Friday, 7 May 2010

Who would Freud have voted for?

As the election was around and about, I found myself wondering about psychoanalysis and politics. Did I learn anything about the juncture between the two? Did the course give me anything special or extra to say about politicians and the political process?

So I thought about things like . . .

Projection and the way leaders' qualities are so easily built out of our own interior worlds - Hitler is the example psychoanalysts generally reach for but the same kind of thing applies to, say, David Cameron (though more obviously to Margaret Thatcher - obviously).

Grandiosity and the almost cute way that some politicians (Gordon Brown, say) have of actually believing in themselves with such certainty.

Narcissism of small difference, of course - to exaggerate tiny differences to the point of bonkersness (technical phrase: look it up in a psychoanalytic dictionary) is essentially and profoundly human. See That's Why I Hate The French by Goodall, Atkinson et al (1980, Belfast). Politicians do take it to new levels, though. Which leads to . . .

Hysteria and a recent conversation with a political activist. I'd said, quite lightly, that I thought change of party was essential to democracy. (If I thought I could have got it right without checking I'd have quoted HL Mencken's guide to voting: Chuck the rapscallions out!) The activist's reply, in all seriousness, was: 'That's what they said in Germany in the 1930s.'

Then? Then I found myself asking a more interesting question - for me, at any rate. Did studying psychoanalytic thought change my political views? To my surprise, I decided it did. Not in any obvious, party-political way but in a subtler and more profound way.

It wasn't just general stuff that made me think and rethink. It was a couple of specific things - one historical and personal, one conceptual and theoretical.

The personal, historical one was Freud's own life. Being immersed in all those details of pre-WW1 Vienna gave me a real sense of how different a society can be from ours while still being culturally rich and - despite there being an emperor on his throne - surprisingly free. Not that that the same thing can't be said of our modern democracies - just that I wonder if we sometimes easily assume that democracy begins and ends with the political process.

Freud's Vienna was structured and corralled and hidebound in all kinds of ways - capital punishment, anti-semitism, minimal suffrage etc etc. But still it gave space and time to not just Freud but Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, Brentano and Wittgenstein, Berg, Mahler and Schonberg. The Wiener Werkst├Ątte, too. (Not that Freud took much, if any interest, in any of them.)

I found myself thinking the same when reading 1599, a book about how that year was for Shakespeare and England. That year, he wrote Hamlet and As You Like It - in a city where theatres could be closed down at a monarchical or bureaucratic whim and religious fundamentalists stalked the land, banning ancient celebrations and painting over church wall paintings. I thought of Tehran, of course, and the Taliban. Maybe there could be a Shakespeare there - or at least a Thomas Middleton. Also, naturally, I thought of that fatuous little speech in The Third Man about how all four hundred years of peaceful Switzerland had given us was the cuckoo clock*.

The conceptual and theoretical thing that changed my political underpinnings was Freud's Civilization And Its Discontents, written and published in the shadow of the gathering holocaust. Commentators generally describe Freud's politics as conservative - and it's true that he seems less than overwhelmed by the wonders of communist Russia. Further, he was unconvinced by the belief that universal suffrage was a universal panacea or that heaven would ever descend and merge with our sitting rooms.

It was a specific section in Civilization that stuck in my head, though, and turned it a little - not in a conservative or even cynical direction but certainly in a worldly one, maybe even a slightly world-weary one. A little distance and scepticism before dinner is always a good stomach-settler.

Freud was writing about the Biblical injunction 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.'

This is (some of) what he wrote. 'Let us adopt a naïve attitude towards it, as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unable then to suppress a feeling of surprise and bewilderment. Why should we do it? What good will it do us? But, above all, how shall we achieve it? How can it be possible? My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection . . . If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way . . . my love is valued by all my own people as a sign of preferring them, and it is an injustice to them if I put a stranger on a par with them . . . What is the point of a precept if its fulfilment cannot be recommended as reasonable?

'On closer inspection, I find still further difficulties. Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love; I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred. He seems not to have the least trace of love for me and show me not the slightest consideration . . .

'The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.' I think he included women in his ungentle humanity. 'As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to torture and to kill him.'

A bleak, depressive reading of the human psyche. But, in the lead-up to the Nazification of Europe, not an inaccurate one. You could say that its that view of mankind underpins the creation of the EU - an elaborate supra-national structure designed to protect us all from that reality. You could disagree with Freud entirely - whether or not you believe in the possibility of big rock candy mountains.

But you can't dispute its power as a guide to humanity. At least, I can't. Still, as Romain Rolland had it, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Or, in the words of Hill Street Blues, be careful out there.

PS So who would Freud have voted for? Well, he liked his cigars and was a big believer in the basic rules of capitalism - see his guide to how analysts should deal with getting money out of their patients. So I reckon Cameron - though he'd have been deeply wary of all that 'Big Society' and 'Change' stuff. Still, like the rest of us, he knew you always have to hold your nose at the ballot box.

Next up Freud and free will - at overlong last

* Yes, I know the cuckoo clock is actually German. Though I guess the person who first made the gag didn't. That was Ruskin, the 19th century art critic. Graham Greene borrowed it - in a last minute panic. Then, embarrassed (and worried about being rumbled), he let Orson Welles and his unfeasibly large ego convince themselves that the great big actor had written it himself.