The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Book Reviews

The Analyst and the Bard

Considering the concept of the second chance.

Anna Ballan

THR illustration.

Sigmund Freud supposedly observed that poets and philosophers had discovered the unconscious before he did. In a similar vein, psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, in his essay “Fear of Breakdown,” offered the charming and unsolicited caveat: “If what I say has truth in it, this will already have been dealt with by the world’s poets.” Freud and Winnicott regarded as their duty the systematic elaboration of what poets had, in their view, divined only darkly.

If literary-minded people have often looked askance at psychoanalysis—for fomenting pinched and overdetermined modes of literary inquiry, or for didactically imposing its logic upon works of literature—it has equally, and manifestly, furthered our grasp of literature’s inner workings and enriched our storehouse of literary criticism. The Freudian stain upon the literary imagination cannot be rinsed away. What, then, is the proper relation between psychoanalysis and literature?

Enter Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud (2024), cowritten by Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips: a fresh injection of lifeblood into a conversation now very old. Phillips is a child psychologist in clinical practice, the author of many popular, bite-sized books on psychoanalysis, and the editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translation of Freud. Greenblatt is one of the most celebrated Shakespeareans alive, the general editor of the Norton Shakespeare, and a pioneer of the New Historicist approach to Shakespearean criticism. The object of their study is the notion of the “second chance” in the plays of William Shakespeare, toward which they apply a range of psychoanalytic and literary tools. Although it hangs together with plain, lucid, unshowy language, Second Chances is nonetheless a recursive and self-conscious book: It is both about something and about the state of being about something.

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