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Normality and Nihilism

ISSUE:  Summer 1988

Normality is a concern invoked in everyday life by the insecure. Reality inevitably confronts us with the unexpected; Machiavelli went so far as to ascribe half of political life to the mysterious workings of what he called Fortune. To the extent to which we are necessarily in the grip offerees over which we can have little control, there are a variety of ways of trying to manage our relative helplessness. Machiavelli in his History of Florence sounds blatantly superstitious. In the 20th century, however, old-fashioned forms of magical thinking seem unattractively primitive, and different means of asserting ourselves are now in fashion. As traditional religion has become a relatively unpopular alternative, psychology has acquired, especially in North America, a special status of its own. Psychological concepts may in fact be used for ethical purposes, as they serve to praise as well as blame, yet they can appear neutral and dispassionate, capable of being independently confirmed.

It is in this climate of opinion that the concept of normality now functions so pervasively. To take only one kind of example, young parents, unable to rely on secure traditions about child-rearing, turn to manuals for reassurance and guidance. Dr. Spock may be the best known, yet hardly alone in the extent to which psychoanalytic thinking pervades his texts. Anxieties about a normal fetus precede those about infancy, and extend to all phases of human development; there is apparently no end to the uncertainties of an individualistic era. The absence of collectively agreed-upon standards feeds this lack of directedness. Such conformist pressures have direct political implications; John F. Kennedy, for example, remarked — within earshot of his wife — that he had had to get married lest the public think he was “queer.”

The issue of normality often arises by means of the conceptual other side of the coin: the frequency of psychopathological terms in daily conversation as well as in sophisticated books often masks the same underlying fears about what constitutes normality. Earlier eras were more tolerant of diversity. The Freudian revolution in the history of ideas has sanctioned a whole host of words and phrases, in addition to “neurotic” and “psychotic,” which can be used artificially to reaffirm our stability.

Even the most explicitly anti-psychological thinkers take recourse to psychodynamic notions. George Orwell may have loathed the idea of psychoanalytic treatment, and in 1984 doubtless modeled Winston Smith’s torture at the hands of O’Brien on the clinical setup involving free associations. Yet despite his distaste for Freud, Orwell was capable of stigmatizing anti-Semitism as a neurosis, and recommended therapy for rehabilitating German prisoners of war. Hannah Arendt was at least as fiercely anti-Freudian as Orwell, and she sounds triumphant when she can cite the testimony of psychiatrists, in what she called “the comedy of soul-experts,” as to Adolf Eichmann’s normality. If Eichmann was certifiably sane, then for Arendt that established the degeneracy of German culture (and that of the modern world in general), as well as the worthlessness of psychiatric categories which lend support to the normalcy of evil.

It would be mistaken to suppose that psychopathological terms are only brought up in connection with spectacularly offensive political events. It is true that the more we know about Stalin, the easier it can be to see him in terms of a theory about paranoia rather than in connection with the tradition of thought associated with Karl Marx, or specifically Russian national practices. Yet it requires an enormous amount of cultural savvy before we are entitled to invoke clinical concepts in connection with any political leader, no matter how offensive we may judge him.

The conditions under which psychological terms get properly used are, however, at odds with how they are regularly raised; and that remains the heart of a key conceptual problem associated with political psychology. However much we may legitimately fear the dangers of a nuclear holocaust, I doubt the scientific propriety of much psychiatric moralizing on the subject. The alleged fears of small children can of course be studied, although adequate attention has to be paid to the suggestive impact of the political values of the parents of those who are realistically disturbed about the prospects of nuclear dangers getting out of hand. On the whole, ethical utopianism can too readily be associated with the use of psychology in politics. I am thinking, for example, of the hopes of Harry Stack Sullivan about what psychiatry could do for poverty and race relations, Erich Fromm’s frequent political pronouncements, as well as Erik H. Erikson’s dedication of his Childhood and Society to “our children’s children.” (To be sure, conservatives are also capable of abusing psychiatric terminology, as for example when Bruno Bettelheim once roundly denounced students during the Vietnam War for a disruption which he found particularly objectionable.)

As a theorist, however, committed to the goal of thinking about how we think, I would like to call attention to the fact that ethical high-mindedness does not always serve purposes of social change or genuine reform. Grounds exist for thinking that a certain kind of philosophical piousness may end up reinforcing the social status quo rather than legitimately challenging it. The alternative is not, I should hasten to add, a return to Freud’s own most corrosive pessimism. As the years passed he gave up his earlier commitment to sexual emancipation, much to the distress of someone like Wilhelm Reich, and Freud developed a cynical conservatism that meant in the 1930’s his support for an Austrian authoritarian regime which was heartbreaking to some of his socially idealistic followers.

Radicals like Herbert Marcuse could later rely on an orthodox version of Freud’s viewpoint without realizing what the social implications of death instinct theory might be. The humanistically oriented revisionists of Freud’s views, like Fromm and Erikson, were trying to inject genuine humanitarianism into a psychoanalytic world view which appeared to end in therapeutic despair and ethical nihilism. And in Fromm’s neglected retort to Marcuse’s famous dissection of neo-Freudianism, Fromm accuses Marcuse of ultimately advocating a nihilistic position.

However extravagant Fromm might sound in defending himself against Marcuse’s strictures, which were I think largely unfair, there is less danger in psychoanalysis ever being a devastating threat to Western culture than in its lending undercover support to objectionably conformist practices. The Papacy, and whatever secular equivalents of it as our moral guardians exist, can be counted upon to warn the public against any deterioration in existing moral standards. Psychological notions have been used on occasion to dress up radical positions. However interesting Frantz Fanon’s use of psychiatry might have been, it was not a set of books or professional teachings which drove him to advocate therapeutic violence as a solution to colonialism. Societies are tough enough safely to withstand more challenges than intellectuals can readily cook up. It has been conservatives like Edmund Burke oddly enough who on the one hand fear the power of ideas and at the same time express the greatest confidence in the existence of social cohesion.

There is more truth to the conservative contention about the inevitable impact of society on individuals than writers on the Left have usually been ready to acknowledge. As an aspect of the success of Freudian ideas psychodynamic notions of normality have become part of the prevailing social structure around us. One need only think about how Anna Freud and her collaborators at Yale Law School came up with the idea of psychological parenthood, and used it to support the notion that continuity in child custody cases should prevail over what these experts considered mere biological parenthood. The value of continuity can be as unthinkingly enshrined as a part of middle class morality as the alleged dangers of traumas were once used to frighten people into conformity.


It seems to me a pity that traditional political theorists have been so resistant to exploring the challenge of modern psychological thinking. One of the great strengths of the examination of the whole tradition of Western political thought is that it should promote a sophisticated view of the variety of moral positions which have been defended by thinkers in the past. A central weakness in all recently fashionable psychological theorists is a relative lack of philosophic distance toward the values that are being supported. Too many psychologists do not even want to acknowledge the ethical dimension to their work, and so we have scientific arguments being used in behalf of hidden moral preaching.

Freud himself was philosophically subtle enough to be suspicious of some of his own key concepts. At least in correspondence and conversation he acknowledged that health was only one value among others, and that it could not exhaust morality as a whole. At times he thought he could get away with the idea that health was only a practical notion, not a theoretical commitment at all. He treated people whom he regarded as very ill, at the same time as he was capable of dismissing patients on the grounds they were too well-adjusted to be worth his time. According to one story he once got rid of an American patient on the grounds that he had no unconscious. (The medical psychoanalyst in question later committed suicide when Franco’s troops finally entered Madrid toward the end of the Spanish Civil War.) Freud frequently made a great display of his abhorrence of philosophy, in contrast to what we now know to have been his youthful fascination with the subject. He claimed that morality was so self-evident that he thought that he himself had never done anything ethically questionable. Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, who was so troubled by the problem of meaninglessness, Freud found psychological significance everywhere. To question the meaning of life, Freud once wrote in old age, was to confess to the existence of a personal surplus of libido.

Nonetheless it would be a gross mistake ever to take Freud as any kind of philistine. If he was wary about this whole subject of normality., it was because he realized full well in what kind of quagmire he was in danger of getting involved. He touched on the subject of normalcy only on the rarest occasions. Once, in an essay implicitly designed to refute Carl Jung’s views on psychological types, Freud said that an ideally normal person would have hysterical, obsessional, and narcissistic layers in harmony; doubtless he was speaking autobiographically, but at the same time his idea communicated one of his characteristic demands about how high a standard he expected of mankind. For to be able to bear that much psychological baggage and still be able to function effectively presupposes a considerable degree of self-control, capacity to endure stress, as well as the presence of constitutional giftedness. Freud typically took for granted that the people he liked best to work with were creative and self-disciplined. And he replied once, when asked what a normal person could be expected to be like, with the maxim: “to love and to work.” This comment of his became one of Freud’s most famous sayings, and does, I think, go deeper the more one ponders it.

Psychoanalysts since Freud, and the first generations of his followers, have not been anywhere near as creative or as talented as they once were. I do not think this assessment is a consequence of the human tendency to romanticize the past and therefore overglamorize the beginnings of psychoanalysis as a profession. The early analysts were objectively an unusually interesting lot who pursued their profession as a calling and a mission. The underside to their spiritual commitment was a degree of sectarianism which can be frightening. But whatever unnecessary ideological wars they engaged in, and however they might have stifled their doubts through the adoption of questionably dogmatic beliefs, they were highly educated people completely at home in the world of ideas and general culture.

Still, it was hard for these pioneers in modern psychology to accept the legitimacy of their own human experience. What makes them enduringly attractive as models is their individualistic defiance of conventional standards of how we ought to live. Therefore it is paradoxical to find, for instance, Harry Stack Sullivan idealizing “interpersonal” success, Helene Deutsch romanticizing the reproductive joys of motherhood, and Erik H. Erikson making an ethical norm out of the achievement of adulthood. The private lives of the Freudian school do not support the premium which psychoanalytic theory put on the value of “genitality.” It is as if these analysts forgot that tragedy can be enriching, yet doubtless Freud’s emphasis on the inevitability of the tragic dimension had helped attract them to psychoanalysis in the first place. Had they been able to be more accepting of themselves, it might have led them to ideas about human development and normality which would have matched the unconventionality of their own experience and entitled others to feel more at ease in defying conformist pressures.


The result has been an intellectual legacy from Freud which is less richly adequate than it might have been. I am, for example, currently looking into the life and career of W.L. Mackenzie King, who was prime minister of Canada longer than anyone in that country’s history. He led his political party for three decades, and was in office for most of that whole time; he had been a student of Thorstein Veblen’s, wrote books of his own, and was a serious reader. Yet in his private life as a lonely bachelor it would be hard to find anyone more eccentric; his incessant diary-keeping, mysticism, and peculiar devotion to his mother’s memory have been known for some time now, even if the specific psychiatric basis for his peculiarities comes as news. Yet psychological theory does not, I think, adequately prepare us for the idea that someone so privately odd could nonetheless function politically in a supernormal manner. It is hard not to think that his lack of normalcy, which was so extreme as to lead clinicians today to think in terms of a so-called latent psychosis or even schizophrenia, must have lent a special edge to his political capacities. It is not possible to sustain the early hopes of Harold D. Lasswell that democratic character could be identified with psychological health, not to mention the suggestion once forwarded by Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones that cabinet ministers, like foreign secretaries, ought to submit themselves to psychoanalytic inspection before being appointed to their posts.

The current situation of psychological theory is distressing because of the power that this conceptualization has gained. Analysts are no longer in the position of being unrecognized outsiders at odds with the social status quo. On the contrary, at least in North America, psychoanalysis has become a part of the Establishment, and therefore the lack of attention to ethical alternatives, and an insensitive approach to the problem of normality, can become an invitation to an implicit celebration of conformism.

Freud feared that the cutting edge of his ideas would be destroyed by the widespread acceptance of his work in the New World. I wonder whether he did enough to prevent precisely this outcome. By not providing more hints about normality, and through not owning up publicly to the wide variety of psychological solutions he found both therapeutically tolerable and humanly desirable, Freud contributed to what he most sought to prevent. He had set out, in the spirit of Nietzsche, to-transform Western values; he was eager to go beyond accepted good and evil. When he assaulted the maxim love thy neighbor as thyself, as both unrealistic and undesirable, he was explicitly trying to overturn not only Christian ethics but Western culture as well. Freud’s pupil Otto Rank thought that Freud’s notion of latent homosexuality was antihumanitarian and authoritarian, and other post-Freudian writers have sought to come to a different set of moral conclusions from the founder of psychoanalysis.

It does seem somehow fitting that Freud should have been invited to testify in behalf of Leopold and Loeb for their crime in Chicago. Historically Freud was then an old man with an embittered hatred of all things American; although he appreciated the money to be earned off a continent he viewed as a land of barbarians, and was concerned that Jews were involved in such a scandal, there was no possibility of his making such a trip at that stage in his life. But it is hard not to think that there had been something in Freud’s psychoanalysis which too readily broke with the necessary restraints in Western culture. If one hurls thunderbolts at traditional ethics and morality, does one not in the end bear some of the responsibility for what happens?

It should be said of Carl Jung, whatever the unfortunate nature of his own political stupidity in the 1930’s in connection with the Nazis, that even before World War I he had realized that people needed more than a tearing apart of their problems on the assumption that they would automatically be able to synthesize things on their own. Jung’s longtime respect for religious beliefs was part of an early and prophetic effort to inject something constructive into a psychoanalytic outlook that sounded unduly critical. Much of the psychoanalytic writings since Freud’s death, which have sought to overcome his own personal biases and correct the unduly negativistic imbalance in his thinking, was anticipated by Jung years ago. And other respectful critics of Freud’s foresaw at least some of the dead end that his ideas might lead to.

It is logically impossible to talk about neurosis without at the same time implying a standard of maturity as well. And yet despite how powerful psychology can be in outlining human defects and weaknesses, it has not been nearly as successful in coming to terms with the positive side of human strength and coherence. Ego psychology, which for a time was the most fashionable school of psychoanalytic thinking since Freud’s death, aimed precisely to rectify the inadequate way he left the issue of normality. It is hard to see even how anyone could know what was pathological apart from an assumed or explicit conception of normalcy. Clinicians have been increasingly attentive to this problem, although it is historically worth remembering that one of Freud’s charges against Alfred Adler had been that that disciple’s interest in normal human development constituted a heretical “deviation” from psychoanalysis.

An attention to cultural differences has to be part of any outlook on normality which is going to be capable of being defensible. Here early Freudian theory was deficient, for despite all the familiarity Freud and his followers had with patients from a wide variety of social backgrounds, they were loath to take such issues into account in their theoretical thinking. They were trying to universalize their insights, and it is only with the passage of time that social changes have highlighted how much Freud took for granted which it is necessary to be more explicit about.

As much as Freud, at least toward the end of his life, thought he had succeeded in being a scientist, at the same time he always harbored the idea that his work had immense implications for social philosophy. The psychoanalytic treatment setting was, he believed, a potential basis for new values and ethics. He himself, when he attacked religion, for example, in his The Future of An Illusion, tried to argue that he was only spelling out one possible implication of his work. When he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents against what he thought was the dangerous possibility of mixing up Wilhelm Reich’s Marxism with the purity of Freud’s own psychological “findings,” Freud was once again committing himself to only one more position which he thought could be sustained by his clinical so-called discoveries. Surprisingly, Jung’s own social preferences were pretty close to those of his former master; whatever the conflicts between Freud and Jung, old-fashioned gentlemen of that era shared many of the same cultural viewpoints.

In the end I think that the issue of the significance of normality and its relationship to nihilism will have to be left an open question. In some sense Freud does fit into the liberal tradition’s quest for a theory of individualism; his whole therapeutic approach did encourage a kind of self-expression which was congenial to the aims of thinkers like John Stuart Mill. Whatever the excesses to which psychoanalytic ideas were sometimes put, the historical Freud did not advocate self-indulgence; he might romantically posture in defiance of Western traditions, yet he stood for order and civility. Just how conservative Freud really was can be seen in his distaste for so much of modern art and literature. But of course many of the 20th century’s most daring cultural innovators took inspiration from the psychoanalytic perspective. No philosopher ever succeeds in imposing himself on history in an undistorted form, and every writer must bear the responsibility for the uses to which his ideas eventually get put.

Freud’s psychology, however it may ultimately be evaluated, did contribute to our understanding of what it can mean to be human. And in that sense his ideas will be permanently interesting to political theorists. But it is impossible to attempt to spell out in a definitive way the ideological implications of psychoanalysis. The writers who have been influenced by Freud constitute a wide range of people; and in this connection I am reminded that it was Herbert Marcuse who first told me how impressive he found Thomas Szasz, although the latter’s politics were very different indeed from those of the Frankfurt school of critical sociology.

It was an old analyst and loyal disciple of Freud’s, Helene Deutsch, who had I think the most appropriately philosophic attitude toward the perplexing issue of normality. She once reported to me that in her earlier years, when she had been one of the most prominent teachers in the history of psychoanalysis, she used to make it a practice to ask prospective analysts in . the course of interviewing them for acceptance into training what they thought a normal person would be like. It is of course an ultimately unanswerable conundrum, and yet one which as civilized people we too are obliged to raise repeatedly. Like all genuine questions in political philosophy, the problem of normality can never be solved; it remains a real issue nonetheless to the extent that we choose to find it intolerable to contemplate a universe lacking in moral values.


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