Apocalyptic Orgasm: Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Peter Kramer, Mao.
One of the responses to my review of Russell Jacoby's “Bloodlust,” asked why, given my feeling that Freudianism, at this point, is more a worn out dogma than a plausible source of fresh insight, I "bothered to read an essay/book based on Freudian thinking? Where could it go?"
Fair question. My answer is that over the course of his career Russell Jacoby has proved to be a challenging, independent thinker, worth reckoning with. And it was only in the course of reckoning with "Bloodlust" that it became clear how much in thrall to Freud Jacoby was or had become — how much, for him, Freud was the man who, properly queried and deciphered, could still yield up oracular responses to basic questions, such as the origin of human violence. I don't buy that for second, and don't think Jacoby makes much of a case for it in his book.
What I do suspect though, and find evidence for in "Bloodlust", is that Freud is immune to any final dispatch or disproof, and will likely, through one portal or another, go on reinserting himself into our culture. In that way, he resembles Marx, the other master narrator postmodernists hoped to depose in their challenge to the grand system builders, the theorists of totalistic — all-consuming, all-constricting — worldviews.
Perhaps Freud and Marx are exorcism proof. They are not the only ones. It might be useful, as point of comparison, to forget the manifold differences and consider for a moment the status of Mao Zedong thought in China, where Mao has had, of late, a resurgence in popularity. I’m not saying Maoism will ever again be supreme in China, only that it will be recurrent, have its turn to speak, and never be fully silenced.
But back to more familiar territory.
Terry Eagleton, erstwhile theoretician of the English New Left, has recently published "Why Marx Was Right", his effort to rescue Marx from the detotalizers. That book, in turn, comes directly on the heels of his "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate," a muddled effort to rescue religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, from Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists". Eagleton clearly wants it all — the Catholicism he grew up with, the Marxism he grew into. He's like an infant trying to suckle at once on both the pink and the purple pacifiers. At least he has no need of a Freud nipple.
Others do, though I wonder how easy it would for them be to sustain a taste for Freud if they read Peter Kramer's "Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind" (2006). Kramer's point of departure is the contrast between Freud's self-congratulatory accounts of his therapeutic encounters with reports by his patients. "In forty-three cases," Kramer writes, "patients had described their analyses with Freud, via essays, diaries, correspondence, or interviews. In thirty-seven of these therapies, Freud had given advice, expressed opinions, or urged the patient in a particular direction. In the remaining six cases, he had broken other of his stated rules for the proper conduct of treatment."
Freud, Kramer finds, rarely "conducted 'Freudian' psychoanalysis." And the advice Freud offered, contra his avowed standard of conduct, which was to offer none, could sometimes be disastrous. In the notorious Frink affair, Freud directed two patients under analysis — Horace Frink and Angelica Bijur — to divorce their current spouses and marry each other, which they did. When their "marriage collapsed," Kramer writes, "Frink became actively suicidal." Freud urged Bijur to stay mum about his role in the debacle, which, if it were known, might proving damaging to the psychoanalytic movement. [cause of psychoanalysis]
For Kramer, who had "loved and admired Freud," the effect of this research was "unsettling". Freud's stature had been based, first of all, on "opposition to deception, hypocrisy, and authoritarianism" but it now seemed that "his behavior seemed to exemplify those very vices."
The Freud Kramer winds up with is more fabulist than scientist, more crystallizer and consolidator than original thinker. Freud, finally, is a gifted story teller, weaving salient cultural threads of his day and age — especially the new, widespread conversation about sexuality — into compelling, arresting forms. In "The Interpretation of Dreams", for example, "Freud casts himself in the mold of his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, detecting the obscure in the seemingly obvious and the obvious in the obscure."
It's not as if Kramer rejoices in deflating Freud. And he continues to credit him for helping to bring psychotherapy into existence. In an interview I did with him about his book, he said, "You can't say Freud's particular psychotherapy stems from the most legitimate view of the human mind and is most effective. But there is something about spending time with a concerned person and engaging in some thoughtful project about the self that seems valuable to people."
If anything, Kramer mourns the absence of the framework Freudianism had provided for psychotherapy. "It isn't that we now have some theory that's better than Freud's," he told me. "There's a sense of loss.. . . I can sit across from another person -- I'm going to do it this afternoon a few times -- but what is the basis for my responses when someone behaves or talks in a certain way? There are many kinds of psychotherapy. Why is one better than another? We're agnostic now. It's not that Freud has been superseded by a better theory of mind. We do without."
Perhaps it's just this absence of a satisfying theory of mind that serves as standing invitation for the reemergence of one sort or another of Freudianism, however denatured. But perhaps not. In his review of Christopher Turner's "Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America," a biography of Wilhelm Reich, Kramer comes to a surprising conclusion.
Reich, let us recall, was the disciple of Freud who broke away to bring key psychoanalytic concepts to what he thought were their logical conclusions. Reich built orgone boxes to collect sexual energy, and argued that if sexual repression was the problem, then what Norman Mailer — for a time, fascinated by Reich — called "the apocalyptic orgasm", was the only solution. Reich published charts diagramming every stage of complete sexual release. Anything less made for submissive, armored personalities, prey to domination by dictatorial forces. For Reich, it wasn't self-knowledge, not attention to the "unrememberable but unforgettable" experiences of childhood that set you free: it was the perfect orgasm.
It may seem completely dated now, but in books like "Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy" and "The Mass Psychology of Fascism", Reich fused sexual liberation to political liberation, in a way that garnered attention from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Paul Goodman and, as stated, Norman Mailer. Kramer though, sees a more sedate and unsuspected resolution to Reich's revolt against Freud. It is now Reich, not Freud, according to Kramer, who presides over the psychotherapeutic encounter.
He writes: "To Freud, with his interest in slips of the tongue, words were the principal expression of mind. [But] the mainstream went on to adopt Reich's view that how patients act is as relevant as what they say. With Reich, the defenses—narcissism, passive aggression, and the rest—moved to the fore. . . . Freudian therapy as conducted today is closer to Reich than to Freud."
It is ironically the explosive Reich, according to Kramer, who keeps Freud out.
For now, anyway.