YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 10, 2013

What remains useful about Freud?

One version of individuality, NYC

One version of individuality, NYC

(For a prelude to this blog, see http://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

It is obvious why many conservatives would reject anything smacking of Freudianism out of hand: besides his secular version of Judaism throughout life, his later work identified him as an atheist, and in such works as The Future of an Illusion argued that those persons believing in religion were in a state of regression (clinging to an idealized Father figure); he denied that children were “innocent” by pointing to infant or  infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; he argued that most of us live with ambivalence about all our love objects: such mixtures of love and hate regarding parents and siblings destabilize portentous emotions that preserve hierarchy, whether these be the deployment by powerful institutions of hero-worship, state-worship, or the expectation that families are (unproblematic) havens in a heartless world.

Rather, for Freud (especially for some of his followers), the rhetoric of the perfectly happy family preserves tyrannical hierarchies, causes childish regression to dependency and loss of a critical/skeptical outlook in adults, and worst of all, eliminates the notion of the horizontal contract in favor of vertical contracts. I.e., the Good King or Leader will protect us if we don’t question the legitimacy of his policies and institutional practices. This move removes attention from the fairness or unfairness of the horizontal contract, a fiction of rationality that can be  preserved either in the statism of the progressive movement or in the “rational choice” theory of libertarians. But if there is an abundance of labor, the employer holds all the cards; if there are many beautiful women competing for the love and protection of powerful men, woman’s worth is downgraded, except in agricultural, pre-modern societies where female strength and competence as helpmeets and breeders are primary. And we wonder at the popularity of primitivism? (click onto the illustration of a youthful anarchist: if this isn’t neo-Nazi, I don’t know what is).

Which brings us to the question of individuality. As moderns and inheritors of civilization, we want to be introspective, to be self-examining. We abjure impulse in favor of picking and choosing our life partners on the basis of their psychological maturity, as prospective companions; we hope to be appropriately self-critical as parents and adults with respect to the elderly, or how we evaluate everyone and everything from economic policies to great writers, presidents, and other historical actors, or to beloved mates, teachers, and friends. Such strenuous introspection is difficult without the memory of multiple traumas, small and large. Here was Freud’s lasting contribution to humanity. The more we courageously look at our choices, noting which were forced upon us through the accidents of our particularly histories, the more able we are to look at whether or not we had the individual choices we imagine. We recognize, without shame, internal conflicts, and face them with curiosity and the determination to dig further, without hating ourselves for our “errors” or sins.

Freud remains unsurpassed in his diagnosis of early childhood and trauma: traumas that resurface in later life to cause psychosomatic illness and the immobilization of anxiety, depression, and the fear that we have not lived our own lives, but were the playthings of a wicked cosmos, even demonic forces.

To acknowledge how sex and aggression play out in institutions and in always difficult families, how instinctual forces may penetrate all our attachments or “choices”—whether these be our votes for representatives, or whether or not to be parents, or to understand sexual attraction or repulsion, or to practice sadomasochist rituals, is to attain a higher level of freedom than Freud’s predecessors enjoyed. As one great teacher of mine reassured me: “We are not civilized yet.”

Sigmund Freud was the consummate bourgeois, pointing to both the limits to human freedom and to the long process of emancipation from self-annihilating illusion. How many of us possess his courageous, if ambiguous, embrace of the modern world? How many of us dare to give up the perverse satisfactions of the guilty liberal by emulating Minerva’s owl? There are few compensations for old age and painful experience, but here is one: we may see the trajectory of our lives and treat our choices with less disappointment and more generosity.

[Professor Hank Greenspan of the University of Michigan, a trained psychoanalyst, has given me permission to quote his response to the blog: “In an age of tweets and bits and quick fixes, the notion of spending, literally, years trying to understand someone else’s subjectivity in its particularity and complexity–including one’s own!–is radical enough. Also, the related notion (alien to most academic work) that no interpretation can be more than conjecture until it is engaged, refined, and worked over with the person about whom the interpretation intends to apply. Timing counts too–also alien to work that concerns only texts rather than folks. Freud’s “technique” contribution remains, for me, his most important legacy.”]

Minerva's Owl?

Minerva’s Owl?

February 19, 2012

The Romantic repudiation of Freud & Co.

R. D. Laing

[Note: in the blog that follows, I am more concerned with neurosis and/or everyday unhappiness than with clinical definitions of insanity or “personality disorders,” though I do mention Laing and Szasz.]

In the History of Antisemitism discussion group, a professor of European history has objected to a recent posting of mine that posed this question: “Is psychiatry a ‘Jewish’ profession?”  I was most interested in his claim that “Freud provides one major challenge to bourgeois culture in the late 19th century,” for Freud was considered to be the ultimate bourgeois, the creature of Enlightenment, by both fans and critics. I did agree with him about the weight he gives to “anti-intellectualism” for popular culture in America is dominated by populism, but if you ask even an ordinary educated American about the meaning and significance of populism (and its offspring, progressivism) in American political history, s/he may be clueless. But I am not sure that such a one would make a connection to the revulsion against psychoanalysis and mental health services in general, a revulsion that animates a large anti-psychiatry movement among libertarians (say those who follow Foucault, Thomas Szasz or R. D. Laing), and many social democrats, not to speak of those religious thinkers who object to Freud’s atheism, or who might go on to believe that all Jews are atheists, lacking the Christian “heart” that enables community and selflessness. Hence Jews are “crazy Jews.”

(Illustrated: “Mad Pride”] I first found about psychiatry as a “Jewish” profession in graduate school, when I was asked to read and summarize a standard work in sociology: The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The authors said straight out that psychoanalysis was a Jewish thing that only worked with New York Jews. I.e., Freud was presumably obsessed with sex, and Jews, excessively carnal (by which they mean worldly/puffed-up with pride) would flock to these Jewish quacks. (When I complained about this, I was sternly reproved.)

Recently, I read almost all of Benjamin Disraeli’s novels, and paid special attention to his depiction of the genius magnate “Sidonia,” perhaps a projection of the author himself, and most notably, a character who was excessively cerebral, hence incapable of emotional attachments. Sidonia was the epitome of the rootless cosmopolitan, a type that was anathema to both Hitler and Stalin.  (Here is the link to my blog on Disraeli’s novels and his role in the development of British social democracy: http://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/. How Disraeli adapted to the dominant Anglicanism is also taken up: he moved the center of Christianity to Jerusalem, not Rome, and  identified the theological debt Christianity owed to the parent religion, a move that did not always endear him to his readers, who still adhered to the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity.)

Now why would Freud (along with a gigantic field of therapists)  be tossed out by those I have mentioned above? It is difficult to engage in any self-scrutiny, i.e., therapy, at all without taking a family history involving the minute examination of every family relationship, including traumas and semi-traumas. Many modern novelists and other seekers after truth about one’s feelings about the family of origin or later love objects, will find ambivalence, and a good “shrink” will focus on both idealization and demonization of lovers,  parents and siblings, along with the mixed feelings that we label as “ambivalence.” The client may also find a pattern of determinism that contradicts the doctrine of “free will” espoused by many Christian sects. That is, we are only partly responsible for our actions, but often follow patterned responses laid down in family life.

Thomas Szasz, Frenchified

Because of the predominant populism, not just “Jewish” bankers but “Jewish” mental health workers are viewed as autocratic and mystifying “experts” or technocrats with designs on the majority. We need more talk about this, not just a quick dismissal. Or a pill.

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