Culture


Monday, December 7, 2009

 

Freud

D.M. Mitchell

 

 

‘Poets are our masters in the knowledge of the soul, because they drink from springs not yet accessible to science. Why has the poet not expressed himself more clearly on the nature – so full of meaning – of dreams?”

Freud

 

Major Arcana 1 – The Magus

 

Cups and balls, follow the bitch. Snake oil and juggling. It really began in earnest with the old Jew of Vienna and his dysfunctional goyim clientele who flocked to him regularly, eager to unburden themselves of guilt feelings, their secret repressions and dirty thoughts. He’d found a nice little corner of the market there among the rich Protestants who’d denied themselves the safety valve of catholic confession. Smart as a rat, he knew that everybody loves to talk. Talking is more bearable than the cruelty of silence and in talking we forget ourselves – although, paradoxically, the thing we all most love to talk about is ourselves. It’s inescapable, you see; even when we discuss the most supposedly impersonal of topics we project ourselves into the equation then cover it up with layers of etiquette. They talked and paid him for the privilege. PT Barnum would have approved.

 

He sat and he watched with x-ray vision, observed their pulpy and atrophied emotions squirming in them like maggots in a corpse. And they trusted him and opened up to him and told him things that gradually coalesced into a bigger picture. Bit by bit he began to understand how the layers of a person work. He saw best how the mind works by observing those whose minds didn’t work, who came to him in varying dysfunctional states. He saw how, diseased, they clung to the disease itself, protecting it from cure, cloaking it and making it invisible with subterfuge they passed off as culture but which the old man realized was psycopathy.

A revolution was brewing in the human soul.

 

Freud was not that original within the medical sphere although he was a pioneer in recycling and popularizing older theories of the mind’s hidden workings. The human psyche, he declaimed, is not a unified lump like a boiled sweet but an organic process. The soul is not elsewhere but here. It is a physical entity – with roots in the animal and reptilian (and even further back into the roots of the organic and even inorganic) and any attempt to deny this or repress this ends in tragedy and destruction. Civilization (modern and western as opposed to classical and historical) has built itself by attacking and destroying its own roots. Christianity and its topsy-turvy doctrines is the axe. Male subjugates female. Adult represses youth. Empirical denies experimental. The west kills itself from the base upwards. The east watches and waits.

Sigmund saw all and decided to play the waiting game. He did not, admittedly, see himself as a revolutionary. He was a family man. He needed to bring home the bacon. So he ‘cured’ his most socially prominent patients (not a daunting task as they were not really physically ill – so there was room for improvisation), raising them Lazarus-like from the dead to great public acclaim. It was good PR, brought scores of wealthy clients to his door and eventually the financial pressure was off. He was a made man.

His time could now be devoted to what he was really interested in. He called it (after Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) the ‘unconscious’. The term was contentious – how can any part of the mind be ‘unconscious’? He redrew all the mental maps. The mind is not a single thing, but composed of many which work together to produce ‘consciousness’. Sometimes not all the parts work together in the way they should do. In fact, western man had become split with the various components of the psyche pulling in different directions, often turned against each other. Whether this was the result of nature or nurture (which is, at the end of the day, only nature once removed) was irrelevant. This was what we are faced with. This is the nature of the beast.  This is what Sigmund saw only too clearly as the cause of man’s innate self-destructiveness. The roots of the insanity of the Great War.     

 

 Major Arcanum 8 – The Hierophant

 

The patients come and go somnambulistically. He develops his theories, spins his quabbalistic web of oneiric symbology. From the vast ocean of the unconscious, strange islands begin to rise. With an explorer’s zeal and a true scientist’s rigour he begins mapping the royal road to the unconscious. The eventual failure of the psychoanalytic method does not diminish the gravity and worth of his labours.  The unorthodox becomes orthodox and the magician becomes hierophant. Scores of heretics with their breakaway theories spring up, yet none of them has the ring of authenticity compared with the simplicity and focus of Prof. Freud’s method.

Like most fathers he becomes jealously protective of his child. When wild-eyed strangers turn up at his gates proclaiming him their mentor, he gives them as short shrift as he does his detractors.

Unpredictably he becomes parent to schools of art and thinking that revolutionize western society – some for better, some for worse. Primarily, he becomes a major figure in the cannon of surrealism. The keys he has created to unlock the treasure trove of the unconscious are clutched in their greedy hands as they proclaim the death of the everyday and the advent of the marvelous. And marvel tumbles after marvel from the surrealist fountain.

His terminology gives rise to a new iconography – the catechisms of inner space. Finally the invisible world beyond the boundaries of 19th century empiricism  is made manifest. The logic of the visible is put at the disposal of the invisible. Our desires and impulses are refracted through the rigors of time and space, the formal inquisition of science, producing a heightened reality. Surrealism’s goals are to transform the world while at the same time transforming life. The pleasure principle is given precedence over the reality principle.

Dreams are realized as the substratum of consciousness. They are not the opposite of reality but lie beneath and above waking consciousness – in effect, outside. What the nineteenth century has glorified and exalted as reason is seen as the result of a narrow focus of sensation and a censored version of sensory data; a smaller, edited version of the bigger picture in our minds which is, in itself, an edited version of ‘raw data’. We are extracted from the universe by our own akathartic and puritanical form of denial.

Andre Breton – falsely maligned as the ‘pope of surrealism’ places Freud’s theories at the disposal of a revolution that is to be both psychological/cultural and socio-political.. Desire is to be the individuating element, redeeming humanity from its materialistic destructive agenda. Freud is co-opted, probably for the only time in recent history, for a positive cause.

Dali wrecks it all. Becoming the popular ‘face’ of surrealism, the Catalan subverts surrealism in the cause of self-aggrandizement, individualism (a by-word in the west for subservience) and what Breton termed ‘miserabilism’ – the reduction of everything to a sordid ‘unter-realism’. Fundamentalism. Pessimism once removed. The early paintings of Dali are welcomed by the surrealists as visions of the dying world, of what must be overcome and destroyed.  Dali destroys surrealism. The main tool he uses in his destruction is a corrupted form of Freudian theory, taken wildly out of context. With Dali theory is central. With the surrealists, as with Freud, the dream is central. Dali thinks too much and is called on this by Henry Miller, amongst others.

It is not until the 60s and 70s that Dali’s work is rehabilitated by the brilliant imagination of J G Ballard and later by the penetrating thinking of Baudrillard and others.

Freud suffers further eclipse at the hands of the drab existentialists but rises star-like with the advent of the Beat Generation and, finally, transmogrified and almost unrecognizable in the psychedelic miasma of the 60s.

His work is misappropriated by the Frankfurt School and later by militant feminist factions. The subversive content of his writing is used as a weapon purely to destroy by minds that hate. His terminology has become almost commonplace, entering household usage – ‘Oedipus Complex’, ‘castration complex’, ‘penis envy’. The sexual terminology hijacked in the name of prurience.

Rehabilitation is called for. The texts need to be read anew, reassessed for the 21st century. Developments in neurological science have validated most of his basic assumptions. Discoveries concerning the limbic brain, autonomic functions, the endocrine system and ‘somatic markers’ suggest that the old man got it right and the rest of us would have been better served using his maps rather than navigating blind into the strange territory in which we now find ourselves. Another surrealist revolution is long overdue.  

 

*****

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