At Bookslut this month, I have an interview with Christopher Lane about his new book, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (Yale UP, 2007). From the interview:
You have a great deal of fun with the psychiatrists for their penchant for wildly ahistorical diagnoses, such as Samson’s antisocial personality disorder. How does this differ from Freud’s use of figures such as Oedipus or Moses, or, on a less rarefied plane, Jones’s interpretation of Hamlet?
I’d say there are major differences and, alas, painful similarities here. First the differences: The literal-mindedness of many neuropsychiatrists today really doesn’t equate with the willingness of psychoanalysts and literary scholars to cite Oedipus, Moses, or Hamlet as analogies, to form metaphorical comparisons. When neuropsychiatrists try to diagnose a Biblical figure like Samson as suffering from ASPD, by contrast, they’re neither joking nor have much sense of irony about their assertions: they’re trying to shore up the prevalence of a disorder by saying it recedes far into antiquity, though people just didn’t have the tools to recognize it then.
But there’s definitely some similarity, too. There’s still a tendency among some psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic literary critics to treat fictional characters as if they were patients awaiting a diagnosis. I don’t personally find that approach persuasive or appealing, but I recognize it’s been a strong current of the complex, varied history of psychoanalysis, going back through Ernest Jones’s work to Freud’s own. After all, Freud’s own essays on literary criticism are very much about asserting the validity of his theories through fiction and myth. Nowadays, by contrast, psychoanalytic critics tend to be more interested in signaling how literature fails to sustain meaningful diagnoses of characters, not least because that approach is in the end far more psychoanalytic (it’s truer to a theory of the unconscious).
Read the whole thing!