Photo Credit: By C�sar Blanco from Mexico (Sigmund Freud Uploaded by Viejo sabio) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
August 2, 2014
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Many of us struggle for personal identity in a capitalistic culture that pushes immediate gratification for every need. Why postpone anything when you can get it now? Yet while quick fixes are often fundamentally dissatisfying, we hurry toward the next hit without a thought about what it may mean to stay with the frustration.
It turns out that a deeper understanding of Sigmund Freud sheds some light on why dissatisfaction and malaise can dominate our lives. One of the smartest writers today on psychological issues is Adam Phillips, a Brit, a big thinker, and an author of a number of provocative and thoughtful books: On Tickling, Kissing and Being Bored, andMissing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life among them.
Phillips has written a new biography about the young Freud, with a novel take as to why psychoanalysis was headed to the dustbin of history, but is worth saving. He argues that essentially psychoanalysis is a powerful process that can liberate patients from the compulsive need for gratification and the enormous pressures of material advertising messages — and help us hang more in the ambiguity of life, where there is potentially more wisdom and satisfaction.
One of Phillips' points is that failure to understand and grapple with the unconscious is missing in our psychological growth. The avoidance or contempt of the unconscious has also led to the demise of psychoanalysis. Phillps explains that the rejection of Freud and psychoanalysis has:
Everything to do with statistics, consumer satisfaction, the belief in science and neuroscience in particular. These are all old-style materialist causal accounts of who people really are as though, if one day, somebody can actually explain how a brain works, we'll know everything. But knowing how a brain works is not going to help somebody, e.g. whose child has just died. ...
There's no way psychoanalysis is going to work in a culture that's committed to religion, science and consumer confidence because it doesn't meet any of those criteria. That's the great thing about it. It's intrinsically counter-cultural. It actually is against the grain of all the things we're being sold… so that actually, I think, it was inevitable that psychoanalysis died a death.
Of course, giving Freud another deeper look is an uphill battle in American culture. Many, particularly second-wave feminists, found Freud's theories to be sexist and have dismissed the good doctor as hopelessly out of touch, and in some cases destructive when it comes to sex roles and sexuality. And critics have salient points to make about Freud and women. Freud was, among many things, a product of his time. Many younger people haven't spent much time thinking about Freud at all. As a result, psychoanalysis has mostly stayed on the edges of psychological thinking, and as a therapy mode is mostly reserved for the wealthy or the intrigued, though many psychotherapists practice with Freud in mind, or not too far away.
Phillips argues for a very different interpretation of Freud's sense of sexuality than the conventional wisdom. In a podcast interview
with Steve Paulson (which I urge you to listen to, because listening to Adam Phillips articulate these points is quite a pleasure), Phillps explains:
I think the point is that Freud redescribed sex to include many more things than it previously included. ... We are bodily creatures who begin our lives by falling in love with a beautiful body, which is our mother's ... so that we're naturally, in that sense, hedonistic. We survive through our pleasurable experience of other bodies. I don't think Freud puts sex exactly in the center of the picture. He puts the erotic, and that means an erotic apprehension of reality. What he means by that is, what makes staying alive alluring? The erotic is different because I think it's not a basic physical function to do with reproduction. It's much more about a way of seeing the world, and seeing the world in terms of what gives pleasure and what gives fear and suffering? And when Freud's talking about the unconscious, he's very often talking, I think, about what passes between people without them realizing.