Excerpt: 'Memory, Trauma, and History' by Michael Roth


Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, Andy Warhol, 1980

From Chapter 7: Why Freud Haunts Us

There’s an old man we go to see when we are feeling bad, or just confused. He doesn’t say much. He sits behind us when we lie down on the couch. We can hear him breathing, and we know that it’s cigar smoke we smell. The old man doesn’t really tell stories, but we start telling stories when he is around. It seems he makes us talk, if only because he refuses to say much. We know what he wants. Not just any old stories will do. He wants to hear about our secrets, about our longings. We can start talking about the latest disappointments, the most recent crises. But we know that’s not enough. He wants to hear about things we won’t tell anybody else. He is there, waiting for us to open up some cave in ourselves to wake that hibernating animal. That’s the story he wants, isn’t it? That’s the story we want to tell him, isn’t it? Why do we come here? What do we need?

Freud won’t go away. We know he was wrong, really we do. Medication is so much more effective, and then there is all that embarrassing stuff about sex and penises, about inescapable aggression and guilt. And mothers. All of it is from another time, isn’t it? After all, now we know that women are equal to men, so we don’t try to hard to explain how patriarchy gets reproduced generation after generation despite our professed ethics. Now we know that sex can be healthy, that it can even be so safe as to be less than desirable. Yet Freud haunts us. He keeps popping up in places he has no business being. Just when we succeed in pushing him out of medicine because it is inconvenient for the profits of drug and insurance companies, he appears in the university humanities programs, novels, television. A generation ago he animated Woody Allen’s jokes; more recently we could sense his presence when Brian, the thoughtful canine on The Family Guy, wondered with the therapist if his wetting the floor was an act of aggression. Freud was in the room when Tony Soprano and his therapist, Dr. Melfi, tried to understand what it meant to be abandoned by your sister and have to inherit your mother. And when it seems that we can dismiss Dr. Freud (with a laugh) from overly theoretical work by our jargon-laden literary scholars, then there are nostalgic noises from psychiatry complaining about meds without baseline evaluations, about insurance-driven mental health treatment, and about the need for patients to make meaning. There he sits, behind us.

When we begin to tell our stories, to give an account of ourselves, we use narrative to construct a picture of our identity in relation to other people and in relation to change over time. No matter what story we tell, there is a basic, disturbing Freudian question that can be posed to shake up the tale: what are you getting out of this? This is often meant as “What are you really getting out of this?” As Freud himself noted in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life:

When a member of my family complains to me of having bitten his tongue, pinched a finger, or the like, he does not get the sympathy he hopes for, but instead the question: “Why did you do that?” I myself once gave my thumb a most painful pinch when a youthful patient told me during the hour of his treatment of his intention… to marry my eldest daughter. (180)

Freud pinched himself, and we bite our tongues looking for sympathy. In a story about being picked on by a friend, a wife, or a sibling, for example, to be asked “what are you really getting out of this?”—“what are you getting out of being picked on?”—is an offensive query. What desire is expressed by your injury, or in telling of the story of the injury? What desire is the war against terrorism really satisfying? Why does little Malcolm drive that Hummer? Why are some straight people really so angry about some gay people embracing monogamy? These questions merely assume that the apparent answers—the reasons of which we are aware—will not get at the motivating factors. When asked Freudian questions, we know that the answers are supposed to uncover motivating factors that are connected with desires of which we are not only unaware but about which we are likely to feel ashamed. The origin of this genre of question can be found in Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, in which he famously declared that every dream is the expression of a disguised wish. Intense wishes are always disguised (the best disguises can be apparent straightforwardness) because they are never simple; desires are always, according to Freud, bound up in (articulated through) conflict.

One of the reasons Freud haunts us is that we have grown to expect this genre of question: what are you getting out of X? And we have grown to expect that the answer to this question will always describe a kind of ambivalence. Ambivalence began as a technical term in psychiatry, and it came to connote a quality of all strong emotions: they give rise to and may be the product of conflict. The strongest love, for example, will always be mixed with aggression. When Janice asked Tony Soprano, “Where does your hate for me come from?” the old man knows that it comes from the same place as his love for her. Love cannot be satisfied without aggression, and intense antipathy is always bound up with desire. These elements can no more be separated from one another than nourishment can be separated from digestion. The Oedipal triangles, in which recognizable sexual behavior is molded into form, are fueled by ambivalent desires. There is no possibility of full, sustained satisfaction in the Freudian model because the desires one aims to gratify are contradictory. You can’t kill the father you love . . . or is it that you can’t love the father you kill? Satisfying some desires will always mean the denial of others. Moreover, satisfaction breeds guilt, and guilt breeds still new desires. What are you getting out of X? Lots more than you bargained for, and that makes for complex, interesting stories. We want to hear them, but more importantly, we seem to want to tell them and be in them.

But Freud, of course, gives us a detailed account of why it is so difficult to tell these stories, even why it is so difficult to gain access to them ourselves. Repression was certainly one of Freuds key concepts (he famously called it the cornerstone of his whole enterprise) and it has led to the staying power of the Freudian genre of questioning. In this genre, no matter how much we question, we will never get to the bottom of our own motivations, let alone those of other people. As much as we might want to know what stories to tell when we are lying on the couch, there are other desires aimed at keeping us from knowing what stories to tell. Since we “get something” (some satisfaction) out of not knowing, there will always be a basic inhibition against knowing ourselves. We are motivated to obscurity even as we strive for understanding. Freud’s concept of repression helps him to continue to haunt us because it stands for our willful refusal at self-understanding; it is a psychical mechanism preventing us from claiming our own desires. Freud’s presence reminds us that our actions and our narratives may be motivated by a desire not to see who we really are. No story we could possibly tell would count as fully overcoming repression, because repression is a necessary psychical mechanism, according to Freud. This is more than a full-employment program for therapists. It is a dogmatic insistence on our incapacity for transparency even as it expresses our desire for it. If Freud were no longer haunting us, we might worry that we were repressing him or his message. Such a worry would be a form of haunting. Heads he wins, tails we lose.

The smell of cigar smoke that reminds us someone is listening, the “uh huh . . . ” and the pauses which we can’t help hearing mark the presence of an other who waits for us to keep talking, to make an association, to make a connection. . . . These have been the passive signs that the psychoanalytic ghost is in the room. Ghosts can be most frightening, most real, when they do the least: a few noises here and there, missing items, gusts of wind when the windows are closed. Similarly, Freud seems to have the most interest not when he forcing an explanation of psychopathology, but when he is asking questions, or when his mere presence (the kind of thing he could be thinking) inspires us to ask more questions. When the psychoanalyst finally lets loose with a full interpretation, the effect is somewhat like the ectoplasm becoming visible as someone screams “Aaack, a ghost!” We are disappointed in the vulgarity, the obviousness of the apparition. Freud’s interpretations may not always strike readers as they struck Nabokov (“greek myths crudely applied to our private parts”), but they are hardly the most memorable elements in his oeuvre. Did the infant Wolfman really see his parents having sex with his father behind his mother? Did Dora really want the awful Herr K? How close were little Hans’s fears of horses and his inclination to play with his widdler? No, it is the search that is interesting in Freud, not the so-called discovery. That our mental houses might be haunted by the past turns out to be much more interesting than what the ghosts of the past would actually do were they around.

Freudian interpretation remains most interesting as a threat, as a possible avenue of inquiry that would tie together associations and uncover motivating factors that had been invisible from surface reading or listening. Many have asked how we could ever know whether a particular interpretation was true, or even how we might go about choosing among competing interpretations. Freud recognized the difficulty of this issue, and he speaks most coherently about the pragmatic value of interpretations. A good interpretation is one that should help us move along, enable us to get to a narrative about the past in relation to the present with which we can live. There is, I know, something unsatisfying about this. Many have asked whether such a story is really true. Freud did say that a story would only help us get along if it “tallied with what is real in the patient.” Adolf Gruenbaum, among others, has claimed that this was Freud’s “tally argument,” which means that the old man really was looking for a match between his interpretations and the facts of the real world. If this were true, we could then devise tests to determine whether there was such a match. I don’t think that the Freud who developed testable hypotheses is the old man who haunts us with his questions and stories. When this ghostly Freud talked about an interpretation tallying with what is real in the patient, he was talking about how an interpretation speaks to something within us, how a story gets to what is real in us.

What makes a good story, or what makes a story good for us? In Freud’s case, the good stories are the ones that give rise to more stories, more narratives that combine complexity of meaning with a basic human intensity. Freudian stories deal with anxiety and pleasure; they are concerned with the limits of memory and expression while exploring our fascination with pleasure and dissolution. Freud’s tales are about prohibition and desire, about love and death. How could they go away?

When we are haunted by the Freud of these stories, we are haunted by the presence of intensity. This means that we are haunted by a lurking drive or instinct, and this we usually understand as being haunted by sex, or possibly aggression. The intensity is part of us, but it is not a part of us we can easily recognize as our own. How do we live with this intensity without losing its capacity to generate significance in our lives? The intensity and ambivalence of our desires have given rise to massive attempts to control them, and these controls have in turn fueled these very desires. What satisfactions are we getting out of the prohibitions against certain satisfactions? The delights and ravages of guilt are central themes in psychoanalysis. Freud suggested that there isn’t more satisfaction, let alone happiness, in the world because we make ourselves so miserable, and because we have created a society that is very good at making us even more miserable. Recognizing the ways that we contribute to our own misery is a pleasure (one of the reasons we keep coming back to the old man, I suppose), and it also gives us some possibility of changing the cycle of our self-punishment.

Self-inflicted misery isn’t going away, even as we vigorously try to protect ourselves against harm from others. In the Freudian world, as in the political world, homeland security, putting fences around what is precious to us, is a threat as well as a promise. The issues Freud explored have remained vital for us even as his findings and methodology have come under increasing critical pressure. Our notions of identity, memory, childhood, sexuality, aggression, and, most generally, of meaning have been shaped in relation to—and often in opposition to—Freud’s work. Though always contested, Freudian thinking informs the ways we perceive ourselves and our society, and it remains relevant to how some of our most pressing concerns (from drug abuse and aggression to gender and sexuality) are addressed. Our vernacular psychology is Freudian in some fundamental sense. For no matter how critical we are of the old man’s influence on our culture, there seems to be no good way of making him disappear. Freud, unlike Marx and Nietzsche, the so-called masters of suspicion with whom he is often compared, has retained a capacity to haunt us not because of his explanations of psychopathology, or even because of his model of therapy as a talking cure. He continues to haunt our culture because of the threatening and the comical possibilities opened up by his genre of questioning. As a theorist, I have argued, Freud was most concerned with making meaning out of memory, with constructing histories with which we could live. As a ghost, Freud continues to have some presence in our culture because that presence undermines the conventional ways we use to make sense of the world.

Think, if you will, of Freud as a certain kind of action figure, or, I should say inaction figure. By now I have received three of these as gifts from different friends and colleagues. At the last occasion at which I was presented with one, my then five-year-old daughter (fed up with her daddy receiving toys) wanted to play with the toy. After moving the old man around a bit, my Sophie asked with some exasperation, What does he do? The makers of this toy are ingenious. They know that Freud is most present when he does the least. So, Freud, the inaction figure, moves just a bit, his cigar rising. If the makers of this toy were aiming at a higher price point, they would have allowed us to pull a string on the back of the doll just so that you could hear the toy say . . . nothing.

In everyday life, knowing that the old man (or one of his followers) is around has been troubling and interesting because it has suggested that someone is asking the question, “what are you really getting out of this?” or “what does this gesture, this sign, this way of living, really mean?” As Freud wrote in 1905: “He who has eyes to see and ears to hear becomes convinced that mortals can keep no secret. If their lips are silent, they gossip with their fingertips; betrayal forces itself through every pore.” The secrets that the patient betrays are signs that the stories we’ve told ourselves about how we’ve gotten from past to present may only be symptomatic of another way of making sense of ourselves and our past. Some have argued that we have moved into an epoch when “making sense of ourselves and our past” has as little relevance to reality as military intelligence, psychosomatic erectile dysfunction, or depression as a sensible response to the ways of the world. They have argued, in other words, that history and the narratives through which it is constituted were products of a bourgeois, or modern, or patriarchal mode of thinking from which we can liberate ourselves. In The Possibility of an Island, a trashy science fiction sex farce by the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, a scientist explains that long ago people thought they had to understand their past in order to change their lives. The scientist explains that neurologists have discovered that remembering the past only enslaves you (at the biochemical level) to it. Houellebecq imagines neohumans who have no need to revisit the past, but even they secretly keep diaries. And, of course, they (and we) have their novelist.

If we are ever liberated from history, if history ever becomes superfluous to how we live in the future, Freud would no longer haunt us, because his threat, his inaction, would no longer be relevant. In that case, psychoanalysis (and much else) would certainly disappear. Maybe then we would truly be neohumans. But if we continue to consider the past important for giving meaning and direction to our lives, then it’s a good bet that we will hear faint noises from the old man, as we are moved again to find a way to tell our stories to better understand who we are and what we want.

Excerpted from Memory, Trauma, and History by Michael Roth. Copyright © 2012 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.