Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Book Reviews

What Freud Got Right

We might do a better job of living together if we believed that we are meant to do so.

Wilfred M. McClay

Freud reading a manuscript; World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Few lines from the poet W.H. Auden are more familiar than his declaration, in a moving (if at times oddly sentimental) elegy called “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” that the founder of psychoanalysis was “…no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives: / Like weather he can only hinder or help….” Lovely and resounding words, full of admiration. But is it clear what Auden meant by them?

What, for example, is meant by “a whole climate”? Did Auden mean that Freud was so titanic and central an intellectual and cultural influence that absolutely everything in the culture of the world was transformed by his very existence, whether directly through his writings and practice, or indirectly through his effects on general attitudes toward sexuality, aggression, childrearing, dreams, repressed memory, and a myriad of other things? That one could henceforth divide all of time between Before Freud and After Freud?

Or did he mean something far less sweeping, far more modest: that Freud was “there” in our culture in the same way the weather is there, as a backdrop, an element in the context within which our actions take place, but very far from being the determinative force behind those actions? Like the brooding clouds that darken our mood, the rainstorm that makes our travel difficult, or the sunny sky that lifts our hearts, the weather can “hinder or help,” can make a difference on the margins, as an impediment or a support, but otherwise has a limited reach. Freud, “this doctor” (as Auden revealingly called him), was one of “those who were doing us some good, / who knew it was never enough but / hoped to improve a little by living.” This seems a much less dramatic endorsement, recalling Freud’s own statement that it was his aim to convert “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” Which is no small thing, to be sure, but not quite a climate.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).