Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Freud by Elisabeth Roudinesco

The adjective “anti-Semitic” had appeared for the first time in Germany in 1860, used by an eminent Orientalist Jew from Bohemia to characterize a prejudice against those who were referred to at the time no longer as Jews but by the learned word “Semites.” In the face of this new form of hatred, the great emancipation movement of Haskalah*, born of the Enlightenment, risked appearing henceforth as a sort of interlude. Denounced up to that point for belonging to a religion, the Jews were now denounced as belonging to a “race”: that of the Semites. In 1879, the word left the sphere of scholarly debates among philologists  to constitute, in the vocabulary of the undistinguished publicist Wilhelm Marr, the kernel of a new world view, that of anti-Semitism.

Advocated by recently formed leagues, this vision ended up embodied in a movement that aimed to expel German Jews and send them to Palestine, and to stigmatize them as a class that was “dangerous” for the purity of the Germanic, or “Aryan,” race. In a few short years, during the period leading up to the First World War, anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe in many different variants: biological, hygienist, racialist, and nationalist.

Confronted during his university years with this mutation of anti- Judaism into anti-Semitism, Freud increasingly identified with the hero of his youth: the Semitic general Hannibal. During the entire period of his studies, Freud scorned those who labeled him a ‘dirty Jew” or who expected him to recognize his ‘racial inferiority”: on several occasions he did not hesitate to raise his walking stick to drive off the rabble that had peppered him with insults. In counterpoint, he cultivated the idea that by being excluded, as a Jew, from the “compact majority,” he would be capable of preserving an independence of judgment that would enable him to defend himself more effectively against prejudices. Freud had very little taste for the “liturgies of the social body, the protesting choirs, the anonymous slogans chanted blindly.”

 Aware, as Spinoza had been, of his status as heir to a people that had soldered its historical unity not so much by the sacred doctrine of election as by the hatred it aroused on the part of other nations, he thus made his pride in being Jewish an intensely powerful ferment for resistance to all conformism.

His  encounter with Charcot** was also decisive. Not only because the latter’s conception of hysteria had opened up new perspectives on psychic life and the reality of human sexuality, but because the master belonged to a line of scientists whose influence extended well beyond the confines of the academy. Known throughout the world, Charcot was first and above all a ‘seer’ endowed with an imaginative power in perfect harmony with Freud’s most extravagant dreams. Had he not gone so far, even as he was severing hysterias from any reference to an anatomical substratum, as to whisper in the ear of the young Freud, in love and convinced of his own talent, that even the most pertinent theory remains powerless in the face of a reality that contradicted it? “Theory is good; but it doesn’t prevent things from existing”: Freud would always remember this categorical imperative.

For all the scientists of the period, in Europe and North America, the study of sexuality was the great question of the century to come, and hysteria seemed to be its key element, a focus of interest far beyond the debates among specialists. And it is undeniable that Charcot was not only a master for Freud: he was the master through whom an entire continent had been conquered, the continent of sexuality.

Even if every new discipline owes its pronouncements to a ‘founding father’, this father instituted a discursivity that cannot belong to him alone, since, if it is rational, it engenders an infinite possibility of discourses capable of being reinterpreted in their turn. Freud himself was uncertain what his own legacy would be: “ No critic can see more clearly than I  the disproportion there is between the problems and my answers to them, and it will be a fitting punishment for me that none of the unexplored regions of the mind  in which I have been the first mortal to set foot will ever bear my name or submit to my laws.”

[This fate I pictured to myself as follows: I should probably succeed in sustaining myself through the therapeutic successes of the new procedure (psycho-analysis), but science would take no notice of me during my lifetime. Some decades later, some would surely stumble upon the same, now untimely things, compel their recognition and thus, bring me to honor as a forerunner, whose misfortune was inevitable. Meanwhile, I arrayed myself as comfortably as possible like Robinson Crusoe on my lonely island. When I look back on those lonely years, from the perplexities and pressure of the present, it seems to me like a beautiful and heroic era. The ‘splendid isolation” was not lacking in advantages and in charms, I did not have to read any of the medical literature or listen to any of my ill-informed opponents. I was subject to no influences, and no pressure was brought to bear on me. I learned to restrain speculative tendencies and, following the unforgotten advice of my master, Charcot, I looked at the same things again and again until they, themselves, began to talk to me.. My publications, for which I found shelter despite some difficulty, could safely remain far behind my state of knowledge. They could be postponed as long as I pleased.

I was saved from becoming embittered by a circumstance that does not come to the assistance of all lonely discoverers. Such a person usually torments himself with a need to discover the cause of the lack of sympathy or of the rejection from his contemporaries, and perceives them as a painful contradiction against the certainty of his own conviction. That did not trouble me, for the psycho-analytic principles enabled me to understand this environment as a necessary consequence of fundamental analytic theories. If it was true that the connections I had discovered were kept from the knowledge of the patients by inner affective resistances, then these resistances would be sure to manifest themselves also in normal persons as soon as the repressed material is conveyed to them from the outside. It was not strange that they should know how to motivate their affective rejections of my ideas on intellectual grounds. This happened just as often in the patients, and the arguments advanced – arguments are as common as blackberries, as Falstaff’s speech puts it – were just the same and not exactly brilliant. The only difference was that with the patients, one had the means of bringing pressure to bear in order to induce them to recognize and overcome their resistances, but in the case of those seemingly normal, such help had to be omitted.

Concerned with hygienics, nosography, and the description of “aberrations,” the major sexologists of the late nineteenth century – Krafft-Ebing, Albert Moll, and Havelock Ellis- were less preoccupied with therapeutics than with erudite research into the various forms of sexual practices and identities: homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, pedophilia, zoophilia, and so on. In short, they were interested first and foremost in the question of sexual perversions and their origins in childhood. If the paradigm of the hysteric woman had invaded the entire field of the study of neurosis, the two major figures of “non-procreative sex” – the homosexual and the masturbating child – were the preserve of sexologists, hygienists, and pediatricians, who left to  psychiatrists, heirs of the alienists, the task of dealing with insanity, that is, with psychosis

By giving up the idea that the bourgeois family order could be based on the alliance between a perverse parent and an abused child, Freud shifted the question of  the sexual causation of neurosis onto a terrain that no longer belonged to sexology, nor did it belong moreover to psychiatry or psychology. He was leaving the realm of describing behaviors for that of interpreting discourse, considering that the famous sexual scenes described by patients could stem from fantasies, that is, from subjective or imaginary representations. And he added that even when an instance of seduction had actually occurred, it was not necessarily the source of neurosis. Thus he accepted simultaneously the existence of fantasy and that of trauma. And he emphasized that, thanks to psychoanalytic method (exploration of the unconscious and treatment by way of talking), the therapy should henceforth be able to discern several orders of reality that are often confused: real sexual abuse, psychic seduction, fantasy, and transference.

Freud was exploring an  unprecedented way of conceptualizing human sexuality. He extended the notion of sexuality, making it a universal psychic disposition and the very essence of human activity. It is thus less sexuality in itself that became primordial in his doctrine than a conceptual cluster that made it possible to represent sexuality: the drive, the source of unconscious psychic functioning; the libido, a generic term designating sexual energy; anaclisis (physical and emotional dependence on another for protection and gratification), or relational process; bisexuality, a disposition proper to any form of human sexuality; and finally desire; a tendency, an accomplishment, an infinite quest, an ambivalent relation to others.

So, a masturbating child, for example, was envisaged from this new perspective, not as a savage creature whose evil instincts had to be tamed, but as a prototypical human being in progress. Freud normalized “sexual aberrations” by freeing them from all the approaches couched in terms of pathology or in terms of innate dispositions comparable to ‘defects’ or signs of “degeneracy.”

While the term ‘unconscious’ had been in use for centuries and had been theorized for the first time in 1752, Freud made it the major concept of a doctrine that broke radically with the old definitions: the term no longer referred to a super-consciousness, a subconscious, or a reservoir of derangement, but a place to be instituted by repression, that is, by a process aiming to maintain  apart from any form of consciousness, like a ‘defect in translation,’ all drive-related representations capable of becoming sources of displeasure, and thus capable of troubling the equilibrium of subjective consciousness.

Freud’s conception of the subject no longer had anything to do with any sort of medical psychology. As for psycho-analysis, it was an act of transgression, a way of surreptitiously listening to words, taking them in without seeming to hear them or define them. A bizarre discipline, a fragile combination uniting soul and body, affect and reason, politics and animality: I am a zoon politikon, a political animal, said Freud, citing Aristotle.

Fascinated by death and love, by sex and desire, but concerned with offering intelligible explanations of the cruelest and most ambivalent aspects of the human mind, Freud confronted human subjects with their destiny: an unconscious that, without depriving them of their freedom, determined their fate without their knowledge. And Freud had a powerful urge to see psycho-analysis as a symbolic revolution whose primary vocation was to change human beings by showing that “the ego is not master of its own house.” By this gesture, as we have seen, he had set himself apart from the psychologists and the sexologists of his day by using myths and dreams to make humanity’s nocturnal life visible, quite apart from the so-called sciences of human behavior. Thus he gave an existential content to this domain rather than claiming to describe it with scientific instruments. What he borrowed from Darwin, moreover, was nothing other than what he was also taking from Sophocles: the tragic story of a man who, after seeing himself as a god, realizes he is something other than what he believed himself to be – he is a murderer, or a descendant of animals.

Freud thus invented a “discipline”, one impossible to integrate not only into the field of physical or natural science but into that of the human science, an area that has been steadily expanding since the late nineteenth century. For scientists, psychoanalysis belonged to literature; for anthropologists and sociologists, it attested to a resurgence of the ancient mythologies; in the philosophers’ eyes it resembled a strange psychology that had sprung up both from Romanticism and from Darwinism, while psychologists saw it as putting the very principle of psychology in danger. Thus psychoanalysis was rejected by all the academic disciplines, so decisively that it appeared to be the property of a master whose goal was to restore the Socratic banquet rather than to foster the growth of modern knowledge. And indeed the committee, with its sacred rings, its protocols and its oaths, seemed to legitimize such a view. As for the therapeutic aim of psychoanalysis, it fell neither into the field of medicine nor into that of psychology, even if some believed that psychoanalysis, as medicine for the mind, might “influence” psychiatry even though it had grown out of magnetism.

In reality, the Freudian clinic consisted in an art of interpretation apt to obtain from the patient the confirmation of a construction that emerged through transference and the work of treatment. In this sense, it nullified therapeutic nihilism, which consisted of categorizing psychic illnesses without ever listening to the patient.

Contrary to what has often been said, Freud never maintained that anatomy was the only possible destiny for the human condition. He actually borrowed a formula from Napoleon who had sought to inscribe the histories of peoples to come in politics rather than in reference to ancient myths. In other words, even though he had a very high regard for the ancient tragedies, Freud conceived of the great issue of the difference between the sexes in terms of a modern and more or less political dramaturgy. If for Freud anatomy was part of human destiny, in no case did it represent, for every human being, an un-crossable horizon. Such is indeed the theory of freedom that stems from and is inherent in psychoanalysis: one must recognize the existence of destiny (anatomy) the better to free oneself from it. Anatomy never suffices to determine what is feminine or masculine. The partisan of the English school of psychoanalysis were more ‘naturalist” than Freud: they believed one is born a woman once and for all, whereas Freud said, rather, that womanliness is constructed with the help of representations.

By 1937- and in response to what he felt were the erroneous paths being taken by some of his disciples – Otto Rank and Sandor Ferenczi- Freud emphasized that in psychoanalysis there could be no substitute for transference (@friendship)- neither the hypothesis of birth trauma nor hypnosis. And he added that the practice of psychoanalysis was the exercise of an ‘impossible task” and one that could never be sure, in advance, of the result. The therapeutic effort, he said, oscillates between a bit of analysis of the id and a bit of analysis of the ego: in one case, one is trying to bring to consciousness something of the id, and in the other one is trying to correct the ego. Without this oscillation, according to him, there can be no therapeutic success. Consequently, the analyst is no more normal than his patient, and as an “active” partner he is subjected more than the patient to the dangers of analysis.  This is why, periodically, for example every five years, the practitioner “should submit himself to analysis once more, without feeling ashamed to take this step. This would mean, then, that not only the therapeutic analysis of patients but his own analysis would change from a terminable into an interminable task.”

Even seventy-five years after his death, Freud is still disturbing Western consciousness, with his myths, his princely dynasties, his traversal of dreams, his stories of savage hordes, of Gradiva on the march, of the vulture found in Leonardo, of the murder of the father, and of Moses losing the tablets of law. I imagine him brandishing his cane against the anti-Semites: putting on his finest shirt to visit the Acropolis; discovering Rome like a lover overcome with joy; lashing out at imbeciles; speaking without notes  before Americans; reigning in his timeless dwelling amid his objects, his red chow chows, his disciples, his women, and his mad patients; waiting attentively for Hitler without managing to speak his name; and I tell myself that, for a long time yet, he will remain the great thinker of his time and ours.

See also:

** ‘The Napoleon of the neurosis’

***History of the Psychoanalytic Movement

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