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Saturday, May 14, 2011


One small example may make this a trifle clearer for those of you who are not already fully au courant with Freudian theory. This example is not especially telling, and I am not sure what old Freud would have said about it, but it has the advantage of being a personal story, so at least I can get the facts straight. As a child [we are talking abut two, three, four, five, six – that age], I had very ambivalent feelings about my father. On the one hand, I looked up to him as big, strong, capable of carrying me on his shoulders all the way to the top of Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills [only about 3300 feet, but pretty impressive to a little boy], with a big voice and a confident manner. On the other hand, even as a little boy, I could tell that he was, for all his bluster, very much under the thumb of my mother, who was the real emotional force in the family. By the time I was entering my teenage years, my father had become a quiet alcoholic, a fact that the entire family conspired to ignore [alcoholism is especially hard for Jewish families to acknowledge.] My father’s drinking made my mother desperately unhappy, and though I could hardly help but see it, I could not allow myself to acknowledge it, because to do so would have meant having to choose sides between the two of them. I, like the rest of the circle of which our family was a part, was engaged in the process of propping my father up and maintaining the fiction that he was the intellectual, the high school principal, the big man in our little world, whereas in fact he was for me a total disappointment. Once I became interested in politics, I transferred to my [now safely dead] socialist grandfather the feelings of admiration that I had originally felt for my father, while denigrating him in my mind as a sellout [i.e., a liberal Democrat – you had to be there to understand.]

I was, as a teenager, a complicated combination of dutiful conformity and rebellion. On the one hand, I worked hard to be the perfect student, trying [quite successfully] to outdo my father academically. I was in this regard the apple of a Jewish mother’s eye. On the other hand, I constantly challenged male authority wherever I found it. As a college student, I continued this pattern. Once I encountered the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, I latched onto it and transferred to him all the unsatisfied longings for a strong father that had been frustrated by my own father. I saw Kant as the most powerful thinker in the history of philosophy [hardly an original thought!], and in my doctoral dissertation and then my first book, undertook to prove that his boldest claims had been correct. But as my psychoanalyst pointed out, rather astutely, although I claimed that Kant was the Big Man in all of philosophy, I also claimed, in my book, that he needed my explanation of his argument in order for the world to see how great he was. In effect, even while celebrating his brilliance, I was really saying that he was nothing without me. It is hardly surprising that only three years after publishing that book, I wrote a tract demonstrating that no authority is legitimate -- in short, that there are no good fathers.

I brought this complex of feelings, of displacements, of transferences, to my psychoanalysis. How did they manifest themselves there? Well, two little stories will suggest an answer. One day, I was lying on the couch, going on bitterly about the fact that my analyst, to whom I was paying huge amounts of money [$25 an hour, which in those days was the equivalent of more than $150 today.], couldn’t even bother to spend a few bucks decorating his tatty office decently. When I got up at the end of the hour [i.e., fifty minutes] to leave, I noticed that the entire office had in fact recently been rather nicely redecorated. Another time, I was going on in a self-congratulatory manner about how far I had come in my life, snagging a tenured professorship in Philosophy at Columbia at the age of thirty, whereas Dr. Rogers, my analyst, just sat here like a lump in this stodgy office. As I was leaving, he remarked mildly that he had come some distance himself. On my way out, I thought – hmm, I have, by dint of my brilliance and hard charging effort, made it all the way from Queens to Manhattan. He, on the other hand, had been born in rural Arkansas and was now an analyst on the Upper West Side. Pretty clearly, I had transferred to Rogers my childhood feelings abut my father, and was now in the process of working them out through the transference.

What did I get from those long years of analysis? What I think of myself as having gained from the analysis was the ability to move successfully from being an angry rebellious son, constantly challenging every authority figure I could find, to being a supportive generative father, able not only to be a loving father to my own sons, both of whom were who were born during the analysis, but also to adopt the same attitude to my students, who have always been, in my eyes, surrogate children. Did the analysis help? Might I simply have matured without any therapy? I don’t think so, but who knows? All I can report is that I was able to establish and maintain a healthy and deeply satisfying relationship with my sons, even though the childhood pattern of seeing myself as caught between a mother figure and a father figure persisted long after the analysis was ended.

With these five questions about the unconscious having been answered, or at least addressed, I shall now move on to discuss a number of topics that will, I hope, deepen and enrich my exposition of what I am calling The Thought of Sigmund Freud. Tomorrow, I will try to say something in more detail abut the ways in which Freud’s interpretation of dreams enabled him to elaborate his account of the primary thought processes of the unconscious.

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