Monday, September 24, 2007

The hunger for absolute leaders and absolute truth that probably besets us all

Freud himself was drawn to authority. He liked to lord it over his disciples; he liked to make pronouncements; he liked — as schoolchildren say at recess — to act big. When Freud presented himself to the public, he almost never forgot the lessons that he had learned about authority in his consulting room and through his studies of the church, the army and tribal societies. “The autocratic pose” clung to him, said Auden.
Freud still manifests himself to us as a grand patriarch. Collectively we have thought about him as the father, as the one who is supposed to know. We have hoped he’d confer the truth — make us whole and happy. Of course, he cannot. But he has been different from all the other aspiring masters in that he has taught nothing so insistently as the need to dissolve our illusions about masters, and to be responsive to more moderate, subtle and humane sources of authority.
Such a figure — authoritarian and anti-authoritarian at the same time — cannot help but be confusing. But once we understand our confusion, Freud can also be quite illuminating. Among other things, his ideas about authority help us understand (and in some measure sympathize with) the hunger for absolute leaders and absolute truth that probably besets us all, but that has overwhelmed many of our fellow humans who find themselves living under tyrannical governments and fundamentalist faiths.
But the best of Freud will not be available to us until we can work through the transference he provoked. We need to see him as a great patriarch, yes, but as one who struggled for nothing so much as for the abolition of patriarchy. Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is the author, most recently, of “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days.”

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