Reviews 2010

Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature

Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature. Lucy Rollin and Mark I. West. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008. 190 pages. $29.95 (paperback).

The great promise of psychoanalysis is that it provides a master narrative - like that of Christianity and Marxism - a Grand Story that helps us come to terms with our lives, the societies we live in and the meaning of it all. Indeed, the "uses of psychoanalysis" are manifold. Applied to literature - and not least to children's literature - it has been used to put authors like Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen on an imagined therapist's couch. Another possibility is to diagnose fictitious characters like Pippi Longstocking, Pinocchio or Alice according to psychoanalytic schemata. A third option is to focus on the mental health of us readers. The idea is that what we read and how we respond to it will say a great deal about individuals and societies. But it is problematic too. Freudian psychoanalysis was developed as a clinical therapy involving the live interaction between a patient and a therapist. To diagnose an author on the basis of what s/he has written is dubious, to say the least. Writing stories is not the same as therapy work. One could argue that the therapist (not the patient) is the writer who constructs meaningful stories out of the patient’s fragmented narratives; Sigmund Freud's own work points in this direction. But I have yet to see an interpretation where Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie are cast in the role of therapists rather than as patients.

The second approach, focusing on the text, is more attractive, I think. Marie-Louise von Franz's Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (1974) and Bruno Bettelheim's seminal The Uses of Enchantment (1976), or even Clarissa Pinkola Estès's Women Who Run With the Wolves (1992), point to ways in which stories may illustrate psychological states and processes. Instead of being "dreams that have no morals," to use Oscar Wilde’s phrase, the fairy tale, according to these critics, is a supremely moral and psychologically important genre precisely because of its shared characteristics with dreams (von Franz). Moreover, they lend themselves well to practical use in a therapeutic context (Bettelheim), and their assumed anonymous-collective genesis arguably makes them more akin to myth. Another benefit of genres with no certified author (which also includes the popular mass-market genres of today) is that they prevent critics from confusing literary analysis with (psycho)biography. Although Bettelheim & Co have been severely criticized from many angles - for instance for being ahistorical, for not being aware of storytelling contexts and audiences, and for treating fairy tales as the outpouring of a collective unconscious rather than as individually and uniquely formed variants of stories - I think their contribution is valuable. After Bettelheim, no one contests the meaningfulness (for good or bad) of even the simplest of narratives. Nothing can be "pure sugar all the way through" or "mere nonsense" any longer; both the sugar and the nonsense has its uses, it appears, and must be treated seriously. The third approach, focusing on the audience, can almost be inferred from the foregoing. And it is the collective rather than the individual that is usually subject to enquiry. What collective psychological mechanisms are illustrated and/or mobilized by certain texts? Lately, Lacanian criticism, like that of Karen Coats in Looking Glasses and Neverlands (2004) has fruitfully been used to answer such questions.

Now, since the trinity author-text-reader is essentially what literary criticism boils down to, a theory that promises to unlock the secrets of literature in all its aspects is of course appealing. It is within this context that one should understand Lucy Rollin's and Mark I. West's Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature, which is a reprint of the 1999 hardback edition and contains articles written between 1984 and 1999. Some of the essays in this collection focus on characters or other textual traits, some on authors and illustrators, some on the response that these works incite in audiences. And sometimes the focus shifts between the three in the same article. When West, writing about James and the Giant Peach, states that "[James] unconsciously longs, Dahl suggests, to return to the womb" (18), this is an analysis of the text, but it also offers a speculation about the author's intention. Likewise, Rollin engages both with reader response and the text when she writes about mirroring in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper and wonders whether

that symmetry, that balance [of the story] – which is in fact a characteristic of much children's literature – may represent, at some deep level, the mother's face, smiling at us, giving us back ourselves, allowing our narcissistic child selves to surface. (76)

As I see it, this shifting focus can be a bit confusing, especially in the rather short essays (five to ten pages) of this collection. The authors have little room to dwell on a point and build arguments. Hence, he best of the contributions, to my mind, are the longer ones and especially those that have one focus. Also, the essays that adhere to the literary text without side glances, like Rollin's Winnicott-inspired "Good-Enough Mother Hubbard" are the most rewarding.

An attractive feature of the book is that most of the essays are developed around one central concept. Thus "narcissism" is connected to The Wind in the Willows, "the uncanny" is used to understand Mickey Mouse, "mothering" is applied to Charlotte's Web, and the "pleasure principle and reality principle" explain Pinocchio's maturation. The psychological toolbox is put to good use, in other words. And by way of the provided examples the reader learns about the different concepts as well as the analyzed texts and/or authors. This is a pedagogical and useful approach. What may be lost in the process, however, is the overall picture. Psychological concepts like mothering, regression or narcissism derive their meaning from the greater context of psychoanalytical discourse. It is risky and difficult to use them as free agents in a brief literary analysis. This problem can be illustrated by what must surely be the most original, but also most controversial article in the collection - the concluding piece: "The Psychological Roots of Anthony Comstock's Campaign to Censor Dime Novels." Here "censorship" is the central analytical tool. Thus, when Comstock promotes the censoring of Dime Novels, West argues that he is actually censoring his own thoughts: "An examination of his personal life suggests that his censorship activities stemmed from the repugnance he felt towards his own sexual impulses" (161). Here we witness a conflation of the author-on-the-couch-approach with some kind of reader-response perspective, since Comstock, a sexually repressed (and provoked) reader, reacts to what he believes is the injurious effect of Dime novels. But as I see it neither Comstock's diary entries nor his pamphlets lend themselves easily to this kind of psychoanalytical reading. It is refreshing to see an analysis of a critic rather than an author, and the comparison between Comstock's private and public writings about the affective (im)moral power of literature is also highly interesting, but then I fail to make the leap of faith: for how can we really know what made Comstock tick? But maybe I am just afraid that someone would subject me to the same kind of psychological reading on the basis of what I have written about children and books.

Björn Sundmark
Malmö University, Sweden