Monday, March 27, 2006

Oh, Sigmund

For all the times I've gotten all brainy and booky in this blog, it's probably not super-clear what my positions are vis-a-vis some of the big intellectual thinkers and movements of our time. Now, for most people, this probably isn't very important, but in the academy, and especially in literary studies, most people expect you to have a pretty well-staked intellectual position. In addition to giving you a critical modus operandi, it also relates you to other people's work, whether living or dead. Sometimes this comes with a full-fledged label and a whole intellectual and/or political program, but for most of us, it boils down to something like the answer you'd give if you were in a rock band and someone asked you who your influences were.

Most of my influences, for one reason or another, speak German. I really like Nietzsche, and have since my freshman year of college. I also am a big fan of Walter Benjamin, whom I would probably give as my answer if you ever asked me to name my favorite literary critic. (Marjorie Perloff is my favorite living poetry critic, in case you were wondering.) Other favorite Germans include Max Weber (my most quoted sociologist), Martin Heidegger (next to Heisenberg, the world's smartest Nazi), Immanuel Kant (reads a little drier, but that's only because he's smarter than you), G.W.F. Hegel (mostly for his arguments against immediacy and the ideal of his commitment to criticism, leavened with a healthy dose of pragmatism), and Georg Simmel (another eccentric philosopher/sociologist who wrote the wonderful "The Metropolis and Mental Life", along with The Philosophy of Money).

But another German-speaker whom I like a whole lot, and who's taken almost as much of a drubbing as Heidegger, is Sigmund Freud. Now Freud is one of those guys who, despite the occasional dip into pedantry, quotes really well -- only his quotes often don't reflect very well on him. As propositions, some of his positions don't look like they hold up; and considering him either as a doctor or as a scientist, neither do some of his ethical judgments.

But when you read Freud's books -- especially The Interpretation of Dreams, along with Beyond the Pleasure Principle or Civilization and its Discontents -- you get a sense of the enormous weight and power of this man's thought, the struggle that brings it forth, and the simultaneous depth and freedom of the intellect behind it all. When you consider this paradox, only Nietzsche is really comparable to Freud. And despite all of the criticisms you could make of him, I think that Freud is basically right: that conscious prohibitions often lead to unconscious behavior -- here the German is (un)bewusst, which really means (un) aware -- manifesting themselves in symptoms, which in turn have meaning.

There a couple of pretty good articles on Freud that have popped up recently, which prompted this whole line of thinking. The first, by Jerry Adler -- not, presumably, the actor from "The Sopranos" and "Mad About You" -- is from Newsweek, which I'd stopped reading in high school, but I picked up at the gym today when I saw SF on the cover. It has a terrific first paragraph:

We stand now at a critical moment in the history of our civilization, which is usually the case: beset by enemies who irrationally embrace their own destruction along with ours, our fate in the hands of leaders who make a virtue of avoiding reflection, our culture hijacked by charlatans who aren't nearly as depraved as they pretend in their best-selling memoirs. As we turn from the author sniveling on Oprah's couch, our gaze is caught by a familiar figure in the shadows, sardonic and grave, his brow furrowed in weariness. So, he seems to be saying, you would like this to be easy. You want to stick your head in a machine, to swallow a pill, to confess on television and be cured before the last commercial. But you don't even know what your disease is.
The other, by Jenny Diski for the London Review of Books, is written in an equally jaunty style but has an even more mixed assessment. It's mostly a review of a new biography of Freud's wife Martha, who by all accounts was a pretty tame and well-adjusted (if in an eerie, excessively submissive way) hausfrau. There are some nice moments here, too:
Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him?
The two come together, however, in this section of Adler's article, on Freud's technique of word association:

You can see this clearly in his 1901 book "Psychopathology of Everyday Life." Here, Freud discusses an encounter with a young man who cannot recall the Latin word "aliquis" ("someone") in a passage from Virgil. To Freud, such moments are never without significance, and the very obscurity of the slip gave it added interest. Freud wouldn't waste couch time on a slip that was obvious to the person who uttered it. He employs his trademark technique of "free association" ("tell me the first thing that comes into your mind ... ") to uncover a link to "liquid," then to "blood," and through several other steps to the revelation that the young man was worried that a woman with whom he had been intimate had missed her period. What a tour de force for psychoanalysis!

Does it detract from our appreciation of his genius that the freelance historian Peter Swales has shown that there most probably was no such young man, that the memory lapse was probably committed by Freud himself and that the woman he was worried about was Minna Bernays, the sister of Freud's own wife?

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