June 2012

Evan McMurry


After Freud Left: A Century of Psychoanalysis in America edited by John Burnham and Hidden Minds: The History of the Unconscious by Frank Tallis

"Now and then," Lionel Trilling wrote in his introduction to Sincerity and Authenticity, a book that would end with the world's last uncompromised appreciation of Sigmund Freud, "it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself."

Trilling's line refers to the history of sincerity, but it achieves particular resonance in the book's closing chapter, when Trilling turns to Freud's most unsettling text, Civilization and Its Discontents. Trilling had long been a proponent of Freud's, but the exegesis he had just written seemed to exclude the thinker. The political radicalism of the '60s and '70s, in full swing at the time of Trilling's writing, idolized insanity as an authentic rebellion against institutionalized authority, and had no time or desire for the quiet, incremental, and highbrow method of mental repair that was psychoanalysis; discontent was energy to be funneled on the street, not explored and rooted out in a stuffy Manhattan office. Trilling looked around him and saw the moral life revising itself yet again, this time away from the Viennese analyst who had so recently been hailed as the hero of twentieth century thought.

He was right: within a few years of Sincerity and Authenticity, Freud's ideas would be anathema on university campuses and would lose such favor with the discipline of psychology that they would be referenced only as straw men, and eventually not at all. Meanwhile, Freud's fate in the mainstream would be one of cigar quotes and double entendres, his name allusive of a caricature more than a creator of a discipline. How did one of the most influential thinkers of our history arrive at such a low end? And how did his formulation of the unconscious, once one of the most important discoveries in the history of the mind since Cartesian duality, get reduced to nothing more than cultural shorthand?

Two new books consider Freud's decline, both as the father of psychoanalysis and as the steward of the unconscious. Nine scholars in John Burnham's critical anthology, After Freud Left, trace the rise and fall of psychoanalysis in America, from its importation via prewar German exiles to its intellectual apex in the '60s to its eventual, Trilling-foreshadowed dissolution. Picking up where Burnham's collection leaves off, Hidden Minds, Frank Tallis's back-of-the-napkin history of the unconscious, follows Freud's conception of the unconscious as it spurred the now-popular fields of neuro- and evolutionary psychology. The texts both arrive at a present day in which psychology has matured into a vast empirical science, but one in which the lessons of Freud have been largely subsumed or forgotten, leaving the reader to wonder if the cost of psychology's fortune has been the moral heft of the discipline, its ability to not just examine and treat the mind but imbue it with existential urgency.


For all that it began in Vienna and always carried the whiff of the Continent, psychoanalysis ultimately established itself in America. The beginning of the New World's fascination with the method is commonly thought to be the 1909 Clark lecture, in which Freud, on his first visit to the States, unpacked psychoanalysis to a culture for which psychology was still something of a practitioner's science. (For a Keira Knightleyed-reenactment of this trip, see David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method.)

The first half of After Freud Left goes after this origin myth with an exhausting vengeance, overturning every scrap of paper and eavesdropping on every offhanded comment from Freud's visit to America for proof that the future icon was in fact just a peripheral participant at the Clark conference. More an object of interest to its rich and eccentric sponsor than he was for any of the psychologists in attendance, Freud even played second fiddle to Jung. The scholars jointly make the case that psychoanalysis did not wash up on the shores of America with boundary-bumping fanfare, but crept in over decades -- a crucial point to the ultimate fate of psychoanalysis, but one proven in the anthology far beyond the reader's patience. At one point, a photograph of the Clark group is dissected to prove that Freud was further from the middle of the group than originally thought.

Psychoanalysis instead was smuggled into America by Viennese and Berlin exiles, whose intellectual gifts were more and more unwelcome in a Germany marching toward National Socialism. These expats arrived to find American psychology a mixed bag of medicine, science, bureaucracy, and flimflam. The Germans' thick accents made them outcasts in psychology departments; their politics even more so. All the worse, psychoanalysis was still a method, not yet a discipline, meaning the immigrant scholars spent as much time in America fighting each other as they did the ignorant public or recalcitrant academy. In one incredible anecdote from 1939, two exiled psychoanalysts in Chicago get into such a dispute over a finer point of the method that one equates the other to Hitler, proving Godwin's Law goes all the way back to the beginning.

After World War Two, psychoanalysis took off in America, and Burnham's anthology gets moving along with it. Dorothy Ross's chapter on Freud and Modernism, the most fascinating of the book, shows how this minor strain of thought coincided with a postwar culmination of intellectualism in academia, when the Apollonian potential of the scholarly mind seemed to provide a bulwark against the ever-eroding Dionysian chaos of modernism. Freud, last seen breaking down musty barriers of sexuality and loosing the dark energies of the mind, suddenly became an organizer of mental, emotional, and sexual development, not along fussy Victorian lines but modern ones forged in the pits of existentialism. This new order was less Thomas Hardy than Samuel Beckett, but it was still an order, and it appealed to a group of thinkers in need of an organizing principle that took in such madness as the Einsatzgruppen.

Trilling was the chief promulgator of this conception of Freud as a thinking man's Achilles. After a quick internship in narrow Marxist criticism, Trilling fled to the multidimensionality of Freud's worldview, responding, as so many writers (but not psychologists) did, to Freud's literariness. Trilling wrote less of Freud the empirical analyst than of the later philosopher who constructed an entire philosophy of the development of the human mind through the capacious use of metaphor and narrative. Those are, elementally, the methods of fiction, and Trilling had stuck his nose in enough books to know a novelist when he saw one. What, after all, were the adventures of Don Quixote or the sorrows of Young Werther or the dissembling of Lucien Sorel but case studies? And were the aims and techniques of Eliot's or James's psychological inquiries so foreign from Freud's? Freud applied these techniques, long thought to be the purview of art, to the palpable world, and in doing so affirmed the intellectual and moral investigations of literature after the traumas of the first half of the twentieth century left the possibility of meaningful intellectual quest very much in doubt.

Trilling did not pitch this vision of Freud in a vacuum. "The Freud who faced unblinkingly the chaos within," Ross writes, "and constructed from it the only truth available to human beings vindicated the modernist project and validated the moral seriousness of Trilling's intellectual class." To postwar scholars, who had survived either the trenches of the First World War or the Anschluss of the Second, Freud became a philosopher warrior, his descent into the underworld of the unconscious a template of bravery that stood in distinction to the century's violence even as it shared in the valor of the victories. In the darkness within, Freud had faced down the essence of the fascistic darkness without and come away with a sort of secret map of the opponent's maneuverings. He would never be higher in cultural and intellectual estimations.

Freud's fall from this pedestal was precipitous. In the '60s, political radicalism, postmodernism, and feminism combined to make Freud seem "not a modernist hero but as a prisoner of his Victorian culture," as Ross put it. The Apollonian order that Trilling and his contemporaries saw as redemption from the chaos of the first half of the twentieth century became, for the next generation, merely another line of bricks on the wall of the old institution. Nowhere is this more perfectly embodied than when Trilling himself, best known for an essay collection called The Liberal Imagination, awoke to find himself a conservative without having moved.

Meanwhile, rapid advances in psychopharmacology marginalized psychoanalysis into the aisle of discarded sciences like phrenology and hypnotism. Freud's prioritizing of anxiety as the psyche's primal state had appealed to the intellectuals of the Cold War, for whom peace was an illusionary interstice between wars, but Louis Menand tracks how anxiety quickly became the prime target of the pills that had first been developed in response to wartime trauma and soon spread, via prescription pad, to every diagnosis. Once these pills made anxiety -- better translated as angst -- an optional condition, it lost its authentic role in the existential formulation of man, and as a generation grew up without experiencing the intensities of a world war, the primacy of angst eroded. Why suffer anxiety, let alone explore and investigate and in some ways prioritize it, if there was no need to be bummed out?

Soon not only was the couch of psychoanalysis replaced by the bottle of lithium, but also the very existential drive of psychology was changed: the discipline was no longer an existentially-tinged exploration into selfhood but a laboratory-bred regulation of it. Both Freud the psychoanalyst and Freud the philosopher had been made obsolete, and the intellectual affirmations Trilling had found in Freud's labyrinths of metaphors were ridiculed, reduced to cliché, or discontinued. Burnham's anthology concludes with a short consideration of Freud's decennial reappearance on the covers of Time and Newsweek, always under headlines along the lines of "Is Freud Back?" the very schlockiness of which confirmed that he most certainly was not.


The irony of psychoanalysis joining hypnotism in science's discount bin is not fully appreciated until one is halfway through Frank Tallis's Hidden Minds. In the hundred years leading up to Freud, the unconscious was prefigured by writers, doctors, entertainers, and quacks, a process well elucidated by Tallis's nimble text. But whether scholar or showman, the arrow pointing them all to the unconscious was hypnotism, which was discovered as a side effect of an experiment and quickly become one of the most studied phenomena of eighteenth century science. The continued functioning of the mind despite its owner's trance-like state, the way it suggested a subaltern consciousness controlling the body but not controlled by the will, convinced thinkers and charlatans alike that they had finally accessed that layer beneath the mind's surface that had prophesied by everyone from St. Augustine to the Romantics. And because medicine was not yet associated with the institution or the laboratory, the examinations of this second consciousness earned their keep via performances for aristocrats or road shows; the prehistory of the unconscious is found at the carnival and the parlor as much as the operating theater or the university.

A performative frill clung to psychology even after Freud and Jung and others had doused it in Austrian seriousness. Despite psychoanalysis's gradual entry into the United States -- and Tallis buys into the very trope of the 1909 Clark lecture that Burnham's book is so desperate to correct -- the method did eventually make quite a melodramatic splash stateside. Psychoanalysts were hired to consult on screenplays and the practice of advanced ticket sales on Broadway came about thanks to a Freudian play that sold out too quickly. (Freud left the Clark lecture sneering at America's pathological monetization, famously dismissing the country as "gigantic, but a gigantic mistake"; Ernst Falzeder's chapter on Freud in America in Burnham's anthology is full of such bitter asides.) The eventual cartoonish reduction of Freud's ideas into memes of titillation can be detected in this early, gaudy popularization of psychoanalysis, a fact that suggests the method's midcentury prominence was the result of a deal with the American devil that eventually came due later in the '70s.

Like Burnham's book, Hidden Minds takes off after the war, as Tallis's history of neuropsychology and evolutionary psychology forms a complementary narrative to that of psychoanalysis's decline. Under Tallis's formulation, even as psychoanalysis was expelled from psychology, a field of study that craved scientific validation, its central dichotomy of the conscious and the unconscious was arrogated by the discipline, in much the same way that Freud gathered the rough theories of the unconscious and made of them a coherent structure. While behaviorists had dismissed the unconscious as an old world phantom, some empiricists were busy stumbling upon it in the process of studying the brain, as they noticed time and again that the mind seemed to be registering stimuli of which the subject was unaware. Like hypnotism, this new conception of the unconscious appeared from the periphery of experiments to quickly become the object of study itself.

But this was not Freud's unconscious, and it would not be spoken of in metaphor and narratives. Whereas Freud applied the language of classical texts, fin-de-siecle science, and nineteenth century literature to the rural parts of the mind, psychologists from the 1950s-on found what Tallis calls "a new vocabulary": that of the computer.

In only a few decades psychologists and neuroscientists were not saying that the brain was like a computer, they were saying that the brain was a computer... Psychologists were still discussing the operation of unconscious mechanisms, but not in the heated language of nineteenth-century Vienna. Instead, they were using the more restrained vocabulary of computer science. The new model did not require unconscious agencies or submerged secondary personalities to explain perpetual defense. All that was needed was hierarchy of processing stages, progressing from lower to higher levels. [Tallis's emphasis]

From here, Hidden Minds is fascinating romp through five decades' worth of scientific experimentation, from the Rorschach test and the polygraph to subliminal messaging in advertisements and Judas Priest albums. Tallis marks as foundational a midcentury experiment that established our consciousness lags by a half-second behind a series of preconscious processors that sense, recognize, and organize an infinite amount of stimuli. Once this preconscious set of processors was established, the nascent discipline of neuropsychology busied itself exploring the intelligence of this preconscious -- it is capable of receiving and organizing multiple inputs of stimuli almost instantaneously -- and its shocking independence -- it decides which stimuli we become conscious of and how, and decides for us that of which we will never become aware. So, for instance, our response to people we like and those we don't has nothing to do with our moral assessments, but rather a series of visual processors that organizes facial features and social cues and transmits a summary judgment to our consciousness, which we recognize as a conscious and willful reaction when it is in fact anything but.

This preconscious is not exclusive of Freud's unconscious, as the sensory processors do not necessarily prohibit the mechanisms of defense, transference, and repression that Freud untangled in our relationship with our own memories. But it does render psychoanalysis as irrelevant as psychopharmacology did. If our second-by-second functioning is determined by sensory functions before and beyond our control, of what point is high-level investigation into memory formation? Wouldn't those memories merely be the products of the same processors, deciding for us not only what we remember but also the emotional resonance we assign to that memory? Under Freud, psychoanalysis is a method of penetrating the nether regions of the mind, a process by which one may infer the self; but neuropsychology renders the very investigation itself the ephemera of those nether regions, leaving the subject as removed from a conception of the self as ever before. Freud had warned that the unconscious was "the third blow" to human centrality, after the heliocentric universe and the evolution of species, and Tallis argues, convincingly, that the equations of neuropsychology are a full realization of that blow, one that definitively removes the self from our control, and makes us not masters but victims of our own minds.

It is here that Tallis's history meets Burnham's anthology. Both arrive at the point psychology has scientifically outgrown Freud but has not yet replaced the moral weight that ballasted his philosophy. To be human to Freud was to be afflicted, but it was also to be gifted with the capacity, and even the existential obligation, to explore that affliction; psychological investigation was not just the best response to individual affliction but also the only practicable path to the equilibrium that kept civilization from its discontents. That the exploration of our deepest neuroses was no easy task is part of what granted psychoanalysis a certain nobility that neither psychopharmacology nor neuropsychology -- both of which are masked, intentionally or not, in the opaque jargon of empiricism -- ever achieve; there is no mistaking in those disciplines the lack of what one writer in After Freud Left calls, in reference to Freud's massive philosophy, "heroic medicine."

That heroism is precisely what Trilling was responding to in his vital imaging of Freud, and it is exactly what Trilling worried we were sacrificing when he warned the new generation of liberals against appropriating and diluting the anxiety that Freud posited as the price of our civilization for their faddish rebellion against it. Anxiety, the existence of which Freud fought against in Civilization and Its Discontents even as the entire text is a diagram of its existence, was Freud's great democratic villain, one every human necessarily fought against, an internal and individual struggle that formed the condition of man. This struggle has been revised out of the moral life, replaced by pills and neuron pathways; but without it, we have been left, in Tallis's priceless phrase, in "an ontological swoon." Trilling spoke of the "more than equal coin" man traded under psychoanalysis for self-knowledge; but what coin have we traded for a science that cancels out the very struggle to achieve this knowledge?

After Freud Left: A Century of Psychoanalysis in America edited by John Burnham
University of Chicago Press
ISBN-13: 978-0226081373
280 pages

Hidden Minds: The History of the Unconscious by Frank Tallis
Arcade Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-1611455052
208 pages