Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"Polyvalent Narration" and the Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son posts do what prodigal things should, and return again. Today I stumbled across some interesting takes on it way back in Semeia 9 (1977), "Polyvalent Narration," ed. John D. Crossan.

First, Mary Ann Tolbert contributes with "The Prodigal Son: An Essay in Literary Criticism from a Psychoanalytic Perspective" here's the abstract:

One of the major concerns of biblical interpretation is the need to relate ancient texts to contemporary situations. The tools and methodologies found in the field of literary criticism can aid immeasurably in this endeavor. As one possible example of such a study this essay explores the content of the parable of The Prodigal Son by the categories of a psychoanalytically oriented criticism and the form of the parable by a rhetorical analysis of its surface structure. Such a procedure emphasizes the unity of the narrative as a whole as well as the correspondences between thematic elements and their structural presentation. Elements of Freud’s mental typography, the id, the ego, and the superego, are shown to bear some striking similarities to the younger son, father, and elder son of the parable. In the central figure of the father, moreover, the basic human desire for reconciliation and restoration of unity, a theme developed by the parable as a whole, is symbolically expressed.

Next, Dan O. Via Jr. chimes in with "The Prodigal Son: A Jungian Reading."

An analysis (using Bremond’s model) is made of the narrative functions of the story showing that the prodigal son part and the elder brother part parallel each other in reverse order. Having demonstrated the narrative relationships within the story and allowing these to define the connections of the psychological categories, an intra-psychic interpretation is then given in the effort to show that the dynamics involved are the alienation of the ego from the Self and its reintegration through coming to terms with the shadow.

Finally, Bernard B. Scott contributes with "The Prodigal Son: A Structuralist Interpretation"

The traditional interpretation of the parable of The Prodigal Son has been dominated by the identification of the elder son with the Pharisees. The first part of the paper seeks to show that this identification will not adequately interpret the parable. The second part of the paper undertakes an analysis of two of the parable’s intermediate structures: the narrative and mythical structures. This analysis points out that the elder son is not rejected in the parable, but serves to call into question the audience’s traditional mythical understanding of the relation between elder and younger sons.

I might have more to say on these after I read them more thoroughly, and reflect on whether or not I think they're out to lunch (a possibility I can't rule out yet).


Loren Rosson III said...

I think these approaches are terribly misguided (the first two anyway, not so much Scott). Jungian introspection and psychoanalysis are irrelevant to the historical-critical study of the bible. John Sanford's The Kingdom Within offers a particularly aggressive psychoanalytic treatment of Jesus' sayings.

But it's nice to see the prodigal returning (as you put it). I look forward to your analaysis of this stuff.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Loren,

I think you're probably right (though I haven't had a chance to give them a good read yet)--which is what I meant with them being "out to lunch."

While I'm not sure that I'd agree that it's necessarily irrelevant--I could probably think of approaches that wouldn't be, but that I could do so is entirely the problem--it's too easy to find what you're looking for. Kinda reminds me of something Hervey Cleckley once wrote in "Mask of Sanity" (while he was condemning "proof by analogy," his point still holds here):

"I have become increasingly convinced that some of the popular methods presumed to discover what is in the unconscious cannot be counted upon as reliable methods of obtaining evidence. They often involve the use of symbolism and analogy in such a way that the interpreter can find virtually anything that he is looking for."(p.407)

He provides an amusing example, that I'll repeat here not because it's especially pertinent here, but because it's good for a laugh:

"Faithfully following Freud's method of establishing proof by analogy, a prominent psychiatrist in his well-known book Beyond Laughter has given us a remarkable interpretation of the drum majorette. Most of us are likely to think that the average man's pleasant reaction to these well-built, sparsely clad young ladies who prance happily and often somewhat sexily before the band at football stadiums can be pretty well accounted for by tastes and impulses quite obvious in nearly anyone's consciousness. Such tastes and impulses, according to the interpretation in Beyond Laughter, must be considered as superficial or perhaps even as the result of reaction formation. The lissome girl, we are solemnly told, stands out before the grouped band just as an erect penis stands out before the larger mass of the body. This analogy is taken as evidence that interest and excitement about the provocative lass do not lie primarily in the fact that any ordinary man would find her attractive. In our unconscious she is said to be equated with the erect male organ, and it is maintained that men really feel toward her, as she stands projected before the group, as they unconsciously feel toward the penis of another male. Our positive reactions toward her, we are told, arise from our unrecognized and unaccepted homosexuality. No corroborative evidence is offered, nor any doubt expressed, about this interpretation. It is soberly offered as a fact, presumably discovered by science."(408)