October 2007

Jason B. Jones


Freud's Authority

Everyone knows that psychoanalysis is largely founded on Sigmund Freud's self-analysis, documented in part in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 [1899]). It's hardly shocking that those familiar with Freud's biography can easily find tantalizing bits of evidence for some element or another of Freudian theory. (And let's not discuss Freud's disturbing penchant for analyzing family members such as Little Hans and, of course, his favorite daughter, Anna.)

But sometimes the connections between life and theory are truly uncanny. This month, I've been re-reading Volume I of the Standard Edition: "Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts." The volume has three basic parts: Freud's early writings on hysteria, under the influence of Jean-Martin Charcot; his letters to his close friend Wilhelm Fliess, in which Freud works out the basic shape of his early theory; and, the true gem of the volume, the Project for a Scientific Psychology, written in 1895 but not published until 1950. In the Fliess letters, Freud hesitatingly tries out one hypothesis, then another, as he comes increasingly to understand the workings of psychological causality. He submits his ideas to Fliess's numerological fantasies, and they complain about the progress of their careers. While Freud eventually came to write with authority on almost every psychological or cultural topic that crossed his mind -- whether or not his opinion was well-founded -- his tone in this volume is different.

Lending the Fliess letters and the Project special glamour are the circumstances under which they were rediscovered and published. The Project had been sent to Fliess in the 1890s, and apparently forgotten. But in 1936, Princess Marie Bonaparte wrote Freud to say that she'd found Freud's letters to Fliess in a Berlin bookshop, and to ask what should be done. Freud repeatedly urged her to burn them, in part because he couldn't stand the thought of his early fumblings finding their way into print. Citing their possible historical significance, Bonaparte refused. (See Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time, W. W. Norton, 1988, 1998 for full details.) And right she was! In addition to the wealth of biographical and intellectual details offered by the Fliess letters -- details which have informed Freud's defenders and detractors alike -- the Project lends retroactive coherence to Freud's adventures in psychoanalysis. In his introduction to the Project, Strachey notes that "its invisible ghost haunts the whole series of Freud's theoretical writings to the very end," a series that ranges from The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) through the papers on metapsychology (1915) and on to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and The Ego and the Id (1923).

To put all of this in a slightly different way: Freud's paper arguing that subsequent events can retroactively lend meaning to earlier events that are poorly understood, if at all, itself was lost, poorly understood, and only subsequently came to lend meaning and nuance to a whole series of psychological arguments! It is as if reality itself were anxious to confirm Freud's theory -- what Lacanians might call an "answer of the real."

I called the Project the volume's "gem" in part, because in it Freud offers a case study, "Emma," that hinges on his theory of deferred action, or the way memories, fantasies, and experiences can get entangled with later ones, gaining new meaning and sometimes pathogenic force.  

Emma has been afflicted by an inability to go into shops alone, which, it turns out, is a partial consequence of having been groped by a shopkeeper when she was a small child. But it's only a partial consequence: She'd been able to shop for many years afterwards without any trouble. What's changed? In effect, now she knows what the dirty old man was about: "a memory is repressed which has only become a trauma by deferred action. The cause of this state of things is the retardation of puberty as compared with the rest of the individual's development" (original emphasis). Emma had returned to the man's shop one time as a child, and her unconscious now rebukes her for seeking out his attentions -- which obviously she wasn't doing. Now that she's a teenager, and has been the target of flirtatious banter from clerks in a clothing shop, she has attributed a new meaning to a decision that was innocent at the time, namely, her childish decision return to the man's candy shop.

The implications of this Emma's situation are pretty clear: As we grow up, we add all sorts of meanings to childhood experiences that, at the time, we could not have had. Sometimes this works out okay, but other times, such entanglement can make us ill. Such an idea ought also to make us pretty careful about assessing the family romance. Many people gloss the Oedipus complex this way: The boy wants to marry his mother and murder his father. But words like "marry" change their meaning over time. When my four-year-old wants me gone so he can have his mother to himself, that means one thing now; as a fourteen-year-old, that memory might carry a quite different meaning; as a 24- or 34-year-old, looking for a partner, it would mean something different still. Oedipal drama runs backwards, as an adult mind unconsciously tries to make sense of an enigmatic past. The poetic line that sums up Freud is not Wordsworth's "The child is father of the man," but Eliot's darker, more temporally ambiguous vision: "In my beginning is my end."

I've been thinking about connections between Freud in the 1890s and 1930s -- the relationship between the theory and the real, and the ways we retroactively make meaning -- after reading Mark Edmundson's fine new book, The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days (Bloomsbury, Sept. 2007). Edmundson came to the project fascinated by how Freud manages, even stage-manages, his own death. Freud died with his physician's help after suffering extensively from recurring cancers of the jaw caused by his excessive cigar smoking. The photograph of Freud on Edmundson's cover is almost shocking in its depiction of emaciation. We are accustomed to seeing the analyst in full Bourgeois Prophet mode, but here, the right side of his face is caved in, and yet his left hand holds the necessary/cursed cigar. You can see simultaneously the accuracy both of Leonard Woolf, who saw him at this time as "a half-extinct volcano, something somber, repressed, reserved," and of Virginia Woolf, who saw him as "a screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkeys light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert."

Meditating on Freud's pursuit of a secular death with honor led Edmundson into a fundamental insight: At least since 1914, Freud's clinical and theoretical work leads obsessively to the problem of authority -- his own authority, parental authority, divine authority, and the authority of the leader. His conclusion is breathtaking: "The ritual of psychoanalytical therapy has as its central objective the deconstruction of all figures of absolute authority, Sigmund Freud included... Freud the sometimes patriarch didn't just develop theories about the destructive effects of patriarchy; he developed a form of teaching that gave people the chance to undo oppressive authority."

Edmundson, the author of Why Read?, grounds his book in two parallel stories: The rise to power of Adolf Hitler, and the contemporary rise of Freud to intellectual prominence. That so many Austrians and Germans would enthusiastically embrace Hitler just as Freud developed a theory to explain this enthusiasm is a sobering historical irony. What emerges is a story about the cost of democracy and of civilization, and about what happens when vast numbers of people choose to stop paying that cost.

The Death of Sigmund Freud is a remarkable book, written with wit and verve. Anyone interested in fundamentalism, in authority, or in the possibilities of the spirit will find much to contemplate here.

Mark Edmundson spoke with me by phone in late September:

How did you come to be interested in Freud's relationship with authority?

Originally this was going to be a book about Freud and death, Freud's dying a good secular death.

Right, but it's clearly evolved: You have the account of Nazism, and the turn in Freud's work after 1914, and so forth...

That's right. When I began learning about the Nazi invasion of Austria, I wanted not just to write about them, but I thought that analytical explanations might be available for them. Lo and behold, I found that the best explanation, for my money, was available in none other than the work of Sigmund Freud.

I thought that was very productive and compelling -- a useful juxtaposition. It's such an issue in Freud's own life -- there are his relationships with all those men (his father, Fliess, Charcot, Jung, Ferenczi, and Jones) -- it seemed like fertile ground for an analysis.

Of course Freud is obsessed with authority, and with his own authority in particular, the qualities that he finds in the absolute leader.

And so that was one of the things that was most interesting about your treatment of Freud, is that he turns out to be something like a master of impersonation. He impersonates patriarchal authority, and seems so authoritative, and yet he's also able to help his patients learn how to take that image apart.

It's a wonderful paradox about Freud. Not only does he write against patriarchal authority, but every day he steps into that consulting room and urges his patients to deconstruct his own overbearing authority. He talked the talk and walked it, too, in some measure, which is pretty great.

Although that's not the stereotype that one gets of Freud these days, where the standard view of his practice, gleaned from the Dora case, emphasizes the counter-transference and sees him almost as bullying.

I think that's accurate; that's early Freud. I think he had a good deal to learn, to his own mind, about therapy. He was still interested in hypnotism then...

That's true -- some of those early essays are pretty remarkable. There's that essay -- I think it's around 1910 -- in which he essentially says that, well, we used to have to listen to our patients talk all the time, but now, we converse for a bit, and then I tell them what's wrong. [Click here for the exact quote.]. It's "The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Therapy."

Right: he began to equate that with wild analysis, where one tells the patient prematurely what was wrong, and eventually he became much more patient.

One of the more difficult theses in your book -- difficult, that is, in its implication for contemporary culture -- is that religious and political fundamentalism offer their adherents a kind of joy, one that's kind of creepy but palpable. And against that, you have the "ordinary human unhappiness" that psychoanalysis can offer. Is it surprising that there's not more fundamentalism, somehow?

[Laughs.] First of all, I wouldn't quite say that psychoanalysis can only offer unhappiness.

No, I know -- but that is a lovely line of Freud's, about wanting to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

I think that psychoanalysis just encourages us to bear with internal and external tension. Fundamentalism urges us to do away with tension, and to be happy and whole. It's not surprising that people gravitate in that direction, but I think human experience has shown that, when you do vote for "happy and whole," the long-term results can be terrible.

Be careful what you wish for...

Yes -- you get religious persecution, or you get war and horror. But then war ends and they have to face what they've done. It can last a thousand years.

You bring up how dismissive Freud is of America. On the one hand, he loved being feted at Clark University, but, on the other, "we're bringing them the plague," and we're a nation of prudes and money-grubbers. Your own stance is interesting: You bristle at those condemnations, yet you also, quite rightly, decry the eager embrace of fundamentalism by a not-insignificant number of our fellow citizens. Do you have thoughts on America and Freud today?

The line that sticks with me is Freud saying, "America is enormous. Indeed, it is an enormous mistake." He has all of these perceptions about America, most of which are either of questionable truth or they apply to everybody. Are Americans money-grubbers? Well, no.

But I do think that one of the things that Freud was on to when he said that "we're bringing them the plague and they don't even know it," is that Americans do not like to hear themselves described in dark or negative ways, and that's what Freud offers. Ultimately, when Freud comes to America, in the person of a kind of worthy, but altogether adequate thinker like Erik Erikson, he turns him into someone far more positive than he ever intended. Freud is poet laureate of unhappiness, misery, destruction, and despair. Americans don't like to see themselves painted in those colors.

At least, not if it's not on television -- but if it's Dr. Phil and it's in the context of Oprah, it's okay.

Yes, but there's a buffoonishness about his relentlessly negative sense of all people. We have a latent conviction that we have re-invented humanity. I think that there are many good things about America and American culture: it offers a sense of fresh possibilities. And perhaps Freud is too dark in his sense of how the past determines the future. But we have just never been able to swallow Freud.

That's true -- that Russell Jacoby book about how psychoanalysis comes to America [The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Freudians (U of Chicago Press, 1986]) has always stuck in my mind... the way Freud gets medicalized and banalized.


A related question, I think, is about how, near the end of the book, you write quite eloquently about how Freud sees Moses as a "hero of civilization," for his ability to embody sublimation. He can tolerate conflict, and show others how to do so. And you position Freud as that kind of figure as well. Are there contemporary "heroes of civilization" in this way?

No -- none come immediately to mind. I'll only say that during Freud's lifetime, the world got astonishing lucky in encountering two of them -- Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill had his "black dog" moods, and he was a moody and unusual and eccentric, idiosyncratic person, often conflicted. And as brilliant as Roosevelt could be, the whole world knew, and he did too, that he had polio, he couldn’t walk. There was a great aura of sadness, as well as humanity and warmth, that went around with the guy. The world's darkest moments helped produce these remarkably varied and complex people, that I think their constituencies saw realistically. Churchill was constantly -- and Roosevelt was, too -- dispensing bad news.

I wonder whether the postwar fragmentation of "literary culture" or "high culture" might hinder or spur the development of such heroes. Freud saw his authority as emanating out of a pretty specific canon of Western thought, and we have less confidence now in that legacy, and that a person can incarnate that. Do we even believe in "cultural heroes" anymore in that way?

I think you touch on two important issues. We're skeptical that, by virtue of immersing ourselves in Schopenhauer and Emerson and Emily Dickinson, you become much wiser than the average person, and they're worth listening to. There are a lot of reasons for that, and we could enumerate them all night.

From a certain point of view, in the mass culture, Freud is in a bad way these days. Everyone knows that he slept with his sister-in-law, and used cocaine, and encouraged others to do so, nearly got Fliess to kill a patient because of cocaine, abandoned children to the predations of sexual abusers, probably forged his case studies, if the Freud detractors are right...

Suppose a document came to light verifying all of those allegations, many of which remain unsubstantiated, except that they were made against William Shakespeare. Would one suddenly say, "Ah, no, I don't want to read his plays anymore. They really aren't quite as good as I had imagined." No. It would make little or no difference. These things are true, or partially true, about Freud, but we still have the texts, and we still need to make what use of them we can.

It does seem surprising that some people appear to think that, if those things were true, then that would mean that there's no such thing as the unconscious.

I think that Freud, in the brilliant theory of the transference, described others' relationship to him. He is seen to be perfect, godly, and right all the time, and when we found that he wasn't, the culture's level of frustration with him took on a kind of childish dimension.

Several times during your book, you offer up a different vision of Freud, one who's not the great Father, whom we have either to adulate or pull down. Sometimes you talk about his work as a kind of "wisdom literature," one time you talk about our need to be "able to read his work with irony, humor, detachment, and due openness." What in your mind is the reward of reading Freud in particular? What distinguishes him from other writers in this genre, such as Emerson, or Montaigne, or anyone else?

Freud to me is the ultimate analyst of life when it goes bad. When you have a dictatorship, you can read a lot about it. Fundamentalism? He's good on that. Love that goes bad? Excellent on it. Quarrels with authority? Perfect on that. Nobody is as clear and clean and discerning at the turns that life takes. A little bit over-systematic, and reductive -- though, as I say in the book, it's not so much that he's "reductive" as "really great at describing us when we're at our most reduced." If you want to hear someone talk about joy, pleasure, achievement, happiness, pick up Emerson or Whitman. Everyone tells half the story, if that. But to tell half the story about the human condition -- that's no small thing.

Not a bit -- and that answer goes quite some way toward explaining why Freud's popular in English departments... if he's good on troubles in love, and good on problems with authority...

[Laughs] Because people in English departments suffer all those things!

Exactly so.

The last question that I have is: Freud famously remarked that whenever he was plagued with doubts, he re-read The Interpretation of Dreams. Now, I have been reading your work for years now, and wonder whether there is a particular Freud text that you like to return to, one you like to read?

I like "On Narcissism: An Introduction." I think he's doing the best he can to figure out what love is about, hitting all the dark spots, failing to hit the light spots. Plus you get to see the process of thinking hard, coming up with great things, then going off on a tangent, coming back... He's just a brave, tough, remarkably resourceful guy.

Thank you so much!

Next month in Psycho Slut: Volume II: Studies in Hysteria