In addition to being practiced by professionals, psychoanalysis is used to some degree by most of us to explain things to ourselves. We know how on the basis of the sexual hypothesis, phenomena can be traced to previously unsuspected origins—for instance, the suicide of a female to a mother who died shortly before the suicide reached puberty. The habit of seeing mysterious connections of this type has now been instilled even in the less educated. The unconscious erotic motivations of assassins and jewel thieves are casually identified by high-school students and cab drivers. On the other hand, the most learned non-practitioner can rarely convince himself that his psychological reconstructions are altogether free of fantasy. A conception so widely shared and comprising both certainty and doubt belongs to the order of living myths. Whatever be its status among the higher intellectual forms, from mathematics to landscape gardening, psychoanalysis today is an aspect of American popular culture.

Dr. Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek, editor of the large Delta paperback anthology, Psychoanalysis and Contemporary American Culture,1 is eager to have psychoanalytical thought become even more pervasive than it is. “Psychoanalysis,” he tells us in his Introduction, “is no longer confined to the therapeutic frame of reference.” In its beginnings it was a method of treating individuals suffering from psychic abnormalities; today, it must undertake the task of educating “normal” people in how to live. “Freud and his colleagues . . . saw a preponderance of hysterical patients. We see few of these in private practice now.” Who comes? Individuals distracted by the problem of who they are—that is to say, anybody. The therapist will help his client recognize himself. He may also introduce him to natural feelings—e.g., love—which he had only heard of before. Because while the new patient is not sick as an individual, he is deprived of his biological and human heritage by that twofold mal de siècle, alienation and the crisis of identity. For this historically tormented person the concepts of psychoanalysis, Dr. Ruitenbeek contends, occupy the place once held by tragedy, religion, philosophy, tradition.

But though Dr. Ruitenbeek appeals for this comprehensive role of psychoanalysis in American life, psychoanalysis is so cut to pieces in the articles and speeches assembled in his book that there seems hardly enough left of it to fill out a prescription. Perhaps intellectual conquests take place this way, through the dissolution of the conqueror. I do not know to what extent, if any, the effect was intended, but the total impression created by this group of writings by two dozen thinkers influenced by Freud is that the collective assurance of psychoanalysis as an exclusive key to human behavior is by now completely dissolved. Here, it's every man for himself and overboard with anything he can do without. “Thanks be to God,” writes one contributor to Psychoanalysis and Contemporary American Culture, “there does remain some chance of improving the social structure by means of appropriate action and without first visiting the psychoanalyst's office.” Progressives go home—your politics have made you whole. One recalls, in contrast, that twenty years ago the political-activist hero of Koestler's Arrival and Departure had to undergo a session on the couch in order to understand what he was really after as a party member.


With political action no longer to be meddled with by the doctor, another contributor, Franz Alexander, explains why “psychoanalyzing society” has been a sad mistake. Ruitenbeek himself takes generosity out of reach of the analyst's peephole by complaining that “altruistic impulses often are taken as evidences of hidden hostility.” Ernest van den Haag (many of Dr. Ruitenbeek's selections are by sociologists and writers on the mass media) attacks Freud's notion of art as a substitute gratification equivalent to dreaming, and Campbell Crockett recalls that “much nonsense has been written about the relation between neurosis and creativity.” David Riesman takes the offensive against the mechanical quality of Freud's thinking: “While he [Freud] accused intuition of arbitrariness, the very logical and often pedestrian rigor of his own treatment of symbols led repeatedly to highly arbitrary, indeed quite fanatical, constructions.” Another critic of the master repudiates “the universal determinism on which Freud prided himself above all.” To cap the retractions, but by no means to exhaust them, a leading neo-Freudian speaks of “the present contradictory, and to my mind deteriorating, form of many psychoanalytic concepts.”

Retreat all along the line seems to mark the cultural offensive of psychoanalysis. No less an authority than Erik Erikson points the direction of the withdrawal. “The ego in psychoanalysis, then, is analogous to what it was in philosophy in earlier usage.” Psychoanalysis is being grafted onto philosophy, especially existential philosophy, with occasional cuttings from tragic poetry (for example, in Rollo May). “The great philosophies of [sic] world history,” writes a metaphysically inspired therapist, “have recommended various techniques to learn the endurance of suffering.” Another cautions that “it is important for psychiatrists to recognize the normalcy of realistic worry.”

The consensus is, plainly, that philosophical and religious Angst is in, the pursuit of happiness out. The “new dimension in 20th-century life,” as the subtitle of Dr. Ruitenbeek's book describes psychoanalysis, is the dimension of painful profundity added to the shallow American Way. Guided by an ultimate vision, psychoanalysis acquires through collaboration with sociology a concrete understanding of the social realities surrounding the patient. The nub of this understanding is that it is futile to adjust the individual to the contemporary environment, as the voyeur who came to Freud afflicted by spells of blindness was turned into a dealer in optical instruments happy to mind his own business. With today's patient, the existentialist analyst knows, the environment itself is the origin of his malady. Hence, abandoning to the clinics and the new drugs the task of patching up emotional casualties, the revised psychoanalysis seeks to lead men to values based on the truth of the human condition.


All this sounds very thoughtful and even austere. By the evidence of the literature, art, and political theory of the past one hundred years, the crisis of identity is the spiritual hallmark of our time. But are the neo-Freudians, in adopting this as their leitmotif, really able to bring “a new dimension” to American life? Given the loosening of the psychoanalytical system, the “deterioration” of its concepts, its absorption of ideas and rhetoric from other forms of thought, it seems more likely that American culture has subtracted a dimension from psychoanalysis. The alien “science” has been filtered through prevailing intellectual outlooks—e.g., the loss-of-self theme. Instead of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary American Culture, Dr. Ruitenbeek's book might more correctly have been called American Culture in Contemporary Psychoanalysis. While psychoanalytical assumptions have become part of our common sense of things, a conformist common sense has been pressing psychoanalysis into the mold of accepted moral and social beliefs.

The upshot of the matter is that in the neo-Freudian literature, deteriorated psychoanalysis has been mixed with deteriorated Puritanism, deteriorated individualism, deteriorated Marxism. To note this may be only another way of recognizing with Dr. Ruitenbeek that psychoanalysis has by now been fully naturalized. In modern times a “culture” is nothing else than the sum of decayed ideologies that have washed into the inherited intellectual soil. While an ideology is still ripening, it defends the difference against hostile ideologies and against tradition. When, however, it has commenced to decay, it is prepared to blend into its surroundings. In keeping with this principle, Psychoanalysis in Contemporary American Culture marks off the role of psychoanalysis in a cooperative division of labor. Its province is the individual (as the province of sociology is the community)—but only the secular individual; the churches and synagogues can keep the believers.

To enter fully into American culture, ideas must popularize themselves. The contents of Dr. Ruitenbeek's book belong for the most part to popular culture. His contributors are all professionals, many of them eminent ones, but theorizing about the condition of man in the mid-20th century is not their profession. They earn their living as therapists, sociologists, researchers, teachers, but on the subjects of tragedy and comedy, of artistic creation, of contemporary cultural, social, and political trends, they are Sunday thinkers. Like those of Sunday painters, their products are likely to be au courant in a kind of meager imitation of surface effects. “The conception of schizophrenia as a way of eluding an Absurd world, or as alienation from it—that is, as a form of existence—poses to the therapist the problem of his own existence and his defensive maneuvers. . . . But no therapy of schizophrenia can long endure without the dedication of the therapist and his personal conviction that in the Absurd there is meaning and beauty.” Maybe so, but though the author's subject is schizophrenia this reference to “the Absurd,” the self-knowledge of the therapist, and his faith in the beauty at the heart of the void is literary talk; and to be sure, many of his pages are given over to discussing Camus. Nor is it very interesting literary talk—in fact, it consists mostly of platitudes.

Erikson's contribution on “The Roots of Virtue” is on the same level—it attempts nothing less than “A Schedule of Basic Virtues” (hope, skill, fidelity, purpose, etc.) based on The Ages of Man (Shakespeare was too frivolous to work out the details). Under a section entitled “Love,” Professor Erikson goes in for stuff like this: “While many forms of love can be shown to be at work in the formation of the various virtues, it is important to realize that only graduation from adolescence permits the development of that intimacy, the selflessness of joined devotion, which anchors love in a mutual commitment.” Or “Animals, too, instinctively encourage in their young what is ready for release; and, of course, some animals can be taught some tricks and services by man. Only man, however, can and must extend his solicitude over the long, parallel and overlapping childhoods of numerous offspring united in households and communities.”

Such thinking is identical with the common output of sermons, womens' magazines, TV panels; one contributor, Judd Marmor, enters into direct debate with Norman Vincent Peale. The only difference in the neo-Freudian writings is occasional patches of clinical reference or traditional psychoanalytical metaphor, as in this example from Dr. Ruitenbeek: “He [the American male] no longer carries the world in his pocket. He does not possess his penis securely.” (Somehow, I kept getting mixed up by what's in the pocket.) Erich Fromm, the outstanding figure among the neo-Freudians, is, of course, more theoretically and stylistically sophisticated. Yet his essay on “Individual and Social Character,” written in 1932 and respected as a classic of the present turn in socio-psychoanalysis, is popularized Marx (“If a social order neglects or frustrates the basic human needs beyond a certain threshold, the members of such a society will try to change the social order so as to make it more suitable to their human needs”) combined with simplified Freud (“Freud had recognized something that the great novelists and dramatists had always known,” etc.). The conception of social types put forward by Fromm is full of weaknesses and hardly up to the level of modern discussions of character in the drama, for example, Strindberg's. The various authors of Psychoanalysis and Contemporary American Culture contradict one another as frequently as editorials in different liberal newspapers; as individual minds they seem to have nothing in common, though they revert to the same terminology and fill in gaps with the same ideological cement. The most convincing passages in the book are those knocking down earlier psychoanalytical nonsense and procedures derived therefrom. Perhaps by coincidence, none of the three best articles is by a full-time therapist: they include van den Haag's “Creativity, Health, and Art,” Riesman's “The Themes of Work and Play in the Structure of Freud's Thought,” and Edgar Z. Friedenberg's “Neo-Freudianism and Erich Fromm,” an excellent weighing of historical and intellectual factors in Fromm's modification of Freud.

In overflowing the therapeutic frame, psychoanalysis has converted itself into an ideology. All modern ideologies center on the problem of identity and alienation, and the rise of psychoanalysis as a candidate in this field coincides exactly with the postwar deflation of socialism as the alternative to the preceding individualism. The historical content of “cultural” psychoanalysis thus lies in its reversion to traditional American individualism as weakened and demoralized by the depression and the new mass society.

Faced with the “permanent crisis” of the postwar world, psychoanalysis aspires to become the tragic knowledge of the epoch, comparable to those forms of tragedy and ritual by which the human being was in the past purged of his false ego (egos) and lifted into self-recognition. All that psychoanalysis lacks is the art; that is to say, the potency of form that gives to vision a reality beyond mere talk. In the absence of art, the high moral and philosophical aims of post-Freudian analysis are a professional man's seriousness that can only bring about the substitute purge of uplift. In sum, the contribution of the new psychoanalysis lies in that upper realm of popular culture which comprises the sermon for the times, the appeal to “values,” the call for fortitude.

1 Dell, 436 pp., $245.

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