Saturday, February 28, 2015

Freud, Hamlet and Conscience

[This post is a continuation of the previous post on Adam Phillips’ psychoanalytic theories of self-criticism. See below.]

In the following passage Phillips launches a veiled attack on positive psychology, on the injunction to love oneself, to see the good in one’s character:

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences? Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves. Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

Of course, powers of discrimination and judgment need not always draw a negative conclusion. Unless you are armed with a flagellant’s whip and feel a need to punish yourself for your miserable sin, conflating judgment with criticism is unjust. Unless of course you are married to the Freudian theory of the superego.

Phillips may be speaking about himself, but there need not be any “violence” in preferences. He has fallen into this trap because, instead of dealing with moral sentiments and affections, he has limited himself to grand passions like love and hate.

When he says that calls to love ourselves make us suspicious or appalled or amused, he should say that he is speaking for himself, but that is all. Most people do not believe that an enhanced awareness of their positive character traits is a lure distracting from the dire Freudian truth.

If a life without a self-critical faculty seems to be an idiocy, what are we to say about a life that is commanded and directed by a self-critical faculty, thus by our feelings of guilt and our need to punish ourselves? Doesn’t the latter seem as mindless as the former?

Ultimately, Phillips will offer a way out of this box, box that is of Freud's creation. But, why is it necessary to get into the box in the first place. Phillips notwithstanding do not imagine that the Freudian truth is anything less than Oedipal and tragic?

At this point, perhaps not too strangely Phillips goes off on a long disquisition about the concept of “conscience” in Shakespeare. In itself this appears to be a worthwhile endeavor.

And yet, rummaging through Shakespeare to examine the different times he uses the word “conscience,” as Phillips does, is not necessarily the best approach. When he adds a series of learned definitions of words like conscience and catch, gleaned from an Elizabethan dictionary he merely beclouds the enterprise.

He would have done better to explore the dramatic context of the play. I agree that the dictionary definition has some relevance. I agree that other uses of the word in other contexts might be relevant. And yet, the dramatic context tells us more. Unfortunately, Phillips mostly ignores it.

Phillips begins with Shakespeare’s line: “… the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

It is easy to overcomplicate this line. The play that Hamlet calls the “thing” is called “The Mousetrap.” It is the famous play-within-a-play that Hamlet asks some traveling players to present before the court.

With the performance Hamlet intends to show King Claudius a theatrical representation of his murder of King Hamlet. He hopes to provoke the king to expose his guilt in front of the court. After all, the King, we are led to believe, has a conscience, that is to say, a moral sense that knows he did wrong. (Obviously, if he was a psychopath Claudius would have a vastly diminished moral sense.)

It’s a ruse, a trap, but unfortunately, one that has little chance of success.

You know what happened. Claudius was moved by the play, but Hamlet was the only one who knew or thought he knew why. For all anyone in the court knew, Hamlet might have been revealing something about himself and might have been announcing his intention to kill a king.

But, if the court did not see the king’s actions as a sign of guilt, Hamlet’s revenge—had he taken it—might have been seen as madness, not as justice for his dead father.

After Claudius left the play, he went to pray, perhaps to do penance for his sins. Hamlet saws him at prayer. Armed with the certainty that Claudius is guilty, but disarmed by the knowledge that his action might well be misinterpreted, he did not take his vengeance.

Is this a sign of ambivalence? Not necessarily. It might well be a sign of a melancholic disposition, manifested in the fact that Hamlet can either over-react or under-react, but cannot get the action right. His is a melancholic disposition. He cannot find the mean between the two extremes, because, for him there is none. Funnily enough, for Freud and psychoanalysis there is none either.

A bit later Hamlet quickly murdered Polonius, who was hiding behind an arras in his mother’s bedchamber. Now he no longer needs to consider himself a coward, but if he is capable of murder and incapable of murdering Claudius, he still might consider himself as not quite up to the real job. He is capable of murder, but not when it counts. This might make him more of a coward.

Murdering Polonius does manage to shift the play’s focus from Hamlet’s revenge of his father’s murder to Laertes’ revenge for his father’s murder.

More on this is in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst

One is tempted to follow Phillips and Freud into Hamlet’s mind. And yet, Hamlet is a fictional character: he is what he says and what he does. By my interpretation, his failure to act exposes his anomie, not his desire.

By that I meant that if he has not succeeded his father on the throne of Denmark how does he know that he is his father’s son. And if he is not his father’s son, and if even his father does not know it, why would he be obliged to murder his uncle… who may, for all he knows, be his real father.

One might say that the action of the play tells all we need to know about the meaning of the word “conscience.” And yet, Phillips avoids such an analysis to look at the way the word is used in Elizabethan English and the way Shakespeare uses it in other contexts.

It is interesting to note, as Phillips does, that in Elizabethan usage, the word conscience is close to the word consciousness, perhaps because in French the word conscience bears both meanings. One imagines that this relates to the old Freudian idea that psychoanalysis was supposed to make the unconscious conscious.

According to Freud depression occurs when the ego turns its hatred for an object against itself.

Phillips summarizes Freud’s thought:

‘We see how one part of the ego,’ he writes in Mourning and Melancholia, ‘sets itself over against the other, judges it critically and, as it were, takes it as its object.’ The mind, so to speak, splits itself in two, and one part sets itself over the other to judge it. It ‘takes it as its object’: that is to say, the super-ego treats the ego as though it were an object not a person. In other words, the super-ego, the inner judge, radically misrecognises the ego, treating it as if it can’t answer back, as if it doesn’t have a mind of its own (it is noticeable how merciless and unsympathetic we can be to ourselves in our self-criticism). It is intimated that the ego – what we know ourselves to be – is the slave of the super-ego. How have we become enslaved to this part of ourselves, and how and why have we consented? What’s in it for us?

One must mention that cognitive psychology, to say nothing of cognitive therapy has definitively refuted this notion. One must add that a therapy based on externalizing anger and hatred has never been an effective treatment for depression.

Phillips offers this explanation of Freud’s use of Shakespeare:

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud used Hamlet as, among other things, a way of understanding the obscene severities of conscience.

‘The loathing which should drive [Hamlet] on to revenge,’ Freud writes, ‘is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.’ Hamlet, in Freud’s view, turns the murderous aggression he feels towards Claudius against himself: conscience is the consequence of uncompleted revenge. Originally there were other people we wanted to murder but this was too dangerous, so we murder ourselves through self-reproach, and we murder ourselves to punish ourselves for having such murderous thoughts. Freud uses Hamlet to say that conscience is a form of character assassination, the character assassination of everyday life, whereby we continually, if unconsciously, mutilate and deform our own character. So unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we’d be like without it. We know almost nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves.

Freud is showing us how conscience obscures self-knowledge, intimating indeed that this may be its primary function: when we judge the self it can’t be known; guilt hides it in the guise of exposing it. This allows us to think that it is complicitous not to stand up to the internal tyranny of what is only one part – a small but loud part – of the self. So frightened are we by the super-ego that we identify with it: we speak on its behalf to avoid antagonising it (complicity is delegated bullying). But in arguing with his conscience, in trying to catch it, with such eloquence and subtlety, Hamlet has become a genius of self-reproach; his conversations with himself and others about conscience allow him to speak in ways no one had ever quite spoken before.

One hesitates to say it, but “the obscene severities of conscience” is a clumsy phrase.

Here Phillips is obscuring the essential Freudian truth. According to Freud Hamlet cannot act because he sees his desire in his uncle’s actions. Hamlet suffers from an unanalyzed Oedipus complex, nothing more or less.

Phillips is not quite correct to say that at one level Freudian theory sees us murdering ourselves, destroying our character because it is too dangerous to try to murder the one person we really want to murder.

He does, however, expose a basic truth about Freud. Freudian psychoanalysis is an extended effort is self-flagellation and self-punishment. It does not necessarily turn the ego’s hatred against itself, but it punishes itself for having such impure thoughts.

As I have explained, Freud is the father of negative psychology. To be fair, Phillips, following Lacan, wants to save us from our sins, but, one does not quite understand why anyone needs to descend that deeply into negativity before being rescued from it.

Phillips continues to explain that the superego tells us who we really are. This makes very little sense, unless, of course, you believe that you are functionally and essentially depraved and perverted.

Phillips also suggests that we enjoy the kind of moral flagellation that constitutes self-criticism. A medieval monk might very well believe, though medieval monks also believed in redemption and salvation and heavenly bliss... through the church:

The super-ego casts us as certain kinds of character; it, as it were, tells us who we really are; it is an essentialist; it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do. And, like a mad god, it is omniscient: it behaves as if it can predict the future by claiming to know the consequences of our actions – when we know, in a more imaginative part of ourselves, that most actions are morally equivocal, and change over time in our estimation. (No apparently self-destructive act is ever only self-destructive, no good is purely and simply that.) Self-criticism is an unforbidden pleasure: we seem to relish the way it makes us suffer. Unforbidden pleasures are the pleasures we don’t particularly want to think about: we just implicitly take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment, that every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace, or where these rather punishing standards come from. How can we find out what we think of all this when conscience never lets go?

Later in his essay, Phillips expands on Freud’s muddled thought:

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are as nothing compared with the murderous mufflings and insinuations and distortions of the super-ego because it is the project of the super-ego, as conceived of by Freud, to render the individual utterly solipsistic, incapable of exchange. Or to make him so self-mortified, so loathsome, so inadequate, so isolated, so self-obsessed, so boring and bored, so guilty that no one could possibly love or desire him. The solitary modern individual and his Freudian super-ego, a master and a slave in a world of their own. ‘Who do I fear?’ Richard III asks at the end of his play, ‘Myself? There’s none else by.’

Like all unforbidden pleasures self-criticism, or self-reproach, is always available and accessible. But why is it unforbidden, and why is it a pleasure? And how has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, unimaginative as it usually is? Self-reproach is rarely an internal trial by jury. A jury, after all, represents some kind of consensus as an alternative to autocracy. Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgment as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma not over-interpretation. Psychoanalysis sets itself the task of wanting to have a conversation with someone – call it the super-ego – who, because he knows what a conversation is, is definitely never going to have one. The super-ego is a supreme narcissist.

Here, Phillips (following Freud) has introduced a twist. He presents the superego as something of an ultimate horror, a function of your mind that has nothing else to do but to beat you up and make you loathsome to yourself.

This might or not be true. Phillips and Freud take it as an article of faith. But, after they have created this pronominal monstrosity—recall that the German for superego is Uber-Ich—they propose to rescue you from it.

Evidently, as I have argued extensively, Freudian moral theory is based on guilt and the threat of punishment. Specifically, it is based on the threat of castration. Freud went as far as to say that women are moral inferiors because they are impervious to castration threats.

Phillips wants to redeem this aspect of the theory so he confuses the issue:
The super-ego, by definition, despite Freud’s telling qualifications, under-interprets the individual’s experience. It is, in this sense, moralistic rather than moral. Like a malign parent it harms in the guise of protecting; it exploits in the guise of providing good guidance. In the name of health and safety it creates a life of terror and self-estrangement. There is a great difference between not doing something out of fear of punishment, and not doing something because one believes it is wrong. Guilt isn’t necessarily a good clue as to what one values; it is only a good clue about what (or whom) one fears. Not doing something because one will feel guilty if one does it is not necessarily a good reason not to do it. Morality born of intimidation is immoral. Psychoanalysis was Freud’s attempt to say something new about the police.

True enough, guilt does not tell what one values. If so, then the Freudian attempt to produce a morality out of guilt fails. Phillips introduces his own concepts, like believing that something is wrong. In truth, this cannot function as a moral principle without there being a sanction for doing wrong.

And yet, Freud was not just trying to say something new about the police. The assertion is glib. Freud was attempting to recreate a form of human being that would have overcome shame and dispensed with the ethic that would make it into a social being. And he was leaving the way to salvation open-- for others to find.

He and Lacan wanted people to overcome guilt, but especially they wanted people to overcome shame. If desire is based on a taboo—the theory suggests that you only want what you are forbidden to have—then  Freudian creatures must descend into a constant conflict between their desires and the threat of punishment... as a prelude to redemption.

In the end, by my lights, they move beyond morality and beyond immorality… they attain to amorality. They defeat the superego and march bravely forth to fulfill themselves, to act on their desires … regardless of what anyone thinks.

For his part, Phillips believes in the redemptive power of love. One might say that, in so doing, he has merely confirmed by argument, to the effect that, at root, Freudian psychoanalysis was destined to become a pseudo-religion.

In his words:

What is this appetite for confinement, for diminishment, for unrelenting, unforgiving self-criticism? Freud’s answer is beguilingly simple: we fear loss of love. Fear of loss of love means forbidding certain forms of love (incestuous love, or interracial love, or same sex love, or so-called perverse sexuality, or loving what the parents don’t love, and so on).

Obviously, Freudian psychoanalysis must first convince us that we are criminals. Then it teaches us to punish ourselves with bouts of self-flagellation or self-criticism. Finally, in the hands of Lacan—though to a far lesser extent in Freud—it offers redemptive love… within a worldwide cult.

Other more timid souls will say that by overcoming and repressing these impulses we arrive at a later stage of object love and live happily ever after.

Phillips seems to belong to this camp. And Freud occasionally holds out such hope. The problem is that Freud’s great mythic creatures, Oedipus and Narcissus, did not live happily ever after.

To imagine that Freud’s late myth of the primal horde can possibly lead to true love and happy marriages is naïve to an extreme.

Phillips offers his own twist:

We are encouraged by all this censorship and judgment to believe that forbidden, transgressive pleasures are what we really crave; that really, essentially, deep down, we are criminals; that we need to be protected primarily from ourselves, from our wayward desires.

In essence, he is saying that psychoanalysis is a con. But what is the point of convincing us that our truest desires are to commit criminal actions, see the example of Oedipus, if they are not? If it opens the way to redemption, then perhaps it should be offering a way out of itself.

And yet, if Freud did not believe in the Oedipus complex he believed in nothing. Surely, Lacan believed that our desires are fundamentally criminal… and yet he held out a hope for allowing us to act on them—while redeeming us from the attendant guilt. Again, this would make human beings into supernormal creatures, akin to the Nietzschean Ubermensch.

How do you arrive at this point? If you are Phillips (and perhaps Zizek) you reduce the superego to a joke. You ridicule it. You make it like Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.

And you think that the superego is going to take this lying down? You think that it will roll over and play dead, allowing you to do what you want… without fearing punishment?

After regaling us with the horrors of the superego Phillips is suggesting that psychoanalysis liberate us from a problem that is, after all, its own creation.

And yet, once you make it that strong and that dominating, why would anyone believe that you can flick your magic wand and reduce it to a clown.

Even Lacan, who often got beyond the restrictions posed by the superego, admitted publicly, late in his life, that he too had a superego. And, for that fact he was compelled to declare that psychoanalytic practice was a scam.

And yet, he too sought redemption. He knew that people would always need to belong to groups, but he did not quite know how to bring together a social group made up of Ubermenschen.

The question remains open.


Sam L. said...

Psychoanalyzing Hamlet is a mug's game. It's what The Bard gave us, for his own reasons. One of which was likely commercial. It has been fairly profitable. over the last 4-500 years.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Phillips wants to redeem this aspect of the theory so he confuses the issue: "The super-ego, by definition, despite Freud’s telling qualifications, under-interprets the individual’s experience. It is, in this sense, moralistic rather than moral. ... There is a great difference between not doing something out of fear of punishment, and not doing something because one believes it is wrong. Guilt isn’t necessarily a good clue as to what one values; it is only a good clue about what (or whom) one fears. Not doing something because one will feel guilty if one does it is not necessarily a good reason not to do it. Morality born of intimidation is immoral. Psychoanalysis was Freud’s attempt to say something new about the police."

I find these arguments compelling, and I'm not convinced there's clear destination in describing the super-ego's psychic function, and it is NOT unique to Freud or his followers to look how the super-ego is defeated, but a universal strategy of humanity.

re: And you think that the superego is going to take this lying down? You think that it will roll over and play dead, allowing you to do what you want… without fearing punishment?

It is funny to this of this internal battle with the autonomous super-ego who judges us mercilessly, but mostly it seems a softer voice to me, more like the Catholic Angel on one shoulder, and devil on the other.

When the superego angel whispers kindly into your ear "Don't eat that last piece of cake, you've already had 3 pieces, you'll get sick", the superego is offering very good parental advice, but the "punishment" feeling sick is merely a predictable consequence, and yet predictions can be wrong, and perhaps you won't feel sick, and then you can think you pulled one over that meddling voice, but does the super-ego really care that it was wrong? I don't know.

And its sort of like a parent telling you not to cross the street when you're 2, and getting a spanking when you're caught trying to cross the street is better than getting hit by a car, but at some point you'll see others being able to safely cross the street, and they are not ALWAYS hit by cars when they try, so the parental advice was good, pay attention, and when you've learned that lesson, the super-ego needs some adjustment.

But of course, perhaps morality isn't about mere safety, but harder issues like not lying.

So ideally, if we're connected to our conscience we'll know when we're being deceitful, know when what we've just said is inaccurate, when we're telling a story to avoid responsibility, then its sort of like looking both ways when you cross the street. If you have a chance to lie without being caught, you can do a mental calculation whether avoiding temporary discomfort over embarressing behavior that can be covered up is worth longer term risks of exposure. And the super-ego will say "tell the truth or..." and if you don't, then the experiment has begun, and you can see how accurate the superego is in predicting the future.

And maybe that's something important. We feel guilty when we can predict negative consequences to our actions, but innocent when negative consequences surprise us.

And this idea takes me back to the ideals of "love and hate." I think you can "love a bully" as long as he is predictable and manageable, and has some other redeeming qualities, as long as you can find a strategy to work around his negative behavior. But someone who is unpredictable will earn our hatred, because they gave us a false sense of security.

On the other hand, perhaps we might "hate a saint". And even when we wrongly take our anger out on them, they can project nothing but kindness and empathy in return, something your superego doesn't feel like you deserve. So the saint would seem to be "punishing" the superego's sense of consequences.