Repressing Freud

Gary Greenburg's fascinating Harper's article, "Manufacturing Depression" (May 2007) prompted me to take down off my shelf a volume with some dust on it: the Modern Library edition of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. For the first time I read A.A. Brill's Introduction to the volume, which is both a pretty decent summary of Freud's psychoanalysis as well as Brill's recounting of his personal history with Freud--which coincides with the immigration of psychoanalysis to America, which was engineered by Brill as both Freud's first English translator and as founder of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Freud recounts Brill's role in the final piece in this volume, "The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement." Freud was surprised by how well psychoanalysis was received "even in prudish America" (p. 950).

I finished Freud's "History" last night. While it is constructed as a bit of a martyr's tale, it is also an illuminating glimpse into the early debates. Especially helpful for me was Freud's account of the "seccession" of Jung who, on Freud's account, shrunk back from really being honest about the role of infantile sexuality in the development and formation of neuroses. Instead, Jung "spiritualizes" the libido. This, in fact, is a constant refrain in Freud: those who failed to follow his lead (also Breuler as well as Jung's "Swiss School") were too frightened to deal with the taboo of infantile sexuality. So Freud's "History of Psychoanalysis" is, in large part, a psychoanalysis of his opponents--which he freely admits, along with the risk (viz., that one opens oneself to a "psychoanalytic" response, p. 964). What surprised Freud is that someone could lose their psychoanalytic salvation: "I had not expected that anyone who had mastered analysis to a certain depth could renounce this understanding and lose it" (p. 963). With this sort of tone, I was almost waiting for the Master to break into parables about seeds, sowers, rocky ground, and birds of the air.

Whatever we have come to conclude about Freud (his theories are now roundly--and justly--criticized), I think we still need to appreciate how dramatic and powerful Freud's vision was. To read the work on dreams or sexuality is to see someone who is grappling with phenomena in incredibly attentive ways. In an almost phenomenological way, Freud was really attending to "the things themselves" (though like Husserl, he thought he was just "observing;" only his opponents he thought were "interpreting"). In sum, Freud articulated one of the most powerful and comprehensive mythologies of the last century. He sketched a nearly comprehensive story to account for phenomena that others had not.

In fact, what we have to deal with now is what Heidegger would call the "sedimentation" of theory. While Freud's theories have been discredited, psychoanalysis has sunked so deeply into the communal psyche of America that we end up constructing our experience according to Freudian rules. Thus "prudish America," heir to Puritanism and neo-puritanisms, is wont to repress so much, only to have it return. We thus end up replaying Freud in our everyday pathologies, even though we "know" better.