Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fathoming Freud 11

The Centrality of Conflict 

The baseline is: life is difficult, get used to it and work from there.  Or as Stephen Hawkin puts it: life is pure chance and hence is unfair when viewed from any particular individual’s point of view.  Hence, there is no use bemoaning your “outcast state” as did Shakespeare in his famous sonnet.  Accept this fact, take the “hand of cards” you are dealt and play them as best you can.  This is all any individual can do in his/her life. Freud, in essence, is in agreement with this sort of philosophy or outlook on life.  For him conflict was not alone central to life itself, but an essential part of the makeup of the human psyche itself.  His structural model of the mind is based on this notion of internal conflict and control:  In short the Ego and the Superego together keep the base instincts and desires of the Id under control.  That these base instincts and desires get out of control when the other two aspects of the mind fail in performing their allotted functions never surprised Freud.  It did and does and will happen.  Hence, he understood all too well what was happening in the mind of Hitler and what was happening in the minds of all those who followed him both consciously and unconsciously.

We are not made Whole

A contemporary Irish poet, now in his eighties, the great Thomas Kinsella, laments of the human condition in his thirty-third year of life:

It seems again that it is time to learn,

In this untiring, crumbling place of growth

To which, for the time being, I return.

Now plainly in the mirror of my soul

I read that I have looked my last on youth

And little more; for they are not made whole

That reach the age of Christ.

By reading Freud, we realise that we were never made whole; that we were always a project in construction, and that that very project was and is a life-long journey.  We are not unified creatures at all and our very psyches are divided into parts which are usually in conflict with each other.  I love the way Edmundson describes this conflicted essence of humankind’s very nature:

The “it,” or the “id,” wants what it wants and does not easily take no for an answer.  The over-I, or the superego, the internal agent of authority, often looks harshly upon the id and its manifold wants.  The superego in fact frequently punishes the self simply for wishing for forbidden things, even if the self does not act on those wishes.  Then there is the I, or ego, trying to broker between the it and the over-I, and doing so with the greatest difficulty, in part because both agencies often operate outside the circle of the ego’s awareness.  And Freud claims that the over-I can be unconscious just as the it.  Then the “poor ego” must navigate a frequently hostile outside world.  It is easy to see how, for Freud, life is best defined as ongoing conflict.  (The Death of Sigmund Freud, 98)

Freud:  Thoughts of and on Suicide:

Many Jewish families throughout Germany and Austria considered suicide and indeed many succumbed to its allure.  Remember that Freud was a medical doctor and would have had access to medicines and drugs and have known the most painless way.  However, while Freud considered this option, he felt it was a cowardly way out:  “Why? Because they would like us to,” he said to Anna when she proposed it as a possible escape.  Let me return once again to Edmundson:

Freud, old and sick as he was, could nonetheless be spurred on by Jones and by the princess, by the future of the psychoanalytical movement and by the prospect of one more battle in his long war with tyranny.  The Moses book was still unfinished; the crucial third chapter, where Freud could add an instalment to his critique of perverse authority and its uncanny appeal, still had to be finished.  (Ibid., 85)

Freud had already written much on suicide and had written especially perceptively on Hamlet’s contemplation of it as a way out of meeting life’s problems head on.  He had always believed that the main cause of suicide is an internal imbalance in the psyche.  If Freud were to take his own life either directly or indirectly by staying put and allowing the Nazis to end his life for him in Dachau or another such dreadful camp he knew he would be showing weakness and proclaiming to the world that his psyche was somewhat unbalanced.  In fact, far from it, his psyche was never stronger and never more balanced.  His ego had both superego and id firmly in control. (See ibid 86 for a fuller account of what Freud thought of the action of suicide).

Freud with his daughter Anna near the end of his life, probably in or on the way to London.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fathoming Freud 10

Freud’s Obsession with Collecting Statuettes 

In the late 1890s, while writing The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud became an art collector, developing an obsession with antiquity, beauty, myth and archaeology that led him to amass a brilliant private museum of over two thousand statues, vases, reliefs, busts, fragments of papyrus, rings, precious stones and prints. Bringing both his passions together, Freud stated: ‘The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer of the patient's psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures.’

I have already observed in many previous posts on psychoanalysis that one of Freud’s theories of the human psyche was what is termed the topographical model, namely that the mind is constructed rather like an archaeological site of several strata, viz., the top layer being the conscious mind, the next layer down being the preconscious and the final and deepest layer being the murky realm of the unconscious.  Interestingly also, Freud arrayed his statuettes – some of them  valuable objets d’art – around him in his study, in various cabinets and on his large desk.   [Also, I remember doing summer courses where there was a central area/display/focal point where any objects connected with the theme of the course were artistically laid out.  This rather Freudian layout was potent indeed for the group and helped focus the group by consciously and unconsciously putting these images before each participant’s mind.]

A scholar called Donald Kuspit (1989, 150) suggests, quite rightly I believe, that Freud used his antiquities to reflect upon or “to question them about himself.” (See this link here: Annual) They were, in short, instruments of self-analysis, rather than particularly valuable archaeological specimens.  Freud was not using them to read back into pre-history, but rather to read his very own pre-history.  So whether his objets d’art were forgeries or not was immaterial to this great man as their purpose was purely psychoanalytical or psychological.

One of Freud’s favourite statuettes was that of the goddess Athene (also Athena).  She is the shrewd companion of heroes and the goddess of heroic endeavour. She is the virgin patron of Athens, which built the Parthenon to worship her.  As well as this Athena became the goddess of wisdom as philosophy became a part of the cult in the later fifth century and Classical Greece. She was the patroness of weaving and other crafts and led battles as the disciplined side of war. The metalwork of weapons consequently fell under her patronage. Athena's wisdom includes the cunning intelligence (metis) of such figures as OdysseusFreud believed that Athene exerted her special protective functions for both his family and him – hence, she was a lucky charm for his flight from possible deportation and death in a Nazi concentration camp.  In Freud’s actual statuette Athene had lost her spear and oftentimes this symbolic fact led to his and his client’s search for what was lost or repressed in the psyche.

In all of his surroundings, books, couch and statuettes and objets d’art Freud gives off the aura of a well-grounded person who is sure of his identity, or at least is actively pursuing it.  His study and consulting room over-abounded in statues: Egyptian, Greek and Roman ones as well as African and Asian ones.  All these statues were containers of myth and clues to human nature, collaborators in stories Freud told about men and women.  They spoke to him of humankind’s deepest obsessions.  Let me return to the words of Edmundson here as he sums up beautifully the Romantic and later fascination with the ancient pagan worlds of Greece and Rome:

The pagan world allowed them to sustain their sense of wonder at the variety and strangeness of nature and at the middle of their own being.  Rome, as the formidable Edward Gibbon indicated, worshipped many gods, was hospitable to many religions, and that polymorphous worship was a source for the empire’s urbanity and tolerance – and also for its amazing vigour.  Perhaps Freud was of that breed of modern pagans who would not give up pondering rich mystery, even as they repudiated the all-knowing sky-god.  The collection had been valued – good; there were promises that it would follow Freud into exile – also good…

Marie Bonaparte, who sat on the stairs every day after Anna was arrested to make sure the Gestapo did not come and take away the Professor… soon smuggled away his favourite treasure: a bronze statue of Athena, a little more than four inches high.  Athena’s left hand is poised to grip a spear, which was lost; in her right hand she holds a libation bowl… The statue had a special place in Freud’s heart, symbolising both wisdom and marshal prowess; it was an icon of the mind as warrior, the intellect combatant.  Marie Bonaparte held it for Freud at her home in Paris to present to him when he was finally free.  (The Death of Sigmund Freud, 118-119)

Above I have uploaded a picture of a statue of Athena from the Vatican.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fathoming Freud 9

The Verlag Printing Press:

Freud had his own printing press, at least in so far as it belonged to The International Psychoanalytical Society, to publish his books.This Press was called the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.  As far as I know this means International Psychoanalytical Press.   Creating the company was made possible by the generous support of Anton von Freund, a Budapest businessman and patient of Freud.  In January 1919 Otto Rank became head of the company, still named the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag (International Psychoanalytical Press). Other participants included Sigmund Freud, Anton von Freund, and Sándor Ferenczi. The goal for the publishing company was to ensure the publication not only of journals and other publications with small circulations but above all of an "official reference" (according to Freud's letter to the presidents of the psychoanalytic societies, Easter 1932), to stand out from the growing literature on pseudo-psychoanalysis. Subjecting psychoanalytic literature to peer evaluation seemed necessary not only in the German-speaking world but also in the English-speaking world, where Ernest Jones, the main man who popularised Freud’s work in England, was active.

Needless to say, the Nazis invaded the Verlag, this Jewish publishing house which published this new revolutionary Jewish science.  The press was at Bergasse 7, just a few doors away from the old man’s apartment.  Martin, his son, got there before the Nazis and did what he could to get rid of as much incriminating material as possible – letters and documents about Freud’s accounts in foreign banks etc – to have such accounts was, of course, illegal and punishable by the Nazis.  A strange and unusual Nazi, called Doctor Anton Sauerwald whom Edmunson describes as “an enigmatic figure” was appointed what they called a “commissioner” for the publishing house called the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.  Sauerwald was 35 years of age when he was charged with liquidating the Verlag’s assets.  This enigmatic man, became bored one day with his job and began to read Freud’s books and papers, and in them he discovered new and profound things about the human psyche that surprised him a great deal.  As a result, he delayed his liquidation, it would appear for a considerable time.  As to why he did that no one is sure.  Edmundson argues that his delaying surely contributed in part to saving Freud from the concentration camps.

Freud’s Library:

Like Jung, Freud read inveterately, and consequently he had an enormous library.  One could expect no less from such a marvellous scholar and therapist.  At the time of his flight from Vienna his library comprised some 2,500 volumes.  These books were in the various languages in which he was fluent: German, French, English and Italian.  They covered almost every subject, viz., religion, anthropology, archaeology, mythology and history as well as more scientific works on neurology and psychiatry.  The library was also full of literary works, e.g., Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Shakespeare, Milton and Mark Twain. Interestingly Freud called Paradise Lost by Milton one of his favourite books.  Once again Edmundson puts the old man’s obsession with books thus:

Freud read because he wanted to know about every significant kind of human behaviour, collective and individual, past and present; he wanted to experience every kind of art that moved people.  (Ibid., 222)

The last book the old man read before he slipped into death was Balzac’s La peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin).  Honoré de Balzac  was born in 1799 and died in 1850.  He was a brilliant French novelist and playwright. The book mentioned above about diminution; a book about life shrinking away into death; a book about literally fading away as a human being; a book about in-built decay.  In this book, the protagonist, called Raphael de Valentin, acquires a wild donkey’s skin that can grant all types of wonderful wishes.  The story is really a variation of the Faustian myth.  However, each time Raphael makes a wish the skin shrinks.  The message here is simple: nothing is ever got for nothing – we have a price to pay for everything!  Here in this re-working of the old myth, Freud could see the battleground between the hungry and rapacious Id and the often baffled ego.  Here is what the WIKI says with respect to this Balzacian novel:

Although the novel uses fantastic elements, its main focus is a realistic portrayal of the excesses of bourgeois materialism. Balzac's renowned attention to detail is used to describe a gambling house, an antique shop, a royal banquet, and other locales. He also includes details from his own life as a struggling writer, placing the main character in a residence similar to the one he occupied at the start of his literary career.

The book's central theme is the conflict between desire and longevity. The magic skin represents the owner's life force, which is depleted through every expression of will, especially when it is employed for the acquisition of power. Ignoring a caution from the shopkeeper who offers the skin to him, the protagonist greedily surrounds himself with wealth, only to find himself miserable and decrepit at the story's end.

La Peau de chagrin firmly established Balzac as a writer of significance in France and abroad. His social circle widened significantly, and he was sought eagerly by publishers for future projects. The book served as the catalyst for a series of letters he exchanged with a Ukrainian baroness named Ewelina Hańska, who later became his wife. It inspired Giselher Klebe's opera Die tödlichen Wünsche and may have influenced Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.  (See this link here: Balzac)

Above Freud's bookshelves at his London home!

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)