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Enlivening the Psychoanalytical Search for Meaning in Life

OPEN MINDED, Working Out the Logic of the Soul, by Jonathan Lear, Harvard University Press, $35, 345 pages

November 03, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three weeks ago, the Library of Congress in Washington opened a long-awaited show on Freud, a show that has been bitterly contested for years. In the summer of 1995, news of the planned exhibit provoked a storm of protest from a motley crew of anti-Freudians, and in December 1995, the library announced that it was postponing the show--indefinitely.

That same month, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear wrote a beautifully explicated (psycho)analysis of the controversy--a defense not of Freud the man but of his therapeutic method as an approach to the apparently intractable problems of being human. That essay is reprinted in Lear's new collection, "Open Minded," along with meditations on such subjects as Plato's "Symposium" and the psychoanalytic process of transference. These essays reveal Lear to be counterintuitive, playful, empathetic--oh, yes, and funny too. He may be the world's perfect analyst.

"There is something dead in the profession of psychoanalysis and something dead in the profession of philosophy," Lear writes. "This book is above all a response to a sense of deadness." Lear argues that our culture has lost--or perhaps never learned--"the capacity to be open minded: the capacity to live nondefensively with the question of how to live." Instead, we have retreated into a superficial utilitarianism and an evasion of conflict.

Lear locates the still--or is it increasingly?--virulent reaction to Freud in a refusal to accept the idea of the unconscious. He places Freud within a tradition that "goes back to Sophocles and which extends through Plato, St. Augustine, and Shakespeare to Proust and Nietzsche. What holds this tradition together is its insistence that there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness. . . . In misunderstanding these strange meanings, humans usher in catastrophe."

Thus Lear views the skirmish over the Library of Congress exhibit as part of a larger battle: "The war is over our culture's image of the human soul. Are we to see humans as having depth--as complex psychological organisms who generate layers of meaning which lie beneath the surface of their own understanding? Or are we to take ourselves as transparent to ourselves?"

Lear writes that, in both the personal and political realms, "there is something funny going on with 'knowingness' in the culture." He regards Oedipus as the prototypal (and in some respects quite modern) character who "knows" so much that he is breathtakingly ignorant: "What he misses completely is the thought that his 'knowingness' lies at the heart of his troubles. . . . Oedipus' confidence in his powers of practical reason shields him from recognition of another realm [of] meaning--and, thus, Oedipus cannot recognize the possibility of tragedy until he is overwhelmed by it." But Lear's plea for less "knowledge"--that is, for more open-mindedness--is not a brief for ambivalence or "wishy-washy relativism" but, rather, for an exploration of the risky, disturbing layers of existence.

In his essay on transference, Lear suggests some fascinating parallels between the neurotic worldview and a slave culture. Like the neurotic, the slave society views its social relations as natural and immutable, resists change and cannot withstand "the threat of reflective questioning"; like the neurotic, the slave society must externalize conflicts, treating them as "the attack of a barbarian outsider who does not understand."

It is often when these contradictions are recognized as internally generated that the slave society crumbles. This process is slow, bloody, painful and liberating. Something similar happens in (successful) analysis, Lear intimates, when the world that the neurotic has so lovingly created and energetically defended becomes literally uninhabitable. "Theorists sometimes write as though once analysands can grasp their conflicted responses, they can choose less conflicted ways to live," Lear writes. "There is truth to this, but it tends to portray analysands as smart shoppers. . . . The analysand does not choose a better world over his familiar idiopolis: The old world goes dead."

Lear reminds us that Freud's great achievement was to locate meaning and conflict squarely within the human psyche, rather than in the realm of what the ancients called fate and the religious call the divine. Thus Freud offered us an almost unimaginable power to change ourselves and our world--and placed upon us the often unbearable burden of doing so. Freud demanded that we act as the self-aware, autonomous subjects of our own lives rather than as the blessedly ignorant playthings of the gods--and it is for this that he may, perhaps, never be forgiven.

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