Oct 2007

Freud reclaimed

Aye, it’s been a fine few weeks and no mistake. The M.Phil is going very well, I’m happy to report. Lots of very interesting reading and discussion. And the people all seem pretty groovy. Actually, the seminars are currently a bit “exposition by tutor with brief comments by the rest of us” as opposed to genuine discussion… but that’ll change as the weeks go on (as indeed it has already begun to). The topics for the first semester are Existentialism & Psychoanalysis, Jung, The Interpretation of Dreams, Klein, and Metapsychology. Initially, if I’m honest, I expected all of them to interest me with the exception of the Klein stuff (though I was still eager to study her work as part of an overall view of the subject). But as I’ve started to learn a bit more about Melanie Klein, I’m beginning to feel my initial fears were unjustified. Whatever one may think about her theories and methods (Klein, for those who are unaware, focussed her psychoanalysis on children and infants), the last word I’d use to describe her is “uninteresting”. Controversial, fascinating, discomforting and puzzling. Those would be better ones.

However having, thus far, only read a solitary paper by Klein (Psychological Principles of Infant Analysis), I’ll hold off on saying much more about her for now. Except that if even half her theory is correct, it’s nigh miraculous that any of us make it through childhood.

One thing that’s struck me most about the course in general is the attitude towards Freud. Or rather, I’ve been struck by how slanted my own attitude is. Though I’m pleased to say I’m overcoming my preconceptions. Merely recognising your own biases is not enough to negate them, but it’s a good first step.

You see, my view of Freud was formed in a rather specific academic environment. Back in the early 90s in the University of North London the philosophy degree was probably amongst the best anywhere. It’s never been recognised as such, of course, but having now gained enough distance to be semi-objective about it, I honestly believe that to be true (and I’ve been known to go on at some length about why that’s the case so I’ll try not to get started on that subject). However, if it had a flaw, it was the radical feminist slant that seeped into certain subjects. Which, as slants go, isn’t as bad as most others incidentally but, it’s probably fair to say that the radical feminist reading of Freud is somewhat less flattering than most.

Over the years I’ve had people tell me that perhaps I wasn’t being altogether fair (most notably Gyrus who convinced me that I probably didn’t have the most balanced view of Freud), but it’s only now that I’ve really gotten round to reading his work (rather than that of commentators) in any depth and I’ve discovered that — just as I’d been told — he’s not the faintly preposterous dogmatist that I’d been led to believe. Far from it.

Rarely, for instance, will you ever read anything like the equivocation expressed in the opening paragraph of Mourning and Melancholia (the text of which I’d like to link to, but can’t*). The second sentence of the text reads “… we must begin by making an admission, as a warning against any over-estimation of the value of our conclusions.” And a little later he informs the reader, “We shall, therefore, from the outset drop all claim to general validity for our conclusions, and we shall console ourselves by reflecting that, with the means of investigation at our disposal today, we could hardly discover anything that was not typical, if not of a whole class of disorders, at least of a small group of them.”

Of course, it’s been pointed out that this equivocation was almost certainly as much an attempt to seduce and disarm the critical reader as it was an attempt to downplay the significance of the work. Freud, after all, is nothing if not a fine writer and has more than enough skill to induce a sympathetic attitude in his readers. Nonetheless, he does seem to have been aware that he was a pioneer in a new and exciting field, and that — as such — some, if not much, of his work would eventually be superseded. After all, Freud was a scientist and was attempting to work in a scientific fashion. So he was obviously aware that from an historical perspective scientific theories constantly evolve and eventually get incorporated into more complete theories (or replaced entirely).

No fairer destiny could be alloted to any […] theory, than that it should of itself point out the way to the introduction of a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.

Albert Einstein | Relativity (Chapter XXII, Inferences)

I’ve been told that there’s a great deal of wry humour in the original German, much of which fails to come across in the English translation. Nonetheless, I can only applaud the translators who have rendered what I assume is Freud’s beautifully written German into beautifully written English.

[Aside: while reading Freud I was struck again by something that I’ve noticed in the past. Of the writers I’d say I’ve read fairly extensively, two of them originally wrote in German; Nietzsche and Einstein; and I’ve always perceived a strange similarity in their writing styles which — knowing how radically different in disposition they were — I attributed to some peculiarity in the way German translates into English. Freud goes a little further in confirming this hypothesis.]

Next: What exactly IS psychoanalysis?

* Can I just point out that it’s an absolute outrage that Freud’s papers are not archived online. I’m not interested in getting into the whole “copyright” / “intellectual property” debate here. What I’m talking about is on is a whole ‘nother level, as the man said. There are certain individuals whose writing is simply too damn important not to be freely available to everyone who wants it. Sigmund Freud is one of those individuals. If some philanthropist wants to do the world a real favour, then buy the publishing rights to the works of Freud (and a few others while you’re at it. I’ve got a list…) and bequeath them into the public domain. Set up a website and make them available for download in every format under the sun.

Posted in: Opinion