Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Freud, Daydreaming, Art and Everyday Aesthetics

   Freud's 1908 essay "Der Dichter und das Phantasieren" or, in English, "The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” has long been anthologized in textbooks of aesthetics and philosophy of art.  In it he asks how the poet comes by his material and how he arouses emotion in us.  Can we find an activity in ourselves which is similar?  If so, we could gain insight into the creative powers of imaginative writers.  Freud, not surprisingly, looks to the child, and notes that the child's best-loved activity is play.  In play, like an imaginative writer, the child creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges things to create a world that pleases himself.  He takes all of this very seriously, expanding much emotion on the activity.  Play mainly involves wish-fulfillment, i.e. fulfilling the wish to be most play involves imitation of adult life.
 What strikes me about this analysis is that, as with Dewey and the pragmatists, continuity is found between processes of art and processes of everyday life.  Freud argues that the child's experience is continued into adulthood but there transformed into daydreams and art.  Daydreams involve wish-fulfillment as well, but now, in adulthood, mainly either erotic or ambitious.  These wishes, however, are considered shameful and so are generally kept hidden.  The poet, in turn, is able to transform these daydreams from what would normally be considered shameful into something pleasing and vicariously satisfying.  This, again, is much like Dewey insofar as he speaks of continuity between processes of everyday life and processes of art.  For Freud, the writer creates a world of fantasy, which he takes seriously and invests with feeling.  

Assume that Freud is right that day-dreaming is an extension of play, and closely related, in turn. to art.  It would seem then that there would be an aesthetics of play, an aesthetics of day-dreams, and even an aesthetics of dreams, and that all are intimately related to the aesthetics of art.  We need to distinguish and define our terms however, since Freud has his own use of "aesthetic" (which he associates with the purely formal).  He thinks of aesthetic pleasure as a fore-pleasure provided to seduce us into the artist's fantasy world.   Only there do we find deeper more intense pleasures related to wish-fulfillment.  "The writer softens the egotistical character of the day-dream by changes and disguises, and he bribes us by the offer of a purely formal, that is, aesthetic, pleasure in the presentation of his fantasies." I would want to say that both pleasures are aesthetic, but would retain the distinction between more shallow and deeper for intense forms of pleasure.

  Another way in which Freud is similar to Dewey (and to James as well) is the attention he pays to the temporal relation in experience between past, present and future.  Dewey seldom speaks of childhood.  However I am sure he would be happy with, or at least fascinated by, Freud's temporal-related formulation of his main point:  “Some actual experience which made a strong impression on the writer had stirred up a memory of an earlier experience, generally belonging to childhood, which then arouses a wish that finds a fulfillment in the work in question, and in which elements of the recent event and the old memory should be discernible.”

One thing that puzzles is whether it is the play of childhood that is found repeated in the daydream and in art or is it some other pleasure of childhood, as for example the experience of close family life.  Sometimes Freud talks as though it is the first, and sometimes the second.  That is, the current impression, on Freud's account, leads us back to an event in infancy during which the wish (or one like it?) was fulfilled.  Freud of course believed that infants have erotic wishes that are in fact fulfilled.  But note that the play of children is not associated with erotic wishes but with the wish to be an adult.  

It is noteworthy of course that the comparison is made to work mainly by relating the experience of popular art, for instance the popular romance or adventure fiction, although Freud makes a more indirect connection to what would be considered "fine art" by way of his claim that some art involves mythology, legends and fairy-tales which might well be seen as wish-fulfillment fantasies of the culture in question.  Another strategy he uses is to speak of "an uninterrupted series of transitions" between the naive daydream and the sophisticated novel.  In response, one could say that the overemphasis on popular art, e.g. the hero who always gets the girl, makes the case too easy.  Yes, popular fiction is like daydreaming, but perhaps fine art fiction is significantly different.  

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