By William H. Gass, the author, most recently, of "A Temple of Texts." (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 07/05/06):
ON May 6, 2006, Sigmund Freud became 150 years old, though he is not yet a threat to Methuselah's record. But this isn't true. He died of cigars in London in 1939.
So who are we honoring with our remembrance, and what are we celebrating? Psychoanalysis is not that ancient and it would be impossible to pin it to a moment. We couldn't fix a date for Freud himself because he was not born the founder of psychoanalysis but became that around the turn of the century. His ideas emerged most gradually from the materialism of his scientific training and, after efforts to apply quantitative methods to the problems of his patients, he appears to have been compelled to look elsewhere for help.
That "elsewhere" was in consciousness itself, always the main problem for materialists since it refuses to have an address in space and time the way other material things do. I am aware of my own body but that awareness is not a body others could be aware of the way they are of mine.
The nervous system and the brain are a nearly certain cause of what goes on in consciousness, but in Freud's time it was scientifically impossible to reach those causes or bridge the gap between mind and matter. Had there been pills and similar potions he might have prescribed them and swallowed the rationale for their use as well. Cocaine, after all, was a chemical solution he used and quite in harmony with psychiatry's present pill pop, hip hop, rub out attitude.
Instead, Freud employed a strategy worthy of Spinoza. He would look for the solution in the same realm where the problem was. Neurology could run its energies around like dogs at a track, while psychology could do the same with trains of thought. If his patients were in mental pain, he would look for a mental cause.
Suppose my father beats me and I am bruised. My doctor can see those bruises and cover them with creams. He can hear me testify to feeling sore. And give me an aspirin for the ache. But what about my knowledge that it was my father who swung the strap, and later made me more confused by taking me, both of us weeping, on his lap?
And what about those ailments that showed up years later like lost uncles without either wives or loose change? What were those uncles doing in the time they were gone, and how did they cause welts to rise on a rump that had not been struck since discipline day?
When Freud began being Freud, the askew corners of our secular Western world had three important supports: Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche — whose views of nature saw only materialism, atheism, and determinism there. Freud completed the porch. Yet that image — in suggesting that a viewpoint was being built — ignores what was being dismantled at the time, because these were subversive, destructive, revolutionary thinkers who cast a cold eye on every customary place of concealment.
The concepts that emerged from Freud's work swiftly seeped into the mindstream of our European culture. They had their origin in the illnesses of the middle class and spread through that class because it made sense of its members' lives. No one else was dealing, in a way we could understand, with our interior world, and Freud drove us ever inward.
We liked being complex; we liked being a little world that had nevertheless swallowed so much of the wider one; we liked it that our "unconscious" never forgot, that our past wasn't past at all but a part of the present; we liked the way Freud paid attention — as the novelists did — to little, ordinary things, and showed us that nothing in our trivial lives was really trivial; we liked it that our illnesses were actually about us and not about the disease; and we liked it that the tyranny that took place in the family was disclosed; that news about our sexual feelings was being broadcast; that the darkness in us was universal.
There were protests, certainly. We complained. We resisted. But down deep, despite Freud's gloomy deterministic message, we doted on this new diet of inside information. The alleged sex life of infants was perhaps polymorphously perverse, and the continuity of man with animal that Darwin and Freud stressed was demeaning, but we learned to be proud of the first, and to shrug at the thought of the second.
Yet how much richer our awareness of the world is because he convinced us — at least for a while — that even our dreams were real; that out of the scraps of our life, the unconscious could make a quilt; that gestures could reveal more than a slit skirt and be even more glamorous. It became fashionable to be neurotic, to be in analysis and to be able to afford it. And we were having such a good time, we scarcely noticed that this therapy — which took so long and cost so much — wasn't curing anybody.
The surest way to destroy a good idea is to organize it. The second way is to use it to make money. The third way is to encourage disciples, which is a part of organizing it, of course. Analysis became an ideology. It didn't burn its heretics, but it would have liked to. It guarded its privileges, its secrets; it tried desperately to remain "professional."
On the theoretical front, as an account of neuroses, it began to multiply self-serving face-saving hypotheses.
But as a philosophy of the every day, the normal (as well as the ab-), it provides an understanding that is much missed. My anatomy doesn't explain me though I may exist as one of its functions. The molecules move and the object they constitute grows hot. But what I feel is warmth — not their jittery dance.
Scientific and philosophical abstractions, as important as they are, do not satisfy at the level of day to day, because they are rarely what I want to know. That is why, at a convention of philosophers (psychiatrists too, I'm willing to bet) you can't tell a positivist from a pragmatist.
But at the poker table, or when I'm trying to understand myself or my children, or why I hate to climb even short ladders, Freud still has a powerful offering to make. He'll help you understand why your dear old dad, dead now a dozen years, still makes you mad. Or why anger is sometimes so satisfying. Or the real reason you are reading this newspaper.