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Democrats Look for a Big Idea "You Must Suggest an Alternative"

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Why Should Freud Matter?

by Christopher Chantrill
May 07, 2006 at 10:15 am

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TO CELEBRATE the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, the Wall Street Journal on Friday hauled out Harold Bloom to explain to us all “Why Freud Matters.”

Bloom told us that Freud was not so much a scientist but a “moral essayist” like Montaigne. He advised that “Freud maps our minds by mapping his own.”

Does Freud map your mind? I thought not. Oh sure, you can bounce the concepts around: Id, Ego, repression, infant sexuality, Oedipus complex. But what does it all mean? To a conservative, it just doesn’t add up.

So what does Harold Bloom, grand old man of letters, mean by Freud mapping his mind? And what did the playwright mean when he said that the scales fell off his eyes when he read Freud?

The Freudian apparatus may not mean much to a conservative, but for the writer or the playwright it certainly does. That is why Freud has so obsessed the scribbling classes and why he has ended up so woven into the culture of the twentieth century. Freud explained to the creative artist why he was feeling so miserable and what to do about it.

Let us try to understand why this is so.

The creative artist lives a daily agony. He may be a fine prose stylist, a craftsman of the written word, but that is only the half of it. The other half is talent, the mystery ingredient that makes the difference between a nobody and a genius.

How do you know if you have talent? How do you put your talent to use? More to the point, where does the idea for the next novel or play come from?

Even more urgent, where does the idea for the next plot twist come from?

Freud provided the answer to these questions. Where was that next idea? It was locked away in the unconscious. Perhaps it was repressed, hidden away from the creative ego by the artist’s rigid father or smothering mother. The trick was to unlock the gate and release the pent-up river of creative inspiration.

Of course, Freud didn’t invent all this on his own. He got it from the century of German philosophy and psychology that begins with Kant.

Kant opens the modern era with the assertion that we cannot know actual reality, the thing-in-itself, but only the appearance of it. As a conscious ego I can only posses a personal view of the world as it seems to appear to me; it is my world-view or Weltanshauung. Then along comes Fichte’s creative ego and the declaration that “All our thought is founded on our impulses.”

With a dash of Hegel’s developmental psychology and Schopenhauer’s theory of repression everything is in place for Freud, physician and prose stylist, to come along and popularize the ideas that will help the playwright peel the scales from his eyes.

Genius is impulse, Freud teaches him, creative impulse that wells up out of the unconscious. And the worst thing you can do is to repress it.

In the United States, of course, we do not sit around just thinking about our artistic alienation and the awful repressions we suffer; we write self-help books about it. Julia Cameron, an early wife of Martin Scorsese, has written The Artist’s Way to help Americans to release their creative genius. You gather creative ideas by going on an Artist’s Date and opening yourself to new experiences. You process the ideas by Walking in the World with the dog. You spew them back out in your daily Morning Pages, three pages of free writing. Voila! No more writer’s block.

This creativity ritual may be salvation for for artists and writers, people who have made a religion out of thinking previously un-thought thoughts. But the rest of us may be excused for pointing out that, creativity or not, we have lives to live. We have to go to work, obey the law, pay our taxes, and follow the rules.

There is also the minor question of getting married, making babies, and raising children. On the whole, it seems, the artists inspired by Freud would rather not. In fact the whole of Europe would rather not.

“There is a danger that you would get married in the early twenties, have children quickly, and then be stuck at home,” filmmaker Michael Apted instructed three teenage girls in the British Up Series back in 1970. As it turned out, he needn’t have worried. But there is a danger that when everyone is out in the world following satisfying careers then nobody is home creating kids. Or raising them. Or even minding them.

Maybe Freud matters because he inspired the educated people in the West to believe that a creative life of the mind was better than a life stuck at home creating babies.

But isn’t that a sophisticated way of turning up your nose at work that gets your hands dirty?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Chappies

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Hugo on Genius

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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