Review: Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

Review: Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

Introductory Lectures on PsychoanalysisIntroductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The medulla oblongata is a very serious and lovely object.

When I was in college, I used to get in long and rather aimless arguments with a friend about Freud. The funny thing is, both of us agreed that Freud was fundamentally wrong about most things. The argument was, rather, whether Freud was worth reading and thinking about—and was even potentially useful—in spite of his theories’ veracity. My friend said he wasn’t, and I said he was. I still think this way, which is why, every now and then, I find myself making my way through one of his books.

Probably I should have come to this book sooner. Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is his attempt to give an accessible introduction to his system, and is thus probably one of the best places to start if you’re curious about his work. The lectures, given over one academic year, are divided into three sections: the parapraxes (the “Freudian slips”), the interpretation of dreams, and the neuroses. The material is arranged this way for pedagogical purposes, beginning with the simplest and most easily observable phenomena and ending with genuine mental disorders. By necessity, the last section is both the longest and densest.

One thing that fascinates me about Freud is how a system of ideas with paltry factual support could be so seductive and gripping. For my part, I find Freud’s system remarkably attractive; thinking along his lines has an undeniable emotional appeal, at least in my case. In my review of Civilization and its Discontents, I gave a partial explanation of this by likening Freud’s system in outline to that of Christianity. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, and thus I want to explore it further.

While reading this book, it struck me that Freud’s system is comparable with the Aristotelian physics and cosmology that held sway for so long in the Western world. Both of these systems, Freud’s and Aristotle’s, are so compelling and take such hold of one’s mind because they seem to explain everything while offering very little in the way of falsifiable propositions. Aristotelians could throw around terms like matter, form, ideal, potential, perfect, nature, and soul without providing any circumstances in which these concepts could be tested and disproved.

These categories were specific enough to be rationally compelling, and yet vague enough to be applied to nearly anything. Similarly, Freud created a system that could be applied to history, religion, mythology, and literature, while never specifying how its categories—repression, unconscious, transference, libido, censor etc.—could be disproven. It thus gives the illusion of an airtight and exhaustive system while remaining safe from testability.

The main reason that Freud’s theories are untestable is that they rely on interpretation; and interpretations, by definition, cannot be falsified. Now to be fair I think Freud’s system is most plausible, as a therapeutic technique, when he has his patients interpret their own dreams and symptoms. If a patient is free-associating, it makes sense that they might be able to hit upon an emotionally resonant interpretation.

Nevertheless, I think it would still be incorrect to call even the patient’s interpretation the “true” one, since being emotionally affected by something now in no way proves that this same thing motivated a dream in the past. And this is putting to the side the fact that Freud’s explanation for how dreams are formed relies on unobservable processes and entities that he posits in the mind. But let me stop here before I get sucked down the rabbit hole.

To repeat, then, although I think it cannot be proved that any interpretation of a dream is a “true” one, I still think having patients interpret their dreams might help them to explore their own feelings. But when Freud begins enumerating a kind of “key” for dream interpretation, his system gets really unsupportable. According to Freud, certain things always symbolize other things in dreams, irrespective of the individual, their cultural background, or their experiences. And, of course, most of these symbols are representatives of sexual matters:

We have earlier referred to landscapes as representing the female genitals. Hills and rocks are symbols of the male organ. Fruit stands, not for children, but for the breasts. Wild animals mean people in an excited sensual state, and further, evil instincts or passions. Blossoms or flowers indicate women’s genitals, or, in particular, virginity. Do not forget that blossoms are actually the genitals of a plant.

There is an entire lecture like this; and personally I find it so ludicrous that it makes me deeply suspicious of Freud’s judgment. It relies on so many unsubstantiated premises—that dreams have a deeper meaning, that this deeper meaning is always a desire, that this desire is always illicit and sexual, that somehow certain symbols are universal, and that Freud is somehow privy to this information—that it boggles the mind trying to unravel it.

When Freud does offer the explanation for why one thing symbolizes another, it bears a remarkable similarity to the logic used by conspiracy theorists:

And, speaking of wood, it is hard to understand how that material came to represent what is maternal and female. But here comparative philology may come to our help. Our German word ‘Holz’ seems to come from the same root as the Greek [hule], meaning ‘stuff’ ‘raw material’. … Now there is an island in the Atlantic named ‘Madeira’. This name was given to it by the Portuguese when they discovered it, because at that time it was covered all over with woods. For in the Portuguese language ‘madeira’ means ‘wood’. You will notice, however, that ‘madeira’ is only a slightly modified version of the Latin word ‘materia’, which once more means ‘material’ in general. But ‘material’ is derived from ‘mater’, ‘mother’: the material out of which anything is made is, as it were, mother to it. This ancient view of the thing survives, therefore, in the symbolic use of wood for ‘woman’ or ‘mother’.

Clearly this sort of thing wouldn’t past muster in any scientific journal nowadays, and it’s hard to see how it could have been convincing in Freud’s day either.

The above is just one example of the un-falsifiability inherent in Freud’s thought; and this is a big part, I think, of why his system can be so seductive. But there is another reason for its appeal: It is fundamental to Freud’s system to question the motivations of its detractors. That it, the system has a built-in defense mechanism in that anyone who disagrees can be accused of being a repressed individual who can’t face the truth of his own illicit desires.

To take just one example, let’s look at Freud’s discussion of his famous Freudian slip. In these lectures, he claims that all slips of the tongue are caused by a repressed desire that is finding a distorted expression. Now to be fair, there are definitely many instances when this seems to be the case, that somebody accidentally said something they were trying to keep secret. Nevertheless, it is absurd to claim that all slips of the tongue have this origin. For one, you cannot legitimately make a universal generalization from any finite data set. You cannot, for example, claim that all apples are delicious after you’ve eaten 100 delicious apples. Moreover, and once again, finding the “deeper meaning” of a Freudian slip relies on interpretation, and interpretations can never be objectively determined.

But a more troubling problem for me is that Freud essentially asserts that it is impossible to make an innocent mistake. If you are tired and you misspeak, it cannot just be an error, but must be the expression of a deep and terrible desire of which you are not aware. And if you deny this, it only proves Freud’s point; obviously you can’t face the truth about yourself, you are too repressed. Thus there isn’t any way out. You can’t disprove Freud’s interpretation (since it’s an interpretation and can’t be disproven), and all your protestations only make you look more guilty. And this sort of double bind isn’t restricted to Freud’s theories on slips of the tongue, but apply to the interpretation of dreams and neurotic symptoms. I wouldn’t be surprised if Freud argued that any time somebody fell off a bike it was because of a latent death wish.

To be fair to Freud, none of these criticisms is unique to his system. To the contrary, they can be applied to many, if not all, religious and political ideologies. The questioning of other people’s motivation is especially destructive in the latter sphere, and can be found on both the Right and the Left. Democrats only want to expand social security because they’re communists who want to make everyone dependent on the government; they only want to expand background checks to take away everyone’s guns and make them unable to fight against the government tyranny. Meanwhile, poor whites are too dumb to vote for their own interests, those who disagree with Obama are racists, those with Hillary are sexists, and if you disagree it’s your privilege talking.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that these accusations are necessarily incorrect, and indeed I think they are often quite compelling. Nevertheless I think you have got to be careful when you questions the motivations of your opponent, because it makes it impossible to have a reasonable debate. Probably it’s best to assume good intentions unless proven otherwise. But this brings me pretty far from Freud.

Or does it? I began by saying how useful is Freud even if one disagrees with him, and I think one way is to see how unsupported ideas can become widely accepted. But of course that’s not all.

Freud was, in my opinion, quite obviously brilliant. His ideas were so original and his thought process so novel that it is fascinating just to see him at work. What is more, even if they lack rigor in a scientific setting, Freud’s ideas, terminology, and system have undeniably enriched how we think about the human experience. That dreams can reveal a deeper meaning, that slips of the tongue can reveal hidden intentions, that desires can be repressed, that traumatic memories can be unconscious, that much of your motivation lies beyond your conscious awareness—all this and more we owe to Freud.

Two weeks ago I was walking through the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where there is a wonderful painting by Salvador Dalí: Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. The painting, which makes no rational sense, was partly inspired by Freud’s ideas on the dream-logic, how ideas get associated in the unconscious. Thus the elements in the painting are associated, not by reason, but by other chains of association—the sounds of their names, specific memories, visual properties, sexual desires. The entire logic of the painting can thus be said to be Freudian. Now, considering this, can you argue that he didn’t enrich our culture?

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Review: Interior Castle

Review: Interior Castle

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls

Last week I spend five days walking on the Camino de Santiago. I know, probably that doesn’t sound terribly impressive to anyone who walked all the way from France, but I still had a great time. Every morning we set out before sunrise, when the lush landscape of Galicia was still shrouded in mist and twilight. We walked on and on, guided by the conch shell signs that point the way. We reached our destination just as the heat of the day began to take hold. My back sore, my feet blistered, I dropped my backpack in the hostel and stretched out in my bunkbed. Besides walking, sleeping, and eating, the only thing I did was to read this book: St. Teresa’s book on prayer.

It seemed like an appropriate choice. Both Santiago (St. James) and St. Teresa are patron saints of Spain; and yet they represent two very different periods in Spain’s history. The cult of Santiago dates from the time of the Moors, when Christians needed a figure to rally around during the Reconquista. St. Teresa, on the other hand, lived during the Counter-Reformation. As the Catholic world was coming apart, Catholic officials were understandably skittish at even a hint of heterodoxy. Thus St. Teresa’s mysticism was first viewed with suspicion, and she was even picked up by the Inquisition. But after some investigation, it was decided that St. Teresa posed no threat to orthodoxy; to the contrary, she helped to reinvigorate the faith.

This context is necessary to understand this book, or at least half of it. This is because, although ostensibly guide for prayer, it is also a handbook for avoiding the suspicions of unorthodoxy. It is full of advice for those having mystical experiences on which visions to discount, because they are products of Satan or the imagination, and which visions to accept. Teresa also explains when you should yield to one’s prioress or confessor, and when you should stand your ground. St. Teresa was obviously acutely aware of the paranoid climate, and thus this book is as full of pragmatic counsel as religious guidance. St. Teresa even explains in the beginning that the only reason she wrote the book was because she was commanded to.

As James Michener pointed out, the most striking thing about St. Teresa is this seamless mixture of pragmatism and mysticism. For somebody who reported feeling her soul leave her body, she comes across as remarkably down to earth. Several times, she quotes or references a Biblical passage and then adds parenthetically “Well, at least I think that’s what it says,” as if she couldn’t be bothered to go look it up. She also frequently comments on how inadequate she feels to the task at hand; and a few times she says that she’s unsure whether she is repeating herself, because she wrote the last bit a while ago and she doesn’t have time to reread it. The final effect is really charming, as if she just sat down and dashed off the whole thing between breakfast and lunch.

These interior matters are so obscure to the mind that anyone with as little learning as I will be sure to have to say many superfluous and even irrelevant things in order to say a single one that is to the point. The reader must have patience with me, as I have with myself when writing about things of which I know nothing; for really I sometimes take up my paper, like a perfect fool, with no idea of what to say or of how to begin.

Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious content was what least impressed me. The book is divided into seven mansions within the crystalline castle that represents the soul. Each progressive mansion is one step closer to God. Despite this organization, however, I found the chapters quiet repetitive; the divisions from one stage to another didn’t strike me as very clear. The general tendency is for the mystical experiences to keep growing in intensity, which culminates in the experience of a burning mixture of pleasure and pain that seems to come from nowhere. This is the inspiration for Bernini’s famous, and famously erotic, portrayal of the Saint.

What most bothered me was that the mystical and orthodox strains in Teresa’s thought did not go easily together. Perhaps this is only my taste. One thing I enjoy about mystic writings is their grand conception of the cosmos, the notion that everything apparently opposite and contradictory is one. Thus mystic writers, in my experience, tend not to be especially preoccupied with moral injunctions, since they regard good and evil as a kind of illusion.

But in Teresa, the emphasis on wickedness, on personal shortcomings, on temptation, and in general the whole moral framework of Catholicism made her system as much about avoiding sinfulness and unorthodoxy as achieving a mystical experience. For example, I’ve heard mystics say that each person is a part of God, but Teresa councils that we should contemplate God to realize our own foulness and lowliness. This is just a matter of taste, but I don’t find that appealing.

On the fifth day after we began, at about noon, I found myself standing in front of the two towers of Santiago Cathedral. Later that day, I finished the final pages of this book. I had taken a pilgrimage of the body and soul, and hopefully I’m better for it. In any case, I enjoyed myself and learned something.

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In Praise of Brexit

In Praise of Brexit

Praise of FollyPraise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Review of The Praise of Folly by Erasmus

Folly speaks:

About five hundred years ago, a man named Erasmus decided to publish a book praising me. Unbelievably, no one had this idea before, and none since. Nobody has the time or the inclination—nobody besides Erasmus, that is—to sing my praises, apparently. All the other gods get their encomiums, but not me.
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Well, perhaps I should take the neglect as a compliment. After all, isn’t it the height of folly not to acknowledge the role that folly plays in human life? So is not the neglect a kind of compliment, albeit backhanded?

Nevertheless, some folks need some reminding, it seems, especially after what happened the other day. Oh, you know what I’m talking about: the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. All I’m hearing left and right is how stupid, short-sighted, narrow-minded, and above all foolish it was to vote “leave.” Well, I can’t stand my name being dragged around in the dust any longer, so I’m taking this opportunity to peep up and remind you how much you owe me.

First, let’s follow in Erasmus’s footsteps and take a short trip around Europe. As you might already know, Erasmus may justly be called the first true “European,” since he was such a cosmopolitan fellow and traveled everywhere. Even now, the trans-European student-exchange program is named after Erasmus. You might already know that the most popular destination for the Erasmus program is sunny Spain, where lots of young Britons like to go and get a tan. (Guess they won’t be coming anymore!)

Spain’s a lot different now from when Erasmus was alive. Back then, the Inquisition was in full swing and anybody who wanted to hold public office had to prove his “purity of blood,” which meant he didn’t have any Jewish or Muslims ancestors. Nowadays we don’t see that kind of behavior anymore in Spain; the Spaniards decided that it wasn’t such a good idea. But the folks in England apparently disagree: one UKIP candidate, Robert Blay, got suspended after saying his rival “isn’t British enough.” You see, my foolish devotees never disappear, but only migrate!

Yes indeed, Spain is truly different now. Let’s go to the Mediterranean coast to take a closer look. It’s a veritable mini-England! We can find British pubs, British radio broadcasts, British supermarkets selling British products. We can see retired old Brits eating baked beans and drinking tea as they take in the southern sun. And we can meet some Brits who have lived here for over a decade, and who still can’t speak a word of Spanish! Yes, and in between a pint these same Brits can tell you about how terrible is the EU and how there are too many immigrants in England. Oh, my wonderful followers!

As you might recall, it was around the time Erasmus wrote this book that England decided to leave another international organization: the Catholic Church. And the reasons were, I suppose, similar enough: “We don’t want some Italian Pope telling our king which wife he can or can’t behead!” Thomas More, one of Erasmus’s friends, and to whom this book is dedicated, disagreed with this, and he got beheaded along with the wives. Lots of people didn’t like this, but honestly I can’t say it was such a bad move. Executions are decisive, at least. Some people still agree with this strategy, like the guy who killed the politician Jo Cox. It worked for Henry VIII, so it can work for us!

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Let’s fast forward a bit in time, to the glorious British Empire. By Jingo, it was big! It stretched across the whole world! Look at how these colonial officers stroll around Mumbai, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Sydney! You’ve got to admire them. They don’t ask anybody’s permission to go anywhere, they just walk right in with their guns and biscuits. Doesn’t take long to subdue the native population when you’ve got the Royal Navy on your side! Sure, this approach didn’t please everybody. But, hey, it was the high point of British history. Nowadays, they’re a bit more worried about foreign immigrants colonizing them than the reverse.

Now you see what a big role I’ve played throughout history. You see how many decisions and opinions I’ve inspired! Oh, but now I hear some people saying that the world would be better off without me. Sure, Folly is important, they say, but that doesn’t mean Folly is worth praising. Fair enough, I suppose. Yes, maybe I do cause a bit of mayhem in the world. And yes, maybe I take things too far. But consider this: For every bad decision I inspire, I also provide the remedy.

For without Folly, do you think people could overcome the sheer hypocrisy necessary for their decisions? Without me, do you think people could congratulate themselves for shooting their own foot? Without my soothing balm, do you think people could go to bed with a clean conscience after doing harm to the world? Do you think British people could simultaneously praise the heroic strength of their culture while worrying that a few thousand immigrants could totally destroy their way of life?

No! Of course not! And since happiness is the goal of life, and happiness is most easily achieved through folly, I think that, despite whatever decision I inspire, I still deserve a lot of praise.

So long live Erasmus! Long live Folly! And long live Little England!

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