Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fathoming Freud 8

Edmundson returns to that classical dialectical duo of thinking styles, namely Apollonian versus Dionysian in an attempt to describe Freud’s way of thinking.  Like all attempts to sum up complexities, it can be far too sweeping and generalised an approach.  Our author decidedly situates Freud within the Dionysian camp because he explores the shadier and darker caverns of the human psyche.  He then alludes to other scholars who were born and/or lived in that city during Freud’s lifetime.  For instance Ludwig Wittgenstein (possibly the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century) lived there as did Karl Kraus who is regarded as one of the foremost German-language satirists of the 20th century and Robert Musil the Austrian novelist.  There were other luminaries too like Arnold Schoenberg, famous Austrian composer and Adolf Loos the Viennese architect.  While Freud worked away at his theories and psychoanalysed his many patients all these great luminaries were at work.

However, I do think that Edmundson’s ascription of Dionysian to Freud’s mind is way too general and far too simplistic.  There have indeed been other efforts to describe the styles of thinking particular to the human mind.  The great English theologian and possibly the greatest and subtlest prose stylist of the nineteenth century, John Henry Cardinal Newman, spoke about broad minds versus deep minds, and commented that those with broad minds were the conservative ones who preserved the accumulated knowledge from the past while those with deep minds were those who pushed knowledge forward to ever-expanding frontiers.  One, then, could certainly ascribe the mind of depth to Freud.  But, here, once again the attempt to sum up the complexity of human thought in a duality is very simplistic – as if only two styles of thought were possible.  However, lucky are we who have the work of modern psychology to call upon, especially that say of Dr Howard Gardner with his theory of Multiple Intelligences.  He outlines eight different types or styles of thinking while others would even add some more to that number.  In short, then, obviously Newman and indeed Edmundson are over-simplifying and generalising far too much.  Be that as it may, their theories have some little insight in them at any rate.  

Culture is only Tissue Thin:

I suppose if history teaches us anything, it is the fact that culture or indeed civilization is only tissue thin.  Culture provides us with a generally accepted and incrementally constructed order – music, literature, religion, architecture etc etc.  Then somehow evil explodes from the cavernous depths of humankind’s unconscious, that is from the “id” in Freudian terms.  That’s why the great, inscrutable and stoic Freud was in no way alarmed by the explosion or more correctly eruption of Nazism onto the world’s stage.  Freud’s mind – both Apollonian and Dionysian, Deep and Broad and all the variations on a theme by Dr Howard Gardner – was equal to the task of the subtlest of analyses of what was truly happening before his eyes.  Let me quote once again from Edmundson’s book:

The Viennese, purportedly among the most tolerant people in all of Europe, rose to rabid violence against the Jews in just a few days.  Stefan Zweig, a friend of Freud’s, and himself a Jew, was horrified by the events of March 1938: “All the sickly, unclean fantasies of hate that had been conceived in many orgiastic nights found raging expression in bright daylight.” (Op. cit., 51)

Edmundson reminds us that anyone who had been reading and contemplating the works of Freud would not have been surprised at all, unlike the good Stefan Zweig.  The founder of psychoanalysis had long believed that even the most civilized of people nurse within them fantasies of violence, rape and plunder.  Indeed, even a passionate reader of Shakespeare might have come to the same conclusions, and indeed Freud did love Shakespeare.  For Freud we are all criminals in the dark and shadowy depths of our very own hearts.  He did, after all propose a structuralist as well a topographical model of the mind in an effort to understand those animal instincts to which we are all so prone.  He did, for sure suggest Ego and Superego (and indeed Reason and Civilization itself) as ways of controlling the instinctual dark Id that lurks in us all.  However, he always warned that their potency was diminished when unconscious desires were inflamed and fanned by external events.  To finish, once again, with Edmundson:

In his reflections on the Anschluss, Freud shows irritation, impatience, and occasionally something approaching a dark bemusement, but he is never shocked.  He had been studying the unconscious for too long.  (Ibid., 52)

No comments: