Reading through these notes, I realize they are very rough drafts needing later revision, for there are many typos, inadvertent mistakes, and awkwardnesses in the wording and ordering of sentences, for all of which I apologize. My basic feeling has been that it’s best for me to get these drafts out, rather than waiting for the ideal circumstances in which to refine and revise; otherwise, I might never attempt to work out some of these formulations, incomplete as they are.
Freud wrote a series of short books after World War I, in the two decades before he died in 1939, and they respond to the pervasive sense of disillusionment and the reality of death resulting at least partly from the Great War and from the possibility of the coming cataclysm, from 1939 to 1945. In “The Ego and the Id,” “Civilization and Its Discontents,” and other works, he explores how civilization struggles to control the irrational passions which can erupt in society and particularly in war, i.e., the mad destructiveness of the “death instinct.” In this period, Freud lifts the veil covering the irrational and unconscious forces at work in the human community, just as he had lifted that veil with regard to the individual psyche in his earlier work, for example “The Interpretation of Dreams” and the “Dora” case in 1900. His work is in this way related to that of Marx and Nietzsche, for all three attempt to reveal “the real conditions” of our lives and the forces which shape and deform our “relations” to each other – socio-economic forces for Marx, “the will to power” for Nietzsche, and the irrational instinctual drives for Freud.
Studying Freud in my teens, I was grateful for his understanding of the instincts and for the language he offered to portray the irrational as part of human experience. When I read “The Ego and the Id” I marveled at his inclusion of the death instinct in the gamut of instinctual drives, for his recognition helped me clarify the sense more and more apparent to me in these years, from 1959 to 1962, that the instinct to destroy could threaten to well up in our lives as self-destructive rage, let alone in our society as the menace of nuclear weapons. And I was drawn to Freud’s conception of the ego’s capacity to transform those instinctual forces, to sublimate them into a livable and affirmative life, into something potentially “sublime.” The neurotic deformations or “complexes” of feeling – mirroring the mythic patterns of Oedipus, Electra, etc. – were illuminating for me, as was the notion of therapeutic intervention through the manipulation of a person’s transference of his primal feelings onto an objective person, the therapist who would help to bring the transference to the patient’s awareness and thus potentially to heal the wounds.
By the time I entered college, I hoped to become a psychiatrist, and in my freshman year, I enrolled in pre-med and psychology courses. I also found that there was a course on psychotherapy listed in the catalogue. Without hesitation, I went to the first evening meeting, stood outside the door of the classroom, and waylaid the professor; he talked to me for five minutes and permitted me to join the graduate class as an auditor. There were only two students enrolled, both interning at local hospitals, and the psychoanalyst initiated our little group into the mysteries of how to treat schizophrenics, manic-depressives, alcoholics, and other sufferers from maladies of the mind. Needless to say, I no longer wanted to be a psychiatrist after my freshman year; part of my disillusion derived from what I came to feel was the Draconian or at least all-too-confident application of Freud’s ideas, a reductive tendency in practice which of course could also beset Freudian interpretation generally. Recognizing how simplistic the use of Freud can be does not diminish, however, his significance in the modern period.
As I wrote in my previous post, some of the primary characteristics of modern thought – promoting radical change, assuming destabilization, and proposing an alternative order – are evident in Freud’s thinking, with its assignment of rational power to the ego, its recognition of the unconscious irrational flux of the id, and its analysis of a three-part mechanism operating in our minds, comprised of the ego as reason, the id as the erotic drive, and the super-ego as the death instinct or “thanatos.” He constructs his scientific theory of the mind by conceptualizing those “forces” as abstract and somewhat mechanistic psychological structures, and it is clear that Freud’s abstractions are means to achieve control and detachment in the face of the turbulence, threat, and compulsion of the irrational in human life. He developed his theories first amid the suffocating repressions and hypocrisies of fin-de-siècle Vienna and then in the wake of the murderous First World War. His theories about the neurotic complexes are in some respects attempts to cope with the sense of the immanent death of “the self” in the period, and his understandably desperate struggle to develop modes of healing and reassembling his patients’ identities find expression in certain controversial conceptions of child abuse, female sexuality, and other matters. Nevertheless, he brings a remarkable moral impetus to his conception of psychology as an objective science and to his affirmation of the self’s capacity to confront the forces of the id, the super-ego, and hostile external reality. The Ego and the Id, Civilization and Its Discontents/Standard Edition
The modernist dynamic – the use of critical self-consciousness as a means both to lift the veil obscuring modern reality and to confront the revealed forces – is at work in Freud’s thought as it is in Marx’s and Nietzsche’s. In my next post, I hope to explore some other examples of that ‘dynamic’ at work in the modern period.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]