Guest Columns

Guilt / Identity / Freud


Mark Edmundson

     More to understand and less to judge—we could use a little more      understanding, a little less judgment.

Sigmund Freud is dead. He passed out of this world in 1939 leaving what W.H. Auden in his great elegy called “shades that still waited to enter the bright circle of his recognition.” There was surely more to say about dream interpretation, the topography of the psyche, the differ-ences between the sexes and about our frustrations in culture. “But his wish was denied him,” Auden said, “he closed his eyes / Upon that last picture common to us all / Of problems like relatives standing / Puzzled and jealous about our dying.”

There was much left to do when Freud died on September 23, 1939 but much had been achieved as well. Freud offered the world a new way to understand human experience overall, and, implicitly, a way to make one’s life, if not a fountain of ongoing bliss, at least a little, and maybe more than a little better than it was. Freud derived his ideas from many sources: he was a committed reader, master of at least four languages besides German, and a superb observer of human beings both in therapy and in the world at large. His work was not systematic: he was constant-ly adding to his theories and revising prior findings. He never wrote a summa, never tried to encompass the entire enterprise—his Introductory Lectures are too elementary to qualify. And after their publication, Freud went much further in his thinking. Yet Freud’s thought was, throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century, vastly influential. By the time he died, Freud was becoming what Auden presciently called him, “a whole climate of opinion, under whom we conduct our different lives.”.

Nothing could be less true in the present. Freud has been discred-ited on almost every level. He said all through his professional life that he was a scientist and that much of his work could claim empirical backing. He was confident that those ideas that seemed most speculative—like the Oedipal Complex—would in time be scientifically confirmed. Essay after essay, book after book, have come forward to show that Freud is nowhere close to being a scientist: his work can’t be supported by empirical data; his findings, such as they are, can’t be reproduced and repeated under laboratory conditions.

Doubts have risen about Freudian therapy, too. Auden praised Freud for acquainting us with the profundity of our dreams and with the “delectable creatures” within, who “look up and beg / Us dumbly to ask them to follow.” However delectable our dreams may be, acquaintance with them cannot, many if not most therapists now believe, help us make our way toward enhanced sanity. The general consensus too is that clas-sical psychoanalysis, in which the patient comes five times a week, lies on the couch, with an unseen analyst listening and occasionally (very occasionally) offering interjections, is outmoded. Supportive counseling is preferable, often in tandem with serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Insurance companies now generally refuse to pay for hard-core, classical analysis: it doesn’t work well enough, and takes too much time.

Foucault once remarked that he quoted Marx all the time with-out saying as much. Educated people now quote Freud in a similar way. Sometimes they do it without knowing as much. They assume the exis-tence of Freudian slips; they talk about “repression”; they use the word “super-ego.” But Freud’s darker and more complex insights and hypotheses have been largely banished. Few are the writers willing to quote Freud directly now, no matter how much they may actually have learned from him. A line or two from Freud can help discredit almost any argument.

As scientist, as therapist, and as cultural authority, Freud has come under almost total eclipse. Why has this occurred?

I think that it has less to do with flaws in Freud’s thinking, though there are plenty of those, than it does with politics, cultural politics in particular. Freud has been cast as a radical enemy of the women’s move-ment, and also, albeit less intensely, as a foe of gay liberation. Political movements need villains, even the worthiest political movements. And Freud has proved a significant and effective emblem for the forces that now impede humane progress. But this branding of Freud has come at a high price. Hegel said, in effect, that authentic tragedy arises when two rights make a wrong. It is possible that the contention between what is best in Freud and what is most admirable in the women’s movement and other movements for human liberation have collided with each other to create something not unlike a cultural tragedy.

Overall Freud gets a bad rap when people reflect on his attitudes to women. Did Freud misunderstand female sexuality? Maybe he did. But at least he understood what many of his contemporaries did not, which is that female sexuality exists. Women have drives; women have desires. The cultural suppression of women’s erotic lives was at the core of considerable sorrow. Many of the women Freud treated were ill because they had been compelled to deny their wants. Freud understood that better than almost any of his contemporaries. And as a therapist and theorist, he may have done more to free women (and men) from sexual oppression than any other single individual. Freud understood that sexual desire and the quest for a satisfying erotic life are at the core of everyone’s being, male and female. He made that understanding public, sometimes at the cost of sharp criticism, and it’s helped to make many, many people happier than they would otherwise have been. Freud was willing to tell the world what all the world didn’t at the time want to hear, that women had orgasms and could enjoy sex. Clitoral orgasms, vaginal orgasms: the distinctions that Freud drew between them may not have been accurate. But Freud championed female sexuality and at the time, at least, that meant he championed women.

Most members of Freud’s inner circle were men, but there were women too. One of them, Marie Bonaparte, was probably his closest friend during the latter phase of his life: he was fond of her personally and he respected her mind and her work. (He also collaborated with her in translating a book she had written about her chow Topsy—both Bonaparte and Freud loved dogs.) Bonaparte helped Freud get out of Vienna after the Nazis annexed Austria: without her intervention, he might well have died a horrible death in a concentration camp—as four of his sisters did. When it was time to choose someone to replace him and to continue the work of psychoanalysis, Freud selected not one of his male disciples and not one of his sons (he did not think them terribly creative), but a woman, his daughter, Anna.

Freud’s view of women was in many ways constructive. But not entirely so. If there is one idea of his that it would have been good for him—for his legacy (and for all of us)—to retract, it must surely be the idea of penis envy. Little girls see a boy’s penis and they want one themselves. They are jealous, full of envy. They feel that they have been castrated: their self-confidence and dignity are undermined and they never truly recover. Freud believed this and he believed it strongly. The doctrine of penis envy is still with him, potently articulated in the manuscript he left unfinished when he died, An Outline of Psychoanalysis. Even at the end of his life, Freud was still saying that a woman is, in effect, a failed man.

On the subject of homosexuality, Freud changed. Early on, he saw ho-mosexuality as a pathology. Homosexuals were people who had failed to negotiate the Oedipal Complex. But his view shifted and later in his career he came to believe that the greatest problem for homosexuals was not painful psychological limitations, but society’s inability to tolerate them humanely. In a letter to the mother of a young gay man who hoped that Freud might cure her son, Freud wrote that, “Homosexuality is surely no advantage but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function.” It is hard for us now to imagine how unusual this sen-timent was in 1934. Here Freud was, as he was many times, well ahead of his time and entirely for the good. But on the subject of penis envy, he did not budge.

Freud might have mitigated his view by attaching it to the his-torical and cultural conditions of the time. He could have said that what women desired when they longed for the phallus was male cultural and economic power. No chance. As long as there had been women and men, there had been envy for the penis. No cultural change could transform this condition. Therapy might allow a woman to deal better with its effects, but that was all and it was not very much.

For someone as intellectual as he was, Freud had shrewd gut instincts about people. One is surprised that he did not gravitate to another possible truth: that neither gender envies the other all that much. We all seem to possess a slightly irrational pride in our sex: men delight in being men, women in being women. We humans seem to possess a somewhat baseline pride in simply being who and what we are. But Freud thought that women wanted to have what men had. He suggested that a woman is by her nature an inadequate being. She longs for the penis; she is envious; she is generally (but not always) non-intellectual; she never develops the same attraction to ideals that men do: the list goes on.

A strong political movement requires potent simplifications. It thrives on identifying villains and exalting heroes. To the women’s movement, Freud was a villain. There was no time to arrive at a dialecti-cal sense of Freud: such activity, satisfying as it might be intellectually, does not feed the passions necessary to bring about major social change. In this case the change was salutary. The expansion of human possibility that came with feminism remains a marvel and a cause for celebration. So what if Freud got left behind? (And surely the women’s movement is not all that contributed to Freud’s eclipse.) Still, I believe that here two rights collided to create more than one wrong. Freud got suppressed—that’s one wrong. And though the women’s movement richly continues, progressive politics overall now proceeds without much psychological sophistication: and that’s another wrong. The astute Juliet Mitchell tried to fuse Freudian thinking and feminism in an engaging book called Psychoanalysis and Feminism, and there are still feminists and still progressives who are interested in the dynamics of the psyche as conceived by Freud, but they are a minority. The dominant idiom in American culture now is political: every other way of talking and thinking is subsidiary. Political concepts have their value, but a number of them badly need to be refined and complicated by a psychological perspective. In the present, two issues are particularly salient: the concept of Identity and the concept of Guilt.

Start with Guilt. It’s perhaps the most readily considered of the two. I do not think I will surprise much of anyone by saying that in Amer-ica now we are celebrating a saturnalia of guilt. This is especially true among progressive and liberals. There is massive guilt for the treatment of African Americans; massive guilt for the treatment of refugees; guilt for the wrongs of recent foreign policy; guilt for the treatment of women, gays and the disabled. All of this guilt is oriented to the present and to issues that we might address now.

But there is a great deal of past-oriented guilt as well. There is guilt about imperialism, guilt about slavery, guilt about the expropriation of the workers by the owners (though not as much of this as one might imagine). There is guilt about what is called “cultural appropriation,” which generally means the use of a cultural tradition other than one’s own for the purpose of self-gratification or money-making. No doubt there is guilt about being insufficiently guilty.Guilt is an inevitable dimension of life in civilization—there are standards for behavior in the social world: we internalize them, and when we traduce those standards we ache internally. That, I think, is a compressed version of the standard sense of what guilt is. It’s alright as a start. But left there it is radically inadequate. For Freud—the Freud we threw out for purposes that I continue to believe are noble—had a more complex and potentially illuminating sense of guilt than we possessed before he arrived and than we possess in the present.

Freud’s interest in the dynamics of guilt and self-punishment became more and more pronounced as his career unfolded. In a 1914 paper on the dynamics of erotic love called “On Narcissism,” Freud went so far as to posit the existence of an independent agency in the psyche that con-cerned itself with the judgment and often the punishing of the individual. This agency he called the super-ego—or, in German, the Über Ich, and in plain English, the Over-I. The super-ego became a theoretical fixation for Freud over the last twenty-five years of his life: his reflections on it are complex, illuminating, often brilliant and at the end rather unresolved.

Some central perceptions stand out, though. Freud’s Over-I mimics rationality, but it is not reliably rational. It often accuses and frequently punishes the individual for doing deeds that his conscious mind, the ego. fully endorses. An instance: one perceives an opportunity for pleasure, a sexual liaison let’s say. Ego-morality approves. For the ego (or, this particular ego) has no particular strictures against, let us say, gay sex, or extramarital sex. The green light flashes and the individual proceeds to seek and find his pleasure, or hers. All goes well: satisfaction on both sides, no recriminations, no great pressure for deeper connection, or even for future contact. The ego feels good entering into the connection and even leaving it. But the super-ego parts company. The morning after, the subject in question is awash with guilt, sorrow and remorse for doing something that he felt, and in a certain way continues to feel, is entirely permissible. This is an instance of ambivalence, loving and hating the same object or act at the same time. Freud is a master theorist of ambivalence and he insists on its presence throughout human experience. It’s an aspect of his teaching that has critical illuminating power; it has by and large passed out of cultural circulation–and that is not for the good.

Suffice it to say now that the super-ego, assuming for a moment that it exists, complicates our sense of human morality and our sense of the self. The super-ego represents an intense and perhaps intractable problem for every individual. As Freud describes it, the super-ego is largely uncon-scious, so it’s very difficult, though not impossible, to enter into a dialogue with it and begin to cultivate it. That is, to bring its strictures more closely into line with the more reasonable ethics of the ego. And the super-ego has a tendency to extreme anger, even rage. Though it may speak in a reasonable voice, it has a tendency to rave reasonably, to borrow a phrase from Kant. The super-ego will torment the self for infractions that are all too minor. And when the super-ego perceives some major lapse, it may go into paroxysms—at least in certain individuals of what we might call a scrupulous nature. The result is anxiety, depression, paranoia of a mild and sometimes a not so mild sort. The super-ego can come to consume an individual almost entirely. Or so Freud tells us.

Our moral faculty can go nearly mad. This is a simple and I believe inarguable fact, but it is a fact that since the eclipse of Freud we have been inclined to forget. Freud tells us again and again that guilt is often irrational. We need to know that. We need to remember that when we are tearing ourselves up about political crimes of ours in the past and the present. I do not mean to say that our culture and ourselves are demon-strably without crimes to our account; only to say that we must carefully calibrate the extent of those crimes and deal with them as reasonably as possible. Freud said he wanted to make the unconscious conscious: where id was, he famously said, there ego shall be. He might have added that we hope that irrational and unexamined guilt can be replaced by reasonable and circumspect reflection on what justice is and how to achieve it. Where super-ego was, there ego shall be.

There’s a plausible extension of Freud’s ideas about guilt and the super-ego, and its contents are anything but comforting in our current context. There are many remedies for an inflamed super-ego. Some are laudable: introspection, conversation with a wise friend or two on the painful subject, maybe even therapy. But there are some more conve-nient—and more destructive–options. The chief of them is to turn the rage of the super-ego outward. That means directing the criticism that the Over-I has stored for you toward others. People feel clean, unified, sure of themselves when they are scolding others—and often when they are scolding others for offenses they themselves feel guilty for. “They all want to be judges,” says Nietzsche about the denizens of resentment. They all want to be judges, so as to turn the judging faculty away from themselves and to gain some temporary relief. The problem, I would speculate, is that sending irrational criticism out in every direction may strengthen a potent super-ego and in time make it even more punitive in its approach to the individual ego.

In the post-psychoanalytical world, our instruments of analysis have been reduced. We need to know what Freud did: that guilt is a complex matter, and that it needs serious analysis before it becomes a determining element in personal or political life. I’m not casting a vote here for or against reparations for African Americans, or for Native Americans; nor for redress of American imperialism. One merely suggests that matters that involve guilt are complex and require analysis: where guilt was, I want to suggest, there careful thought and judgment should be. Freud can help make that happen.

Then there is the issue of Identity. It seems that everyone now, or at least everyone under a certain age, has an identity obsession. All want to find out who they are. Am I gay or straight or bi- or born for celibacy? Am I African-American or black or mixed race? Am I Green, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or (a new and not entirely savory designation) an Identitarian? Who the heck am I, anyhow? There seems a desire abroad in the world now to consolidate one’s sense of self. One says, Speaking as white male, I … One says, speaking as a Chicana female living with a disability, I … One says: Speaking as a senior citizen who has for too long enjoyed the benefits of white privilege, I …

The hunger to consolidate one’s sense of self is a hunger that Freud would both understand and question. The very word Identity indicates a problem, suggesting as it does a coherence and stability of self. Identity connotes unity, consistency, a fullness and presence of being that can abide through time. Freudian thinking finds the concept of unity within the self both untenable and potentially destructive.

To Freud, we are not, and can never be one: we are three per-sons—three at the very least. To Freud, character is conflict among the three agencies of the self– and the conflict is ongoing. Freud describes human beings as composed of three agencies: super ego, ego and id. To put it crudely, the ego desires stability, the id makes the claims of appetite and the super-ego, as we have seen, judges all, including judging the often rather sane judge that is the ego. So to Freud we are inhabited by three different beings, each of which has a different relation to consciousness. Freud wants to tell us that super-ego and id are largely unconscious, but by the middle of his career he is also talking about the unconscious dimension of the ego. The three agencies contend with each other, and often do so beyond the realm of our awareness. Add to this inner strife the turbulence that tends to arise when horrible memories—traumatic memories—suddenly emerge and disrupt what equanimity we might have.

We are not stable. We are not still. We are churning, fluctuating creatures. Can we actually know ourselves? Yes, we can, though often in fits and starts. Intelligence matters, as does experience and learning. But the idea that through insight or through the practice of psychotherapy or Buddhist meditation or the application of significant doses of opiates we can ever still the inner self—that notion is to Freud absurd.

The notion of identity, now so popular among those who quest for it by brooding on gender and race and sexuality, implies the possibility of resolving the self in some binding way. If Freud is right and the psyche is always churning, then it is impossible ever to fix it in such a way that one can claim an identity. We are simply too changeable for that: the civil war within the psyche goes on and on.

But what is the harm of claiming identity? From Freud’s point of view, a claim to identity is a form of hubris. It suggests a form of self-resolution that humans cannot achieve. A person who believes that he’s achieved identity is likely to be overbearingly confident. He knows who he is. She’s got herself all figured out. And from such feelings of coherence and correctness are likely to come assertions, exclamations, dictates. It is not surprising that the advocates of identity are among the most aggressively confident dispensers of their views. And why not? How could they be wrong? They know precisely who and what they are. And knowing that, they must know more besides. They are awake. Others live in a dream, waiting to be rescued by loudly administered doses of the real.

Freud does not care for our hubris: to him the human self is an enigma. We cannot solve it, but we can move toward better comprehension. What we do not know about our conflicted, unconscious selves ought to make us both curious and humble. It’s not that we should deny our every perception; but we should surely doubt our assertions, especially as they tend to the dogmatically universal. Freud may be the best antidote we have to the current forms of political hubris.

Freud’s possibilities do not begin and end with the questions of Guilt and Identity. Freud can also help us think about our relations to authority, what happens when we fall in love, the meanings of our dreams, the value of our religions, the motives for violence, the best ways to teach and learn, the origins of anxiety and depression and what might be done about it: he can do this and much more. Freud is a superior taking off point. He’s not the source of ultimate answers. But I have found few problems arise in my life, both of a personal and a general nature, that can’t at least be framed and illuminated by Freud’s thinking.

As Auden put it: “one rational voice is dumb.” Auden surely imagined that others would come along to amplify, debate and develop that voice. To be sure, Freud’s cultural death is a tragedy in Hegel’s sense. He died in part so that the necessary and fructifying doctrine of equal rights for women might live. There were other reasons too, of course. Of course we doubt the efficacy of Freudian therapy, and probably deny Freud’s status as a scientist. But I would speculate that Freud died culturally in major part because he collided with an admirable movement. Freud died-and all the progressive movements that have also turned away from Freud are, though not moribund, seriously impaired by their lack of sophistication and subtlety. That’s a tragedy worth mourning—and maybe doing something about. Listen to Auden when he describes Freud’s funeral:

One rational voice is dumb: over a grave
          The household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved.
                    Sad is Eros, builder of cities,                    
                    And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

Auden believed that though Freud the man might have perished in Maresfield Gardens, London, in November of 1939, Freud’s genius would continue to live. There’s still a chance for that to happen. Though the possibility diminishes with every passing year.