Saturday, April 26, 2008

Struggling with one's Demons



In an effort to get to grips with life and its essentially personal meaning we are forced to forge metaphors.  Sometimes we even strain our very own credulity and gullibility in establishing our images for this important task.  One such metaphor is that of struggling with one's demons, or even facing one's demons.  I have often heard those poor creatures amongst us who struggling with various addictions using this particular metaphor or indeed variations thereof.  In Peter Gay's magisterial biography of Sigmund Freud we read in this context:

The fundamental task of psychoanalysis, he once wrote to novelist Stefan Zweig, was "to struggle with the demon" - the demon of irrationality - in a "sober way."  But, he added, this very sobriety, which reduces that demon to a "comprehensible object of science," only made his ideas about the nature of human nature seem all the more dismaying, all the more unacceptable.  (Freud: A Life for Our Time, Max Press, London, 2006, xvii)

Again the introduction to his own wonderful foundational work on dreams, The Interpretation of Dreams (1898, 1900) - and it is important to point out that this book was the most valuable of all Freud's discoveries according to himself - Ritchie Robertson writes:-

Writing to his medical colleague, confidant, and fellow Jew Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), he compared the effort of writing it to the struggle with the angel which left the biblical Jacob permanently lame: "When it appeared that my breath would fail in the wrestling match, I asked the angel to desist; and that is what he has done since then.  But I did not turn out to be the stronger, although since then I have been limping noticeably.  Yes, I really am forty-four now, an old somewhat shabby Jew..."  (The Interpretation of Dreams, Oxford, 1999, vii).

Robertson notes Freud's "wry disparagement" of self here.  So Freud did have a sense of humour.  We must also note that Freud was a trenchant atheist and we read about this in many of his letters, even in letters to his fiancée and future wife Martha Bernays.  However, Freud was widely read in the religion that he dismissed so trenchantly.  He would have realised that what he was dealing with were psychic energies which could easily be personalised in metaphoric and imaginal ways in the personae of angels etc.

Dream work for Freud would prove extraordinarily important in this ongoing struggle as it were to come to grips with the unknown within our very psyche, with making the unconscious stuff therein conscious; bringing as it were the hidden "objects" or fears or the various repressed experiences out from the shadowy corners of the unconscious mind into the bright light of day of the conscious mind if we may sustain our metaphor here.

I have already alluded in a previous post to the derivation of the word demon or daimon and to its psychic role.  See Daimon.

Without a doubt Freud struggled with his own demon or demons, perhaps the singular of the word is the preferred one here, and who among us does not? Freud's major contribution to psychotherapy (of which psychoanalysis, his own particular invention, is but one method among many) is in shining the light of consciousness into the darker corners of the psyche so that we can better describe and tame and domesticate our very own wild demon as it were. In so doing he is essentially a healer of souls - also, of course, a metaphor here.

As to how far we go in the search for our own truth is a good question.  I think and feel that we should go as far as we humanly and possibly can within the constraints of our own responsibilities to our families and our places of work.  As to how far we should be brutally honest and transparent to others I think and feel is altogether another question.  Some secrets we probably should keep to ourselves.  This I have discussed at more length in two other posts.  See  In conclusion here I wish to return to Peter Gay's above quoted magisterial work.  With respect to Freud's self-revelation he has the following wise words to say.  They are, I feel, interesting to ponder with respect to secrets in general and to secrets revealed in psychotherapy:

As he ruefully observed more than once, few humans have disclosed their feelings, their ambitions and wicked wishes, with such sublime disregard for their reputation.  He reported and closely analyzed  some of his most revealing dreams; he recorded some embarrassing memories of his early years.  On the other hand he dammed the stream of self-disclosure the moment he felt it threatened to wash away his cherished secrets.  "Whoever is quick to reproach me for such reserve," he wrote, reasonably enough, after abruptly terminating the interpretation of his famous dream of Irma's injection in mid-revelation, "should himself try to be more candid than I."  As a fearless researcher he exposed most of his innermost being to public scrutiny; as a good bourgeois, he valued his privacy, immensely.  (Op. cit., xvi.)

In many places Freud describes himself as a scientist and as a doctor and researcher and indeed clinician.  However, it is also revealing that he also used metaphors to describe his task like "archaeologist."   I should like to add the metaphor or image as "miner of the spirit."  However, in one of his many personal letters to his good friend Wilhelm Fliess he described himself as a "conquistador by temperament, an adventurer if you want to translate this term, with all the inquisitiveness, daring, and tenacity of such a man." (Letter, 1900, quoted op.cit., xvi)

Indeed Freud was an adventurer of the psyche or personality or of the depths of the unconscious.  As an adventurer he was well equipped personally, professionally and intellectually.  As I have already pointed out in an earlier post the central motif to his foundational book The Interpretation of Dreams is that of journey.  For such a journey into "the heart of darkness" of the psyche, if I may steal a metaphor from Joseph Conrad, a brave explorer like Freud was only equal to the task, and Freud, being such a conquistador did risk all: his reputation as a Doctor and as a highly regarded personage in society.  He did also suffer much misunderstanding, the contumely of fellow professionals and indeed outright opposition and vilification.


Above I have uploaded yet another picture I took of one of Rodin's sculptures as the Musée Rodin in Paris.

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