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?


February 23, 2013

Peter Gay’s “Freud”

gustav-klimt.JudithI 1901I have finally read all of Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for our Time (Norton, 1988). (Counting notes and index, it comes to 810 pages.) It told me less about Freud in his time, than it did about the American appropriation of Freud during the time when Peter Gay, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, was making his way in psychoanalysis and academe, for Gay had adapted to the progressive movement’s halt to the Enlightenment (see, especially the sentences in bold face, quoting Talcott Parsons in the early 1940s). Progressives decreed that there would be no more “romantic” defiance of authority (i.e., experts), religion would occupy a different sphere of life than science, and Freud’s last (pessimistic) works (The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Moses and Monotheism*) would be roughed up as products of old age, illness, and the shock of the Great War.

For the progressives are, above all, optimists about social engineering. Hence we learn that Freud was in part a Lamarckian with a strong belief in social psychology and national character. Moreover, he declared “a plague on both your houses” when referring to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Thus Gay can use the word “totalitarian” knowing that he will get no argument from other progressives (i.e., social democrats/left liberals: see

Peter Gay is an intellectual historian and a trained lay analyst, so we are somewhat bullied in taking his judgments as an authoritative, fearless account of one of the great interventions in the treatment of neurosis—for instance, of hysteria, anxiety, phobias, and all illnesses with psychosomatic causes (today we call this “stress”). Yet his imagination is curiously circumscribed. For instance, at no point does he deploy anything like a class analysis to Freud’s topography of the mind: the interconnected superego, ego, and Id. (On the long-term effects of bullying see

Were Peter Gay an appropriately daring lone wolf, as audacious as his subject, he would surely have recognized the lasting impact of the “Jacobin” controlled French Revolution as the Red Specter par excellence. He might have seen Freud’s “Id” as the rampaging People, known throughout Europe and America for their la-dee-da attitudes toward sexuality and ever available aggression against bullying superiors (i.e., the People as the embodiment of the Pleasure Principle); similarly the “the Superego” (internalized paternal conscience) could have stood for an aristocracy/haute bourgeois elite that could be either rigid or accommodating to the new industrial working class that threatened ancient elite prerogatives, while the Ego (or Reality Principle) would be the professional layer of healers and professors who espoused “moderation” in all things, and never, ever, bullied their patients or students to adopt those practices that served “social cohesion” and “political stability;” rather for the ego psychologists among them, it was “therapy” or practices that enhanced “civilian morale.” (For the alliance of aristocracy and working class against the ‘laissez-faire’ modernizing bourgeoisie, see

Peter Gay 2007

Peter Gay 2007

Hyper-individualistic Puritanism (Moralizing Mothers?! See would have to go, for a harsh Superego would likely call forth world-destroying rebellion in the sons; and indeed Gay’s agitated portrait of Nazis in Vienna, the thieving, brutal mob, is indeed scary, and finally drives the deeply rooted Freud to England where he will end his 83 years in an assisted suicide, but after coming out as an anti-Semite in Moses and Monotheism. (Was it any wonder that Talcott Parsons of Harvard described the analogues of Nazis in America “romantic Puritans”? Harvard sociologists would be sure to tame that harsh superego, along the lines recommended by other moderate men, appropriating “Freud” for their mind-management techniques in the interest of “civilian morale.” See** )

Personally, I remain fond of Freudian concepts such as the distinction between neurotic vs. objective anxiety, the ambivalence inside ourselves in our primary attachments to parents, siblings, and other love-hate objects, a subject developed by such as John Bowlby and other attachment-theorists. And without understanding regression, we are helpless in the face of fairy tales, Oscars weekend, pornography, and popular culture in general (See But I am not so fond of Peter Gay, who failed to interrogate his own class position/careerism in writing this supposedly authoritative, no-holds-barred biography, intended to instruct a crossover readership in the life of Freud and of his polymorphous perverse sex-obsessed (?)  followers, modernist followers who are leading us into decadence and the abyss (see

*I have read Moses and Monotheism three times, and have failed to find anything antisemitic about it, as some scholars have claimed. Freud explicitly states that antisemitism may be a displacement of resentment against Christianity, and that pre-Jewish, pre-Christian barbarism remains powerful. It may be that Peter Gay’s allergy to Freudian pessimism indicates his desire to appeal to progressive gentile American sensitivities. Here is what Freud actually wrote about antisemitism: “We must not forget that all the peoples who now excel in the practice of anti-Semitism became Christians only in relatively recent times, sometimes forced to it by bloody compulsion. One might say they all are ‘badly christened’; under the thin veneer of Christianity they have remained what their ancestors were, barbarically polytheistic. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them, and they have projected it on to the source from which Christianity came to them. The fact that the Gospels tell a story which is enacted among Jews, and in truth treats only of Jews, has facilitated such a projection. The hatred for Judaism is at bottom hatred for Christianity, and it is not surprising that in the German National Socialist revolution this close connection of the two monotheistic religions finds such clear expression in the hostile treatment of both.” (Moses and Monotheism, transl. Katherine Jones (Knopf, 1949), pp. 144-45)

**[From Hunting Captain Ahab:] For Parsons, maladjusted neurotics were fomenting conflict and fragmentation, not adaptation and interdependence. But froward rebels could be cured in the socially responsible psychiatrist’s office through “steady discipline to which the patient is subjected in the course of his treatment. While the fact that he is required and allowed to express himself freely may provide some immediate satisfactions, he is not really allowed to ‘get away’ with their implications for the permanent patterning of his life and social relations, but is made, on progressively deeper levels, conscious of the fact that he cannot ‘get away’ with them. The physician places him in a kind of ‘experimental situation’ where this is demonstrated over and over again (561).”

Egon Schiele 1915

Egon Schiele 1915

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