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Books, Journals, New Media
February 23, 2000

Psychoanalysis and Culture: Psychoanalysis and Culture at the Millennium

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorJonathan D.EldredgeMLS, PhD, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available

JAMA. 2000;283(8):1070-1072. doi:10.1001/jama.283.8.1070-JBK0223-3-1

This stimulating book grows out of a symposium at Stanford University in 1991 on the relationship between psychoanalysis and culture. The symposium was stimulated by an exhibition, which toured a number of sites in the United States, consisting of a selected group of classical antiquities from the collection of Sigmund Freud. Freud was an avid collector, particularly of Egyptian artifacts, and often used archeological analogies in illustrating his psychoanalytic ideas.

Psychoanalysis and Culture at the Millennium demonstrates the wide range and diversity of the interaction between psychoanalysis and modern intellectual thought. History, philosophy, anthropology, literature, and art have all interacted with Freud's legacy, and the book gives ample examples of mutual influence.

Schorske, a historian, offers an analysis of Freud's interest in Egyptian antiquities by pointing out that important psychological factors were involved. Freud admired the British, whom he characterized as endowed with traits of masculine rationality, and he was entranced by the French, to whom he attributed traits of the feminine and the sensual. He turned to Egyptian archeology, in part, as a reconciliation between his Jewish heritage and the Catholicism of the Vienna from which he emerged. Schorske is a historian for whom history is understandable through internal psychological experience.

A paper by Loewenberg demonstrates the psychological roots of national identity. Nations, like people, carry their pasts with them, and people form their basic identities essentially through familial relationships and patterns of identification. Familial attachments are then extended to broader social matrices through psychological mechanisms such as splitting and projection. Psychological traits and attributes that are unacceptable can be split off and attached to strangers. The good is internalized and becomes part of one's own social group; the bad is externalized, foreign, and seen as characteristic of others, who are repudiated. Suárez-Orozco extends the analysis further by considering audience reaction in Argentine soccer, a further example of how projection can endow an opposing team with attributes that result, for example, from fears of insufficient masculinity. Thus, Loewenberg's more global utilization of projective mechanisms can be particularized to specific social phenomena as well. Toews offers an interesting overview of these interactions between psychoanalysis and history by questioning how much of psychoanalysis itself is subject to historical changes.

A number of participants point out that Freud and other early psychoanalysts held views regarding feminine identity that are to a large extent culture-bound. Our own historical period has produced shifts in attitudes within psychoanalysis clarifying conceptions of feminine identification. Thus, not only is psychoanalysis applied to history, the historical process in addition can affect psychoanalysis.

Two papers deal with the interrelationship between psychoanalysis and literature. Almond takes as an example Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. He demonstrates that in the novel Jane Eyre's personality can be understood in terms of psychological engagement with others, mutual influence, and purposeful directionality. There is a similarity between shifts that result from interpersonal influence, based on love or hate, to therapeutic change that develops in the psychoanalytic clinical situation. In James Joyce's Ulysses, similar developmental shifts take place, according to Schwaber, in the character of Leopold Bloom. The relationship between Bloom and Daedalus can also be understood as a result of the mutual influence of one character upon another. Winer adds to Almond's and Schwaber's analyses on character development by pointing out the significance of other psychological factors, such as reactions to parent loss in Jane Eyre and child loss in Ulysses. A shift takes place in Leopold Bloom's personality, enabling him to establish a paternal and acceptable masculine identification through fostering the growth of a surrogate son. The papers on literature bypass the methodological problem of treating a fictional character as if he or she were a living human being. The ground rules for such an enterprise deserve additional consideration.

A section on psychoanalysis and visual arts adds a further perspective. Gamwell is struck with how often contemporary art deals with the theme of psychological withdrawal, what she calls "the silence of the artist," and she offers a comparison with the occasional silence of the patient in psychoanalytic treatment. There has been a tendency often in the past to see such silence as an example of resistance or unwillingness to participate in psychoanalytic work. Gamwell, instead, suggests that such silence may have a creative and adaptive function and encourages the psychoanalyst to consider the possibility that these are quiet periods during which assertions of integrative selfhood may be taking place. Spitz offers an analysis of children's picture books, demonstrating that in superior children's books there is often a mirroring of anticipated psychological development as well as the implantation of cultural values, which aid socialization.

The last section deals with psychoanalysis and philosophy. Hanly offers the view that psychoanalysis is a natural science built on an empirical basis, which provides the data for propositions that can be validated or discarded. Some of the higher human functions—such as morality, a sense of freedom and rationality—can be understood in terms of the original Freudian propositions of drive, defense, conflict, and psychological development. For Hanly, a conception of a universe created for purposes of humankind is best understood as an example of narcissistic omnipotence. Man is part of nature, and is subject to natural law. Chasseguet-Smirgel particularizes this view by pointing out that there is a link between one form of "philosophy"—devil worship or the Black Mass—and the tendency of perversions to revert to early stages of development, which subvert differentiation, complexity, and sublimation. Perversions aim to destroy the established order and go back to those phases of development in which there is little differentiation between one person and another. Sagan decries the lack of sufficient psychoanalytic input into sociological theory and makes some cogent comments about the difference between value systems and systems of morality. The psychoanalytic concept of a superego has often been seen as the arbiter of morality, and yet it is possible—as he points out—to think in terms of moral and immoral superegos, and, thus, one must step outside of the superego position in order to form such a judgment.

The collection of essays obviously takes psychoanalysis seriously. We are not presented with the Frederick Crews model of a disdainful dismissal, the view that the Freudian discourse is an outdated useless theory, which had a moment of glory and is best discarded. The essayists, whether psychoanalysts or not, are engaged in a task of thoughtful and critical deliberation. They are committed to the view that psychoanalysis offers much that is cogent and profound for our time. Wallerstein, in a final epilogue, clarifies that the aim is not to find a unifying theme in psychoanalysis but to highlight and to derive benefits from current diversity, emphasizing a psychoanalysis that continues to change, bridging the gap between one fin-de-siècle and another. Current analytic thought engages in the ongoing debate between subjective and objective reality, qualities of selfhood, and the postmodern interest in contingency and contextuality in theory formation. The psychoanalytic discipline itself is affected by cultural movements and new empirical data; it changes as the times change.

What would Freud have said to all of this? He died close to the middle of this closing century. No great optimist, he might not have been surprised by the regressions of the last half of the century. But he believed that he had made a contribution to an understanding of culture as weighty as his contribution to therapy. He would have been satisfied that the essays under review are a substantial movement in the progressive direction that he had first charted.