Tuesday, April 01, 2008

That Fellow Freud 2

I have always found biography and autobiography a good way into history, philosophy and science, to name but some of the areas in which I am interested.  Freud's personality mystifies and intrigues me by turns.  Hence, there is room for a second entry on our man Freud's unique life.  The following are just random points added to supplement and complement what I mentioned in the immediately prior post to this one.  As such I shall number these points as I shall list them rather randomly.  Hence this post will be somewhat prosaic and have the quality of a list rather than of an essay with a beginning, a middle and an end.  Apologies to Aristotle.

1. Literature: I have already mentioned before that one of the great things about reading Freud is that he is a brilliant writer who writes like an angel and who shows both a breadth and depth of reading.  In 1930 he become the fourth recipient of the Goethe prize for literature by the city of Frankfurt.


2. Music: One of Freud's nephews reported that his uncle had little or no interest in music except for opera.


3. Basic Negativity and Pessimism: Anyone who even begins to read Freud will find at once that he has a very negative take on the human condition.  He described himself as an "atheistic Jew" and a negative take on life is immediately implied in this.  As a doctor with an early interest in neurology and psychiatry based on biological-physiological principles his approach to the human person can be described as positivist, reductionist and determinist, though this approach was to get somewhat less rigid as he grew older.  Also given that he had witnessed much of the unseemly, the disturbed and ugly side of nature in his early medical studies one can almost forgive him for this negative take on life.  Anthony Storr, one of my favourite commentators quotes a revealing comment by Freud, which I'll indent for emphasis here:

I have found little that is "good" about human beings on the whole.  In my experience, most of them are trash

[from Freud's book Psychoanalysis and Faith, quoted Freud: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1989, 2001,  Anthony Storr, 13)]

This above quotation goes beyond pessimism and negativity into sheer misanthropy or hatred of humankind.  Again we can forgive our man Freud because, to tell the truth, we can all hit a rock bottom period both in our life and  in out thought and the above quotation would not be the tenor of his thought as a whole on balance.


4.  Personality: Storr also points out that as a person Freud lacked an immediate warmth. (op.cit., 13)  In fact he was impersonal and cold of character.  It is also documented that his approach to psychoanalysis was consequently impersonal, cold and objective.  Freud, himself, was cognizant of the fact that his personality could be off-putting.  In the following short quotation from a letter, which I also found in Storr, he shows an almost glaring envy of his one-time loyal friend and follower, Carl Gustave Jung.  He writes to his friend that people found his personality somewhat "strange and repellent" and goes on in an envious tone to state that "all hearts open to you."  (Ibid., 13)


5.  Rigidity and Control: Freud was a brilliant student all his life who liked to do his own thinking, work things through for himself down to the last iota.  He probably was a cocky scholar who felt he had achieved a lot.  Unfortunately as a result of this basic character flaw - a certain obvious hubris - he was intolerant of disagreement and this rigidity led to a long series of defections among his early collaborators.  This is one of the most striking features of any study of the history of psychoanalysis - the flight from the master of erstwhile loyal followers, collaborators and friends.   This list of defectors is impressive if sad and understandable:  Breuer, Fliess, Adler, Stekel, Jung, Rank and more. In brief early psychoanalysis allowed no disputes with what the master claimed to be the fundamental and absolute tenets of his new science.  This master was autocratic.  One's disagreement with the master meant simply the end of both friendship and professional relations.


6.  Unusual tolerance of human Frailty: What might not be obvious from the foregoing points was that Freud showed an exceptional and unusual tolerance for human frailty.  This man did not make moral judgements on people at all, and certainly not on his clients or patients.  In this, we have a lot to be thankful for to this great man.  Freud's tolerance has pointedly led to a more civilized attitude to the mentally ill or disturbed individuals amongst us.  We are more tolerant of neuroses, psychoses, even sexual deviation and all possible forms of emotional mal-adaptation.  Mr Freud, take a bow.


7.  Secrets: One aspect of our man Freud which I find astonishing is how extremely reluctant he was to reveal his own private life or his own secrets.  After all he specialized in what he termed a "science" which endeavoured to investigate the kind of intimate secrets which people strive to conceal from themselves and from others.  Also he did believe that their revelation to the full light or even glare of consciousness was the actual healing process for all neuroses.  In a letter to his future wife in 1885 he declares to Maria that he had just destroyed his notes, letters and manuscripts from the previous fourteen years as he had no desire "to make it easy for my future biographers."  (Storr, op.cit., 11)  This is a man full of himself and full of hubris!


8.  Courage:  What certainly is obvious now to any reader is that Sigmund Freud was a very complex individual indeed.  I suppose one would have to admit that such is the wont of any great human being.  Another striking characteristic of the founder of psychoanalysis is his sheer courage.  A lot of Freud's theories were revolutionary and in the context of the times - (Victorian and Edwardian) - downright offensive and objectionable.  His theories spoke about humankind's basic animal drives - indeed the very audacity of reducing practically every psychological complaint to the sex drive and the problems associated therewith would have been anathema to his readers.  Yet Freud persisted to publish his findings even where he experienced downright rejection and opposition from his professional colleagues. How many of us would have the courage to risk the contumely of our colleagues?  Once again, Mr Freud, take a bow.  You have brought tolerance for human frailty further still.

Above, I have uploaded a picture of an older Freud.

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