The Influence of Psychoanalysis on Modernism

Ece Egemen

Sigmund Freud is considered as one of the “Hermeneutics of suspicion” with Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche (Leitch et al., 2018, p. 740). His perspective was experimental, and he preferred to focus on daily materials like dreams instead of strange, abstract phenomena. He played the part of an observer and used case histories to support his theories. Freud aimed to approach psychology in a practical way and make use of his ideas practically; therefore, he introduced psychoanalysis, which marked the beginning of talk therapy. He focused on everyday life, searching for the causes of mental illnesses in it instead of supernatural forces. Before, it was thought that humans were in control of their desires and they were the rulers of their own psychology; however, Freud objected to this idea and introduced the concept of the unconscious (Leitch et al., 2018, p. 788). Before his theories, human consciousness was thought to be transparent, but Freud suggested that many things are repressed into unconsciousness. Freud’s theory paved the way for modernism’s critical assumption that human beings have their deep, dark side and need art and psychoanalysis to deal with this side. 

Friedman (1981) explained that modernism had its roots in the crises of belief: “loss of faith, experience of fragmentation and disintegration, and the shattering of cultural symbols and norms” (as cited in Childs, 2000, p. 48). Philosophical perspectives of psychoanalysis are comprised of “the new technologies of science, the epistemology of logical positivism, and the relativism of functional thought,” which are the factors residing at the center of the crisis that brought about the modernism (Friedman, 1981, as cited in Childs, 2000, p. 48). Therefore, psychoanalysis is significant for the emergence and the evolution of modern thought, modern art, and modern literature because of the philosophical connection between psychoanalysis and modernism, and the ensuing application of practical approaches presented by psychoanalysis in art and literature.

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory contributed to modernism with its focus on everyday life instead of supernatural forces and things beyond human control. Freud provided a new notion of subjectivity, and just as Freud was determined to look at the simple everyday life of his patients and their personal histories, the modernists embraced the individuality of, therefore, the subjectivity of reality. “Modernity is,” as Baudelaire (1863/1964) defined, “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the—eternal and the immovable.” Freud brought forth his theory of personality and explained that the human mind differentiates into the id, the ego, and the super-ego (Freud, 1923/1961, p. 20). As he introduced these concepts, he claimed that human beings are not as they seem. They have a deep, dark side that is not rational, which is reflected in the unconscious, passionate, and irrational id. 

Around the same time as Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud walked away from the Enlightenment ideal of an inherently good human existence. Similarly, modernism opposed the idea that human beings are entirely rational. Freud’s theory suggested that human beings share some universal primitive desires and fears (Leitch et al., 2018, p. 786). These common desires, fears, traumas, and unpleasant memories are repressed into the unconscious; they often resurface in dreams; otherwise, they can come out in distorted ways in literature in art. The work of a psychoanalyst is to bring the repressed into daylight and make the person aware of their own desires. Likewise, canonical works reflect common desires and fears that can be found in everyone. Greek tragedies provide a powerful and radical source to explain human desires and fears. As Oedipus Rex takes center stage in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Shakespeare’s Hamlet also reflects the same phenomenon (Freud, 1899/2018, pp. 789-791). The repression of desires and fears is a significant factor in modernist thought as well. Modern society is built upon the balance between id and super-ego. The reflection of id in modern society, according to Freud, is in art and in dreams. The id includes uncontrolled inner desires tied up to the pleasure principle: sexual desire, desire to kill, desire to steal someone’s belongings. On the other hand, the super-ego represents things that control these desires. Between the two, the ego is built to find balance in the reality, which is related to the reality principle. Consequently, the emergence of modern society is linked to the negotiation between civilization and desires, and the negotiation between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. The psychoanalytic theory considers the emergence of modern society, order, law, and rules due to this negotiation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle, making psychoanalysis not just a theory in psychology but a philosophical interpretation of the modern condition. This specific positioning makes psychoanalysis influential in many artistic movements and cultural products.
The effects of psychoanalysis on modern literature are seen especially in the stream of consciousness technique. In addition, these effects are evident in psychological realism and character representation. Free association is one of the two methods Freud had utilized in his psychoanalytic studies. The use of this method encourages the patient to say whatever comes to their mind without interruptions. It is a spontaneous process that may reveal hidden things coming from the patient’s unconscious mind. The use of this method established a close Free association is relevant to the associative literary technique called stream of consciousness, as seen in the works of Modernist writers such as James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf (Childs, 2000, p. 75).
James Joyce
Even though the stream of consciousness can be more organized as it is a writing technique after all, it still makes extensive use of free association. After Freud’s theories, literary tendencies shifted from realist fiction to ‘psychological realism.’ Realist fiction contents itself with shallow definitions of personalities and brief glances at the surfaces of minds. On the other hand, as Henry James defined, psychological realism urges the writer to explore hidden drives and desires (Childs, 2000, p. 51). Additionally, the theory behind psychoanalysis suggested that there was not “a unitary normative self,” leading many Modernists to change their representation of the human character in their works (Childs, 2000, p. 51).

Psychoanalysis influenced modern artistic movements primarily with the concept of the unconscious. Artists of the avant-garde art movements of the 20th century explored various ways to delve into their unconscious and express the desires and fears hidden in it. Artists of the Dada movement employed psychic automatism to express their unconscious. Dada and Surrealism also included an exploration of the primitive unconscious. They explored the unconscious of the ancient human past, the tribal people, and the minds of children and the insane (Lagana, 2013, p. 147). The primitive is also found in the modern man, in the unconscious part of the mind (Lagana, 2013, p. 150). 

Psychoanalysis’ emphasis on dreams and how they can reveal a hidden part of human psychology played a significant role in many artistic movements. Human beings have different backgrounds, but they share some universal desires and fears. Freud states that these desires and fears are mostly repressed, yet they often resurface in dreams (Leitch et al., 2018, p. 786). Many artists after Freud focused on dream content, and instead of daytime reality, they aimed to describe dream reality. Surrealists in visual arts wanted to recreate dream aesthetics in their works. Leading Surrealists Andre Breton and Salvador Dali gave immense importance to Freud and his theories. In different decades, they wanted to meet with Freud and managed to accomplish it, yet both meetings were disappointing for the Surrealists; they continued to perform their art with the same ideals. Freud defined condensation and displacement are two of the four rhetorical operations performed by dreams (Leitch et al., 2018, p. 786). Both processes are symbolic in nature and resemble montage works used in Cubism and Dada (Ffytche, 2010, p. 422). Last but not least, with countercultural movements, people tried using drugs to let unconscious thoughts and desires surface and then reflect these thoughts and desires in their art.
To sum up, psychoanalytic theory is essential for modernism, modern art, and modern literature because of the philosophical and practical relationships between psychoanalysis and modernism. Modern thought is influenced by Freud’s use of the unconscious and his explanation of how some universal desires and fears are repressed in the unconscious side of the human mind. Freud revealed the irrational side of human existence. Consequently, the emergence of modern society is tied to the negotiation and the conflict between civilization and human desires. This fact places psychoanalysis in an influential position in artistic and cultural movements. In addition to these, the free association technique and interpretation of dreams played a significant role in modern literature and modern art.


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