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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Freud As Pop Culture–Why Despite Everything We Can’t Get Enough Of Him

Freud has taken a lot of hits in recent years, especially in an age of pharmacopeia.  Why should anyone spend thousands and years on the couch when depression and anxiety can be relieved far more cheaply, quickly easily?

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Yet, despite the popularity of Xanax and Zoloft, patients still turn to Freud.  Some mistrust miracle drugs, uncomfortable with the idea that their neuroses and psychoses have been simply calmed and tamped down, but, unresolved, might break through the chemical barrier and trouble them once again, this time in a more virulent and frightening form than before.   Why should anyone assume that they have remained dormant over the years and have not morphed and evolved into something far more potent and pathological?  Better get rid of them once and for all.

Others take a stubborn pride in their neuroses, signs of creativity, intelligence, and insight.  Obsession means focus, creative discipline and passion.  Anxiety is an honest reaction to an unbalanced, illogical, and mystifying world.  Hostility, anger depression, and jealousy may have their bad conclusions, but are still vital signs of the vital individual.  A stable, well-balanced, happy person is a dull and irrelevant one.  Freudian analysis will not get rid of these superior complications but help to better understand and harness them for greater creativity.

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Still others like the idea of finding out personal secrets, an exercise in self-discovery to add depth and interest to a formerly  featureless life.  Freudian discoveries of  lust and incest are only the beginning.  Analysis will sort out and deconstruct nightmares. What more fascinating aspect of human consciousness than the twisted dioramas of dreams?  Exploring them might be treacherous but fascinating, and recounting them will have a new, more unique personal allure.

Academics have loved Freud and stuck with him through the years of scientific debunking. Literary critics especially have feasted on Freud’s theories of id, ego, and superego and laid this speculative template over the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, and O’Neill.  How convenient to have such a ready-made interpretative tool, handy and useful.  With it, the critic can avoid the complexities of human nature and human response, and check off tell-tale signs of psychological disruption. 

Othello? Lear? Macbeth? Hamlet? Characters which when looked at through a Freudian lens are obvious and plain.  Hamlet had Oedipal, incestuous feelings for his mother and hatred and envy for his stepfather.  ‘Out, damned spot! Out I say!’ was Lady Macbeth’s expression of guilt and psychological torment, the result of a weak superego, an overbearing ego and an indifferent id. Othello’s jealousy originated in his sexual dubiousness and immaturity.

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Of course Shakespeare was never so single-minded and simplistic. Hamlet remains intriguing for the very reason that Hamlet’s motives are unclear and complex. While he indeed was upset with his mother for her easy sexuality, and while he indeed hated himself for his cowardly reticence, and while he may have taken out these frustrations on Ophelia, Shakespeare did not intend for the drama to begin and end there.

Literary critic William Hazlitt neither starts nor ends with Freud:
Hamlet is a great moralizer, and what makes him worth attending to is that he moralizes on his own feelings and experience. He is not a commonplace pedant. If Lear shows the greatest depth of passion, Hamlet is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character.
There is no attempt to force an interest: everything is left for time and circumstances to unfold. The attention is excited without effort; the incidents succeed each other as matters of course; the characters think, and speak, and act, just as they might do, if left entirely to themselves. There is no set purpose, no straining at a point.
For most people Freud is simply fun.  As Louis Menand suggests in a recent article in the New Yorker (8.27.17):
Amazingly, Americans, a people stereotypically allergic to abstract systems, found this model of the mind irresistible. Many scholars have tried to explain why, and there are, no doubt, multiple reasons, but the explanation offered by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann is simple: alternative theories were worse. “Freud’s theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory,” as she puts it.
Freudian concepts were taken up by intellectuals, who wrote about cathexes, screen memories, and reaction formations, and they were absorbed into popular discourse. People who had never read a word of Freud talked confidently about the superego, the Oedipus complex, penis envy [and castration anxiety].
There is something very American about this uptake of Freudianism.  Without missing a step we have embraced Freud as one of our own, for what is more melodramatic and gossipy than his fanciful theories.  What better suited to American pop culture than a concept based on sexuality, taboo, and an epic struggle between primal human forces? 

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Anticathexis involves the ego blocking the socially unacceptable needs of the id. Repressing urges and desires is one common form of anticathexis, but it involves a significant investment of energy. According to Freud's theory, there is only so much libidinal energy available. When a lot of this energy is being devoted to suppressing urges via anticathexis, there is less energy available for other processes…
Freud also believed that much of human behavior was motivated by two driving instincts: the life instincts and the death instincts. The life instincts are those that relate to a basic need for survival, reproduction, and pleasure. They include such things as the need for food, shelter, love, and sex. He also suggested that all humans have an unconscious wish for death, which he referred to as the death instincts. Self-destructive behavior, he believed, was one expression of the death drive. However, he believed that these death instincts were largely tempered by the life instincts (Kendra Cherry, Freudian Theory, 2017)
Louis Menand continuing his review of Frederick Crews, a critic of Freud, suggests how his theories became so quickly enticing and popular:
In Freud’s hydraulic model of the mind, these forbidden wishes and desires are psychic energies seeking an outlet. Since they cannot be expressed or acted upon directly—we cannot kill or have sex with our parents—they emerge in highly censored and distorted forms as images in dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms.
What could be more suited to daytime television, soap operas, and back-fence gossip? 

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Be that as it may, and however much Freudianism has permeated American culture, Crews argues that it might have set back serious psychiatry by almost a century.  As Menand notes:
Still, assuming that psychoanalysis was a dead end, did it set psychiatry back several generations? Crews has said so. “If much of the twentieth century has indeed belonged to Freud,” he told Todd Dufresne, in 1998, “then we lost about seventy years worth of potential gains in knowledge while befuddling ourselves with an essentially medieval conception of the ‘possessed’ mind.”
Whether a good or bad medical influence, the fact remains that Freud has been one of the most influential cultural figures of the last 100 years.  It is impossible to imagine life without him. His theoretical premises have become jokes, aphorism, ironic references; his lexicon has become our lexicon; and his outrageous, fantastic theories have been the heart and soul of our popular culture for a long, long time.

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