Sigmund Freud Redux

By Pollak, Richard | The Nation, December 7, 1998 | Go to article overview

Sigmund Freud Redux

Pollak, Richard, The Nation


What did I think back in 1948 when Laurence Olivier bussed Gertrude full on the lips? I was dimly aware that a man named Freud had decreed that I wanted to kill my father and sleep with my mother, who was sitting next to me in the darkened theater as Hamlet unreeled before us. Did I secretly want to give the Olivier approach a try? Seems unlikely; I suspect I found the whole Sophoclean scenario a bit improbable, if not melodramatic. Besides, at 14 I was doubtless too excited by all The swordplay and attendant gore on the screen to think very hard about incest. Of course, I would soon learn in those heady days of psychoanalysis that such distractions only served to help suppress my unconscious wish.

I saw Olivier's kiss again recently on a spool of film clips titled "Oedipus Complex," part of "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," the Library of Congress exhibit now under way in Washington, DC, and due at the Jewish Museum in New York City in April. Olivier's eyes are angry, the kiss a sarcastic smack of death for this just-widowed mother who has so quickly bedded his murderous uncle. The Oedipal interpretation now seems altogether quaint, as does so much of this century's glib Freudian gloss. "I can remember, I can remember, I can remember," says Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), as door after door opens down a long corridor. This from another reel of film clips, under the rubric "Repression."

In 1995, a group of independent scholars who feared that the library would embrace such concepts in an uncritical homage to their originator asked in a petition that the exhibit "adequately reflect the full spectrum of informed opinion about the status of Freud's contribution to intellectual history." This modest request spooked much of the psychoanalytic establishment. Harold Blum, executive director of the Sigmund Freud Archives and a member of the exhibit's review panel, cried censorship and called the petition an "assault" on freedom of expression at all libraries and universities. From France came a counterpetition, signed by "180 personalities of the intellectual world," accusing the full-spectrum advocates of staging a violent anti-Freud witch hunt. The American psychoanalyst Sanford Gifford implied they might be allies of "right-wing religious fanatic[s]."

"And why do you think you are so upset?" Freud might have asked his angry acolytes. What the library did, partly for lack of funds, is postpone the exhibit, originally scheduled to open in 1996, and regroup. Now, in the introduction to a book of eighteen essays published in conjunction with the exhibit, its curator, Michael Roth, writes that neither the exhibit nor the book seeks to make a case for Freud's influence being positive or negative. This is true of the book, about which more below. The exhibit, however, is for the most part a predictable tribute to the man who, as Auden famously wrote, became less a person than "a whole climate of opinion."

Freud constantly drove himself toward the ideal of Leistung, the accomplishment of singular and diverse achievements. "I cannot face with comfort the idea of life without work," he wrote in 1910, when he was 53. He had one secret prayer: that he would not waste away but die in harness, as Macbeth urged. Drawn primarily from the library's vast store of Freudiana--some 50,000 items in the manuscript division alone--the exhibit amply documents this remarkable passion for work. The many manuscripts on display seem barely able to contain his gusher of thought--about everything from "Anna O." and the "Rat Man" to "Female Sexuality" and Civilization and Its Discontents. The handwritten lines slope gently upward hard upon one another, a minimal margin on the left, none on the right. One scholar estimates that Freud wrote some 20,000 letters, of which 14,000 survive An edited collection might fill more than seventy volumes, three times the size of Strachey's Standard Edition of the complete psychological works. …

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