Application of a Freudian Analysis to Seven Steps to Heaven by Fred Khumalo


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This essay will be an application of a Freudian analysis to a chosen work of literature, namely, Seven Steps to Heaven, by Fred Khumalo. It will include an assessment of the value and limitations that a psychoanalytic approach to literature encompasses. The main characters in the novel will be used as the premise of the analysis focusing on how the manifestations of the id, ego and super ego affect their personalities. The Collins dictionary (1979: 1178) defines psychoanalysis as ‘a method of studying the mind and treating mental and emotional disorders based on revealing and investigating the role of the unconscious mind’.

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Sigmund Freud has been cited by many literary scholars as the founder of modern psychiatry and psychology. In his individual studies of Freud’s work, Hoffman found that Freud attempted at length to explain the way in which the mind operates in relation to psychology and neurology. It can be said that the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis to understand and deduce from an individual’s behavior, the substance which informs their unconscious desires and repressed feelings. It is the theories that Freud developed that were overly concerned with the investigation of the role of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis as a theory being the founding basis on which he developed this investigation.

The ‘unconscious’ as a concept can be understood as the substance in our thoughts that has no caution, no rhyme or reason so to speak, these are the kind of thoughts that illicit behavior that may seem uncharacteristic yet with the aid of the psychoanalytic approach to understanding human psychology there are ways to attain reason and rhyme from what appears to be irrational or uncharacteristic in our behavior as human beings. It is important to understand that this ‘unconscious’ concept exists in a space called the ‘psyche’, where feelings and thoughts are processed in the mind. Within the psyche exists three components which Freud used to explain how self-identity is developed namely; the id, ego and super ego. The id is described as the first representation of our personality; this is the component where primitive impulses, reactive emotions and basic human drives are located. The id is completely unconscious and thus difficult to understand and sometimes difficult to manage. The id is responsible for helping us met our basic needs that may formed from unconscious experiences of pleasure or unpleasure.

The ego forms the second representation of the personality it is both conscious and unconscious. Hoffman explains that the ego is found in our conscious and relies on the reality it accepts; it chooses what is preferable for the individual, the ego is self-aware of the actions it allows, good and bad decisions alike it can choose to conform to or reject the desires of the id. The super ego is the last representation of the personality, it is the ‘voice of reason’, and shaped by moral values of society and the values we inherit from parents and family. It is partly unconscious in that sometimes behavior is governed by basic drive that says ‘this is right or this is wrong’ that reasoning is informed by the super ego even though it can be an action informed by the id. The main function of the super ego is to choose whether an action truly aligns with the ethical or moral values of the community in which people live. Seven Steps to Heaven is a novel that deals with the complexities of identity and sexuality during a time of critical political change in South Africa. Protagonist, Sizwe Dube, navigates these complexities in his young life alongside his best friend Thulani Thembe who proves to be instrumental in contributing to the difficulties that Sizwe encounters as a well-established writer in his developing transition to adulthood.

The Freudian analysis herein applies to the main characters Sizwe and Thulani. The story in the novel revolves around their friendship from childhood to adulthood. Sizwe, the protagonist in the story finds himself oft in the shadow of his friend Thulani, the son of one Reverend Tembe, a well-known priest in the neighborhood of Exclusive Park where the boys reside. Sizwe and Thulani differ many ways but one which is distinct came to the fore in high school. Whereas Sizwe was the diligent, hard-working student, Thulani was the care-free nonchalant student who seemed to know everything without really expressing much effort at school, “Even with all the hard work he put into his school books, he found himself always gravitating towards Thulani. Thulani almost always had all the answers even though he didn’t read as studiously”. The manifestations of the unconscious through the id, the ego and super ego unfold themselves in the later adult life of the characters. For Sizwe a few exchanges between himself and other characters or even in conversation with himself reveal the id, the ego and super ego at work. The foundation is laid in an exchange with his mother where he recalls, “people are like onions, his mother used to say…they come in layers, when I was young if I made soup and I was chopping onions – that’s what she would be thinking. Layers everyone has layers. You have to see them in yourself and in others”. The analogy of the layers associated with people in the text can be seen as reflective of the model of the psyche, the psyche comprises of the id; understood as the first part of the personality and the ego; understood as the second part of the personality and finally the super ego; understood as the last part of the personality. These respective parts of the personality are like the layers in onions, the layers that make up the personality of an individual. To say ‘everyone has layers’ is to acknowledge the variations in the personalities that exist in individual people. Psychoanalysis has informed the literary field with the tools to explain and fashion these variations or these layers in terms of three main tenets; the id, the ego and the super ego. At an earlier stage in the novel and later stage in his life we find Sizwe expressing a kind of confusion as to who he is, he states, “Sometimes I think I am one of three people; sometimes I think I am Thulani or Thulani lives in me, sometimes I think I am the third one I think”.

The sense of confusion expressed in this thought illustrates the inner struggle with identity that the protagonist is dealing with, the layers in himself begin to express themselves as three separate characters, himself, Thulani and another. Who he is becomes displaced in three variations that are representative of the various tenets in the psyche. There is a moment which follows that clarifies the displacement wherein Sizwe explains to some officers the difficulty he is having with understanding himself, this happens towards the end of the story where he is looking for his friend Thulani who was in trouble with the law, he states, “you know officers when I was young, if I made soup and was chopping the onions, I thought I was the onions…I thought my friend Thulani Thembe also known as Freedom Cele also known as the Oneness of Two in Three, was the knife. I though he was the knife chopping me, making me feel small, making me feel untalented, making me feel like losing my identity in his”. Because Sizwe identifies so much of himself in his friend Thulani he becomes a non-entity in his own life going a step further in his his understanding and explanation of the layered nature found in the onions of his own personality. The layers in his analogy do not involve him he sees himself as the object ‘the onion’ slaughtered by the layered personalities of his friend Thulani. Repression of the sense of ‘self’ can be seen where he replaces himself with Thulani. This is the type of human behavior that can occur when a person has an inferiority complex coupled with low self-esteem. The reasoning that leads oneself to get into such a state stems from the ego – it is the ego that decides what is suitable for the individual and which impulses or desires offered by the id should be satisfied and to what extent. There is one moment of acceptance that illustrates the id unfolding itself, the id being the first part of the personality that is inclusive of primitive impulses such as anger, hatred or even hunger, “In his cell in one moment of complete sanity, Sizwe Dube was chattering on; clearly I can’t be him. Only if they kill my friend Thulani, the man they call Freedom Cele, will I regain my own identity my pride in myself. Why do I still think of him as my friend? He stripped me of my self-respect, dignity and belief in myself. He must die”. Sizwe’s frustration with his friend also stems from the fact that his entire writing career only took off when he used Thulani’s nom de plume as Vusi Mntungwa as his own, he felt inferior to Thulani because even in the one sphere wherein he could be successful on his own he fails to do so, ever feeling like his life revolves around Thulani so in the moment where Thulani is about to face execution for his crimes Sizwe feels a sense of relief that if his friend dies perhaps then he can assume his own personality again and truly be himself. This kind of identity crisis stems from repressed feelings of insecurity and inferiority that Sizwe does not voice out loud. For Thulani, the manifestations of the ego, id and super ego can be seen in his response to a letter Sizwe wrote to him expressing grave concern at the reason for which he was at that present moment in prison for gross counts of rape, kidnapping and indecent assault, his responds reads, “You see there are three of us in me. No I’m not schizophrenic. That’s a shallow way of looking at the essence of being. What I am saying is that there are three of us in me. First there’s the boy you know, the boy you grew up with. Then there’s the other guy, Vusi Mntungwa, who is trying to be a writer. He is more dominant than the boy you know. Vusi is the guy who forced the boy to walk out of school. You see, Thulani is too much of a thinker, lives too much inside his head, thinks the world and humanity owe him a living…But the world doesn’t operate that way. You have to fight to live. Simple as that… Every time Thulani tried to write something, to express his thoughts. Vusi would suddenly take over, dominate the bastard. Vusi has got a lot of things to say which clash with Thulani’s moral code. Thulani is trying very hard to be a good human being, a good citizen but he’s too fragile to belong to the human race. After Thulani, and Vusi, there’s Freedom Cele. He is the guy who got us here in prison. Freedom Cele is the devil-may-care who wants to fight fire with fire. The world is so cruel so he wants to be crueller than the world. Perhaps our being locked inside here is a blessing in disguise. There is no knowing what other sins Freedom would have committed were we not inside. The three of us need our individual space”. Thulani as a member of the ‘three’ can be seen as representing the super ego – the part of the personality that is shaped by a moral code, by society and parents. His father is a pastor, he tries to be good for goodness sake as Christianity would heed of a Christian and as his father would expect. Vusi can be seen as representing the ego in the membership. He decides when to give in to the demands of Freedom and when to take over from Thulani. Vusi is like the middle man in the group. Freedom can be seen as representing the id – the primitive part of the personality, his expression of violent acts even alarm the two members which is why they are happy to be in prison where he can be restrained and have less contact with the world. It is important to note that Freedom Cele was convicted of 153 charges of rape, kidnapping and indecent assault.

The value of a psychoanalytic approach to literature can be seen from the extracts from the text in how Khumalo has used the psychoanalytic concepts of super ego, ego and id in shaping Sizwe and Thulani. Sizwe as a fictional character illustrates a psychoanalytic case where a patient could be experiencing multiple personality disorder. The internal conversations he has and the inner conflict he expresses within is indicative of an individual that could need the kind of psychotherapy that Freud deems as ‘the talking cure’. Thulani as a fictional character illustrates a psychoanalytic case where a patient could also be suffering from multiple personality disorder even more so schizophrenia which Thulani admits and then quickly denies. In his case growing up in a Christian home has influenced his views on what is right and wrong now to contrast ‘normal’ Christian behavior in such an alarming state in the personhood of Freedom Cele is to illustrate how the conflict that exists in the negotiations between the id, ego and super ego can lead to extremely uncharacteristic behavior. Psychoanalysis has borrowed literary world the means to shape and create complexity in the neurosis of characters that are formulated which adds depth, contrast and intrigue to the narratives produced in literature. The limitation of a psychoanalytic approach to literature is expressed in that all that occurs in a narrative is consciously composed. Khumalo consciously developed the characters, Sizwe and Thulani, their unconscious actions and thoughts were created.

Literature as a written art form cannot be left to the unconscious. Thought, method and design are used to orchestrate ‘unconscious behavior’. Psychoanalysis benefits the authors of literary texts by affording tools that can be used to shape and inform literary texts but falls short at being applied holistically. The entire methodology involved in reaching and studying the unconscious cannot happen in the literary sphere because everything is created. The deciphering of dream work and the unconscious cannot be applied to fictional characters and to the author; no ‘slips of the tongue’ can be derived. At most the text can be studied as a symptom of the author’s psyche. The focus of the chosen text highlights how fictional characters can be analyzed as psychoanalytic cases.

This essay has illustrated the application of a Freudian analysis to a work of literature; it has assessed the value and limitation of applying a psychoanalytic approach to literature. Reference has been made to the chosen literary text and background given regarding Sigmund Freud and his contribution to psychology and literature.

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