I have mentioned, I think, that I am now teaching courses in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University, one of fifty or more such learning in retirement institutes funded in part by the Bernard Osher Foundation. [My sister, Dr. Barbara Searle, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a fabulously successful instructor in the Osher program run there, at American University. She teaches courses mostly on evolutionary biology and genetics.] In preparation for a course of lectures I will be giving in six months' time on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, I have started rereading the principal book I shall be assigning, Sigmund Freud, by the disinguished English philosopher Richard Wollheim. The book is now almost forty years old, but it remains the best thing I have read on the subject. For me, the central idea [and yes, it is, I think, a very beautiful idea] is the extraordinary process of reasoning by which Freud arrived at the discovery of the unconscious. I shan't try to summarize it here, simply recommend the book to anyone reading this who has a serious interest in Freud's work.
Forty years ago, when I was living in New York and teaching at Columbia, I attended a session of something called the Theater for Ideas, at which Bruno Bettelheim and several others spoke about Freud's hidden philosophy. The event itself was a hoot -- held in a loft used during the day as a dance studio, and attended by many of the leading lights of the New York intellectual establishment. I sat in the front row between William Schuman and Sidney Hook, and behind me were Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, among others. Bettelheim, who was a brilliant but thoroughly unpleasant man, gave a fascinating talk, the theme of which was that the centerpiece of Freud's work was an unceasing search for the unconscious. When he finished, Sidney Hook popped up to protest that what Freud had said was not original. "Quite true," Bettleheim responded. "Shakespeare could do what Freud could do -- witness the handwashing compulsion in Macbeth. And Dostoyevsky could do what Freud could do -- witness the anatomy of an Oedipus Complex in The Brothers Karamazov. Shakespeare could do what Freud did, and Dostoyevsky could do what Freud did. But Freud was able to teach us how to do it."
It was, I thought, the most successful put-down I had ever witnessed in an intellectual confrontation. Its impact was somewhat marred by Mailer, who then rose, his chest pushing out his vest like a Bantam fighting cock, and delivered a long, rambling attack on his latest analyst, who had, I gathered, somewhat disappointed Norman.
Those were simpler times.