Yet another reason why many of the arts must rate as unsatisfactory forms of knowledge in the twentieth century stems from the modernist reliance on the theories of Freud… for example, if Freud was so wrong, as I and many others believe, where does that leave any number of novels and virtually the entire corpus of surrealism, Dada, and certain major forms of expressionism and abstraction, not to mention Richard Strauss’s ‘Freudian’ operas such as Salome and Elektra, and the iconic novels of numerous writers, including D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Virginia Woolf? It doesn’t render these works less beautiful or pleasurable, necessarily, but it surely dilutes their meaning. They don’t owe their entire existence to psychoanalysis. But if they are robbed of a large part of their meaning, can they retain their intellectual importance and validity? Or do they become period pieces? I stress the point because the novels, paintings and operas referred to above have helped to popularise and legitimise a certain view of human nature, one that is, all evidence to the contrary lacking, wrong.
— Peter Watson, The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
[Speaking of my friend Arthur, I found an old email chain in my archives where we were discussing this excerpt, and one of his responses, I felt, deserved to be printed as an essay in its own right. So, allow me to take a seat and turn the microphone over to him]:
How can he lump Salome and Elektra together? Salome’s libretto is taken word-for-word from Wilde’s play of 1891. No Freud there. And to see Elektra as simply Freud set to music is absurdly reductive. Freud aside, it’s the music that made it a sensation at the time, inspiring Schoenberg to make his first serious experiments with atonal expressionism, and it’s the music that keeps it in the repertoire to this day.
And Surrealism, really? If you stop taking the theories of Freud seriously you no longer find anything of interest in the early works of Dali, or in de Chirico, or Magritte? How philistine an idea! It’s as if Watson looked at the melting watch in Dali’s painting and thought: “Just a phallic symbol, totally refuted and outdated.” Insofar as Freud brought both sex and dreams to the foreground in persuasive ways, he liberated the artistic imaginations of these artists. He told them to dream, and in dreams anything can happen. Watson seems to think that because the Surrealists were inspired by Freud, their dreams must be Freudian, and since Freud was wrong, their dreams are wrong. How stupid is that?
Also, his historical perspective is drastically foreshortened. According to this reasoning, Homer should have lost his literary mojo because the Greek Pantheon has been deconstructed as a bunch of myths. Come to think of it, wasn’t the first deconstructionist a guy named Plato? And how many times has Plato been “refuted?” And yet we still read both of them, and they both embody our ideas of what great poetry and great philosophy are. (Plato I tend to think of as half-poet, half-philosopher, and his readability accounts for his perennial hold on us: he’s basically writing philosophical drama, with plenty of wit and irony, and invented urbanity in literature as we know it. He remains strangely modern for these reasons, but not only for these reasons. His ideas still have a hold.
There are still mathematicians who think of numbers as real but ideal entities in a way that affirms Plato and his Ideal Forms to a surprising extent. Philip Ball in Aeon queries the infatuation of physicists with the “beauty” of a theory as a mark of its truth (most notably, perhaps, Einstein). He writes:
This is partly because their field has always been heir to Platonism – the mystical conviction of an orderly cosmos. Such a belief is almost a precondition for doing physics in the first place: what’s the point in looking for rules unless you believe they exist? The MIT physicist Max Tegmark now goes so far as to say that mathematics constitutes the basic fabric of reality, a claim redolent of Plato’s most extreme assertions in Timaeus. [Maybe Pythagoras should have been given a mention here!]
Even if you think Plato is the bunk, he is still so pervasive an influence on Western literature from St. Augustine to Hegel and Shelley to Derrida, who picked on him not just for the shits and giggles but because he recognized him as the source of transcendental idealism which Derrida himself insisted he was working in the tradition of, you’d have to perform a massive cauterization of the Canon if you believe that whatever was written under his influence automatically renders it obsolete.
Kafka? He is way beyond Freud, and I suspect that much of what Watson identifies as Freudianism in his work is ultimately Judaic. Freud made much of Oedipus, but his obsession with the father-figure and the son’s revolt against him is archetypally Judaic, as Harold Bloom is well aware. (He’s built his entire theory of poetic influence on the Judeo-Oedipus complex, with the help of Wrestling Sigmund.) As such, Freudianism’s moral and metaphysical underpinnings have a lot in common with Christianity, which is also about revolt, punishment, and the Father; after all, it’s a break-away Jewish sect. This isn’t to say that Freud wasn’t a severe critic of his own people. As you know, he claimed that Moses was an outcast Egyptian priest who taught Akhenaten’s monotheism to a primitive Bedouin tribe called the Habiru, and his followers eventually murdered him. The Primal Horde, rising up against the Totem Father. But Freud’s arch-patriarchalism is obviously a Jewish inheritance that obsessed him and possessed him, and since Judaism and Christianity also form a complex called Judeo-Christian, in being Judaic he was also sounding a deep chord in the Christian psyche.
Yes, Christianity. Dante will have to go, and a lot of Shakespeare is contaminated by Christian ideas. Milton definitely has to go, and Blake’s work will need to be purged of its giant bolus of Jesuism and antinomian Christian mysticism before we can accept him into the Canon of literature-not-influenced-by-ideas-we-happen-not-to-like-as-of-this-writing.
This brings me to my major objection to Watson’s approach, which is that it is “history of ideas:” works of literature can be reduced to the leading intellectual trends of their day, they live and die by the concepts they merely illustrate or play little variations on. This is an insult to the artistic imagination. What a coarse-grained way of looking at, say, Kakfa! Great writers produce visions that survive ideologies that come and go, they have insights into the human psyche and human culture that are all their own, and often go against the grain of the “official” dogmas they ostensibly accept.
Once again, Dante. If there’s any poet who should have been cast on the rubbish heap of literary history, fit only for antiquarians and social historians, et al., it should be this angry little Florentine man. But he continues to tower, and always will, as long as people have the capacity to be affected by great imaginative literature. His poetic cosmology deviates significantly from Thomistic orthodoxy; he bends theology to his will. He almost ignores Christ. He revives the mother-goddess in the figure of Beatrice, and makes her so dominant a figure that she even blots out God, who is, after all, just a bunch of light. Not only that, Dante in the Paradiso all but proclaims his giant poem to be the Third Testament. On close inspection, the Divine Comedy is a heretical text. Its theology is based on Eros, and is ultimately personal, entirely Dante’s own private mythology, based on exalted puppy love. The Divine Comedy is the sequel to La Vita Nuova and clearly forecast as such at the end of that book. The DC is thus troubadour courtly love ramped up into a monstrous hyperpoem, with an entirely personal stamp. It is a medieval A la recherché du temp perdu: a successful attempt to recapture lost happiness and innocence through the exertion of an almost superhuman imagination. (Beatrice is that lost happiness, she is his Muse and his goddess.)
The DC is also an intellectual achievement far greater than the works of Aquinas, or at least far more durable: once again, the dogma dies, the trickster genius of artistic imagination lives on—I consider Nietzsche one of this species, which isn’t to say he isn’t also a philosopher. Catholic Seminarians excepted, for every 1,000 people who read Dante today, maybe three read Aquinas. And two of those are reading him to better understand Dante.
The Commedia got accepted by the Catholic Church because the Church had no choice: it had to claim as its own an intellectual achievement so powerful. Somewhat like The Song of Solomon, which is a collection of erotic folk-songs so beautiful, haunting, and poetically rich, even the Rabbis couldn’t bring themselves to exclude it from the Canon. A little allegorical tweaking, and in it goes.
Great poets survive ideological trends. Weak poets die with them.
What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.
It is our hypnotized obedience to the discursive and our inability to understand that visionary literature is at least as powerful a form of knowledge as the kind claimed by social scientists, who are always being proven in retrospect neither all that scientific nor all that socially useful. Need I be more explicit about Freudian psychoanalysis and its great therapeutic effect on the psyches of its patients? I assume that Woody Allen, who clearly has benefited from the insights of his psychoanalyst, will take him with him into the Afterlife, where he can continue his talking cure into eternity.
Watson thinks of artists like Kafka as if they were versions of himself, i.e., academic scholars, whose work really does tend to grow obsolete as new facts come in. He has a parochial as well as a short-sighted-hindsight take on these things.
Not that I don’t believe there is a dimension that could be called timeless… I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m dipping into the Hermetic Corpus. Why the fuck not? It’s got some visionary stuff in it, and a poet who doesn’t at least take the visionary seriously is just a hipster.
Ultimately, it may all be gibberish. I think it’s from that starting point that Taoism and Zen Buddhism and maybe a lot of Western analogues take off. Isn’t Nagarjuna telling us that when you over-conceptualize the raw encounter that is Being, you end up with gibberish? You get mental cramp, as Wittgenstein put it, and maybe intestinal cramp as well. Hence the urgent need intellectuals feel to bullshit.
Finally, the similar delusion of our time remains the romance of science and its runt offspring, the social sciences, and their runt offspring, Critical Theory. According to my own argument, great literature should be able to absorb postmodernism and survive its obsolescence. Maybe the work of Ashbery and Foster Wallace will do that. Cormac McCarthy’s work may do that—but he’s: a Catholic. But at least as far as poets go, they either kiss the ass of academic theorists in a way that shows a total lack of respect for the power of their own art, plus a total lack of originality; or they have revived Victorian goody-goody moralism, in the form of politically correct whining about their own marginalization—or they just masturbate in print, with no thought or care for poetry as a craft. It just comes out of their narcissistic psyches the way shit comes out of a cow’s ass.
Hegel famously said that if we thought of the succession of philosophers that constitute the philosophical tradition as merely refuted and obsolete, “the history of philosophy would become a graveyard.” He chose rather to see Heraclitus, Plato, even Jacob Boeme (whom he called “the first German philosopher”) as having seen a part of the truth, but not the total picture. Thus they were neither wrong nor right, but part of an evolution toward the absolute truth of spirit which he modestly explained was accurately understood for the first time in his philosophy and embodied in the Prussian state. (What an ass-kisser!) Never mind that part. What I’m getting at is that even here Watson is a bit off: neither Freud nor Marx is entirely refuted or obsolete, they did make contributions to our understanding of the unconscious depths of our psyches and our plight as socioeconomic beings, and are for better or worse now part of Western, and world, history.
But both were true believers in the ideology of science, materialism. Marx tried to separate himself from positivism by mixing in re-tooled Hegelian Idealism, but he remained in essential agreement with the positivist position from the Enlightenment thinkers through Smith and Ricardo that man is homo economicus, and nothing but the sum of his material needs and pleasures, which might include dabbling in a little art now and then. In the absence of God and any ecclesiastical authority, humans were to forge their own destiny, through the science of political economy, the applied science of technology and its modes and means of production, and the applied violence of Revolution. But this optimistic voluntarism was and is undermined by science’s positivistic determinism, or dialectical-materialist determinism. (And as I’ve noted before, learning from Campbell, there is an ancient mythical archetype behind even the most seemingly scientific and sophisticated schemes of reformists and revolutionaries, especially in their Utopianism. It is the Zoroastrian archetype of history as religiously charged with dramatic meaning, where one must either fight for the Darkness or the Light, and where, finally, at the end of history, the forces of (en)light(enment) win out and all conflict ceases.
The religion of scientism consists in reducing what is living to what is dead. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a physical organ, the brain, which runs on electrobiochemical energy, which can be reduced to inorganic atoms and finally quarks. In the end we are all dead, goes the old saying. But we have created a fully-functional universe of death for the living. I think Freud had some good ideas. One of them was the death-drive. Of course he derived it from a materialist premise, that all animate matter strives for a simpler, more peaceful inanimate state. (While all the while evolving through propagation: that’s Eros or the pleasure principle.) He saw repetition-compulsion, in the wake of the trauma of World War II, as the death-drive in operation, an anti-creative impulse to become as mechanical as possible, to shut down, to become an automaton. I can’t help seeing our present plight under a profoundly materialist, cynical and greedy capitalist system as a crisis of the death-drive. In other words, just as animate matter longs for the restful rigidity of a stone, we in America long for the restful rigidity of Singapore.
As Mark Slouka puts it so well, we don’t want to be citizens anymore, we want to be employees. We are committing suicide as thinking, imagining, potentially unruly because individualistic beings for the sacred cause of maintaining our economic power against increasing competition. This is where bottom-line thinking ultimately leads: to the sacrifice of civil society to the corporate state, and the sacrifice of real diversity on the altar of an ideology of Diversity. Fine, we need to keep up with the competition, we don’t want to see the world dominated by China, but not if that means becoming more like China—or gentler little-brother Singapore.
We were once a place capable of producing Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson, Thoreau. Now we’re a rudderless, witless superpower undermined by 16 consecutive years of corrupt and incompetent leadership, and our cultural hero is Bill Gates, and the question that the universities of this great land put to themselves in all seriousness is: how fast can we get rid of the Humanities so that we can turn out the kind of person Bill Gates would hire? Our universities are turning into vocational schools. Seventy percent of the required reading in the Core Curriculum is non-fiction. Why? Because kids need to be exposed to the kind of things they’ll be reading in their cube farms. The short-sighted circularity of bottom-line thinking, enshrined in the curricula of our nation’s schools…
We are losing our humanity because we no longer believe there’s such a thing (insofar as it includes consciousness and imagination and mystical possibilities open to saints, poets, acid-heads and schizophrenics, and oh, maybe a kind of soul, but that only refers to an outdated Motown style). The irony of the movie AI is that human technology is so advanced that it can program humanity into a robot, but the programmers themselves have lost theirs. And somehow the Faustian technological ambition that finally “succeeds” seems to be part of the reason why the humans’ own humanity fails. This is a parable and an omen.