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Of Freud and the Future

ISSUE:  Autumn 1937

Freud and Marx. By Reuben, Osborn. New York: Equinox Co-operative Press. $2.50. Freud, Goethe, Wagner. By Thomas Mann. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.00.

I warn you, Thomas Mann! I warn you, Reuben Osborn! You have given the devil your little finger and he will take your whole arm! You, Thomas Mann, have acted knowingly, walking into intellectual inferno like Giordano Bruno, whose heroic passion carried him into the flame. You, Reuben Osborn, have acted in a blundering fashion, stumbling into peril. I will recite the circumstances and invite the readers of the Virginia Quarterly to judge you upon them.

Both Thomas Mann’s lecture on Freud and Osborn’s substantial volume include a recapitulation of Freud’s theory of the id and the ego—the id which is the vast unconscious and timeless psychic mass that operates on the pleasure principle; the ego, its fragmentary conscious element which, operating on the reality principle, attempts to reconcile the drives that come from the pleasure principle with the realities of the world. Osborn concerns himself also with the Freudian super-ego, that restraining force that imposes itself upon the ego, perpetuating the restraints that the father imposed upon the infant.

Osborn is interested in selling Freud to Marxists. He cites passages indicating that Marx and Engels were really not far from Freud. He thinks Freud will now furnish a corrective for those Marxists whose dialectical materialism has turned too much on the material element, too little on its dialectical opposite, the subjective element. He concludes that Freudian psychology has much to teach Marxists in the domain of political tactics, as well as in the domain of metaphysics. Marxists must free their adherents from the restraining influence of the super-ego and let the working class be ruled by the ego and the id. They must take a leaf from the book of the Nazis and create heroes who can fill the father-image; they must make a Marxian super-ego; they must develop connections with the past which will permit the super-ego to follow the party line, despite its predilection for conservatism.

Much of the practical strategic material was implicit in Henry de Man’s “Psychology of Socialism,” written in the early 1920’s before Freud had come to the conception of the ego, the super-ego, and the id. Osborn implements his demonstration that Freudian psychology is non-Aristotelian by proof that Hegelian logic was not Aristotelian, a rather superfluous demonstration. The new formula specifically contributed by Osborn is that the id and the ego, if left to themselves, without the restraint of the super-ego, would follow the party line into a collectivist society. But there is danger in his system, for the id may turn out to be something that is better satisfied by an opportunity to beat up a Jew than by a chance to have “freedom”; it may prefer war and a low standard of living to peace and a high standard of living. Once Osborn cuts loose from the firm anchorage of nineteenth-century science, in the faith of which Marx lived and wrote, he has nothing but his own super-ego to keep him from wearing a swastika and a brown shirt.

Thomas Mann has more to say and says it with more right. Who better than the author of “The Magic Mountain” could testify to the value of “disease as an instrument of knowledge”? He sees in Freud an “insight into the mysterious unity of Ego and actuality, destiny and character, doing and happening” which has profound meaning to a creative writer. He traces the resemblances between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Freud, just as Osborn looks for resemblances between Marx and Engels and Freud. And when he speaks of the id, of the retreat to a fusion of consciousness and the unconscious, he knows where that retreat can go. Who better than this exile can speak of the “moral devastation which is produced by the worship of the unconscious, the glorification of its dynamic as the only life-promoting force, the systematic glorification of the primitive and irrational”? But after this one glance at his native land, the creative artist turns to the relation of Freud to the work of an artist. There he goes quickly to a discussion of life as a “lived myth.” “When as a novelist I took the step in my subject-matter from the bourgeois and individual to the mythical and typical, my personal connection with the analytical field passed into its acute stage.” His “Joseph and His Brothers” reeked of Freud, though it did not come from Freud. “When the artist has acquired the habit of regarding life as mythical and typical there comes a curious heightening of his artist temper.” “Life in the myth, life, so to speak, in quotation, is a kind of celebration, in that it is a making present of the past, it becomes a religious act, the performance by a celebrant of a prescribed procedure; it becomes a feast.”

After this discussion of the artist’s movement from a non-Freudian world of scientific objectivity and individualism into a Freudian world of myth, Mann predicts that Freud’s work will be the foundation of a “future dwelling of a wiser and freer humanity.” But how is this possible if the kind of humanity that Freud teaches us wc are is not wiser and freer than the kind we thought we were? Human beings may indeed be more accurately described by Freud than by any sage in any earlier century; but does the new description really give us ground for a more optimistic view of the future than we once entertained? Are there in the world today any men who are more effectively living and dramatizing myths than the very ones who despoiled and persecuted Thomas Mann?

When Thomas Mann wrote “Joseph and His Brothers” he was writing of a Jew and of the long influence of race experience upon an individual. There is someone in Germany who will agree with him and help fill out the scheme; his name is Julius Streicher. And Alfred Rosenberg will accept every word of Mann’s Freudian metaphysic and apply it to the Nordic race.

When two who are living so patently in an antagonism to the Nazi world are willing to expound as Freudian a metaphysic which is so fundamental to the Nazi view of life, the reviewer can only wish that the popularized Freud of the 1920’s could be back with us again. That was the Freud of sex and complexes and suppressed desires, as he was conned in the days of bathtub gin and discussed by people who thought The American Mercury was a left-wing publication.

But who am I, your humble reviewer, to say these things? I may deplore these threatening features of a terrible century that looms before us all, but I cannot deny their existence. Go on with your myths, Thomas Mann; proceed with your id, Mr. Osborn; you are probably right and the century is with you. But, for God’s sake, look where you are going!


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