23 March 2006

Sigmund Freud is on the cover of Newsweek as I write this. The lead-in for the article reads, "On his 150th birthday the architect of therapeutic culture is an inescapable force. Why Freud -- modern history's most debunked doctor -- captivates us even now."

As you might expect, the article is boring and trivial, which is usually the case when a popular publication tries to sum up a giant figure of literature, drama, philosophy or psychology. Instead, I like what Jonathan Lear says about Freud in, "Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul."


"Freud botched some of his most important cases. Certainly a number of his hypotheses are false. His analytic technique can seem flat-footed and intrusive, and in his speculations he was a bit of a cowboy.

"But at his best Freud is a deep explorer of the human condition, working in a tradition which goes back to Sophocles and which extends through Plato, Saint Augustine, and Shakespeare to Proust and Nietzsche. What holds this tradition together is its insistence that there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness. Sophoclean tragedy locates another realm of meaning in a divine world which humans can at most glimpse through oracles. In misunderstanding these strange meanings, humans usher in catastrophe.

"Freud's achievement, from this perspective, is to locate these meanings fully inside the human world. Humans make meaning, for themselves and for others, of which they have no direct or immediate awareness. People make more meaning than they know what to do with. This is what Freud meant by the unconscious. And whatever valid criticisms can be aimed at him or the psychoanalytic profession, it is nevertheless true that psychoanalysis is the most sustained and successful attempt to make these obscure meanings intelligible. Since I believe that this other source of meaning is of great importance for human development, I think that psychoanalytic therapy is invaluable for those who can make use of it; but, crazy as this may seem, I also believe that psychoanalysis is crucial for a truly democratic society."


Lear admits the importance of what we once jokingly called, "better living through chemistry." But he adds:

"It is fantasy to suppose that a chemical or neurological intervention can solve the problems posed in and by human life. That is why it is a mistake to think of psychoanalysis and Prozac as two different means to the same end. The point of psychoanalysis is to help us develop a clearer, yet more flexible and creative sense of what our ends might be. 'How shall we live?' is for Socrates the fundamental question of human existence -- and the attempt to answer that question is, for him, what makes life worthwhile. And it is Plato and Shakespeare, Proust, Nietzsche, and most recently, Freud who complicated the issue by insisting that there are deep currents of meaning, often crosscurrents, running through the human soul which can at best be glimpsed through a glass darkly. This, if anything, is the Western tradition: not a specific set of values, but a belief that the human soul is too deep for there to be any easy answer to the question of how to live."


What's most surprising to me is the sudden juxtaposition of Freud and freedom and how that pairing puts the Freudian legacy in a new light, which shines brighter now than eight years ago, when this book was published, before 9/11 and the George Bush project of supposedly bringing democracy to Iraq. Can a man who places all meaning and authority outside the human world understand democracy or bring it to a group of people who also place all meaning and authority outside the human world but in a different deity than Bush? In light of what Lear says, the president's misguided project seems more pointless than ever!

The fate of that project belongs to the future and the history books. The question we can answer right now is, "Why does Lear make his remark about democracy in light of Freud?" Later in the book he gives us a clue:


"No one did more to devise a form of treatment which avoids suggestion. It was Freud who first set the avoidance of suggestion as a therapeutic ideal -- and it was Freud who devised the first therapeutic technique aimed at achieving it.

"This is of immense importance, for psychotherapy thus becomes the first therapy which sets freedom rather than some specific image of human happiness as its goal. Other kinds of therapy aim at particular outcomes ... psychoanalysis is the one form of therapy which leaves it to analysands to determine for themselves what their specific goals will be."


Moreover, I would add, Freud helped us better understand that even in our deep, interior selves there is not one leading voice that we should follow but a chorus of inner promptings; and he shows us that we can live better when those various aspects of the self communicate and negotiate. Analysis is not about finding a "true self" or inner president as much as it's about developing a form of inner diplomacy that allows competing voices, wishes, desires and needs to come forward, take the podium, express themselves and get acknowledgment and support.

And it might lead us to wonder, "Can there be outer democracy, freedom, fairness and peace in collective life if there's not first an inner democracy of the sort Freud tried to establish?" If you're marginalizing parts of yourself, practicing a form of self-discrimination at a deep level, can you be fair and honest with others? Diversity and democracy start at home, in the privacy of your own mind, or not at all.


Since most of what we know about psychoanalysis comes from novels and movies, where it's often used as comic relief, it's important to remember that while Freud is rightly debunked on many issues, his general attitude -- that it's important to cut through illusion for deep freedom-enhancing insights -- is still worth emulating, and that it's a lifelong process that benefits us as individuals and our collective life in a democratic society.

In short, Freud teaches freedom -- and we need him now more than ever.



©jonfobes 2005