University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson was in his late teens when he stumbled across a copy of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud while at a friend’s house, and began to read an excerpt from The Interpretation of Dreams. "I thought it was simply terrible," Edmundson recalls, but a few weeks later, when he found himself back at his friend’s, he tried Freud once more. "I picked it up again and skipped the first chapter and from then on I couldn’t stop," he says. "It was the most fascinating damn thing I’d ever read."
"I think if Freud looked out on our landscape today he’d see the makings of dictatorship in religious fundamentalism and in George Bush, and the makings of chaos in American popular culture," says UVA English professor Mark Edmundson.
The early infatuation led to Edmundson’s dissertation and first book, Towards Reading Freud (to be republished in November), and what is now a three decade-long preoccupation with the father of psychoanalysis. In addition to a 2003 introduction to a Penguin reissue of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the Harper’s contributing editor has also covered Freud in recent pieces for the New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The fascination has now resulted in his newest book, The Death of Sigmund Freud. "I’ve found Freud illuminating during the 30 years that I’ve been reading him and I imagine I will to the end," Edmundson explains, obviously rejecting the notion that Freud and his ideas are outdated. "People are constantly finding things the world has abandoned or turned away from and making them interesting again. That’s what I hope to do."
To accomplish that, oddly enough, Edmundson has narrowed his focus to Freud as he neared the end of his life in the late 1930s. Riddled with cancer of the jaw and laboring to finish what would be his last book, Moses and Monotheism, an 80-year-old Freud was also faced with having to relocate for his final years, his home country of Austria the first of many conquests for Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.
While he was primarily known for his writing on sexuality and dreams, Freud had begun to concentrate on religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Suddenly, he was confronted with the apotheosis of this in Hitler, who only 30 years earlier was a street beggar in Freud’s hometown of Vienna. Then there was Moses, his final subject and the architect of Judaism, who had characteristically undergone a change in Freud’s possession, becoming a restrained and diverse model of leadership.
Freud was also dying, and Edmundson places us within this complete context, finding the psychologist’s ending years as revealing as his more recognized periods. "He continues to be illuminating," says Edmundson. "It doesn’t mean he has the last word, but once he says something it’s always worth taking seriously and worth debating. Of very few thinkers can that be said."
C-VILLE: In your new book, you outline Freud’s lifelong distaste for America.
Mark Edmundson: The attitude to America is fascinating. The line that stays with me is, "America is enormous but it is an enormous mistake." There are a lot of levels to Freud’s resistance to America. One level just seems irrational. He said everybody in America is a moneygrubber; he said people in America have crummy love affairs. Well, how did he know? He spent two and a half weeks here, and that was it.
The second level is a little more interesting. He thought democracy would eventually devolve in the direction of anarchy and that we would never develop the ability to listen to reasonable leaders. We would either be anarchic or slavish in our obedience to this or that leader.
Freud always thought that as soon as we had made all the money we could make—because that was our primary interest—that we would eventually embrace chaotic democracy or go over to dictatorship. Whether we are on the verge of either I’m not sure. I think if Freud looked out on our landscape today he’d see the makings of dictatorship in religious fundamentalism and in George Bush, and the makings of chaos in American popular culture.
There’s a third level to Freud’s resistance to America, and that involves his sense that the stories he had to tell about human beings tended to be dark stories, and that Americans were never going to listen to dark stories about themselves. They required a good deal of cheering up and optimism. So when he said, "We’re bringing them the plague, but they don’t even know it," he might have gone on to say, "And they never will know it either because they’ll never really take in the words I have to say, with their idiotic optimism." That was the gamut of Freud’s take on America.
Balanced against that was Freud’s resignation to Hitler, who he seemed to take in stride.
Yes, he did. Freud thought that we had a deep, abiding hunger for absolute authority. It came from our lives as children when we desperately wanted father figures and mother figures to organize experience for us, to tell us what’s good and bad, right and wrong. And Freud realized that when times got tough we were going to want to re-create that early experience of stability even at very high costs. One of the most disturbing things that Freud insists on through his work is that people never willingly let go of an agreeable emotional situation. They always try to get it back. In this case the situation is the security a father brings. Humanity, Freud thought, is addicted to patriarchy.
What about the dynamic of Freud as a patriarch versus all of his writings about the patriarchal system? There was a duality.
It’s the great paradox in Freud’s work. Freud is himself sometimes patriarchal: He wants to found a major movement; he wants authority; he wants to tell people what’s what. He can be very insistent in his tone; he can be domineering. He was also more than occasionally open to give and take; he could be kindly and flexible, and even to the end of his life he had one of the qualities that an ultimate patriarch or dictator never has, and that is a sense of humor. Hitler probably never told a joke in his life and never laughed at one. The Collected Humor of Adolph Hitler? There’s no such book. Freud wrote a whole volume about jokes with all of his favorites in there. Nobody who writes a book about jokes and loves jokes is a thoroughgoing patriarch. Loving jokes means having the capacity to appreciate off-beat and off-kilter views of the world. It means being drawn to subversion—which dictators hate. Then there’s the fact that Freud wrote so many books and essays designed to unmask coercive authority and our need for it. He was a great patriarch some of the time, yes, but he also wrote and frequently lived to put an end to patriarchy and all other forms of senseless domination.
You juxtapose the lives of Freud and Hitler. Is there any way in which Freud was contrasting Moses to Hitler?
Perhaps it’s implicit in his 1914 essay on Moses, where he talks about Michelangelo’s statue of the prophet. There he depicts Moses as somebody who is both a leader and an ambivalent individual. He feels two things at once. He’s not going to throw those tablets containing the Ten Commandments down—at least according to Freud; he’s going to restrain himself. He’s angry but he’s in conflict with his anger. He can be a divided being and yet a leader. Freud’s theory of the absolute leader—the Hitler type—is that he never shows self-division; he’s always at one with himself.
What Freud’s suggesting is that if we could become mature enough to have leaders who show self-division—rather than leaders who pretend they are fully unified—that would be a great step forward in maturity. I think Freud might be inclined to measure America by the way we responded to Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was hard for a lot of people to say something like, "Yes, he’s a good enough president, but I can’t approve of his personal life." They couldn’t deal well with a leader they perceived as a divided person, good in some ways, bad or sub-par in others. He had to be all good or all bad.
Our current administration is intent in never varying from the same message. If you were a political guru it would almost make sense to read what Freud had to say about despotic leadership.
Yes, in fact there are people who think Hitler read Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. I don’t happen to be one of them. Bush may have taken some of these ideas in after his own fashion. A salient moment in the first debate between Kerry and Bush occurred when a questioner asked Bush what the most memorable mistake was that he had made as president, and he wouldn’t own up to having made a mistake on anything. This was after the Iraq invasion and after a multitude of other errors. He had plenty to choose from. I came to the conclusion then that Bush would win the election. He was providing that image of unity and total authority that people—no matter what they say—tend to hunger for.