Norman N. Holland
An Intellectual Autobiography
Norman N. Holland
As I look back, it seems to me that two discoveries shaped my intellectual life and career. The first was the New Criticism. It was in a poetry study group led by the poet Cid Corman that I found I had a peculiar knack for this method of reading texts.
As I practiced it, the aim was to show how all the parts and aspects of a poem or story fit together into one organic unity. The method consisted in grouping details of the text into thematic clusters: images of disease in Hamlet, for example, or the different kinds of language and splits developed in that play. Then one grouped those clusters into larger themes: disease combined with images of rot or smell to make a larger theme of corruption; the interest in language contrasted with the discussions of action. Finally, I would bring all these themes together in a statement of a single unifying theme for the play, say, corruption as the failure to bring words and deeds together. Then one could go back down to the details of Hamlet. One could show how any given sentence related through one or more themes to the central core of the organic whole.
This was the so-called New Criticism and, I would say, European structuralism as well. No doubt I am over-simplifying structuralism, as is my fatal habit. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if you strip the philosophy off, what you are left with is this method of reading texts for an organic unity. The method in turn is called by philosophers, holistic method, and it is a well-recognized method. You see it somewhat in the natural sciences, for example, astronomy or geology. The greatest geological discovery of this century, the theory of plate tectonics, consisted of putting together into a coherent picture evidence from a variety of sources, the study of earthquakes, of the reversals of the magnetic pole, the fact that South American can be fitted into Africa, and so on. Mostly, however, you see holistic method in the social sciences. You see it in clinical psychology, anthropology, geography, criminology, and, of course, in literary criticism, which I would describe as one of the social sciences.
I could do New Criticism easily, convincingly, and well, and I liked doing it. I was delighted to find that journals would publish what I wrote, and my department rewarded my publications. And I found a small but passionate group of scholars in the field who welcomed a young and energetic newcomer: Leonard and Eleanor Manheim, who published the tiny journal, Literature and Psychology; Simon Lesser, author of Fiction and the Unconscious; Norman Kiell who assembled the extraordinary bibliography for our field.
Always something of a rebel, I came to believe passionately in this way of reading. I thought this method of reading loosened the grip of the authorities, the professors who knew all the questionable facts of literary history. New Criticism democratized literature. It opened the wonderful texts of English literature to ordinary students and readers. No longer were the great texts only for those of cultured, wealthy backgrounds.
New Criticism seemed to me a high point in Western writing about literature. It still seems so to me, even after several decades of reaction and discrediting. Yes, even though later critics have proved the assumptions of New Criticism wrong, in my eyes, too. We were mistaken, but we did good work, given our premises.
It was a way of admiring and respecting even the humblest works. My friends and I used to have a lot of fun analyzing B movies this way, as the Cahiers critics were doing at the same time. One looked at all of the movie or poem or novel at once. One showed how it had a wholeness, much as one might look at a painting or sculpture. or a piece of music.
I felt skilled and powerful doing New Criticism. I was teaching Shakespeare in those days, and I used to challenge my students in my classes. Pick any five consecutive words from a play. If I can't relate them to the theme of the play as a whole, the challenger wins a bottle of Scotch. I would set myself and my students the problem of Shakespeare's "mistakes," the confused time-scheme in Othello, for example, or the mixed-up place-names in Two Gentlemen. We would show how even these errors fit the style of the play as a whole.
Making such unities was reassuring, so much so as to become a compulsion with me. It was a useful compulsion. It led to the enthusiastic writing of articles explicating this or that text, articles that were suitably rewarded by academic notice and promotion and professorial fame. It led to two books, The First Modern Comedies and The Shakespearean Imagination (based on a television series teaching students to read Shakespeare this way). It was only years later, while undergoing psychoanalysis that I learned why unity was so powerfully a reassurance to me. I discovered the roots of my craving in my childhood in a one-bedroom New York apartment.
That was the second discovery of my intellectual life, psychoanalysis. I came to it oddly. Even as a boy, when I and my school pals listened to the wonderful radio comedians of the 1930s and 1940s, I wondered: Why did we have such different reactions? Why did Bruce think this was funny and Charlie didn't? Who was right, who wrong, or was it a matter of right and wrong at all?
In graduate school I was able to explore my interest in laughter in my dissertation, a New Critical explication of the amiably corrupt comedies of Etherege, Wycherley, and Congreve . I began teaching a course in comedy, and I read many, many explanations of laughter and the comic. Of them all, Freud's stood out. He did not lump jokes deductively into categories like incongruity or aggression. Instead, Freud led me back inductively to the words of the joke--precisely in the manner of the New Criticism. And he himself in his analyses of dreams and in his study of Gradiva seemed to me to be practicing my kind of reading.
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that psychoanalysis offered what I was looking for. Psychoanalysis demanded close attention to the language of the freely associating patient. It looked for a theme that unified those associations. In other words, psychoanalysis used holistic method: it looked at a mass of verbal material and organized it into themes, just as I did with my New Criticism, and I wrote an article in 1961 claiming that psychoanalysis was "the next New Criticism." Psychoanalysis, then, had to be the psychological theory that could explain our human delight in and response to language. One should be able to extend Freud's theory of jokes and the comic to a general theory of our response to literature.
I was sufficiently impressed with the possibilities of psychoanalysis to want to undertake psychoanalytic training despite the money and effort it would take. Fortunately, my wife's uncle, G. Henry Katz, was a distinguished analyst himself, thoroughly sympathetic with my explorations. He was willing to support morally and financially my candidacy at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. There, from 1959 to 1966, my analyst, Elizabeth Rosenberg Zetzel, and my other teachers led me through the intricacies of the psychoanalysis of those days, ego-psychology.
Intellectual learning in seminars was easy for me, and there I seized on two ideas in particular. In the 1950s and '60s, most psychoanalytic criticism relied almost exclusively on the oedipus complex. That limited criticism to fiction and drama, because there one could identify family triangles, love or death wishes, jealousies, symbolic castrations, father- and mother-figures. Criticism also leaned heavily on the interpretation of symbols, but mostly phallic and vaginal symbols.
Now, in the seminars I was taking, I learned about the pre-oedipal stages of child development and the way their outcomes became adult patterns: early oral relations of dependency on a mother-figure; anal struggles for control and timing; urethral issues of planning and abstraction; phallic themes of mastery and penetration.
Knowledge of these pre-oedipal stages, with their accompanying fantasies and symbols, greatly expanded the kinds of fantasy one could find in literature. I realized that there were many more types of literary text than simply the oedipal. I came to believe that in, for example, a Shakespearean play, the imagery would often match a pre-oedipal level of development while the characters and plot worked out oedipal themes. A literary text could therefore be thought of as layered. A given text could have different levels of fantasy, from the earliest oral issues of self and other up to the loves, hates, and jealousies of the oedipal triangle. These different levels would be continuous. The higher levels would be transformations of the lower, more primitive ones.
The other major thing I learned in those seminars was the psychoanaytic concept of defense. Until the early 1960s, I do not believe anyone had used the idea of defense to analyze literature, except, of course, for Freud on jokes.
Defenses are ways of coping with inner and outer reality, particularly conflicts between different psychic agencies and reality. We defend in many, many ways. We repress painful thoughts or feelings. We deny sensory evidence. We isolate one idea or emotion from another. We reverse one feeling, aggression, say, into its opposite, exaggerated kindness, and so on.
I came to believe that these defenses were the way literary works transformed fantasies, pre-oedipal and oedipal, into the kinds of meanings that we New Critics discovered in texts. Different defenses corresponded to different literary forms or techniques: splitting, parallelism, repetition, contrast, omission, and all the details of poetic language (which serve, in psychoanalytic terms, as displacements). I still thought, however, that all this took place in the text. I still thought that texts did things--according to the models and assumptions of the New Critics and the structuralists.
These two ideas, defenses and pre-oedipal stages, combined to give me what I had been seeking. I could develop a model of literature in general (expanded from jokes and the comic). A literary work embodies a mental process. That process consists of a layering of related fantasies at the different levels of human development (oral, anal, urethral, phallic, oedipal). Literary techniques, forms, and structures correspond to psychological defenses, and like defenses, they transform these layered fantasies toward a unified theme. The result of the transformation is a meaning or significance or ethical value, whatever the individual reader seeks in literature. This was the model I began publishing in 1963, first as a series of essays, then as a book about what psychoanalysts had said about Shakespeare, finally as The Dynamics of Literary Response in 1968.
Psychoanalytic training was a major intellectual experience for me. It convinced me that the more one knows of psychoanalysis, the better one can apply psychoanalysis to the study of literature or anything else. And to know psychoanalysis, one must know it clinically, either through the practice of psychoanalysis or one's own analysis or the study of case histories.
Even more important than the seminars, then, was my personal analysis with Elizabeth Zetzel. There I discovered a far more important unity than the unity of literary texts, the unity of the human self, the unity of me. I came to believe--by finding it true in myself--that purely intellectual activities (like my enthusiasm for the New Criticism) expressed personal needs deeply rooted in early life. Furthermore, one could trace in adult life aspects of these same themes in widely varying areas of behavior. Intellectual beliefs expressed the same needs as one's relations with friends and colleagues, superiors, one's children, or one's mate. In particular, one's sexual preferences expressed those needs most directly and explicitly, although one had to penetrate repression and denial to find that out. Thus, there was a far more important unity than the unity of texts, the unity of the human self.
This unity is itself paradoxical, however, because it includes internal contradictions. We do, after all, experience conflicts between desire and ethics, between different ideas, between a desire for unity and a still deeper fear of it. Perhaps my most strange discovery was that hard psychoanalytic proverb: What we wish, we also fear, and what we fear, we also wish. My New Critical power over texts also defended against a fear of being passive toward the text, simply enjoying it. Yet all this conflict and paradox takes place within a single personal style. The fear which is a wish and the wish which is a fear are my fear and my wish. Unity was conflict and conflict was unity and both were of me.
At this point, 1966, I moved to Buffalo, where I encountered several psychoanalytically oriented critics and psychologists already there. I was brought in as department chair, and so I was able to bring other psychoanalytic critics. We formed a wonderful group: Robert Rogers, Murray Schwartz, Christopher Bollas (for the time he was with us), Joseph Masling, Claire Kahane, Dave Willbern, Jim Swan, and others. We formed a dinner and discussion group like the one I had helped found in Boston. We were able to establish a Ph.D. program in literature-and-psychology, which I believe was the first one in the U.S. and perhaps in the world. That in turn led to a great deal of systematic and enthusiastic reading, discussion, and teaching. Indeed, for a time, we were even able to offer our graduate students a limited clinical experience.
While studying in Boston, I had been exposed to the ideas of Heinz Lichtenstein, but now I met this philosopher of psychoanalysis face to face in Buffalo. Lichtenstein had developed a powerful idea of human personality. Lichtenstein argued that one could read a person's life history as a theme and variations like music--just as I had read Shakespeare's plays. A life was a work of art. One could read a person or their history as an identity theme and a history of variations on that theme. Lichtenstein's identity theory matched exactly my passion for unity and my New Critical skills and the discovery in my analysis of the unity in me. One could use the New Critical search for unity in language to read the language of a person and find their unifying core. In our writing and teaching, the Buffalo group began to read the works of writers as total oeuvres, as manifestations of their identities. We had found a new way of thinking out the relation between author and work.
At the same time, I began to test the ideas of Dynamics. I hired a group of students for an experiment. They read short stories and discussed them with me in interviews in which I asked structured questions, but I also elicited free associations. Both kinds of their responses showed more variety than I could explain by my earlier Dynamics model.
Under the persuasions of David Bleich (then at Indiana University), I came to doubt the claims of the New Criticism about reading. For the New Critics--and for my own model in Dynamics--readings were much the same for every reader. Fantasy content, defensive forms, and structures were all "in" the text and stable. Different readers might add in individual ways to those fantasies and defenses. Different readers might interpret a poem or story differently at the level of meaning, morals, or aesthetic value. The text itself, however, was a fixed entity that elicited fairly fixed responses.
But then I tried this model out on actual readers and this was not at all what I found. When I actually listened to actual readers, I found that their understandings of a given character or event or phrase varied widely. Their emotional responses ranged even further. In short, the idea that there was some fixed or "appropriate" response was simply an illusion.
After a great deal of puzzling, I found that I could understand the differences in their responses by reading their identities Lichtenstein's way. That is, I could understand why one of my subjects, Sam, read a given character one way and another subject, Sandra, read the same character in a completely different way. I could explain their different reactions to a poem or a story by looking to Sam and Sandra's identity themes. I could understand the differences in their readings as differences in their personal patterns of expectations, fantasies, defenses, and transformations. The transformational model of Dynamics was correct, yes, but it was the reader who did the transforming, not the text. The text was only the raw material. I had to set the transformations described in Dynamics, not in the text, but in readers.
My intellectual world had turned topsy-turvy. I had assumed fantasies, structures, forms, or characters were stably "in" the text. They were solid objects for study and teaching. Now they turned out to be highly variable. Now they were not "in" the text at all but "in" different individuals' re-creations of the text. Looking at literature from the point of view of the reader required me to reverse completely the focus of my teaching and analysis.
Yet this radical turnabout makes perfect sense when you stand back and think about it. You cannot talk consistently about a text as though it were completely separate from yourself, because it isn't: you cannot perceive the text except through some human process of perception, either your own or someone else's, a critic analyzing the work, perhaps. Those processes of perception vary considerably from individual to individual, from interpretive community to interpretive community, and from culture to culture. One can therefore only talk about a text by acknowledging one's own role in its perception. One's own personality, beliefs, and culture color even the simplest sensory data.
To teach these ideas, Murray Schwartz and Bob Rogers and I developed the "Delphi" seminar. In it students explored their responses to texts and to one another, and these seminars provided further evidence for reader-response premises. I explained these changes in Poems in Persons (1973) and 5 Readers Reading (1975). There I substituted studies of reader-response for what now seemed to me illusory, "attention to the text." That's impossible, really: one cannot perceive the raw, naked text. One can only perceive the text through some human process of perception, shaped by a human identity.
In a sense, this meshing of subject and object was implicit in psychoanalysis from the beginning, but it was masked by Freud's belief that he was developing a science within the nineteenth-century paradigm which treated subject and object as separable. Further, as I began to realize, my new view of things had long before become the dominant paradigm in regular, "academic" psychology. There, behaviorism's black-boxing of internal processes had yielded to "the mind's new science." Psychologists and psycholinguists were now exploring the ways in which internal mental processes governed perception, memory, and knowledge, and our use of language. The model of the human mind they were developing dovetailed with my own work in reader-response. And neither fit the old New Criticism.
Literature professors were also rejecting the New Criticism but for entirely different reasons. Their grounds were Jacques Derrida and deconstruction. My fellow literary critics now sought disunity, subversion, contradiction, and the undoing of hierarchies as eagerly as we had once sought their opposites. The quest for unity was seen as deceptive in a variety of ways. Unity ignores what does not fit, pushing it to the margins. Therefore a quest for unity was seen as politically conservative at a time when conservatism favored the disastrous Vietnam war. Disunity and contestation fit the times better, and particularly a disunity in the human mind.
Critics favored the idea that language or "discourse" rather than mind governed human activities. Literary theorists justified this linguistic determinism by Saussure's nineteenth-century dictionary linguistics based on individual words and meanings (signifiers and signifieds). (Literary theorists thus took a giant step backwards because Noam Chomsky had revolutionized linguistics in 1957, when he refuted most of Saussure's dictionary conception of language and focused linguists on the making and understanding of sentences.) A favorite tactic of literary theory posited a Saussurean signifier signifying a signified that in turn becomes a signifier signifying a signified that in turn becomes a signifier signifying and so on and on, dropping the human out of the picture entirely. "Humanist" has become something of a swear word.
When I first became interested in psychoanalysis in the late 1950s it was not respectable in literary circles. I used to advertise myself, not as a psychological critic, but as a Shakespearean. As my wife used to say, Shakespeare was my fig leaf. I remember wishing that literary people could develop more enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. I had forgotten what Oscar Wilde said, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." Alas, I got my wish. The literary professoriate took to psychoanalysis like kittens to yarn. I am sorry to say I have found the resulting tangle singularly unsympathetic. It became psychoanalysis-as-philosophy, profoundly abstract and intellectualized, profoundly dehumanized.
Lacan became the littérateur's psychoanalyst of choice. Like the deconstructionists, Lacan posited a disunity in the human mind, also justified by Saussure's linguistics. He derived a radical discontinuity between conscious and unconscious from the discontinuity between signifier and signified. I had attended Lacan's clinical case presentations at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne in 1971, and I found his behavior toward the mentally ill brutal and deceptive. His theory I also find unsound, based on an erroneous linguistics (Saussure's) and equally erroneous notions of how human beings process language or experience. In short, I find his work a quasi-behaviorist falsification of psychoanalysis, and I can only wonder at my literary colleagues' enthusiasm for it.
A bright spot in the jargon-ridden morass of today's critical theory is feminism. To be sure, some feminists are bogged down in deconstruction or Lacan. Others, however, insist on the vital, formative, and creative role of gender in reading and other experiences. They thus make the same intellectual turnaround as my work in reader-response. For the best feminist theory, "humanist" is not only not a term of opprobrium but the aim of the game. So too for more recent developments, gay and lesbian studies, "queer theory" and the various ethnic and political developments: Hispanic-American, African-American, and so on.
As for reader-response itself, it too has enjoyed a kind of triumph. Reader-response teaching and theory prevail at the level of teaching composition in the secondary schools in the United States and in the early years of college and university. There, teachers ask students to enjoy and write about their own experience of literary works, and both teachers and students, I think, find this an a liberating innovation.
In yet another form of reader-response an increasing number of literary critics are trying to get back to a less dreary and pedantic relation to texts and readers. Some critics are finding new forms for literary criticism: the personal essay, even fiction, that will allow one to express personal feelings about a text instead of grinding out yet another ritual deconstruction. As for me, I was emboldened to write a novel, to be sure, a novel of ideas, about responses to a crime and how they depend on personality, like responses to a text. Death in a Delphi Seminar.
Since 1983, when I moved to Florida, I have had the privilege of exploring these new possibilities with such literary and psychoanalytic colleagues as Bernard Paris, Andrew Gordon, Ross McElroy, and Molly Harrower--and later, Peter Rudnytsky, in our Institute for Psychological Study of the Arts. With their help I have been able to explore the fine line between these two psychoanalyses, the clinicians' and the littérateurs'. I have been able to try out a synthesis of psychoanalysis which is neither the abstruse theory of the literary philosophers nor the psychiatric categories of the clinicians. I have been able to treat psychoanalysis as itself a powerful contribution to a unified science of the mind.
It seems to me that that is the road of the future: bringing psychoanalysis to bear on the new cognitive science and vice versa. We are learning all kinds of new things about the brain from MRI and PET scans. Scientists like Gerard Edelman or Hanna and Antonio Damasio are showing how we understand words in our brains. There is no simple correspondence between signifier and signified. Rather, just to understand a single word, the brain must bring together a whole complex of separate features: its sound, its grammatical role, other words that it is like and unlike. Apparently the areas in our brains that process nouns are different from the areas that process verbs. For example, the English article conveys little information, while the German article conveys a great deal. As a result, the English-speaking brain processes English articles differently from the way a German-speaking brain processes German articles.
Meanings are not processed simply. To arrive at a meaning for a noun, the brain assembles a variety of information from different places in the brain: the look of the thing referred to, its sound, its smell, its taste, its context, the history of one's experience with it. Furthermore, and most important for the psychoanalyst, what information there is, where it is located, and what emotions accompany it are all highly personal. The meaning of a simple word like "goat" or "cat" results from a person's unique history with that word. And, of course, for complex words like "democracy" or "psychoanalyst," the results will be even more personal. The notion of a signifier imposing a signified simply does not correspond to the way our brains work.
Similarly, memory, on which so much of psychoanalysis rests, is yielding to brain science. There are several kinds of memory, but the one that is important for psychoanalytic purposes is long-term memory. There we can distinguish two kinds. First, explicit or declarative memory, which covers general facts and knowledge as well as your memory of personal events and facts. Second, implicit or nondeclarative memory, which is nonconscious. What is interesting from a pschoanalytic point of view is how the two get separated, so that, for example, we remember from early childhood some of the things we learned like how to walk, or how to pick up objects. But we don't remember events that happened to us when we were six months or a year old. The reason is, if I can over-simplify, that different brain systems are involved.
In general, memory is, like perception, a constructive process. We build memories in a highly personal way. So also the brain itself. Every human brain differs from every other. To be sure, there will be organs in common. But within those organs, the synaptic connections come from a history of personal experiences that will be different for each human being.
In short, I'm finding in brain science a foundation for the ideas of reader-response criticism that I developed in a much less rigorous way.
Another area that interests me currently is the work of cognitive linguists like George Lakoff on metaphor. They show that a lot of a reasoning is based on metaphors, which in turn are based on knowldge anchored in our bodies and in our personal experience. Thus we speak of balancing a checkbook, a metaphor that is common to most speakers of English. Yet a one-legged man or someone who suffers from vertigo will have a different sense of symmetry and balance from mine.
Lakoff has carried these ideas about metaphor into a theory of dreams. Dreams, from this point of view, are metaphors acted out literally. Thus, a dream that one is trapped in a dead-end street might be working out the thought that some relationship has come to a dead end, and that in turn builds on a large family of metaphors that one could call RELATIONSHIPS ARE JOURNEYS. Mark Turner has extended this kind of thinking toward a remarkable new way of analyzing poetry.
Both the brain scientists and the cognitive linguists are rapidly breaking down the old dichotomy between subjective and objective, between the in-here and the out-there. The two are inextricably entangled. And both groups are giving us a new idea of the workings of the unconscious. Yes, Freud was right--there are unconscious thoughts and memories and processes, but these answer to a variety of brain and body processes that we can now make explicit.
These days I find my own work taking new roads. I am following out the extraordinary possibilities opened up by the discovery of the digital computer, a revolution as overwhelming, I have come to believe, as the Gutenberg discovery of movable type. Some of you, I know, subscribe to the 700-person discussion group PSYART, which keeps up a continuous dialogue about literature-and-psychoanalysis. And we have a new online journal, PSYART, free and open to the more than thirty million people who access the Internet.
I first encountered the computer in 1948. Since then it has rolled like a juggernaut through every aspect of our lives, to work overwhelming changes in our worldview. So with me. I feel the boundaries slipping away between me and the machine as I dive into the torrential streams of thought on the Internet. We cannot now even guess at the transformations this technology will work in the way we teach, write, and think. And I want to be part of those changes.
Psychoanalysis? I have done that. I have been there. I do not think I can learn more from psychoanalysis than I already have. I find I am learning less and less from contemporary psychoanalytic writing. Often, it seems to me, today's psychoanalytic articles simply repackage traditional psychoanalytic ideas into catchy new phrases. As I see psychoanalysis today, it is splitting into abstract philosophizing and clinical impressions and intuitions. I don't find the precise holistic analyses of the patient's language that I so admired in Freud's work and that brought me into the discipline.
Yet precisely as I turn to this new machinery, I remember that what we wish we also fear. What we fear we also wish. I feel that in my new interests I am dealing with my my old wish for--and fear of--certain and positive knowledge, my old wish for--and fear of--human contact. I could not know that old theme of mine without having studied others and myself psychoanalytically. Had I not lived the story you have just read, had I not known that wish and fear both as theme and as insight, I could not now go on to another chapter.
If you would like to, email me at email@example.com