Why Freud still haunts us



For those of us prone to commemorations, it is a rich season. The beginning of the Great War 100 years ago, 70 years since the Normandy invasion, and the 50th anniversary of several major events in the American struggle for civil rights. September 23 marks 75 years since the death of Sigmund Freud.

Should we care? In many respects, Freud seems to be from another world. We know so much more now. Psychotropic medications are big business and are prescribed to ever-growing numbers of the “worried well,” while psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy are more of a rarity than ever.

And then there is all that embarrassing stuff about sex and penises, about inescapable aggression and guilt. And mothers. All of that is from another time, isn’t it?

After all, now we know that women are equal to men, even if we scratch our heads when trying to explain how patriarchy gets reproduced, generation after generation, despite our professed ethics. Now we know not only that sex must be deeply consensual but that it should be really healthy—so safe that it is, well, less than desirable.

Freud taught that we could never be sure about our own “consent,” let alone another’s (that’s why we’re turning to new laws to demand that only “yes” really means yes). He insisted that the sexual relation was the discord among fantasies and therefore rarely a terrain of great safety.

Yet Freud haunts us. He keeps popping up in places he has no business being. Just when we succeeded in pushing him out of medicine because his brand of the talking cure was inconvenient for insurance and drug companies, he began appearing in college humanities programs, theater, novels, television. A generation ago, he animated Woody Allen’s jokes; more recently, we could find him in the The Sopranos, and today he is all over Mad Men.

And just when it seemed that we could dismiss him (with a laugh) from overly theoretical work by jargon-laden literary scholars, nostalgic noise arose from the psychiatric profession complaining about meds without baseline evaluations, insurance-driven mental-health treatment, and the need for patients to make meaning.

Freud may have been dead these 75 years, yet there he sits, behind us. As the old man himself noted in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life:

When a member of my family complains to me of having bitten his tongue, pinched a finger, or the like, he does not get the sympathy he hopes for, but instead the question: “Why did you do that?” I myself once gave my thumb a most painful pinch when a youthful patient told me during the hour of his treatment of his intention … to marry my eldest daughter.

Freud pinched himself, and we bite our tongues looking for sympathy. In a story about being picked on by a friend, a wife, or a sibling, for example, to be asked “What are you really getting out of this?”—that is, What are you getting out of being picked on?—is an offensive query. What desire is expressed by your injury, or in telling the story of the injury? Can we believe that this question is always merely blaming the victim?

Questions about what desires are being satisfied extend from the political to the personal (and back again). What desire is the war against terrorism really satisfying? Why do police departments in small towns want to acquire big tanks? Why are some straight people so angry about some gay people’s embracing marriage? Those questions assume that the surface answers—the reasons of which we are aware—will not get at powerful motivating factors. When asked Freudian questions, we know that the answers will be connected to desires of which we not only are unaware but are likely to feel ashamed.

The answer to “What are you really getting out of X?” will always describe a kind of ambivalence. “Ambivalence” began as a technical term in psychiatry, and it came to connote a quality of all strong emotions: They give rise to and may be the product of conflict. The strongest love, for example, will always be mixed with aggression. When his sister asks Tony Soprano, “Where does your hate for me come from?,” we should know that it comes from the same place as his love for her. Love cannot be satisfied without aggression, and intense antipathy is always bound up with desire. Those elements can no more be separated from one another than nourishment can be separated from digestion. There is no possibility of full, sustained satisfaction in the Freudian model because the desires one aims to gratify are contradictory.

What do we do with those conflicts? We try to forget them. Unrequited desire can hurt, and so in order to get back to work (and love), we may push it away. Frustration and the repression of frustration became central to Freud’s thinking. In the 1890s he tried to understand the phenomena of pleasure, frustration, and forgetting at the neurological level. Then he started paying attention to how we express, in disguised form, the complications of our appetites—in physical symptoms, slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. And that was the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Freud remains relevant because he provides an account of why it is so difficult to tell those stories, even why it is so difficult to gain access to our own. He called repression the cornerstone of his whole enterprise, and it has led to the staying power of his genre of questioning. No matter how much we question, we will never get to the bottom of our own motivations, let alone those of other people. Something will always remain repressed.

Sigmund became a Freudian when he created the model of an interpreter who showed how our actions and words indirectly expressed conflicts of desire of which we were unaware. The conflicts among our desires never disappeared; they became the fuel of our histories. Making sense of those conflicts, understanding our desires, he thought, gave us an opportunity to give our stories—our histories—meaning.

No story we could possibly tell would fully overcome our repression, because repression is a necessary psychical mechanism, according to Freud. This is more than a full-employment program for therapists. It is an insistence on our incapacity for transparency even as it expresses our desire for it. If Freud were no longer haunting us, we might worry that we were repressing him or his message. Such a worry would be a form of haunting. Heads he wins, tails we lose.

Freud recognized that we are animals that respond to our biology through memory and story-telling. Psychoanalysis became a vehicle for telling those histories in ways that acknowledged our conflicting desires. Psychoanalysis isn’t a methodology to discover one’s true history; it is a collaboration that allows one to refashion a past with which one can live. The need to do so, and the impossibility of ever doing so definitively, has ensured the continued presence of Freud in our culture.

Seventy-five years after Freud’s death, we might well ask how we live with the intensity of these stories; how do we manage their meanings? Well, we now have culturally approved pharmaceuticals. The intensity and ambivalence of our desires have given rise to massive attempts to control them, and those controls have sometimes fueled these very desires. We may find that our medications create the desire for the feeling of intensity that they were supposed to protect us from.

What satisfactions are we getting out of the prohibitions against certain satisfactions? Guilt both satisfies and punishes satisfaction. Freud suggested that there isn’t more satisfaction, let alone happiness, in the world because we make ourselves so miserable and because we have created a society that, under the guise of reducing suffering, is very good at making us even more miserable. Recognizing how we contribute to our own misery is a pleasure (perhaps one of the reasons we keep coming back to Freud), but psychoanalysis suggests it also gives us some possibility of changing the cycle of our self-punishment.

Despite all the cheerleading for neuroscience and its fascinating machines, our vernacular psychology remains Freudian in some fundamental sense. For no matter how critical we are of psychoanalytic influence on our culture, there seems to be no way of making Freud disappear. Our notions of childhood, of memory, of aggression, of sexuality, and, most generally, of meaning have been shaped in relation to—and often in opposition to—Freud’s legacy. Although today his explanations of psychopathology, like his interpretations of specific dreams, inspire neither shock nor agreement, Freud continues to haunt our culture because his genre of questioning remains tied to our desire for meaning.

As a pragmatic theorist, Freud understood that we construct meaning and direction out of our memories in order to suffer less and live more fully in the present. As a ghost worthy of commemoration, Freud’s presence can undermine the conventional ways we make sense of the world while still drawing on our connections to the past.

If we become interested only in how we are put together, in how our neurology works, and not in how we make meaning from our past, then Freud will have truly disappeared from our culture. But if we continue to consider the past important for giving meaning and direction to our lives, then it’s a good bet that we will continue to ask and try to respond to those annoying questions that require us to find new ways to tell our stories, to better work through who we are and what we want.

Author Bio: Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014) and Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past (Columbia University Press, 2011).