The Clare Spark Blog

November 15, 2009

“…and was this little boy YOU?” (2)

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Image (91)I. Here is an excerpt from chapter two of my book/collage, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival (Kent State UP, 2001, 2006). Gordon Allport collaborated with Harvard colleague Henry A. Murray to create programs of “civilian morale” that were nationally disseminated to progressive organizations. I presented these quotes to illustrate the double-binds that Melville exposed in such works as Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852).

[Richard Evans to Gordon Allport:] Since most of our students [at Harvard] begin the study of psychology by reading Freud, it might be profitable to begin by hearing your reaction to some of Freud’s ideas and work. I understand you actually met Freud on one occasion, and I wonder if you would tell about this meeting.

[Gordon Allport:] My one encounter with Freud did not turn out to be very significant for my professional development, but I’ll tell the story briefly. Not long after I finished college, I found myself in Vienna where Freud was not as renowned as he became later. At any rate, I wrote him a note announcing that I was in Vienna, and that he no doubt would be very glad to know it. He was very courteous and sent me a hand-written note inviting me to his office at a stated time. So I went to the famous Burggasser office which was papered in red burlap and decorated with pictures of dreams. At exactly the appointed time, Freud opened the door of his inner office, invited me in smilingly, sat down, and said nothing. It suddenly occurred to me that it was up to me to have a reason for calling on him, but I actually didn’t have any. I was just curious.[i] I fished around in my mind and came up with an event which occurred on the tramcar on the way to his office that I thought would interest him. There had been a little boy about four years old who obviously had already developed a dirt phobia. His mother was a Hausfrau, well starched and very prim, and the little boy would say he didn’t want to sit there; it was dirty. He didn’t want that man to sit next to him; he was dirty. And so it went throughout the whole trip. I thought this might interest Freud since the phobia seemed to be set so early in this case. He listened till I finished; then he fixed his very therapeutic eyes on me and said, “and was this little boy you?” It honestly was not, but I felt guilty. At any rate, I managed to change the conversation. In thinking over the experience, it impressed me that Freud’s tendency was to see pathological trends, and since most of the people who came to see him were patients, it was natural that he’d think I was a patient and break down my defenses in order to get on with the business. Actually, he mistook my motives in this case. Had he said to himself that I was a brassy American youth imposing on his good nature and time, he would have been fairly correct. But to ascribe my motivation to unconscious motives as he did in this case was definitely wrong. As I thought over the experience in subsequent years, it occurred to me that there might be a place for another type of theory to account for personality and motivation. (my emph.)

[Allport reflecting upon the 1950s concerns with conformity:] I’m inclined to think that the challenge to the healthy person is to learn to play the game where necessary, to meet the requirements of the culture, and still to have integrity, to maintain some self-objectification, and not to lose his personal values and commitments. It becomes more and more difficult to do, but I believe it can be done. It implies that the personality of the future will operate under more of a strain, but we don’t know yet what the actual potentiality of human development can be. We may be able to eat our cake and have it too by playing the organization game while remaining the individual of integrity and personal commitment.[ii]

Gordon Allport


I have attempted to create a political context for the controversies surrounding the life and art of Herman Melville. Ahab became “Melville” in institutions held to be implicitly critical and self-critical, but where the perimeters of dissent were not always explicitly delineated, or where “individuality” was flaunted in one breath, taunted in the next. The consequence was the construction of a crumbling national monument to American literature, unable to withstand the delegitimating gaze of its radical critics suspicious of claims to unbounded cultural freedom in the playgrounds of the new social sciences. [end book excerpt]

II. Anyone who has survived childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood knows that all professionals claiming the mantle of “science” are not equally competent and are never infallible. Still, they may cover up each other’s errors to protect themselves from the wrath of clients when and if they do mess up. I am saying this because of the furor over the Nidal Hasan jihad, and the blame being assigned to “psychiatry” and related fields in mental health as somehow culpable on account of an innately flawed methodology.

As I showed in my blog on the 1920s pseudo-Freudians, the unconscious mind, held to be the invention of Papa Freud himself, was probably the realm of the lower orders, whose success in American was dependent on accepting the definitions of harmony and conflict handed down by the Platonic Guardians of immigrant youth. Upon reflecting upon the gallons of wrathful ink spilled to discredit the founder of psychoanalysis, I believe his greatest sin was not his atheism (though that was a major crime for critics whose religion had purified themselves of original sin, death, and a future in hell), but his view of conflict. As I have shown on this website, the “progressives” either imposed harmony from above (a habit sometimes denounced by the pre-Freudian Herman Melville), or in the case of Freud, they objected to his notion that self-control was a constant struggle, and that childhood traumas and difficult relationships with the family of origin could leave permanent scars, manifesting themselves as neurotic anxiety (add to this depression), or a tendency to idealize objects (lovers and leaders, for instance). [This is a very crude and compressed summary of what I think Freud’s main argument was.]

Here are two currently relevant and useful examples from Freud’s contributions, and for those followers who have corrected his errors of emphasis and contributed to our understanding of such crucial matters as separation-anxiety for instance. (See my blog on Panic Attacks.)

1. Separating objective anxiety from neurotic anxiety. Anxiety is a common-sense approach to objective dangers in the world. When an opponent declares intentions to destroy oneself or one’s country, it is not neurotic to take steps in self-defense. But if one misreads those who make us anxious because some aspect of their appearance or conduct reminds us of hurtful parents or other intimates, we have to separate fantasy from reality. As long as the hurtful parent or mate or sibling remains “perfect” and always benevolent in memory, we cannot make the necessary separation from fantasy. Demagogues play upon this desire for the return of the perfectly protective parent and rescue us from enemies who may or may not be real antagonists. Hitler’s first speech as Chancellor  (Feb.10, 1933) with its introduction by Goebbels is an example of this technique: Goebbels and Hitler promised to millions the restoration of the conflict-free family, in his case understood to be “the people’s community” that was free of lying Jews and their lying press and their decadent Weimar Republic, the spawn of November 1918.

In chapter 7 of my Melville book, I show how powerful this longing for the perfectly happy “pluralist” family has been in the psyches of Melville’s revivers. Melville himself would vacillate between the explorer of “rifts” and the proponent of family harmony, sacrificing his own “mutinous” sensory perceptions and sense of individuality for their sake: see “Billy Budd” as an example.

2. Recognizing conflict that is susceptible to mediation or arbitration and not assuming that all conflict is reconcilable. In the case of irreconcilable conflict, one must either slug it out with hostile enemies, or tolerate real differences grounded in the material world of classes and genders, meanwhile scrutinizing one’s own contribution to conflict, for instance, in inconsistent or negligent parenting, or inattention to the rights and feelings of others. Where Allport or Talcott Parsons and the other functionalists went wrong was in assuming that “the system” could be manipulated by them and other experts so that “natural harmony” prevailed, and all conflict therefore, must emanate from outsiders, for instance the troublemaking (destabilizing) Jewish capitalist or communist. Freud would suffer from the same stigma—he became the outsider who created ruptures between past and present, who encouraged one to reconfigure the past, and to constantly revise one’s own view of personal and national histories with appropriate curiosity, then to take responsibility for misperceptions and to attempt to correct them in the future. What he did not advocate was excusing miscreants as the products of evil parents, but as moralist, he most certainly held “authority” responsible for abusing those in its care.  (to be continued)

[i] 101. I.e., for Allport, curiosity is a passion, not an aspect or component of reason. Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Part One, Chapter 6.

[ii] 102. Richard I. Evans, Gordon Allport: The Man and His Ideas (New York: Dutton, 1970), 4-5, 104. The interviews with Allport are undated. Nothing is mentioned about his work on civilian morale, though the role of the academic psychologist in society is briefly explored. The interviewer never asks Allport to reflect upon the possible influence of his intense (German) Protestant religious commitments upon his social ideas. That he was indeed religious was stated by a former student speaking from the floor in a memorial symposium (1969) two years after Allport’s death.

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