Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fathoming Freud 17

Freud in London 

Freud got his wish – he did, indeed, manage to “die in freedom,” and in London, his favourite city in the world, in the country he loved most outside Austria.  The old man was simply overcome by the huge welcome he got – he was, after all, the most famous psychiatrist in the world.  Such adulation reminded him of his early days of success in America.

Freud, a serious man, on some level experienced a form of “intoxication.”  Also, we must recall that our man was anything but a romantic at heart – he was more a cold clinical scientist.  After all, he had no use for alcohol, no use for religion, and, during most of his adult life, no use for romantic love.  On this last subject his views were simply scientific – he called it “the overestimation of the object.”  (See The Death of Freud, 143)

And so Freud was an old man, slowly dying of cancer of the jaw in London, and yet he kept working on his Moses book – his last great work.  This was very controversial to say the least.  But he was never new to controversy – in fact, as we have said before in these posts, he thrived on opposition.  Had he not always said the painful, non-political thing?  Had he not announced to the world that children were sexually hyper-charged when he was a young psychiatrist? Had he not told them that they more often than not did not know their own motivation?  They did not even know why their jokes were funny.  he had always said that being a Jew, with its long history of persecution in the world was an excellent preparation for doing his intellectual work in the world.  No wonder Freud’s favourite hero, or anti-hero if you prefer, was Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.  Freud was the outsider par excellence.  It really was not much of a quandary for the old man at all, that is, should he revel in the English adulation or should he continue to be, what Edmundson calls “the trouble-maker” right up until his death?  He probably snickered to himself and gave the thought one of his withering looks, to use a bad metaphor.

Freud had already published at least two chapters of his Moses book in an International Journal where it would have been read by the cognoscenti, and probably would not have made much of an impact on international thought.  Anyway, the world was way more concerned with political matters, and especially about the madman Hitler who was causing much trouble in reality and probably promised much worse in the signs of things to come.  However, the Jewish community were aware of Freud’s unconventional and radical thoughts, and so one of his first visitors, if not the very first, in London was Abraham Shalom Yehuda, a Jewish Biblical scholar who lived nearby.  He had come to welcome Freud, yes, but the main purpose of his visit was to entreat him not to publish the Moses bookYehuda begged him to resist publication because, after all, the Jews were already facing enough tribulations in the world without his adding to it.  Why should Freud wish to add to the suffering of world Jewry?  Yehuda was aware that the train of Freud’s thoughts were such that he would eventually question the very race of Moses himself, that the old man would contend that the old liberator was in fact an Egyptian. We don’t know exactly what Freud said to his guest, but we know from his later comments that he was unmoved.  After all, he was to write, why should suffering people really care what an old man wrote in a dry old publication.  Anyway, the upshot of the whole affair was that Freud went back to writing his third chapter on Moses.  Once again, one can only admire Freud.  Ever the outsider; ever so objective; over so committed to the integrity of truth wherever he found it that the supplications of old scholars did not bother him at all.  The thing that comes through to this reader is Freud’s courage and integrity and his commitment to his project in life, namely to the integrity of the international psychoanalytic project.

Again, it is important to remind ourselves at this juncture that Freud was a committed atheist and considered himself an objective scientist.  Of course, he was a Jew by race.    Edmundson is good on Freud’s attitude to religion:

Human beings long for the father, he says; more precisely they long for the childhood father’s return… [they] combat their feelings of helplessness in a hostile world by concocting a collective supreme fiction: “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child forever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father; he creates for himself the gods whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection.  Thus his longing for a father is a motive identical with his need for protection against the consequences of human weakness.” (Ibid., 151)

Why is all this important for the ageing Freud?  Why is it important for us in the real world?  For one, he had realised early enough in his life and became more an more convinced that, while the feminine cultural qualities associated with women, that is, love, nurture and care are all highly esteemed by human beings, what really mattered to all humans was the stabilizing contact with power and authority. We may deny it, but we all want some degree of power in our lives.  Freud said we’d take this any day to the above listed feminine values we find in our culture.

And so the old man was not too surprised with the rise of the dictators like Franco, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, and the consequent mayhem unleashed on the world by them.  Their desire for power and authority had brought about and would unleash much suffering on many million innocent heads.  This is why Freud persisted with the Moses book.  He was, after all, still exploring the mystery of humankind’s fascination with power.  In writing his Moses book, he wanted to continue with his quest of getting to root of that fatal attraction, the source of all evil.

Another view of one of Michelangel's famous "prisoners os stone." The represent in a powerful way the unfinished nature of humankind!

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