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Vermeule explores the new unconscious

Literary critic proposes moving beyond Freudian psychology

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

confabulations: Blakey Vermeule, a professor at Stanford University, discussed new ways of interpreting the unconscious that go beyond the confines of Freudian psychology, which remains a favored way of interpreting characters in English departments across the country.
Photo by Lien Phung/The Hoot

It’s not uncommon to discuss the psychology of fictional characters in literature classes, but most psychological interpretations of literature remain distinctly Freudian, despite the fact that many of his theories have fallen out of favor in other disciplines. Literary theorist Blakey Vermeule is trying to change that.

Vermeule, a professor at Stanford University, discussed new approaches to understanding the unconscious—both in literature and in reality—in a presentation, titled “Confabulations: How the Unconscious Shapes Our Stories,” at the Mandel Center for the Humanities on March 2.

When we sit down and ponder our lives, we tend to envision them in the form of stories. For each action we commit, we generally believe there’s a clear, coherent reason and that we are aware of it. According to Vermeule, however, there’s one big problem with this.

“The stories we tell about ourselves don’t match up with the actual state of affairs,” Vermeule said, contending that it’s hard to give a “whole or semi-adequate account of ourselves.”

Most of us can spot these discrepancies in accounts given to us by others, but, on the whole, it proves difficult for people to notice these problems in their own thoughts. Vermeule used the example of a therapist who can spot every problem in the lives of his patients but is fundamentally unable to gain insight into his own troubles.

Vermeule compared this state of affairs to “confabulation”—a term used in psychology to describe reports of events that never occurred. In terms of the conscious and the unconscious, she contends that such confabulation is natural for humans.

“The fact that we confabulate two dimensions into three levels leaves us prone to [a host of] visual delusions,” she said.

Vermeule contended that such an understanding should be incorporated into the way we understand narrative, as she noticed that other fields like neuroscience, cognitive science and even behavioral finance have taken a more active role in examining new understandings of the unconscious.

Instead, English departments across the country still continue to look at Freudian psychoanalysis most frequently, even though this is something that scientists no longer take seriously.

Vermeule chalked this up to our shared propensity for viewing life in the form of a narrative arc, not unlike the kind we find in literature. She used a clip from the television series “The Sopranos” to help illustrate her point; in one scene, a character reflects by noting that “every character has an arc … where’s my arc?”

In trying to fit our lives into an arc, we rely too heavily on the idea of a conscious will, which Vermeule termed a “cognitive illusion” when really no one knows exactly why they undertake certain actions.

“I’d like to think of the conscious as a fine film on a roiling sea of processes,” she said.

Vermeule is hardly alone in her views of the conscious, however.

She presented clips from the documentary “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” to show how others—in this case filmmakers Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno—have tried to reveal the idea of the arc as a delusion. The documentary centers squarely on French soccer player Zinedine Zidane during one specific 2005 game. The camera stays squarely on him the entire time; the actual events of the game are unimportant and, in fact, indecipherable from the film alone.

In making this film, Gordon and Parreno ignored the carefully constructed narrative of a soccer game to focus on the way people act unconsciously—not as part of some grand arc.

“The filmmakers work hard to tease apart the illusion of story,” Vermeule observed.

“You never know what Zidane is going to do [in the film]… it’s like you’re in the part of one of the opposing players.”

Vermeule plans to incorporate the ideas she presented into a book she is currently writing on the unconscious and its literary importance.