Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Modernist Literature by Kylie Valentine.

reviewed by Paul Sheehan

© all rights reserved

One of the more persuasive theories of Anglo-American modernism charts the movement of its fortunes in terms of a two-wave model. The first wave is constituted by the works themselves, their emergence from the fin de siècle, culminating in the early 1920s, and the movement’s untimely death throes with the coming of the war. The second wave continues chronologically, into the postwar period, but the work undertaken is very different. In that period, it is an exclusively secondary phenomenon, concerning the cultural reproduction of modernist artworks via the academy, the museum, the publishing industry and the media (for ‘reproduction’ you can also read ‘domestication’, ‘institutionalisation’ or ‘making safe for the general public’ [Newman, 27-35]). The caricature of modernism that has arisen, all rough edges smoothed off and yet stubbornly unapproachable, is mostly derived from this second wave – from the conviction that modernism is deliberately and perversely difficult, not to mention incorrigibly elitist, formalist and apolitical. Encounters with the works themselves, by contrast, can deliver an entirely different set of conclusions; that modernism is, for example, necessarily difficult, dialectically engaged with popular and high cultural forms, and deeply politicized.

Psychoanalysis figures in this story in a similarly ‘doubled’ way, but with the priorities reversed. In the postwar reproduction of Freud, his psychoanalytical breakthroughs have not been ‘tamed’, but instead made ‘wilder’ – at least, more feral than Freud himself would have allowed. Trained as a psychiatric clinician, he saw his project as an empirically based, scientific project of the strictest rigour. This Freud, however, has long been eclipsed by his mythopoeic alter-ego, the cartographer of desire who founded a new narrative of modernity, a comprehensive vision of culture. Alan Megill puts it succinctly when he suggests that “Freud was a secret disciple of Nietzsche – one who furtively translated Nietzsche’s poetic language back into the scientific language from which Nietzsche had been trying to escape” (Megill, 321).

The trouble is, the initial ‘scientific’ Freud is not so usable for art. He is a kind of revisionary moralist, a progressive thinker providing self-consolation and spiritual amnesty in a post-religious age. Freud envisaged therapy as leading to emancipation, in accordance with certain Enlightenment ideals. Though his discoveries had a profound impact on literary modernism, the latter was concerned neither with progress, nor consolation, nor Enlightenment values more generally. On the other side, Freud himself showed little interest in modernist art. As the Penguin anthology of ‘Art and Literature’ shows, the nearest he came to modernism was a 1927 piece on Dostoevsky and parricide. (His natural affinity was for texts like Oedipus Rex andHamlet, both of which featured in The Interpretation of Dreams.) For all these reasons, it is the postwar, mythmaking Freud that is most often read back into modernism, rather than the more positivist, contemporary Freud.

Kylie Valentine addresses these issues by putting psychoanalysis into dialogue with psychiatry, and with modernist literature. Psychiatry could, in one sense, achieve more effortlessly what Freud wanted for psychoanalysis. The ‘biological model’ dominating the psychiatric field today came out of the ‘somatic’ tradition that saw mental distress in terms of organic, bodily-based disturbance, locatable in the brain. Firmly established as a branch of medicine, psychiatry appears to us now as manifestly remote from the ‘mentalist’ model underpinning the psychoanalytical philosophy of mind – the more so, given that the latter’s influence is nearly always gauged in terms of non-medical, cultural phenomenon. Yet for all this, Valentine makes a compelling case for psychoanalytical influence on the development of modern psychiatry. Adeptly and assuredly, she traces a number of vital convergences between the two disciplines in the early decades of the twentieth century. The positivist Freud is clearly the face being presented to the psychiatric world here; and that world, at least for a time, welcomes it in.

Tracking the exchanges between psychoanalysis and modernism is a different matter, however; Valentine is better here with the microcosmic than the macrocosmic. In chapter one (“Modernism”) she seeks to show reciprocal, bilateral influence, to establish that the two fields somehow produced each other. With two such intricately overdetermined discourses, a claim of this magnitude cannot be settled in a matter of a few pages; at the very least, it demands some kind of model to account for the dialectically formative process. Valentine does point out the ways in which modernism and psychoanalysis talked to each other, but, under the circumstances, these instances cannot be more than contingent resemblances. The chapter comes to life near the end, however, with the supposition that modernist annexation of the word ‘ego’ may have prompted Freud’s English translators to borrow it for their rendering of Freud’s trademark ‘ ich ‘. The notion that “one of modernism’s key terms to describe the self” (55) might have determined the Anglophone reception of Freudian psychoanalysis is an arresting one, and hints at a more speculative way around the problem.

Reading Valentine’s study using a geological model, there are deeper strata embedded in the three discursive formations of her title. These are madness, gender and experience (and deeper still, at the innermost strata, can be found genius, language and trauma). Madness is, of course, a heavily gendered subject – not least because it has been the provenance of androcentric thinkers like Michel Foucault. His writing is framed as a ‘mythological’ struggle whereby artistic outsiders (Nietzsche, van Gogh, Artaud) and social misfits (Pierre Rivière, Herculine Barbin) defy bourgeois society and the humanist pieties it promulgates (Gutting, pp. 20-24). Valentine’s focus, conversely, is on mad women, whom she initially approaches through studies by Phyllis Chesler ( Women and Madness ), Gilbert and Gubar ( The Madwoman in the Attic ) and Elaine Showalter ( The Female Malady ). This has shown the other side of Foucauldian ‘revolutionary’ madness, and its imbrication of transgression and alterity ; the madwomen in these texts, by contrast, are “passive, trapped by the directives of male doctors and lovers, clinically comprehended as depressed” (168).

With ‘experience’, Valentine enters into one of the most fraught, yet potentially fertile, areas of critical and cultural enquiry. Until recently, the concept was in abeyance, tainted by outmoded associations with empiricism and phenomenology. Announcing “The Demise of Experience” twenty years ago, Alice Jardine attributed its passing to a range of thinkers, including Derrida (who puts experience on the same metaphysical plane as presence, meaning and epistemic violence) and Lacan. For the latter, writes Jardine, the “only possible place for ‘experience’ is in the experiential and experimental language of the ‘analytical experience’ as analogous to fiction” (Jardine, p.151)

There is a pre-structuralist genealogy, running from Nietzsche through to Benjamin and Adorno, which discloses forms of experience irreducible to either empirical intuition or phenomenological essence. Valentine’s use of experience, however, is more clearly indebted to the work of Joan Scott, and other feminist poststructuralist reconceptions of experience. If, following these efforts, an ‘experiential turn’ has rescinded Jardine’s obituary, it is also due to modernist refiguration, and a movement beyond the ‘revolution of the word’ into a kind of ‘revolution of the senses’. As Terry Eagleton remarks: “The shift from realism to modernism is among other things a shift from reality to experience, from that solid stuff out there to these fragmentary sensations tracking their path through this body here” (Eagleton, p. 280). The recuperation of experience has reached a point where it has given new life to a time-honoured debate. Where once the battle-lines were drawn between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ – an especially contested area in feminist circles – the new dispensation opposes ‘metaphor’ (myth, symbol, cultural representation in general) to ‘experience’ (immediate, corporeal life).

Valentine locates this debate in relation to the experience of madness. Chesler engages with the subject, where Gilbert and Gubar neglect it, yet both suffer from the same shortcoming: “Both texts are animated by a slippage between experience and metaphor, between the madness that is experienced and the madness that is recognisable as cultural representation” (16). Aware of this potential pitfall, Valentine devotes chapters to ‘mad’ writers, both obvious (Virginia Woolf) and less obvious (Emily Holmes Coleman and Antonia White, diarists and novelists in the 1930s). But she still reaches a questionable conclusion. Because Coleman’s and White’s letters are interpretations of experience, she argues, that experience is uncertain, mediated, and inaccessible. In the novels, however, “the experience of their characters, unlike their own experience, is available to anyone reading them” (196). This is, at the very least, problematic. Does it mean that, as all experience is socially or representationally mediated, all characters’ ‘experiences’ are available explicitly, that there is no hidden or unrepresented aspect which has a status outside language? Alternatively, it could be pointed out that characters do not ‘have experiences’ as such, and that readers can only engage in the experience of the text through its performative (rather than expository) mode; this is what Jardine means by the “experiential and experimental language” that is “analogous to fiction.” However, such contentious points do not detract from the many worthwhile aspects of Valentine’s study, nor do they prevent its being a useful counter-balance to the caricature of modernism that has set in.


Kylie Valentine’s Psychoanalysis, Psychiatry and Modernist Literature was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2003. ISBN 1-4039-0061-2.

Paul Sheehan is a Research Fellow in the English Department at Macquarie University. He is the author of Modernism, Narrative and Humanism (Cambridge, 2002) and the editor of Becoming Human: New Perspectives on the Inhuman Condition (Greenwood, 2003). His current project is a cultural poetics of violence and aesthetics in the twentieth century.


Terry Eagleton, “Modernism, Myth, and Monopoly Capitalism” in The Eagleton Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998)

Gary Gutting, “Introduction” to Gutting (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), p.151.

Alan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1985)

Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1985)

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