Amid the unremittingly depressing developments coming out of an Israel roiled by domestic controversy and a seemingly unbridgeable political and cultural divide, it’s nice to have some good news.
That good news came, from all places, The New York Times, which always lags comfortably behind the latest trends, but usually gets there eventually. In this case, the trend is a revival of interest in and practice of the theories and methods of Sigmund Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis.
The article notes that after a long period in which Freud was strongly out of favor, considered misogynist, homophobic, unscientific and generally discredited, a new generation has discovered him. Believing that the domination of psychiatric care by pharmacology and cognitive behavioral therapy has proven inadequate, a new generation of budding analysts is turning back to Freud’s method of a careful and deep exploration of the psyche in hopes of finding not only a cure for neuroses but a source of self-knowledge that medication and quick fixes cannot provide.
As always, however, the Times had to throw in something for the Woke to chew on, so the article cites Freud’s popularity among progressive activists, who are pushing back against some of the longtime criticisms of the great man, noting, for example, that almost alone among his contemporaries, he considered homosexuality neither a vice nor a disease.
I am very rarely prescient, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Freud, and ever since my first encounter with his work I have been convinced that, sooner or later, he would enjoy a comeback. For all of his errors, and they were plentiful, Freud put his finger on certain immutable and uncomfortable truths that are too powerful to ignore.
Freud was, in many ways, the first thinker to truly articulate the immense power of the unconscious mind, the fraught and often damaging relations between children and their parents, the psychological origins of art and aesthetics, the universality of neuroses in the form of what he called “the psychopathology of everyday life,” and the powerful contradictions between our primal drives and the repressive demands of civilized life.
These may be disturbing and troubling things to contemplate but they have been human constants since the dawn of consciousness, and they are not going anywhere. Freud’s great insight was that it is best to bring them into the open, talk about them and perhaps reconcile with them, and in doing so become a more complete, self-aware and even happier person. For such a salient method to be rediscovered and once more embraced can only be a good thing.
The rediscovery of Freud, moreover, could also be good for the Jews. This is because the extent to which Freud was a quintessentially Jewish thinker is undeniable.
Freud himself testified unequivocally to the magnitude of Judaism’s influence upon him, saying that despite his atheism and assimilation, Judaism remained “perhaps the most essential part” of him. His daughter and heir Anna Freud—a great psychoanalyst herself—went so far as to say that the Nazis’ ravings about psychoanalysis being a “Jewish science” might well have been the only accurate accusation they ever made.
In what sense, however, was Sigmund Freud quintessentially Jewish? The answer lies not so much in his beliefs, which were thoroughly of the Enlightenment, or in any religious sentiment, because Freud had none whatsoever and considered religion a childish illusion.
It lies, instead, in the nature of Freud’s method and his concept of the mind. Freud believed that the psyche is, essentially, a tautological object. The mind creates the mind, and nothing else. As such, literally everything that the mind creates—neuroses, slips of the tongue, bizarre obsessions, dreams and so on—can tell you something about the mind and, potentially, everything about the mind. Even what the mind does not create, what it leaves out or omits, can potentially do the same. Freud’s method, then, was the exploration of these creations of the mind and of the mind as it creates itself.
It is almost certainly not a coincidence, though it was probably (and ironically) unconscious on Freud’s part, that this is identical to the traditional Jewish understanding of the Torah. Judaism holds that the Torah is an absolute document, its letters formed of divine fire, and thus everything that appears in it and does not appear in it can potentially reveal everything, from how to live your life to the true nature of God to the secret of the world.
As the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges put it, Judaism conceives of the Torah as “a book impervious to contingencies, a mechanism of infinite purposes, of infallible variations, of revelations lying in wait, of superimpositions of light. How could one not study it to absurdity?” Freud conceived of the psyche in exactly the same way. How could one not study it to absurdity? This is precisely what psychoanalysis does.
The revival of Freud, then, if it continues, has fascinating and very positive implications. It means that, in an era of rising antisemitism, people are re-embracing—all unknowing perhaps—Judaism’s method of revealing the secret of the world. Sooner or later, one imagines, as their fascination with Freud deepens, his new acolytes may well discover and begin to admire the extent to which Judaism’s method was also his own. For the Jews themselves, this can only be a good thing.