Commentary Magazine


The Unconscious

To the Editor:

Lionel Trilling’s perceptive and elegant essay, “Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious” [September], made me wonder: has Mr. Trilling changed his mind? I think he has, for the representation in that essay of the tragedy of civilized life as inevitable, even ennobling, and the employment of Freudian theory in praise of suffering, together with the skillful depreciation of anti-civilizing modes of expression, suggest a shift of direction in Mr. Trilling’s cultural criticism.

It was in 1955, I believe, that Lionel Trilling presented a paper to an audience of psychologists and psychiatrists, later printed under the title “Freud: Within and Beyond Culture,” which had as its purpose to commend Freud for having created a theory of man which “is a resistance to and a modification of cultural omnipotence” because it allows for “the existence of the self apart from culture.” In this early essay, biology is seen to offer man defense against the brutalizing force of civilization; in the essay in COMMENTARY, it is the civilizing will to self-overcoming that offers such hope as we have for a responsible life.

I wonder; might not this new perspective, this change in what Mr. Trilling thinks it needful to emphasize, be due to a certain disillusionment with the purpose to which a younger generation has put his words, with a generation that has without shame removed the self “beyond culture,” prodded less eloquently and discriminatingly (yet not so inconsistently with what Mr. Trilling has said as he would surely now desire) by Norman Brown, R. D. Laing, Timothy Leary, and the drugs that make protest against culture no longer just right but pleasurable? This question makes irresistible the thought that Mr Trilling’s two essays recapitulate the passage from youth to maturity given in the Freudian scheme: “Where id was, there shall ego be.”

James Sloan Allfn
New York City

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To the Editor:

In the course of “Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious” Lionel Trilling makes some clinical observations in support of his argument. In these, I am afraid. he asserts as fact some questionable notions about historical developments in psychiatry which should not go unchallenged.

The idea that the conversion hysterias of the 19th century have given way as the dominant mode of neurotic suffering to the character pathology of today rests on shaky foundations at both ends. Although the “grande hystéric” spectaculars staged by the inmate performers of the Salpetriere for Charcot and his guests have been replaced by other forms of show business, there is considerable evidence that less Hollywoodish varieties of hysterical conversion have by no means disappeared. It is true that patients exhibiting such manifestations are no longer seen by psychoanalysts, but this does not mean that they no longer exist, only that they appear in other settings, far from the psychoanalytic couch. As for the prevalence of character deformations in present-day psychoanalytic practices, this is certainly true, but rather than necessarily representing a cultural change in neurotic styles, it may simply attest to the extraordinarily broadened range of indications for psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic intervention which has occurred in recent decades. Varieties of neurosis probably have changed less than the readiness to label as candidates for psychotherapy forms of personal discomfort and maladaptive behavior which previously would not have been thought to be outside the spectrum of ordinary and “normal” experience.

I do not believe that Mr. Trilling can document his assertion that mental illness is increasing in frequency and severity in our epoch. In fact the opposite appears to be true. Extreme and bizarre types of schizophrenia have become so uncommon in mental hospitals that it is now difficult to find typical catatonic of hebephrenic patients to demonstrate to students. . . The populations of mental hospitals, particularly the huge ones, are decreasing, not increasing. The one percent figure for the incidence of schizophrenia, tar from indicating that this illness has become epidemic, seems to be independent either of differing cultural or possibly even historical conditions, and has, in fact, been used as an argument in favor of a relatively unvarying genetic factor in schizophrenia.

But these criticisms do not detract substantially from Mr Trilling’s closely-reasoned analysis. I would like particularly to applaud the manner in which he has exposed the cant behind the current revival of the actually anti-humanistic cult of the noble schizophrenic.

Paul Chodoff, M.D.
Washington, D C.

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To the Editor:

It is somewhat strange that Lionel Trilling . . . failed to make any reference to Wilhelm Reich’s work. The more so in that Mr. Trilling repeatedly uses terms like “character structure” and “genital sexuality” which Reich took out of the realm of speculative abstractions and to which he gave definite biophysical content.

Perhaps, though, it is not so strange One of the advantages of thus ignoring Reich is that it permits Mr. Trilling to claim that “genital sexuality [implies] a considerable degree of constraint and renunciation” because its development “is an arduous process which fulfills itself only through the renunciation of earlier modes of sexual gratification,” without subjecting him to the effort of substantiating this view against the Reichian view of genital sexuality.

What we actually have in this quotation is a repetition of the mechanism of one of Freud’s most widely recognized errors: his assumption that the psychic morphology he encountered in his patients represented universal human nature Mr. Trilling, in other words, overlooks the possibility that the development of genital sexuality can be a natural biological process like that, say, of anatomical growth or puberty. His statement rests on the assumption that the way it develops in our character-stunting authoritarian society is the way it was meant to be, or the only way it can be, and the consequent difficulties that beset it he then sees as existentially inevitable. .

Mr. Trilling’s refusal to acknowledge Wilhelm Reich in a discussion to which his work is so germane is doubly unfortunate. Not only does it lead him to make statements that tend to undermine the thrust of his essay toward the elucidation of an important problem of contemporary culture, but also by thus perpetuating what can, I think without exaggeration or paranoia, be called the conspiracy of silence so often practiced by intellectual journals, it contributes to the abandonment of the whole field of orgonomy to its present-day piecemeal incorporation into other systems (encounter group, sensitivity training, primal therapy, et al) and to its distorted cooptation by the counter-culture.

Jerome Greenfield
State University College
New Paltz, New York

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To the Editor:

Lionel Trilling’s “Authenticity and the Modern Unconscious” was a dazzling and, I think, largely effective critique of recent ideologies of authenticity

But I remain a bit puzzled over Mr. Trilling’s discussion of Sartre’s rejection of the unconscious as presented by Freud. As I understand him, Sartre objects to the postulation of the unconscious on the grounds that an explanation of thought and behavior by unconscious forces denies individual freedom. It gives one a “way out” and thus provides an example of a life lived in “bad faith.” For example, if I murder another man and then claim that I was compelled to the act by unconscious urges, I deny my choice in the matter and my freedom to have done otherwise. The unconscious becomes a literal “Other” who has control over me and I am no longer responsible. Thus I am living inauthentically.

In Mr. Trilling’s view, Freud met this criticism earlier by placing a part of the ego in the realm of the id, or at least removing any hard and fast distinctions between the two realms. But rather than obviating Sartre’s critique, it seems to me that such a modification of Freud’s topographical analysis toward more unconsciousness only serves to strengthen Sartre’s claim that psychoanalysis allows the individual to escape responsibility and excuses him from making a choice To be sure, this shift on Freud’s part removes the “dichotomy between the ego and the id” and lessens the alienation of the “conscious self from its subversive libidinal impulses,” but how this meets Sartre’s fundamental objection, which is an ethical one, I do not understand.

Richard King
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

The detailed examination of Freud’s theories by philosophers of psychology during the past two decades should have made us wary of a too literal interpretation of Freud’s topographical description of the mind in terms of the trinity, ego, id, and super-ego. . . . It may be harmless to construe the mind as a miniature commonwealth where officials give orders which are either executed or obeyed, and where idioms like “ruling, obeying, collaborating, and rebelling” play a role. But one drawback of the model (from which Sartre has extracted good mileage), is that obedience or compliance with orders issued by one part is itself a case of rational action, and entails that the unconscious or irrational part must itself possess a rational part, and so on ad infinitum Hence the Sartrean conclusion that the duality of deceiver and deceived is (logically) impossible, and that “I cannot hide something from myself.” One wonders why Sartre (and Lionel Trilling, who evidently follows him on this, since such dichotomy is the source of “inauthenticity”), should have expended so much critical energy over this point; Sartre on occasion does recognize the purely verbal character of the theory he is criticizing, his conclusions are ordinarily directed against conceptual incoherence (self-contradictoriness, etc.), and he acknowledges the distinction between theoretical or predictive knowledge and that knowledge of one’s own behavior grounded on the firm decision or intention to pursue a course of action. It is not clear to me, however, that Mr. Trilling has acknowledged these distinctions, nor has he been able to escape the dangers inherent m an uncritical acceptance of a model where metaphors are often used merely to mark the site, as it were, where differing explanations of behavior, or of behavioral lapses, are required

The “inauthenticity” of mental life, according to Mr. Trilling, is attributable to the dichotomy of ego and id; “the neurosis is a Tartuffian deceit practiced by one part of the mind on another” Psychoanalysis, by “identifying the subversive devices of the unconscious,” enables us through the self-knowledge obtained, “to tear the mask from its [the neurosis’s] face.” Nevertheless psychoanalytic self-knowledge is itself “inauthentic” For according to Sartre, the dichotomy of ego and id “permits” the former to “disown” the latter: the ego, thus “alienated from its subversive libidinal impulses,” refuses to accept responsibility for events or happenings inside itself (inside the ego?) and inaccessible to its control. However, Freud’s later revision of his theory, fully articulated for the first time in his Civilization and Its Discontents, “sets at naught” Sartre’s criticism. For with his “discovery” of the super-ego, Freud recognized that “there is something in the ego itself which is also unconscious,” an element which “seceded” from the ego, and which directs against itself “an unremitting and largely gratuitous harshness.” Even moral judgment and self-criticism are under its sway, and can no longer be regarded as “wholly a function of consciousness.” Mr. Trilling’s pessimistic conclusion, which is ultimately directed against egalitarian hedonism and a social meliorism which regards society as a “sufficient cause of man’s frustration,” is that life is fundamentally irrational or “intractable to reasonable will,” the human condition “immitigable.” Acknowledgment of this “flagrant inauthenticity essential to the mental structure” is the only source of a new authenticity which alone can sustain human existence.

What are we to make of this two-part tale of political disownment and collaboration? Repudiation of the id is at first a source of inauthenticity, but the later acknowledgment of its pervasive influence is the source of authenticity; appeal to a causal analysis of one’s own behavior is first an illegitimate excuse, then is sanctioned by theory. With respect to the latter claim, it could reasonably be maintained that the contrary is the case: it was Freud’s genius to have discovered the presence of reasons and motives analogous to those operative in normal goal-directed behavior in behavior previously regarded as “accidental” or caused (although such reasons are not “rational” in the usual sense). Nor is it clear to me how Freud’s views entail Mr. Trilling’s near identification of the causes which lead a man to hold a set of beliefs, and the reasons which can be adduced in support of those beliefs. For moral criticism, too, according to Mr. Trilling, is “not wholly conscious.” Apart from these general objections, however, the moral appraisals to which theory is subject, and which are embodied in the terms “authenticity” and “inauthenticity,” are puzzling, for these terms appear to describe both theoretical error and rectitude, and the exercise of conscious choice by agents, selves, or their “parts.” To be sure, a man may attempt to exculpate himself or his actions by claiming that he was compelled to do it, driven to it, or was unaware that he was doing it. In some cases this claim is a true one, in others an excuse. But on what grounds is theory responsible? If the alleged premises of the theory lead somehow to moral conclusions, we suspect it is because the idiom of political collaboration and control in terms of which the theory is couched already presupposes them.

None of this is necessarily to impugn Mr. Trilling’s conclusions: we do what we know we ought not to do, and do not do what we know we ought (although this is not always attributable to self-deception, nor are we always remiss in our actions: the reign of causality is not absolute). And this gap between thought and action may prompt us to the pessimistic conclusions and tragic vision of Mr. Trilling. Confronted with the fact of moral weakness, it may be true that “psychoanalysis does not cure, it reconciles,” as Phillip Rieff has pointed out. But the appropriate conclusions are not to be drawn from a series of metaphors which only replicate a reality they are therefore powerless to explain.

Robert Rosthal
Department of Philosophy
University of North Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina

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