Freud is food for indigestion. Indigestion! What a mistake. That’s not what I meant to say, which was “food for thought.” Are you sure about that? asks Freud. In fact, you have committed a Freudian slip, whereby you unintentionally reveal your true thoughts through a slip of the tongue. And you are not alone. Everyone does this sooner or later. It can’t be helped. In his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud catalogues the instances. It makes amusing if discomfiting reading – the stumbles of the mind.
Not even the Washington elite are immune from such stumbles. At a lavish dinner party, Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, started to talk about a recent encounter with her boss. “As I was telling my husb…as I was telling the President.” The slip, suggestive of an affection beyond the political, was the talk of the cocktail circuit for many days.
Yet speaking of Freud in terms of indigestion is not wide of the mark. That’s how many people feel when they first read him. His unsparing search of the unconscious turns up many items you would just as soon not know about. That’s his method. By removing the repressions that conceal your thoughts and desires, he lets you live more comfortably with yourself, no longer burdened with memories of past abuse, particularly from childhood. Freudian psychoanalysis is liberating, not only for the individual but also for society. After the trauma of the First World War, people were ready for the emotional release that Freud offered. His theories caught on in America more than anywhere else.
In fact, he didn’t much care for America – too egalitarian. He had a lofty view of his own role as leading humanity to the promised land of psychoanalysis much as Moses led the Jewish people from Egypt to Canaan. In fact, defying tradition, he identified Moses not as Jewish but as a gentile Egyptian, which was one iconoclastic act too many for his once adoring public. Enough of his theories of psychosexual development. They didn’t pan out and were scientifically invalid. He was overly concerned with self, said critics, especially the sexual self. And psychoanalysis didn’t seem to be of more help to the mentally disturbed than other kinds of treatment. Freudianism was a fad. Its time was up.
Yet Freud persevered. He was aways open to change and refinement of theory. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he acknowledged that pleasure or happiness is not necessarily the main goal in life as he had once thought. He struggled to describe what he termed the death instinct in human beings, made all too vivid by the carnage of the First World War. He abhorred the resulting communism and was imperiled by Nazism.
There is something inherently aggressive in human life, he decided, regardless of circumstance or system. Love is not a solution since love for one group implies enmity toward another. Reality is a permanent “struggle between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction as it works itself out in the human species.” Freud says he is no prophet and cannot offer the consolation that everyone demands from the “wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.” It’s not the stuff of lullaby. The warring instincts are within us all and we must choose. It’s not easy, but then neither is life. Civilization and its Discontents is Freud’s last disturbing word. With that he is finished …oops, a slip… he is forever.