A century ago, Freud included psychoanalysis as one of what he described as the three ‘narcissistic illnesses’. First, Copernicus demonstrated that the Earth moves around the Sun, thereby depriving humans of their central place in the universe. Then Darwin demonstrated that we are the product of evolution, thereby depriving us of our privileged place among living beings. Finally, by making clear the predominant role of the unconscious in psychic processes, Freud showed that the ego is not master even in its own house. Today, scientific breakthroughs seem to bring further humiliation: the mind is merely a machine for data-processing, our sense of freedom and autonomy merely a ‘user’s illusion’. In comparison, the conclusions of psychoanalysis seem rather conservative.
Is psychoanalysis outdated? It certainly appears to be. It is outdated scientifically, in that the cognitivist-neurobiologist model of the human mind has superseded the Freudian model; it is outdated in the psychiatric clinic, where psychoanalytic treatment is losing ground to drug treatment and behavioural therapy; and it is outdated in society more broadly, where the notion of social norms which repress the individual’s sexual drives doesn’t hold up in the face of today’s hedonism. But we should not be too hasty. Perhaps we should instead insist that the time of psychoanalysis has only just arrived.
One of the consistent themes of today’s conservative cultural critique is that, in our permissive era, children lack firm limits and prohibitions. This frustrates them, driving them from one excess to another. Only a firm boundary set up by some symbolic authority can guarantee stability and satisfaction – the satisfaction that comes of violating the prohibition. In order to make clear the way negation functions in the unconscious, Freud cited the comment one of his patients made after recounting a dream about an unknown woman: ‘Whoever this woman in my dream is, I know she is not my mother.’ A clear proof, for Freud, that the woman was his mother. What better way to characterise the typical patient of today than to imagine his reaction to the same dream: ‘Whoever this woman in my dream is, I’m sure she has something to do with my mother!’
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on May 25th 2006.]