September 2007

Jason B. Jones


A Freud Reader in a Strange Land

The plan for Psycho Slut is straightforward: Re-read The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, one volume at a time, from "Report on My Studies in Paris and Berlin" to "Anti-Semitism in England." This organizing conceit will make room for reviewing new books about psychology and the mind, interviews with psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically-inclined theorists, plus any writer interested in psychology, consciousness, and literary form. I'm trying to discover what, if anything, remains of Freud. Is there any point to reading him directly, rather than sticking to contemporary chemically and neurologically-inclined updates?

I've been thinking about these questions for four years now, ever since my first reception for new faculty. At the reception, my dean remembered our chat, during my job interview four months earlier, about Freud and Victorian literature, and introduced me to a couple of faculty in other departments as someone who does interesting things with psychoanalysis.

Had I wet myself, I could not have made a worse impression than being introduced as someone interested in Freud. Barraged with questions about why I would waste my time on a thinker so wholly discredited, I tried to take the high road, noting that there's actually been some work in recent years, both in neuroscience and in cognitive psychology, that confirms some of the key elements of Freudian thought. (In May's issue, I spoke with Mark Solms, neuro-analyst and Freud translator, about some of these ideas.) My new colleagues weren't having anything of it: If neurologists weren't citing Freud daily, then the connections weren't real, and if the cognitive people weren't spending all day defending penis envy and the Oedipus complex, why then, all of psychoanalysis was self-evidently debunked.

Now, I am not one of those psychoanalytic writers who ascribes all criticism of psychoanalysis to repression and self-delusion. (Actually, I think such writers are more apocryphal than not, but we'll get into that another month.) But because I had graduated from a program offering a minor in Psychoanalytic Studies, it had been many years since I encountered such rampant hostility to psychoanalysis. (Except, perhaps, for when my mother found out that, as part of my work with the program, I had gone into analysis...) I have been mulling over my own commitments to Freud, and thinking about why, and to what extent, Freud matters today.

It has thus been interesting to watch the reception afforded this summer's flavor-of-the-month Democratic political consultant, Drew Westen, and his new book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Reviewers have emphasized, and rightly so, the way Westen draws on contemporary neurological and scientific research to show that people have profound blindspots about their deeply-held beliefs. Confronted with evidence that conflicts with cherished assumptions, the brain's rational areas don't respond, but rather make way for the emotional areas of the brain. In effect, Westen argues, people offer up rationalization after rationalization, and the brain rewards them for it. One of the things that makes Westen's work compelling is that you can watch these biases play out on functional MRIs.

While Westen's work is quite up-to-date, it also draws on some of Freud's most important insights. In particular, Westen emphasizes Freud's idea that unconscious networks of meaning and association exert a kind of gravitational pull on reason and the conscious self. I was interested in Westen's book because he's an affiliated faculty member of the Emory Psychoanalytic Studies Program, where I once saw him speak. In The Political Brain, he reports on older studies which show that triggering these unconscious networks can have powerful effects. If, for example, you ask people to spell "terrier" out of the blue, they will have more errors than if they've been prepped with some talk about dogs in general. Likewise, if you pause during a discussion of the moon or the ocean and casually ask people to name a brand of laundry detergent, they are extremely likely to say Tide. (At least, if they've got a rudimentary understanding of gravity. This doesn't work with kids.) You haven't lived until you've seen someone do this in person to an audience of psychologists and analysts: During his lecture, Westen seemed to digress briefly into a little anecdote about seeing the moon on the ocean, and popped his question. In a single voice, the audience burst out with the desired answer, and then, in a collective double-take, broke out in giggles. Even analysts, who daily come into contact with the suffering caused by these unconscious networks, find themselves caught up in them.

People will object that this isn't "Freudian" at all, of course, because it's got nothing to do with sex, with the family romance, or with any of the apparently baroque elements of psychoanalytic theory. But when I read Freud, I don't really see sex, or an account of the family, or anything: I see an attempt to describe -- in highly metaphorical ways, to be sure -- the ways these associative networks disrupt our thought and perturb our emotions and relationships.

Writing to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss on December 6, 1896, Freud characterized mental development as requiring a "translation of... psychic material," and "explain[s] the peculiarities of the psychoneuroses by supposing that this translation has not taken place in the case of some of the material, which has certain consequences." He is, in short, trying to explain how associations, thoughts, and feelings that once made perfect sense, but have now been forgotten, nevertheless can persist in their effects. It's not so much that boys want to sleep with their mothers and murder their fathers; rather, it's that so many boys think as though they once believed this. Psychoanalysis is about self-delusion about our past, not about crazed symbolic interpretation. From this point of view, Freud's metaphors -- and the odd ways he's been translated and received and read for a century now -- would thus be part of the point about psychoanalysis, and, especially, suggests why Freud's worth reading directly.

Next month: Volume I: Pre-Psychoanalytic Publications & Unpublished Drafts. Sounds dull, but, as Solms insists, Freud's later thought can be read as an attempt to capture metaphorically certain basic neurological insights. Volume I is also notable for printing some of Freud's correspondence with the quirky Wilhelm Fleiss, as well as the Project for a Scientific Psychology, a work discovered after Freud's death which lends an uncanny retroactive consistency to his work.