In my reading of “The creative writer and daydreaming” (in The Uncanny, [Penguin, 2003]), I don’t sense that Freud seeks to draw a distinction between “normal” creative writers and the “pathological” productions of a Schreber. Unlike his usual tendency to use a perceived alliance between neuroses and infantile sexuality as a means to show that something ‘normal’ (like memory) is bound up with the unconscious, he compares childhood play/fantasy with adult fantasy, and attempts to show both a break and continuity between child’s play and adult fantasizing; then he attempts to draw an analogy between what he’s learned from this comparison and creative writers of a certain sort: writers who “create their own” material and not those who “like the epic and tragic poets of classical times, take over ready-made material” (“Creative writer”, 30) (I’ll return to a problem in this distinction below*). His “evidence” for this sort of writer/writing centers on “more modest authors of novels, romances and short stories, who nevertheless have the most numerous and enthusiastic readership” (“Creative writer”, 30) (Freud, unfortunately, neither explains nor justifies this choice). What interests Freud (and all he is really concerned about) are those works in which a “hero” or psychological individual is the “centre of interest.”
Typically, he returns to childhood, but not for the purpose of restating the tale of infantile fantasy and desire: his interest rests upon the giving up of child-like play (in the course which reality replaces wishes [and this foreshadows Freud’s discussion of “the omnipotence of thought” in Totem and Taboo]) and the repulsion an adult feels towards his/her own fantasies (which, according to Freud involve either ambition or sex). Whereas a child “does not hide his games [from an audience of adults],” the “adult, on the contrary, is ashamed of his fantasies, hiding them from others and guarding them as his most personal intimacies; as a rule he would rather admit to his wrongdoings than disclose his fantasies” (“Creative writer”, 27). One would expect Freud to move from this insight to explain how creative writers overcome such an inhibition in themselves which remains in effect for ordinary adults. However, in my view, Freud doesn’t have much to say about such creative writers as such that is of psychoanalytic import. What he asserts about these writers — as opposed to their writings — is the following: “It has struck me that in many so-called psychological novels there is still only one person, again, the hero, who is described from within; the author sits, as it were, inside the hero’s mind and looks at the other characters from the outside. On the whole the psychological novel no doubt owes its special character chiefly to the tendency of the modern writer to split up his ego, by self-observation, into partial egos and consequently to personify the conflicting currents in his mental life in several heroes.”
This is very interesting: implicit here is the concept of projection (which goes with fantasy and Freud’s analysis of dreams, taboos, and animistic thought). But Freud’s claim that an author’s writing can be accounted for by this process, in the absence of an observation of the author under analysis, seems to violate the methodological prerequisites of the psychoanalytic technique (not that this stops Freud in many cases, such as his essay on Leonardo Da Vinci). But the other problem* is this: he assumes that the literary texts that are of interest to him (romance-hero novels, psychological novels) are an unconscious manifestation of the author’s own psychological life. This sort of view could be challenged from two standpoints: (1) it ignores “genre”: it may be the case that the novels Freud feels are created ex nihilo in fact are produced from ready-made materials (i.e., conventional narrative forms, plot structures, types of characters and character development) that have no connection to the writer’s internal psychical life; (2) it is open to the convincing challenge (made much later, of course) that “The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. He may believe that he affirms himself in this language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self” (Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 16).
Freud admits that he hasn’t really said enough about the “creative writer.” In the last paragraph, he gets to what I feel is more important in this essay: an account of the psychological effects produced by aesthetic forms (as he does in his essay “The uncanny”). What the creative writer does, according to Freud, is to overcome the reader’s repulsion towards fantasy.
However, when the creative writer plays his games for us or tells us what we are inclined to explain as his personal daydreams, we feel a great deal of pleasure, deriving no doubt form many confluent sources. How the writer achieves this is his most intimate secret: the true ars poetica lies in the technique by which he overcomes our repulsion, which certainly has to do with the barriers that arise between each single ego and the others. We can make a guess at two of the means used by this technique: the writer tones down the character of the egoistic daydream by modifying and disguising it, and bribes us with the purely formal – that is aesthetic – bonus of pleasure, which is offered to us so that greater pleasure may be released from more profound psychical sources, is called an incentive bonus or fore-pleasure. In my opinion, all the aesthetic pleasure that a creative writer gives us is in the nature of a fore-pleasure, and the real enjoyment of the literary work derives from the relaxation of tensions in our minds. Maybe this effect is due in no small measure to the fact that the writer enables us, from now on, to enjoy our fantasies without shame or self-reproach (“Creative writer”, 33).
Behind this argument are claims Freud makes about how unconscious wishes are expressed in distorted form in parapraxes, dreams, and memory. Of particular importance is the idea that wishes can’t be expressed directly and that (in dreams) the “dream-work” works over the wish, presenting the wish to us in a “safe” form, much as a dissident writer, who — in a repressive political regime that employs an official censor — writes a fairytale of chickens defeating foxes, permits her readers to experience a type of (fantasized) fore-pleasure that substitutes for the real, but forbidden pleasure of overthrowing the regime in reality.
In sum, I think he has more interesting things to say (in this essay) about psychological effects that are produced by literature than the psychological sources of the creative process itself (and what the author brings into this process from her unconscious). What I find interesting in his version of psychoanalysis is the fact that – in theory, if not in practice – the line between normal and abnormal is not rigidly drawn: after all, he includes modern science – e.g., psychoanalysis – under the category of “omnipotent thought” (as well as animism and religion).
Reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Moving like molasses at the start, it is becoming interesting. I’m not sure why this novel merits accolades. The existence of “acknowledgments” is curious: they give the novel the bearing of an academic book. Smith puts her writer-scholar or scholar-writer cred on display.