Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

"The theory of the drives is, so to speak, our mythology. The drives are mythic in essence, magnificent in their elusiveness. We canít ignore them for a moment in our work Ė yet, at the same time, we are never sure that we are actually seeing them clearly." - Freud

Harold Bloom has returned once more to one of his favourite themes; Freud as cultural mythologist:

"Increasingly we have come to see that Freud has more in common with the moral essayist Michel de Montaigne than he does with the scientist Charles Darwin. To be, as Freud was, the Montaigne of the 20th century, was to be equal to the other major writers of that era: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, just as Montaigne himself was the peer of Cervantes and of Shakespeare...Freud maps our minds by mapping his own, which was Montaigne's procedure. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who disliked both Freud and Shakespeare, sought to dismiss Freudian thought as "a powerful mythology," but that was accurate discernment, and not dismissal. Montaigne's art of telling the truth about the self is akin to Freud's artful mythology of the self, which he intended as truth. But is it? Yes and no, no and yes. Wittgenstein emphasized the "no" while nevertheless admiring Freud as a writer who had "something to say."

As a secular moralist, Freud rejected all transcendentalisms, but his worship of the reality principle might be interpreted as a rather skewed vestige of Platonism... Freud's triumph was that millions of people who never read him nevertheless internalized his categories, a phenomenon still prevalent among us. We unthinkingly think we are governed by the psychic agencies he invented: id, ego, superego, which necessarily are merely useful fictions, and not components of the self. Again, we tend to believe we possess libido, a particular energy that fuels sexual desire, but libido is another fiction or Freudian metaphor. My favorite speculation on Freud's influence is to wonder what would have happened had he decided we had "destrudo" as well as libido. He briefly entertained the idea of destrudo as fuel for the Death Drive, just as libido energized Eros, but then rejected the notion. Had he settled upon destrudo, would we not now go about, on our more self-destructive days, muttering that our destrudo was raging within us?"

For all of Freud's scientific pretensions, none of his work was conducted under conditions that could be called controlled. The notion that the observer is also a participant in an experiment is enough to invalidate it from the outset, particularly given that there is no guarantee that the psychoanalysts questioning isn't essentially of a self-fulfilling character. Popper famously condemned Freud for failing to conduct experiments that were repeatable or falsifiable, characterising both Marx and Freud as offering "reinforced dogmatisms" because all attempts at refutation are re-interpreted as offering another means of validation; faced with patients with a dream that seemed to refute his wish-fulfilment theory, Freud would retort that the dream fulfilled the patient's wish to refute the theory. The issue would always be side-stepped in that manner. As Popper put it:

"I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still "un-analyzed" and crying aloud for treatment...

There was no conceivable human behavior which could contradict them. This does not mean that Freud and Adler were not seeing certain things correctly; I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable. But it does mean that those "clinical observations" which analysts naÔvely believe confirm their theory cannot do this any more than the daily confirmations which astrologers find in their practice. And as for Freud's epic of the Ego, the Super-ego, and the Id, no substantially stronger claim to scientific status can be made for it than for Homer's collected stories from Olympus."

In scientific terms, much of Freud's work is either not testable or falsifiable or it has been falsified. Conversely, for all of Freud's uncertain dalliances with scientific objectivity (something questioned even its own time by figures like Robert Musil, although it has been notably upheld in recent times by Antonio Damasio), his work is riddled with allusions to literature and to pyschological approaches to literary criticism, as with his discussion of the uncanny. It seems to me that Bloom does offer a sensible means of rehabilitating Freud; we cannot place him in the company of figures like Pavlov or Piaget anymore but we can conceivably place him in the company of thinkers like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche (both of whom can after all be described as early exponents of a theory of the unconscious).

Bloom describes Freud as a cultural mythologist, and certainly internalised quest romance outlined in Freud's work corresponds closely to that in Romantic literature (the ideas of the death instinct or repression being far from alien to artists like Blake, Coleridge or Wagner) and provided a similar basis for much of modernism, from Lawrence to Mann, not to mention surrealism and the work of modern writers like JG Ballard. Concepts like the unconscious and repression were far from being invented in his work but it was there that they were most fully mythologised. The propositional nature of Freud's work will always mark him as something of an anomaly but in the same way that one does not have to accept the mythology behind Montaigne or Sir Thomas Browne to appreciate them, that should not stand in the way of appreciating Freud.

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posted by Richard 6:08 PM