Expectations, Defense, Fantasy, Transformation
Norman N. Holland
Draft, Do Not Quote!
When we buy a ticket to a movie or play or when we pick up a poem or novel, we have two expectations. One, we will not have to act. We will simply read or we will sit in the theater and enjoy. And that's the second: we will enjoy; we will be gratified; we will take pleasure; more precisely, we will not feel unpleasure. What gratifications we hope for are quite individual, as we recognize when we call them our "taste." We shake our heads at our friends' lamentable failure to appreciate what we appreciate, and we sigh, "There's no accounting for tastes." Chaqu'un à son goût. De gustibus non disputandum.
We enter into the matrix of the work as we shall imagine it. More precisely, we expect the work to provide us materials with which we can enjoy ourselves. These materials consist of things like plot, characters, language, mise-en-scène, particular episodes, and all the rest. Oddly, we call this the "content" of the work, although it is we who have to give them psychological being. Somehow, each of us uses that "content," those materials we re-construct, to create and satisfy our own particular, idiosyncratic ways of getting pleasure out of what we perceive. We use these materials to gratify our wishes, desires, and fantasies.
My role--my responsibility--in creating the literary experience is why , when I come to a book or a theater, I, at least, experience a barely conscious moment of apprehension. Will I be able to do this? As the play or movie begins, as I read the first paragraphs of a story, I wonder, Will this suit me? Will I enjoy it? Will I feel good when it's over? Will I be able to make sense of it? (That last is particularly important for me.) And as I read or watch, that wondering becomes stronger. What next? Will this turn out okay? Further, as I get (as we say) "into" the thing, I begin to concern myself about what I am seeing. I begin, perhaps, to feel fear, terror, pity, puzzlement, mirth, anger, or desire. And I need to make these feelings pleasurable. I need something like what psychodynamic psychology calls a «C0»defense or adaptation.
In psychodynamic terms, a defense comes into play unconsciously and automatically at the first signal that one might feel something unpleasant, especially anxiety or guilt. More simply, our defenses and adaptations (and the two of them will have the same characteristic form) are the way we cope with inner and outer reality. I need, then, a way of reacting toward stage or page or screen so that it will give me pleasure and not unpleasure.
The mere fact that I know I am looking at a fiction or a play or, generally, a work of art helps. I know that I will not have to act on this. I need not judge it the way I would assess the reality or probability or consequences of something in the real world. And that gives me one way to get past any possible bad feeling. There are others.
Form as Defense
The work itself continues to help me, or, more precisely, I draw on the work and still more precisely, I draw on the "form" of the literary work to manage my wishes toward satisfaction. To adapt what I am perceiving to my own pleasure, I remake from the materials I get from the work of art my own characteristic ways of coping with inner and outer reality. I begin to ignore some things and concentrate on others. I edit events, motivations, statements, making them slightly or a lot different, even opposite to the way others might read them. I find satisfaction in a happy ending (even if it is improbable). I may focus on the language or the cinematics, paying less attention to the human events. Any one of these moves can serve to allay potential anxiety, guilt, or other psychic discomfort. Using the form of the work, I can freely take pleasure from it.
In this adaptive or defensive role, then, we can distinguish two kinds of form. One has to do with things like sequence, structure, and omission. The other has to do with language and particular wordings.
Form in the larger sense of structure has to do with, perhaps above all, what is presented and what is omitted, but it also has to do with the order of events, which are given prominence, which hidden, and which echo or parallel other events. In a rough way, these correspond to familiar psychological defenses: denial, repression, isolation, or splitting (Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response chs. 4 and 5). From omissions, we make denials or repressions. From parallelisms, we produce splittings and isolations. From "happy endings," we obtain sublimations. From extremes, we develop reaction-formations, from irony, negations, and so on. We will make, as nearly as we can, whatever pattern of defenses is characteristic for each of us.
Sophocles, in Oedipus Rex, shows me Oedipus trying desperately to find out what is causing the famine in Thebes but ignorant of the wrong he himself has done. But Sophocles has used the fact that I know the secret and, in that position of superiority, I feel able to contemplate his suffering and horror with a managed amount of fear for myself and pity for him. Dramatic irony has to do with psychological defenses involving what you and the characters know and don't know.
Thus, Hamlet offers me a half-dozen or more fathers and father-figures: the Ghost, Claudius, Polonius, the Player King, Old Fortinbras, the Player-King, the Player-murderer, perhaps the Gravedigger. In effect, they give me a psychological defense I need for this drama of a family fight. They allow me to split my own psychologically complicated idea of "father" into dangerous, benevolent, trivial, or make-believe figures. This way, I manage to keep what could be a fearful problem, the murder of a father, within bounds.
Form in the more particular sense, form in language, can vary widely. Is it language like poetry or the dialogue of a David Mamet play, such that I pay a lot of attention to it and less attention to other things? A comic poet like Ogden Nash will exaggerate the language so that I think more about the words and less about what's being said. e. e. cummings will challenge my grammatical sense with lines like:anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
In psychoanalytic terms, my concern is "displaced" from content onto language.
Poetic language in general allows me in this way to manage my feelings and interpretations. For example, in Shakespeare's lovely, melancholy line, "Our revels now are ended," the sound of "our" repeats in "-ow are," tying "revels" to "ended." And as I pronounce or hear the doubled "d" in that word I put an end to "revels" and whatever I imagined about them. In Keats'
Thou still unravish'd bridge of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time . . .
I hear those s's and other sibilants and the long i's as hushing the bold lover's pursuit. Even the prose of an essay can serve the same function in my mind or yours, allowing us to manage the content to our satisfaction (Holland, "Prose and Minds: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Non-Fiction").
Whether by big structurez or details of language, I make use of form to help me do something in my mind analogous to my usual psychological ways of coping with things, something that will enable me to make the literary work into a pleasurable experience. I gain the pleasure by projecting into the work.
As chapter 2? shows, we perceive a literary work, like anything beyond our skins, by an act of sensory projection. Our brains transform sensations in our sense organs into a three-dimensional world "out there." Now, watching a play, reading a book, we carry that projection further. Just as my brain transforms my sensations of a physical stage or screen or book into a three-dimensional world, so my inner needs and ways of coping transform the text to my particular wishes and desires. Only as each of us takes them in, as we project our particular perceptions and feelings "in here" onto a text ostensibly "out there," can these poems and stories and dramas "work."
War and Peace, to the extent I can re-create it, offers me Russia in 1812 at all social levels, hundreds of characters, including the proud Napoleon and the humble general Kotusov opposing him, a beautiful romantic heroine, a dashing hero, a rake, a noble bumbler, scenes of love and war, and the self-destroying triumph of the Russians and defeat of the French. But if I had to read War and Peace in Russian, none of this would happen. If I were illiterate or in agonizing pain, War and Peace would "do" nothing for me. If War and Peace "does" anything, it can't do it unless I am doing something to War and Peace.
What I do is re-create the novel using physical acts of perception, my eyes saccading across the page. I use things I was taught very early in my society, like reading. And I bring concerns I have learned in a lifetime of being a literary critic among other literary critics--my interpretive community (Holland, The Critical I). Even more, I analogize; I bring experiences and emotions from my private memories to the novel (Lesser 242-47). We are simply behaving as all higher vertebrates do:
Higher vertebrates in particular use the past as well as the present in interpreting current sensory input. What has been seen in the past can influence what is seen in the present. Experience during development of the brain and in adulthood leads to the assembling of a whole repertoire of assumptions and interpretations that have proved useful in the past (Bownds 205)
That past experience will include not only cognitive matters (such as my ideas as a literary critic) but also the fantasies and imaginings that mattered to me in childhood, fantasies that may now be unconscious.
Because our pasts bias our present perceptions, each of us meets the world with the feeling that some things matter to us and others don't. We imagine the people we meet, the events we hear about on the news, and the stories we read in terms of the things we are drawn to and desire. We imagine them in terms of the satisfactions we seek. We project our wishes and fantasies into the human events and words of literature as we do into our daily lives. And so I savor my contempt for the bumbling Pierre, my admiration and envy of the dashing André, and my desire roused by the white shoulders of Natasha. I dance with her at the ball and I make mad love to her. I slash my sabre across the French armies and the throat of the arrogant Napoleon.
Obviously, if I were to do these things in the real world, if I were to try to act on these fantasies, I would get into big, big trouble. Even just reading a novel, I can feel conflicted, for many of these wishes and fantasies (dreams of sex, power, or revenge) run counter to, as we say, the way I was brought up. They would bring down the guilt or fear I feel when I do things I know are wrong. But, with literature, I know I am not going to act on the world in response to the poems and stories I read or the plays and movies I see. There is no need to feel fear or guilt, especially since I have already made from the work my characteristic ways of warding off such feelings. I have used the various artistic forms, the omissions in the plot, the transformations of events, the choice of words, to allay possible guilt or fear.
Onto what we (mistakenly, then) call "content," each of us will project his or her particular private wishes and fantasies--our imaginings and our memories. We will expect the work to help us manage those to a satisfying conclusion. To do that, as above, we have to perceive what we call "form" in literature. That is, we let ourselves be guided by what comes first and second and third and so on in the novel. We make ourselves aware of what happens at apparently the same time, what is shown, what is omitted, what is parallel to something else, how the plot is managed, from initial disaster to final triumph, metaphor, consonance, assonance, and all the sound of the thing. From these, we make, in psychological terms, defense mechanisms to manage the fantasies we have generated. We transform them.
Transformation as Sublimation
Ultimately, by means of these defenses, I transform my fantasies toward the final, relatively abstract, experience that I, as we say, " take away" from the novel. This being a work of art and not a pointless chattering, I give it just that--a point. And so do we all. We "make sense" of it, whatever kind of sense makes sense to us.
We may read it to confirm or outrage our political opinions or our sense of ethnic pride. We may read the text in terms of "a moral." We may see in it unfortunate truths about human nature. We may learn about the acceptance of loss and death and how that can be a triumph. We may contrast different ways of living our lives: instinctual; emotional; intellectual; pleasure-seeking, power-seeking; self-denying, simply accepting of loss, death, and destruction; or believing in a higher, guiding power. And our final experience may be an understanding of these as human possibilities, an intellectual understanding that was a transformation of what were, deep down, at an unconscious level, quite infantile wishes and fantasies (Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response). Whatever we do, though, we will do our best to interpret it in terms of our own needs, concerns, beliefs--in short, our identities.
In life, we convert our childish or uncoonscious fantasies toward bheavior acceptable to ourselves or others. We sublimate. So in literature, we transform the fantasies that we have built from the text to acceptable "meaning." But again, notice that what we "take away" will be intensely personal, depending on our particular expectations, wishes, fantasies, defenses, and the ways we transform them into a satisfying (or, all too often, an unsatsifying) experience (Holland, Poems in Persons: An Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Literature; Holland, 5 Readers Reading; Holland, Poems in Persons: A Psychology of the Literary Process). That is why five different people will produce five different readings of a story (Holland, 5 Readers Reading), and no one person, no matter how expert, can produce the "right" reading of a story, or a poem or a play, a reading that all other readers will find true to their experience (Holland, Poems in Persons: An Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Literature; Holland, Poems in Persons: A Psychology of the Literary Process). (Of course, we can all produce "wrong" readings, to the extent we can agree on what constitutes "wrong.") Sublimation allows us to take at least some pleasure from work and the other necessary tasks of life. So sublimation in literature, this transformation, if we make it successfully, gives us "the pleasure of the text"--at least in this psychoanalytic account of it.
All these processes go on simultaneously. Fantasy, defense, transformation, expectation--there is no first, second, third, fourth. All these together fulfill our expectations of not acting and being gratified. That is why I can jumble our four terms to make a useful acronym, DEFT.
We DEFT literature, each part of the process enhancing the others. I expect to get pleasure while not doing anything but reading or watching. My expectation enables me to do the necessary psychological work of responding. Projecting my fantasies evokes defenses, and defenses enable me to project my fantasies while enjoying my fantasies justifies my defenses. Making the experience meaningful helps, too, and is itself a source of pleasure. I have mastered this literary work! If I can make pleasure from the work, I reinforce my usual kinds of wishes and desires an expectations. If I am enjoying myself, that confirms me in my defenses. Making sense of the work also tells me I we are not doing anything "off" or wrong or unseemly and aids the work of my defenses, warding off anxiety or guilt. Being able to make sense of the imaginary world of a work of literature also confirms me in my characteristic way of making sense of my own everyday world and that feels good. It gives me a sense of mastery and being in control. And all these justify my expectations.
If what I am doing feels good, and if it feels good enough, I will begin to have those moments of suspension of disbelief that gives us a sense of fusion, of being "absorbed" in the work. As we are, in a way. We feel the things in it as though they were part of our own deepest mental processes of desire and coping and allaying fears and guilt--as they really are.
As such, as DEFT and as the willing suspension of disbelief, my experience of literature becomes an instance of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's experience of "flow." "The aesthetic experience is related to other forms of enjoyable flow experiences, relying as it does on the use of skills to match situational challenges within a field of action delimited by clear goals and constant feedback. Like other flow experiences, it provides a sense of transcending everyday reality, a deep involvement with a more ordered and intense world" (Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 114).
Conversely, if any one of the four elements of DEFT fails, if we can't make sense of the thing, if we begin to feel too much fear or worry, if we don't enjoy it, if we feel bored, we stop suspending disbelief. Lacking "the pleasure of the text," we may reject the thing entirely.
In the first paragraph of this appendix, we have already seen the unconscious core of "the pleasure of the text." We satisfy our "taste." "Some books," wrote Francis Bacon, using a common metaphor, "are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." We come to literature asking to be fed. We wish for a perception of oral satisfaction, and we get it, as we did in earliest infancy, without doing anything. Thus, "matrix" is precisely the word for the expectation we bring. "Matrix" is, literally, mother (Latin) + an add-on for agency. In my heart of hearts, I am to literature as infant to nurturing mother.
Bownds, M. Deric. The Biology of Mind: Origins and Structures of Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. Bethesda MD: Fitzgerald Science Press, 1999.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Rick E. Robinson. The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter. Malibu CA: J. Paul Getty Trust, 1990.
Holland, Norman N. 5 Readers Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975.
---. The Critical I. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.
---. The Dynamics of Literary Response. 1st ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
---. Poems in Persons: A Psychology of the Literary Process. Christchurch, N.Z.: Cybereditions, 2000. Accessed May 31. 2001. Http://www.cybereditions.com.
---. Poems in Persons: An Introduction to the Psychoanalysis of Literature. New York: Norton, 1973.
---. "Prose and Minds: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Non-Fiction." The Art of Victorian Prose. Eds George Levine and William Madden. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
Lesser, Simon O. Fiction and the Unconscious. Pref. by Ernest Jones. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.
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