Freud the Modernist

Psychoanalysis and Modernism

In what sense was Freud a modernist?

First, psychoanalysis takes up cultural works from diverse traditions and turns them into ciphers of personal destiny. Freud’s theoretical writings and therapeutic sessions are filled with fairy talcs, the humanist canon from Oedipus Rex to Faust, modern dramas and realist novels, popular fiction and humor. Whatever social origins or purposes animated the works themselves, they became an immense vocabulary and flexible grammar for elaborating the self, its benchmarks of identity, its desires, its aspirations. The modernist interprets freely. Stories and symbols become meaningful if they can illuminate—or are illuminated by—the individual’s ongoing, continually revised life story. One’s personal life history grounds cultural receptivity and learning; traditions loop through individual contingencies.

Second, Freud’s thought, like thai of Nietzsche, Bergson, and Heidegger, stylizes the large-scale, invisible forces at work within society and the uncertain, largely unpredictable trends of historical change, distilling them down to a drama of forces and trends within individual experience. The unsettling recognition that no overarching principle determined the actual patterns of historical change distinguished these modernists’ response to modernity from that of their immediate predecessors. Ihey embraced nothing like Hegel’s Absolute Spirit or Marx’s History. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, various modernist thinkers lost faith in the notion that modern ethical, political, and aesthetic ideals were destined to fuse with scientific, technological, and economic advances and lift humanity into a new life. Perhaps only European Marxists originally inspired by Lenin and the Russian Revolution amid American pragmatists bewitched by national prosperity and expansion kept the faith. As Carl F. Schorske first showed, Freud’s personal crises of profession, nationality, and class stamped his thought with the habit of recoding political conflict as intrapsychic conflict.1 The conflicts that had become unrnasterable on the political stage of troubled Austrian liberalism were remounted on the psychic stage. Freud’s thought stylizes in the sense that it scans the conflicts within society and transposes them to family life, whose conflicts are in turn transposed from the politics of the family to the individual’s intrapsychic representations of the family. 

Third, Freud’s most concrete invention, psychoanalytic therapy itself, is corollary to significant strands of modernist art and literature. Like other modernists, Freud responded to the double imperative of newness and mastery, that is, expressive newness and expressive mastery. The drive to make it new certainly derived much of its force from two of art’s sometimes antagonistic, sometimes complementary counterparts: fashion and technology. But the imperative of newness ultimately demanded that artworks measure up as a response to the unprecedentedness of modern life itself, its continual transformations and dislocations. A century after The Interpretation of Dreams and Freud’s first case studies, we easily forget how unprecedented psychoanalytic therapy was. Freud invented an utterly new form of expression: an autobiographical project carried out in an asymmetrical dialogue via an amalgam of free association, dream, and transference continually reworked by constructions, rememberings, and interpretations. A dialectic of fragment and totality, Freudian psychoanalysis promised its initiates a new mode of mastery at the level of individual self-narration.

All three features of Freud’s modernism —the interpretive transformation of cultural traditions into ciphers of personal destiny, the intellectual transformation of social crisis into individual drama, and the therapeutic transformation of the self through expressive experiment and mastery—place an ultimate value on the individual, even on individualism. At the same time, they seem to erode the moral and ethical claims that tradition, religion, and community make on the individual. Modernity’s morality problem —arc there any legitimate, unarbitrary moral values and ethical ideals?—is a question on which Freud, like other modernists, vacillates.

Modernity is variously credited with and blamed for inventing the individual: the rights-bearing individual with the freedom to pursue a chosen course of life, as well as the alienated individual deprived of community and living in the world spiritually homeless, abandoned, exiled (metaphors that gained their weight from the waves of wars and pogroms, housing crises, unemployment, and recessions that afflicted Europe). Sovereign and free or exiled and abandoned both views seem true. The contradictory impact of modernity on the individual can best be discerned in modem thought’s obsession with the theme of alienation. 

Individuals in the modern world experience a three-way estrangement. They do not directly control, and seldom even indirectly influence, the processes of their material existence. They are uprooted from any predictable or permanent place within their social world, increasingly becoming instruments of the impersonal forces regulating social life. They live history neither as divine providence nor as rationally controlled change but rather as the unmasterable flow of time. These were the great themes, respectively, of Marx, Weber, and Heidegger. According to their visions, the modern individual is estranged and uprooted, manipulated and exposed.

Nevertheless, this same individual is heralded as an end in him- or herself in all the humanistic strands of thought that take shape in the modern era. Those strands are themselves rich in contradiction because so much depends on which aspect of pcrsonhood gets foregrounded. For classical liberalism, the setting of individuality is the capitalist economy. For the republican tradition, revived in the context of the French Revolution, it is citizenship that bestows dignity and power on the individual. In various educational, aesthetic, and therapeutic trends, it is the individuals self enrichment that counts, as the civilizing process gives rise to modern secular ideals of soul and mind. Our modern efforts at self-designation pit these archetypes of individuality—beautiful soul, cultivated mind, property owner, citizen-against the archetypes’ alienation

In Freud’s own formative historical moment, Austrian liberalism encountered the limits of its extraordinary achievements and the erosion of its values. With the emergence of anti-Semitism in Austrian politics, racial identity began to displace the universalist ideology of Austrian modernization, and the revolt of the working class exposed liberalism’s failure to integrate all strata of society into a democratic political order. As Schorske and others have shown, this fin-de-siecle crisis informed the birth of psychoanalysis and certainly gave Freud his critical and cautious attitude toward the achievements and possibilities of modern society. By the same token, Freud’s career and therapeutic practice did thrive through the first decades of the twentieth century, blossoming into a movement whose associations, journals, and credentialing procedures firmly established his ideas, gave him a public, and drew patients to him and his followers.

Freud’s clients were decidedly middle-class, and frequently wealthy. He occasionally lamented that his movement could not address the mental health of the lower classes, but he never doubted that the theoretical insights he gained from his clinical practice were universal in their scope, lie saw himself treating the mind, not tending to the lifeworld of the bourgeoisie. I have argued elsewhere that Oedipal theory, the cornerstone of Freud’s thought, is not, as he believed, a universally valid account of intrapsychic representations. Rather, it is a theoretical stylization of the construction of masculinity and heterosexuality in modern patriarchy. Unlike the patriarchalism that modernization overthrew, modern patriarchy invests power in the individual male insofar as lie takes up his expected roles in the bourgeois lifeworld. Men’s identity hinged on career, citizenship, and marriage, and it was the promises and pathologies of this threefold role that shaped Freudian theory. Freud made the tacit assumption that a man’s ability to synthesize these roles defined the “psychic” norm, an assumption that skewed the psychoanalytic understanding of gender and sexuality.1

My focus in Ihis chapter will be on one facet of Freud’s modernism: analytic therapy, in particular in the work he did between 1910 and 1920. Oedipal theory was firmly in place. It informed every aspect of his reflections on therapy in the Papers on Technique (1911-15) and related writings. Those reflections led him to give a rich account of analytic technique, to ponder the ethical framework and moral import of psychoanalysis, and to wrestle with the most basic questions of sexuality and gender.

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