By William Deresiewicz
I love how people like to say that Freud is dead. You know—his theories were groundless, his methods useless, the man himself an all-around creep. Penis envy, oral fixation, the Oedipus complex: one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry that people ever believed such stuff. Thank God we’ve left it all behind for the good, solid ground of contemporary psychology: evolutionary psychology in the realm of theory, psychopharmacology in the realm of practice. The whole thing now is utterly passé, as obsolete as leeches and humours.
Well, not so fast. Freud may be gone, but he’s gone the way the meal you ate last night is gone. He’s in our bloodstream. He’s in our cells. We have ingested him so thoroughly that who we are, to a great extent, simply is him. The three most important elements of the way we think about the mind, I would venture to say, are the notions that our motives are largely unconscious, that they are largely sexual, and that the crucial stage of psychological development is early childhood. All those come to us from Freud.
There’s more. Our everyday psychological vocabulary is still heavily Freudian. “She’s really repressed,” we say. “You’re in denial about that.” “He’s a narcissist.” “You’re totally projecting that.” “His mother was a castrating bitch.” We still recognize the significance of Freudian slips. We still believe that dreams reflect unconscious thoughts. We still reject the possibility of objectivity, remain convinced that our “rational” judgments are shaped, whether we know it or not, by personal motives.
If Freud is so alive within our culture, why do we tell ourselves otherwise? Scientism has a lot to do with it, no doubt, the assumption that science is the only valid form of knowledge—though whether the wild guesses of evolutionary psychology are really more valuable than Freud’s intuitions, or the blind empiricism of psychopharmacology really more useful than talk therapy (the one distorted by presentism, the other by the profit motive) is open to question. But mainly, I believe, he’s just too hard for us to look in the face. Freud’s vision of human existence is ineradicably tragic. Maturity is loss; civilization is divided against itself; “ordinary unhappiness” is the best we can hope for. Americans believe, all evidence to the contrary, that the problems of life have solutions. Freud is dead? Dream on.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.