Tuesday, September 19, 2017


I will not pretend that I don't have very little patience for psychoanalytical interpretations of literature. This may perhaps stem from my inability to grasp the entire field of psychology, which I nearly failed in high school. "A bunch of dumb names for things that we all have in common!" I would bellow at the D on my report card. Thus, I am one of those whom Maud Ellman claims "snorts with disbelief." It's not that I think psychology and psychoanalysis has no place or value; it is that I simply have no patience to wade through what sexual stages I went through as a toddler that are not haunting my relationships today. That, plus a lot of this is beyond my comprehension. According to Ellman and Freud, then, I am repressing a lot of garbage and am resistant to discovering the nature of my issues. Hey, Freud, kiss my ass!

In reality, I think the psychoanalysis can be of some use but I think it has the tendency to create a tunnel vision. Ellmann says that the focus is on a person. And that is true. Whether it is the author (which makes the most sense) or character or reader, to understand the the text, the focus shifts from the text to a person. I find this incredibly problematic. Though, as many have shown, this focus on the person and the elements paining and assisting him can be of extreme help in better understanding the text as a whole.

Psychoanalysis has found a home in Old Norse studies, most recently with a former classmate and all around wonderful human being, Suzanne Valentine. Her approach is to use Freud's theory and Carl Jung's theory concerning dreams and apply them to dream sequences throughout certain saga texts. You can read it here. Not to disregard my colleague's work, but I believe that this approach can only work in isolation. Viewing Guðrún's dreams throughout Laxdæla saga through a Freudian lens may help develop a more acute understanding of the text; however, dream sequences are so frequent throughout the saga corpus and so repetitive that it is difficult to see them as formulaic rather than informative. The same is true with many characters. Often in the sagas, a character is introduced with immediate associations: big, handsome, good at sports, i.e. a hero. Or, on the other side, dark, shrewd, taciturn and a trouble-maker. Applying a theory to these types of characters seems to be a little forceful.


That is not to say it is not appropriate. Egill Skalagrimsson is a great example of a complicated character, something Torfi Tulinius has written about. One of my all time favorite saga character is Kálfr Árnason from "Saint Olaf's Saga" in Heimskringla. I have written extensively on Kálfr here, and I think that an approach to the character may only be available through a Freudian or other type of psychoanalytic lens. This landed man is tempted by King Cnut, betrays King Olaf, raises and rouses an army of farmers who have their doubts, leads a battle agains the king and his four brothers, comes out victorious only to be betrayed by King Cnut. Kálfr then works with an old adversary to clean up his mistake by finding Olaf's son and bring him back to the throne from exile. In short, Kálfr is messed up and has a lot of issues and things going all at once. His situation that leads to defiance and then remorse is atypical of saga formulaic writing. This, then, can lend itself to a more psychoanalytical approach.

Now I realize that I am being extremely narrow and that psychology is a lot broader than Freud's obsession with sex. But when the text is anonymous and the characters often follow specific patterns, I find a lot of the psychoanalytical approaches to be helpful but not all that concrete.

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