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American Freudism

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American Freudianism

Created by: Joy Curtis

Home: ENGL 352 Modern American Literature

Terms: Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature




Section 1: Overview

American Freudism/Freudianism is founded on the works of Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Before Freud, people largely believed their actions were controlled directly by their conscious mind. The decision-making process, thought processes, and other mental functions were all controlled by a person's conscious mind, and it was this Self that psychology treated. Sigmund Freud's revolutionary work challenged this mentality; Freud believed the subconscious mind, biological drives, and instinct to be powerful internal drives that directly influence the conscious mind.  From this, he developed psychotherapy as a new way to interpret of behavior. Instead of obvious behaviors being analyzed, Freud took dreams, drives, and "slips of the tongue" into account when attempting to understand people and the human culture (3).


Sigmund Freud believed that there were two basic parts of the mind: the conscious and the subconscious.  The conscious mind is the one people interact with on the surface.  It contains thoughts the individual can recognize and manipulate.  It is also made of the behaviors and thoughts others can see and interact with.  However, beneath the conscious mind is the subconcious, and Freud would argue that this part is exponentially larger than consciousness.  The subconscious holds all of the drives, repressions, and thoughts not immediately accessible to the conscious thinker.  An illustration of this idea is an iceberg.  The part above the surface (consciouness) is the part everyone can see.  It is, in itself, large and complicated.  However, beneath the surface, there are miles of hidden ice.  This ice drives the rest of the iceberg as it is pushed by ocean current.


The most well-known Freudian theories include his break-up of the psyche into the Id, Ego, and Superego. He believed that every person has biological and physical drives which are either acted on or suppressed. The Id is the biological drive, pushing a person to fulfill a biological need immediately.  The Ego is the socializing drive, asking the person to consider how their actions effect or fit in with society's rules and expectations.  The Superego acts as a conscience, either internally rewarding or punishing after the action.  These drives are held in constant tension in one's brain until one of the drives is "wins" and the other is suppressed.  The act of suppressing (or repressing) drives creates a build-up of energy/drives within the subconscious. Eventually, Freud postulates, the energy/drives must release by appearing in some other form, whether through dreams, unusual behavior, or accidental slips of language. Human behavior previously seen as accidental or obscure started to be viewed through a Freudian lense and seen as reactions to an initial drive.



Freud's work began to become popularized as people summaries and reviews of Freud's work were published. It infiltrated pop culture in a diluted form, focusing primarily on his views on biologically-driven inclinations of the id, ego, and superego. During Modernism, many were exploring new beliefs surrounding sexuality. Views on male and female roles, homosexuality, and same-gender living situations were being explored. Because of this, Freud's remarkable theories on sex abuse, repression, and Oedipal complexes, as well as society's act in repressing sexual instincts, were quickly consumed and began to permeate regular life and modern literature.


Section 2: Freudianism and Modernism


Freudianism--especially psychoanalysis-- greatly influenced the Surrealist movement.  Surrealism is based on the idea that "the unconscious held universal imagery" (4).  Surrealists attempted to portray images of the subconscious and thought processes in their work.  In Veristic Surrealism, they tried to understand these images through analysis.  This is similar to the goal of psychoanalysis, which tries to pull out the ideas of the subconscious and analyze them for meaning.  Ultimately, understanding the subconscious is the driving force behind Freudism and Surrealism.  In redard to Surrealism, some of the psychological overtones were lost -- among other social and political thrusts originally connected with the works and their artists-- during the transfer of Surrealism to America.


In addition to psychoanalysis, another popular psychological interpretation of human drives is presented in psychological determinism.  This theory postulates that people's actions are constantly influenced by their environments and their genetics.  Ultimately, people will act according to either their strongest desires or the strongest reasons.  It is possible that Freud used this as groundwork for his psychoanalysis.  The influences of environment (such as social environment) would strengthen the Ego, while genetic causes would motivate the Id.  In the end, a person must decide or act on whichever argument (Id or Ego) is strongest or most reasonable.  The Superego would then either reward or punish based on the action chosen.  Both Freudian and psychological determinism theories had a strong impact on Modernism, and on how people considered the actions of themselves and others.


Section 3: Modern Literature and Authors influenced by Freudism


Freud's works presented a new way to analyze literature: psycho-biographically. Now critics can question the relationship between the psychological state of the author (ie: depressed, suppressing old memories) and the characters and plot lines (3). In addition, Freud's work with symbolism in dreams led to a dramatic shift in understanding/writing novels with symbolism through simile, metaphor, imagism, and synecdoche.


In particular, the poet known as "H.D." maintained a close relationship with Sigmund Freud beginning in the early 1930s. Undergoing psychoanalysis by Freud, H.D. especially related with the psychologist's theory of the unconscious, believing that it mimicked the superficial manifestation of unexplained -- albeit significant -- images in poetry. Interestingly, the journals which H.D. kept while undergoing treatment by Freud comprised the most detailed account of any Freudian psychoanalysis. The relationship between H.D. and Freud functioned not as psychologist-patient but as teacher-student, as H.D. gleaned from Freud's techniques methods of literary enhancement. According to several sources, however, the learning may have been mutual; H.D.'s notebooks imply that Freud began to listen not solely to content but to the language itself. Such a "language for language's sake" concept recalls the principle of "art for art's sake." H.D. was one of the few modernists to have undergone psychoanalysis and to incorporate it into her writing (5).


 Other Related Internal Sites:

* psychological determinism

* Surrealism

* Stream of Consciousness

* Postwar Disillusionment



1. "Cummings and Freud" http://www.jstor.org/view/00029831/dm990220/99p0374k/0

2. "Sigmund Freud" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freud

3. "Freud and Freudianism" http://www.victorianweb.org/science/freud/intro.html

4. “20th Century Art History.” http://www.pixiport.com/words-art-20th-centuryart.htm

5. Holland, N. Norman. H.D.'s Analysis with Freud. http://www.clas.dfl.edu/ipsa/journal/2002_holland05.shtml

6. Smith, Paul. "H.D.'s Identity." Women's Studies. 10 (3): 321-337. full text






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Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 2:17 pm on Feb 19, 2007

Typically the term would be "Freudianism," so I would suggest editing the title to reflect this usage.

Anonymous said

at 8:27 am on Feb 26, 2007

Good start. You might get in to the way that Freudian theories of the unconscious provoked new ways of thinking about artistic production. Surrealists and others like German expressionists sometimes imagined themselves producing work that came directly from the unconscious, and modernists generally sometimes tried to produce work that escaped conscious control and would allow Freudian dream realities to take over.

Anonymous said

at 7:20 am on Apr 25, 2007

Joy, when I call up your page there is some kind of formatting problem such that the text is overunning itself (two or three lines on one) in several spots. See if this can be fixed. Take advantage of the internet itself by creating links to important issues in the midst of your text.

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