What happened to neurosis?
In the old days neurosis was the gold standard in mental affliction. Now, psychiatrists ignore it.
Naturally, some people feel nostalgic for the good old days when people were neurotic.
Benedict Carey asks where the neurotics have gone and whether losing them is our loss.
Carey frames the issue:
For a generation of postwar middle-class Americans, being neurotic meant something more than merely being anxious, and something other than exhibiting the hysteria or other disabling mood problems for which Freud used the term. It meant being interesting (if sometimes exasperating) at a time when psychoanalysis reigned in intellectual circles and Woody Allen reigned in movie houses.
This excellent paragraph shows us the signposts that point us toward an answer.
Neurosis is a relic of the age of Freudian psychoanalysis. Freudian treatment did not promise cure. It was offering up understanding and insight. In practice, psychoanalysis was encouraging patients to become more entertaining.
Today, new medications and new forms of talk therapy—especially cognitive approaches—have made cure and treatment the primary goals. You cannot revel at the entertainment value of anxiety and still work to diminish it or even to mitigate its pain.
Under the new regime psychological symptoms are no longer considered to be expressions of underlying issues. They are either neurological impairments, treatable by medication, or bad habits, treatable by being replaced with good habits.
Carey is right to invoke the name of Woody Allen. In the old days Woody Allen was New York’s and America’s greatest psychoanalytic patient.
During his three decades of psychoanalysis Allen became a wealthy artist surrounded by a bevy of beauteous women. He demonstrated the truth of one of Freud's ideas: the one right and proper sublimation of libido is artistic expression.
For New York psychoanalysis, Woody Allen was what professional football teams call a franchise player. People flocked to analyst’s offices because they wanted to become like Woody Allen.
Unfortunately, it ended badly. It ended so badly that psychoanalysts have been hard at work disclaiming Woody Allen as their poster patient.
Two decades or so ago Mia Farrow, the mother of Woody Allen’s son, Satchel, discovered pornographic Polaroids of her adopted daughter Soon-yi Previn in Woody Allen’s apartment.
When called to account for his scandalous behavior, Woody Allen drew on the reserves of insight that thirty years of psychoanalysis provided him, and proclaimed that he had fallen in love.
Allen ended up marrying Soon-yi, but, in the process he lost his son. Satchel disowned his father, and changed his name to Ronan Farrow. Later he became a Rhodes Scholar.
Let’s admit that it was not a positive therapeutic outcome. Neurotics may look charming, but they also possess a dark side.
If Woody Allen was neurotic when he started psychoanalysis he was just as neurotic when he reached the three decade milestone. It had not cured him; it had not treated what ailed him. It had merely deprived him of any sense of decency.
Perhaps Allen believed that his adoring public was as much in love with love as he was. Didn’t they owe him a pass on his quasi-incestuous indiscretions? Could it be that they were all just a bunch of stuffed-shirt bourgeois pseudo-intellectuals? Didn’t they feel any gratitude for all the entertainment he had provided them?
After Woody Allen it is not surprising that neurosis went out of fashion.
Yet, there is something not-quite-right about labeling Woody Allen with a psychiatric diagnosis. The character fashioned by Woody Allen, in the movies and in life, was really just an everyday nebbish.
The term comes to us from Yiddish. It describes a loser, a sad-sack, an ineffectual, timid, shy character. The proper place for the nebbish is the theatre. Woody Allen was not the first to make nebbishes into entertainment, but no one should see it as a therapeutic outcome.
In the case of Woody Allen aesthetics triumphed over ethical behavior. Unfortunately for psychoanalysis, but he was merely following the letter of the Freudian text. Didn't Freud denounce civilization because it had been built on a foundation of repressed libido.
If advances in psychiatry have deprived us of our stock of nebbishes, perhaps it is not really such a bad thing. It is not such a good thing to be amused by someone else’s weakness and timidity.
Carey also addresses the cultural significance of neurosis:
In today’s era of exquisite confusion — political, economic and otherwise — the neurotic would be a welcome guest, nervous company for nervous days, always ready to provide doses of that most potent vaccine against gloominess: wisecracking, urbane gloominess.
By Freudian definition, neurosis is supposed to be expressing something meaningful. If neurotics are suffering in silence, the theory claims that their anguish expresses their unresolved mental conflicts. If they resolve their issues they will still be neurotics, but their antics will then be expressing something about the way of the world.
Carey expresses the nostalgia for neurosis:
But in the process we’ve lost entirely the romance of neurosis, as well as its physical embodiment — a restless, grumbling, needy presence that once functioned in the collective mind as an early warning system, an inner voice that hedged against excessive optimism.
The phrase “the romance of neurosis” tells us what is at stake. Certainly, Woody Allen believed that he found true love with Soon-yi Previn.
Psychiatry has rendered nebbishes much less entertaining, but they have been succeeded by geeks and nerds who serve an entirely different social function.
You see, geeks and nerds, who used to be considered losers, are no longer acting like clowns on the public stage. They repair computers, write programs, create algorithms, and become high tech entrepreneurs.
All of it diminishes their entertainment value. Geeks and nerds now become productive citizens, titans of industry, pillars of the community, honorable businessmen. Some of them are still awkward, but they are certainly not the entertainment.