The welcome return of Freud

Nobody, it seems, likes Freud - even Freudian psychoanalysts question their place in the world
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The Independent Culture
AS AMERICA'S Big Story peaks and splutters and peaks again, it is ironic that a contentious exhibition tracing the influence of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis on the 20th century is to open at the Library of Congress next week.

Freud's reputation, and the claims made in his name, have been under vehement attack for years. Nobody, it seems, likes Freud: sociobiologists don't because they think family members have no sexual interest in each other; neuroscientists don't because they believe the mind is a collection of firing neurons; behavioural geneticists don't because they think biology, not early childhood experiences, form destiny; and feminists don't, in reaction to his theories of penis envy and female subjugation. Even Freudian psychoanalysts are questioning their place in the contemporary world, leaving the doctor to those readers who find Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Studies in Hysteria to be works of great romantic writing.

The censorious attacks on Freud and his legacy reached a climax two years ago when some 50 psychologists, and public figures including Oliver Sacks and Gloria Steinem, signed a petition vilifying the library's proposed exhibit, and succeeded in delaying it until now.

And what better timing? Though we may live in a age when the myth is that we do not need unconscious myths - and hence the need to expose anyone who appears mythic - the language of the Lewinsky affair has been woven with Freudian invocation. The New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis recently wrote: "Mr Starr is living proof of Sigmund Freud's thesis that all children are dying to know what goes on behind the doors of their parents' bedroom."

As Newt Gingrich and his Republican cohorts thumb through the library's archive of letters by Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers, in the hope of finding grounds to impeach, they may instead find themselves drawn - subconsciously, perhaps - to Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture and to the gallery that will display how Freud applied his ideas of individual human psychology to society and culture, in particular those exhibits revealing his theories of the violent origin of civilisation.

They will learn from the doctor's anthropological essay, Totem and Taboo, that throughout history and across cultures, societies have put their leaders in white houses, palaces, tents and huts, not to honour them but to confine and keep an eye on them, and of a pre-civilised state in which an all-powerful leader - the "primal father" - rules over the tribe. The big chief commands the sexual favours of all the women (threatening the fabric of the group, itself a variant of the incest taboo), and subjugates the men. The defining moment of civilisation comes when the sons band together, overthrow the father and institute strict rules of sexual access.

As Lear explains it, Clinton has taken on the role of primal father in the myth - and for that he must die: "One should expect `the sons' to rise up against him and establish, or re-establish, civilisation," he says. Consider the harsh criticism of Clinton by George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers (the symbolic son and daughter); the attacks and partial abandonment by his Democratic "brothers" in Congress, and the formerly supportive liberal press. "All of this," he says, "should come as no surprise."

Clinton, the first baby-boomer president, may have triggered the myth by his errant behaviour - draft-dodging, smoking marijuana, sleeping around - ie placing himself above the rest of the group - but he clearly understands that he must orchestrate his own demise to survive, hence his apology marathon (his death) and now the renewed attacks on his tribal subjects (rebirth).

Moreover, Freudians note, the need to bring down authority and to expose the foibles of our leaders is, in fact, an attack on the idea of idealising our heroes. We make idols of our leaders so that the sense of disappointment when they are exposed is more acute. But instead of abandoning hero-worship, we are simply living it out in reverse, in the experience of disappointment. "If we want to allow for the possibility of real leadership, in a democracy that avoids puffed up idealisations, we must enter into a more sophisticated relation with our own unconscious, myth-making processes," advises Lear.

It is unlikely that such ideas will ever be aired in the impeachment debate, but Congress may nevertheless come to consider the infamous sexual accessory. But here, Freud may not be able to help. After all, he once famously remarked that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.