Friday, May 6, 2011

Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856)

From time to time in recent years I’ve read articles saying how important Freud still is, how influential, how pervasively his thought colors our culture. Then the authors or journalists writing the articles suggest that no one reads his works or follows his example as a psychoanalyst any more. For one thing, health insurance companies no longer accept resposibility for endless 1-hour sessions on the couch. If anyone has a couch. Some studies may show that a "talking cure" is still effective, but it's so much more costly than a pill, they all point out, that no one cares if it's better or not.

Freudian thought and philosophy, as I understand them, reflect his nonreligious Jewish identity – he created a way of thinking about the human mind for the 20th century. Maybe Freud is a model secular Jew. Suppose that Freud did change some of the jokes in his famous joke book, and take out the Yiddish punch lines and make them supposedly more universal -- at least I heard a lecture that demonstrated this. So what?

I once visited Freud’s house in Vienna – now a museum – and was impressed by the old films that were being shown, in which the Nazis marched down the very street where his home stood. The film included the voice of his daughter describing how the family felt when they saw the storm troops marching and their fellow citizens applauding and adoring them including all that adoration meant. The Nazis in fact classified all psychoanalysis as Jewish aberration, and tried to remake a pure Nazi version. Freud had to flee. His couch is not in the museum in Vienna, it's in London where he was exiled. Anti-Jewish Freud hating is more subtle now but far from nonexistent.

None of this changes Freud's accomplishment, especially his central influence on early 20th century European writers. When I try to understand his importance, my admiration rises. However, Freud is neither anti-hero nor to me. I just don’t think about him very often, any more than I think about Marx -- coincidentally separate in birthday by only one day.

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