As some may [or may not] know, Philip Rieff died recently, just after publishing his massive tome, Sacred Order/Social Order, Volume I: My Life Among the Deathworks, in which he wrote one of my favorite recent lines: "True barbarism has never existed before. We are witnesses to the first true barbarians." My Life Among the Deathworks is a cranky, pessimistic work that aims to show that modernity is "morally ruinous, death-affirming rather than life-affirming, and represent[s] an unprecedented attempt to create a culture completely devoid of any concept of the sacred." I kind of agree with him.
As is well known, Rieff made his early scholarly reputation on Freud, and since I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Lear [a scholar of classical antiquity, a trained psychoanalyst, a member of the Univ. of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, and very devoted to the important relevance of Freud to the development of the individual, past and present] via Nancy Partner, Rieff's recent obituaries got me thinking, again, about this debate we're always having over Freud's relevance. In a piece that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran last November on Rieff's forthcoming three-volume "epic" scholarly work, the death of Freud was assumed as obvious and not arguable. In that article, it was stated that, "today Freud — and, for that matter, the entire mode of grand social theorizing in the key of Marx, Weber, and Freud — has fallen from favor. In fact, there is no longer much of a niche for large-scale theory in sociology. The field is almost purely devoted to narrower, more technical questions about, say, the effects of welfare reform in Cincinnati, or how social networks operate within a particular software firm." This is a pretty bald overstatement [in fact, my own recent readings in social and political theory demonstrate that these thinkers have not at all lost their relevance], but . . . there you have it. Plus, I am sure everyone who reads this blog is already familiar with Lee Patterson's article in Speculum, "Chaucer's Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies" (76.3, 2001), where Patterson argued that, essentially, in contemporary thought, Freud's "explanatory" model of human psychology is pretty much no longer considered accurate, and furthermore, even if it were accurate, it would be ahistorical to apply it to medieval persons [literary or otherwise], and furthermore furthermore, if you want to psychoanalyze, say, characters in medieval fiction, you can do so with recourse to other medieval texts, like theological ones, that are more pertinent to "the times." And I'm sure we're all familiar with the work of Frederick Crews, who has written,
I pause to wonder at the curious eagerness of some people to glorify Freud as the discoverer of vague general truths about human deviousness. It is hard to dispute any of these statements about "humans," but it is also hard to see why they couldn't be credited as easily to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Nietzsche--if not indeed to Jesus or Saint Paul--as to Freud. Was it really Freud who first disclosed such commonplaces? Or, rather, has the vast cultural sway of Freud's system caused us to lose focus on his more specific, highly idiosyncratic, assertions, to presume that a number of them must have been scientifically corroborated by now, and to transform him retrospectively into the very personification of "human" complexity and depth?
These comments were partly in reponse to a very public debate that Crews has had for a while now with Jonathan Lear, and if interested, some might want to read Lear's essay in New Republic, "A Counterblast in the War on Freud: The Shrink Is In," which I link here, and in which Lear writes, in defense of Freud,
In the development of the human self-image from Sophocles to Freud, there has been a shift in the locus of hidden meaning from a divine to the all-too-human realm. At first, it might look as though the recognition of a dark strain running through the human soul might threaten the viability of democratic culture. Certainly, the twentieth-century critiques of Enlightenment optimism, with the corresponding emphasis on human irrationality, also question or even pour scorn on the democratic ideal. It is in this context that Freud comes across as a much more ambiguous figure than he is normally taken to be. In one way, he is the advocate of the unconscious; in another, he is himself filled with Enlightenment optimism that the problems posed by the unconscious can be solved; in yet another, he is wary of the dark side of the human soul and pessimistic about doing much to alleviate psychological pain. He is Tiresias and Oedipus and Sophocles rolled into one.
. . . . Critics of psychoanalysis complain that it is a luxury of the few. But, from the current perspective, no thinker has made creativity and imagination more democratically available than Freud. This is one of the truly important consequences of locating the unconscious inside the psyche. Creativity is no longer the exclusive preserve of the divinely inspired, or the few great poets. From a psychoanalytic point of view, everyone is poetic; everyone dreams in metaphor and generates symbolic meaning in the process of living. Even in their prose, people have unwittingly been speaking poetry all along.
Well, how should we, in medieval studies, tackle this Freud-problem? Personally, I find much in the work of Nancy Partner, and in her favorite philosophers/theorists [George Devereaux, Jonathan Lear, Marshall Edelson, and of course, Freud], to offer much in the way of contesting the ideas that a) Freud is no longer relevant [and perhaps even, harmful], and b) psychoanalytic theory is somehow "ahistorical" when applied to medieval studies. I know that there are some who read this blog who will say this whole argument is "moot," but frankly, it never is. The idea of the usefulness of the psychoanalytic model [mainly developed by Freud] to understanding human nature [both in literary texts, which are the stuff of the human unconscious anyway, and in reality] will always have to be defended, again and again. As Partner writes in her essay "The Hidden Self: Psychoanalysis and the Textual Unconscious" (in Writing Medieval History, ed. Nancy Partner; London, 2005; pp. 42-64),
. . . there lingers a common and unexamined assumption that "having" a self, or evincing the existence of the mental and emotional organization specified as selfhood, the self we feel as our own identity, necessarily involves adopting one assertive style of individuality, even the set of values and goals we associate with the individualism which grounds western liberal modernity. [p. 44]
But, as Partner also argues, we need to acknowledge
medieval men and women as [being] essentially like ourselves, of the same species at the same moment of development in evolutionary time, personalities formed at a deep level through the same developmental processes, as minds with the same emotional/rational structure confronting the world, however distractingly different their language, ideals, and fervent beliefs. [p. 45]
The discipline of psychoanalysis, with its coherent structure of explanatory concepts, is our intellectual instrument for recognizing the human psyche over historical time and across cultures. . . . Analytic theory offers historians the interpretive techniques and vocabulary for moving from manifest to latent levels of meaning without demanding implicit acceptance of an ideology or divinity. [pp. 46, 47]
Nancy Partner also recently drew my attention to the recent book by David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England (Palgrave, 2005), which she believes is the best book ever written on medieval English identity. In that book, Shaw defines the self as a "highly localized site of awareness," and further, because in the pre-Cartesian Middle Ages people believed, following Bonaventure, that the soul "has an inclination toward the body," therefore, "we must pay attention to the body's language to fully understand the medieval self" (p. 12). Even more important, in my mind, is this passage from Shaw's book:
History's weight on us is constant and immense, and it is composed mainly of language and custom. We do not originate these, but we enter into them as into a house, well furnished both with goods and routines. . . . It should be stressed, however, that the self is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought or action. The particular way a self or groups of selves do so is the actual subject of history. [p. 13]
This accords well with the Freud-inflected thought of Lear who, in Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990), writes that,
. . . . as Freud comes to appreciate that the individual is a psychological achievement, he becomes increasingly interested in the conditions under which this achievement occurs. The individual, he realizes, cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. And the individual is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. . . . Unless we see love [as Freud defined it, the libido or "life force] not merely as located in the human being but as permeating the world in which he lives, we cannot understand the psychic structure which constitutes the individual. [pp. 156-57]
And I would further argue that all of this Freud/Partner/Shaw/Lear discourse also accords well with recent discoveries in cognitive science, which may be another route by which Freud is [heroically?] recuperated? In their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us that "the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment," thought itself is "mostly unconscious," and because the mind "is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in," therefore, "much of a person's conceptual system is either universal or widepsread across languages and cultures" [which is not to say historical contingency or conceptual relativity do not exist, because they do, but still . . . .]" (pp. 4, 3, 6). It strikes me that cognitive science thereby also aids us in thinking, anew, about "humansim."
Well, this post has gone on a bit, hasn't it? But I think the subject is timely and also apropos to much of the scholarship of Prof. Cohen and some of the readers of his blog. It also pertains to an article I am currently laboring over, which I will share in Part II of this post: "Yes, Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid-Style Racists, But Did They Have Feelings?"