A history of Freudian fiction

The changing fortunes of psychoanalysis have been reflected in some of the greatest novels of the last hundred years, a literary history recounted in an article for The Guardian.

The piece is by historian Lisa Appignanesi, author of the highly regarded new book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800.

The article notes that two recent novels (Kureishi’s Something to Tell You and Vickers’ The Other Side of You) have reversed the recent tradition of portraying psychoanalysts as somehow deviant, unethical or intellectually bankrupt.

The low-point for the creative depiction of Freudian mind doctors was probably Nabakov’s novel Lolita, which is presented as a faux psychiatric case study of a paedophile.

You might think that someone who wrote a widely-read novel about a middle-aged man who desired under-aged girls had good reasons to dislike any theory which attempted to uncover unconscious motivations, but Nabakov was famously and venomously anti-Freudian even before he began writing his masterpiece.

He first started knocking psychoanalysis in his second novel, The Defense, and he often referred to Freud as the ‘Viennese Quack’ and his theories as ‘voodooism’ for the rest of life his.

This negative portrayal is not universal though, and many novels contain sympathetic and even highly complementary depictions. For example, Appignanesi notes that in Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Dr Nolan is “something of a guardian angel amid the horror of asylum life”.

Interestingly, the more recent positive portrayals of psychoanalysts mirror some positive results in the scientific literature.

Two recent randomised controlled trials have found that psychoanalytically-inspired treatments can be effective.

A recent trial on treatments for ‘personality disorder’ found it effective, as did a recent trial on using it as a treatment for panic disorder.

Unfortunately, these are still a drop in the ocean compared to the evidence for some other psychological treatments, but hopefully this is a sign that psychoanalysis is beginning to adopt a more scientific approach to its theories and practice and we’ll be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Link to Guardian article on psychoanalysis and literature (thanks Kat!).

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