The theory of psychoanalysis touches on a multitude of various subtopics which in the end encompasses psychoanalysis as a whole. One of these important subtopics is the understanding of the unconscious. In the book, Critical Theory Today, Lois Tyson discusses how the unconscious is a result of early childhood experiences which later on change and evolve as an individual matures or goes through thought altering experiences. Occasionally, we perceive that people have a particular problem, but they themselves do not realize it. They do not see how this problem is affecting them as well as how it affects the people around them. As for most people, your state of mind depends entirely on what is going on in your life. Because of this, individuals deal with and see the problems in their lives differently than others.
In literature, there are several critical literary theories which are present in nearly all forms of writing. These theories all work together in order to explain an author's reasoning as well as their perception of the world and humanity as a whole. According to Saul MacLeod, Sigmund Freud--the founding father of psychoanalysis--describes psychoanalysis as a way of explaining human behavior. Throughout the years, Freud's theory of psychoanalysis has proven to be effective when it comes to understanding the human psyche as well as mental development. However, critics utilize his theories to analyze and interpret the reasoning, motivations, and actions behind characters that have existed throughout the literary world.
Interestingly enough, this happens to the main protagonist in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this story, Gilgamesh is portrayed as a tyrannical king. He is the strongest person around and one of the best craftsmen there is; he is handsome and intelligent. Because of this, he feels justified in taking whatever he wants, sleeps with whatever woman he pleases and feels no remorse for his actions. This is a perfect example of an aspect of the unconscious, because he does not realize that his actions are a problem and that they are affecting the people he is supposed to take care of.
Gilgamesh'[s actions are impulsive and a result of the Id component of an individual's thought process. The Id component is described as the driving force which tells us how to amuse ourselves. It is inclined to desire things that the Superego labels as taboo, wrong or forbidden such as sex, money, power, food, etc. In the beginning of the story, Gilgamesh's Id component is noticeably the more dominant component in his unconscious. He cares only for sex, prestige, power and recognition. It is only when Enkidu--Gilgamesh's equal and opposite--is introduced into the story that he is challenged and evened out with Enkidu's overwhelming Superego. These characters are portrayed as being two sides of the same coin since both have strong, opposing personalities. This is seen when Enkidu confronts Gilgamesh for wanting to sleep with a woman who is about to be married. Enkidu challenges him to a battle because he does not like the idea that Gilgamesh was taking something that is not his. Enkidu proposes a wager. If he beats Gilgamesh, the woman will be left alone. As fate would have it, Gilgamesh overwhelms Enkidu with his immense strength. However, Gilgamesh honors Enkidu's request and decides to leave the woman alone.
Gilgamesh is the main protagonist of this legendary epic, but how could a protagonist be portrayed as someone so ruthless and impulsive? His character changes and evolves as the story goes on. However, many readers might wonder why Gilgamesh cannot see all the wrongs he has been doing to his people. The reason Gilgamesh has such a difficult time realizing that his actions are resulting in the resentment of his own people is because of the fact that we all have something called defenses. Our defenses keep us from recognizing and changing our destructive behavior. For example, Gilgamesh is said to be two-thirds god and one-third man. He is built up to be a superhuman who is capable of doing amazing feats which is why he thinks so highly of himself. This is also accompanied by things such as denial, selective memory, projection and selective perception. Gilgamesh sees things how he prefers. In his mind, he believes that people should praise, love and admire him because of how great he thinks he is.
However, Gilgamesh is not the tyrannical king that he is made out to be throughout the story. He transforms as a person, but that is not done without sacrifice and hardships. After his encounter with Enkidu, Gilgamesh develops a profound respect and love towards Enkidu because of the bond that is formed through their epic adventure. They both face off against fearsome enemies. They live together through the threat of death and danger. However, when the gods punish Enkidu with an illness that lasts for twelve days and then he dies, this takes an enormous toll on the heartbroken Gilgamesh. Seeing his beloved friend Enkidu succumb to illness makes Gilgamesh fear for his own mortality. This is when Gilgamesh embarks on his journey to find immortality in order to escape death.
In psychoanalysis, death is seen as the great equalizer. It is an earth-shattering moment which can completely flip an individual's perception. This happens to Gilgamesh when Enkidu dies as a consequence of his arrogance, greed, and stupidity. Eckhard Frick says that the dying process "can be seen as an attempt at an ultimate completion of the shift from narcissistic investment to objective investment". This quote describes Gilgamesh's situation perfectly, because before Enkidu's death he is self-centered. He believes that he is the best, but even more so with Enkidu by his side. It is only after Enkidu's death that he begins to realize his mistakes: all the damage he has done to himself and the people around him.
His shift to objective investment is quite straightforward as his life is forever changed when Enkidu dies. He now sees that there is more to life than pillaging, power, women, and money. Through death he discovers the value of friendship, the love of his people, and the meaning that death brings upon us. When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk from his failed quest to find immortality, he gazes upon his city and the walls he built. He praises the walls and realizes that it is not man's fate to live forever, but for his creations to carry on man's name. Gilgamesh learns his lessons and commits himself to being a better king, a better person and a better human.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a superb piece of literature to analyze through a psychoanalytic lens, because of how well developed these characters are. Gilgamesh can be categorized as a dynamic character as he goes through important changes that affect and transform the character entirely. There is a huge difference between the Gilgamesh we first meet at the beginning of the story and the Gilgamesh that sees the walls of his city with new eyes. The complexity of this character makes it easy to identify why he acts a certain way. Overall, the theory of psychoanalysis is used as a way to understand humanity's motivations, the way we think and the reasoning behind our actions. Analyzing the written word is a great way to help us broaden our views and perceptions of not only psychoanalysis, but the world as well.
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