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Sigmund Freud - 150 Years Later

Sigmund Freud’s alternative to living in a system always at war is to reflect the ‘unconscious consciousness’ of Western Society as a need for a peace path to be called otherwise the memory track of non violent actions.

It is clear that Freud’s ideas have gone through various phases of outright rejection to being merely ridiculed. Still, they are worthy a second look and to be taken more serious than what contemporary debate seems to suggest by not really valorizing his ideas, theories and writings, but rather mocking them. This is not unusual to Freud. In his life he had to confront many rejections, many of them more ‘unconscious’ as there prevails in Western Society an abundance of projections, most of them based on 'violence', and instead of coming to terms with the fear of others and differences, not really reflected upon deep enough.

For instance, at the beginning of his professional life, doctors supervising him at the university in Vienna threatened not to accept his Ph.D. thesis if he would insist on writing about the ‘hysterical man’. Did they fear confronting their own nature once seriously challenged or was it more convenient to all male adults to project hysteria upon women, thereby inscribing into them both a talent and disposition they did not have unless provoked by men? Hysteria is one of the basic characteristics still open to many research questions remaining unresolved even now, 150 years later and despite of Sigmund Freud’s efforts to phantom the depth of the unconsciousness.

At the time he studied and wrote his Ph.D. the supervising professor was called in German ‘doctor father’. He was more than a mere authority and more God-like. He had nearly omnipotent power over the students. The doctor father was their life line. Only he had the power to release the student to pleasure, as Freud put it. Such observation implied only after graduation may a student think about pleasure linked concretely to a woman.

Such was the fear of many sons of their mighty fathers that they could easily imagine many things which this authority could invoke over or against them if they failed to act in accordance with the wishes of such ‘super fathers’. It all cumulated in an anticipated blow to the own ego. Rightly so Freud called it ‘castration fear’ and showed how difficult it is to emancipate oneself from such internal conflicts intensified by a lack of alternative between self destruction and destruction of the father.

Indeed, there are many stories as to what fathers did to their sons (and not daughters) once they thought there is a lack of respect of authority, but also no sign of conformity on the side of the son to conventional rules of behavior and life patterns. The responses by the fathers showed they were prepared to adopt anytime tough measures. It includes putting their sons if not in jail, then into psychiatric wards. Almost always fathers reacted in a reactionary manner called by Ernst Bloch ‘aborting possibilities and potentialities’ for the sons to be someone else. Deviations were not allowed, the sons had to comply and fully cooperate for otherwise the fathers would deem them as not being reasonable. That has a familiar ring to it.

It could happen that sensitive boys were forced against their own will by their fathers to go if not into business then into the military. It had disastrous consequences both for the son and for the relationship between father and son. Interestingly enough, the fatherly authority lashed out whenever they deemed the sons were not reasonable enough in the terms set by these fathers. Here the philosophy of Kant and Hegel substantiated such a polarized world for they denounced anything not accepting reason as being not merely unreasonable, but ‘sick’ or as Michel Foucault showed in his account of the history of psychiatry as ‘insane’. Such duality made everything into a one sided affair with no chances of a dialogue between equal partners.

In his analysis of Leonardo da Vinci Freud became convinced that Leonarda was intimidated by an over potent father. For instance, Leonardo kept a meticulous account of what money he had spend on his father while he never married compared to a father who produced many children in numerous love affairs. Such examples can intimidate or more so can lead to an over exuberant exploration of the ‘sexual drive’ which Freud identified in the case of Leonarda da Vinci as a curious interest in war machines standing in odd contradiction to his otherwise artistic achievements.

Indeed, during the life time of Freud there were countless examples of sons being subdued by their fathers. Repeatedly sons struggling for recognition succumbed either to their real or substitute fathers, Nietzsche a good example in how Richard Wagner used him to propagate not merely his music but also anti Semitism ideas. It ruined Nietzsche’s academic career and after repeated failures to be understood as to what he meant, driven into not so much insanity but a lifeless existence of ten years before death. That time spend as lifeless puppet in a museum his sister had created around him in Weimar can be portrayed as looking back upon an unlived life. Nietzsche hardly ever dared to make love to a woman. Such fear was later described by Kafka as an excuse not to get married as he could not exist in the real world but only in-between the lines he was writing in a letter to a love far away.

Quite another tone was set by Heidegger for Gadamer attests his popularity amongst students derived from the fact that they learned from Heidegger arguments by which they could beat their fathers. As this indicates another extreme, something needs to be pointed out here. For it can be postulated that German Fascism in particular was a revolt of the young against their fathers and thereby did not achieve real emancipation. The latter is only possible if it comes to a real dialogue between father and son and where the ‘logic of generations’ prevents anyone from becoming radicalized against the whole life as many were in their blind following of Hitler to the detriment of millions of people. This could come about because Heidegger granted to the leader the Right to make mistakes while he deemed the masses not to be worthy of any recognition as they were unwilling to be responsible for their own lives. It exemplifies that anti-humanist aspirations always go together with a search in vain for strong leadership and highly authoritative figures asserting themselves above the masses. That too has ramifications for a present world filled with blind followers of doctrines based on hatred and violence rather than on dialogue and search for truth.

Sigmund Freud died September 23, 1939, so he did not experience anymore Second World War but he left a huge legacy with his method of psychoanalysis being carried on by psychoanalysts such as Erich Fromm writing about ‘fear of love’ and Ericson about ‘the Young Man Luther’. Once this came into the hands of the student movement, another kind of revolt against fathers manifested itself. Significantly it started from the ‘free speech movement’ but radicalized itself until there was at risk the upholding of life. In Germany the Baader-Meinhof group did end up killing individuals as if politically justified when in fact it was a built-in fear of a repetition of concentration camp like clamp downs which drove them – an example of a past not having been worked through as Freud would advocate but ‘suppressed’ by the system established after 1945: ‘die verdraengte Vergangenheit’.

However, something was different in the Student Revolt when compared to those who had joined the Hitler Youth insofar as there was a deep regret and remorse which accompanied many young people in their revolt. It was about standing up to oneself, in staying truthful, free in conscience and able as Dutsche demonstrated to be critical of both the Soviet Union and of the West. The influence of Freud could be felt in this search of the ‘self’. As an orderly working in an intensive care station in Berlin said, he would not have reached this work if he had not believed he could do better than just accept the negative determination that he was a nothing.

In view of what was happening not only in Viet Nam but also at home, psychoanalysis left them in a weak position. They saw unfortunately no other alternative but to break with their fathers (and mothers) as both parents seemed to have been involved in the past in something not to be trusted. For instance, a daughter exposed her father to the public that he had been a Nazi judge when her father was about to preside over the court case dealing with the man who had attempted to take the life of Rudi Dutschke. She expressed the hope for future generations that they will never have to break with their parents as she had to with hers. Such reflections showed that a growing sensitivity as to what matters between children and parents. It had come about mainly due to Freud. Even if ill conceived, the anti authoritarian educational movement attempted to put his theories into practice and thereby make possible another kind of childhood for children growing up in the post Second World War world.

Interestingly enough after 1968 more attention was given to the search by women for their real fathers as they had never seen him do simple things such as shaving while hearing more about war atrocities without knowing to what degree their fathers had been involved in them. There was a gap between the imagined and real father to be bridged. It was Mitscherlich who attempted at the psychoanalytical school in Frankfurt a step towards reconciliation by developing the thesis about ‘mourning’ being a prerequisite to trusting again the other. Still, it was then too early to appreciate the full impact of psychoanalysis upon the post war generation. Unfortunately many misunderstandings blocked an uninhibited approach to what was after all another way to seek ‘self understanding’.

To open up Freud to a new understanding and appreciation of all his writings, it should be recollected that he had learned a lot from Frazer’s book ‘The Golden Bough’. The book contains many odd anthropological descriptions such as healthy individuals or ‘warriors’ falling suddenly sick because they did something forbidden: the smoking of the pipe of the chief. As explanation of ‘totem and tabu’, Freud intuitively understood the hidden power of a rule once internalized and this with self punitive measures going so far as death.

Note should also be taken that Freud combined like an artist in his theories many plausible explanations not to be taken ‘literally’ but in an ‘interpretative way’. This is most important as the practice of psychoanalysis is itself ‘interpretative’ and not a strictly causal inductive or deductive process by which any person can arrive with the help of such introspections at a final destiny or truth. This applies as well to Freud’s use of names taken from Ancient Greek Myths to describe specific states of the mind such as the son suffering under the omnipresence of a father e.g. Oedipus complex. All Greek names are as compounds nominally speaking a whole which is more than the sum of the parts. It is a way of naming reality which leaves space for the imagination to add still more meanings and hence interpretations. By method of intuition and imaginative association Freud suggests it is possible to arrive at a well founded interpretations as to what certain conflicts stand for or what is the reason for their existence. This means tracing things back in time until the deeper nature of these conflicts is understood involves also an understanding of how the Western Society evolved. Only with the right interpretation can be found the key to unlock, so to speak, the blockade against remembering as to what had taken place then. Consequently psychoanalysis is above all memory work: the working through conflicts until the person is released by a catharsis like process into the present. The solution can be felt and listened to since then body and mind go together and language becomes an expression of a truthful feeling of pleasure that life can be experienced fully.

As to Freud’s greatest achievement, his basic methodology called ‘psychoanalysis’ has opened up a way to understand the ‘self’ in a more radical manner than thought to be possible until his time. He did it in the most humane way and in so doing revealed at the same time that the ratio of rationality underlining Western Society’s disposition towards science, technology and use of power failed to bring into dialogue ‘consciousness’ with the ‘unconsciousness’. When people refer to their uneasiness with regards to social development, in German ‘das Unbehagen an der Kultur’, Freud would say that this is because they have entered a system of work and social relationships which is based not only on discipline but on something much more hurtful, namely on absolute self denial. The ‘self’ and therefore any self understanding as to what one is doing within the system is excluded. Incomprehensible becomes the ‘self’ to the person acting blindly and unconsciously within the sytem. It becomes evident when people react very strangely in specific situations and this without knowing or being conscious of the fact that this is due to unresolved conflicts they experienced in the past and which they have never resolved since then. It made Freud highly attentive to the power of ‘negation’ or in German ‘die Verneinung – the denial’.

In a very short essay consisting of merely four pages he shows basically that products branded, for example, with the seal ‘Made in Germany’ presuppose that people negate their own identity in order to put all their human substance in the product taking on a more powerful identity than their own individual lives. That is most relevant to all discussions about the crisis in Europe. Cultural identities and cultural diversities cannot be upheld if sacrificed for the sake of just an economic unit meant to be competitive at world level. And given current trends towards cultural tourism with culture being utilized to provide certain products and services, as if not economic but cultural goods are in need of being branded, the negation of identity becomes ever more precarious. Until now culture was a way for people to gain a self understanding independent from the determining system may that be of political or economic nature. By giving higher priority to a product having identity before any individual, then this goes not merely at the cost of individual self awareness but makes it most difficult, if not impossible for these individuals to experience the ‘self’ as integral part of a healthy life. Freud considered active sexual life to be an essential part of a healthy life, therefore a self prevented from taking on identity in society would also exclude itself from such a life in which basic needs are satisfied.

Given such views Freud contradicted institutions as the church who would readily brand a healthy sexual life as something immoral. No wonder then that Freud’s theories have all along been subject to many controversies. As to his medical practice that psychoanalysis became, it is still today an object of intentional misunderstandings although Anna Freud admitted by the time the third generation of analysts came around, that they were no longer innovators but mere appliers of certain insights.

Still, Freud himself never laid himself down on the couch while psychoanalysis can inspire also non patients to see their lives with different eyes. For example, Woody Allen’s films are inconceivable without such twist of irony in the man – woman relationship.

Crucial in all of this ‘soul searching’ is that as long as hierarchy prevails in society, an open dialogue cannot be practiced by the ‘self’. The relationship between unconsciousness and consciousness remains then disturbed and the energy of a person will be mostly translated into the form of an ‘it’ beyond self recognition and to which society but not the individual has access. Only in some conscious moments such persons would wonder why they have energy for the organization they work in at times under extreme tension but none for themselves once they return home. The self sacrifice to uphold social functions although many of them are set by wrong priorities and subject to distortions as to what society really needs is almost a common practice in Western Society. The fear of loss of job after which they think it would be difficult, if not impossible to survive in such a society is what keeps people in their mental cages. They end up silencing their inner protests at a high cost to themselves often shown by a lack of responsiveness to real needs or else by over responsiveness to others when in distress as if wishing to regain a glimpse of their true selfs in such extreme or extraordinary situations. By now that has become the permanent state of affairs in Western Society: a permanent crisis at personal level accompanying a permanent war at global level.

A person which does not know that there exists such a drive for pleasure is not conscious of all mediation possibilities between self and reality. Freud would say that such individual is at high risks especially once cut off from the libido connecting the self to all other human beings. It is interesting to note that Freud identified such hierarchical organizations as the church or the military as being without such libido. They are held together by something else, including artificial constraints and extreme forms of self sacrifice. Consequently panic can break out amongst rank and file if this artificial bondage no longer holds. In the case of an army this is the case if the supposing enemy to be defeated turns out in reality to be much stronger than originally thought of e.g. what the American troops experienced first in Viet Nam and now in Iraq.

Hierarchical relationships are such that nothing binds the members really together and moreover all relationships are perverted into if not ‘infantile love’ of the lower positioned for the higher placed in the ranking ladder, then into masochistic-sadistic relationships. Dehumanization of individual soldiers with extreme pressure and fear added leads very easily to excess behavior, may that be British Soldiers pounding arrested youth with the butts of their rifles or torture and other forms of prisoner abuse becoming but a heightened expression of fear by American troops not to prevail in this war against terrorism.

Hierarchical relationships have to deny the possibility of equality if they are to exist at all and this means also driving out the libido, the empathy for others who are outside the organization built on a specific hierarchical relationship to serve a specific purpose. Hence religions speak about others as non believers and armies only about the enemy. No wonder then when philosophy speaks about hierarchy as the greatest of all unresolved problem.

It is crucial that in the wake of a series of defeats the enemy can create such havoc but which can go unnoticed by society for quite some time. For there is also a quiet form of panic leading to desperation in not having the strength to uphold mythical believes about the organization. The greatest of all myths of an army appears to be the one about being invulnerable or unbeatable. And they tend to lash out as if someone had put a stick into a hornet’s nest if someone dares to question their authority or even worse does something that shatters their beliefs to the very foundation. This was the case of Greek resistance kidnapping with British help General Kretschmer in Crete and then taking him by submarine to Egypt. After that hell broke loose as German troops started to round up every young and middle aged men to shot them at first sight as if this would be the way to break resistance. As Elytis would say, once they kill these men, their future begins while theirs ends. It is something American and British troops occupying Iraq and facing a most deadly insurgency have to take into their own consideration. They may squash an entire town like Falluja but that will not break the resistance against the occupation of Iraq.

If that myth of invulnerability is broken, then the first symptom is a huge traumatization of everyday life. It is something which happened to the United States after 9/11 on a collective basis but was consciously induced by the US administration. By making everyone into a victim, the ability to analyse critically the situation was lost and public debate silenced. Consequently people were deprived of reflecting themselves the reasons for such an attack. Instead the lashing out was but an expression of fear by a state leading people into the belief that without entering a war to restore this myth of invulnerability, they would be exposed to all kinds of threats. Hence by wishing to restore old state of affairs prevailing prior to 9/11 although impossible, the going to war appeared to be the only alternative. Not seen in such a lack of alternative was the sign of extreme poverty in terms of knowledge and wisdom needed in response to such challenges as the hijacking of the planes. But by calling acts of terrorism an attack against the whole of the United States, the fear was exaggerated although it had compared to Pearl Harbor no similar basis. There were no standing armies ready to invade the United States. Rather it was a highly media effective blow and made even more spectacular by the collapse of the Twin Towers as they were symbols of the Capitalism against which the blows were directed at.

In the aftermaths of 9/11 the world wanted to show solidarity with the American people but instead they got embroiled in such collective binding acts that they ceased all communication with the outside world. All of this was reinforced by extreme demonstrations of patriotism with everyone being either for us Americans or else against us. The polarization in the wake of new enemy pictures being created, that left American society suddenly extremely hierarchically orientated towards and depending upon the President as Commander-in-Chief although in the months preceding the attack he was already perceived as incapable of any substantial leadership in politics. By giving up any self critical position, American people were unable to activate each other on the basis of the libido connection to other people. Yet only with such consciousness of the existence of others is it possible to say ‘no’ to violence and to bring about peaceful solutions. Consequently the US policy since 9/11 has been most contradictory to its aim, namely to give back to people security. They have that only if they can question power especially when being abused for the wrong purposes.

The reference to ‘libido’ explains what distinguishes Freud from many who reduce his concept of love to a kind of physical sexuality bare all truths involved. Erotic love and libido are two different, even though very complementary forces acting within the individual to form relationships with others at very different levels. Needless to say any individual love cannot exclude the ‘libido’ or what can be called ‘the love for humanity’ if to remain conscious not only of others but also of the ‘self’ as fore mostly a human being before anything else. It explains why hatred leads as much to self destruction as aggression against others especially when forgetting that the others are human beings tends to overlooking that the self is as much a human being on this planet.

There needs to be said also something with regards to the criticism Freud receives especially from the side of women, in particular those representing an extreme form of Feminism who are ready to deny Freud’s theories any validity at all. However, Freud himself showed great sensitivity towards a major factor of discomfort, namely that society was not kind at all to anyone, lest to women. When studying medicine, he was horrified by the high death rate of women when giving birth. Here he began to question conventional medical practices as much as medical wisdoms. He proposed and promoted quite different practices which are among others not merely observant of hygienic rules but also heed the woman as subject and do not reduce her to a mere object of some aloof perception as advocated by religious leaders like Martin Luther who recommended taking the whip with one when going to bed with a woman. He was also critical of viewpoints as expressed by philosophers like Kant who considered a woman in marriage to be good only for ‘Geschlechtsverkehr’: the traffic between the different genders.

All this is said in what critics, especially women akin to a radical Feminist stance contra Freud, attempted to prove. Among them is Rene Schlesier in her work for Klaus Heinrich at the Institute for Science of Religion when she tried to demonstrate that Freud never understood the ‘other sex’. Rather Freud wanted to come to terms with the other as subject and not be treated as mere object of own, indeed not reflected needs. Moreover he never pretended to have solved this complex relationship between the sexes. Rather he cautioned that we rarely hear anything about two people as long as they experience no problems; they turn only then to society and others when in pain, no longer so deeply in love. It would mean to be careful when drawing conclusions about this relationship if our empirical basis is only a sum of negative experiences i.e. what is known i.e. accessible in public about love relationships.

Right from the outset Freud embraced a comprehensive approach to understand the complexities of life. Hence all his explorations and discoveries are not easy to be categorized for they belong as much to the history of medicine as to literature, psychology, sociology and philosophy. One crucial aspect for his understanding of psychoanalysis was, however, what he thought about ‘hypnosis’ as a method to gain access to ‘hidden’ dimensions of a personality obviously in difficulties, if not in pain. Freud became convinced that there was still another method by which such an access could be gained.

Over time he linked psychoanalytic work with such indicators as forgetting someone especially if one owed that person some money. It became a guidance to understand how memory works, namely to forget the unpleasant. This made him attentive to not only what is being suppressed, but why. Here he distinguished short and long term memory by means of a beautiful metaphor on how the mind works, namely the wonder bloc. While scratches on the sheet lying over the wax plate disappear once that sheet is lifted, the scratches remain in the wax as the case with our long term memory.

Max Schurr, his own doctor accompanying him till the very end, reported in his book ‘living and dying of Sigmund Freud’ how Freud was fascinated at first by mathematics. More precisely he was fascinated by a mystique of numbers as if they contained a certain lawfulness whose meaning may reveal something in order to gain access to the mind. But as Max Schurr put it, this persistence in attempting to find out if there is some truth to any kind of number mystic must be seen in context. Freud tried to understand and overcome at that time all the conflicts he had with his father and linked this to his inability to stop smoking. As a matter of fact, Sigmund Freud was such a heavy smoker that he never could give up that special pleasure and agony for it was both to him: a symbol for unresolved conflicts and a pleasure for doing something contrary to all conventional wisdom. In the end Freud suffered cancer of the mouth. Apparently the pain at that time was already so great that Max Schurr was amazed that Freud continued treating patients as if he had no such pain. However, very painful to Freud was that the hole in the mouth released such a stench that his favorite dog preferred to be no longer beside him in the room but sought the garden or some safe distance from that smell. In the end, Max Schurr, a father of psychosomatics himself, did something he had agreed with Freud, namely if the latter could not stand anymore the pain, he would give Freud an overdose of morphine. It was an act of euthanasia.

In re-accounting this ending of the life of Freud, Max Schurr pointed out that pain has different meanings especially when referring to Freud and also to what psychoanalysis can achieve when real analysis does touch upon the ‘psyche’ and lets the person speak after therapy without conflict. The latter can make itself evident by the person stuttering, forgetting, and stumbling through the sentences. In that sense it is a plausible explanation as to why the language of Freud is most amazing. Through his self analysis he must have become very free in his psyche for his language has such clarity and softness that when reading it, a sort of therapeutic effect can be felt. It makes plausible what Max Schurr said about Freud being able to withstand pain until the very last moment, namely by being to a point self therapeutic when dealing with pain of others. This therapeutic moment can be named as positive self forgetting whereby the linkage between self and pain must still be understood in terms of how the psyche works and articulates itself through language. All along Freud considered language to be highly truthful. By not disputing language it became a measure for him how truthful anyone could become in language as best indicator of how the unconsciousness and consciousness would interact once the ‘self’ had entered this dialog. It is a basic trust that made Freud convey all his thoughts so simple and why all his writings are so truthful.

All the more it mattered to Freud’s sense of truthfulness to retain complex concepts as reminders of theoretical assumptions and insights even if others did not seem to understand what he meant. In an important dispute with Jung who advised him to change some theoretical concepts in order to make them more understandable especially to a German audience, Freud replied that if you give in with one concept, you loose the entire thing. Here he proved what he did throughout his life, namely to stand to this uncompromising truthfulness as the ability to remain critical of the self. It reflects a great sensitivity as to the overall relationship between the parts and the whole. Without it, the mind would not only be without such a measure of truthfulness but be exposed to a rationalization until unable to distinguish between projections and reality itself. The consequence would be continual rationalization as a way to gloss over all differences even though they would matter on how conflicts are resolved.

Freud meant really that as long as some deeper conflicts affecting and even neutralizing the mind and even prompting it to betray reality, there is no way to distinguish wished for solutions from real ones. One example in the history of Psychoanalysis of unresolved conflicts leading to misinterpretations and hence false recommendations has been Wilhelm Reich who did not go through psychoanalysis of his own self until the very end and hence he continued to suppress one unpleasant truth. Reich had as a boy observed his mother committing adultery and told his father in an indirect way about it. As a consequence his father reacted so strongly that the mother was driven into such despair that she committed finally suicide. Although Reich felt guilty in having betrayed his mother but satisfied in his ‘infantile love’ to his father (by suppressing conflicts with the authority and perverting the libido into an act of loyal servitude), he never overcame that limitation in his own psychoanalytical work. Whenever a patient of his narrated a similar incidence he would recommend to stay loyal to the father while unable to explain why such ‘interpretation’ was followed by expressions of guilty feelings suppressed by an inability to show any remorse for acts of betrayal. Clearly in such close relationships between patient and analytic many kinds of entanglement can occur, the most difficult one is not to mistake sticking together to suppress an unpleasant truth with finding the truth just because the other upholds it as well. A more critical term of such common beliefs is ‘conspiracy against truth’, a reoccurring phenomenon when a young man joins for example the army and convinces himself that this is a truthful act by persuading his friend to do likewise, for if he succeeds then the own act must be truthful. Freud’s refutation of common held beliefs is based on the simple fact that even if many share the same belief, it does not make it necessarily true. As a matter of fact Adorno took up that notion after returning to Germany following exile in America and said that there cannot be any truth in an untruthful life. It is a structural feature. Klaus Heinrich observing Adorno reflecting this fact said most terrible to the philosopher was the realization that no ‘self’ can free itself completely from such negative social structure. There will be always this interdependency from the others staying truthful as well. Otherwise ‘intersubjectivity’ in the way Karl Popper understood it would not allow anyone to come even close to a truth worth upholding as orientation while truthfulness would be sacrificed to a language masking what people would want, what not.

There needs to be said something else about Freud’s basic attitude as scientist and humanist. His incredible bent towards truthfulness was matched by modesty. It explains Freud’s ability to be still truthful when he realized that he did not merely reach the frontiers of knowledge prevailing at that time but also the limits of his own knowledge. Typical for his modesty was his reply to Einstein who had written to him in the hope that Freud would have some answers why violence, why mankind can be so aggressive until all things lead to war. Freud said although he had studied this phenomenon from many angles, and like Einstein and others he was deeply affected by what had taken place during First World War with all its apocalyptical show of violence and aggression to leave everyone horrified, that he had no answer. Also repeatedly in his writings one can look over his shoulders to see where he comes to a particular problem and where he admits this he cannot resolve, someone else, perhaps a philosopher has to do that.

By acknowledging where his own limits are, Freud proved to be more objective and analytic in his works than what all the criticism by Karl Popper and others of the same credo wanted to prove, namely that Freud’s work was unproven, not scientific enough and hardly worthwhile to be considered since based on a theory that could not be refuted. Of interest is here that Th.W. Adorno who entered later the Positivism-Dispute with Popper undertook the task to prove in a philosophical thesis that the concept ‘unconsciousness’ had objective validity. Adorno respected enormously the work of Freud; it became a basis of his philosophical reflections and together with Horkheimer he used that what he learned from Freud to interpret more than to explain the failure of the Enlightenment.

That difference between ‘interpretation’ and ‘explanation’ (in a strictly analytic way) is key to understanding the difference between a psychoanalytic based philosophy (Habermas says of this strand of thought as being the only science allowing self understanding) and Positivism of the Anglo Saxon kind, including such excellent philosophers as Carnap. At the core of the dispute is that the whole cannot be simply the sum of elements observed in the process nor denied as done by the Positivists or acclaimed by those following a ‘holistic’ approach to things. Rather psychoanalytic methodology translated into philosophical thinking is like the doctor who points with his finger directly at a spot of the body to say ‘here it hurts’ and then gives an interpretation as to what might be the cause with the prime aim being that the person with the pain feels being understood. Adorno following Freud said anyone wishing to reach the other must jump so to speak into the world of the other. By attempting an interpretation, there is the risk of not understanding not only the person in pain, but also the reason for that pain. Understanding as interpretation means, however, bringing together the inner world of the other in an outer world allowing for introspection by making language into an exploratory tool as to both the meaning of the pain and the kind of empathy needed to be shown to the person before feeling being understood. Such interpretations called ‘intuitive guesses’ can together with the person participating in the diagnosis process by way of associating one image with another unlock the source of pain and thereby free the person thereof.

This need to be understood both as patient and as human being in everyday life was echoed by Wittgenstein who vented all his frustration when demanding to be understood in what he writes on how he meant it and not what someone else thinks he meant.

Indeed, any child knows when growing up how crucial is not so much recognition but being understood by the parents and later by teachers, friends and other people. This understanding being shown through an interpretation that risks something because not everything is evident and therefore requires ‘intuitive guesses’ was for Freud the psychoanalytic practice of ‘Deutung’: interpretation. He started to realize the importance of this when visiting once friends and observed that their little child kept in a crib would repeatedly throw over board a doll tied to a string which it held, if only to pull it after the throw again upwards and then greet it with ‘da’: ‘there’. Freud did not understand at first why the child repeated this game over and again until he connected it with the mother leaving the room and closing the door behind her. She disappeared out of sight. This created at the very least anxiety in the child. By realizing that the child was playing a game in order to comprehend the disappearance of the mother if only to re-appear and restore confidence as sign of security and safety, the significance of presence and absence of such feelings as confidence and safety became evident. Psychoanalytically speaking, Freud said that the child learned through the game to give itself the security it would derive otherwise from the mother when present.

Taken a step further, such small observations and interpretations by Freud point the way as to how children can be perceived and understood when growing up until mature enough to take care of themselves. By learning to comfort the ‘self’ and to give to the ‘self’ sooner or later all those things anyone would obtain at first from both parents, growing up becomes a process of transition. Here Freud entered this very crucial field of what it means to grow up and what happens if certain conflicts are not resolved, that is once that process is stalled, thwarted, diverted and even worse disrupted until the child has no longer the feeling of safety from the parents but also out of fear what the parents might do, will not undertake anything personally to give to the self that feeling needed in order to be open to learning and adaptation to the world. Freud described the latter process as regression and if not resolved hampering the growing up process by more and more by repetitive drives coercing the self to repeat itself in one and the same mistake, agony and fixation (‘Wiederholungszwang’).

Freud’s deeper analysis gives reason to think that once the drive to seek pleasure is divorced from the reality principle as a way to know when needs can be fulfilled under what conditions, there prevails something more horrific: a death drive. It can explain that tremendous coercion for repetition or for making the same mistakes over and again. Here psychoanalysis comes closer to an explanation why indeed humanity may never learn and shall repeatedly go to war instead of learning out of the past on how to preserve peace. Certainly peace would have to include learning how to resolve conflicts in a non violent way – the self understood credo of psychoanalysis once practiced without authority, threat thereof (Cornelius Castoriadis criticized here very much the way Lacan used arbitrariness and time as tools of asserting authority over his patients by them never knowing when he would arrive, when he would leave the therapy session with subsequent catastrophic results), but relying on language to start the dialogue with the ‘self’.

As said already the key to understanding oneself by means of psychoanalytical reflections is ‘memory work’. To achieve this Freud used writing as medium of reflection to find out what prevents the spontaneous feeling of being safe from coming into the consciousness. As sign of being present in the own presence (i.e. not afraid of the own shadow), is not first memory, then experience but vice versa: the ability to experience the feeling coming up and then in realizing to experience it one has to step into it by stepping outside the system in order to remember it. A continuity of such experiences would be the memory track creating a map inside of the individual to know him- or herself while in terms of societal relationships it would mark the peace path or what the philosopher Kant would call the way to be at home everywhere within the own imagination as to how the self can interact with others in the real world (die Durchgaengigkeit der eigenen Vorstellungen).

The psychoanalysis of Freud uses memory and forgetting as tools to reflect and to interpret where there exists the conflict and therefore the reason which prevents the spontaneous experience of the self. Since such experience in the present sense becomes very quickly one moment later the past, it can become only a point of reference for future reflections if remembered. Again Wittgenstein defined philosophy interestingly enough as a special way of remembering things. As a matter of fact each person has a special way of remembering things, things having to do with the self and with no one else. To Adorno this reflective process going over into a creative act would be the search for individual identity as the ‘sui generis’: the uniqueness of the self at that moment and throughout life. If touched upon it will be remembered like we shall always remember clearly lived moments.

However, Freud made here a most important distinction. He sees too many living in the system which would separate the consciousness from the unconsciousness as if people would sit in a pot whose bottom would prevent the person from experiencing the feelings coming up inside them as if deep sea diver releases bubbles traveling upwards to the surface. As long as people stay inside the system i.e. cooking pot, the bubbles would burst when hitting the bottom of the pot. Consequently people would not experience their feelings (something which provoked Einstein to say people without feelings cannot be helped). Freud adds that people can experience only their feelings by stepping outside the system they are in and into the feelings as they come up. By continuously stepping into the feelings, a kind of linear process would create what he calls the ‘memory track’. Only then people find their way back to their self after having departed into society. By remaining on track allowing a more differentiated view of the self in constant dialogue between present and past experiences, such individuals find themselves in tune with what they can image and experience at one and the same time. For reflections are all about freeing the imagination as mediation between body and mind, mind-body and reality, experienced reality and other worlds still unknown. It is crucial that the self remains in the most differentiated way in tune with the world as indicated by the voice (with Kant having said already that sound allows us the most differentiated memory track) and that there is not incurred any cut off from previous experiences. Only then can the self be open i.e. receptive of new experiences. Insofar as living in the system is without memory, Freud’s thesis is that this explains the absence of a differentiated way to think about oneself, others and the world.

In that sense it might be useful that Freud’s Psychoanalysis interprets society’s own problems by not knowing what to do, what not as a sure sign of loss of memory especially with regards to all the terrible events linked with war and abuse of human beings as the case of the Holocaust. By forgetting all these terrible experiences humanity exposes itself to what Freud called the coercion of repetition which is reinforced by the death drive. If anything this comes the closest to explain reasons for war. The connection to the death drive is the praise by politicians like President Bush of the sacrifice needed to install democracy, namely the death of soldiers, innocent civilians and opponents, for then forgetting becomes a permanent coercion on how terrible is reality if human beings no longer understand each other and have no trust in the language they speak in order to find out the truth of what they are saying not merely to others but to oneself.

As such Freud’s work is all about Western Society having still not learned to base its decisions on self understanding, a self understanding which is not cut off from the ‘unconscious’ and therefore would make possible a human reality provided people are willing to step outside the system. The latter constitutes itself by suppressing feelings and thereby the need for a peace path on which feelings can be experienced.

Such a peace path can only be found if people discover their own memory tracks and learn to relate to their selves in all openness to the others. If not, they will continue to uphold the authority of the system and not realize what they are really doing. For instance, in developments leading up to the invasion of Iraq March 21, 2003 both President Bush and Prime Minister T. Blair treated Saddam Hussein in similar terms to reactionary fathers who hit back at a disobedient son. They labeled the latter as not complying and fully cooperating to the UN resolution and justified thereby the going to war as if the only adequate form of punishment for not complying. Indeed, war is a way to uphold an one sided declared authority. It illustrates how many unresolved complexes are virulent in Western Society especially with regards to others. This is all the more the case once they dare to demonstrate on the world political stage some independence, and even in stronger terms that they are willing to express a different opinion and not follow the political course as dictated by Western leaders. The consequence is literally a permanent war, whether direct or indirect. No wonder also that when Einstein asked Freud if he could explain such aggression leading to war, Freud replied he had no explanation.


Hatto Fischer


This article was first published in heritageradio


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