YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

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 https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/, 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 https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/).

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 http://www.medpagetoday.com/psychiatry/anxietystress/37467.)

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 https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/.)

Peter Gay 2007

Peter Gay 2007

Hyper-individualistic Puritanism (Moralizing Mothers?! See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/.) 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 https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/.** )

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 https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/.) 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 https://clarespark.com/2013/03/22/traditionalists-on-the-culture-front/).

*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


December 9, 2012

Holiday blues, Unhappy families

norman-rockwell-coupleOne of Freud’s primary themes in treatment of his patients was the separation of (idiosyncratic) neurotic anxiety from objective anxiety. Since anxiety disorders (along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorders) are widely present in our culture, I thought that the general subject was worthy of focus and exploration.

Keep in mind that many of Freud’s original writings were published before the events of the 20th century, with horrors such as the Great War leading to innovations in his repertoire, for instance “the death wish” or a general pessimism regarding the human condition (“everyday unhappiness”), not to speak of his attack on all religion as infantile regression in The Future of An Illusion (1928). But the Freudians today are few and cater to an older, usually moneyed urban clientele, while it is the Jungians whose influence has penetrated into popular culture and even school curricula, owing perhaps to Jung’s postulation of a racially-specific unconscious that blends well with racialist theories of multiculturalism. (For my numerous blogs on Jung and Jungians, see https://clarespark.com/2010/05/10/jungians-rising/.)

It is more often the case that Freud’s influence, if any, is filtered through the structural functionalism of Talcott Parsons and similar social theorists who are more interested in adjustment and functionality (stability in interpersonal and international relations), than in the tracking of personal traumas and intertwined social traumas that lead to troubling “symptoms” such as the anxiety disorders. Indeed, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders  has been funded by liberals and their foundations and related organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation, U.S. government agencies, the World Health Organization, and the American Psychiatric Association. Their approach is managerial, as opposed to an orientation to cure, for that could lead to radicalization or other postures deemed destabilizing to social order imagined by the moderate men.

NPR recently interviewed a psychiatrist in the know about changes to DSM-V, the diagnostic manual used by physicians of every kind in labeling and prescribing treatment for their patients. This psychiatrist stated that it was likely that grief (a subject that has not been previously “medicalized” as abnormal) would be limited to two months, after which antidepressants might be indicated. (For a general summary of proposed changes in DSM-V see http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/controversy-changes-dsm-diagnosis-1205127, posted December 6, 2012.)

Some passages from the Introduction to DSM-IV bear quoting, especially as they are not only as indecipherable as Parson’s own famously awful prose, but are careful to avoid positing dualisms between mind and body, or labeling suffering “individuals”:

“In DSM-IV, each of the mental disorders is conceptualized as a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. In addition, this syndrome or pattern must not be an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one. Whatever its original cause, it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual. Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of dysfunction in the individual as described above.” [I have not yet found a definition of “the individual”; rather, progressives are careful to define the “individual-in-society.”  See https://clarespark.com/2009/12/12/switching-the-enlightenment-corporatist-liberalism-and-the-revision-of-american-history/. CS]

[DSM-IV, cont.:]  “A common misconception is that a classification of mental disorders classifies people, when actually what are being classified are disorders that people have. For this reason, the text of DSM-IV (as did the text of DSM-III-R) avoids the use of such expressions as “a schizophrenic” or “an alcoholic” and instead uses the more accurate, but admittedly more cumbersome, “an individual with Schizophrenia” or “an individual with Alcohol Dependence.” ( my emphasis, pp. xxi-xxii)

This is the language of progressivism, pretending that these experts believe in the discrete, unique individual, while all along using quantification and statistics that attempt to describe disruptive (mal-adjusting) group behaviors: “disorders that people have.” Moreover, their language is so vague and abstract that I for one, can barely decode their language. But I suspect that “defiant” individuals (who have their own section in DSM-IV) are deemed dysfunctional no matter how rationally based their nonconformity may be. (I was considered to be “defiant” or excessively “experimental” in graduate school by leading professors, sometimes in private, sometimes in public. See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/.)

The language that I have quoted is so abstracted from the real life experience of classes, genders, or other groupings that one wonders if the suspicions of the anti-psychiatry theorists are not themselves more rational than the mental health practitioners who rely upon DSM’s diagnostic codes to prescribe pills and other remedies for symptoms that are imposed by the concrete life experiences of soldiers, abused and neglected children, or simply members of families that do not meet their individual emotional and biological needs.

But as I read the section in DSM-IV on post-traumatic stress disorders, I was struck by the usefulness of these causal situations to current day problems that are often global in nature: the direct experience of war and falsifying propaganda; the demoralizing teaching of history as non-stop atrocity; the hyper-sexualization of American culture that exposes children to sexual scenes at early ages; the crime shows on television or in the movies that are graphically violent and sexual in nature; the constant broadcasting of apocalyptic scenarios that blame industrialization for the imminent end of life on our planet; “rage against the machine” by rock bands and other counter-culture wannabe stars; gangsta rap; the barrage of images of the happy gift-giving, problem-solving family (especially from Thanksgiving on through Christmas)–families untroubled by generational conflict, misunderstanding, or sibling rivalry.

While I object to the introductory material that I have quoted, the many social-cultural-political sources of PTSD are useful to the understanding of “objective anxiety.”

How neurotic are we, or are most of us rationally reacting to an objectively terrifying world? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/. For a description of the controversy surrounding revisions of DSM-IV, see http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2012/12/inside-controversy-over-bible-mental-disorder/59849/.)

Why does Norman Rockwell have a German helmet circa WW1 perched on top of his easel?

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

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