The Freud Less Traveled, Part Six

I’d rather spend time talking about the backdrop for my ideas than to present them as if in a vacuum, and so I give you another article seemingly unconnected to Freud.

As the Dark Ages ended, Christianity had triumphed in the West. I wish I were more of an expert on world history, because I wouldn’t have to preface what I say with “I think this is how it went”, but oh well… I think this is how it went.

As I had suggested last article, the impulse which drove people during these centuries in the West was one of ruralization and the collapse of major urban centers. The Eastern part of the Roman Empire did not collapse, however, which serves as an example of how the history we are taught isn’t always the history which happened. But that’s a different story. There is nonetheless a certain feeling which accompanies our idea of the time from about 300 to 900 C.E., a period of dark transformation, of intellectual backwardness but also of religious expansion and strengthening of religious institutions and practices. Our modern understanding of monks and monasteries, and how they differ from their pagan equivalents, starts at this time. For me, it is a sense of quietness, like a withdrawal from the urban accomplishments of the ancient world, as if there needed to be some period of repentance for all of their sins, while at the same time providing time and space for solitude and deep thought, and possibly the development of our modern idea of the individual thinking person. The pagan culture was overly interwoven with itself.

A very important theme of the Dark Ages is something we need to start looking at again today, which I would call the “Significance of Ignorance”. Perhaps they would not have liked to use those terms themselves, but it remains a powerful phenomenon which continues to pervade our culture and world today. It really seems as if the culture of that time felt, perhaps unconsciously, but nonetheless felt that it was precisely the knowledge and sophistication of the world before them which caused the most troubles. In our age, the value of knowledge is so universally accepted that it’s really hard to imagine how the culture of the dark ages could have gone to so much effort, it seems, to remain ignorant of the culture which came before it. You could argue with me, and say that, well, from my modern perspective I can’t possibly know how they intended to handle their situation. But the other possibility is that there really was a drive to repress the civilization they came from.

It is as if the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Church, and the Bible was considered more valuable than all of the other accomplishments of civilization prior to Christianity. This is certainly consistent even with modern day Christian evangelists who seem to have a fondness for supressing knowledge, teaching the Bible as if it is sufficient to explain the entire world without having to refer either to other books or to the world itself to get the complete picture. It seems that many of these Bible-believing Christians are continuing in the spirit of the first centuries of the Christian era, when knowledge was not the thing of the most value.

I think it’s important for modern people to start asking themselves, what could be so important that it outranks factual awareness of the physical world? Whatever it is, it fueled Western civilization for hundreds of years from about 300 to 1100 C.E. I believe this era presents both the shadow of and the solution to our own era. The taboo of the Dark Ages was knowledge, and that of ours, ignorance. Another way of putting it is that during these centuries Western civilization developed the capacity for silence. Some strong need was felt to learn to listen to quiet voices coming from within individuals, and the religion and spirituality of the Middle Ages was the result. Certainly the Old Testament recorded prophets who spoke for the whole Jewish race. Maybe that kind of spirituality was insufficient. The Christian peculiarity, which characterizes the whole West, is that the power of prophecy is within everyone, that each individual has the power and soul of a prophet. I think it was this idea, that everyone has a soul, and that everyone’s soul matters, which was the chief product of the Dark Ages.

It appears that in order to be able to detect and listen to one’s soul, much knowledge of the outer world may need to be sacrificed. At least this scheme makes sense of the mysterious period between the ancient world and the beginning of “our” world, say about 800 C.E. A grand bargain was made, the capacity to look within in exchange for massive ignorance and a loss of contact with the history of the ancient world so complete it would take the Crusades to get it back.

Advertisements

The Freud Less Traveled, Part Five

Okay, I’m taking up the Freud line of thought again. The reason I’m interested in this is that I want to put my thoughts on one specific aspect of Freud’s thought on the record, for posterity – if there is any posterity… but that’s a different question. Ahem.

I’m going to start with the mouth, source of Freud’s “oral stage”, and describe things connected to it in a web of ideas.

The mouth has many vital functions. The two which I’ll ignore are speaking and breathing, which leaves two aspects which seem to me at least to be closer to the spirit of Freud, namely the tooth and the stomach. Mythology is full of stomachs. Chronos ate the Olympian gods, forcing Zeus to cut their way out through his stomach. Jonah and many many others were swallowed by a whale or other big fish. The psychology of swallowing and of being able to “digest” events and ideas is easy enough to grasp. The psychology doesn’t need to be explained to children. They understand when they see a movie or hear a story about someone being swallowed by something else.

My preferred way of understanding mouth psychology is by observing dogs. If anything has an “oral fixation”, it’s dogs. It is an old piece of women’s advice that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, which seems kind of outdated now, but not for dogs. Because dogs are so vulnerable to becoming your friend if you only feed them, they are a reference point for my idea of oral fixation. By contrast, they have nothing at all resembling any “anal” fixation. For people, the anus can be a source of both considerable pleasure and considerable shame and pain. But observing a dog defecating and you’ll see no psychology at all – they feel no shame nor do they take any pleasure in pooping. It’s something which happens so naturally and which they are so bored by that it’s actually somewhat of a relief to witness a living creature without the psychological baggage people often have with regards to defecating, which Freud seemed to hone in on. I would like to see a history of people’s attitudes towards the anus before Freud. I’m not familiar with any thoughts or ideas whatsoever on the subject besides Freud’s.

Okay, back to the mouth. What dogs exhibit is what Jung or Freud might call, in a person, a “regressive” tendency regarding food and the objects of the mouth. Carefully built-up habits and skills can be discarded all-too-easily at the sight of a fresh piece of hamburger. So “regression” is the idea that instincts operating at a simpler level can take over more focused and developed ones. Dogs are in fact so vulnerable to regression, by way of behavior changes when presented with tasty treats, that dogs present a symbol of the same tendency in human beings. We all know that modern advertisers are trained to look for the weaknesses in the human psyche which can be exploited to help them sell products, the pretty girl next to the Coca-Cola bottle, the family which is happy and loving because it uses the right dish-washing detergent, etc. This seems to me to be a sophisticated psychological version of handing the dog a milkbone – wait, where did I learn that dogs like milkbones? Hmmm…

Anyway, oral fixation applies in this broader sense to gambling and other addictions; to politics – in which politicians have long since stopped telling the truth because reason and intellect cannot compete with simply telling the people that they can have everything; and to many other things. This is my version of the idea, and I have really no idea whether a Freudian would agree with me on it. But to give a focus point, just think of the dog, which may be carefully trained in some fancy tricks or something, but who forgets – regresses – the instant a piece of meat is thrown its way, and imagine that same tendency in humans for a whole variety of moments and habits.

According to Carl Jung, the development of civilization involved the process by which our instincts were disciplined, focused and channeled. Jung is different from most critics and historians in that he actually believes that the period of transition from the ancient world to the middle ages actually contained something of use. The typical historical analysis is that we Westerners just forgot everything during the dark ages, which served no purpose other than to turn us into ignorant fools willing to believe anything, thus paving the way for the religious stupidity of the middle ages. I wish there were more people who took Jung’s view, that during this time there was a powerful and successful drive to discipline a large number of instincts which the ancients had not felt necessary to repress, but which inhibited the possibility of focused intellectual thought, and further progress. For Jung, Christianity was critical for the development of the modern mind, regardless of the truth or falsehood of its religious claims. This view makes perfect sense to me. Without it, there is simply no basis for believing the dark ages (~350-900 C.E.) mattered at all. In fact, I would hold anyone teaching the history of our civilization accountable for explaining the value and purpose of these years. Not to have any hypothesis at all about what the dark ages were, in terms of purpose, to our civilization is irresponsible, despite how common it is.

At any rate, the Jungian view is that the pagan world had been consumed by the over-expression of a variety of instincts, and that the main way forward was the discipline and repression brought about by Christianity, such that it would become possible to sort out psychologically one instinct from the other, a process which required hundreds of years and was necessary as a step towards the intellectually advanced world we have today. It’s definitely time we started focusing on understanding the psychological effects of our civilization’s having gone through the dark ages. We will need to know what really happened in order to be able to keep the good stuff, and to know what parts of our modern world we can discard.

Next time, I will tie the pieces together. I want to go into Freud’s oral stage, with a focus on the fascinating history of the Catholic Church.

The Eagle and the Toad (reprise)

I’m going to take a break from the Freud series. I am experiencing a peculiar psychic condition which I feel is worth a blog entry unto itself.

Carl Jung was able to distill most of what he had to say into his last big book, Mysterium Coniunctionis. Jung had an enormous amount to say, and if it has indeed been distilled, it must be some book. I believe Jung was motivated to write it because he believed that a message should be “distillable”. There are two ways to believe in a message, through diversity and through unity. Jung’s subject matter was sufficiently diverse that it made sense to compensate that diversity by producing a unity. The book itself is by no means easy to read. As you might expect from a message that’s really worth something, the contents of the book cannot be understood without effort. But I’m of the type which decides that the commitment is worth it.

I say this because in the very first section Jung includes a quote which I’ve appreciated very much. The quote is from a book by Michael Maier, an alchemist who it turns out was also very influential on Isaac Newton. Michael Maier was an alchemist when it was cool to be an alchemist, i.e. before they knew enough to distinguish alchemy from chemistry. Here’s a link to that book.

If more people realized that there was a psychological and spiritual component to alchemy, I would not need to claim to be a Jungian, but it seems Jung mastered the topic so thoroughly that there’s no way to the psychological treasures of alchemy without somehow passing through Jung. It’s logical, to me anyway, that Jung’s psychology should have had some precursor in history. Jung believed that if you’re going to build something, build it on something that already exists. And if you didn’t invent something, don’t say you did. The difference between Jung and lesser psychologists is that Jung was unable to escape the fact that what he discovered was not entirely new. He didn’t believe the human psyche was just a blank slate and that psychology was to stand on its own without explicit relation to anything which came before it. Yet modern psychologists generally speaking do not understand or acknowledge that their profession has an important relationship to alchemy.

The quote describes a picture found on page 192, and my Latin’s a little rusty, so I’ll just use the translation found in Mysterium. I quoted this before on this blog perhaps two years ago. Here’s another link with all of the series’ pictures colored in by Adam MacLean. The one in question is SA02. Avicenna.

“…the eagle and toad, the eagle flying through the air and the toad crawling on the ground… the eagle representing Luna ‘or Juno, Venus, Beya, who is fugitive and winged like the eagle, which flies up to the clouds and receives the rays of the sun in his eyes.’ The toad ‘is the opposite of air, it is a contrary element, namely earth, whereon alone it moves by slow steps, and does not trust itself to another element. Its head is very heavy and gazes at the earth. For this reason it denotes the philosophic earth, which cannot fly, as it is firm and solid. Upon it as a foundation the golden house is to be built. Were it not for the earth in our work the air would fly away, neither would the fire have its nourishment, nor the water its vessel.'” (p. 4-5)

So it’s alchemy, but it’s not chemistry. Chemistry as we know it today is actually a subset of what alchemy represented to the middle ages. Put another way, chemistry is alchemy, but with the psychology removed.

The quotation applies to my state of mind in the following way. I want to write a lot of blog articles quickly and perfectly. I want to make a video game that will make me famous, rich, or both. I want my slow mystical journey to be over, to move into the fast lane, where I “matter”. All of this is the eagle. I even have two different eagles to contend with, which I will call the Outer Eagle, and the Inner Eagle.

The Outer Eagle is the kind of nervousness which accompanies thinking along the lines of, “How will I pay my bills?” I live by arrangement. I’ve given my whole life to the ambiguous pursuit of my mystical quest, and the reason I can do this is because a retired man lets me live at his house. But this can’t last forever, and even my very well-being as a person with food and roof and clothes will become threated eventually if I don’t find some new way to live. The Outer Eagle is the forceful pressure of time which demands that a person find ways to meet his/her basic needs instead of pursuing “pipe dreams.”

The Inner Eagle wants more than survival – it wants fame, glory, power and prestige. This is the real villain, at least in a culture like the America I live in, where basic survival is less of a concern, given the general abundance of wealth. The Inner Eagle is what makes people want to escape the “mass of men” who “lead lives of quiet desperation”. Fifteen minutes of fame, a mass shooting in Connecticut, anything to make a person feel like they matter. The fear of being “nobody” – shudder at the thought – is so overwhelming that it takes a rare courage to resist it. In other words, to build a foundation upon the Toad instead of the eagle.

The Eagle comes in more mild forms, of course. For many people, it’s just a slow, persistent unhappiness which makes them weak to any perceived opportunity to quickly become more than they are, whether real or illusory. Everyone has their Eagle. I don’t make a fundamental distinction between “bad guys” and everyone else. The differences are in amounts, not in kinds.

So I don’t blog as much as I, or perhaps I should say, my Eagle, wants me to. I wrestle with nervousness. Over the years, I have become more confident that eventually I will amount to something. But every day which passes when I thought I had something new and cool to say on my blog, but which thought “is fugitive and winged like the eagle” – escaping my grasp, and making me glad I have at least one more day to think about it before saying it – is a day I face the nervousness again. The nervousness, as said above, comes in two forms. The Outer Eagle form is, how will I survive? Will I be homeless? If I don’t accomplish something, what will happen to me physically? Will I lose what freedom I currently enjoy, though it’s not the kind of freedom a lot of money would bring? The Inner Eagle form is of course, the greater demon. What if I am a nobody?

And yet I have the gift of pistis, faith. I trust myself to the Toad, which symbolizes the totally natural, unforced solution to the problems I have. My own nature will know what to do and when to do it, and it will take care of me, but I must submit to it, and resist substituting what occurs in nature with fantastic dreams whose outcomes seem desirable but are fugitive, and possibly illusory. The Toad represents humility, which I think might be the hardest virtue to attain. It represents what happens on a day-to-day basis instead of what happens in moments of glory. I don’t know if it’s somewhat unhealthy in my case to have missed out on so many moments of glory, but that’s the nervousness mentioned above. I have seen enough transformations, which happened privately, to keep me going, to keep me “believing” in my own cause.

But that’s why I like the Eagle and Toad quote above, because it reflects the challenges I face, and it prescribes a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of attitude which might offset my wishes for things to move or happen faster. It is said that in isolation the greatest insight and wisdom is achieved, which would be great in my case if it were true, because it would make my life story make sense. It would make me “not nobody”, and yet I need to be humble enough to be willing to actually be  “nobody”, I think, before I’m likely to become “somebody”. Kind of annoying, really.

But if I can purge myself of remaining pride, it will probably be good for me, but honestly I’m not claiming to know for sure. It could just make me a weak “push-over”. So I still need to investigate the question – what is the difference between humility – a virtue – and mere submissive weakness?

The Freud Less Traveled, Part Four

The last post was a whirlwind of ideas. I attempted to rapidly cover a huge number of topics. I certainly left a few holes, skipping from topic to topic like that. I’m not sure whether to move on or try to clarify some of the less addressed topics from that post.

I think the point about stupidity versus insanity is quite relevant. One could read the post itself and, honing in on the skipped points of logic, conclude that it was either stupid or insane. I think it is rather the result of thoughts which are too recent for me in my mind to be able to contain and present more neatly or better organized. I also read that post and realized how unusual it is for someone to be addressing that vast arrays of topics at the same time. In this my writing is starting to resemble that of Carl Jung.

I left off noting that the Unconscious, as an idea, allows the possibility of uniting everything we know about modern science with the key points of the religions of the past. This is the best of both worlds, and it is what I want. I’m too smart to reject science, and I’m too weak and “mystical” to reject religion, or spirituality, or what have you. An important point of access between these two separate dimensions is found, at least possibly, in biology.

Biology is the study of life, and bodily life is something which is attached to our consciousness. Religions of the past imagined ghosts, spirits, and gods which were exempt precisely from the bodily life we find ourselves attached to. This suggests that while we are bodily attached to our consciousness – indeed so much so that we need to sacrifice the same consciousness everyday when we go to sleep, so that our body can recover – we nonetheless can imagine not being attached. In thinking of ghosts, spirits, dragons, and all manner of fantastical elements, our consciousness is implicitly (i.e. unconsciously) recognizing the existence of its body, and splitting itself off from that body to imagine a world without attachment.

Yet we all have bodies nonetheless, and sometimes we like them, when they give us physical pleasure by way of the senses.

But they are also tyrants.

Freud’s “fixations” are neuroses centered around specific bodily organs. Certain organs demand certain behaviors of the whole person, the stomach being the most obvious by demanding nutrition. Freud focused on what we might terms his “trinity” – the mouth, anus, and the genitalia. It would seem necessary to determine why he chose these three instead of more traditional sources of pleasure, pain and emotion, the heart, the brain, and the “gut”, for example. Part of it seems to be his desire to call into question the validity of these “higher” organs. Perhaps our incredible mastery of the physical world by way of science and technology had led to a general inflation of the human spirit which needed to be compensated in Freud’s time by theories which focused on more vulgar and often rejected parts of the body.

Because of many of his later writings, Freud will forever be associated with an inherently pessimistic view of our true nature, as if the part of our nature which might have once justified the hope that we might be saved is forever out of reach. But it’s equally tempting to reject him because of this, deliberately remaining unconscious of what he might have contributed to the study of psychoanalysis. To reject him because of his failures would be to confirm his worldview. It would suggest that the rejecter is too weak to truly engage. If we are to be saved, it will be because we had the power to engage. I want to engage the “oral fixation” eventually in this series. I certainly have thoughts about the anus, so to say, and it’s not hard at all to believe that the genitals are a focal point for a variety of mental illnesses, but it makes sense to start with Freud’s first stage, oral, and see what I can extract from it before moving on.

Jung’s psychological types are the result of his troubles with his relationship to Freud. In a lot of ways he was able to swallow Freud whole, re-framing Freud’s whole perspective from the perspective of psychological types. His explanation for the differences between him and Freud utilized facts spanning many many centuries. In “Psychological Types” Jung does what no one else whom I’ve read does, which is to introduce a theory of personality chronologically, starting by contrasting two “great spirits” of the early Christian age, Origen and Tertullian, neither of whom were made saints, because of their controversial lifestyles. But both made crucial contributions to the history of Christianity, Origen by producing diligent scholarly texts and Tertullian by being the first Christian to write in Latin instead of Greek. Jung essentially claims that it was because of their extreme types, Origen being the extravert and Tertullian being the introvert, that the church was never able to reconcile their views to its orthodox ones.

The parallel which Jung never made explicitly but seems to suggest itself is that in the early history of psychology, Freud the extravert and Jung the introvert parted ways. Now Origen and Tertullian didn’t know each other, but their personalities, Jung suggests, drove them to their extreme lives. Tertullian felt dissatisfied by the compromises of the Catholic Church and went to join a “Holy Ghost” type of movement, probably not unlike the Pentacostals of our day, speaking in tongues, etc., while Origen was a very popular teacher and lecturer who was reported to have castrated himself.

I’ve have gotten an almost infinite amount of use from Jung’s type theory, and I’ve actually added my own additions to it(see previous posts). I can hardly stress its importance enough, and I use it to understand Freud and Jung. That’s why I call myself a Jungian, because I make sense of the world through the lens Jung described (although I’m not dogmatic and have no intention of adhering to some thought just because Jung said it). Applying this to Freud, I start to piece together the mystery by seeing him as an extravert.

The Freud Less Traveled, Part Three

If last post is any indicator, I’m not going to get anywhere near the end of what I have to say about Freud and Jung. But that’s a good thing. It means more posts, which means more self-esteem for me!

So I’m building up this argument which is in the spirit of both Freud and Jung’s thought, which is that what people know, say, and do consciously is only a small fraction of their total nature. But this idea is inconvenient for a lot of highly specialized activities people do in the modern world. It calls into question the true motivation of people’s actions which can be and often are far more selfish than they suspect – and both appearing to be and actually being a non-selfish member of the community is in fact very important from a selfish point of view.

There’s obviously a bit of irony there. Someone so obsessed with the idea of and appearance of selflessness will often model the selflessness they aspire to, even though it is their selfish nature which drove them to it, either consciously or unconsciously. But after a point, the original motive is less significant than what the person has become. Traditional theology marks this type of person as a saint, and parallels are drawn between Christ and the person in question. Jesus of Nazareth himself is a total myth, in the sense that his actuality as a person has been, almost since the beginning, a biography buried in the sands of time. Yet for whatever reason, people relate to the Christ image, and in our Christian age (2013 years in…) Christ is usually taken to be the real example of the truly selfless person, but that only proves his power as an archetype. In other words, we all have the ability and willingness to conceive of a truly selfless person even though the typical folly of Christians is to consider Christ to be more than just the stories and myths about him that they have heard and read. They have a spirit of belief in which the idea of, the possibility of a “perfect” person is so compelling that evidence itself becomes only a secondary consideration.

So the archetype of the perfect person exists in most if not all of us. But a perfect person is simply one who does not act selfishly out of ignorance of his true motivations. And therein lies the connection. Arguably Freud’s mission was to help people become aware of their true motivations, so that they did not have to act unconsciously.

Most people who someone like Freud would deal with were so-called neurotics. Now a neurosis is simply behavior natural to a person but which causes destruction instead of “construction”. For someone who finds him or herself repeatedly destroying without understanding, a mental health professional is generally the person to see. A neurotic, in the old sense of the word, is simply someone for whom there is a great disparity between what they naturally do and what either they or others consider either acceptable or superior behavior. This type of person will clearly benefit the most from the hypothesis of the “Unconscious” – an autonomous entity entirely apart from a person’s normal understanding of him or herself which is powerful enough to override the person’s conscious will.

The value of the hypothesis of the Unconscious lies in its ability to distinguish insanity from what otherwise could only be called stupidity. We all have a fear of being stupid, and a lot of guilt and shame accrues to someone who has no other explanation for why they do what they do than that they’re stupid.

Some people who have little experience with mental illness either in themselves or in people around them will be able to conveniently live with the prejudice that insanity and stupidity are the same thing. But most people, even if just by living long enough to gain some experience on the matter, will know that there’s a difference. Yet there’s no way to explain the difference without the hypothesis of the Unconscious. In old days, they might say you were “demon-possessed”, or that God, or one of the Gods or spirits, had influenced your behavior. Two of the Roman Emperors were so fond of this thought that they simply declared themselves Gods and had a month of the calendar named after them in tribute (July, August – weren’t those the days!?). Now in the case of these God-men, it was perhaps behavior so courageous and superior – in other words, intelligent – that it could not be seen in the normal light of everyday consciousness which drove them and others to believe that it wasn’t they, but rather something else, which took control of them and performed behaviors on their behalf.

So, while the hypothesis of the Unconscious sounds rather sophisticated, it’s by no means without historical precedent. While in many cases it can be used to re-interpret stupidity as insanity – or possession, if you actually believe in the thing doing the possessing – it is also used when intelligence cannot be believed by ordinary people. This speaks to one of the more peculiar prejudices people have, that stupidity is only okay when possessed by other people and never by oneself, and that such a condition is so natural that when someone exhibits unexpectedly intelligent behavior it must be because of an outside force. In other words, the Unconscious explains intelligence as well as stupidity, and is therefore useful to anyone who is secretly insecure about their own intelligence. And just so you don’t feel bad, I personally don’t know anyone, including myself, who hasn’t at least at one point fallen into that category.

If history was already full of Gods and Demons, Spirits and Souls from the past, what could Freud and later Jung possibly have gained by preferring the word “Unconscious” to all previous and relevant words used for the same phenomena?

The answer lies in the developments occurring in the centuries since the end of the middle ages. From about the time of Rene Descartes to the introduction of the idea of the Unconscious at the dawn of the 20th century, there was essentially a withdrawing of old associations. Before Descartes, no one had developed the mental discipline to truly distinguish what we might now call “Inner” from “Outer”. But once this ability was acquired it set the stage for and produced the scientific, technological, and correspondingly cultural revolutions we associate with it. This discipline was and remains today extremely hard-won, which means we give up a lot in order to keep it.

But that discipline, and the knowledge which came with it, allowed us to divide the inner world of the psyche from the material outer world. We studied the outer world, and have and are continuing to master it insofar as we can get our hands on it. We don’t know where it’s leading, but we can’t go back because the immediate benefits are profound, and probably even worth the cost!

The Gods, on the other hand, have been crippled. The Christian god survived by becoming ever more abstract, shattered by the Protestant Reformation into a mirror with a thousand shards.

I’m going to wrap up this post by suggesting that the Unconscious is a hypothesis which allows us to perceive mysteries both old and new without forcing us at the same time to reject all of the materialistic advances of the last four centuries. It allows us to perceive, preserve, and understand the riches of the past while still being useful to us in the present. The riches of the past are indispensable to the modern project of understanding who we are and what we’re supposed to do about it. While merely saying “The Unconscious” does not actually do the work of conveying what it means to me, or even of exploring and developing the idea, it is still an under-used term in our society and so I feel comfortable saying it without fear of its becoming a dogma quite yet.

The Freud Less Traveled, Part Two

Alright, I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I left off attempting to indicate what psychology and psychoanalysis are as best I could from a cultural and historical perspective, totally apart from who the key figures in the field are.

Psychology is the exact opposite of the physical sciences. Modern scientists studying the brain are studying physiology. The question they can never answer is how the knowledge that they gain studying the brain should affect the people who learn about it. For me, depression, for example, is a primordial force. To take a physical chemical with the intent of alleviating depression shortchanges an accurate conception of its fundamental nature. I see depression as the natural result of a moral condition which is basically both common and normal.

When I say psychology is the opposite of the physical sciences, I mean that the fundamental assumption of physical science is that outward comparisons of different phenomena can lead a person to the truth.

Let’s imagine that a human being is born into this world with a myriad of instincts granted by millions of years of evolution. Now the capacity for objective observation, that is, observation without regard to the physical and moral effects of the object on the subject, does exist. I believe that our ability to objectively observe things is among the last of the powers nature has granted us. I also believe that we use this power in extremely limited ways. The vast span of evolution operated under the conditions in which the objective state of the world did not matter to the evolving organism. The organism cares about its own welfare. It doesn’t need to care about the Cosmos! All of our senses and bodily functions are tied to experiences of the Good and the Bad. These Good and Bad sensations are in one way or another common to all surviving forms of life.

The Dodo was a species of bird found in an extremely remote tropical island where potential predators had neither co-evolved on the island, nor were able to span the distance necessary to reach the island from any of the other nearby islands. The birds would walk directly up to the mariners who landed there, who could pick them up and slaughter them. In that habitat, it turns out, fear itself was a subjective reaction unnecessary for survival until the arrival of our conquering breed, and within a few years, all the Dodos had been turned into meals. I say this because I want to illustrate just how common an emotion like fear is, how much we take it for granted, and how important it is for any species which doesn’t evolve in extreme isolation.

We may have the capacity for dispassionate, objective observation, but it is a relatively recent addition to the vast array of things which make us us. Most of what we have comes to us by way of ferocious competitive instincts which must be satisfied before we are able to step back and start to observe reality objectively. Psychology is, to me, the process by which a person can observe these powerful instincts in action, and in doing so imagine how they might integrate into a larger, more ideal whole. But the vast majority of the time we spend doing “psychology” is actually not objective observation at all. It is the drive to secure status and authority by seeming objective, among other things.

I suspect that only a large amount of experience and honest introspection can give a person a sense of just how much and how often what we do is not based on any sense of higher, objective authority, but on much more mundane, and by mundane I mean common, needs.

It is the very commonness of the vast array of human needs which lessens the value of studying human beings scientifically at all. The ultimate scientific discovery in the area of anthropology is one which few of the scientists in the field are willing or able to acknowledge. And that’s good for them, because if more people ackowledged it it would invalidate a lot of the work they do. It is that people want more than they have. In this they are no different from the rest of the biological kingdom. Nothing in the biological kingdom thinks about itself, and yet everything knows how to perpetuate itself even in the absense of such knowledge. People are essentially the same way, but what would be the point of knowing that scientifically? The only use for such a hard truth, understood as scientific knowledge, would be to use it to serve your own selfish goals.

In a society which values science so much, appearing to possess scientific knowledge gives you the status of a magician. People are less willing to question your pronouncements and institutions are more willing to pay you money and grant you status. But scientific knowledge, in its idealistic form, is meant to benefit everyone. It’s the high goal of Western civilization to find ways to benefit all of mankind with pure scientific knowledge. But it has become too high a goal – it is turning into corruption, and the beneficiaries are those who convey the air of scientific knowledge but don’t actually benefit anyone but themselves.

For me, the limits of what science can do for man are palpable and real. What science does not give me, if I am honest – and there are many who are not – is an answer to perhaps the most important question I have, which is what to do with myself. I am alive, I don’t know why, not that I regret it per se, but I can’t say I know why I was born and what I am here for. The dumbest thing you could do would be to show me a scientific study which says that X people are happy when they do Y, and that therefore I should do Y too. We all know it doesn’t work like that. To start with, I’d have to have an originally favorable view of the scientists who publish such studies. I’ve have to admire them and want to be like them, really. For me, the pain of life is generally too real to pretend that I’m helping anybody by doing a study of it – the scientists would have to convince me otherwise about the value of what they are doing.

All of this is in an attempt to steer the discussion of psychology away from what we are typically told psychology is to be used for. The mental health problems in our culture are so severe that I hope I’m not leaving anyone behind in diverging, which is my goal, to talk about Freud, where he came from, what value there might be in talking about him today, and how might some of his ideas be understood in a larger context.

I thought I might have gotten there in this post, but clearly no. But fear not! I shall return.

The Freud Less Traveled, Part One

The Unicorn was right in his comment to my previous post. There’s more to the Freud-Jung story than I let on. But in order to tell it, I must let go of the Freud-Jung dichotomy and focus specifically on Freud.

I have not read the large majority of Freud’s works. I am therefore no authority, as I have said before. But I have ideas nonetheless. My way of knowing and understanding is somewhat along the lines of “gnosis”. I believe that it is possible to just “know” things, both through introspection and experience.

Freud must have been talking about something when he wrote and spoke about his theories, which nowadays are increasingly viewed more-or-less as oddities to be found on the dust-shelf of history. He divided psychosexual development into three stages, the oral, the anal, and the genital. The Criticism section, on the Wikipedia entry for the Oral Stage runs almost as long as the description of the idea itself. I quote it in full here to help establish the context for what I want to talk about.

“Since Dr. Freud’s presentation of the theory of psychosexual development in 1905, no evidence has confirmed that extended breast-feeding might lead to an oral-stage fixation, nor that it contributes to a person becoming maladjusted or to developing addictions (psychologic, physiologic). The pediatrician Dr. Jack Newman proposed that breast feeding a child until he or she chooses to wean (ca. 2–4 years of age) generally produces a more psychologically secure, and independent person. Contradicting the Freudian psychosexual development concept of oral-stage fixation, the Duration of Breast-feeding and the Incidence of Smoking (2003) study of 87 participants reported no causal relation between the breast-feeding period and whether or not a child matures into a person who smokes.”

I’ve been piecing together some ideas in the last few months which use Freud’s Oral Stage as part of a matrix of other ideas.

Freud’s image in the modern world is quite rich and full of contradiction. He was an atheist, and so his lack of religious belief is sure to satisfy modern atheists, whose stock and trade is to rely on science and reason. Yet his beliefs themselves approach the status of a faith-based religion, which would be easy for an investigator like me to ignore, if Freud were simply a marginal figure in the cultural landscape, and not central. But he is central – he is commonly accepted to be the “Father of Psychoanalysis” and an influence for many subsequent practitioners.

So how did he become such an influence? If his core ideas are so “wrong”, how did he get so famous?

I believe there are three possible reasons:

  • his ideas themselves
  • his charismatic influence on friends and associates
  • his ability to capture the public imagination

I mention the third entity because I believe it’s possible to analyze Freud from a slightly more “Jungian” lens. To capture the public’s imagination is essentially to be the vehicle by which an archetype of the collective unconscious appears on the social stage, in projected form. Such an archetype is either appearing in history for the first time or is making a resurgence after a period of disappearance in a specific culture for a specific time. He was a prophet for the zeitgeist of his day, in other words.

But to merely suggest that a person absorbs a culture’s projections threatens to ignore the other two factors mentioned, both the person’s charismatic influence on friends and associates, and his works themselves. The public needs a scapegoat from time to time, for each of its various problems. Insofar as Freud has become a scapegoat and a symbol for the vast numbers of people who have in some way been disappointed by the unrealized potential of psychology and of psychoanalysis, he merely serves a collective function and is not individually noteworthy.

Let’s assume that Freud is indeed serving the role of scapegoat for his field. There are basically two ways which he could have attained that position. Let’s call them “The Life of Christ”, and “The Life of Brian” (Monty Python’s famous parody on the Life of Christ). In the first case, he is fully deserving of both the credit and infamy which is given him, and in the second case, he is nothing more than a randomly selected victim who fufilled the sacrificial role society needed him to fulfill. The more weight I grant to the “Life of Christ” scenario – i.e. that his position in society is fully merited – the more I must recognize the first two sources – Freud’s influence on his friends and colleagues; and the writings of Freud himself – as reasons the for both his fame and infamy. And I’m on solid ground if I do. Critic Harold Bloom was willing to grant Freud the status of a master of literature, although not of psychoanalysis. Others are fond of his writings if not of his psychological theories. I will therefore go ahead and assume that the large part of Freud’s stature in our culture has been because of his own actions.

So if the idea of the Oral Stage is completely wrong, where did it come from, and why did (or does) anybody believe it to begin with?

I will now detour for a moment, trying to place psychology in its historical context.

The powerful ideas of psychology – I guess I should say “depth” psychology, since there’s a variety of psychologies nowadays, not all of which I agree with – the powerful ideas take their root in the notion that there is a secret link between what we do and why we do it. I say secret because the “what” of what we do generally precedes the “why” of why we do it. In normal affairs, the “what” is only minimally affected by the “why”. It’s only when what we do becomes problematic that people, with their inborn and natural capacity for consciousness, begin to ask why.

“Why am I doing what I’m doing?”

The modern development of psychoanalysis, in my opinion, can be traced fundamentally to the thought that human nature can be observed, entirely apart from the social and political context it is found in. The historical era in which psychoanalysis was born gave rise to a condition in which, for the first time, it was possible to analyze people per se. All human beings before this era were, or at least could legitimately be thought of as, context-bound to the time and place of their origin. But technological, and indeed moral, progress, created conditions in which considering a human being as an Englishman, or a Spaniard, or a European, or a Muslim, or someone from the wealthy class or the poor class, or a Jew, was not enough. Psychoanalysis begins when the question of who, or what, a person is, becomes relevant. Psychology asks who the person is as the one and only instance of her soul in the entire universe.

For all of the post-modernist criticisms of the Guilty Observer, guilty of actually observing from somewhere as opposed to the (false, mind you) post-modernist ideal, which is that one should try to observe from nowhere at all – they provide no answer to the question, what should one specific person, particularly “I”, do? Nor are the moral maxims, creeds, and doctrines which are available any better, generally speaking. While they may satify some, they cannot and will not satisfy all.

“So what should I do now?”

When a person cannot with his whole heart embrace an external doctrine or a creed, and is not contented with the false airs of urban sophistication espoused by the post-modernists, the answer to that question depends utterly on its opposite – “Who Am I?”

What one does depends on who one is, of course. This has been true to some degree forever. My view is that psychoanalysis arose because the rules which helped people figure out what they should do failed, and when that happens to a people, the only remaining source of moral guidance comes from within, and it functions on a per person basis. Not all people need psychoanalysis, but the ones that do are in the category where morality based on external forces has dissolved.

I’m going to stop here, but I will get back to his topic soon.