Thursday, 11 February 2010

Freud and the case for the prosecution, part one*

So, in the words of my old school pal, what do I think about the old boy now? Do Freud's thoughts and writings still have anything to offer me or anyone else? Having spent two years reading and discussing an enormous pile of his writings, what do I reckon? What have I learned?

My pal put the counter-case to me about Freud, organising it under headings, all of them starting with a D, the first of which was . . .


My pal wrote, of Freudian thought and practice: 'It can make people think too much of what happened long ago in childhood, and especially in their relationship with parents. Unfortunately, the events are fixed, and it's easy to spend too long blaming one's family and one's upbringing.'

My answer Yes, but.** There are two questions here, I guess. One, do our early years and relationships have long-term, central impact on our adult life? Two, if they do, can we do anything helpful with that knowledge?

One There is, quite clearly, ample evidence of various kinds about the impact of early experience. (Not that I'm excluding genetic factors, of course. There is ample evidence for them, too.)

The clearest, simplest evidence is probably from attachment theory - not Freud, I know, but he didn't quote it, I think, mostly because it wasn't around in his day. There's a thing called the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

It's twenty questions and lasts about an hour. Get a pregnant woman to answer it and you can predict with astonishing accuracy the emotional tenor and psychological make-up of her unborn child - as a toddler, anyway. If you want to guess how the child will fare as a teenager, you do the AAI on the prospective father.

Two Yes, but, again. Events are rarely 'fixed' - certainly not in the realms of our inner life. Our memories are many layered things - as experiments of all kinds show. We create and construct our past in much the same way as we create what we think of as our vision - out of the same rag bag of bits of sequential realities, memories, general knowledge, our innate drive to find patterns, our predictions and, of course, our desires. Which is why optical illusions work. They screw not with our eyes but with our perceptual organisational system. Our eyes' eyes, perhaps.

As eyes are not movie cameras, so our past is not a movie. Our pasts have a relationship to reality but it's a complex, tangential one. Freud had a word for this: Nachtr├Ąglichkeit***. There's no accepted English translation for it. Mine is: afterwardsness****. The past is not so much a foreign country as a collation of reality and layers of memories and constructions - some of which will be based on memories which are themselves constructions.

Confused? We all are. That's the point.

Freud didn't think of analysis as blaming the parents. He wrote something like: neurotics (ie all of us - though more you than me, of course) suffer from memories. Not events, that is, but memories. To him, analysis was a kind of reality-testing endeavour - a matter of challenging the fantasies (and hence symptoms) by which we lead our lives.

So Larkin was wrong. It's not that your mum and dad fucked you up - though they may have. It's your memory of your mum and dad that fucked you up. Johnny Thunders was right, though: you can't put your arms round a memory. Well, best not to. That way, you can change your past*****.

Next up Determination - is there any free will in Freud?

Some light entertainment From an old pied noir 88er.

* There will be at least four parts, maybe more

** Still my default answer to too many things, I know. I try hard to remind myself to say 'Yes, and' instead but I often fail.

*** It sounds like a 50 Crown word but it isn't. It's quite standard German. They just like their words long. It's the way their language works.

**** The fashionable one in London Freudian circles is 'apr├Ęs coup' - borrowed from the French psychoanalysts who have been making a big noise about it since the 1960s. It's a rotten, inaccurate translation even in French, though. Whatever Freud meant it to be, it wasn't 'after shock'.

***** Time travel movies are, to my puckish mind, essentially populist Oedipal wish fulfilments. As action movies allow us to murder and mutilate (in fantasy) so movies like Back To The Future allow our secret inner world to vicariously flirt with the idea of . . . fucking (up) mum and dad.