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Sigmund Freud

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

The nineteenth century in northern Europe was a period of Titans struggling to create worlds of their own. The mediaeval Catholic world had crumbled: simple or timid souls still lived in it, but for several hundred years the strongest spirits had been engaged in tearing it to pieces. This destruction was, of course, creative; was, indeed, largely the cultural work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in astronomy, geography, physics, economics, mysticism, and aesthetics. But it was work of pioneering or analysis, rather than of synthesis. And it bequeathed to the eighteenth century, not a new world for the whole man to live in, but a miscellany of abstract, mutually discordant principles with which to begin to build it. These principles were known as laws: there were the laws of mathematics, of mechanics, of biology, of the natural and the economic man. They were all based upon the law of reason, and this was religiously believed in. The destructive centuries had not invented the faith in reason; that faith was a legacy of the Catholic world which reason, by shifting its premise, undermined. Reason, to be hypostasized, requires an unchallenged premise; in Catholic theology this premise was the revelation of the Bible; now it was to be the revelation of the human senses or of the original Tightness and divinity of man. With such instruments, abstract and confused, the forerunners of the nineteenth century (Kant, Rousseau, Blake, etc.) strove to create a cosmos of their own to replace the glorious fertile world of Saint Francis, Aquinas, Dante.

The period of great romantic art was ushered in; and it had many forms. In philosophy, there were Schopenhauer, Hegel, Spencer, Comte; in the novel, there were Balzac and Dostoevski; in music, there were Beethoven, Moussorgski, Wagner; in painting, there were Delacroix, Ingres, Cezanne; in the sciences, there were Marx and Darwin. All these men, despite immense distinctions, were of one family. They were in touch with objective reality, masters of inquiry, often discoverers in the fields from which they mined their materials. But their constructions, unlike the worlds of the great Catholic creators right down to Bach, Descartes, Racine, were the embodiments of the personal will of their creators. There is, here, no contradiction; nor were these nineteenth-century worlds less “real,” because personal, or of less social use. Man is not an isolated atom. The genius who erects a world in the image of himself—if his self-search be deep and his self-mastery strong—will produce a work of universal nature. The more profound the subjective impulse, the more complete the command over objective nature in order to fulfill it. That is why the scientific realism of a Cezanne qualitatively equals that of a Darwin; why a poet like Wagner portrays the reality of Middle Europe; why an economist like Marx may write as emotionally as Isaiah; and why we find in the solipsistic verse of a Rimbaud prophecies, which science has fulfilled, of the nature and behavior of the atom.

I have needed to speak of these nineteenth-century Titans, because Sigmund Freud, whose work dates from the 1890’s, is the last of their line. To understand him, we must know his family. It was a family of men moved to replace, by their own work, the broken synthesis of Catholic Europe. They were all absolutists, seeking in some genetic principle of unitary vision the pattern that God supplied in the old Order. The law may have been progress and reason or (as in Dostoevski and Rimbaud) their denial; may have been will or (as in Schopenhauer) its overcoming; it may have been some genetic rule like the survival of the fittest, sexual selection, Aryan-Lutheran supremacy, class struggle, etc. Always there was implicit in the texture of these men’s constructions an absolute rationalism, or the nullification of reason; a faith in the sufficiency of the senses as a report of truth, or total rejection. These worlds, risen from an abstract and absolute law, were built of materials preponderantly personal—more idiosyncratic indeed (although the work were a book on economics) than the love lyric of any mediaeval poet who accepted his immersion in a common cos-mic pattern.

The twentieth century will be different: its creative work will be to reconcile and integrate apparently contradictory laws by the aid of supersensory dimensions. It will be the relativistic age, in which the discoveries of the absolutists of the nineteenth century — Nietzsche and Marx, Dostoevski and Darwin, Rimbaud and Spencer—will be worked together for the making not of worlds but of the world, and not less personal because socially pragmatic. To this new era, barely ushered in by men like Bergson, Whitehead, S. Alexander, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, etc., Freud does not belong. But in the perspective of cultural history, he will be seen as a contemporary of Darwin, Schopenhauer, Dostoevski, Marx; and he may be known, by the fecundity of his work, as their equal.


Freud began as a physician; as one seeking to heal human ills. But he found, in the dark places of the human heart, a world as personal, tragic, and universal as the world of Dostoevski. The psychological system of Freud is, first of all, a great human drama. Here, in the arcana of the soul, are complex organisms; the super-ego, dwelling place of the fathers—conscience and tradition; the id, hinterland of the immense accumulations of instinct, habit, appetite; and between them the ego, where lives the individual will. ‘These organisms are interacting units, from whose clash rise devious characters with strange names: cathex, complex, sexurge, death-urge, neurosis, fixation or repression or sublimation of libido. They are all filled with the life of action; they make lyric and epic conquests of the objective world; they also interlock in secret combat or in more terrible alliance, giving forth the gamut of emotions from horror to ecstasy, and producing the many mansions of human deed from pastoral beginnings when the infant offers its prized excrement as a gift to its mother, to heights where men make philosophies and religions.

This world of Freud has complex unity. Among the welter of symptom, dream, and cultural act, move the “heroes”: the radical urge for life (sex and self-preservation) and the masochist-sadist hunger, born of life, for the return to death. And like all the aesthetic constructions of the nineteenth-century Titans, this world has a personal savor. “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud’s pivotal work, in its revelation of a passionate individual nature may be compared with the “Confessions” of Rousseau (the father of the century), with Dostoevski’s “Notes from Underground,” with Volume 1 of “Capital,” with Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Idea,” and with “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” A man is speaking. He is building a system from his discoveries and observations by the use of a legitimate instrument of science. But first and last, a man is revealing himself. And only less intensely is this true of all Freud’s books. Whether he writes of the genetic sources of Da Vinci’s art (in “Leonardo da Vinci”) or of a savage totem (in “Totem and Taboo”) or of a slip-of-the-tongue (in “Psychopath-ology of Everyday Life”), he brings himself to the construction. While with healing hand he touches the lesions of a soul, he is really carrying to these dark places a flame from his own Promethean nature.

Most men solve their inner conflicts by forgetting about them (with the aid of ready-made solutions or of drugs, sexual, mechanical, alcoholic, patriotic); some men need to create a world of their own to solve them. Marx, suffering within himself the lesion of social injustice, created a world that mankind will use as a rationale of cure for its social diseases. The humbly religious Darwin, agonized in an age of “Enlightenment” that had dissevered him from God only to marry him with chaos, forecast a biological order where the human species could begin again to find the peace of integration between its lowest and its highest parts. Freud also makes answer to a personal conflict.

He is a man who accepts the dogma of nineteenth-century science. “There is no other source of knowledge,” he says, “but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research . . . and no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition or inspiration.” This is pure eighteenth-century rationalism. Thus armed, he goes down into the irrational depths of the soul, a chaos to be conquered. His highway is the dream; and the Freudian technique of dream interpretation by word and thought-associations and by the use of symbols, is one of the mightiest acts of the imagination. The domain where the dream has led him, which he calls the id, is a jungle of the lusts of human organs aprowl like wild beasts among the tropical trees and swamps of primaeval habit. But Freud will not surrender to this phantasmagoric and miasmic world; he will draw forth, by reason, from its flux, energy for the three-dimensional world of reasonable practice, and this limited world he will insist to be the one reality. It is a struggle between uneven forces, and the consequence is a psychological design (called “real”) that is drenched with the passionate and heroic will of its author.

It is illuminating to compare this Freudian world with the world of Dostoevski. The novelist explores the same Amazonian jungles of the unconscious, made manifest in their most morbid extremes. He too has gone down, through the need of an integrating principle that shall transfigure this chaos into truth. His method is the precise opposite of Freud’s. Dostoevski follows the unconscious impulse of men to its irrational source, and he accepts this source as the sole reality, finding in it his God and his values. He rejects as unreal the contradictory world of reason and all the social-moral constructs of reason. This rejected “conscious” world is dream for Dostoevski; the nineteenth-century culture built from it in Europe is false for him; and in the obscurantist ecstasy of what Freud calls the “lowest levels of the id,” the Russian finds his salvation of “waking.” Freud moves toward the irrational source only to reject of it what reason can not bind; and only such energies of the unconscious as reason can draw back into a world of social conformity will he call “real.” The materials of Dostoevski’s art, made plastic in the great organisms of his novels, are identical with the materials of Freud’s world made into the looser aesthetic form of a psychological system.

Dostoevski does not succeed in his absolutist attempt to deny reality to all experience of reason: if the irrational ecstasy is man’s sole waking, there is much sleep in his books, and hence their substance. The same holds with Freud. He would be the first to disclaim victory in his attempt to naturalize all the energy of the id within the domain of reason. There is much “sleep” and much darkness in his system: hence its livingness.

Time and again, Freud is led to limits where he is face to face with Dostoevski’s “real”—the mystic and the occult. “It can easily be imagined,” he says, “that certain practices of the mystics may succeed in upsetting the normal relations between the different regions of the mind, so that, for example, the perceptual system becomes able to grasp relations in the deeper layers of the ego and in the id which would otherwise be inaccessible to it. Whether such a procedure can put one in possession of ultimate truths [there speaks the absolutist devotee of reason] may be safely doubted. All the same, we must admit that the therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen much the same method of approach. For their object is to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super-ego, . . . to take over new portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be.”

Freud does not admit the premise of the mystic method, which is, of course, that the cosmic lives within the individual unconscious (the id) so that the following of percepts to their source rounds man’s circle to God. But Dostoevski, typical mystic in revolt against the world of reason, would not see the implication in Freud’s rationalist method: if the findings of reason are universal, reason must be cosmic. This rationalist premise is also mystic, and also irrationally rounds the circle between man and God. Freud, like all the nineteenth-century rationalists, is an unconscious follower of the later, ethical Kant. Dostoevski was a conscious, and hence a more reasonable, mystic. But both groups of absolutists, in their attempt to exclude a part of man’s equipment for finding truth—the one group reason, the other group organic intuition—are doomed to failure. And in Freud, no less than in Dostoevski, this awareness of limitations gives the poignant note of the Titans who are helpless to create a world against the indefeasible God who is the Whole. In all the great nineteenth-century creations, there is this discord between the will and the work. It gives a personal vibration to the pages of Freud, that is not the least of their value.


What of the scientific values of Freud’s work? Psychoanalysis is, first of all, a therapy in the treatment of nervous and psychic disorders. Thousands of physicians, for the most part in the Central-European and Anglo-Saxon countries, practice it, and seemingly with success. But therapy is the least important aspect of Freud’s work. Most of the ills of personal maladjustment which the Freudian analysis may cure are the symptoms of disorder, economic, social, and cultural, of the contemporary world. The right way to overcome them is to attack the disease, not its individual symbols. In this task, the light thrown by Freud on the human psyche is of great importance; the actual relief given to a few persons is immaterial. The time required by an analysis, and the expense, make the method (under our present system) available chiefly to the type of idle woman and parasitic man who are not worth saving at the price of the lengthy effort which the analyst must devote to readjusting them into a morbid world. It would really be better for the whole leisured class, who have supported so many analysts in luxury, to be converted en masse to the Catholic Church. They could all go to Lourdes, whose record of cures is vastly more varied. There is this difference, however. When a patient finds relief at a Catholic shrine, no one is the wiser: the cure has been worked in an invulnerable darkness. But when even the most useless society woman is analysed by a Freudian, although she may not be cured, the analyst and science know something more about the human soul. Psychoanalysis as a therapy is justified, in so far as the physician is more important than the patient.

Freud, therefore, is within the tradition of his Jewish fathers, to whom Wisdom was never (as it was with the Hindus) an end to be independently attained, but the common fruit of the tree of humane living. Freud, the physician, is moved to heal the suffering of his fellows; and from this humble, socially immaterial ministration, has issued a deep knowledge.

I am not qualified to judge the precise final values, as objective science, of the Freudian system. But of course, objective science has no final values. Despite its assumption of definitive laws, the light of generations makes of the science of any epoch a mere trend or method toward knowledge. That scientific work whose path is followed farther, is good work; and here is its ultimate value. Thus the mathematical science of a Pascal or a Leibnitz is good; and in this sense, it is already clear that the Freudian technology is good. His dicta on any specific problem, such as the origin of neurosis or the set-up of the psyche, may be amended. Indeed, Freud has himself refuted several of his early propositions. For instance, he used to hold that in the anxiety neurosis, the repression caused the anxiety, and his analytic experience has now taught him, as indicated in “A New Series of Introductory Lectures to Psycho-Analysis,” that the anxiety comes first, and that its source is a (disguised) actual trauma. In the technique of analysis, this reversal is important. But it reveals at what deeper level than any fact or system, lies the scientific value of Freud’s work. Freud’s vision of the soul as an organism in dynamic integration with the physical body, with the social body, and with the historic body of mankind, has given us a method. And by this method, we have come more close than we have come before to the sources of behavior, to an anatomy of ideas and emotions. Already, the uses of the method have proliferated widely. It has shed light on the social origins of man, anthropological and cultural; and on the problems of character-formation without which there can be no science of education and no science of ethics. By its fecundity, the method of Freud’s psychology will perhaps prove to be as good science as the method of Darwin’s biology or of the Marxian historical critique.

I have said that the least value of Freud’s work is its therapy; I may amend this by saying that in therapy lie its greatest evils. Persons who go to psycho-analysis to be cured of neurosis or of a functional maladjustment, inevitably look for guiding values which anciently were given by religion. They seek a way of life; and the analyst is placed in the position of spiritual leader. This is not Freud’s claim. He scouts all Weltanschauung beyond the scientific acceptance and ordering of the report of the senses. These rationalists are all naive in their failure to recognize the limiting dogmatism of their creed. A measuring rod that negates what lies beyond is the sternest of dogmatists. The man who disclaims any individual norm of values and yet deals with the subtlest problems of human adjustment, implicitly accepts the values that are current and actively rejects what lies outside his measure. The patient is sick because he does not fit into the world as he finds it; the analyst who cures him helps him into this world, which means that he has set up, as the desired norm, the values of the world. If the analyst is not aware of this, his acceptance is merely the more blind and his work upon the soul of the patient the more irresponsible. This is a serious criticism to be made against psycho-analysis from the viewpoint of a world sorely in need of revolution in the domain of values. And it may well be that the maladjusted neurotic of today is closer to the norm of healthy social transformation than the neurotic whom Freudian analysis has made “fit and content” within a society of false individualism and cultural decay.

A more serious, because more philosophical, indictment is that the Freudian system (not the method) makes of mental life a region without polarity with either cosmos or individual person. The explorer Knud Rasmussen once asked an Eskimo, who lived within the ice of the Arctic Circle and whose food was the raw flesh of caribou, “What do you understand by the soul?” And Ikinilik, the savage, answered: “It is something beyond understanding, that makes me a human being.” Freud the man would probably agree; Freud, the nineteenth-century rationalist, cannot admit of this “something beyond understanding.” He must draw his charts of human behavior, his maps of the mind, without allowance for this “x.” But what if the “x” is needed to produce, from Freud’s hypothetic id and ego, the human being? What if all Freud’s analytic counters, lacking this “x,” do not add up into the synthesis—the actual person? “The id,” says Freud, “is the whole personality and the ego is within it.” But Freud’s id is a chaos of instinct and desire, timeless and spaceless, from which by definition all cosmic connection is excised. How does it manage, out of its anarchic tidings, to throw up the ego and the super-ego with their cultural cosmic sublimations? Where is the forming factor? Dostoevski, who finds God at the irrational and subnormal source, has a more logical explanation. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, although he lacks Freud’s intellectual genius and although his work is not, like Freud’s, a great aesthetic body, is more logical, calling the id the “collective unconscious” and finding there the cosmic seed that can explain the human fruit. You can insert no new element, says Whitehead, in an evolving organism. It must be there at the beginning. Freud, in his rationalist refusal to allow within the id, at least hypothetically, the mystic “x” which can alone explain the flowering in the muck of the intellectual and aesthetic capacities of man, meets the tragic fate of all rationalists whose ultimate syllogism proves the irrationality of the rationalist dogma.

But whatever the reader judges to be the validity of the Freudian system or the virtues of his own use of his method, he must know, as he reads the books of Sigmund Freud, that he stands within the presence of true human greatness. Freud, indeed, is one of the supreme intellectual heroes of our time:’one of those men who make life more liveable for us all through the fact of his existence. In his writings, we sense the heroism of his effort, armed alone by faith in reason, to conquer cosmic continents. We think of the first Spaniards, exploring with the blunderbuss and a Cross, yet giving the Americas to man. Freud, also, with a faith and weapons equally foredoomed, has discovered a new world which, by outliving him, will make him immortal.


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