Freud and the American Death Drive


Patrick Blanchfield in The LA Review of Books' Marginalia:

If ever a person could kill a joke, it was Sigmund Freud. His exegesis of this “American Anecdote” in his “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” (1905) goes on for pages, slowly taking the life out of the already-barely-funny punchline : there is no “Christ hanging between the two thieves.”

Born one hundred sixty years ago yesterday, Sigmund Freud never cared much for America. No one is really sure why. He told one patient he had eaten something during his 1909 tour of the country that had “spoiled in his stomach.” Some historians speculate it had to do with Freud’s obsessional anxieties over his intellectual legacy, and his pique at Americans’ preference for the despised Carl Jung over Freud’s new favored son, Alfred Adler. Others suggest he may have disliked the sleaziness of American capitalism and its culture of crass fixation on money. That said, Freud, who admitted to admiring a single American genius, William James (“The man spoke better German than I did!,” he supposedly told a patient) knew cash value when he saw it. He insisted that an American patient in Vienna pay him only in $10 bills, deeming greenbacks “effective currency” compared to the Austrian kronen, a near-worthless medium of exchange after the First World War. More than anyone, Freud understood the Reality Principle; he had a family to feed. When it came to the American nation, though, Freud’s appraisal was grim: “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake, but a mistake.”

A continent away from Freud’s place of birth, and a century-and-half later, Freud’s judgment hits, as it were, The Real. If you’re cynical enough, with the election season looming, the idea of gazing on the portraits of two thieves feels uncannily close to home. Freud unsparingly diagnosed the shallowness of American pretensions to national exceptionalism, technological progressivism, and social openness. He wrote about both American “prosperity” and “broadmindedness” only ironically, between scare quotes, and saw the opulence of American society and fervor of American patriotism as indexing something else entirely: “the psychological poverty of groups.” “The present cultural state of America,” he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents(1930), “would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.” He continued, bitingly: “But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.”

More here.