Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fathoming Freud 1

Freud’s Fathoming

Freud spent his whole life attempting to fathom what was at the heart of the human psyche – if it’s not somewhat contradictory to use the metaphor ‘heart’ with respect to the mind. In doing so he constructed his famous archaeological or topographical or layer model of the psyche namely – conscious, preconscious and unconscious strata(depths or layers) of the mind. Needless to say, Freud had been obsessed with archaeology. Then, we are all possibly as well, if not more, acquainted with his structural model of the psyche – that is, the model with which practically everyone who knows even a little about Freud is acquainted with, at least with the terminology which has entered common parlance, namely Id, Ego and Superego. These according to Freud are the major components of the self or mind or personality, call it what you will for the moment. It is very important to note that this structural model puts these three major components in the unconscious. These Ego, Id and Superego are not topographical regions or layers as it were as we saw in his archaeological model. Rather they are distinct agencies at war or in conflict with one another. Indeed, for Freud human beings were not yet fully evolved. Hence there was a split or a rift in their very nature. In other words human beings were torn between their dark bestial motives (Id) and civilized conduct and demeanour (mores and manners and morals of society). On the one hand then there was humankind's animal nature (Id) and its cultural aspirations.(promoted by the Superego) Hence, humans are literally driven to seek pleasure, but society and civilization reign this rapaciousness in because control of passions is necessary - otherwise there would be murder, rape and strife of all kinds. In all of the above, I am conscious that when reading, and more specifically writing about the thought of John Gray in these posts, how closely the two men are to one another in their contentions. I was also surprised to note how little Gray referred to Freud in his work.

Fathoming Freud:

Freud was indeed a very complex man and I have written much on him in previous posts over the years in this blog. However, here I wish to refer to some insights into the man which I gleaned from the wonderful little book by the American literary scholar Mark Edmundson which I have been discussing in the last two posts. It also fascinates me how influential Freud has been outside the areas of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy where one would assume he has been most influential. However, he has also influenced sociology, politics and literature. Indeed, when it was mooted that the great man should get the Nobel Prize, scholars were divided on the issue as to whether he should get it for science, medicine or literature. In any event, he was never to receive it, though he should definitely have loved it given his penchant for public recognition and honours.

Freud loved cigars, and even though he suffered greatly from cancer of the jawbone for some sixteen years, pointed refused to give them up. At the height of his consumption, he smoked twenty a day. He even had to have an enormous prosthesis fitted, which he wittily called “the monster.” His nurse in these later years was his favourite daughter Anna who was also official heir to his intellectual work in being a psychoanalyst and the greatest proponent and exponent of his work. It was she who helped him take it out, wash it and replace it. Edmundson informs us that when things were “especially bad, he sometimes used a clothespin to open his frozen, aching jaw so as to wedge one more [cigar] into his jaw.” (Op.cit., 13-14)

Freud’s Fearlessness:

Without a shadow of a doubt this is one of the essential attributes of the great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst that comes through in The Death of Sigmund Freud right from the beginning to the very end. One cannot but admire this inner strength. Courage is not the virtue that comes through in anything I have read about Carl Gustave Jung – he was more inclined to go with the current social and political situation. Right from the start of his life, Freud had an inner strength and the courage of his convictions. He really did not care whether his theories upset people or not. Now he never set out deliberately to upset people, but he always knew that the truth was always better than wafer-thin lies. If he was convinced of something being true, he told it straight and that was it. This, I also admire greatly in him, and from my reflective living and psychotherapeutic training, I can aver to be really and truly healing in the final analysis, if you forgive the dreadful pun. Take for example one of his early theories, viz., the Oedipus Complex which shocked the world with the view that all male children want to have sex with their mothers and do away with their fathers. Freud seemed incapable of holding back views if he held them strongly at all. As well as that, he would have pondered and researched them for much time, so anything that he might have said or written were done so with a determination solidly supported.

Freud on the United States:

Our learned founder of psychoanalysis was no lover of America, while fully realising and appreciating that he had many worthy and capable followers there. I find his views on the U.S. most interesting, indeed. Firstly, he abhorred its obsession with money – the sacred dollar. He believed that they suffered from a hideous disease called “dollaria.” There, he felt, all success is reduced to money solely. The society of the U.S. was far too commercial and far too superficial for him. He also believed that all the Americans were prudes and that, in this, moneymaking had somehow absorbed the libido. They also lacked a “passionate depth” for him. But most of all he abhorred American politics where the group had in effect disempowered the ordinary citizen’s individualism. I’ll finish with a wonderful anecdote from Edmundson’s wonderful book and let the reader chew over it:

“We are bringing them the plague,” Freud purportedly said when he and Jung and Ferenczi disembarked in New York in 1909. “We’re bringing them the plague, and they don’t even know it.” (Ibid., 32)

Above I have uploaded a picture of Freud's bookcases from the Freud Museum in London. This picture is in the public domain!

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