On the death of Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden memorably observed that he was “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” And this was 1939—he had seen nothing yet of Freud’s influence. Across the North Atlantic, Freud’s new science of psychoanalysis transformed common sense and was itself transformed in a host of new applications. In the humanistic disciplines, and especially in literary study, engagement with psychoanalysis became almost obligatory. The general public was equally enthralled by Freud’s ideas. His books circulated widely, on college campuses especially, and his thought traversed popular culture from fiction to film.
This popularity came, in part, because Freud’s thought—and its extensions in the various schools of psychoanalysis—had extraordinary versatility. Freud saw sexual love and destructive hate as volcanic forces permanently threatening modern society. While he intended to come to the aid of bourgeois civilization, he did more than perhaps anyone to make sex and violence topics of everyday conversation. Freud argued in Civilization and Its Discontents and other works that if we were to come to terms with the libidinous and aggressive drives boiling up from beneath the surface of civilization, we would have to confront and master these forces. This led Freud and his followers to develop programs for individual therapy; it also became a central proposition for both the nervous self-assurance of Cold War liberalism and the calls for reform by the era’s leftists. Liberals like Lionel Trilling and Marxists like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse found in Freud nothing less than a stimulus to rethink life in common. They all insisted that psychoanalysis did more than address individual biography and pathology; it could help solve the conundrums of collective politics.
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In light of such wide influence, it is rather shocking how swiftly, if just beyond conscious notice, Freud’s relevance has waned in the past two decades. Looking back over the letters and science of the 20th century, the lasting controversies that publicly swirled around Freud and psychoanalysis prove his onetime pertinence: Like the lowly scorpion sent to bring down a champion and memorialized in the heavens for the pursuit, even his most bitter enemies could depend on Freud’s vast presence to gain substantial attention.
In America, former psychoanalytic literary critic turned apostate Frederick Crews wrote regularly in The New York Review of Books about the master’s personal sins and scientific failings. The short-lived director of Freud’s archives Jeffrey Masson notoriously turned on his own establishment when he claimed that psychoanalysis originated in a vile plot to obscure the reality of child abuse. And a Library of Congress exhibition on Freud, which suffered criticism from the moment of its conception, led to bureaucratic infighting and staff changes.
But from the view of the early 21st century, none of these melodramas now seems imaginable. Our time has chosen a simpler psychology to celebrate and debate. It is more common now to regard humanity as lucid about its interests, and rational in its fulfillment of them (a few behavioral foibles aside). According to one famous treatment, human beings can move from brutality to empathy mainly on a diet of some novels. Violence does not need to be “internalized”—as Friedrich Nietzsche proposed and Freud agreed with—so much as left behind. The way ahead is to pit slow thinking against fast thinking. We can end pointless conflict, one best seller explains, by grasping that conservatives and liberals both act on evolutionary “intuition”—the idea that American political debate, for all its provincialism, is structured by the rivalry between tendencies to be either close-knit or cosmopolitan. If there is trouble, the best course is to pop the right pill.