30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Torfi H. Tulinius, "Psychoanalysis and the Sagas"

The purpose of this paper is to explore whether the concepts of psychoanalysis can add something to our understanding of the medieval Icelandic sagas. The problem of the psychoanalytic approach is that it tends to be ahistorical, because, as a science, psychoanalysis deals with constants of the human psyche while historians are more interested in change. However, there is room within psychoanalysis for both change and difference, as was already shown by Freud himself in his work both on historical figures and cultural change. Though many historians remain suspicious of psychoanalysis’s scientific credibility an increasing number of them acknowledge it as a legitimate tool for understanding human behavior in the past, both individual and collective (Peter Gay, Freud for Historians, 1986).

The study of cultural artifacts from past or distant cultures has also benefited from psychoanalytical insights. This is especially true of literature, both oral and written. Scholars have successfully investigated medieval European literature with the benefit of these insights while at same time enriching our understanding of the historicity of the texts under study (Jean-Charles Huchet, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen).

Of course, psychoanalysis cannot be used alone if it is to be an effective tool. In my paper I would like to review the results of previous psychoanalytically inspired work done on the sagas, both by myself and other scholars, discuss its theoretical foundations and propose an inter-disciplinary method for approaching these medieval literary artifacts where psychoanalysis plays a central role in understanding how these texts relate to their historical context. Examples will be taken from Egils saga, Laxdæla saga, Eyrbyggja saga and Njáls saga.



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