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Johnson, George M. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction.

JOHNSON, GEORGE M. Dynamic Psychology in Modernist British Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 272 pp. $90.00.

For scholars of British literary modernism, who focus on theories of the unconscious, selfhood, and narrative, Dynamic Psychology is essential reading, an insightful study that intelligently documents the vital role the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) played in the formation of early twentieth-century literature, specifically with regard to conceptions of the fragmented and multiple self as well as an emergent philosophy of ontological pluralism. The first half of the book skillfully outlines the contributions prominent Cambridge intellectuals, who formed the SPR in 1882, made to the newly emancipated discipline of psychology. Of those intellectuals, one of the primary heroes is Frederic Myers, who insightfully articulated some of the foundational precepts of dynamic psychology, which center on a "conception of the subliminal self" (5). This psychological theory subsequently led Myers to develop a philosophy of the "'polypsychic' nature of selfhood" (5).

In the first hundred pages of this book, which is the strongest part of the study, Johnson does a first-rate analysis of newly emerging psychological theories about the multiple layers of consciousness, "on what lies beneath the threshold of consciousness, whether figured as a subconscious, subliminal, or unconscious" (16). At this point, Johnson has two separate but major objectives. He seeks to demonstrate that there was an extremely rich pre-Freudian, pre-psychoanalytic tradition of psychology, one that cogently articulated "dynamic theories of the mind" (9). In this tradition, consciousness was treated "as a stream" (21), as George Henry Lewes first claimed in 1860, and "unconscious activities" were considered significant determinants of "social activity," a view William McDougall developed in 1908 and "which Freudian theory originally overlooked and eventually incorporated" (43). In underscoring the primacy of British contributions to psychology, Johnson hopes to correct some of the "Histories of Modernism," which ignore "pre-Freudian dynamic psychologies" and exaggerate "Freudian impact" (3) on modernist writers.

Johnson's second objective is to indicate how theories of dynamic psychology posed a substantive challenge to "the dominant materialist culture of early twentieth-century Britain" (15). With the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and scientific positivism, the human interior and human experience were being reduced to mechanistic activities, as easily calculable as they were predictably generated. In response to "the new dogma of materialism" (64), psychologists, through their investigations of and theories about "non-material mental phenomena" (57), were able to formulate a non-deterministic model of human identity, and thus satisfy the emotional and psychological needs of a major segment of the population: "psychical research answered a deep-seated need in those for whom Darwinism and scientific materialism presented a bleak prospect and yet who could no longer accept the tenets of traditional religious dogma" (64). By interrogating "the boundaries of identity" and by conveying "their conviction of the non-material dimension of reality within a plausible construct of realism" (68), practitioners of dynamic psychology produced a view of the human subject that not only appealed to British modernists but also contributed to the modernist conception of subjectivity.

After reading the first part of this book, even a minimally informed modernist would realize that Johnson has struck gold, that his work on dynamic psychology will enable modernist scholars to better understand and appreciate the intellectual developments leading up to some of the most radical experiments in narrating and representing subjectivity as well as one of the theories on which those aesthetic innovations were based. But in his individual analyses of literary texts, which examine how specific writers incorporate theories of dynamic psychology into their fiction, Johnson is much less compelling and effective. The primary problem is that Johnson does a superficial analysis of numerous texts rather than a careful and extended analysis of a significant and representative few. For instance, in a chapter on May Sinclair, Johnson convincingly demonstrates that Sinclair had read, understood, and appropriated many of the ideas of dynamic psychology, but then, in his first section analyzing individual works, he examines six novels in ten pages. In the next section, he discusses three short stories and three novels in eight pages, and in the last section, he focuses on four novels in eight pages. Because the analyses in these sections are so brief and underdeveloped, it is not always convincing that Sinclair was actually drawing from theories of dynamic psychology, and if she was, the intricate nature of that appropriation is certainly not made clear to the reader. This same approach plagues the discussions of J.D. Beresford, D.H. Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, and Virginia Woolf.

The problem is not just that Johnson fails to persuade because of his underdeveloped method of analysis; it is that his interpretations are unclear. For instance, in his analysis of Sinclair's Audrey Craven, Johnson cites an excellent passage dealing with the destructive consequences of being in "'a state of perpetual repression.'" After this quotation, Johnson claims that Sinclair's "use of the term 'repression' here must surely derive from her reading of Herbart" (118). Herbart was a philosopher-psychologist who died in 1841. If Sinclair knew Herbart's work, it was because, Johnson suggests, her colleague, Dorthea Beale, wrote an introduction to a Herbart book. Also, Sinclair reviewed a "Herbartian-influenced educational psychology text" (104). In other words, we actually have no evidence that Sinclair read Herbart, according to Johnson, but then, after quoting the Audrey Craven passage, he claims that her usage of the word repression "must surely derive from her reading of Herbart." This claim is certainly suspect, but what makes matters worse is Johnson's failure to articulate how readers should understand the Craven passage in relation to Herbartian psychology. Did Sinclair adopt in whole Herbart's philosophy of repression? Or was hers a nuanced appropriation? And how can we be certain that it was Herbart instead of another practitioner of dynamic psychology to which she was alluding? Johnson offers no answers for any of these questions, and as a sympathetic reader, I could neither accept nor fully understand his point. And it does not help that Johnson never actually cites Herbart's work. What we get of Herbart comes from secondary sources. Therefore, instead of producing suggestive interpretations that will inspire critics to pursue Johnson's project further, his method of analysis oftentimes frustrates and confuses.

Despite the problems with his analyses of individual literary texts, Dynamic Psychology is nonetheless an extremely valuable study, one that many modernists could use to get a more accurate picture of the role pre-Freudian psychology played in the modernist conception of subjectivity. Johnson's discussions of Lawrence and Woolf will certainly not have an impact on Lawrence and Woolf scholarship, but his history of dynamic psychology and its impact on prominent and neglected British modernists will open up new paths for investigation.

MICHAEL LACKEY, Wellesley College/University of Minnesota, Morris
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Author:Lackey, Michael
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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