The Book Club

Crewsing, Learing, Etc.


Reading Jonathan Lear’s wonderful book, Open Minded, I realize perhaps what lies (for me, at least) at the bottom of all this. And that is quite simply a matter of putting psychoanalysis in the right category of human thought. The anti-Freudians insist on a purely empirical scientistic approach, and so are able to find all sorts of fallacies and inconsistencies. Lear goes to the other extreme and essentially asks us to think of Freud as a form of literature that engages the soul. If Crews is a zero and Lear is a 10 on the scale of where to put Freud on the science-art scale, I guess I’m a 9. Lear successfully shows how all interpretation of human experience relies upon an analysis of meaning, and meaning, by its very nature, is not susceptible to proof or disproof; especially when it is created by human beings who are, at some level even unaware of their own meaning, or able to change or reinterpret it at a moment’s notice. But I think you have to retain some shred of hope that some kind of stable meaning for any human behavior, some kind of provisional answer, can be shown persuasively to exist, or the entire project becomes pointless and merely an exercise in contemplation or mysticism. So we arrive at Freud’s endless questioning and self-questioning, as a form of therapy, that indeed can help one live a deeper and better and fuller life. Lear’s analogy to Plato is revelatory in this respect. Compared to say, Aristotle, the Platonic dialogues are beautifully indeterminate and elusive even to the alleged interlocutors. The truths they unearth are often only perceptible through context; and they are only ever uttered by human beings in a dynamic conversation. It’s almost as if Plato represents a mid-point between tragic Greek drama and reasoned Greek philosophy. I remember when I first read Plato how frustrating this was to me. What’s his point, I kept asking? What’s the bottom line? But in figuring out how to live, there is no bottom line. There are only questions and answers that beg further questions. Freud’s analytic conversation adds Nietzsche’s understanding of the deep mysteries of human motivation to Plato’s commitment to interactive reason. Neither Freud nor Plato saw such a process as distinct from living as such. (Nietzsche’s a different and more complicated case altogether). Lear quotes Socrates in the Republic in this regard. “This discussion is not about any chance question, but about the way one should live.” Amen.

The attack on Freud is therefore symptomatic, I think, of a kind of rationalist philistinism, an inability to engage in liberal indeterminacy, a tendency to demand answers rather than questions, accuracy of results rather than attention to method. So the philistines want to know whether Freud cured anyone; they want to know results; they want to see proof; they want to debunk a method by showing how one person failed to master it. They are like the political scientists who try to explain or predict revolutions in terms of statistics and iron laws, or like people who meet you after a day’s fishing and ask you how many you caught. They want science where there is only meaning. They want conclusion where there is only process. But there is no such science in human behavior, no final proofs, no ultimate explanations. There are only ways of understanding which suggest further correlations, which demand further interpretations still. In other words, there is only conversation. What Freud tried to create, it seems to me, was a conversation geared as much as possible not to finality but to freedom. Which is why, I think, the attack on him is an essentially anti-liberal impulse, whether it comes from philistine left or rationalist right. In other words, it comes from those who want conversations to conclude, those who don’t understand that the essence of a conversation is that it never conclude, that its genius lies in speaking in a way which never points to a final destination, but which rejoices in the process itself. The people I am closest to in my life are precisely those who understand this kind of conversation, its playfulness, self-awareness, mixture of constant irony and utter seriousness. But few people understand it as well as those who are closest to the proper practice of philosophy or psychoanalysis.

We have to end here, as my therapist says. I’m sorry we can’t meet again next week.