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 https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

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?

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February 25, 2012

Moral atheists?

Blake's Ancient of Days, 1794

[This blog is dedicated to my daughter Jenny, who called my attention to the missing father in the Whitney Houston death coverage. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/13/whitneys-spectacular-demise/.] Fox News Channel is usually vigilant in exposing atheists and watching out for threatened family values and “the folks,” who may be waylaid by “secularists”; i.e., nihilists and cultural relativists. It is often imagined that feminists, like communists before them, are adherents to such destructive beliefs, beliefs that send its adherents to hell in this world and/or the next.

I noticed yesterday that one Republican operative who posts on Facebook had asked the question, “does not atheism lead to the breakdown of society”—or words to that effect. I engaged the question and realized I had the germ of an idea for a new blog.

On a recent blog (https://clarespark.com/2011/10/19/sex-without-freud/), I have noted that the “Jew” Freud was more controversial than the “Jew” Marx as I researched literary criticism and the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum between the wars. It was probably Freud’s The Future of An Illusion (1927) that was most offensive to the progressives I was studying, for Marx’s anticapitalism was not far from their own. Though many of these academics were not overtly religious and may have been agnostic or atheistic or primitivist followers of “the Greek Way,” they were strongly defending the notion of “the good father” (e.g., FDR) as “the focus of veneration.” Hence, Melville’s straying father as depicted in his “crazy” novel Pierre, or, the Ambiguities (1852) had to be defended against excessive [female, Hebraic] puritanism, while Melville himself, a covert sympathizer with Captain Ahab, had to be denounced as murderer and/or abuser of his wife and sons. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/06/12/call-me-isabel-a-reflection-on-lying/.)

[It is well known that antisemites and anti-imperialists have pictured the Hebrew God (whose name may be spoken or written only as Yahweh) as brutal, warlike, and domineering, in contrast to themselves, who walk in the steps of the gentle, peacemaking, even maternal, Christ, (or perhaps they reject all religion along with their families of origin, turning themselves into Nietzschean man-gods and goddesses). Only a selective, ahistoric, and misguided reading of the Christian Bible could support such a sharp antithesis between Jew and Christian. See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/14/the-abcs-of-antisemitism/, especially the note on Harvard historian Crane Brinton, who associated Jacobins with “Hebraic fury” and Calvinism.]

To return to my chat with the Republican operative: I argued that it was not belief in God that was decisive to a moral, law-abiding, politically engaged, creative adulthood, but rather family structure. I referred to such issues as the presence or absence of a strong, loving, protective, emotionally present father, and such relatively unstudied questions as sibling rivalry and birth order (mental health workers will know what I mean. Some economists and sociologists will strongly disagree, arguing that it is the amount of money in the family that most affects life chances for the children. I don’t know how this could be proven one way or another.).

A weak, mostly absent father, averse to domesticity and to close contact with children in their most crucial period of brain development (starting at birth but continuing through their 20s!) is more likely than not to incite cult-like behavior and nihilism in his children. Without that introjected paternal superego, we are adrift in a sea of competing ideologies, and well may seek an anchor in a repressive dictatorial father-substitute, or, as in the case of the French Revolution, we may seek direction in a vindictive mob.

As I studied misogyny in 19th century and 20th century authors, including poets, I saw frequent terror of the modern woman, a figure most notable for her switching from indulgent, constant comforter to horrifying, death-dealing witch. (https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/).  Single mothers today are expected to be both disciplinarian and bearer of unconditional love. I wonder if this double role is not too much to expect from single mothers, indeed the double role may be the precursor to misogyny, yet some counter-culture figures, including some feminists, are not daunted by the possibility that the male-free home is not the mark of progress they imagine. Is it not likely that “the kids are not all right?”

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