Sunday, September 1, 2013

Edmondson on The Death of Sigmund Freud

Early last month I referred to an article by Mark Edmundson, “The Ideal English Major”   And a couple of days later decided I disagreed with a lot what he said and was puzzled by much of the rest.  I sent for two of his books. The first was The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll, a Memoir.  It was a “coming of age” sort of thing so I set it aside.  The second was The Death of Sigmund Freud, Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism. 

I have a few quibbles with Edmundson’s text but as a final assessment decided he wrote a very entertaining and provocative book.  His “parallel lives,” Freud and Hitler, approach is very clever and perceptive.  Not only was Freud confronted by Hitler, by way of the Nazis in Austria in a physical way, but Freud advanced Psychoanalytical theories about the nature of “the Patriarch” which Hitler exemplified perhaps better than anyone in modern times. 

Freud spent his last years in England; which he loved above other countries.  He had the fame that he had never received in Austria.  Despite that he continued working on his Moses and Monotheism, a book he knew would antagonize Jews and Christians alike.  And here it seems that Edmundson is indicating that he finds in this book something beyond what has been described -- an even more subtle Freud and a kind of Freudianism worthy of being embraced by future followers (including it seems Edmundson himself).  Moses monotheism wasn’t simply “one God,” it was “one invisible God.”  God in Judaism had to be internalized and since he was this made the Jew more capable of dealing in abstract ideas than the non-Jew.  Jews make up a proportionally higher number of mathematicians, physicists and scientists in general as well as anything else requiring the ability to work well with abstractions.

While Edmondson doesn’t mention Fukuyama what he ends up describing is very like Fukuyama’s ending in The End of History and the Last Man.  Perhaps Liberal Democracy seems to be defeating all its competitors, but there is the Superman who may start history up again because “the Last Man” that lumpenproletariat Nietzsche describes is boring and worthless and incapable of being joined by the Ubermensch.  Freud said he never read Nietzsche because he was afraid he would find all his ideas in his writings, and his “Patriarch” sounds very like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch.  And the common people, both Nietzsche and Freud say, love him.

[From Edmundson page 241]  “Freud also warns against thinking that the fascist and fundamentalist are radically other.  Book after book, essay after essay, has come into the world trying to show what set the German Nazis apart from everyone else.  It was their political past, their culture, their military tradition; it was the debased Treaty of Versailles; it was the Depression of 1929.  The same scholarly ritual is visited on Japan . . .  We seem desperate to know how different these peoples are from ourselves.  Freud indicates that such thinking is delusory; we are all fascists, we are all fundamentalists, at least potentially.  Through authoritarianism we attain assurance and happiness – though of a certain sort.  It is only constant critical labor that keeps the worst political and religious possibilities from becoming fact. 

“Freud also suggests that fascism and fundamentalism, because of their amazing powers of attraction, will always constitute an emergency.  When a powerful or rich nation turns to either, something must be done, and the more quickly, the better.  One of the reasons that France and England may have been slow to act prior to the Second World War was that their statesmen did not understand the joy – no less a word should attach to it – that fascism offers people.  Inner strife dissolves and the people become powerful and strong.  They have never felt so good before and they will not readily give that feeling up.  Others see their joy and are drawn to it.  Such people make determined and potent foes.”

Edmundson, invoking Freud, is implying it seems to me that Fukuyama’s “end of history” should not have been emphasized in his book.  The “Last Man” cannot possibly be the ultimate last man because the Superman, the Patriarch, will always arise and give the people the joy of war.   There will always be clashes of civilizations because the people love war.

In referring to Islamic and Christian “patriarchal religions” that love nothing so much as a good war, Edmondson doesn’t deviate from history, but when he writes “The most powerful and most technologically advanced nation in the twenty-first century has a sizable constituency who wish for little so much as religious rule by the state, theocracy” he is misinformed.   That was advanced as a slur against Christianity a few years back but there was never anything to it.  The “constituency” referred to is called “Theonomy” by most, but there are other names.  It comprises a theological position maintained by a few theologians and their followers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America and a few others, but it was never a predominate or even very influential view in those denominations.  Also, it has never grown.  If Theonomy is what Edmondson is referring to it does not in my opinion comprise a “sizable constituency.” 

If on the other hand Edmondson is referring to those Christians who call themselves “Fundamentalists” then he is wrong if believes they seek “religious rule by the state, theocracy.”  They believe in the near-term return of Christ and have no interest in religious rule by the state which would involve Christians remaining on earth longer than their near-term eschatology provides. 

Edmundson weakened his book by bringing in Fundamentalism in near the end.  He wants to have Fundamentalism stand for something all men are tempted by but he doesn’t make that case.  A much better case exists for the Superman, e.g. Hitler.   But if Hitler is the ideal modern Patriarch/Ubermensch, what does that make Hitler’s ideal followers?  Certainly not Fundamentalists.

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