In forming the way we think about our human nature, the three great names of the modern age have of course been Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Each placed the main action of the human drama on a different stage. Darwin set it on the greatest stage of all, that of Nature herself. For Marx it was the currents of human history that formed us as we are. Freud, who had not much patience with the other two (in biology, at any rate, he seems to have been a Lamarckian), saw the “family romance” as the main generator of human personalities.
The subsequent fates of these three gentlemen’s theories is a fascinating study, which will nourish writers and researchers for decades to come. Of Darwin we have by no means heard the last. Indeed, as our understanding of the actual molecular-level mechanisms of biological inheritance deepens, this may very well turn out to be Darwin’s century. Marxism lingers on in one or two Third World hell-holes as a nominal state dogma, and in some of the denser thickets of western academia as a pretext for obfuscatory prose, but its intellectual influence is now negligible.
What of Freud? The common perception is that taken simply as science, which is after all the way he insisted they be taken, Freud’s theories have long since been exploded. Martin Gardner’s apothegm about those theories sums up the consensus: Whatever in them was true, was not original, and whatever was original, was not true. (Freud did not, for example, invent the notion of the unconscious mind.) The analyst’s couch seems now as quaint an artefact as the antimacassar — even cartoonists no longer draw it. So settled are these perceptions that when, in the mid-1990s, Frederick Crews’s series of critiques in New York Review of Books drew loud and furious reactions from practicing Freudians, most observers reacted as I did: “Good Lord, are there still people who believe that stuff?”
Cultural historian Eli Zaretsky seems to acknowledge this state of affairs, though grudgingly. His new book has an elegiac tone about it.
[A] psychoanalytic profession has survived both the psychopharmacological assault and the cultural turn. What may not have survived, however, is the analytic ethic of self-exploration of which psychoanalysis was once a part.
It is that “analytic ethic” whose rise and fall Zaretsky has set out to chronicle here. Why did it appear when it did? What accounted for its immense popularity in the middle years of the last century? Why did interest in it decline? What, if anything, have we learned?
It began, the author tells us, in 1899, with Sigmund Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. This book signaled a great change in the notion of human autonomy:
The Enlightenment stress on the autonomous, rational subject gave way to the modernist idea of a unique individual, the product of a highly specific and localized history, driven by a complex set of motivations that could not be understood except in the context of a genuinely personal, nonreproducible inner world.
Zaretsky argues that a shift of perspective like this can only become widespread when political and economic conditions are receptive to it. This only really became the case in what he calls the “Fordist” era of mass consumption that got going after WW1; and even then the only really ideal conditions for acceptance were in the United States, where deference to traditional authority was weakest. The author draws an elaborate parallel, running right through the book, with the Reformation, psychoanalysis serving as “the ‘Calvinism’ of the second industrial revolution [i.e. the 20th-century era of mass consumption],” New Left extremists of the 1960s being the Anabaptists, rejecting “the very idea of a disjuncture between the external world and intrapsychic reality, the founding premise of psychoanalysis.”
One ends up, in fact, with the impression of Freudianism as a sort of religious sect, offering spiritual nourishment to the inhabitants of a world undergoing great changes. That word “soul” in the title does not look like an accident. (Though the entire title is, the author tells us, taken from a 1925 movie financed by Sam Goldwyn, an early attempt to offer visual representation of psychoanalytic ideas.) In Zaretsky’s telling, this is all keyed to great economic forces: first to that “second industrial revolution,” then to postindustrialism, which he blames for the New Left going off and seeking psychic satisfaction in group identities — feminist, “gay,” race-conscious — and abandoning the search for authentic autonomy that psychoanalysis offers and encourages.
A faint odor of Marxist determinism rises from these pages. WW1 was, the author tells us, “[p]recipitated by imperialist conflicts over colonies and markets,” an explanation one does not often see nowadays outside the pages of the Pyongyang Times. Zarestky is a man of the Left — though more of the Old Left than the New. He is scathing about the modern Left’s emphasis on “’empowerment’ or utilitarian problem-solving.” Yet ten years ago, in response to Frederick Crews’s trashing of Freudianism, he wrote in Tikkun that Crews’s attacks “are continuous with the attack on the Left that began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 … They continue the repudiation of the revolutionary and utopian possibilities glimpsed in the 1960s.” Possibly there is some unresolved intrapsychic contradiction here.
Zaretsky is obliged to admit, what I think everyone knows by now, that as a treatment for mental disorders, psychoanalysis is worthless. He cites the case of a depressive named Rafael Osheroff, whose condition only worsened under seven months of analysis, but improved immediately when he was transferred to an institution that took a pharmacological approach. Osheroff’s family successfully sued the analysts. (This was in 1988.) Psychoanalysis has, Zaretsky admits, “not fared well as a scientifically grounded medical practice.” It remains interesting only for its literary appeal, and for its influence on twentieth-century popular culture.
Yet in fact, for all its pseudoscientific blather and useless “treatments” (which seem not to have worked even on Freud’s own patients), Freudianism as an inspiration to the imagination is not quite dead. The “PsychoDarwinism” of British sociologist Christopher Badcock, for instance, explores those aspects of the human personality that may indeed be formed by, or in response to, infant dramas. In the world’s poorest regions even today, Badcock points out, the arrival of a new sibling is high on the list of events that can kill an infant. It is not likely that millennia of biological evolution have left the infant indifferent to this fact. Modern neurophysiologists, too, agree with Freud that the psyche has different modules that sometimes compete with and sometimes override each other. And yes, we do concoct fictions in order to make sense of our lives, and of behavior whose origin we are unaware of. The old witch doctor is with us yet, for a while longer, at least.