Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ryan Report and our National Shame

It is a relief to hear our teachtaí dála or members of parliament at one on something, and not engaging in their continual bickering and exchange of verbal abuse with one another.  I fully agree with the importance of opposition within the democratic system, but of recent years mud slinging has replaced honest debate and quite often one hears little more than the ad hominem arguments of our politicians being repeated on our news.  What a pity that it takes a revelation of such horrific proportions as the Ryan Report to bring them to some shared concern.  It is high time our elected members of parliament stopped fighting like cats and got their act together to save our economy which is now practically in shreds and the laughing stock of the civilised world.

The Rights of the Child

Those working in any of the non governmental organizations (NGOs) or charities will not be surprised that the rights of the child are/were never taken seriously in this country, or indeed any country for that matter.  Indeed, the poor were and are never taken seriously in any country anywhere in the world.  To be poor is a great “sin” in any capitalist system.  And then to be poor and young is surely a greater “sin” again.  And further, it is surely unimaginable how one would describe the situation of a young person who is both poor and orphaned.  Such a person is nothing short of a bloody nuisance to the accumulation of wealth which is the right of every citizen in society.  In short, they are a scar on the body politic.  Obviously, I’m being sarcastic in the previous few lines, but the truth of it is that the poor were and are never taken seriously, and to be poor, young and orphaned in a society which sees the acquisition of wealth and status as its primary aim is surely to be almost invisible.

As I write these lines, the two-day debate in the Dáil on the Ryan Report is coming to an end.  All of the debaters are good, and quite rightly animated and at one at the lack of seriousness with which we take the rights of children in this State.  The fault lies with us as a nation and as a State.  One speaker acknowledged the fact that one brave TD brought to the Dáil the scandalous mistreatment or physical abuse of one orphan in one of the religious institutions in 1954, but this fell on deaf ears all around the assembled members of parliament.  In other words – out of sight, out of mind.  Poor orphans were not worth the concern of the State.  That is the context in which we have to put the Ryan Report.  Yes indeed, the Religious Orders that ran these institutions must be brought to book.  Yes, any members of these Religious Orders, who are still alive and accused of any heinous crimes must be brought to justice in a court of law.  This all goes without saying.  However, to scapegoat the Religious Orders for the failures of the State is in itself a denial of our guilt as a Nation and as a People.  Like the German Nation after the World War II we have to face up to our guilt.

They say the past is another country, and indeed it is.  I remember the sixties in Dublin city – I was born in 1958.  It seems a strange country to me now at this distance.  I attended a Christian Brothers School called St Canice’s on the North Circular Road. The sixties in Ballybough and North Strand were poor indeed, and rough and bleak in the extreme.  All of the teachers who taught me were good and some, indeed, were brilliant.  I became a teacher as a result of their excellent tuition and inspiration.  However, the sixties were cruel times and I remember my older brother telling me how boys who were less intelligent and/or badly behaved were dealt with.  They were thrashed with a leather – a small implement of punishment made of leather straps sewn together and sometimes containing a strip of steel between its layers.

Some fellow teachers and I were discussing education in the sixties in Ireland recently, and we came up with the following points.  One gentleman said he remembered the lay teachers at his Christian Brother run secondary school as being far more violent towards pupils than their religious counterparts.  Several of us agreed with this.  Another, who had attended a Diocesan Boarding School in the West of Ireland, remembered some of the priests and lay staff there as absolutely vicious.  In other words, even in the normal everyday boys schools of the sixties and seventies life was harsh to say the least, brutal and brutalising to tell the truth.  That’s why corporal punishment was eventually banned in 1981.  In all of this, the boys or pupils were very much second class citizens and their points of view were never taken seriously.  In short, the rights of the child never counted for anything in our system of education.  Then, by extrapolation, the rights of the child never counted for anything in society in general.

It’s at this point that I’d like to mention a recent article on the Ryan Report by the great Con Houlihan, one of my favourite journalists.  It’s well I remember reading his erudite column in The Irish Press when I was a young boy and later a young teacher.  His wonderful column was called Tributaries.  What a pity those columns were never collected and published in book form. Con writes beautifully on his chosen field, i.e., sports, but Con is a learned man, a former teacher and a Ph.D.  Anyway, I will quote his recent article in The Evening Herald here:

Wednesday June 10 2009

We were told that the report on child abuse in State institutions caused surprise. Don't you believe it. Most of the facts have been long known to the public.

The proliferation of paedophilia came perhaps as a surprise to some people, including myself, but the other aspects of the report were hardly revelatory.

We have long known that children in orphanages are treated badly. They have committed one crime. They are poor. Ours is the most caste-ridden society west of India or west of anywhere. People can look with indifference on the maltreatment of orphans and other abandoned children because they see them as a different species. They do not suffer pain or humiliation as ordinary people do. Thus most of the German nation weren't too worried about the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews. The Jews were inferior -- they didn't suffer like ordinary people and, in any case, they deserved punishment…


The perpetrators of child abuse in our society are ordinary people. In the real world outside of the institutions they don't stand out as cruel or prejudiced. They are people just like us.

This caste attitude could be seen all around you in the country of my youth. When a little girl became pregnant, she went down to the river and back to the sea. Her death was recorded as suicide. In my part of Ireland you never heard of people from the middle class committing suicide -- their deaths were recorded as misadventure and so even in death the poor didn't get fair play. The report confined itself to child abuse in State institutions but it could have gone further: when boys reached the age of about 14, they were released as workers to farmers. In most cases they were treated like slaves. The difference was that the slaves in the plantations had the compensation of their own company -- they worked in groups.

There is the story of one little boy who never knew his father or mother. At a certain age he was released into the world to work for a farmer. He was a grand little boy: he was always cheerful, even though sometimes you wondered why. At about the age of 30 he died of pneumonia from working in wet clothes. It didn't help that he was underfed and overworked. I went to his funeral. There were only 11 other people there. We had to send three times for a priest to come to say the prayers at his grave. The priest eventually came in a foul humour and didn't delay in bidding farewell to the dead man…

The reformatories were much the same as the orphanages. Little boys were taken away from their families because of harmless "crimes" and kept in institutions that turned some of them into hardened criminals. The man called The General, Martin Cahill, not unknown to me, used to say: "The mad monks in the bog made me what I am." He was referring to Daingean, a reformatory whose name made the heart turn cold as did Upton, Artane and Letterfrack. Boys came out of those reformatories with a poor opinion of society and saw no reason why they should conform to its laws. Martin Cahill of course was wrong: he was denying free will but there was a grain of truth in what he said.

What can be done about the shame of the reformatories and the orphanages? The mentality of our society is not likely to change overnight. We will go on being caste-ridden until some mental revolution restores a degree of health.

The most appalling example of the caste system was seen in the treatment of young girls who gave birth outside wedlock. In Argentina under the regime of the cruel Colonels you would hear talk about the "disappeared" -- they were young people who, because of their subversive views, were abducted and murdered. They disappeared because their bodies were thrown to the sharks in the South Atlantic.

The girls who disappeared here were sent into the Magdalene laundries. Most of them didn't ever again became part of the world outside. That is now part of the past.

I have edited the above, but I would encourage any interested reader to read the full article here: Houlihan on Ryan Also if you are interested in other reflections on what Freud might make of Ryan in this blog see here: Freud on Ryan.

Above a picture of Michelangelo's Slave in the Louvre, Paris.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fathoming Freud 18

 The Moses Book

If Freud was not writing he did not feel alive.  For the year or so he spent in London he finished his final great book Moses and Monotheism.  He was also to write another during these final months – this was called An Outline of Psychoanalysis, and it was his attempt to impose orthodoxy after he was gone.  As I have mentioned many times before in these posts Fr4eud was a complex and somewhat conflicted man – though probably much less so than the rest of us.  I say this because he had himself been most unorthodox in his own thoughts and had thought nothing of dismissing the views of others if he considered them wrong.  In other words, while he did much, and certainly far more than others, by way of attempting to deconstruct the phenomena of power and authority, he was singularly authoritarian with respect to his own theories which he expounded as dogma.  Remember, too, that Freud was anything but religious and the fact that he was doctrinaire as regards his own theories is somewhat perplexing.

Outside Abraham Shalom Yehuda there were many other voices imploring Freud not to publish the final chapter of Moses.  One such voice was that of Charles Singer, a distinguished historian of science, who also pleaded with him to suppress the manuscript.  However, the old man replied by letter to Singer thus:

I have spent my whole life standing up for what I have considered to be the scientific truth, even when it was uncomfortable and unpleasant for my fellow men.  I cannot end with an act of disavowal.  (The Death of Sigmund Freud, 198)

On Thursday, February 2, 1939 the book was published and printed in German in Amsterdam, Holland.  A month or so later the old man received two copies from Holland.  He kept one copy for himself and the other he sent on to his great friend Princess Marie Bonaparte. On May 19 of that same year he saw an English version published in his new country of residence.

The Contents of The Book:

Peter Gay, one of Freud’s greatest biographers wrote of this book, entitled in English Moses and Monotheism that its author “had conceived it in defiance, written it in defiance, published it in defiance.”  So what did that great and infamous book say?  The most scandalous point in the book, from the standpoint of orthodox Jewry was that it questioned the very identity of Moses himself and maintained that he had in fact been an Egyptian.  Let me return here to the words of Edmundson with respect to the invention of monotheism itself:

Then there is the matter of the origins of monotheism.  Drawing on his anthropological and archaeological researches, Freud speculates that monotheism was not a Jewish, but rather an Egyptian invention.  (Ibid., 200)

Then he contended that the Chosen People actually murdered their greatest prophet.  But all these contentions, thought by some to be the most profane and hostile were in fact the least important points that the book had to make – in fact, they were pretty insignificant points with respect to its overall far-reaching and deep insights.  Of this book, Freud said in a letter to Hans Sachs that it was “quite a worthy exit.” (Ibid., 204) 

The Moses book unleashed much criticism in the UK at the time of its publication: Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian sneered at it; needless to say, Abraham Yahuda rebuffed it as worthy of a Christian fanatic who had set out to vilify the Jews.  Even a Catholic scholar, one Father McNabb deemed it a scandalous work.  However, the book sold like wild fire.  Freud probably felt young once more, even though he was a suffering and dying old man.  He was getting reactions on all sides – like, when he was young, he was as an old man, stirring up a hornets nest.

In summary, the goal of therapy for Freud was the making conscious of the unconscious; unmasking the unconscious motives and analysing “the transference,” that is, where the patient transfers their love/hate for significant others in their lives onto the therapist, and the therapist in turn disarms all counter-transference by sheer awareness of the process. Then, added to that mix, Eros is somewhere interwoven in the whole lot, but once again disarmed by awareness.  Through this painstaking process the patient begins to deconstruct all figures of absolute authority, including the therapist.  Let me return once again here to Edmundson’s words:

What Freud did almost every morning and afternoon was to allow people to cultivate and inflated image of who and what he was, and then guide them in the process of dismantling that image.  Over and over again Freud showed his patients how to draw the gigantic figures in their own past down to size, and they learned this in no other way than by learning to draw Freud himself in more modest, human contours.  Freud the sometimes patriarch didn’t just develop theories about the destructive effects of patriarchy; he developed a form of teaching that gave people the chance to undo oppressive authority.  [Ibid., 212-213]

Now raise the above quotation to the nth power, as it were, that is to the power of the nation.  In other words, begin now to deconstruct authority as it is encultured in any specific race or culture.  What does one get then?  Think of it.  Perhaps what’s lacking in the age-old Arab-Israeli argument, or any other international dispute for that matter, is the psychoanalysis of each race.  When one begins to deconstruct the God of the Old Testament and the Allah of the Koran, one begins to dismantle the sacred idols of power and oppression, not alone of the nation itself, but also those of the enemy.  Often these sacred idols are masks for hatreds that seek to express their power in the oppression and perhaps even extirpation of the enemy nation.  To deconstruct all these transferred images – as all gods really are, according to Freud – or these powerful and vengeful beings in the “sky” as it were, is no more than deconstructing those national projections, or more correctly transferences, of our collective and individual needs for a father who can be equally so destructive as well as caring.  All of this, needless to say, was and is anathema to all religions because it was and is unmasking their beliefs as mere wishful thinking at its most benign or sheer hatred at its more powerful expression.  Freud left us with much food for thought.  No wonder his Moses book provoked such a strong reaction from the religious sectors of society.  His proposals were not so much striking at the heart of all religions, but rather at the very heart or centre of power within human beings individually and collectively as nations.  In short, life is all about wielding power.  The brilliance of Freud was that he saw through the sham and the masks and called a spade a spade.  We owe him much.

Above Michelangelo's depiction in stone of The Battle of Cascina. For Freud life is a struggle or conflict.

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!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Fathoming Freud 16

Freud on Authority

If anything Freud made an excellent analysis of authority and what makes those in authority tick, to use a cliché. he detested authoritarianism and all who practised such – fascism of the right or the left for that matter. He was interested in autocrats like Hitler and Stalin because they made interesting subjects to study. As Hitler and his minions dominated the streets of Vienna those fateful months of early to mid-year 1938, Freud laboured away for an hour a day – he was sickly and dying slowly of cancer – on his Moses book to which I referred at some length in the last post before this. Freud hoped that this book would stand the test of time because it represented the fruit of his twenty-year analysis of debased authority – that type of authority that Hitler and Stalin represented.

Now, the founding father of psychoanalysis was a complex being – and, indeed, who isn’t? This is the way Edmundson puts Freud’s complexity or contradictory nature:

The fact is, of course, that in the middle of his career, Freud arrived at a strong view about the kind of authority that commands obedience: masterful, patriarchal authority. At various times in his life and work, Freud, was willing to imitate exactly such authority: his temperament leaned more than a little that way to begin with, and he saw how effective it could be to play the primal father’s role. Freud, in short, was tempted by the kind of power that he spent a major phase of his career demystifying. Freud, one might say, was a patriarch who worked with incomparable skill to deconstruct patriarchy. he wrote and lived to put an end to the kind of authority that he himself quite often embodied and exploited. (The Death of Freud, 129-130)

Freud in London:

Early on the morning of Monday, June 6, 1938, Sigmund Freud stepped down from a train at Victoria Station in London. The old man realised all too clearly that he had come to London so that he might die in freedom and so that his family might live thus also. The likes of Socrates, Cicero and the great Montaigne had all averred that to learn to philosophize meant essentially learning how to die. Freud would not go to his death easily – he would persist with writing his contentious book on Moses and rattle a few more cages. His approach to life was never to take the easy road – after all, he was no people-pleaser or yes-man. He was a trouble-maker and he loved to be contentious – not for the point of being contentious, but rather to tell forth the truth in all its ugliness as well as its beauty. That was always his modus operandi and modus vivendi. He thrived on opposition and loved debate – provided, that is, that he’d get the last word on the matter.

Freud on Human Misery:

There are not too many happy moments to be enjoyed in reading either Freud’s works or indeed reading about his life. He was a serious sort of person, but certainly not a depressive. He was, however, somewhat negative about humankind. He has little to say about human beings at their best. That said, we owe him a lot. Well, he awakened us from our dogmatic slumbers and from our unawareness of the unconscious. Freud is good at describing humankind at their low points: failing erotic love, jealousy, repression, suppression, miserliness, hypochondria, ingratitude, lust, greed, gluttony, vanity etc. Again, this is what Edmundson has to say:

The hunger for Hitler, or someone like him, never goes away. The urge to be cruel, be destructive, be brutal, is perpetually there. By describing people at their worst, one is nonetheless getting close to something like their essence. Some people have seen Freud as a reductionist; perhaps it is better to see him as someone with brilliant insights into human beings at their most reduced. (Ibid., 146)

One of Michelangelo's famous "prisoners of stone" sculptures. These were his "unfinished masterpieces." In a way the represent the human condition - we are essentially an unfinished work in many ways!

Fathoming Freud 15

Freud and Pain

Freud had a very high pain threshold. Although for the last fifteen or so years of his life he suffered considerable pain from on-going cancer of the jaw bone, he stubbornly refused to give up smoking cigars. In his smoking he persisted to the last. His daughter and heir, that is, his successor to presidency of the International Psychoanalytic Association, was also his secretary and nurse in his final years. In all these matters their relationship was painfully intimate. Not only had Freud analysed his own daughter and had openly discussed sexual matters, it was also she who helped him take out and wash the enormous prosthesis – he called it “the monster” – that sat in his mouth like a giant stone. It has also been noted many times that he refused to take pain killers.

Freud and Moses:

I have visited Rome many times in my life. Once with my friend Gerry I visited the Church of St Peter in the Chains. (Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli) That church is famous its famous statue of Moses. This statue is a marble sculpture(1513-1515) by Michelangelo Buonarroti which depicts obviously the Biblical figure Moses, and it is an integral part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. Needless to say, our man Freud had viewed this great work of art by Michelangelo and was indeed moved by it. The Wiki, in an interesting note on this great work and its connection with the founder of psychoanalysis, has this to say:

In his essay entitled The Moses of Michelangelo Sigmund Freud, along with several well-respected experts, associates this work with the first set of Tables described in Exodus 32: (19) “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.”

A more recent view, put forward by Malcolm MacMillan and Peter Swales in their essay entitled Observations from the Refuse-Heap: Freud, Michelangelo’s Moses, and Psychoanalysis, relates the sculpture to a second set of Tables and the event mentioned in Exodus 33: (22) “And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:” and (23) And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen." See the following link: ( Moses and Freud )

As Freud awaited his flight from Vienna he was never idle. He continued working on his last great work on Moses. Some three years earlier he had written to a colleague and friend that “Moses won’t let go of my imagination.” (See The Death of Freud, 90) Our man believed that in the character of Moses he could find the key to the identity of the Jewish nation. In a letter to his great disciple Ernest Jones we read:

Several years ago I started asking myself how the Jews acquired their particular character, and following my usual custom I went back to the earliest beginnings. I did not get far. I was astounded to find that the first so to speak embryonic experience of the race, the influence of the man Moses and the exodus from Egypt, conditioned the entire further development up to the present day. (Ibid., 90)

Freud and Conflict

The ailing old man Freud who laboured away for an hour a day on his Moses book in his apartment at Bergasse 19, over which the Swastika now flew, was nothing if not a little conflicted. I say a little, because he had wrestled for years with his own self-analysis and that of others. So he had put many of his own conflicts and doubts to bed. But some remained, as there are always vestiges of conflicts and doubts, even in the most individuated person, to steal that Jungian term of which Freud would not be too enamoured. However, the climate of the times, the impending Nazi gloom that hovered over all of Europe and the struggle of the Jews for escape with their lives and indeed find some identity as a nation lay on the old man’s conscience. Let me return to Edmundson again here

But Freud affirms not inner peace but inner conflict. No part of the psyche must be suppressed in the interest of any other; the wages for such suppression are too dear. Any part of the self denied expression is bound to erupt – or at least to assert itself – in ways that will be harmful for the individual. “The mind,” as Emerson says, “goes antagonizing on.” (Ibid., 125)

Above the famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo, the one that inspired Freud so much!