Psychoanalytic Literary Theory and the Hebrew Bible

Ilona Rashkow

Cover of Freud’s Hemmung, Symptom, und  Angst [Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety]. (Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1926).
Cover of Freud’s Hemmung, Symptom, und Angst [Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety]. (Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1926).
Sigmund Freud once acknowledged that most of his discoveries about the unconscious mind had been anticipated by the poets of the past. Thus, it should not be surprising that psychology has been used in an effort to explain the origins, character, and effects of literature, including biblical literature.

What makes a reading of a literary work "psychoanalytic?" To call a reading "psychoanalytic" introduces ambiguity immediately because the expression can refer either to the use of psychoanalytic themes or methods. That is, interpretation can be called "psychoanalytic" with respect either to the substance of the text (what it reads), or to the interpretive procedures and techniques a reader uses (how it is read).

Generally speaking, there are three points at which psychoanalysis can enter the study of a biblical text: examining the mind of the author, the minds and behavior of the author's characters, or our own minds. There is a long tradition of psychoanalytic criticism that examines the text for buried motives and hidden neurotic conflicts that generated the writer's art: (in writing Hamlet, for example, Shakespeare was working over the death of his son). Because the hazards of examining an author's mind are inversely proportional to the amount of material available on the writer's life and private thoughts, it is never completely safe to guess at the psychic significance of a work of art, even that of a candid living author, and for biblical writers, we have only the most minimal sense of what their private lives may have been. Thus, this form of psychoanalytic literary criticism generally is viewed as mere speculation.

Most of Freud's own ventures into literature were the analyses of literary characters. His initial remarks on the Oedipus complex were literary, involving both Hamlet and Oedipus Tyrannis. Hamlet, according to Freud, is "the hysteric" who delays because he is paralyzed by guilt over Claudius's enactment of his own unconscious wishes. A stream of essays by other analysts followed, mostly on fictitious textual characters. They wrote what might be described as "case studies" of literature, dealing with those authors or characters whom they categorized as "neurotic." Most of them emphasized such analytic themes as the Oedipus complex, anality, schizoid tendencies, latent or expressed homosexuality, guilt, etc., and the roles they played in the works of the writers or among their other literary characters.

Analyzing literary characters has not fallen into as deep a disrepute as concentrating on the writer, in great part because fictional characters are viewed as representatives of life and as such can be understood only if we assume that they are "telling a truth." This assumption allows us to find "unconscious" motivations, albeit in fictitious characters. For example, Abraham's actions and language reveal a great deal about him, despite the fact that all we will ever "know" is contained in the 1,534 verses of Genesis.

On the other hand, literary characters are both more and less than real persons. This presents a problem. While one aspect of narrative characterization is to provide a mimetic function, another aspect is primarily textual—to reveal information to a reader or to conceal it. This situation has no precise parallel in life (although it can be argued that real persons often resemble literary characters in the masks they present to the world). As a result, examining a narrative character is not risk-free either. For instance, contradictions in Abraham's character may result from the psychic complexities the biblical writer imagined; or, they may result from the fact that Abraham is an agent in a literary narrative with a highly developed system of conventions—his "traits" may be more a function of the requirements of the story line than his personality.

Since authors may not provide much material for the theorists and since characters are not real persons, many scholars have shifted their focus from the interpretation of meanings embedded within a text to the processes of reading. Rather than attempting to determine objective meanings hidden within a text, which a reader needs to extricate, these scholars concentrate on the subjective experience of the reader, interactions between reader/text/author, and the values and premises with which a reader approaches interpretation of a text. As within psychoanalysis itself, their foci are problems of indeterminacy, uncertainty, perspective, hermeneutics, subjective (and communal) assumptions, and agreements.

Until recently, reading the Bible was thought to be a rather straightforward procedure. The goal was to respond "properly" by trying to "understand" the text and grasp the "meaning." The unspoken and unwritten rule was: "Do not confuse what you are doing to the text with what it is doing to you." The proper aim of biblical exegesis was the apprehension of the text itself.

Yet, in spite of the impressive pressures designed to preserve this view of reading Scripture (both within the academy and by society at large), the rules seemed to change when the Bible became an object of interest to literary theorists. Poststructural literary criticism was particularly forceful in calling attention to the problematic interaction between reader and text. Scholars were producing counterexamples of irreducibly different and often contradictory readings of the same biblical narratives, and this wealth of interpretations had the effect of undermining the long-established and accepted doctrine of "objectivity" (whatever that may mean). As a result, scholars began to acknowledge the idea that how a biblical text is read is determined, in great part, by who does the reading. The effect of text and reader on one another has been the focus of several poststructuralist analyses, including deconstructionist, rhetorical, reader-response, and ideological (including Marxist, feminist, womanist, liberationist, Hispanic, etc.).

Of course, psychoanalytic literary theory is no more a conceptually unified critical position in biblical studies than in literary studies generally. The term is associated with scholars who examine the writer, the biblical characters, or the reader. Further, the approaches are neither monolithic nor mutually exclusive. But biblical scholars who use psychoanalytic literary theory seem to agree that "meaning" does not inhere completely and exclusively in the text and that the "effects" of reading Scripture, psychological and otherwise, are essential to its "meaning." Ultimately, this type of literary criticism yields in biblical studies a way of looking at biblical narratives and readers that reorganizes both their interrelationships and the distinctions between them. As a result, recognizing the relationship of a reader to a text leads to a more profound awareness that no one biblical interpretation is intrinsically "true." That is, the "meaning" of biblical narratives is not waiting to be uncovered but evolves, actualized by readers (and interpreters).

One of the primary objections to psychoanalytic literary theory (among biblical scholars and others) is the Freudian idea of penis envy, since a common phallic phase does not characterize the infantile development of both sexes. One psychoanalyst who seems to bridge the Freudian and anti-Freudian schools of thought is Jacques Lacan, who reinterpreted Freud in light of structuralist and post- structuralist theories of discourse. By focusing on the mutual interaction among society and the self with the use of language as a signifier, Lacan shifted from Freud's biological penis to the phallus as the signifier of power, and as a result, many scholars find his writings more relevant to both males and females.

Reading is always a relationship of conflict or debate within the unconscious, and this conflict seems to be intensified when reading the Bible. Psychoanalytic literary theory may lead to feelings of anxiety, since these theorists take no position on the "truth" claims of any particular religious interpretation, but instead read the Bible as a "text" rather than as "sacred Scripture." Consequently, many non-biblical scholars are anxious approaching the Bible from this perspective.

One aspect of psychoanalytic literary theory is its focus on the relationship between the literary text and reader in the context of the psychoanalytic concept of "transference." Transference is generally considered the very essence of Freudian theory. Briefly described, in the course of treatment the analysand (or patient) may unconsciously "transfer" on to the analyst (or doctor) the conflicts he or she is experiencing. If a patient has difficulty dealing with his or her father, for example, he or she may unconsciously cast the analyst in that parental role. As a result, the analyst has particular insight into the analysand's psychology, and can "trigger" responses in the analysand. A biblical text, similar to an analyst, "triggers" responses in a reader. Simultaneously, the text also influences a reader to conduct a self-analysis, to examine his or her own responses to a narrative. In effect, a reader acts as both analyst and analysand; the relation of text and reader is in constant exchange.

Within the psychoanalytic framework, by virtue of transference, the analysand tries to force or coax the analyst to "play out a scene" he or she remembers, although the analysand is not aware of either the coaxing or the scene as such. Just as the psychoanalytic concept of transference is a structure of repetition linking analyst and analysand, literary "intertextuality," the relation of a particular text to other texts, is a repetition of the very structure it seeks to understand. According to this theory, a work can be read only in connection with or against other texts. In other words, a reader acts as an analyst who points out "slips" in the text. As a result of intertextuality, the text acts as a reader's analyst as well by enabling a reader to draw certain analogies and conclusions. In both the reading process and the psychoanalytic process, a new, more complete narrative is ultimately generated.

Reading a biblical text may cause some anxiety, which can manifest itself in at least two ways: first, the reader's response to the approach of psychoanalytic biblical scholarship; and second, interpreting anxiety in biblical characters. Although each of these topics is worthy of a lengthy discussion, I consider briefly only the first aspect.

Psychoanalytic readings explore new understandings of the language of symbols. This leads to an exploration of the meanings of cultic ritual, sacrifice, bans, miracles, etc. to explain the use of imagery in biblical language, including the metaphorical significance of miracle stories—the wellsprings of apocalyptic visual and auditory experiences. For example, when using psychoanalytic theory, the deity is viewed as just another "character" in the narrative—displaying anger, fear, hostility, love, jealousy, and a myriad of other human emotions with which the reader can empathize. As a father figure, the reader may transfer some of the repressed emotions inherent in a father-child relationship onto God. Some readers find this disquieting and as a result, it has been argued that a psychological or psychoanalytic reading disqualifies itself from giving "proper" consideration to "faith." Unlike the New Testament in which the characters are either "good" or "bad," the Hebrew Bible characters are all very human—including God. Nevertheless, the deity is "supposed" to be above petty human fears and desires— at least as taught in synagogues and churches. In defense of psychoanalytic biblical criticism, however, approaching the Bible from any postmodern perspective is likely to cause anxiety in those readers who have been trained only in a theological setting.

Whether Freudian, Lacanian, feminist, or any combination thereof, over the past thirty or so years, there has been a shift in focus from the author to the text to finally the reader. Thus, perhaps wittingly or otherwise, more of us seem to be using some form of psychoanalytic literary theory—dissenters notwithstanding.