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dreams and drama: Psychoanalytic Criticism, Creativity And The Artist  by Alan Roland

dreams and drama: Psychoanalytic Criticism, Creativity And The Artist
Alan Roland

dreams and drama: Psychoanalytic Criticism, Creativity And The Artist
Alan Roland
London, 2002
£ 16.99

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The cover photograph by Sara Lunn acts as a kind of Rorschach: from some angles it looks like the head of a crow against a stormy sky; held in the hands, it seems to be a knot in a tree in the shape of an eye. This impression may be significant, because the author of dreams and drama is, as well as a practicing psychoanalyst, playwright and librettist, a visual artist. Optical impressions are important to him.

dreams and drama begins with a description of the clinical features of Roland’s analytic sessions with artists, and then moves into a more theoretical discussion about the role of analysis in art and dreams. It describes analysis as a (contested) model for literary criticism, which is addressed historically beginning with Lionel Trilling. Then there is an applied interpretation of plays by Pirandello (co-authored by Gino Rozzo), and of Pinter. Intriguingly, the text is laced with Roland’s personal musings on his own artistic experience, and it is this nexus of the personal which gives the book, sections of which were written much earlier than others, structural cohesion.

The heart of the book lies in Chapter Five, ‘Imagery And The Self In Artistic Creativity’. Here, Roland writes:

‘Some years ago I was very much struck with an old maple tree in the vicinity of our country house; so much so I decided to do an etching of it. Much of the maple was dead, but new shoots were also coming up. As I rendered this image in an etching, these oppositions of deadness and new life became integrated in an artistically valid way. Some time later, it became apparent to me from the nature of the peeling bark and such that the textures of the old maple related metaphorically to an early unconscious body image of a severe burn I had suffered as a very young child. Thus, a very deep personal element from the primary process entered into a broader metaphor incorporating the oppositions of deadness and life.’

To this reader, the eye in the tree on the book’s cover, became the ‘I’ in the tree. But Roland’s self observation here is not solipsistic, for the essence of the chapter is that intentional open ended personal metaphor in art (intentional even if it touches on the unconscious primary process—the emphasis on ‘deadness and new life’ was deliberate) blends with personal and social context to create universal applicability. Thus, Roland tells us, his etching of the maple hangs in his office, and produces interesting responses from many of his patients—they often perceive it as a metaphor for the analytic process.

Roland’s understanding of the nature of metaphor in dreams is much more contextualised (relating to a person’s whole life and social framework, including the analysis) than is the conservative norm, and he is frequently more concerned with context than with specific latent content. However, he disagrees with Ernst Kris’ analogy between metaphor in art and dream, while allowing for the notion that social context has a role in determining the nature of metaphor in each. Nevertheless, in Chapter Six he writes: ‘Ironically, the literary critic and psychoanalyst are remarkably similar in that their individual sensitivities, insights, and imagination often transcend their theoretical orientation in determining the validity of their work.’ In some cases, it is the job of the critic, or the psychoanalyst, to elaborate the metaphor of the artist, and the dreamer, respectively. Although Roland does not argue against a theoretical framework in either instance, quite the reverse.

Roland also makes the point that psychoanalytic literary criticism tends to be waylaid by the Freudian analogy between works of art in process and day dream, or the Winnicottian, developmental approach. In the first half of the book Roland is careful to elaborate his own divergence from a traditional, purely associative dream analysis. Later, he rails against the tendency of psychoanalytic criticism to ‘lead[s] the psychoanalytic critic down the garden path of invariably searching for infantile conflicts and latent content,’ or psychobiography. It is this unending search for latent, rather than incomplete content, it seems, with which Roland disagrees–although he does not seek to break with Freudianism per se, but rather to work through it, and encompass other methods.

In their work on Priandello, Roland and Rizzo address the issue of identity and self-splitting in Henry IV and use this as a jumping off point for a broader argument, which comprises, in part, the notion that ‘little supportive mirroring from others may cause great strife in the individual in his efforts to maintain a meaningful identity synthesis. Thus, painful splitting may be then experienced between social role and the inner self.’ This harks back to the book’s first chapters, where Roland paints a clinical picture of ‘the conflict that a parent with inhibited artistic aspirations can have on an artistically gifted child.’ But of course, one could argue that this very conflict, and the ensuing split within that artistically gifted child, creates a suitable space for that child’s artistic audience to wade into all kinds of metaphor which that child, now an artist, leaves somehow purposefully incomplete. In other words, not having sufficient response from the environment, the creative person wants a social stage to complete the feedback—to complete the self…hence, the intentionally open-ended metaphor. This is also an interesting emphasis for the book to have when we consider Roland’s painting of the maple and its relation to his body-memory of the burn and healing process—a sense of the body’s incompleteness.

This book is hugely successful as a history of psychoanalytic critical theory and practice, and as a sort of detective story about the presence of self in art, and the role of artist in society (and indeed, the mind of the analyst.) It has moments of brilliance, and does not seek to baffle the reader with theoretical posturing. I did wish for a greater unification of a content which was conceived and written in different periods, though of course this leaves an open metaphor of its own (was this intentional?), as well as more clarification of Roland’s position on the connection between metaphor in dreams versus metphor in art. This is in any case an edifying book, and one which should be considered seminal to any future psychoanalytically-oriented exploration of the artistic process.

Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris


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