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Carl Jung:  Sigmund Freud in His Historical Setting 

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Spirit in Man, Art, & Literature

It is always a delicate and dangerous task to place a living man in historical perspective.

But at least it is possible to gauge his significance and the extent to which he has been conditioned by history if his life-work and system of thought form a self-contained whole as do Freud’s.

His teaching, which in its fundamentals is probably known to every educated layman today, is not limitless in its ramifications, nor does it include any extraneous elements whose origins lie in other fields of science; it is based on a few transparent principles which, to the exclusion of everything else, dominate and permeate the whole substance of his thought.

The originator of this teaching has, moreover, identified it with his method of “psychoanalysis,” thereby making it into a rigid system that may rightly be charged with absolutism.

On the other hand, the extraordinary emphasis laid upon this theory causes it to stand out as a strange and unique phenomenon against its philosophical and scientific background.

Nowhere does it merge with other contemporary concepts, nor has its author made any conscious effort to connect it with its historical predecessors.

This impression of isolation is heightened still further by a peculiar terminology which at times borders on subjective jargon.

To all appearances—and Freud would prefer to have it that way—it is as if this theory had developed exclusively in the doctor’s consulting-room and were unwelcome to everyone but himself and a thorn in the flesh of “academic” science.

And yet, even the most original and isolated idea does not drop down from heaven, but grows out of an objective network of thought which binds all contemporaries together whether they recognize it or not.

The historical conditions which preceded Freud were such that they made a phenomenon like himself necessary, and it is precisely the fundamental tenet of his teaching—namely, the repression of sexuality—that is most clearly conditioned in this historical sense.

Like his greater contemporary Nietzsche, Freud stands at the end of the Victorian era, which was never given such an appropriate name on the Continent despite the fact that it was just as characteristic of the Germanic and Protestant countries as of the Anglo-Saxon.

The Victorian era was an age of repression, of a convulsive attempt to keep anaemic ideals artificially alive in a framework of bourgeois respectability by constant moralizings.

These ideals were the last offshoots of the collective religious ideas of the Middle Ages, and shortly before had been severely shaken by the French Enlightenment and the ensuing revolution. Hand in hand with this, ancient truths in the political field had become hollow and threatened to collapse.

It was still too soon for the final overthrow, and consequently all through the nineteenth century frantic efforts were made to prevent the Christian Middle Ages from disappearing altogether.

Political revolutions were stamped out, experiments in moral freedom were thwarted by middle-class public opinion, and the critical philosophy of the late eighteenth century reached its end in a renewed, systematic attempt to capture the world in a unified network of thought on the medieval model.

But in the course of the nineteenth century enlightenment slowly broke through, particularly in the form of scientific materialism and rationalism.

This is the matrix out of which Freud grew, and its mental characteristics have shaped him along foreordained lines.

He has a passion for explaining everything rationally, exactly as in the eighteenth century; one of his favourite maxims is Voltaire’s “Ecrasez rinfame.”

With a certain satisfaction he invariably points out the flaw in the crystal; all complex psychic phenomena like art, philosophy, and religion fall under his suspicion and appear as “nothing but” repressions of the sexual instinct.

This essentially reductive and negative attitude of Freud’s towards accepted cultural values is due to the historical conditions which immediately preceded him.

He sees as his time forces him to see.

This comes out most clearly in his book

The Future of an Illusion, where he draws a picture of religion which corresponds exactly with the prejudices of a materialistic age.

Freud’s revolutionary passion for negative explanations springs from the historical fact that the Victorian age falsified its cultural values in order to produce a middle-class view of the world, and, among the means employed, religion—or rather, the religion of repression—played the chief role.

It is this sham religion that Freud has his eye on.

The same is true of his idea of man: man’s conscious qualities, his idealistically falsified persona, rest on a correspondingly dark background, that is to say on a basis of repressed infantile sexuality.

Every positive gift or creative activity depends on some infantile negative quantity, in accordance with the materialistic bon mot: “Der Mensch ist, was er isst” (man is what he eats).

This conception of man, considered historically, is a reaction against the Victorian tendency to see everything in a rosy light and yet to describe everything sub rosa.

It was an age of mental “pussyfooting” that finally gave birth to Nietzsche, who was driven to philosophize with a hammer.

So it is only logical that ethical motives as determining factors in human life do not figure in Freud’s teaching.

He sees them in terms of conventional morality, which he justifiably supposes would not have existed in this form, or not have existed at all, if one or two bad-tempered patriarchs had not invented such precepts to protect themselves from the distressing consequences of their impotence.

Since then these precepts have unfortunately gone on existing in the super-ego of every individual.

This grotesquely depreciative view is a just punishment for the historical fact that the ethics of the Victorian age were nothing but conventional morality, the creation of curmudgeonly praeceptores mundi.

If Freud is viewed in this retrospective way as an exponent of the resentment of the new century against the old, with its illusions, its hypocrisy, its half-truths, its faked, overwrought emotions, its sickly morality, its bogus, sapless religiosity, and its lamentable taste, he can be seen, in my opinion, much more correctly than when one marks him out as the herald of new ways and new truths.

He is a great destroyer who breaks the fetters of the past.

He liberates us from the unwholesome pressure of a world of rotten habits.

He shows how the values in which our parents believed may be understood in an altogether different sense: for instance, that sentimental fraud about the parents who live only for their children, or the noble son who worships his mother all his life, or the ideal daughter who completely understands her father.

Previously these things were believed uncritically, but ever since Freud laid the unsavoury idea of incestuous fixation on the dining-room table as an object of discussion, salutary doubts have been aroused—though for reasons of health they should not be pushed too far.

The sexual theory, to be properly understood, should be taken as a negative critique of our contemporary psychology.

We can become reconciled even to its most disturbing assertions if we know against what historical conditions they are directed.

Once we know how the nineteenth century twisted perfectly natural facts into sentimental, moralistic virtues in order not to have its picture of the world upset, we can understand what Freud means by asserting that the infant already experiences sexuality at its mother’s breast—an assertion which has aroused the greatest commotion.

This interpretation casts suspicion on the proverbial innocence of the child at the breast, that is, on the mother-child relationship.

That is the whole point of the assertion—it is a shot aimed at the heart of “holy motherhood.”

The fact that mothers bear children is not holy but merely natural.

If people say it is holy, then one strongly suspects that something very unholy has to be covered up by it.

Freud has said out loud “what is behind it,” only he has unfortunately blackened the infant instead of the mother.

Scientifically, the theory of infantile sexuality is of little value.

It is all one to the caterpillar whether we say that it eats its leaf with ordinary pleasure or with sexual pleasure.

Freud’s historical contribution does not consist in these scholastic mistakes of interpretation in the field of specialized science, but in the fact on which his fame is justifiably founded, namely that, like an Old Testament prophet, he overthrew false idols and pitilessly exposed to the light of day the rottenness of the contemporary psyche.

Whenever he undertakes a painful reduction (explaining the nineteenth-century God as a glorified version of Papa, or money-grubbing as infantile pleasure in excrement), we can be sure that a collective overvaluation or falsification is being attacked.

Where, for instance, is the saccharine God of the nineteenth century confronted with a deus absconditus, as in Luther’s teaching? And is it not assumed by all nice people that good men also earn good money?

Like Nietzsche, like the Great War, and like James Joyce, his literary counterpart, Freud is an answer to the sickness of the nineteenth century.

That is indeed his chief significance.

For those with a forward-looking view he offers no constructive plan, because not even with the boldest effort or the strongest will would it ever be possible to act out in real life all the repressed incest-wishes and other incompatibilities in the human psyche.

On the contrary, Protestant ministers have already plunged into psychoanalysis because it seems to them an excellent means of sensitizing people’s consciences to yet more sins than merely conscious ones—a truly grotesque but extremely logical turn of events prophesied years ago by Stanley Hall in his autobiography.

Even the Freudians are beginning to take note of a new and if possible even more soulless repression—quite understandably, since no one knows what to do with his incompatible wishes.

On the contrary, one begins to understand how unavoidable it is that such things are repressed.

In order to mitigate this cramp of conscience, Freud invented the idea of sublimation.

Sublimation means nothing less than the alchemist’s trick of turning the base into the noble, the bad into the good, the useless into the useful.

Anyone who knew how to do this would be certain of immortal fame.

Unfortunately, the secret of converting energy without the consumption of a still greater quantity of energy has never yet been discovered by the physicists.

Sublimation remains, for the present, a pious wish-fulfilment invented for silencing inopportune questions.

In discussing these problems I do not wish to lay the main emphasis on the professional difficulties of the practising psychotherapist, but on the evident fact that Freud’s programme is not a forward-looking one.

Everything about it is oriented backwards.

Freud’s only interest is where things come from, never where they are going.

It is more than the scientific need for causality that drives him to seek for causes, for otherwise it could not have escaped him that many psychological facts have explanations entirely different from those based on the faux pas of a chronique scandaleuse.

An excellent example of this is his essay on Leonardo da Vinci and the problem of the two mothers.

As a matter of fact, Leonardo did have an illegitimate mother and a stepmother, but in reality the dual-mother problem may be present as a mythological motif even when the two mothers do not really exist.

Mythical heroes very often have two mothers, and for the Pharaohs this mythological custom was actually de rigueur.

But Freud stops short at the scurrilous fact; he contents himself with the idea that naturally something unpleasant or negative is concealed in the situation.

Although this procedure is not exactly “scientific,” yet, considered from the standpoint of historical justice, I credit it with a greater value than if it were scientifically unassailable.

All too easily the dark background that is also present in the Leonardo problem could be rationalized away by a narrow scientific approach, and then Freud’s historical task of showing up the darkness behind the false facades would not be fulfilled.

A small scientific inaccuracy has little meaning here.

If one goes through his works carefully and critically, one really does have the impression that Freud’s aim of serving science, which he pushes again and again to the fore, has been secretly diverted to the cultural task of which he himself is unconscious, and that this has happened at the expense of the development of his theory.

Today the voice of one crying in the wilderness must necessarily strike a scientific tone if the ear of the multitude is to be reached.

At all costs we must be able to say that it is science which has brought such facts to light, for that alone is convincing.

But even science is not proof against the unconscious Weltanschauung.

How easy it would have been to take Leonardo’s St. Anne with the Virgin and the Christ Child as a classical representation of the mythological motif of the two mothers!

But for Freud’s late Victorian psychology, and for an infinitely large public as well, it is far more effective if after “thorough investigation” it can be confirmed that the great artist owed his existence to a slip-up of his respectable father!

This thrust goes home, and Freud makes this thrust not because he consciously wants to abandon science for gossip, but because he is under compulsion from the Zeitgeist to expose the possible dark side of the human psyche.

Yet the really scientific clue to the picture is the dual-mother motif, but that only stirs the few to whom knowledge really matters, however unfashionable it may be.

Such an hypothesis leaves the greater public cold, because to them Freud’s one-sided, negative explanation means very much more than it does to science.

It is axiomatic that science strives for an impartial, unbiased, and inclusive truth.

The Freudian theory, on the other hand, is at best a partial truth, and therefore in order to maintain itself and be effective it has the rigidity of a dogma and the fanaticism of an inquisitor. For a scientific truth a simple statement suffices.

Secretly, psychoanalytic theory has no intention of passing as a strict scientific truth; it aims rather at influencing a wider public.

And from this we can recognize its origin in the doctor’s consulting-room.

It preaches those truths which it is of paramount importance that the neurotic of the early twentieth century should understand because he is an unconscious victim of late Victorian psychology.

Psychoanalysis destroys the false values in him personally by cauterizing away the rottenness of the dead century.

Thus far, it betokens a valuable, indeed indispensable increase in practical knowledge which has advanced the study of neurotic psychology in the most lasting way.

We have to thank the bold one-sidedness of Freud if medicine is now in a position to treat cases of neurosis individually and make the individual psyche an object of research.

Before Freud, this happened only as a rare curiosity.

But in so far as neurosis is not an illness specific to the Victorian era but enjoys a wide distribution in time and space, and is therefore found among people who are not in need of any special sexual enlightenment or the destruction of harmful assumptions in this respect, a theory of neurosis or of dreams which is based on a Victorian prejudice is at most of secondary importance to science.

If this were not so, Adler’s very different conception would have fallen flat and had no effect.

Adler reduces everything not to the pleasure principle but to the power drive, and the success of his theory is not to be denied.

This fact brings out with dazzling clearness the one-sidedness of the Freudian theory.

Adler’s, it is true, is just another one-sidedness, but taken together with Freud’s it produces a more comprehensive and still clearer picture of the resentment against the spirit of the nineteenth century.

All the modern defection from the ideals of our fathers is mirrored again in Adler.

The human psyche, however, is not simply a product of the Zeitgeist, but is a thing of far greater constancy and immutability.

The nineteenth century is a merely local and passing phenomenon, which has deposited but a thin layer of dust on the age-old psyche of mankind.

Once this layer is wiped off and our professional eye-glasses are cleaned, what shall we see? How shall we look upon the psyche, and how shall we explain a neurosis?

This problem confronts every analyst whose cases are not cured even after all the sexual experiences of childhood have been dug up, and all their cultural values dissected into lurid elements, or even when the patient has become that strange fiction—a ‘ ‘normal” man and a gregarious animal.

A general psychological theory that claims to be scientific should not be based on the malformations of the nineteenth century, and a theory of neurosis must also be capable of explaining hysteria among the Maori.

As soon as the sexual theory leaves the narrow field of neurotic psychology and branches out into other fields, for instance that of primitive psychology, its one-sidedness and inadequacy leap to the eye.

Insights that grew up from the observation of Viennese neuroses between 1890 and 1920 prove themselves poor tools when applied to the problems of totem and taboo, even when the application is made in a very skilful way. Freud has not penetrated into that deeper layer which is common to all men.

He could not have done so without being untrue to his historical task.

And this task he has fulfilled —a task enough for a whole life’s work, and fully deserving the fame it has won. ~Carl Jung, CW 15, Pages 33-40

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