“My Tyrant is Psychology”: Freud’s Continuing Relevance

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Few great men would have got past Personnel.
— Paul Goodman

Now and then writers, thinkers, and magazines raise the question of Freud’s relevance to our time and, indulging perhaps in wish fulfillment, proclaim Freud dead. Is he?

In assessing Freud we need to separate his timeless insights about human nature from the mechanical nineteenth-century framework into which he plugged them. The framework, long outdated, has been replaced in psychoanalysis with more relational language drawn from ecology, the humanities, intersubjectivity studies, and Complexity Theory for all but a handful of reactionary analysts whose dry writings read like steampunk without the steam. Having been bled of life by James Strachey, original editor of the Standard Edition, Freud’s work is being retranslated, so English readers will finally be able to glimpse the organic eloquence that won Freud the Goethe Prize.

We must also bear in mind the impossibility of assessing Freud as a singular theorist because he was, to use the ancient word, polysemous: as many-sided as Odysseus himself. There was Freud the misogynist who made bad jokes about women and cigars–and the Freud who trained women as analysts, who left his thought as a legacy to his daughter Anna, and who privately gave financial support to analyst Lou Andreas-Salome, in part because he liked and respected her and in part because “you are the best of us.” Freud the schemer who freely borrowed ideas and who manipulated careers and reputations to build psychoanalysis–and Freud the committed thinker, theorist, and practitioner who told a friend in a letter, “A man like me cannot live without a consuming passion, a hobby-horse–in Schiller’s words a tyrant…My tyrant is psychology.” The reductive Freud and the Freud who made space for telepathy and spirituality. Freud the egotist and armchair conquistador who compared himself to Copernicus–and Freud who called psychoanalysis “our mythology” and found the nerve to revise it in old age as the struggle between Life and Death grew more relevant for him, especially after the loss of his beloved daughter Sophie. Freud’s four younger sisters perished in Nazi concentration camps, a fate he narrowly avoided.

About World War I Freud wrote to Albert Einsten,

Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought–disillusionment. Not only is it more bloody and more destructive than any war of other days, because of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defence; it is at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it. It disregards all the restrictions known as International Law, which in peace-time the states had bound themselves to observe; it ignores the prerogatives of the wounded and the medical service, the distinction between civil and military sections of the population, the claims of private property. It tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples, and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.

“Moreover,” Freud continued, “it has brought to light an almost incredible phenomenon: that civilized nations know and understand one another so little that one can turn against the other with hate and loathing.” Yet we should not have been surprised, he remarked, had we an adequate knowledge of our own myth-haunted depths. In fact, our very symptoms are like mythological figures, “all-powerful guests from an alien world, immortal beings intruding into the turmoil of mortal life” to the degree we refuse to hear what they say to us.

Freud deprived us of the “I meant well” excuse for all time. He taught us that when what we do contradicts what we say, we commit either hypocrisy or self-alienation, or both, deploying various defenses to keep ourselves unaware. (Abwehr, word Strachey translated as “defense,” visualized the self-protective deflection of a sword thrust.) Freud insisted that as maturing adults capable of “love and work” we take responsibility for everything we are and do, including our acts of self-delusion–but that we be charitable enough to forgive ourselves for our all-too-human shortcomings. Especially when we are ridden by an internalized oppressor whose voice has supplanted our own; here Freud anticipated what W. E. B. DuBois would analyze in The Souls of Black Folk as “double consciousness.”

Freud would have seen in the reactionary politics of our day–the perpetual warfare, casino capitalism, racism, sexism, zealotry, and homophobia–the sort of acting out that follows from narcissistic entitlement, developmental arrest, and the paranoia that signifies projected hostility: he who accuses you of wanting to conquer the world is probably planning on doing exactly that. We crusade against what we are already in bed with. As for homophobia, Freud understood it as projected hostility, and a defense against realizing that categories like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were relative and, ultimately, inadequate given the manifold life of the erotic in each of us. To an American mother with a gay son Freud wrote, “It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime–and a cruelty, too.” “Eros” as Freud meant it reached far beyond ordinary notions of gender or genitalia. The real issue here is not why Freud saw everything in terms of sex or death, but why we literalize what Freud intended to be spacious symbolic truths about the messy dynamisms of human existence. As Christine Downing observes in Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love, Freud’s favorite literary device when writing about human nature is synecdoche: making use of the part to herald the whole.

Freud also wrote Einstein about the need to manage our aggressive impulses instead of trying to wish them away. He would have agreed with Martin Luther King that “a riot is the language of the unheard”–in Freud’s terms “the return of the repressed,” for what we seek to cage, control, or imprison only grows stronger and wilder.

For that reason Freud felt no sympathy for programs of self-improvement based on an exclusive focus on the positive. When we try to leave behind an unfinished story, he pointed out, we merely recreate it, traumatizing ourselves over and over until we consciously face what has hurt us. No magic cure, formula, or solution can replace the adult responsibility of bearing our conflicts, shortcomings, and wounds instead of trying to evade them–the neurotic strategy–and thereby making them worse. Freud saw clearly in himself, his patients, and his colleagues that what we fail to take on squarely we convert into unproductive suffering, just as what we do not mourn we remain stuck to and depressed about. Difficult to live with one foot still in the grave, or in an uncorrectable past. Living responsibly–“without reprieve,” as Camus put it–requires grieving what should have been but wasn’t, thereby liberating the energies required for building a life in the present.

The odd dissociation whereby human psychology is severed from its roots in the natural world did not exist for Freud, who insisted that all character stands on “the It”: the instinctual, natural-world foundation of psychic life. Believing us fully biological creatures, Freud served what we now call “biophilia” and anticipated ecotherapy by including his dog in therapy sessions and by taking some of his patients for long walks outside. An avid mushroom-hunter, he left the city to go on holidays in the countryside.

Where others saw happenstance and nonsense, Freud saw patterns of meaning: in fantasies, in dreams, in jokes, and even in what are now called “Freudian slips,” as when former U.S. president George W. Bush, having launched a second Gulf War he began the planning for shortly after taking office, thanked a group of combat troops for “wearing the uniform for your sacrifice.” Freud considered fantasy foundational to mental life–hence his term “primary process”–because, as various neuropsychiatric studies and Lakoff’s “embodied realism” have illuminated, images and metaphors are entangled in everything we think, feel, and perceive. Even the idea of objective science remains rooted in an Apollonian fantasy of hitting the target from a distance.

Noble, base, fallible, exalted, tragic, beautiful, passionate creatures of drive, defense, and desire: this was how Freud saw us, a match perhaps for how Gautama, Jesus, Sappho, and Shakesepeare saw us, with our feet in dark soil, our eyes on the heavens, and our heart in between as a passionate bridge.

Freud could be cynical, suspicious, reductive, and even paranoid, but to the illness-racked end of his life he remained a hopeful if ironic commentator on human nature–an evolution of the natural world around us–and on our prospects for self-management and, beyond that, what later psychologists would refer to as self-realization. “Civilization is a process in service to Eros,” he wrote, “whose purpose is to combine single individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.”

See also

A Glossary of Freudian Terms