New Sigmund Freud Show Attracts Old Crowd

When is someone going to write a candid history–it would probably have to be an oral history–of the role played by Freudian psychoanalysis in the social and intellectual life of the educated middle class in New York in the 1950’s? Alas, it is a subject that would require the combined talents of a Jonathan Swift and a Marcel Proust to do it justice. Nothing about the much misunderstood 50’s–including its art, by the way–can be fully comprehended in isolation from the pervasive, intrusive and often authoritarian influence which psychoanalysis exerted on the lives of so many bright, and some not so bright, ambitious people in those years.

It was a period in which Freud and his cadres and acolytes–some of them, like Wilhelm Reich, cult figures far more bizarre than Freud himself–loomed as a veritable Big Brother. In 1939, in his poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” W.H. Auden had already observed:

If often he was wrong and at times absurd,

To us he is no more a person

Now but a whole climate of opinion

Under whom we conduct our different lives.

By the 50’s, however, this had become a climate of intellectual tyranny that insinuated itself into every aspect of life.

Few marriages were exempt from its noxious obtrusions, few romances safe from its canting interrogations. Parents and children took to their battle stations in a war called the Family Romance. Even laughter was placed under close surveillance as humor was monitored for evidence of hidden motives and shameful desires, and the famous Freudian “slip” was elevated to a status akin to divine revelation.

The financial costs were fairly punishing, too, as multitudes mortgaged themselves in a protracted pursuit of total analytic perfection. It makes today’s physical fitness craze look delightfully innocent by comparison.

It was not to be expected, I suppose, that the exhibition called Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture , which has now come to the Jewish Museum from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., would attempt to come to grips with the darker and more preposterous aspects of the psychoanalytical mania. True, there are some skits and parodies, mainly film clips, to remind us of the ways in which Freud’s influence penetrated American popular culture, and at the entrance to the exhibition there is an impressive wall of illuminated magazine covers and book jackets that traces Freud’s progress in achieving his great fame on the American scene. Time magazine seems for a time to have been utterly fixated on the subject–but then, of course, in the 50’s more than half of the editorial staff of Time was said to be in analysis.

There are some art objects and artifacts from Freud’s collection in the current exhibition, many letters and books, a sort of reassembled version of his Vienna study, and–the holy of holies–the original Freudian couch, which is covered with a very handsome Oriental carpet. The wall texts and extended captions in the glass cases seem reasonably intelligent, and the atmosphere through this exhibition of Conflict and Culture is suitably somber. Yet the problem with the show is precisely that it is a museum show, and museum shows do not lend themselves to a serious exposition of ideas and their consequences. That is a subject to be read about in a library, not looked at in a glass case or listened to in audio sound-bites. This is not the kind of history in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

For that reason, perhaps, I found the public in attendance at the exhibition almost more interesting than the exhibition itself. On the day I was there, the public was all of a certain age, almost all of them women, who came with their friends and could be heard reminiscing about their own days on the couch long, long ago. It was like a class reunion–the class of the 1950’s.

It set me to reminiscing, too. I was never in analysis myself, but almost everyone I knew in the 50’s was or had recently been or was about to begin. Most of them were people of very modest means, and I couldn’t understand how they could afford the expense. Yet, in the academic world, the literary world and the art world, everyone seemed to be doing it.

When I got to know Clement Greenberg in the 50’s, we got to talking about this subject one day and I asked him how long it had been going on. (I didn’t know then that Clem was himself involved in a particularly crackpot variety of psychoanalytical therapy.) He took the question seriously, and responded in a way that made a great impression on me. “It depends on whether you were in the war,” Clem said, referring to military service in World War II. “If you were in the war, it’s been going on since 1945. If you weren’t, it’s been going on since the Hitler-Stalin pact.”

It was the kind of remark that illuminated a whole cultural landscape. I came to understand that for many of the analysands I was meeting in the 50’s, psychoanalysis had provided a kind of soft landing when it came time to make their exit from the not entirely dissimilar tyranny of the Marxian dialectic. After all, in switching from Marx to Freud, the principal enemy remained the same: the bourgeoisie. Only now, under the mandate of psychoanalysis, the path to perfect enlightenment lay not in the problematic future but instead in a prolonged exhumation of the past. On the couch, Marxian class conflict was transformed into a contest with parents, siblings and spouses, while the bourgeois enemy remained firmly in place as the obstacle to be surmounted.

As for the subsequent fate of psychoanalysis, there is an interesting passage in the essay called “Psychoanalysis: The American Experience” written by Robert Coles, in the book that accompanies the Freud: Conflict and Culture exhibition. Dr. Coles quotes the following passage from Anna Freud, who followed her father into the profession: “In the early years of psychoanalysis we could take the Super-Ego for granted: It was there, a big presence in the lives of our analysands. Now, that is not always so–now many of us are almost surprised when we meet someone who wants to be analyzed and is driven by a stern conscience that won’t let go. Now it is the instincts that are–how is it put these days?–all over the place, with no voice within saying no, no, or maybe I should say, a mere whisper, compared to the past.”

To which Dr. Coles has added the following observation: “It is a considerable irony, of course, that a profession intent on helping to understand (and thereby reduce) anxiety became an instrument of a new kind of anxiety. Once there was the anxiety of the intensely guilty; now there is the anxiety of those who are virtually without guilt, and at the seeming mercy of the instincts.”

Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Sept. 9.