The Way We Live Now
Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge
By MARK EDMUNDSON
The New York Times
April 30, 2006
To most of us, Sigmund Freud, who was born 150 years ago next Saturday, is known chiefly as a provocative and highly controversial student of individual psychology. He is the man who theorized the unconscious and the Oedipus complex. What is less well known — and now perhaps more important — is that Freud devoted the final, and maybe most fruitful, phase of his career to reflections on culture and politics. In his later work, Freud brought forward striking ideas about the inner dynamics of political life in general and of tyranny in particular.
Adolf Hitler, who rolled into Freud's home city of Vienna on March 14, 1938, preceded by thousands of troops, was no surprise to Sigmund Freud. Nor would the many forms of tyrannical fundamentalism that have grown up in Hitler's wake and have extended into the 21st century have shocked him very much. In books like "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" and "Totem and Taboo," Freud predicted Hitler and his descendants almost perfectly. Now, in an age threatened by fundamentalisms of many sorts, Freud's thinking may be more usefully illuminating than ever before.
It is possible that Hitler and Freud actually encountered each other. Hitler spent some of the unhappiest years of his life in Vienna, just before the beginning of World War I. He had come to the great city with hope of becoming a major artist, but he was rejected from art school, not once but twice. In short order, he ran out of money and was reduced to sleeping in doorways and even to begging from time to time. If Hitler and Freud had passed each other on the streets of Vienna, after Freud's return from his highly successful 1909 trip to America, Freud would have seen a street rat, a rank denizen of the mob. (Freud was no populist.) Hitler would have seen a Viennese burgher (he despised the upper middle class) and probably would have identified Freud as a Jew as well. Hitler would perhaps have drawn back in shame at his threadbare overcoat and his broken shoes. Though he might, if things were bad enough, have extended his hand to beg. Whether Freud gave or not (he could well have; he was generally good-hearted) would have made no difference; the encounter would still have left young Adolf seething.
In March 1938, the street rat was back, in full dress uniform, riding through the center of Vienna in an open-topped Mercedes, holding onto the windshield with his left hand and with his right giving the salute to thousands of Viennese citizens, greeting the absorption of their small country into the Reich with howls of joy. ("Finis Austriae," Freud wrote in his diary that March.) Now Hitler was in robust middle age; Sigmund Freud was 81 and desperately ill with the cancer of the jaw that would, in London, a year and a half later, end his life.
Freud, sick as he was during the early spring of 1938, generally refused to take any medication stronger than aspirin. He wanted to think and to write, and for that he needed to keep his mind clear. He stayed away from morphine and from liquor. But staying away from intoxicants and keeping his mind clear meant more than that to Freud. It meant staying away from religion (Freud was a lifelong atheist); it meant staying away from romantic love (Freud called it "the overestimation of the erotic object") and it meant staying away from the kind of politics embodied by the onetime street rat now traversing Vienna in his Mercedes. Why were people so potently and ruinously drawn to Hitler and to all of the other agents of collective intoxication on offer in the world? Freud believed that he knew.
At the center of Freud's work lies a fundamental perception: human beings are not generally unified creatures. Our psyches are not whole, but divided into parts, and those parts are usually in conflict with one another. The id, or the "it," is an agent of pure desire: it wants and wants and does not readily take no for an answer. The superego, or over-I, is the internal agent of authority. It often looks harshly upon the id and its manifold wants. The superego, in fact, frequently punishes the self simply for wishing for forbidden things, even if the self does not act on those wishes at all. Then there is the ego, trying to broker between the it and the over-I, and doing so with the greatest of difficulty, in part because both agencies tend to operate outside the circle of the ego's awareness. The over-I and the it often function unconsciously. Add to this problem the fact that "the poor ego," as Freud often calls it, must navigate a frequently hostile outside world, and it is easy to see how, for Freud, life is best defined as ongoing conflict. In a passage in "The Ego and the Id," Freud observes that the ego is a "poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido of the id and from the severity of the superego. Three kinds of anxiety correspond to these three dangers, since anxiety is the expression of a retreat from danger."
About this conflict — about this painful anxiety — what is to be done? Humanity, Freud says, has come up with many different solutions to the problem of internal conflict and the pain it inevitably brings. Most of these solutions, Freud thinks, are best described as forms of intoxication. What the intoxicants in question generally do is to revise the superego to make it more bearable. We like to have one glass of wine, then two, Freud suggests, because for some reason — he's not quite sure what it is in scientific terms — alcohol relaxes the demands of the over-I. Falling in love, Freud (and a thousand or so years of Western poetry) attests, has a similar effect. Love — romantic love, the full-out passionate variety — allows the ego to be dominated by the wishes and judgment of the beloved, not by the wishes of the demanding over-I. The beloved supplants the over-I, at least for a while, and, if all is going well, sheds glorious approval on the beloved and so creates a feeling of almost magical well-being. Take a drink (or two), take a lover, and suddenly the internal conflict in the psyche calms down. A divided being becomes a whole, united and (temporarily) happier one.
Freud had no compunction in calling the relationship that crowds forge with an absolute leader an erotic one. (In this he was seconded by Hitler, who suggested that in his speeches he made love to the German masses.) What happens when members of the crowd are "hypnotized" (that is the word Freud uses) by a tyrant? The tyrant takes the place of the over-I, and for a variety of reasons, he stays there. What he offers to individuals is a new, psychological dispensation. Where the individual superego is inconsistent and often inaccessible because it is unconscious, the collective superego, the leader, is clear and absolute in his values. By promulgating one code — one fundamental way of being — he wipes away the differences between different people, with different codes and different values, which are a source of anxiety to the psyche. Now we all love the fatherland, believe in the folk, blame the Jews, have a grand imperial destiny. The tyrant is also, in his way, permissive. Where the original superego has prohibited violence and theft and destruction, the new superego, the leader, allows for it, albeit under prescribed circumstances. Freud's major insistence as a theorist of group behavior is on the centrality of the leader and the dynamics of his relation to the group. In this he sees himself as pressing beyond the thinking of predecessors like the French writer Gustave Le Bon, who, to Freud's way of thinking, overemphasized the determining power of the group mind. To Freud, crowds on their own can be dangerous, but they only constitute a long-term brutal threat when a certain sort of figure takes over the superego slot in ways that are both prohibitive and permissive.
As the Nazis arrived in Vienna, many gentile Viennese, who had apparently been tolerant and cosmopolitan people, turned on their Jewish neighbors. They broke into Jewish apartments and stole what they wanted to. They trashed Jewish shops. They made Jews scrub liberal political slogans off the sidewalk, first with brushes and later with their hands. And they did all of this with a sense of righteous conviction — they were operating in accord with the new cultural superego, epitomized by the former corporal and dispatch runner, Adolf Hitler.
On the day after Hitler arrived in Vienna, a gang of Nazis stormed into Freud's apartment, at 19 Berggasse. They ransacked the place and made off with a fairly large sum of money. ("I never got so much for a single session," Freud, never at a loss, observed.) They only left, it is said, when the old man, trembling and frail, appeared from out of his consulting room and fixed them in his long-practiced stare. The Nazis, the story continues, scrambled for the door.
In his last days, Freud became increasingly concerned about our longing for inner peace — our longing, in particular, to replace our old, inconsistent and often inscrutable over-I with something clearer, simpler and ultimately more permissive. We want a strong man with a simple doctrine that accounts for our sufferings, identifies our enemies, focuses our energies and gives us, more enduringly than wine or even love, a sense of being whole. This man, as Freud says in his great book on politics, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego," must appear completely masterful. He must seem to have perfect confidence, to need no one and to be entirely sufficient unto himself. Sometimes this man will evoke a god as his source of authority, sometimes not. But in whatever form he comes — whether he is called Hitler, Stalin, Mao — he will promise to deliver people from their confusion and to dispense unity and purpose where before there were only fracture and incessant anxiety. But, of course, the price is likely to be high, because the simplifications the great man offers will almost inevitably involve hatred and violence.
Freud's implicit morality is counterintuitive. Though Freud acknowledged the uses of mild intoxicants like love and art, he was nonetheless extremely suspicious of any doctrine or activity that promised to unify the psyche — or to unify the nation, the people — without remainder and to do so forever. Freud believed that the inner tensions that we experience are by and large necessary tensions, not because they are so enjoyable in themselves — they are not — but because the alternatives to them are so much worse. For Freud, a healthy psyche is not always a psyche that feels good. For Herbert Marcuse, author of a brilliant meditation on Freud, "Eros and Civilization," Freud's politics are potentially the politics of ecstasy. We can collectively undo our repressions and regress toward collective erotic bliss. For Philip Rieff, author of the equally perceptive and original "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist," Freud appears to be a deep political pessimist who thinks that the healthiest individuals will probably be those who turn completely away from politics. But another way to look at Freud is to see him as someone who suggests that a considerable measure of freedom and even relative happiness can come from following a self-aware middle way. If we are willing to live with some inner tension, political as well as personal, we need never be overwhelmed by tyranny or fall into the anarchy that giving into the unconscious completely can bring.
For Freud, we might infer, a healthy body politic is one that allows for a good deal of continuing tension. A healthy polis is one that it doesn't always feel good to be a part of. There's too much argument, controversy, difference. But in that difference, annoying and difficult as it may be, lies the community's well-being. When a relatively free nation is threatened by terrorists with totalitarian goals, as ours is now, there is, of course, an urge to come together and to fight back by any means necessary. But the danger is that in fighting back we will become just as fierce, monolithic and, in the worst sense, as unified as our foes. We will seek our own great man; we will be blind to his foibles; we will stop questioning, stop arguing. When that happens, a war of fundamentalisms has begun, and of that war there can be no victor.
Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. He is currently completing a book about the last two years of Freud's life.