Thursday, May 18, 2006

Romantic Psychotherapy Powered by Whirlwind of Desire

The New Pantagruel has just published a stunningly brilliant essay on Freud, Democracy, and the Therapeutic Ethos. Steven L. Gardner's "Psychological Man: Eros and Ambition in Democratic Desire" is a must-read examination of Freud and his influence in democratic societies. It possesses so many choice quotations I had to check my desire to simply steal the whole thing.

Freud offers an indispensable orientation to the psyche of modern man, but he is also a barrier to deciphering adequately the secret mechanisms of modern man’s passions. Ironically, this is not because they are buried in the unconscious depths of the body, as depth psychologists might like to think. Rather it is because they are so near at hand, on the surface, right beneath our noses. What obscures them are the mythemes of depth psychology itself, above all the idea of the somatic unconscious canonized in the libidinal theory of desire. In his book on Freud, Rieff shows that his somatic theory of desire is a “scientific” decantation of romanticism. But romanticism, I suggest, is the “natural religion” of democratic culture, its spontaneous mythology, which Freud baptizes in affording it one of its most sophisticated intellectual justifications and forms. The fundamental exigency of democratic culture is the claim to originality, individuality, or genius. In a world of equality, everyone must distinguish himself in order to count. These are constitutive dogmas of romanticism. Freud’s somatic theory of unconscious libido serves the romanticism of democratic culture in two ways: first, it ascribes this originality or individuality to virtually everyone, in the unconscious “poetry” of their desires; and second, as Mikkel Borsch-Jacobsen has shown (The Freudian Subject, 1988), it underwrites Freud’s own claim to genius.


For this new type, psychology would replace ontology or theology, and therapy would replace community, hitherto the most potent psychic medicines in Western culture. Emancipated by modern technology, commerce, law, and consumerism from integral community, the modern individual found himself abandoned to contradictory passions and impulses and alienated from the remnants of a cultural order that, nonetheless, he could not do without. He thus entered into the twilight zone of modernity, the realm of ambivalences and ambiguities that ensue when every fixed point of reference is dissolved into the sheer interplay of individuals in a culture that can no longer sustain its origins. Freud appeared as his savior and advocate, the inventor of a technique of survival not physical but psychical. He promised to teach the modern individual how to desire in a world where all desires were equal and arbitrary, void of any intrinsic order, but not necessarily equally permissible or socially estimable. Here was a human type where interiority and its dilemmas were not a mark of the spiritual or transcendent but exactly of their absence, at best of their fading images-where interiority and the sense of alienation from the outer reflect the social fact of “negative community.”


The fundamental law of Psychological Man is the law of temporization, to keep things going, in the absence of any definitive, authoritative ends. The problem for Psychological Man is not, finally, that of the satisfaction of desire, because he is conditioned in advance by the knowledge that desire is inherently unsatisfiable, at least in any definitive, classical, or teleological sense. His problem, rather, is how to keep desiring in the face of that knowledge. His aim is how to postpone the inevitable, the end of desire. His greatest fear is Pascalian boredom, the helpless feeling of not being able to desire, the loss of the power of distraction. The individual who is to survive in the modern world must become the “genius” of himself, the artist of his desires as the vital source of his being. In crafting a “scientific” advocacy for this individual, Freud wanted to help him become his own advocate, the negotiator of his desires, mediating between his eros and the demands of society. In Freud, Psychological Man came of age; in Freud, he found his classic exemplar, his ethical model, his theorist, and his doctor.

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