Friday, September 4, 2009

The Trouble With Freud

Surely, it is a good thing that economists are engaged in a noisy debate about the meaning of the financial crises.

Paul Krugman has just written an extensive analysis of the situation. Given the author it is a polemic; and given the author it is worthy of your attention. Link here.

I was especially struck by Krugman's opening header: "Mistaking Beauty for Truth." I read it and thought: this is the trouble with Freud.

I have often heard serious Freudians declaim for the greatness of Freudian theory because it is beautiful. They are not wrong to emphasize the beauty of Freud's theoretical edifice.

His logic is impeccable, his arguments hold together with a tightness you would only find in fiction, and his case studies actually read like fictions. There are no loose ends, unless you count the hapless patients who, like Dora, found it insulting and just walked away.

Those of us who have looked into the facts behind the case studies have been forced to conclude-- often reluctantly-- that Freud was happy to distort reality in favor of a good story.

And, after all, good stories are often more satisfying than reality.

From this to the notion that Freud was purveying scientific truth is one leap too far. I believe it was Leslie Farber who offered the best rejoinder to those who assert the aesthetic value of Freudian theory. His retort, roughly paraphrased, was: it may be a beautiful edifice, but it is unfit for human habitation.

Translated, this means that it is beautiful to look at, but grossly impractical when you want to go about the business of living your life.

Freud became famous by asserting that he had solved the mystery of human motivation. Behaviors that we could not understand were actually intelligible, and even meaningful. The only thing that was preventing us from seeing their meaning was our unwillingness to face the truth.

Whether it was a dream, a psychological symptom, an irrational outburst, a slip of the tongue, or a mistake remembering... these were all clues to a mystery that was waiting to be solved.

Like the tragedy of Oedipus human life was a crime story that had long awaited Freud's superior sleuthing. Freud pretended nothing less than showing us the meaning of life. For him this involved revealing whodunit and what happened.

If you are not an adept at Freudspeak, I will tell you that the outcome of the criminal investigation called psychoanalysis is always that you did it.

To make sense of life's mysteries, Freud proposed, we need but change the context. Place them all in the right crime story and their contradictions and inconsistencies will fade away. Everything will make sense; everything will be neatly wrapped up in a satisfying solution.

Justice will have been done.

Is life really just an unsolved crime? That, my friends, is quite a leap of faith. Surely, the techniques employed by a Sherlock Holmes have nothing to do with everyday crime scene investigation. It is not irrelevant that Holmes and his avatars always demean the work of everyday police detectives.

As for the task of living your life as though it were a story, the people who come closest to achieving that dubious goal are saints, zealots, and cult followers.

These asocial beings sacrifice their lives to one or another cause. If that is your choice, good luck. If you believe that this constitutes cure, you really need to give the matter some more thought.

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