Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Return of Sigmund Freud

Believe me, I never in my life expected to throw a title like this one up on the blackboard.
While there is no question that my 1956 decision to leave law school and for some months take up the study of the social sciences on my own was an utterly sensible thing to do, not only clarifying much of my thinking, but energizing my spirit, really letting God get at my view of life and my relation to it, I always found Sigmund Freud a very mixed bag. In some areas he seemed helpful, in others too strange and depressing for words. I could not stick with him for very long, and in retrospect often thought that the best thing he did was to point me in the direction of the anthropologists: Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Malinowski, Hanz Boaz. Freud had taught me something of the need to analyze and probably escape the super-ego, and the anthropologists, illustrating the questionable social dictates of other cultures, seemed an entertaining as well as accurate way of identifying my own socially acquired baggage. I was already pretty good at finding and keeping my own sense of self-direction, not only because I always read, but because the Lord of the mystics had an immense variety of ways of cutting the rug out from under the clay feet of those who over-assumed their authority over my mind. Novelists are such annoying buggers, especially when they're mystics.
But as grace must build on nature, and the presumption of willful ignorance is sinful, one must study, and study I did. I never knew it could be so much fun once you got away from the classroom and the prescribed  textbooks, none of which ever carried the spirit of  the original sources. It was a wonderful winter, and in the spring I began to study philosophy and also to think that when I had a family I would march it off to Church on Sunday, probably of the Canadian United persuasion.
I think the final kiss-off with the Wiener-Schrinkel came with his piece called "Moses and Monotheism". Enough was enough, already. His metaphysics were even worse than Jung's, if that were possible.
But I did admire his compassion for the troubled and thought for a time about becoming a shrink myself, little  conscious of the undoubted fact that I was, being a story teller looking for interesting tales, one of the best listeners I knew. And ever after, I ran into people who, not being very interested or studied in theology, inevitably messed up their own lives by trying to work them out according to the supposed norms of Ziggy and his followers. I also learned Pete Seeger's song about Adler, Jung, and Freud, and sang it on all appropriate occasions. It is not, of course, a panygeric.
But I also recognized that Freud had not been a complete waste of time, and so when the Lord indicated the other day that I should trot down to the library and take out a biography of the man, I swiftly did so, full of fond memories of those informative months, and hoping the library had not tossed such a book out in one of its recent culls.
I found two, but chose the one by Frank J. Sulloway, 1979. There was something appealing about the list of contents. For those interested in the field, and who appreciate authors who labour to put myths in their place, this is, I would say from short acquaintance, a good treatment. I would not mind owning it, in fact, so that I could browse through it when so moved, especially any time I encountered a Freudian who needed hosing down. But as I puttered through the early pages, and thus leaned much that was undoubtedly useful - I am dead serious here - about Freud's undoubted predecessors and peers, mentors, collaborators, and critics of his own time, I wasn't quite sure what had been on about until I encountered the passages on male hysteria.
That's what all these honcho journalists and queer public statesmen have got. Hysteria. Religion sets up neuresthenic inflammation within their systems, and it goes into their writing processes. Mention the Pope - any Pope, but  especially one who really does know that two and two make four - and their authority problems become so emotionally acute that they cannot help but shriek till their wombs fall out. It makes you think of the movies, where every once in a while a director will show us a scene where the only way to calm down an hysterical woman is to slap her until she shuts up and breaks into tears. Quite possibly, according to Freud's mentor on the subject, Josef Breuer, it is their husbands who should get the violence, a lot of boots where it would do them the most good, but at the moment I can't recall a film where such a scene took place.
Hollywood is not very good on self-control of the sexual appetite, having found that buying into certain aspects of Freud's teaching, the less intelligent part, is really good for the box office.
But I really appreciate the rewriting of the traditional opinion that only women suffered from hysteria. It explains better than anything I can think of, what's been happening in certain areas of the fifth estate. Ah, if only we could bring back Turgenev.

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