ANY LIST of great ideas of the 20th century, or indeed any century, is bound to be individual. The idea of powered flight permitting the exploration and closing of the globe, the ideas of quantum physics, the theory of the electron within matter (permitting solid state electronics, including, among numerous other things, e- mail and the Internet), the idea of rocket propulsion, which has permitted the exploration of outer space - all these may be cited as important, even central, ideas of the 20th century.
But the idea of psychoanalysis occupies a special place in the history of ideas of the 20th century because it does not belong to specialists. The vocabulary of psychoanalysis has become our working vocabulary of emotional life. Terms such as "ego", "ambivalent", "unconscious", "neurotic", "resistance" and "repression" are words we routinely use to describe emotions and motivations.
Psychoanalysis is the emotional language of the 20th century. It is the language of the novel and, implicitly or explicitly, the emotional language of film - whether in fun, as with Woody Allen, as serious analysis, as in Robert Redford's film of a family tragedy, Ordinary People, or as a mixture of both, as in the forthcoming psychoanalytic gangster parody, Analyse This, with Billy Crystal's psychiatrist tracing the troubles of Robert De Niro's gangster through the ins and outs of each man's relationship with his father.
Psychoanalysis permits each of us to become the poet of our own experience. By means of the psychoanalytic dialogue, we can discover our feelings and the often complex and confusing mental states that we all experience at times, and express them for ourselves. Psychoanalysis has helped millions of people to love and to work. But it is not in the spirit of psychoanalysis to be self-congratulatory.
Psychoanalysis offers a humane alternative treatment to the too often desperate medical attempts to treat human mental pain by surgical, physical and chemical intervention. But psychoanalysis is not a panacea, a miracle cure, as in the fantasised magic bullets of modern psychopharmacology. Psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on exploring tension, ambiguity, ambivalence, conflict and contradiction, cannot offer itself as any other than tentative and limited. As Freud put it, psychoanalysis can only offer the possibility of transforming neurotic misery into common unhappiness.
The idea of psychoanalysis is that the human inner world can be understood. In its prolonged listening sessions, extending over the same amount of time that it takes to learn a new language, psychoanalysis, through Freud's great discovery of the "analytic hour", offers an entry point into exploring and making sense of the inner world of human experience. Seen in this way psychoanalysis becomes, and in fact is, an extension of Western science into an area that was previously reserved for the artist.
Freud, who trained in one of the elite laboratories of Europe, above all wanted to understand. What was the meaning of dreams, of strange, compulsive bedtime rituals, of paralysis of the limbs of the body with no organic …