"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, May 2, 2016

Freud for Historians, Theologians, and the Rest of Us

In the early 1990s, when I was a psychology student, I read a very great deal of Freud, Jung, Coltart, D.W. Winnicott, and other psychoanalytic thinkers. Along the way I found Freud: A Life for Our Timethe biography by Peter Gay, an outstanding study. It has long been a best-seller, and in my modest estimation deservedly so. Whether you like Freud or not, whether you think him right or wrong, you cannot deny that his influence on the past century has been absolutely massive. As I noted recently, biography is a tricky thing to do well, and with a figure such as Freud, exceptionally easy to do badly, as all too many examples show; but Gay's biography avoids the two obvious traps of biography--viz., hagiography or a hatchet job.

More recently, as I have found myself returning to psychoanalytic thought for several reasons, including some research on the uses and abuses of "memory" by Eastern Christians and Muslims alike, I have been reading a short but lovely study, also by the Yale historian Gay, Freud for Historians. It seems, in some ways, to be part of an historiographical trilogy by Gay as he notes in the introduction, picking up issues he was unable to address in his earlier book-length essays Art and Act: on Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian (1976) and Style in History (1974). One of the biggest, and still most controverted, issues among historians, then and since, has been the question of causation. Christian history and Christian historians are by no means exempt from these debates.

Gay gave no little thought to it in the first two books, and then in his 1985 Freud for Historians returned to the question, asking what not just Freud but the later psychoanalytic tradition had to say about the matter of causes, motivations, and other putative explanations of behavior. He begins by noting what a hash most psychohistorians have made of their would-be discipline, and by noting the consequent deepening of already considerable hostile suspicion between historians and psychoanalysts. So Gay has his work cut out for him in this book, about which the publisher tells us:
Is psychoanalysis a legitimate tool for helping us understand the past? Many traditional historians have answered with an emphatic no, greeting the introduction of Freud into historical study with responses ranging from condescending skepticism to outrage. Now Peter Gay, one of America's leading historians, builds an eloquent case for "history informed by psychoanalysis" and offers an impressive rebuttal to the charges of the profession's anti-Freudians. In this book, Gay takes on the opposition's arguments, defending psychoanalysis as a discipline that can enhance social, economic, and literary studies. No mere polemic, Freud for Historians is a thoughtful and detailed contribution to a major intellectual debate.
I will say that Gay does not just call for "style in history" but gives wonderful evidence of it himself: Freud for Historians is an essay of great elegance, and reading it is a delight, showing a master craftsman at work in his prose and a master scholar in his judicious weighing of the evidence. There is much here that Christians, still struggling with suspicion of Freud and the analytic tradition, could learn from.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...