Thursday, September 20, 2007

Analyzing Authoritarianism

From The Chronicle Review:

Freud and Anna
Why publish a book about Sigmund Freud in 2007, a time when many people — perhaps most — think that Freud is passé?

Even a reasonably sympathetic observer is likely to believe that what's best in Freud's work has already been absorbed into the culture. Everyone, this line of thinking runs, now knows what Freud knew about dreams, about the unconscious, about the centrality of sex in human life, about jokes and slips of the tongue, and about a half a dozen or so other consequential matters. Then, of course, there's what his critics think of as the bad side of Freud: Contemporary psychologists dismiss him as insufficiently scientific; feminists denounce him as the ultimate patriarch. So why bother now with Sigmund Freud?
The Death of Sigmund Freud began as a book about death and dying. I wanted to understand what it might mean to die a good death — a good secular death. From what I knew of Freud's last days, when he was dying of cancer, he had done exactly that. In fact, as I studied his life, I found that to the end he was tough, brave, and resolutely secular. His final public act was to publish his most controversial book, Moses and Monotheism. "Quite a worthy exit," he said of the volume, and it was. So I began writing about Freud's heroic demise.
But the true subject of a book is often about 20 degrees away from the author's original intention, and so it was here. As I studied Freud's old age and his late work, I came to see that the problems he encountered were in many ways still ours. Both religious fundamentalism and political tyranny threatened Freud in old age, and in quite immediate ways. Freud worked on his Moses book under the shadow of the repressive Roman Catholic Church of Austria, which surely would have moved to suppress the book if he had tried to publish it in Vienna. When he was 81 years old, Nazi Germany invaded Austria and threatened Freud and his family with death.
But Freud did more than experience tyranny. In a series of remarkably prescient books and essays, he also wrote about it. Totem and Taboo, Group Psychology, Future of an Illusion, and a number of other works all analyze how and why authority goes bad and becomes oppressive. It occurred to me as I reread those works that, at best, culture had assimilated only half of Freud's thinking, the half that, broadly speaking, deals with eros. Freud the analyst of sex was something we all knew about. But there was a second phase of Freud's work, little read, that bears strongly on our own crises in politics and religion. Freud was, I came to believe, something of an expert on how and why authority goes bad.
The complicating factor was that Freud sometimes trafficked in oppressive authority himself. In writing as in life, he could be bullying, intolerant, overbearing — though never to what one could call a pathological degree. Feminists were right, I concluded, to say that Freud was patriarchal, and right, too, to say that patriarchy might be the great malaise of our times — in politics and in religion, particularly. But reading Freud, I concluded something else, too. Patriarch that he may have been, Freud nonetheless lived and wrote in a way that allows us to understand our own attraction to oppressive power — and perhaps even to do something about it.
The excerpt that follows tells the story of a crisis in Freud's relationship with his daughter Anna, which reveals something about Freud's capacity for love and his drive for authority.

By 1938, the year that the Nazis invaded Vienna and put Sigmund Freud and his family in mortal danger, Freud's feelings for his daughter Anna were at their height. Anna had become not only the great comfort of his old age, but also his hope for the future. What Freud wanted was not to live on and on; he was tired and very ill: He had been struggling with cancer of the jaw for 15 years. What Freud wanted was to die assured that the psychoanalytic movement that he had founded and the knowledge that he believed he had uncovered and organized would live on through time. Freud was obsessed with the continuity of his work, and lately he had come to see that Anna was the one who could do the most to ensure it. In Freud's old age, Anna meant everything to him. March 22, 1938, the day that the Nazis came for her, was surely the worst single day of Sigmund Freud's life.
Freud had not always held his youngest child in high esteem. Anna had never been pretty, at least according to Freud, and she was not precocious; as a girl, she was dutiful, thoughtful, and thorough, with a capacity for hard work not unlike her father's. Over time, though, Freud came to see that what Anna lacked in quickness of understanding, she made up for in depth. She immersed herself in his work and his world — when she was still a girl she attended the seminars Freud held for his disciples in his apartment at Berggasse 19, sitting quietly in a room blue with cigar smoke — and became as well versed in her father's thought as any of his followers. Anna's relation to Freud's vision was never creative. She took it all in; she learned its terms by heart; but it never seems to have occurred to Anna that her father's thinking required revision or even much development.
Freud's authority with Anna was absolute; he had established it early in her life, in part by psychoanalyzing her himself. Looking back on the psychoanalysis, Anna said that her father never permitted her to indulge in halfway measures. He compelled her to offer the whole truth about everything, including her erotic life. It seems that she shared with him accounts of her sexual fantasies and of her initial forays into masturbation, and that Freud took it all in with characteristic equanimity. Anna emerged from the analysis grateful to her father and more committed to him than ever. From that time on, Freud's attitude toward his daughter was protective in the extreme, especially when sex was the issue. Even as Anna reached her 20s and began to attract men, including one of Freud's disciples, the devoted womanizer Ernest Jones, Freud continually proclaimed that she was too young and not at all ready to leave the family. Once, during the period of Anna's analysis, when she had gone off on vacation and left her mother and father, Freud, writing to the Russian psychoanalyst Lou Andreas Salomé, said, "I have long felt sorry for [Anna] for still being at home with us old folks, ... but on the other hand, if she really were to go away, I should feel myself as deprived as I [would] now if I had to give up smoking!"
By 1938, Anna had virtually displaced Freud's wife, Martha, in his life of feeling. Anna took care of him: She got his medicine; she helped him remove and clean the prosthesis installed on the right side of his jaw, where the cancer had done its damage — they called the device "the Monster." And Anna sustained her father intellectually as well, for he talked his ideas over with her as much as he did with anyone. He sought her comfort, yes, but he also sought her intellectual advice. Anna had become Freud's great stay against the world.
For at least 30 years, Freud had wanted inheritors, younger men (it would preferably be men) who could devote themselves to him and carry on his legacy. So he began to gather around him talented younger thinkers like Karl Abraham and Sándor Ferenczi and Carl Jung. He seated them at a table with himself at the head, like a monarch surrounded by his knights. In time he gave some of them rings to seal the fellowship. He called them his sons.
Over time, though, it became clear that Freud could not bear much of any intellectual disagreement from his followers. The story goes that once when a disciple disputed a point with him during a seminar, Freud tried to quash him. "But," the disciple replied, "a dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant can see farther than the giant." Freud took this in. He gestured once with his cigar, then again. "Fine," the founder replied, "but a louse sitting on the head of an astronomer, what can he see?"
Carl Jung, whom Freud for a while called "the crown prince" without terribly much irony, was creative, excessively so. He was intrigued by astrology and alchemy; he was a visionary and a mystic, and he impressed Freud and disturbed him in about equal measure. To break with Jung, as Freud did beginning around 1912, and over time to begin to look to Anna as the guardian of the legacy, was a great shift. In making it, Freud chose caution over imagination, continuity over creative disjunction. Freud loved Anna for herself; he passionately wanted her happiness: That much is certain. But he also loved her as a guarantor of the only kind of immortality that Freud, who famously called himself a "godless Jew," could believe in. Anna Freud was the critical link in the chain that might help make psychoanalysis live on, perhaps for all time.
Part of Freud's genius lay in knowing that to be a genius was not enough. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, from whose work Freud had — to put it generously — borrowed, had also developed brilliant interpretations of life. But both had left academia early; neither had founded a school or created disciples in significant numbers. Freud did not intend to make the same mistakes.
On Tuesday, March 22, a few days after the Germans invaded Austria, the Gestapo came to Berggasse 19 and took Anna. They seemed persuaded that the International Psychoanalytical Association was a front for an antifascist political movement. Surely the person they most wanted to arrest and question was Freud. Anna told them that it was not possible for her father to leave the apartment building, because he was ill and too frail to manage the stairs. She was willing to go in his place and to answer any questions the Gestapo might have about the association. Before she left with them, Max Schur, Freud's personal physician, handed Anna some Veronal, a poison that would have allowed her to kill herself if the Nazis decided to torture her. Freud did not know about the Veronal, and if he did he would no doubt have been enraged at Schur. But mostly he was furious at the Nazis. All over Vienna, Jews were disappearing; some were being killed, many taken off to the concentration camp at Dachau.
No one now knows for certain what Anna said or did not say in her encounter with the Nazis. But she had observed her father well over the years, and he had provided her, just as he had provided himself, with something close to a perfect cover story to use in this kind of emergency. When the officers asked her if her father was political or subversive, or if any of his ideas might be an affront to the Reich, Anna had a whole grammar and vocabulary of response at her disposal. This language of exculpation was both radically misleading and absolutely true, for Freud had a way of talking about himself and his work that was designed for public consumption.
My father, Anna might have said, has always involved himself with science. He has labored for years in as close to laboratory conditions as he could find in order to draw valid conclusions about the dynamics of human behavior. He has tried to write up those conclusions in dispassionate, clear language. Some of the conclusions, to be sure, are provisional, but, as he himself has said many times, he is waiting for further developments in biochemistry to confirm, or perhaps to modify, what he has learned.
As to day-to-day politics, they hardly interest my father at all. He reads the newspaper as others do; he follows events. But he is far too old and he is far too sick to be a rabble-rousing Austrian nationalist. When the Great War came, in 1914, he dutifully sent his sons off to fight. He hoped for their safety and he hoped for the victory of Austria-Hungary and of its ally, Germany.
Granted my father is a Jew, as I, of course, am myself. But Papa's commitment to Judaism has never consisted of much more than going to the B'nai B'rith every couple of weeks and playing a spirited game of Tarock with other old men. He is not a Zionist, and he is no Jewish rebel. And as his writings will show you, should you chance to read them, he is anything but a Communist. True, my father will never deny his Jewish heritage. He is above all things an honest man. When he is healthy, he leads a regular life: breakfast and his patients; dinner, his walk, his beard trim, his paper, more patients; supper with the family, then work, work, late into the night.
My father has worked ceaselessly his whole life, and over time this work, which is, as I say, of an impeccably scientific nature, has won him many admirers and many friends, some of whom do not lack influence in the world. He is an aged, peaceful, and overall harmless man, but, with all respect due, one would not lightly disturb the tranquility of what are surely his final years.
At home, waiting for his daughter, Freud paced the floor and smoked. He did not speak; he was too distressed to utter a word; he knew that nothing he could possibly say there in the front room of Berggasse 19, with his family around him, could be any actual help. But surely during those bad hours, Freud thought a great deal. Anna was so much to him: Could he live in the world without her any longer than old Lear could after he lost Cordelia?
At Nazi headquarters, Anna was no doubt telling the most blandly respectable story she could about her father — but she might have been thinking other things as well. She might have been thinking more candidly about the bearing her father's work and character actually had on the Nazis, for that, in fact, was considerable.
My father, she might have thought, as the dull questions came and came again, knows you better than you know yourself. A string of books and essays proves as much: "On Narcissism," Group Psychology, Future of an Illusion, Totem and Taboo. For years he has been writing about the hunger for the leader — your Hitler, your half-monster, half-clown — and all the others who've come before and all who will come later in his image. He knows why you need the leader the way you do. He understands how the leader brings oneness to a psyche — and a state — at odds with itself. He knows how the inner life is divided — ego battling id, prohibition battling desire, in incessant civil war — and how painful that division can be. The great man shows the people how to indulge their worst and most forbidden desires — and then to congratulate themselves for doing so. Now in Germany and Austria it is no crime to persecute the Jews. This is no longer forbidden: Rather, it is patriotic; it is heroic. Under the leader, inner conflict relaxes, people become unified. All of their energies flow in the same direction: They become intoxicated; get high, and stay that way.
In a certain way, my father sympathizes with this need. He knows that the hunger for the leader is not alien or exceptional, but all too human. All of the fiery joy you felt when you saw your Führer ride in state through Vienna — the apotheosis of the will — my father understood. You are nothing new and wonderfully rebellious, as you imagine, but part of the endless recurrence of the same sad hunger for Truth, the Center, the Leader, and the Law. By understanding as much and making it plain for all who care to see it, my father is the one who has perhaps brought something into the world that is new.
But it might also have occurred to Anna that her father's knowledge about the dynamics of a certain sort of authority arose from his own attraction to it. He was no dictator, no brute — far from it. But surely he was in his way a Victorian patriarch. (Ask Jung — ask any of his former disciples — ask a woman, a daughter, who had been compared to a cigar.) Yet he was a patriarch like no other. He was a patriarch who lived and wrote, in that great string of books and essays on authority and its mysteries, to bring patriarchy to an end.
It's possible that there was some intervention on Anna's behalf. There may have been help from the American Embassy. Anna remembered a phone call that seemed to change the atmosphere. In all likelihood, though, it was Anna herself who worked her way out of the Nazi trap: More and more, the Nazis were coming to realize how little the world cared about what was happening in Austria, and how much they could do as they pleased. In significant matters. they were becoming ever freer to make up their own minds.
At home Freud paced up and down in his living room and, forgetting his doctors' injunction against smoking, pried his aching jaw open and inserted one cigar after another. He walked and walked, smoked and smoked. At noon he could not eat. He did not acknowledge anyone. There was no way for Freud to express all of the things that Anna — daughter, disciple, nurse, colleague, confidante — meant to him. When Anna finally walked in the door, early that evening, exhausted from her ordeal, the restrained Freud did something, we're told, that almost no one had ever seen him do. Sigmund Freud showed emotion. The great stoic may even have wept.

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is author of The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, published this month by Bloomsbury.

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