STUFF OF SLEEP AND DREAMS: Experiments in Literary Psychology by Leon Edel
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STUFF OF SLEEP AND DREAMS: Experiments in Literary Psychology

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Few practice ""literary psychology"" as gracefully as Leon Edel (The Life of Henry James). He eschews jargon, Freudian and otherwise. He warns against psycholiterary interpretations that don't also include biography. He asserts that ""we do not 'put literature on the couch'"": the writer is not a patient in need of therapy. Yet, however scrupulous Edel's methodology may be, however fine his prose, even readers favorably disposed to explorations of unconscious motivation may have a mixed reaction to this collection of old and new Edel essays--all of which (except for a few charming autobiographical interludes) defend or demonstrate ""literary psychology."" in ""The Mystery of Walden Pond,"" Edel explains why Thoreau ""created a myth of how he got away from the world in a supposed wilderness"": it was a cry for pity and attention, a compensation for his childlike inability to leave home. Joyce's life and work are seen in terms of paranoiac psychopathology--with a schizoid ""litany of self-aggression and self-depreciation"" in Finnegan (and knuckle-raps for biographer Richard Ellmann's less clinical approach). Tolstoy was a ""soul struggling with passivity, self-indulgence, egotism, unable to reform itself""--so his work did not grow in old age. . . unlike James (""he cured himself by his work"") or Yeats (""a use of. . . rage to make poetry""). T. S. Eliot's lifelong depression is briefly traced, with reference to Pound, the essays, and the early poems. Biographical reasons are suggested for critic Edmund Wilson's responsiveness to the ""psychic wounds of art."" The James family is viewed in its interlocking psychologies. And none of these interpretations--except perhaps for the importance given to Joyce's madcap aunt--is less than plausible. Yet, as presented in brief essay-form (without the context of a full-scale, detailed, deep-textured biography), the effect is often facile, nearly always reductive--despite Edel's eloquence and his reminders that psychology is only one of the approaches needed to appreciate genius. And when the writer in question is far from a genius--as in a discussion of why Rex Stout chose the name ""Nero Wolfe""--Edel slides perilously close to literary-psychology-as-parlor-game, without illumination of literature or creativity. Still, notwithstanding such limitations--or because of them--this is an essential volume for those interested in psychological literary biography; herein you'll find hints of its glories, many of its limitations, sound advice about its pitfalls, and all of its fundamental challenges discussed and applied--by an elegant master of the genre.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row