|Art by Andrew Baines|
In The Denial of Death, the anthropologist Ernest Becker defends and broadens Otto Rank’s view of psychotherapy. Rank was one of Freud’s colleagues who broke with Freud, like Jung. Jung and Rank both interpreted psychological problems in spiritual and philosophical terms, whereas Freud clung to a narrower, sexual theory of mental dynamics. For Rank, the human mind is torn between opposite tendencies, towards separation and greater individuation, on the one hand, and towards union with a collectivity, on the other. This is an absurd, dangerous foundation for personal growth, because it threatens the person with the fate of being forever internally conflicted and with the anxiety of oscillating blindly back and forth between the poles. For example, a person might demonstrate her ego’s distinctiveness with displays of conspicuous consumption, while pretending to worship a deity that demands humility and submission to its greater power. The opportunity for what Becker called “heroism” is found in creative solutions to this existential predicament of having an unstable mental structure, stemming from the trauma of separation at birth, and of being propelled by the fear of the final separation at death. Art, love, and a mystical hope for cosmic reunion with a divine being that somehow encompasses all natural things are Rank’s recommendations for avoiding the stalemate of neurosis, of failing to learn how to unlearn past experience or to find a balance between the desire to stand out and to fit into a greater whole.
Freud from Nietzsche
Becker’s presentation of this theory emphasizes its existential aspect, and indeed Rank’s ideas are much more plausibly universal than Freud’s positing of infantile sexuality. But Becker’s criticism of Freud neglects Freud’s direct connection with existentialism. Freud, after all, was aware of Nietzsche’s writings, although he professed to having avoided reading them in depth, even while Freud’s work betrays his familiarity with several Nietzschean themes (as well as with Darwinism). As a relevant Wikipedia article says, “in the 1890s, Freud, whose education at the University of Vienna in the 1870s had included a strong relationship with Franz Brentano, his teacher in philosophy, from whom he had acquired an enthusiasm for Aristotle and Ludwig Feuerbach, was acutely aware of the possibility of convergence of his own ideas with those of Nietzsche and doggedly refused to read the philosopher as a result.” However this may be, Nietzsche must have rubbed off on Freud. This study, for example, summarizes what the two approaches share:
(a) the concept of the unconscious mind; (b) the idea that repression pushes unacceptable feelings and thoughts into the unconscious and thus makes the individual emotionally more comfortable and effective; (c) the conception that repressed emotions and instinctual drives later are expressed in disguised ways (for example, hostile feelings and ideas may be expressed as altruistic sentiments and acts); (d) the concept of dreams as complex, symbolic "illusions of illusions" and dreaming itself as a cathartic process which has healthy properties; and (e) the suggestion that the projection of hostile, unconscious feelings onto others, who are then perceived as persecutors of the individual, is the basis of paranoid thinking. Some of Freud's basic terms are identical to those used by Nietzsche.
The Christian psyche famously provided Nietzsche with his case study in repression and paranoia, just as Nietzsche demonstrated his “genealogical” form of explanation in his account of master-slave morality. Instead of dictating principles or arguing systematically, Nietzsche sought to undermine various philosophies and perspectives by purporting to trace their psychological causes back to either “noble” virtues or to unheroic, “weak” acts of self-deception. For example, instead of celebrating the will to power, a Christian might passive-aggressively cloak her predatory instincts with a show of false humility. Logicians typically regard Nietzsche’s whole approach as resting on the genetic fallacy. Moreover, his philosophy seems self-contradictory, since he presupposes the universal truth of his metaphysics of power, even while he maintains that knowledge depends on perspective and that all truth-claims are surreptitious attempts to overpower others. All living things are beasts, for Nietzsche, and beasts have no sound basis for believing they’re in touch with objective, nonpragmatically-construed reality. Reasoning is a sham, and displays of power are the only demonstrations that matter in that they testify to the greatness of heroic individuals who distinguish themselves from the prosaicness of the herd mentality.
In any case, Freud does add much to the structure of Nietzschean thought: whereas Nietzsche’s arch concept is power, Freud’s is sex. But while Nietzsche’s corresponding image of people as animals led him to write only aphoristic or literary appraisals, Freud’s single-minded interpretations were in the service of his drive to pioneer a science of the mind. Freud reduced every desire or impulse, every conscious or unconscious image, every mental or social event to a sexual cause originating in the Oedipal or castration complex. Whereas power is vague and can take myriad forms, sex is concrete and objective. The Id or unconscious may be irrational, but if it desires sex with the mother, expressions of that desire can theoretically be confirmed, because the sex act provides a benchmark for comparisons. Thus, in a dream a cigar might unconsciously symbolize a penis. Likewise, had Nietzsche identified a particular powerful act as all-important in human relations, as Freud had done in Chapter Four of Totem and Taboo (a prehistoric killing of a father figure, or alpha male), Nietzsche’s thought might have taken on the power of a science. However, like the phony spirituality of Christian religion, psychoanalysis is only pseudoscientific in the Popperian sense of being unfalsifiable. You can posit an infantile, unconscious sexual urge to explain any action, but the merit of that explanation isn’t tested in practice. Indeed, in so far as the applications of psychoanalysis testify to its power, the theory fails the test of being technoscientific, because the analyst-analysand relationship is typically endless. The talking never ends, because the imagination can always conjure new sexual fantasies and interpretations of events in the person’s formative years. Moreover, the theory is awkwardly implausible: sexual impulses are hormonal and the relevant hormones are released in puberty; thus, children have no sexual desires.