Sigmund Freud was a more radical and speculative thinker than many have been willing to concede. This is apparent in his many discussions of childhood sexuality. For example, few really understand how Freud’s conclusions about childhood sexuality predate by decades the clinical observations of actual children – later done by dutiful analysis, most often by women analysts like Melanie Klein and Freud’s own daughter Anna Freud, most often of children within their own families or close friends. Beyond that, readers sometimes forget that Freud’s commitment to speculation is practically institutionalized within psychoanalysis as the “metapsychology,” Freud at his most theoretical – and also most misunderstood. But it’s really very simple: the metapsychological speculations of the middle period (1912-1920), culminating with the death drive theory of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, simply developed the late Romantic philosophy and materialism of the early (1897-1912) and pre-psychoanalytic periods (before 1897); while the cultural works of the final period (1920-1939) simply developed and ratified the metapsychology of the previous three periods.
Yet instead of finding continuities between these four periods, scholars routinely favor a history characterized by disruption, internal revolution, and discontinuity. Instead of simply accepting the role that Freud himself assigned to metabiological speculation, scholars have spent a lot of effort minimizing or effacing it (thus ‘saving Freud from Freud’). Consequently, instead of seeing Freud’s final phase of cultural works as the natural culmination of Freud’s thinking about history and psychoanalysis, scholars have mostly treated it as a sideshow, sometimes an embarrassing sideshow, of incidental importance to the basic ‘discoveries’ of psychoanalysis.
But these scholars are wrong, as informed readers have known since the publication of Jones’s Freud biography in 1957; or since the publication of Frank Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind in 1979. In both works one is left with a very clear picture of Freud’s commitments to biology. Take Freud’s last complete work, Moses and Monotheism, which has at times been dismissed as the ramblings of a self-loathing misanthrope with failing intellect. While that’s a convenient way to avoid thinking about Freud’s lifelong investment in biology, there’s no evidence at all that the quality of Freud’s thinking declined with age and sickness – only its quantity. The Moses is not, furthermore, a reassuring example of the so-called “late style” – as claimed by Edward Said – since Freud’s misanthropy and brooding late Romanticism didn’t just pop up at the end. On the contrary, and as Said should have known, the so-called “late style” is practically a staple of Freud’s thought throughout his life. Far from disposable, therefore, Moses and Monotheism is the inevitable consequence and, indeed, crowning achievement of Freud’s lifelong Lamarckianism.
Freud’s rude quip that an American patient was unsuited for psychoanalysis because he ‘had no unconscious’ doubles as my own quip to scholars, who refuse to follow Freud down the path of his own most radical speculations. Freud’s own version of the unconscious, based on psycho-Lamarckianism, is mostly missing from the literature – American and European.
This motivated gap in the literature on psychoanalysis, fueled by an incuriosity bordering on professional malpractice, is easily addressed by simply reading Freud. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud playfully enacts, through his rhetoric of repetition, the very theory of Lamarckian inheritance that characterizes his thinking. Such amused yet meaningful playfulness is hardly new in Freud’s work, and its appearance in his last major publication should reassure us that we are very far from an aberrant and therefore disposable ‘old Freud’. In fact, I think just the opposite. In my view the late Freud is very plainly and expertly instructing readers about the meaning of psychoanalysis, the meaning of his own legacy, and the foundation of his life’s work – all of it. And yet his playful discussion of repetition and recapitulation has never, to my knowledge, been fully interpreted in the vast literature on psychoanalysis – nor has it been understood. That’s pretty stunning for a work that was published about 80 years ago.
So why, again, was it missed? Well, the “American” tradition of psychoanalysis – notoriously practical-minded, optimistic about cure, love, and work, and more generally about the future – has made this work of interpretation, based on the fact of Freud’s psycho-biologism, especially difficult. The metabiology, even after Sulloway’s landmark book, remains nearly invisible. Yet Freud was always inclined toward abstraction and philosophy, always driven toward a brooding view of human nature, and, on the basis of his analysis of prehistory, was always pessimistic about change, cure, and the future. Freud’s psychoanalysis was not, in short, “American.” It was perversely European, but on its own terms, in its own way, always eccentrically (so much so that European thinkers of Freud have rarely understood this Freud any better than the Americans).
Freud was the first and only authorized ‘wild analyst’. This isn’t a complaint. The radicality of Freud’s vision, however dated and scientifically untenable, remains the most compelling and interesting aspect of his contested legacy. His passion for thinking is what outlives all his mistakes. It behooves us to respect that legacy, and not simply ignore or transform it into something else, something convenient, something un-Freudian.
Featured image credit: Group photo 1909 in front of Clark University. Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.