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May 14, 2006

 

On Sigmund Freud's 150th Anniversary: "Finis Austriae" Redux


Sigmund Freud: 150th Anniversary
Freud tried to teach us that frustration is part of the price we have to pay for the preservation of civilized life. From his own experiences of the Nazi brutalities as but one example of totalitarian atrocities, he knew well that it was a price well worth paying. He believed that we were but a veneer’s thickness away from barbarism.

This is a lesson we all need to re-teach each other at the very moment that we have just learned that, as Americans, we have become victimized by tools of mass surveillance, capable of totalitarian control and domination by the very governmental regime to whom we had entrusted the guarantee of our democratic freedoms.



Sigmund Freud was born 150 years old this week, and the general sense of regard for him has never been lower. In modern times, there is almost no intellectual or character fault that hasn’t been attributed to him or his body of work. It is now as fashionable to revile him as it once was to revere him. His theoretical investigations and hypotheses have been the object of obsessive historical and biographical research aimed at the subversion of almost any major element of clinical worth. Nevertheless, the feverish tone of the myriad attacks upon him paradoxically gives life to a suspicion that he might well a greater man than any of his detractors.

If Freud were truly as worthless a figure as he is now claimed to be, why would it be so important for so many to bury him so often and for so long? It is perhaps precisely because that no matter what aspect, what major perspective or minor detail, is thrown aside, Freud and reconsiderations or reconstructions of his ideas continue to reappear. As Dr. Anthony Daniels recently observed,
“With Freud, it is not easy to say precisely what his achievement was; but a man who created, in [W. H.] Auden’s phrase, a climate of opinion the world over must have been out of the ordinary.”
The criticisms leveled against Freud and his claims have been widely ranging, with varying degrees of sophistication and justification. The differing focuses of the attacks have have included questions of scientific validity, the reliability of his accounts of the origins pathology and mutative factors of treatment, as well as the detrimental effects of some practical applications of his theories.

Nevertheless, even if many of the charges against Freud are true, a man is not necessarily responsible for the uses to which his ideas are put. Moreover, Freud clearly was exceptionally gifted. It is clear that from the time that his reputation began to appear upon the world-stage that he was a very brilliant man, and not simply in the less admirable art of self-promotion. He was possessed of literary gifts reserved for only the rarest of intellectual giants. His creatively inventive attempts to overcome mankind’s enduring emotional suffering were awe inspiring; his uncanny, profound ability to find significance in small details (and the gift of that legacy) cannot help but leave us feeling that we have been afforded the rare opportunity to be in the company of a genius.

Although his writings were not scientific in the positivistic empirical sense, there is no doubt that it was the body of his work that made us aware of just how hidden and inaccurately understood human motivation can be, as well as how little credence we can assign to what we claim to be our consciously avowed intentions. It follows that it should be needless (although in fact, time proves it crucially ever-needful) to show just how important, though also how difficult, it is for us to know ourselves.

Freud’s thinking has had an enormous influence upon all of us was, and it is unimaginable how there could be a return to a pre-Freudian way of thinking. Despite how rigorously, and regardless of the many ways, that we have thrown him away, yet he continues to return. We just cannot rid ourselves of the potent, even if seldom clearly visible, fact that he enunciated deep if unprovable truths about ourselves that had never been so clearly enunciated before.

Freud’s views were not simplistic, certainly not as simplistic as those of his critics. His view of human life was a tragic one, rather than a naively optimistic. He tried to teach us that frustration was part of the price we have to pay for the preservation of civilized life. From his own experiences of the Nazi brutalities as but one example of totalitarian atrocities, he knew well that it was a price well worth paying. He believed that we were but a veneer’s thickness away from barbarism — and in the light of subsequent events in the 20th century, who can say that he was not prescient?

And just as crucially important, it is a lesson we all need to re-teach each other at this very moment that we have learned that, as Americans, we have become victimized by tools of mass surveillance capable of potentially totalitarian control and domination by the very governmental regime to whom we had entrusted the guarantee of our democratic freedoms.

Let us remember the two words that Freud wrote in his diary when the Gestapo came to turn him out of Vienna. They have a poignant, moving and infinitely dignified greatness about them: "Finis Austriae." Let us also hope that those two words are not returning to haunt America.

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