"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, July 24, 2017

Secrets of the Soul and Body Politic

Peter Tyler's densely argued The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition, published last year, is, alone of the recent attempts at a Christian re-engagement with psychoanalytic thought discussed on here, the most intellectually sophisticated and serious. He draws on the patristic tradition, including Origen and Augustine, to look at the conceptualization of the "soul" in classical Christian spiritual traditions as well as modern psychoanalysis.

About this latter he makes a convincing case that those who supervised the "Englishing" of Freud, that first generation of such as Ernest Jones and James Strachey, zealously concerned to protect Freud and his tradition from charges of being "unscientific," and equally zealous to differentiate themselves from "spiritual healers" and other charlatans and quacks, coined a series of neologisms in English purposefully to get away from any language of the "soul" and to sound more "scientific."

That theme of the soul also comes up in a very good history I've just finished by Eli Zaretsky: Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis. Published in 2005 by an author whose earlier work, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, clearly informs the later work, Secrets of the Soul is the very model of the sort of careful cultural analysis that someone like Rod Dreher should have done if his new book (which I discussed here at length) were to be regarded as remotely intellectually serious. Zaretsky follows a similar narrative arc as Dreher, both tracing the rise and then gradual decline of a given tradition--Christianity in the West for Dreher, and the psychoanalytic tradition for Zaretsky--but what distinguishes Zaretsky is his careful and very detailed scholarship co-relating the socioeconomic conditions that facilitated first that rise and then more clearly still the gradual decline of psychoanalysis. Socioeconomic changes are not entirely responsible, but together with intellectual debates and other factors, they play a crucial role. Christians who wish to be taken seriously in staking out claims of decline cannot be taken seriously until and unless they also attend to socioeconomic changes in as careful and discerning a manner as Zaretsky has done.

Zaretsky's book would make a good companion for two works by George Makari: his Revolution in Mind: the Creation of Psychoanalysiswhich I reviewed in some detail here; and then his more recent Soul Machine: the Invention of the Modern Mind.

One thing that comes up in all these works is the painstaking efforts Freud took to stay out of secular politics in both Austria and Germany. This was clearly done for purposes of preservation and protection, especially after 1933. Given the treatment handed out to Freud and his daughter Anna at the hands of the Gestapo in 1938, and the treatment more broadly during the war of Jews (all of Freud's sisters were killed in Nazi death camps), such anxiety to avoid politics makes a great deal of sense. Freud was in fact eventually, and with great reluctance, forced finally to flee Bergasse 19 in Vienna for London, where he died in 1939; the tale of this flight is well told in David Cohen's surprisingly well-done and riveting Escape of Sigmund Freud.

Freud also repeatedly insisted that psychoanalysis as such not enter into political debates about various topics, especially during and after the Bolshevik revolution. The early Bolsheviks saw some use for psychoanalysis, but it was later denounced and banned in Russia for its bourgeois-capitalist and Jewish backgrounds. Nevertheless, Freud lives on today in part not for his clinical work, but precisely for the political application of his clinical insights, a point made in depth and detail in Zaretsky's newest book, released just this month, Political Freud: A History.

About this new book the publisher tells us:
In this masterful history, Eli Zaretsky reveals the power of Freudian thought to illuminate the great political conflicts of the twentieth century. Developing an original concept of "political Freudianism," he shows how twentieth-century radicals, activists, and intellectuals used psychoanalytic ideas to probe consumer capitalism, racial violence, anti-Semitism, and patriarchy. He also underscores the continuing influence and critical potential of those ideas in the transformed landscape of the present. Zaretsky's conception of political Freudianism unites the two overarching themes of the last century―totalitarianism and consumerism―in a single framework. He finds that theories of mass psychology and the unconscious were central to the study of fascism and the Holocaust; to African American radical thought, particularly the struggle to overcome the legacy of slavery; to the rebellions of the 1960s; and to the feminism and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. Nor did the influence of political Freud end when the era of Freud bashing began. Rather, Zaretsky proves that political Freudianism is alive today in cultural studies, the study of memory, theories of trauma, postcolonial thought, film, media and computer studies, evolutionary theory and even economics.
In this light, Political Freud clearly picks up where Zaretsky ends Secrets of the Soul: noting that while its clinical status continues to decline, psychoanalysis is far from dead as a cultural hermeneutic. As Zaretsky notes in his epilogue, by the time we arrive at about 1980, psychoanalysis "divided into two divergent projects: a quasi-medical therapeutic practice aimed at treating mental and emotional disorders, and a set of new approaches to the study of culture." If the former project seems increasingly eclipsed by psychopharmacology and other therapeutic traditions (the efficacy of which is not, as noted here, always so great), the latter remains vibrant and valuable.

But what, in the end, remains valuable in the psychoanalytic tradition? This is a question I am continuing to think about in preparation for a lecture I've been asked to give in Iowa in late September of this year which marks two significant anniversaries in the Freudian canon: 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freud's most popular and widely translated work, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.

It also marks the 90th anniversary of perhaps Freud's weakest but nonetheless one of his most controversial works, Future of an Illusion. This latter work purported to explain the origins and purposes of monotheistic religions certainly (and perhaps even all "religions" if such a thing can be defined at all); but it is not a good book, and it rather unnecessarily drew down upon itself a great deal of ire and opposition from Christians who were thereby handed an over-easy excuse for refusing to see what was valuable in Freud. (Having recently re-read Future of an Illusion, I must say, with all due respect to the great master, how much Terry Eagleton's opening line, reviewing Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, also applies to this book: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.")

But one badly considered book (especially in so vast a Freudian, to say nothing of wider psychoanalytic, canon) must not be allowed to detract us from seeing what remains valuable in psychoanalytic thought. Here Zaretsky's Secrets of the Soul offers us a useful list of "a set of understandings that we need to protect," including:
  • the reality of the individual's inner and unconscious life, part of which is not just hidden but repressed;
  • that such individuals exist not in the abstract but as "concrete, particular, and contingent";
  • relations with others, especially loved ones, are shaped by that unconscious life;
  • "psychologically, being a man or being a woman is the outcome of an idiosyncratic and precarious process, and that no one is simply one sex or the other" (a point I discussed at some length recently);
  • an "irreducible gap" between the individual's psychic life and "the cultural, social, and political world";
  • and finally that "society and politics are driven not just by conscious interests and perceived necessities but also by unconscious motivations, anxieties, and half-spoken memories, and that even great nations can suffer traumas, change course abruptly, and regress."

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...