Some time ago, as I was preparing my lectures on Marx for the OSHER program, I conceived the idea of following those lectures with a series of "Thought of ..." courses devoted to some of the great social thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose insights have been lost to us, or have been distorted by the passage of time. My first thought was to offer a course on The Thought of Sigmund Freud, and I tentatively decided to follow that with courses on The Thought of Max Weber and The Thought of Karl Mannheim.
The Freud course has now actually been announced, and will be given this Spring. I had intended to build the course around the brilliant book on Freud by Richard Wollheim, which I had read many decades earlier. But re-reading the Wollheim in Paris in September, I concluded that it was much too technically difficult to serve as the basic reading for such a series of lectures. Accordingly, I ordered from Amaazon.com a fat paperback FREUD READER edited by the distinguished historian Peter Gay. [Full disclosure: at Columbia in '68, Gay and I crossed swords in a debate before more than a thousand students, he defending the university administration and I defending the students. Gay, who had been hugely popular as a lecturer, was so personally affronted by the negative reaction of the students that he accepted an offer from Yale, and finished his career there -- a great loss for Columbia, needless to say.] My current plan is to read the 800 page collection in the next month, and choose from it appropriate selections for the course.
I should perhaps explain that I have absolutely no academic credentials to underwrite my offering of this course. Still, it is true that I have over the course of my long life spent twenty years in one form of therapy or another -- teenage analysis, a full scale Freudian psychoanalysis, couples therapy, and once-a-week counseling, all by medically trained psychoanalysts. I have the sort of insight into psychoanalysis that a lump of clay has into pottery.
Gay's reader opens with "An Autobiographical Study"written by Freud, near the end of his life, for inclusion in a collection of autobiographical statements by eminent physicians. I am now halfway through this forty page essay, and I can report that it is a powerful, fascinating, deeply moving piece of work. I strongly commend it to anyone reading this blog. The essay is quite reserved and contains very little of Freud's personal life. What makes it so powerful is the enormous intellectual courage and honesty he displayed at each stage in the development of what we now know as Freudian theory. To arive at an understanding of the psychoneuroses presented by his patients, Freud was forced to engage simulataneously the philosophical preconceptions concerning consciousness and mental life that had dominated western thought for more than two millennia, the prudish and close-minded prejudices both of his colleagues and of the Viennese bourgeoisie, his own internal conflicts and resistances, and the puzzling presentations and manifestations of mental illness exhibited by his patients. The clarity and determination with which he carried out this complex task is such as to command our admiration and respect. I confess that reading a portion of the essay this morning, I found tears coming to my eyes at the sheer beauty of the ideas that Freud formulated to make sense of his data.
This is an essay that is well worth your time.