TOPICS: In celebration of Freud

It is time to rescue Freud from his detractors. He deserves a place alongside Einstein, Newton, Darwin and Kant as one of the authors of modernity and one of the greatest intellectuals of all time. Born 150 years ago on May 6, this is the man who recognised and tried to map the way our primal and dark impulses as human beings interact with our intellects to deliver results ranging from war to individual psychosis. Freud identified two human forcefields, one to love and unify, the other to hate and destroy, whose complex interplay, mediated by how civilisations attempt to manage the consequent emotions, create our mental universe.

There would have been no sexual revolution without his insistence that the repression of our deepest primal sexual urges can be profoundly costly. Without his introducing us to the subconscious and how it responds to our deep twin urges, we would have understood ourselves immeasurably less well.

Yet, for decades, he has been derided and scorned. He is one of the American right’s deadliest iconic enemies and the more American conservatism grows in influence, the more Freud is taking cultural and intellectual hits. In its lexicon, he is, above any other, undermined morality. He is the author of cultural relativism because his preoccupation is not with facts and reason, but the psychological drivers of why anybody takes the position they do. Freud, for example, would be less interested in debating the rights and wrongs of the death penalty than why so many people on the American religious right feel the need for capital punishment. In its terms, it is a pernicious transformation of the terms of debate. Worst of all, Freud did not believe in God.

Using anti-depressants or the techniques of cognitive behaviour therapy to think and act more positively may not get to the roots of the psychosis as Freud might have wanted, but they bring much needed relief. Freudians accuse the apostles of cognitive behaviour therapy as being ‘surface’ therapists seeking a quick fix; the counter-accusation is that a lot happens on the surface and results count.

In his brilliant biography of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud is struck by how long and how much effort the artist took over his paintings — three years over The Last Supper, four years over The Mona Lisa. Only a supreme perfectionist would take so long, which Freud admired. Freud famously concludes that da Vinci’s art was because of his unique capacity to sublimate his deepest instincts, a homosexuality shaped by the varying influences of his mother, step-mother and grandmother during infancy. Only thus could he have so perfectly represented in The Mona Lisa’s smile ‘the contrast between reserve and seduction, between devoted tenderness and sensuality, which dominates the erotic life of women’.

Which psychologist today would be so brave as to try to understand the mental life of the world’s greatest artists? Freud is thus one of the greats; opening vistas that had not been seen before and which illuminate us still. — The Guardian