Friday, August 13, 2010

“Oedipus schmoedipus, a boy should love his mother”

A friend of mine is a gold mine of information on pop culture. He can rattle off the hit singles of The Marvelettes or the cast of the 80s horror flick Chopping Mall the way some other people can recite baseball stats. Yet, I often discover he hasn't seen, read, or heard the actual movie, book, or recording. He simply enjoys knowing about entertainment more than he enjoys experiencing the thing itself.

Most of us have a similar kind of acquaintance with weightier parts of the culture. We learn a Cliff Notes version (sometimes literally) of history, arts, and science in school with very little exposure to the original sources. We read some opinionated modern summary of the "real" causes of the South’s secession, for example, rather than read, say, the detailed 1861 farewell speech to the Senate by Jefferson Davis (D-MS). We read a paragraph about Nietzsche that describes him (inaccurately) as dark and dangerous. Sigmund Freud may get a whole page.

At the moment Freud is broadly unfashionable, though only a few percent of the people I meet have read a single one of his books. Why is he on the outs? For one thing, pharmacology and neurophysiology largely have elbowed aside psychoanalysis. Sigmund never disputed that the mind was physiological. He insisted on it. He simply argued that medical approaches were too blunt and systemic to effect the nuanced physical changes in the brain that could be achieved by analysis. Nowadays folks are not so sure.

Freud’s biggest image problem, however, is not medical but political. Freud didn’t flatter people in order to boost their self-esteem. Minds are unpleasant things, full of base and embarrassing motivations, and Freud didn’t hesitate to say so. He suggested some things about men, about women, about the sublimation of the libido, and about the social dominance of heterosexuality which don't blend well with contemporary political platitudes. To make matters worse, many self-styled “Freudians” who followed him were narrow-minded bigots who confused "this is the way it usually happens" with "this is the way it properly happens." They notoriously classified homosexuality until very recently as a disorder, for example. Freud himself, though, was surprisingly open-minded about this and about alternative sexuality in general:

"The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice." (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

The contents of the libraries of the world overwhelm us. We simply don’t have the time to check the original sources in every subject. We have little choice but to rely on the Cliff Notes versions most of the time. Nevertheless, we should treat these summaries with caution, and, at least sometimes, check the original sources, especially if something seems off. Whoever wrote the notes might have got it wrong.

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