by Sam Buntz
Even though contemporary neuroscience—which focuses more on “hard” material explanations than on “soft” material ones—routinely dismisses the work of Sigmund Freud, and literature departments delight in appropriating French mis-readings of his work, the fact remains that Freud was a great genius. But another fact is equally true— not despite his genius, but because of it—and this is that Freud was a mad scientist, a cigar-puffing, well-dressed Edwardian gentleman, who was also a peculiarly mild incarnation of the Evil One (in my view, and with all due respect) for—and this is the key to Freud, the very center of Freud’s mission and it’s semi-secret motive—he, more than anything, wanted to kill God. And he wanted to kill Him in a much deeper and more meaningful sense than most hard scientists have yet managed in making the same attempt. Freud successfully reduced the human being—at least, the human mental apparatus—to the sum of childhood psycho-sexual development and experience (of, as Jorge Luis Borges put it, “a few unpleasant facts”) a procedure which, though perverse, can yield an interpretation of nearly anyone’s behavior—often quite accurately. Even though Freud’s direct influence has faded, a great many people today—especially in secular and university circles—tend to think of themselves as the result, entirely, of what their parents did or did not do (lest it seem that by attacking/saluting Freud, I am beating/grooming a dead horse). And, more widely, pop-psychology encourages the same distorted quasi-Freudian perspectives—our folk psychology is really now an oddly distorted version of Freud’s. More successfully than less imaginative scientists who attempt to kill the soul by reducing it to the genome—which is about as easy as reducing it to the 1s and 0s of binary code—Freud tried to eliminate the idea of a self created in the image of God. The self would powerlessly be dragged back to wherever its earliest primal impulses had been (until cured by psychoanalysis of course): “Where ‘it’ was, there ‘I’ shall be,” as Freud quite elegantly put it. Freedom, dignity, immortality—these were all dismissed by the psychoanalytic master.
Yet Freud’s attempt to reduce all selves to the products of parent-child relations can be refuted, even though it functions so well (on paper, more so than in the lab, obviously), because it led Freud himself to adopt some incredibly weird conclusions on certain topics. For instance, he believed in the crack-pot “Oxfordian Theory,” which asserts that Shakespeare must have been the Earl of Oxford, because how else could someone from the lower-classes (the “son of a glove-maker!”) have written so powerfully of the experiences of princes like Hamlet and kings like Lear? Of course, the answer is “imagination,” which can never really be adequately accounted for by science (whether Freudian “science” or cutting-edge neuroscience), because it is something like the force of the spirit—the immaterial essence of humanity—propelling itself into the world. Freud did not realize this, but he was troubled by it, as evidenced by his (very real) anxiety over the existence of supernatural phenomena—about which he could never quite make up his mind (though he had readily dispensed with God.)
Yet he deserves to be read because it is interesting to observe a great intellect attempting to explain everything—everything, that is, save the deepest part of the self, which is, of course, the most important and absorbing fact of all. He but misses the point entirely—though by hitting every secondary one. Freud has many true and valuable insights to offer regarding relationships, narcissism, dozens of other subjects of immense human interest (humor, mourning and melancholia, etc.), and the struggle for civilization itself—“Civilization and Its Discontents” is a superb commentary on the history of the early twentieth century, and the rise of Hitler can be understood as a Freudian “return of the repressed,” the re-advent of the image of the tyrannical, law-giving father whom the sexually liberated people of the Weimar Republic thought they had abolished for good. Yes, Freud knew many little things and many apparently huge things—but the hub, the truth of the self, which is neither Id nor Ego nor Super-ego, evaded him. As the Viennese wit Karl Kraus said, “Psychoanalysis is itself that disease of which it purports to be the cure.” And, although, it is not a disease that we continue to wrestle with explicitly, its methods and central ideas continually infect the way we think and talk about ourselves in the Twenty First Century. Yet there are some very heartening signs in the field of psychology–an increasing recognition of the reality of certain facts about the self. But more on that, later.