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

It is obvious why many social 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?


  1. To blame Victorian culture for the emergence of Nazism is simply mistaken. Nazism comes out of a specific part of modern German culture, which took shape between the 1880s and the 1920s. Even then, Nazism was not the total representative of “Germanic” ideas, but a bastardisation of those.
    I would point out you, Ashana M, that Freud was hated by the Nazis, his works banned and he and his family only narrowly escaped in 1939 from Austria. On the contrary, Freud was urging an individual liberalisation away from a highly repressive familial and sexual culture. That “highly authoritarian, Western culture”, if we take the first element as the universal norm in Freud, then we can see this replicated in all cultures. Can you seriously name one culture which did not at that time have authoritarian family structures? China? India? The African tribal nations?
    Freud is still relevant today, not least because we still collectively refuse to understand his ideas.

    Comment by wien1938 — July 19, 2014 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

  2. […] Now I harbor the deep and unsettling suspicion that he may have been sometimes an anarchist, sometimes a Stalinist (the behaviorism remark), but at all times, deeply ill and suffering all the torments of the arriviste, assimilating “Jew,” opportunistically masked like the rest of them/us. [For a related blog see […]

    Pingback by Roy Porter and the anti-psychiatry movement | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 2, 2014 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  3. Urgency, expediency and internal or external conflict are closely related. Success, security, sufficient provision, and introspection are also closely related. To sell the benefit of careful study to the presently urgent is the nearly impossible objective of the master in every art. I was not aware of this principle in psychology. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    Comment by Mark Leavenworth — March 12, 2013 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  4. Freud seems to have assumed that a repressive, essentially Victorian civilization was the only kind of civilization possible or that anyone would ever have. His world is more or less the same world that gave rise to Nazism and wide-scale genocide. It is hardly typical or normal. What he describes as the family anyone might have is a family run by someone who is dreadfully dysfunctional and personality disordered.

    What continues to be useful about Freud? Not much. He never transcended the particularities of the time and place he lived to speak to something larger or more universal. Although he might be right about not all of our thoughts being conscious, just as Darwin was right about natural selection, no one directly relies upon The Origin of Species. It has been superseded by decades of research. By the same token, Freud has been superseded by decades of more precise understanding of how our minds and brains work. No one should directly rely on Freud’s writings either–their age shows.

    Comment by Ashana M — March 10, 2013 @ 7:23 pm | Reply

    • We are all creatures of our time, but to blame Nazism on the ideas of Freud is bizarre. There is nothing old hat about ambivalence, or hero-worship, or idealization of leaders and the led. I didn’t expect very many to agree with my reading of Freud, but Ashana’s is unfair. Do you reject attachment theory as promulgated by such as Bowlby, Winnicott, and Mahler too? Are you by chance a behaviorist or a cognitive psychologist, given to behavior modification, for instance? Moreover, Freud did not entirely invent his theories; he freely acknowledged artists and writers, of antiquity and contemporaries alike.

      But there is something of interest in this comment of Ashana: the idea that the Victorian world had something to do with the rise of Hitler reminds me of the movies CABARET and CHICAGO. Both movies (and plays) were about decadence and the theatricality (inauthenticity) of modern life, a world that unleashed the furious power of women and their irresistible sexuality. Such a wild, over-emotional environment created a climate hospitable to the revolt of the masses, led by their puppet master Hitler, making use of the radio and spectacle to muddle the minds of the masses. Before these developments in culture, aristocrats and their allies in the Church moderated the behavior of the lower orders. So there is one aristocratic explanation for the rise of Hitler and the other Fascisms, all of which dethroned the old elites.

      A recent book by Eric Kandel (The Age of Insight) draws a link between Freud and his Viennese contemporaries, the hypersexualized Schnitzler, Klimt, and Schiele. This book attempts to explain new developments in neuroscience, and I found it unreadable and unreliable, as it implied that Freud was a pansexualist, thereby limiting the reach of his thought. So as much as I liked the movies CABARET and CHICAGO, they repeat a well-worn and distorted view of the rise of dictatorships in the 20th century. It was not “decadence” or “degeneration” or the decline of religion that caused the rise of the Third Reich.

      And now I finally understand the setting of the popular television show, The Good Wife, which repeats many of the themes traced above, including the locale of Chicago and the dubious practice of the law in a dog eat dog, utterly cynical world.

      Comment by clarespark — March 10, 2013 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

      • I wasn’t blaming Nazism on Freud–only saying they were produced by a similar culture. My point was that Freud overgeneralized his own experience and culturally constructed viewpoint. His assumption was that a highly authoritarian, Western culture was everyone’s culture. It was not and is not. Psychology has also moved onward in the last 100 or so years–mercifully.

        I am not a psychologist and not an expert–my opinions are of no special value. It’s unfortunate that you find my viewpoint unfair. I find disagreement can be interesting and stimulating, and that’s the reason I took the time to comment on your post.

        Comment by Ashana M — March 10, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

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