Psychoanalysis may be finished, but Adam Phillips has apparently not gotten the memo. Soldiering on, Phillips has produced a long and intricate essay on the Freudian theory of conscience and self-criticism.
To what purpose remains to be seen.
Since Phillips declares that we can over-interpret and under-interpret, it is worth noting that we can also overcomplicate and oversimplify matters. In his essay on self-criticism Phillips overcomplicates several matters.
Therein he joins those who made a career out of obfuscating Freudian thought. One suspects that they are doing so in order to hide the truth, but that would mean that true-believing Freudians are in the business of repression.
Who would’ve thunk it?
Anyway, Phillips begins by quoting the great obfuscator himself, my old friend Jacques Lacan. And he finds a place where Lacan’s thought is uncharacteristically clear. Here Lacan is taking issue with Christ, even though the rule first appeared in Leviticus 19; 18:
Lacan said that there was surely something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself – because actually, of course, people hate themselves. Or you could say that, given the way people treat one another, perhaps they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves: that is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard.
One appreciates the overly clever cynicism, but if human beings had really treated each other as badly as Lacan thinks they have, there would never have been any functioning human communities. And since human beings always live in communities, most of which function at one level or another, Lacan’s pessimism, as Freudian as it is, falls short.
Here, Lacan is being a good Freudian. Note the word “actually.” It suggests that your self-loathing is more authentic than whatever positive feelings you have about yourself.
Psychoanalysis is based on the notion that people all hate each other. Freud, we recall, believed that his fellow humans were trash. One is tempted to say that Lacan is just talking about himself and those who became part of his school, but that would appear to be churlish.
Still and all, if Lacan has offered the Freudian truth here he is implying that those who do not hate themselves and others have not been properly psychoanalyzed.
Phillips does not say so but he is really addressing the positive psychology of Martin Seligman et al. And he is attempting to undermine cognitive treatments that, by his misreading, attempt to ignore the fundamental badness of human beings in favor of a rosy scenario where people love themselves and even their neighbors.
One suspects that Phillips has addressed the issues raised by the cognitivists in other works. And yet, he ought to have mentioned them here, if only to specify his target.
‘After all,’ Lacan writes, ‘the people who followed Christ were not so brilliant.’
Obviously, this is a gratuitous slur. Beginning with the disciples and apostles, most notably Saul of Tarsus, the people who followed Christ did found a major world religion. I leave it to you to decide whether this shows a lack of intelligence.
You cannot say as much about psychoanalysis, which currently stands as a dying cult. Besides, Lacan once said that the Catholic Church would easily outlive Freudian psychoanalysis.
When it comes to great minds, I venture that a Christian would happily take up the challenge, pitting Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, William of Ockham and Teresa of Avila against Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi and Melanie Klein. Those who still follow Lacan are no longer the best and the brightest.
As it happens, both Lacan and Phillips are obscuring the meaning of the Biblical rule. As it appears in Leviticus and the New Testament it sought to help people to overcome the law of the talion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Leviticus offers two versions of the law. First:
Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
And this, from Leviticus 19; 34:
But treat them just as you treat your own citizens. Love foreigners as you love yourselves, because you were foreigners one time in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
I explained these points in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Apparently and inexplicably, Phillips has not read it.
And yet, for all I know he has read by book and is trying to respond to it in this essay. One does not like to imagine that he would not mention a book that has provoked his thoughts because he does not want to give it any attention.
Be that as it may, from whence cometh the self-loathing that is displayed by the Freudian superego.
Unfortunately, it makes some sense.
After all, your heart’s desire is to copulate with your mother and if you are willing to commit patricide to accomplish that end, then you might very well end up hating yourself.
If that is what you really, really want to do, then a goodly amount of crippling self-loathing might be necessary lest you act on your depraved desires.
In his essay Phillips is addressing the advent of the human moral sense. Since he, a good Freudian, can only understand it within the context of a culturally imposed narrative, he places it within the Oedipus complex.
He does not want to deny the Oedipus complex and wants to explain why more people don’t act on it, so Phillips like Freud and like Lacan must believe that the human mind is divided against itself, engaged in a permanent struggle against its depraved desires.
Phillips offers a clever twist here, one that Lacan might well accept. Meditating on human ambivalence, he declares that love and hate are so closely entwined that we often love people we hate and hate people we love.
If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us. And who frustrates us more than ourselves?
Unfortunately, this is a bit too clever. If someone who can satisfy us refuses, do we really want to destroy him or her? We might want to try to be more charming. We might look to someone else for satisfaction.
As often happens in Freudian thought, the narrative obscures reality.
Surely, it does happen that we grow to hate certain people, but often the reason has more to do with a betrayal than with a failure to satisfying our wants and needs. We hate people who threaten us, and a refusal to satisfy our wants and needs rarely counts as a threat to our being. We are more likely to hate a spouse who has humiliated us by having an affair with our neighbor than we are to hate him or her for turning down a sexual request.
As for the notion that we frustrate ourselves, this assumes that we are using ourselves to satisfy ourselves. This harkens back to an old definition of narcissism, to the effect that the narcissist takes his own body to be the object of his sexual desire.
One might have difficulty imagining why this formula would ever be frustrating. With the notable exception of your sexual functioning, your body, after all, is not going to say No to whatever you want to do to it.
With one notable and visible exception: the male sexual organ. One hastens to mention the importance of phallic functioning for Lacan's theorizing, but one would be remiss if one did not underscore, as I did in my book, that Augustine of Hippo first opined on the fact that this single organ did not respond to the will's commands. And it did not function automatically like the heart.