Freud for Thought

Article excerpt

Trying to figure out Freud can drive you crazy. He's easily mocked and derided, widely admired and even revered. His defenders and detractors spar in ivy towers, courtrooms and hospitals. Nearly everyone argues from both truth and error, insight and obfuscation, dogmatism and tentativeness, hubris and humility, provoked by the patriarch of psychiatry himself.

How you think, feel and interpret Freud may determine how you free associate with objects and texts in a major exhibition about the Freudian zeitgeist which opens today at the Library of Congress. "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture" is likely to be as controversial as the man, but it ought to provoke illuminating debates about the extent and limits of psychological knowledge as we lurch toward the millennium. It requires an open mind, but not one so open that our brains fall out.

No matter how we would like it to be otherwise, the jigsaw puzzle of the mind has very few pieces scientists can fit together (though there are more connections today than when Freud was alive). That's why claims made on behalf of the Viennese doctor's research and writings find greater resonance in disciplines such as literature, philosophy and anthropology, even theology, than in medicine.

The greatest culprits in Freud's legacy are those who claimed too much on behalf of the clinician, who dared to raise the language of psychoanalysis to a science, setting in concrete some of his most speculative notions of the unconscious. (These were the same doctors who made it essential for a psychoanalyst to be a medical doctor, an idea Freud rejected.) At his best, Freud alerted us in modern terms to what the oracle at Delphi said was essential in life: Know thyself.

That concept has been interpreted in the extreme as ego-gratifying narcissism, but in the beginning it was a philosophical concept as much as it was a therapeutic approach, and Freud was always more concerned with soul-searching than itch-scratching. Since sex as a subject is more fun to talk about than other forms of human activity, Freudian ideas were easily reduced to superficial inquiries into the libido. Only later was this expanded to include his more fascinating thought into the human condition. What Freud wanted most was to enable troubled patients to liberate their unconscious to take responsibility for their own actions. …