SIGMUND Freud died 68 years ago today, and it remains uncertain whether he is what W. H. Auden called him, “a whole climate of opinion / Under whom we conduct our differing lives,” or whether he is completely passé. It’s still not clear whether Freud was the genius of the 20th century, a comprehensive absurdity or something in between.
Our confusion about Freud is something he predicted — and also provoked — particularly in his later work, now largely unread, which is preoccupied with the question of authority. It sheds light on our confused attitudes toward Freud, who always strove for cultural authority. But more important, books like “Totem and Taboo” and “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” illuminate our collective difficulties with power and particularly with the two scourges of today’s world, fundamentalist religion and tyrannical politics.
Probably the best way to understand Freud’s take on authority is to consider the mode of therapy that he settled on midway through his career. We might call it “transference therapy.” Over time, Freud came to see that his patients were transferring feelings and hopes from other phases of their lives onto him.
Frequently they sought from him what they’d sought from their parents when they were children. They wanted perfect love, and even more fervently, it seems, they wanted perfect truth. They became obsessed with Freud as what Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalytic theorist, liked to call “the subject who is supposed to know.” Patients saw Freud as an all-knowing figure who had the wisdom to solve all their problems and make them genuinely happy and whole.
Freud’s objective as a therapist was to help his patients dismantle their idealized image of him. He taught them to see how the love they demanded from him was love that they had once demanded (and of course never received) from fathers and mothers and other figures of authority. Over time, the patients might come to view the doctor — Freud — as another suffering, striving mortal, not unlike themselves.
The man sitting at the foot of the couch had to be revealed as neither a Merlin nor a Gandalf, but as a rather short, bespectacled fellow who smoked too many cigars and had a deep fondness for his dog Jo-Fi, the chow who sat beside him while he worked and to whom he occasionally addressed stray remarks. Once the patient could do that much, he was in a better position to treat other important figures in his life realistically. He’d be less prone to assault them with demands, to ask them for everything.
One of Freud’s key beliefs was that there is no sharp division between the psychologically healthy and the unwell. His patients longed for authoritative fathers — and so did Freud. In the early phase of his career, he embraced a sequence of mentors (among them Jean Charcot, the French neurologist; Wilhelm Fliess, a German doctor; and Josef Breuer, an Austrian doctor) who had nothing like his mental powers, but whom he vastly esteemed nonetheless. Freud said we all seek such figures, in both political and personal life.
In “Group Psychology,” Freud wrote about the qualities that a leader-figure, in his most extreme guise, possesses. “His intellectual acts,” said Freud, “were strong and independent even in isolation and his will needed no reinforcement from others.”
He also “loved no one but himself, or other people only insofar as they served his needs.” The leader’s confidence is absolute, for he possesses what everyone most wants, truth. His allure is as powerful as it is pernicious.
Well, you might say, it takes one to know one. Freud himself was drawn to authority. He liked to lord it over his disciples; he liked to make pronouncements; he liked — as schoolchildren say at recess — to act big. When Freud presented himself to the public, he almost never forgot the lessons that he had learned about authority in his consulting room and through his studies of the church, the army and tribal societies. “The autocratic pose” clung to him, said Auden.
Freud still manifests himself to us as a grand patriarch. Collectively we have thought about him as the father, as the one who is supposed to know. We have hoped he’d confer the truth — make us whole and happy. Of course, he cannot. But he has been different from all the other aspiring masters in that he has taught nothing so insistently as the need to dissolve our illusions about masters, and to be responsive to more moderate, subtle and humane sources of authority.
Such a figure — authoritarian and anti-authoritarian at the same time — cannot help but be confusing. But once we understand our confusion, Freud can also be quite illuminating. Among other things, his ideas about authority help us understand (and in some measure sympathize with) the hunger for absolute leaders and absolute truth that probably besets us all, but that has overwhelmed many of our fellow humans who find themselves living under tyrannical governments and fundamentalist faiths.
But the best of Freud will not be available to us until we can work through the transference he provoked. We need to see him as a great patriarch, yes, but as one who struggled for nothing so much as for the abolition of patriarchy.
Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently, of “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days.”
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