Knapp, Bettina Liebowitz

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KNAPP, Bettina Liebowitz

Born 9 May 1926, New York, New York

Daughter of David and Emily Gresser Liebovitz; married Russell S. Knapp, 1949; children: two sons

Bettina Liebowitz Knapp, the mother of two sons, is a prolific writer and has taught Romance languages and comparative literature at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of a score of books and the recipient of a number of coveted awards. Knapp has a special interest in archetypal criticism, but she has written in several genres on a wide range of literary, theatrical, and religious figures. She has stated that, through her study of an individual writer, she attempts to explore the deeper levels of the mind and psyche in an effort to approach the collective unconscious. Indeed, her books are an engaging combination of biography and literary criticism viewed from Jungian, mythic, or mystical perspectives.

Knapp's most courageous and, she says, most painful work is Céline: Man of Hate (1974), in which Knapp, a Jew, frankly and intelligently studies Céline's anti-Semitism. Characteristically, Knapp approaches her subject armored with historical and biographical facts, makes sense of Céline's art with psychoanalytic insights, forces our attention on the universality of his malady with a passionate rhetoric, and pushes the reader toward healing perspectives with the sheer weight of her conviction. For Knapp, Céline is an example of a man who was unable to confront his "shadow," unable to establish a rapport between his conscious and his unconscious selves. This failure resulted in "eruptions," Knapp's term for Céline's novels. Céline, she argues, is a symbol of a similar failure in the larger world, as evidenced by the cataclysms that have rocked the century. His usefulness is as a "guide" to help us "peer… into our own…depths," so that we can develop the means for our own self-transformation.

Perhaps Knapp's most ambitious work is Dream and Image (1977). Highly praised by reviewers, it analyzes from the point of view of psychoanalysis and myth various aspects of the relationship between dreams, as expressions of the unconscious, and creativity in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century French figures from Descartes to Mallarmé. She coins the term oneirosphere to describe that region of the mind in which the personal and collective unconscious converge and "in which dreams and images become discernible to the individual."

Her method is to allow the writer or work being analyzed to suggest the pattern she describes: the Great Female Archetype in Racine, the battle with Thanatos in Mallarmé, the conflict between Christian and pagan values in Gautier. Yet the unifying emphases are on the way dreams influence, inspire, and enrich the creative process, and on the way creative works express or resolve the eternal struggles of the psyche.

The Prometheus Syndrome (1979) is a provocative work studying the Promethean impulse: that force, endemic to Occidental man, compelling him to create, to surpass limits, and to outdo the achievements of former centuries. Knapp divides the Prometheus myth into several stages: Prometheus' "fashioning of the human race, stealing of fire, being punished for his crime, and reintegration with dignity into the society he rejected."

Each stage in the myth corresponds to the efforts of fictional and real figures representative of a certain age. The first section, "Man as Creator," studies figures who strained against the ordinary limits of their time but who were nevertheless in harmony with their world. In the second section, "The Ordeal of Reason," Knapp deals with the Promethean hubris—the increasing overvaluation of human powers to understand and control the universe—in Voltaire, Balzac, Hesse, and others. This hubris results in a feeling of alienation that has pervaded the modern sensibility.

It is perhaps the last section, "Toward Integration"—in which Promethean man, still determined and searching, is reconciled to but not subdued by his place in the world—that expresses the essence of Knapp's stand on life and literature. She is a critic with a clear vision, who writes lucidly, feels comfortable in any century, in the Occident as well as the Orient, and among a variety of psychological and religious systems.

By the end of the 20th century, Knapp was still going strong, publishing at least one of her now nearly trademarked style of historical or psychological insighted studies per year, while also contributing to other works with a similar bent.

Other Works:

Selected: Louis Jouvet: Man of the Theatre (1957). Louise Labé (1964). That Was Yvette: A Biography of Yvette Guilbert (1964). Cymbalum Mundi (1965). Aristide Bruant: A Biography (1968). Jean Genet: A Critical Study of His Writings (1968). Antonin Artaud: Man of Vision (1969, 1993). Jean Cocteau: A Critical Study of His Writings (1970). Jean Racine: Mythos and Renewal in Modern Theatre (1971). Georges Duhamel: A Critical Study of His Writings (1972). Anthology of Modern French Theatre (1974). Maurice Maeterlinck (1975). Off-Stage Voices (1975). French Novelists Speak Out (1976). Anaïs Nin (1978). Fernand Crommelynck (1978). Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma (1978, 1980). Emile Zola (1980). Theater and Alchemy (1980). Sacha Guitry (1981). Paul Claudel (1982). Andrée Chedid (1984). French Theatre: 1918-1939 (1985). Alfred Stieglitz's Letters to David Liebowitz, 1923-1930 (1985). Word, Image, Psyche (1985). Women in 20th Century Literature: A Jungian View (1987). Liliane Atlan (1988). The Reign of the Theatrical Director: French Theatre 1887-1924 (1988). Music, Archetype, and the Writer: A Jungian View (1988). Machine, Metaphor, and the Writer: A Jungian View (1989). Emily Dickinson (1989). Gertrude Stein (1990). Exile and the Writer: Exoteric and Esoteric Experiences—A Jungian Approach (1991). Images of Chinese Women: A Westerner's View (1992). Images of Japanese Women: A Westerner's View (1992). Walt Whitman (1993). Nathalie Sarraute (1994). French Theatre Since 1968 (1995). Manna & Mystery: A Jungian Approach to Hebrew Myth and Legend (1995). Women in Myth (1997). Women, Myth, and the Female Principle (1998). Gambling, Game, Psyche (1999).


Reference works:

CA (1975).

Other references:

AR (Winter 1979). Choice (Mar. 1976). FR (May 1978). MLJ (Feb. 1970, Nov. 1975). NYTBR (5 Aug. 1969). Saturday Review (24 May 1969).