underrated psychical researchers is said to be first in the field with a concept attributed to Freud: repression, catharsis, the id, the ego, and so on. This strategy places Johnson in an awkward position: that of upholding reception theory with regard to what certain contemporary audiences were reading, digesting, and disseminating, [End Page 236] while criticizing the Edwardian interpreters or, as Johnson would have it, "propagandists" responsible for Freud's towering reputation (8). Caricatured as a usurping fellow and pedophile, Ernest Jones bears the brunt of Johnson's attack, although it is not clear what Jones's alleged sexual attempts on children says about his role in shaping Freud's legacy (75). Clearly, it is possible to overstate Freud's role as discoverer of the unconscious. Foucault himself distinguished Freud as an initiator of the discursive practice of psychoanalysis in "What is an Author?" Even Johnson acknowledges that Freud's lucid articulation of a comprehensive system and dismissal of such outdated notions as neuropathic heredity contributed to his preeminence (51), while unaccountably claiming...


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pp. 235-240
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