By George Prochnik, the author of Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/05/07):
“When a pretension to free the world from evil ends only in a new proof of the danger of a fanatic to the commonweal, then it is not to be marveled at that a distrust is aroused in the observer which makes sympathy impossible.”
This bit of mordant critique does not come from a spectator of the current quagmire in Iraq, but from the founder of psychoanalysis, reflecting on the negotiations that concluded World War I and helped lay the groundwork for World War II. Today, on the 151st anniversary of Freud’s birthday — and a little more than four years since President Bush delivered his “Mission Accomplished” speech — we might do well to revisit an aspect of Freud’s thought that has been obscured by the more strident arguments for and against his overarching theory of the mind.
“Thomas Woodrow Wilson,” a biography of America’s 28th president that Freud wrote over the last decade of his life with a young diplomat named William C. Bullitt, is among the least-read volumes in the psychoanalytic canon. But in it Freud, the perennial foe of politics conducted under the mantle of divine inspiration, provided lessons even for those skeptical of Freud himself.
Bullitt had served under Wilson on the American Peace Commission in Paris in 1919, but resigned his post to protest the terms of the treaty, from its reparation clauses to its reapportionment of territory. He became acquainted with Freud in Berlin in the 1920s and mentioned to him that he’d decided to write about the negotiations. Before Bullitt broached the subject, Freud, already suffering from cancer of the jaw, had been lamenting that his own death would be insignificant since he had nothing more to say. But as Bullitt described his idea, in which studies of the principal actors at Versailles would elucidate the reasons behind the treaty’s failure, “Freud’s eyes brightened,” Bullitt recalled, “and he became very much alive.” Freud implored Bullitt to allow him to write the chapter on Wilson.
What stirred Freud to undertake this project at a moment of tremendous strain on his time and energies? In the book’s introduction, Freud recounted an incident in which Wilson, as president-elect, deflected a colleague who had mentioned how he had contributed to the success of Wilson’s campaign. “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States,” Wilson retorted. “Neither you nor any other mortal or mortals could have prevented it.”
Freud remarked: “I do not know how to avoid the conclusion that a man who is capable of taking the illusions of religion so literally and is so sure of a special personal intimacy with the Almighty is unfitted for relations with ordinary children of men. As everyone knows, the hostile camp during the war also sheltered a chosen darling of Providence: the German kaiser. It was most regrettable that later on the other side a second appeared. No one gained thereby: respect for God was not increased.”
For Freud, Wilson demonstrated the irresponsibility of entering the fray of world politics with a conviction that one’s position would triumph because it embodied divine will. In Freud and Bullitt’s interpretation, Wilson appeared at the negotiating table with his Fourteen Points and his larger, God-sanctioned vision of global harmony; when this platform was not universally embraced he had no viable fallback position. Wilson realized that he could not impose his revelation of utopian democracy on Europe, and his entire negotiating position crumbled. He surrendered America’s diplomatic authority to the machinations of Clemenceau and Lloyd George, who proceeded to impose the economically crippling terms on the Central Powers that helped shape the future political landscapes of Germany and Austria.
Wilson, Freud wrote, “repeatedly declared that mere facts had no significance for him.” “Noble intentions” were what counted. Thus, while Wilson came to France intent on bringing a “just and lasting peace” to Europe, he “put himself in the deplorable position of the benefactor who wishes to restore the eyesight of a patient but does not know the construction of the eye and has neglected to learn the necessary methods of operation.”
The alternative for Freud was not neutrality. Given his overweening consciousness of the brutality lurking just beneath the surface of every human being, Freud could not, despite his distaste for Wilson’s role at Versailles, defend political quiescence. But what Freud did believe was that governments — like individuals — must strive to examine and to acknowledge as clearly and unsentimentally as possible the motivations behind policy. If one acts on a delusional premise, one’s actions will only coordinate with their real world object randomly, if at all.
Near the conclusion of “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud wrote, “One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness — that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.” Be afraid of the leader who refuses to look in the mirror, Freud argued — or, he might have added, the one who says he won’t “go on the couch” to reflect upon earlier policy decisions, as President Bush memorably declared in 2004.
The mission of self-scrutiny is never accomplished, but our worthwhile ideals will survive a vigorous skepticism, even if we lose a few illusions about the unique superiority of those ideals along the way.