August 2008

Jason B. Jones


"Don't Tell Your Mom": Freud and Everyday Life

My five-year-old memorizes song lyrics like they're the plans to the Death Star. When he locks onto a song, he'll insist on starting over if he gets even one phrase wrong. The sentence, "Start this song over, please," is perhaps the most dreaded in our household, though we also find it charming that he can sing along to songs as different as "Iron Man" and "One Week," or to music ranging from nerdcore rap to Arcade Fire or Flogging Molly or Kimya Dawson.

But there is one song he can't get right, even though he intellectually grasps what the lyric is. The Hold Steady's "Ask Her for Some Adderall," opens this way:

If she asks don't tell her that I'm living hand to mouth,
Don't tell her that I'm sleeping on your couch,
If she asks just tell her that we opened for the Stones,
It's her favorite band, except for The Ramones.

Eliot knows this song by heart -- correctly working out the names of drugs like Adderall and Klonapin, and character names like Charlemagne, Holly, and Gideon. But that opening couplet gets him every single time. Here's his version:

If she asks don't tell her that I'm living hand to mouth,
Don't tell your mom that I'm sleeping on her couch.

This mistake cracks us up every time, because it neatly captures two key aspects of our (still fairly guileless) kid: First, in his mind, "don't tell her" obviously refers to a mom. Relatedly, the extent of his deceptiveness so far is on the order of "don't tell mom/dad." He's not much of a liar yet. And second, a key article of faith in the boy's code is that you cannot admit to being tired, and especially to needing a nap. That would be beyond the pale. He associates "sleeping on the couch" with napping -- when he was transitioning off of daily naps, sometimes he'd take his nap on the couch, because that would guarantee it was a "short nap," as opposed to an "epic" nap. So, "Don't tell your mom I've been sleeping on her couch" can be translated as, "don’t tell mom I need a nap."

Eliot's constant insertion of "your mom" into this song has been on my mind a lot this month, and not just because "Ask Her for Some Adderall" is a great track on the summer's best record. The imperative to interpret even innocent mistakes largely arises from Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), which took the theoretical scaffolding worked out in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 [1899]) and extended it to... everything. Compared both to The Interpretation of Dreams and to Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious, this work is less speculative -- to a certain extent, it's a compendium of examples, each of which Freud uses to illustrate the idea that unconscious process both deforms and facilitates conscious thought. Many of those examples have become famous in their own right -- indeed, to the devoted Freud-reader, the mere mention of Signorelli or aliquis -- famous instances of forgetting that he analyzes in the opening pages of this book -- serves as a kind of insider's code.) Last month, Lisa Appignanesi told me that The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was one of her favorite works by Freud, "because it is about the everydayness, it's about urban living, it's about the kind of accidents and forgetfulnesses and surprises we live with, and the kinds of meanings that are always there for us to grapple with."

The idea that our everyday lives are meaning-rich, even in the most inane moments, can be appealing. Accepting the premise that crossed synapses or slips of the tongue are rarely truly random, but can in retrospect be understood as the product of several different motives grappling for control, soon leads one into a world of introspection that can offer real payoffs. At the same time, however, Freud also curses his readers with meaning. The fact that nearly everything can be interpreted begins to feel like an unfunded mandate: Thou shalt unpack the smallest little detail for repressed wishes. Anyone who's ever dated someone in therapy will immediately recognize this problem. There's a great Friends episode about this, in which Phoebe dates a shrink who insists on interpreting every detail of the friends' lives -- Central Perk's giant coffee cups "might as well have nipples on them" -- until they all hate him passionately, in some cases because of his accuracy.

The biggest problem, though, with psychopathologizing everyday life is that the process of interpretation can seem wholly arbitrary to outsiders. Why does Freud make this connection, rather than some other? Why is my inability to remember a certain phrase of a poem a sign of Oedipal conflict, rather than a more straightforward anxiety about professional status? And how can a cigar sometimes just be a cigar? To return briefly to the example of my son, why stop the interpretative process where I did? A moment's reflection on this deliberately sanitized anecdote will still yield at least one or two darker interpretations, and there may well be others I can't bring myself to think about. Reasonable people can read Freud dilate upon the possible backstory of a conversational misstep and decide that this is simply so much self-involved nonsense -- it is, in a word, bullshit.

Somewhat perversely, I think that this accusation helps explain the fondness of literature professors for Freud. (That Freud's a great reader doesn't hurt, nor does the fact that there is an important logic to his work.) Anyone who's taught an English class has heard their carefully constructed readings dismissed as mere b.s., and has heard students, on their way out of class, characterize a particularly rich and boisterous discussion of a passage as a bull session. Even more puzzlingly, different students will react to the same discussion in the most incongruous ways. One student will be moved to read an author's work passionately for a year, while another will be slackjawed in incredulous frustration at having just wasted tuition money on such a frivolous topic. The tightrope Freud walks in this work, then, is one that strikes us particularly close to home, and so we often recognize a kindred spirit. (Mark Edmundson offered some similar reflections on Freud's popularity in this space last October.)

I want to end, however, on a slightly different note, because psychoanalysis really isn't arbitrary. The validity of an interpretation can't be known in advance, nor can it be easily gleaned outside the context of an analytic session, in a case study or work of theoretical speculation. In a session, an interpretation either hits home or it does not; it provokes more reflection or it doesn't. I can spin out little readings of my son's parapraxes all day long, but they ultimately don't tell us much at all about his psychology. What would tell us something is if he took notice of this mistake, and started to be bothered or troubled by it. Then, in conversation with someone, he could start to voice exactly what seemed bothersome about such a trivial thing as a mistaken song lyric. That's the real Freudian insight: It's not that everything has to be interpreted; rather, it's that if you want to find meaning in your life, you can. Those meanings might not be terribly profound, and they might not be the ones that we would assign ourselves, but they are there nonetheless. That's no small comfort.

Next month: Volume VII: A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality, and Other Works (1901-1905). Dora! Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality!