R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Eng 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

Lecture Notes: Freud, "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" [1907]

  1. Background
    1. In Interpretation of Dreams Freud writes about the presence of "involuntary ideas" in dreams and refers to remarks by the German poet Friedrich Schiller as a way of explaining how we can gain access to these "involuntary ideas" by relaxing our rational control over the imagination. (See handout; to view the handout, click here.)
      —Theory of poetic inspiration as access to spontaneous ideas; inspiration does not have its sources outside the artist (from the "Muses"), but rather originates in the unconscious mind. "Ex-spiration" rather than "in-spiration"?
      —Freud, following Schiller, proposes that artistic or literary creativity occurs when reason ceases to police the imagination and our productive fantasy is given free reign. Note the parallel to the therapeutic practice of psychoanalysis, which similarly tries to suspend critical oversight of the conscious mind ("free association").
      —Literary creativity is implicitly identified with the work of the unconscious, with an imaginative capacity free from the constraints of rationality, of the demands of the ego. Rationality or reason are applied by the creative artist only in a secondary stage, to organize the ideas produced by the imagination. (This is similar to what Freud called "secondary revision" as an element of the dream-work.)
      —All human beings are "artists" when in the state of "fantasy," "dreaming"; when they abandon themselves to the spontaneous generation of ideas. Similar to the "automatic writing" of the Surrealists. Rationality and creativity stand in inverse proportion.
      —Freud approaches from a psychoanalytic perspective the traditional theme of artists as insane; creativity seen in proximity to madness. Why? Because it implies the suspension of rational order, of the power of segregation and distinction; deliberative oversight and reasoned judgment are suspended.
    2. "Pleasure principle" versus "reality principle": Freud distinguishes 2 principles of mental functioning (see the 1911 essay "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning," Freud Reader 301-06).
      1) The "primary process," also called the "pleasure principle," seeks continual enjoyment and gratification. Seeks to maximize pleasure, as the highest human value. It is principally egoistic. But it constantly is at odds with society, the world, norms, moral laws, etc., in its incessant drive for gratification. "Primary" process implies not simply that this process is fundamental, but also that it is temporally primary, or primordial.
      2) The "secondary process" or "reality principle" forms as a psychic representative of the resistance on the part of the world to pleasure-seeking. It should not be confused with reality as such; rather, it is the psychic representative of real resistance: an "introjection" or internalization of the resistance afforded by the outside world. It appeals to rationality and common sense, and often invokes the principle of delayed gratification. Postponed pleasure as maximized pleasure. But reality principle often forces us to take pleasure in small things, rather than being "big spenders." We follow the path of least resistance and try to budget our gratifications of pleasure demands.
      3) In our instinctual lives we are all "managers" of our own pleasure. We seek not only pleasurable circumstances, but also try to avoid displeasure. In the "economics" of the psyche, pleasure is the sole valid currency. We "save" up (or postpone) gratification of some desires in order to "spend" them later. We choose experiences that bring small amounts of guaranteed pleasure ("money market savings") over those that promise a greater quantity of pleasure ("stock market investments"), but are attached to a greater threat of displeasure, etc. Our psychic life is concerned with balancing the accounts of pleasure and our instincts. Constant state of conflict between pleasure and reality principles, our spontaneous desires and the necessary concessions to reality, social authority, good judgment, responsibility, morality, etc. We make concessions to the reality principle, make "compromises" and "deflect" our pleasure-seeking. Note the parallel to the "distortions" effected by the dream-work on unconscious wishes.
    3. Fantasy (imagination) as escape from this conflict, as a "neutral zone" or "free space" that is free of reality testing. Spontaneous urges toward gaining pleasure are deflected or diverted by the realization of the hindrances imposed by reality. For a diagram of this relationship, click here.
      —Freud believes that the persistent conflict between the pleasure and reality principles causes humans to create a space free of this tension in which pleasurable wishes are not subject to reality-testing (hence free of censorship): this is the realm of the fantasy, or of pure imagination. This domain includes, for Freud, child’s play, dreams, day-dreaming, fictions of all sorts, and especially literary (or artistic) creativity. See Freud Reader 303.
      "Splitting off" of Realm of Fantasy from Reality-Testing:
      See "Formulations on Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911); Freud Reader 303:
      "With the introduction of the reality principle one species of thought-activity was split off; it was kept free from reality-testing and remained subordinated to the pleasure principle alone. This activity is phantasying, which begins already in child's play, and later, continued as day-dreaming, abandons dependence on real objects." Fantasy allows for an undisturbed experience of pleasure.
  1. "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" (1907)
    1. German title: "Der Dichter und das Phantasieren"
      —"Dichter" = poet, but related to verb "dichten" = to poeticize, but also to make dense, condense. Freud’s word for "condensation," the principle of the dream-work = "Verdichtung": it uses the same German stem. Implication: Dichtung (literary creativity) and Verdichtung (condensation) are inherently related, operate in part according to the same creative principles.
      —"Phantasieren" = imagination, fantasy, creative thought. It is not limited to "day-dreaming," as the English translation suggests. All forms of imaginative thought are liberated from rational oversight and reality-testing.

    2. Freud’s 2 questions about the creative writer:
      1) What is the source on which the creative writer bases her fictions? Whence does she derive her material? Literary creation, its parameters, conditions, and origins.
      2) Why does this material have such a powerful effect on us as readers? In short: How can we explain the reception of literature and the pleasure people (continually) derive from it? How does the writer transfer pleasure from the act of creation to the act of reception or reading? In this regard, literature is closest to humor or jokes, which similarly transfer pleasure from the joke's creator to the listener. Thus Freud is interested in a theory of psychological reception of literature.

    3. Freud’s answer to the first question (occupies him for most of this essay):
    1. Play as analogue of literary creativity, Freud searches for an activity analogous to the imaginative work of the creative writer that occupies all human beings; he discovers this in child’s play.
      —Play = German Spiel = play in all its senses, including drama, role-playing, etc. This term is drawn in part from 18th-century aesthetic theory: Friedrich Schiller, in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humankind (1795) identifies the Spieltrieb, the drive toward play, as the fundamental aesthetic principle. He writes here of the human being as a homo ludens, the human as defined by play (instead of the homo sapiens, defined by knowledge).
      —Spiel includes things like gambling; games and gaming; the fantasies we invest, for example, in video games;
      Spiel as fictional world;
      —Child creates a fantasy world of her own in which the elements of the real world are rearranged in a manner that pleases her. Child still enacts this fantasy in the real world; adults feel need to hide their fantasies, thus they exist solely in their heads and are no longer acted out. The child invests this world with reality, takes it seriously. This world of "play," of "make-believe," is not subject to reality-testing, it exists prior to the formation of the reality principle or to the individual's accommodation to the demands of reality (See Freud Reader 437). The line between childhood and adulthood is drawn when one accepts the need to make concessions to the reality principle. From this point on, imagination is no longer free and unfettered, but instead has a limited number of avenues through which it can express itself. Artistic creation is one of these, as is fantasy, dream, humor.
      —The same is true for the creative writer (for Freud); she creates a world of fantasy, invests it with real emotions, and yet separates it sharply from reality. This separation frees creative imagination from accommodation to the reality principle.
      —Consequences of unreality, fictionality of writer’s world:
      a) Things not enjoyable in reality become pleasurable in fiction. Why? Because we experience these distressing things vicariously, without any real threat. Example of the roller-coaster ride (near-death experience).
      b) The pleasure principle is the dominant mental function in the life of the imagination. If reality refuses the gratification of a certain pleasure, we seek its gratification in the imagination. Principle of compensation; compensatory pleasures. In exaggerated forms, people abandon reality altogether and live in their fantasy world of pure gratification.

      Other analogues of fantasy in psychic life:

    2. Freud identifies humor as the psychic situation in the life of the adult that is analogous to the play of the child. Humor as escape from the reality principle; it makes light of the serious. Creative writing has a parallel effect–and, as in humor, it has this effect not only for the writer but also for the reader, it transmits this emotional release through the act of reception.
    3. Neurotics: Neurosis as a form of escape from reality, a substitute avenue for "pleasure-seeking." But a pathological form. They constitute a class of human beings who must express their fantasies. Their neurotic symptoms are forms of unconscious expression; but they also must confess their fantasies to their analysts in order to be cured of their symptoms.
    4. Writers assume a place in Freud’s psychological topography of the human species half-way between neurotics and "normal" adults.
      —Like neurotics, they feel compelled to communicate their fantasies.
      —They are the Hermes of the imagination: the bridge between those who must relate their fantasies (neurotics) and those who refuse to ("normal" people ashamed of their imaginings).
      —Writers (artists) thus situated in proximity to neurotics. (Compare to portrayals in films by Woody Allen, for example)
      Freud and the economy of pleasure = no pleasure ever abandoned; it is simply exchanged for another form of pleasure. If one pleasure is denied, one seeks substitutes or surrogates. Child’s play is replaced by humor is replaced by literature etc. (Just as in economic life no value is ever sacrificed, but just re-invested in new objects: money is traded for food, consumer items, etc. Value merely changes its shape, its manifestation. This is how Freud understands our need for pleasure.)
      —But adults are ashamed of their fantasies. Why? Because they are: 1) viewed as childish (only children fantasize and "play" games!); and 2) the content of these fantasies is improper, immoral, or stands outside of societal convention. This shame generally prevents people from sharing the life of their imagination with others. Fear of revealing too much (like Gustl!).
    5. Fantasies as Fulfillments of Wishes
      2 Main groups of fantasies:
      1) Ambitious = elevate the subject, portray accomplishment, enhanced social status, etc.
      2) Erotic = present sexual gratification, success in love, relationships, etc.
      Note Freud’s gender biases! Erotic fantasies linked predominantly to women, ambitious to men! (See Freud Reader 439) If this is the case, then the causes of this are likely societal, not biological (as Freud seems to imply).
      —Ambitious and erotic wishes often unite in our fantasies.

      But some aspects of Freud's theory also invite our critique:
    6. Freud represents a rather limited view of the creative writer as such:
      —Not ancient writers, who rely on pre-given, traditional material (like myth), but explicitly creative writers who produce purely out of their imagination. In this sense, Freud stands in the tradition of aesthetics since Romanticism: the imaginative "genius." Freud provides a psychoanalytic explanation for modern aesthetic theory.
      —Not "classical" writers or producers of "high" literary art, but mostly popular writers, authors of romances, novels, etc. (Think of Danielle Steele; especially the covers of super-market novels, or of popular films: Terminator, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lion King; all sorts of "action" movies.)
      —Hero in these tales = "His Majesty the Ego"; all literature of this sort (like dreams) is egoistic. In hero we live danger vicariously and hence overcome the sense of our own vulnerability.
      —The hero is always the writer or reader; they identify with the hero.
      —Black and white portrayal: Good people in the literary world are helpers, bad people are enemies, rivals. Thus Freud seems to rely on pre-packaged plots, motifs, etc. But his argument will be that "great" literature simply represents more complex variations on these rudimentary structures. Like the natural scientist, he wants to study phenomena in their simplest forms and extrapolate from this analysis paradigms that are applicable to the higher forms as well.
      —In case of the modern writer, the hero is often fragmented into many parts, split off into several characters.

D) Freud’s answer to the second question, the reasons for the effect of literature.

We take no pleasure in hearing the fantasies of real people, so why do the fantasies of creative writers give us such inordinate pleasure?

    1. The egoistic character of these fantasies is mollified by the creative artist; this penetrates barriers between egos, overcomes the "repulsion" we feel at being witness to the intimacies of others. (As in dreams, distortion is used to get beyond our natural censorship.) Literature allows us to indulge in "guiltless" pleasures: like chocolate without calories; eggs without cholesterol.
    2. Writer bribes us with the purely aesthetic pleasure of beautiful form, structure, etc. This "incentive pleasure" or "fore-pleasure," as Freud calls it, makes possible the release of a greater pleasure in the depth of our own psyches. The fore-taste of aesthetic pleasure, as it were, whets our appetites for the experience of greater pleasure and allows the release of our own pent-up psychic tension. Aesthetic as a kind of "discount coupon" that entices the reader to engage with the text and promises greater rewards: If you buy this car now, you will receive $1000 cash back! Our pleasure in the imaginative work derives from this release of our own psychic tension that, in turn, derives from our identification with the fictional world and our ability to vicariously experience our own fantasies without shame and self-reproach. (See Freud Reader 443) Note that for Freud aesthetic pleasure is secondary and subsidiary to the pleasure of psychic release. It is mere "foreplay" that entices us into a more substantial and pleasurable encounter.
E) Summary: Consequence of this theory for definition of creative writer.
    1. Writers are egoistic; hero = writer’s self. Literature is hence fundamentally autobiographical.
    2. Writers as borderline neurotics; they are potential neurotics who find a healthy release-valve: literary, imaginative activity provides them with the release that prevents them from exhibiting neurotic symptoms. Creativity is a substitute for neurotic symptoms, pathologies, etc.
    3. Writing is a form of confession, similar to the confession the neurotic makes through his/her symptoms or to his/her analyst.
    4. Literature is therapeutic: both for the writer and for the reader. In literature we vicariously live out our own wishes, potentials, dangers, problems, etc. It provides for release of pent-up tensions in a safe manner, without displeasurable repercussions.
    5. The structure of literature is like the structure of dreams; creative imagination operates according to the same principles that shape dream images. Condensation, displacement, composite images, spatial logic, lack of systematic connections, lack of causality–these should all be operative mechanisms in the texture of literature. Thus the interpretation of literature can operate in a manner that parallels the processes Freud introduces for the interpretation of dreams.