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Raiding the Wardrobe of Excuses

It is true that the only ones spouting things like "Oedipal complex," "castration anxiety," and "penis envy" in psychiatrists' offices today are the patients. What Freud giveth, Jung taketh away. The hip new subfield now is cognitive behavioral therapy, where … Read More

By / November 30, 2006

It is true that the only ones spouting things like "Oedipal complex," "castration anxiety," and "penis envy" in psychiatrists' offices today are the patients. What Freud giveth, Jung taketh away. The hip new subfield now is cognitive behavioral therapy, where repeating the same set of actions over and over again actually changes brain chemistry and thus, one's whole disposition.

If Freud endures, however, it's not for some ineradicable love of fascistic explain-it-all theory Ronald Dworkin argues in this Sun review of a new Freud bio. This is just plain silly:

Freud lies somewhere in between. When he writes, "We shall in the end conquer every resistance by emphasizing the unshakable nature of our convictions," he sounds like any fascist or a commissar. But, of course, Freud was a doctor and not a politician — he lacked police powers — and he could only hurt people so much.

First off, where would Wilhelm Reich or Max Weber be without Freud? And it's a little unseemly to compare his work as a doctor of the mind to the thugs of state who ran him out of Europe in the thirties.

The man may stand bruised and bloody before posterity (his unethical way with couchtrippers; his rocky personal relationships; etc.) but his work is still a testament to understanding the hidden wellsprings of human endeavor — and human failure. Freud's influence on the liberal arts was worth the price of admission: Edmund Wilson got a lot of literary critical mileage out of Freud, not least from the allusions to Greek mythology. (See The Wound and the Bow.) And Wilson's old friend Nabokov never tired to mocking the "Viennese witchdoctor" whose "sick dreams" the author of Lolita never condescended to have himself.

Freud did not discover the unconscious. Other doctors had written on the subject before him. Nor did he discover phenomena like Freudian "slips," "displacement," and "transference." What he did was give these mental phenomena names, turn them into symbols, and then use these symbols to create road signs and boundaries in the vast infinite of the human mind. He was just one more man of letters who tried to tame that monster of energy: life.

Giving names to things have been around forever is the height of intellectual activity. Dworkin contradicts himself by stating in the paragraph just before this one that Freud's meaningless, chimerical concepts have value only for having names.

And our reviewer's not so original himself. Auden, in his lovely elegy on Freud, indicated how just how time-honored, though not prosaic, were the ideas the founder of psychoanalysis popularized:

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told the unhappy Present to recite the Past like a poetry lesson till sooner or later it faltered at the line where long ago the accusations had begun, and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged, how rich life had been and how silly, and was life-forgiven and more humble, able to approach the Future as a friend without a wardrobe of excuses, without a set mask of rectitude or an embarrassing over-familiar gesture.

 

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