Three exciting books on Religion by a Philosopher, a Man of Science and a Theologian
Contemporary debate about religion seems to be going nowhere. Atheists persist with their arguments, many plausible and some unanswerable, but these make no impact on religious believers. Defenders of religion find atheists equally unwilling to cede ground. The Meaning of Belief offers a way out of this stalemate.
An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. Crane offers an alternative account based on two ideas. The first is the idea of a religious impulse: the sense people have of something transcending the world of ordinary experience, even if it cannot be explicitly articulated. The second is the idea of identification: the fact that religion involves belonging to a specific social group and participating in practices that reinforce the bonds of belonging. Once these ideas are properly understood, the inadequacy of atheists’ conventional conception of religion emerges.
The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.
Religion: What It is, How It works, and Why It Matters (Princeton University)–Richard Dawkins
John F. Haught: The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (Yale University)
John Haught is a distinguished theologian who has spent his long career thinking through connections between our outer world revealed by science and the inner experiential world of religion, and has a seasoned grasp of the literature in both realms. Not just a philosophical argument, beautifully precise prose guides the reader through the veil separating the physical-and-objective from the subjective-and-spiritual. He points out that only recently have we determined that the cosmos is not “fixed” but rather is a still evolving (awakening) narrative in which the evolutionary emergence of life and mind are major milestones. He draws attention to the unseen explosion in recent millennia of subjectively experienced, interior life, of which religion is the major expression (as well as literature, media, etc.)
Theologian John F. Haught
The main theme of the book is to redirect our seeking from the past into the future: we are submerged within an unfolding cosmic drama in which the unifying principles of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth, what Haught summarizes as rightness, all lie in the “horizon” up ahead of us. Haught’s is a spiral argument in which the general project is plainly manifest from the very beginning, and then, as you proceed through each chapter, your understanding effortlessly deepens; old concepts come alive, as faith is welded to patience and prayer to anticipation.
It is naive and simplistic for anybody to think that democracy is about the rule of the majority. A rule by majority it may well be. But not a rule of the majority for sure.
Like Popes and Kings of Yore, he assumes he can do no wrong
Even the father of utilitarianism – the principle that is often quoted by absolutist-democrats to justify the action of the majority to lord over and trample on minority’s rights – Jeremy Bentham, was very critical of those who used his utilitarian principles to lord over minorities.
Bentham was conscious of the very real issue about the relationship between the governors and the governed, calling it a relationship between “the ruling few” and “the subject many.”
In later writings, such as in “First Lines of a Proposed Code of Law” (1821), Bentham made clear that utilitarianism could easily be abused to make one single man happy instead of the happiness of many.
Bentham noted: “At all times, in all places, till yesterday, and in the new world, the magistrate – the legislator – such is man’s nature – have been tyrants, tyrants having each of them, for the object of his acts as such – not the greatest happiness of the greatest number – but his own single greatest happiness.”
It is therefore crystal clear that Bentham had never intended to justify any majority’s transgression of the minority rights just because such transgression could bring the most happiness to the most number of people. He was in fact conscious of the fact that his utilitarianism principle could be warped and abused in that manner and he was dead against it.
John Stuart Mill, who was a strong advocate of utilitarianism, later made it clear that utilitarianism did not justify any transgression of minority rights. He noted that tyranny of the majority is an enemy of personal liberty (“On Liberty” – 1859).
Mill propounded: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Thus, the argument that in a democracy, the majority has the right to rule and do whatever they please as they have been given the mandate by the people is a fallacy. It is in fact an abuse of democracy.
‘Liberty is the highest political end’
Lord Acton reinforced this position when he wrote in his essays on freedom and power (part of a book that he never finished) that: “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.”
He later came up with this classical statement: “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.”
Lord Acton was scathing in his criticism of the infallibility of the Pope and King, who were believed to be beyond reproach. That criticism applies to the states and government today as much as it applies, in those days, to the Pope and King.
In a letter to Mandell Creighton, Lord Acton had remarked: “I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence, not authority: still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Best interest of the state
In an ideal democracy, the majority votes are just the choosers of a government. Once the government is chosen and formed, that government and all the machinery of the state do not rule to achieve the greatest happiness of the the greatest number of people.
It governs the state in the best interest of the state, taking into consideration the rights, freedom and liberty of all subjects.
Lord Acton thus described liberty as “the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation”. Alas, he also notes that “at all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare.”
Just look around us nowadays. And you would realise how these great men almost foresaw Malaysia in 2017.
Azhar Harun, better known as Art Harun, is a prominent human rights lawyer.
* The views expressed are those of the author’s and does not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
ENRAGED Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths
By Emily Katz Anhalt
268 pp. Yale University Press. $30.
The very first word in the history of Western literature is “rage” or “wrath.” For that is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed some time in the eighth century B.C., it starts with a call to the Muse, the goddess of inspiration, to help tell the story of the “wrath” of Achilles (menin in the original Greek) — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the mythical war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers. What happens, the poem asks, when your best warrior is so furious at a personal insult that he withdraws from the war and simply refuses to fight? What are the costs, to use the modern coinage, of “Achilles sulking in his tent”?
In “Enraged,” Emily Katz Anhalt, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the “Iliad.” Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The “Iliad” is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.
The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had been stolen by — or had run off with — a Trojan prince. It must always have been very hard to listen to the “Iliad” (it was originally delivered orally) without wondering whether being “best” really should mean deploying almost unlimited resources and sacrificing the lives of countless friends and allies to avenge such a personal slight. Or, to put it in our terms, was the military response proportionate to the provocation? The dilemma in Homer’s plot, which focused on a few days’ slice of the action, is similar. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him. “Was he justified?” is the obvious and, in terms of traditional heroic codes of honor, the radical question.
No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”
Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the “Iliad” and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.
She has some powerful words too on the modern unreflective complacency about the democratic political process, as if so-called free and fair elections were its only touchstone. One of her chosen tragedies, Sophocles’ “Ajax,” explores the consequences of a popular group decision that was morally wrong: After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important, even if she is occasionally unfair to some human political achievements. “In many parts of the world today,” Anhalt writes, “slavery and ethnic inequality persist and women still lack equal rights and cannot vote” — which in some general sense is true, though the last part is misleading. It is certainly the case that in some places voting may not amount to much, and that women face all kinds of political disadvantage almost everywhere, but to my knowledge it is only inVatican City that women are allowed nowhere near a ballot box.
But as the title “Enraged” suggests, fury and anger are at the center of Anhalt’s agenda. If, she claims, we were to take a lesson from the “Iliad” and from the human costs of Achilles’ anger, we would now be trying much more determinedly to move away from the politics of violence, vengeance and reprisals, to the politics of debate and verbal persuasion. “As we face the domestic, international, and global crises of our own times we have to resist the seductions of rage,” she writes.
Ancient literature can certainly be eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many modern assumptions that we take too much for granted. But I am very doubtful that it has any particularly useful direct lessons for us. It is slightly disappointing to find that, after many fine observations, the book’s central conclusion lies somewhere between a liberal truism (essentially: It is better to talk about things than fight) and a misleading oversimplification. As Anhalt more or less concedes, the final verdict on anger, whether political or personal, must come down to what we are angry about and how we act as a consequence. Rage, as shown in the “Iliad” and some modern geopolitical debate, can be petty and corrosive, but I doubt that Homer was advocating that we should live entirely without it. It is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary. Do we want to live in a world in which we don’t get furious at slavery, racism, or any number of other global injustices — or even at some of the dreadful truths of the human condition? When more than two millenniums after Homer the poet Dylan Thomas wrote of facing death with the words “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” it was the kind of rage that many of us understandably cherish.
Sigmund Freud almost didn’t make it out of Vienna in 1938. He left on June 4th, on the Orient Express, three months after the German Army entered the city. Even though the persecution of Viennese Jews had begun immediately—Edward R. Murrow, in Vienna for CBS radio when the Germans arrived, was an eyewitness to the ransacking of Jewish homes—Freud had resisted pleas from friends that he flee. He changed his mind after his daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. He was able to get some of his family out, but he left four sisters behind. All of them died in the camps, one, of starvation, at Theresienstadt; the others, probably by gas, at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
London was Freud’s refuge, and friends set him up in Hampstead, in a big house that is now the Freud Museum. On January 28, 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf came for tea. The Woolfs, the founders and owners of the Hogarth Press, had been Freud’s British publishers since 1924; Hogarth later published the twenty-four-volume translation of Freud’s works, under the editorship of Anna Freud and James Strachey, that is known as the Standard Edition. This was the Woolfs’ only meeting with Freud.
English was one of Freud’s many languages. (After he settled in Hampstead, the BBC taped him speaking, the only such recording in existence.) But he was eighty-two and suffering from cancer of the jaw, and conversation with the Woolfs was awkward. He “was sitting in a great library with little statues at a large scrupulously tidy shiny table,” Virginia wrote in her diary. “A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert.” He was formal and courteous in an old-fashioned way, and presented her with a narcissus. The stage had been carefully set.
The Woolfs were not easily impressed by celebrity, and certainly not by stage setting. They understood the transactional nature of the tea. “All refugees are like gulls with their beaks out for possible crumbs,” Virginia coolly noted in the diary. But many years later, in his autobiography, Leonard remembered that Freud had given him a feeling that, he said, “only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength. . . . A formidable man.” Freud died in that house on September 23, 1939, three weeks after the start of the Second World War.
Donald Trump is the benign version of the dominant personality. He is America’s man of the moment with a huge Freudian ego.
Hitler and Stalin, between them, drove psychoanalysis out of Europe, but the movement reconstituted itself in two places where its practitioners were welcomed, London and New York. A product of Mitteleuropa, once centered in cities like Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Moscow, psychoanalysis was thus improbably transformed into a largely Anglo-American medical and cultural phenomenon. During the twelve years that Hitler was in power, only about fifty Freudian analysts immigrated to the United States (a country Freud had visited only once, and held in contempt). They were some of the biggest names in the field, though, and they took over American psychiatry. After the war, Freudians occupied university chairs; they dictated medical-school curricula; they wrote the first two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Psychoanalytic theory guided the treatment of hospital patients, and, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half of all hospital patients in the United States were diagnosed with mental disorders.
Most important, psychoanalysis helped move the treatment of mental illness from the asylum and the hospital to the office. Psychoanalysis is a talk therapy, which meant that people who were otherwise functioning normally could avail themselves of treatment. The greater the number of people who wanted that kind of therapy, the greater the demand for therapists, and the postwar decades were a boom time for psychiatry. In 1940, two-thirds of American psychiatrists worked in hospitals; in 1956, seventeen per cent did. Twelve and a half per cent of American medical students chose psychiatry as a profession in 1954, an all-time high.A large percentage of them received at least some psychoanalytic training, and by 1966 three-quarters reported that they used the “dynamic approach” when treating patients.
Sigmund Freud and Bill Shakespeare
The dynamic approach is based on the cardinal Freudian principle that the sources of our feelings are hidden from us, that what we say about them when we walk into the therapist’s office cannot be what is really going on. What is really going on are things that we are denying or repressing or sublimating or projecting onto the therapist by the mechanism of transference, and the goal of therapy is to bring those things to light.
Amazingly, Americans, a people stereotypically allergic to abstract systems, found this model of the mind irresistible. Many scholars have tried to explain why, and there are, no doubt, multiple reasons, but the explanation offered by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann is simple: alternative theories were worse. “Freud’s theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory,” as she puts it. Freudian concepts were taken up by intellectuals, who wrote about cathexes, screen memories, and reaction formations, and they were absorbed into popular discourse. People who had never read a word of Freud talked confidently about the superego, the Oedipus complex, and penis envy.
Freud was recruited to the anti-utopian politics of the nineteen-fifties. Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling, in “Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture,” and Philip Rieff, in “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist,” maintained that Freud taught us about the limits on human perfectibility. Popular magazines equated Freud with Copernicus and Darwin. Claims were large. “Will the Twentieth Century go down in history as the Freudian Century?” asked the editor of a volume called “Freud and the Twentieth Century,” in 1957. “May not the new forms of awareness growing out of Freud’s work come to serve as a more authentic symbol of our consciousness and the quality of our deepest experience than the uncertain fruits of the fission of the atom and the new charting of the cosmos?”
One Professor excited about the possibilities was Frederick Crews. Crews received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1958 with a dissertation on E. M. Forster. The dissertation explained what Forster thought by looking at what Forster wrote. It was plain-vanilla history-of-ideas criticism, and Crews found it boring. As an undergraduate, at Yale, he had fallen in love with Nietzsche, and Nietzsche had led him to Freud. By the time the Forster book came out, in 1962, he was a Professor at Berkeley, and his second book, “The Sins of the Fathers,” was a psychoanalytic study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It came out in 1966, and, along with Norman Holland’s “Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare,” published the same year, was one of the pioneering works in psychoanalytic literary criticism. Crews began teaching a popular graduate seminar on the subject.
He also got involved in the antiwar movement on campus, serving as a co-chair of the Faculty Peace Committee. Like many people at Berkeley in those days (1967), he became radicalized, and he considered his interest in Freud to be part of his radicalism. He thought that Freud, as he later put it, “licensed a spirit of dogmatically rebellious interpretation.” In fact, Freud was dismissive of radical politics. He thought that the belief that social change could make people healthier or happier was deluded; that is the point of “Civilization and Its Discontents.” But Crews’s idea that Freudianism was somehow liberatory was widely shared in the sixties (although it usually required some tweaks to the theory, as administered, for example, by writers like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown).
In 1970, Crews published an anthology of essays promoting psychoanalytic criticism, “Psychoanalysis and Literary Process.” But he had started to get cold feet. He had soured on radical politics, too—by the early seventies, “Berkeley” had pretty much reverted to being “Cal,” a politically quiescent campus—and his experience with his graduate seminar had begun to make him think that there was something too easy about psychoanalytic criticism. Students would propose contradictory psychoanalytic readings, and they all sounded good, but it was just an ingenuity contest. There was no way to prove that one interpretation was truer than another. From this, it followed that what was going on in the analyst’s office might also be nothing more than a kind of interpretive freelancing. Psychoanalysis was beginning to look like a circular and self-justifying methodology.
Crews registered his growing disillusionment in a collection of essays that came out in 1975, “Out of My System.” He still believed that there were redeemable aspects to Freud’s thought, but he was on his way out, as a second essay collection, “Skeptical Engagements,” in 1986, made clear. In 1993, with the publication of a piece in The New York Review of Books called “The Unknown Freud,” he emerged as a full-blown critic of Freudianism and a leader in a group of revisionist scholars known as the Freud-bashers.
The article was a review of several books by revisionists. Psychoanalysis had already been discredited as a medical science, Crews wrote; what researchers were now revealing was that Freud himself was possibly a charlatan—an opportunistic self-dramatizer who deliberately misrepresented the scientific bona fides of his theories. He followed up with another article in the Review, on recovered-memory cases—cases in which adults had been charged with sexual abuse on the basis of supposedly repressed memories elicited from children—which he blamed on Freud’s theory of the unconscious.
Crews’ articles triggered one of the most rancorous highbrow free-for-alls ever run in a paper that has published its share of them. Letters of supreme huffiness poured into the Review, the writers lamenting that considerations of space prevented them from pointing out more than a handful of Crews’ errors and misrepresentations, and then proceeding to take up many column inches enumerating them.
People who send aggrieved letters to the Review often seem to have missed the fact that the Review always gives its writers the last word, and Crews availed himself of the privilege with relish and at length. He gave, on balance, better than he got. In 1995, he published his Review pieces as “The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute.” Three years later, he edited “Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend,” an anthology of writings by Freud’s critics. Crews had retired from teaching in 1994, and is now an emeritus professor at Berkeley.
The arc of Freud’s American reputation tracks the arc of Crews’ career. Psychoanalytic theory reached the peak of its impact in the late fifties, when Crews was switching from history-of-ideas criticism to psychoanalytic criticism, and it began to fade in the late sixties, when Crews was starting to notice a certain circularity in his graduate students’ papers. Part of the decline had to do with social change. Freudianism was a big target for writers associated with the women’s movement; it was attacked as sexist (justifiably) by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” and by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics,” as it had been, more than a decade earlier, by Simone de Beauvoir in “The Second Sex.”
Jean-Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir–Two Beautiful Minds of France
Psychoanalysis was also taking a hit within the medical community. Studies suggesting that psychoanalysis had a low cure rate had been around for a while. But the realization that depression and anxiety can be regulated by medication made a mode of therapy whose treatment times reached into the hundreds of billable hours seem, at a minimum, inefficient, and, at worst, a scam.
Managed-care companies and the insurance industry certainly drew that conclusion, and the third edition of the DSM, in 1980, scrubbed out almost every trace of Freudianism. The third edition was put together by a group of psychiatrists at Washington University, where, it is said, a framed picture of Freud was mounted above a urinal in the men’s room. In 1999, a study published in American Psychologist reported that “psychoanalytic research has been virtually ignored by mainstream scientific psychology over the past several decades.”
Meanwhile, the image of Freud as a lonely pioneer began to erode as well. That image had been carefully curated by Freud’s disciples, especially by Freud’s first biographer, the Welsh analyst Ernest Jones, who was a close associate. (He had flown to Vienna after the Nazis arrived to urge Freud to flee.) Jones’s three-volume life came out in the nineteen-fifties. But the image originated with, and was cultivated by, Freud himself. Even his little speech for the BBC, in 1938, is about the heavy price he has paid for his findings (he calls them “facts”) and his struggle against continued resistance to them.
In the nineteen-seventies, historians like Henri Ellenberger and Frank Sulloway pointed out that most of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were not original, and that his theories relied on outmoded concepts from nineteenth-century biology, like the belief in the inheritability of acquired characteristics (Lamarckianism). In 1975, the Nobel Prize-winning medical biologist Peter Medawar called psychoanalytic theory “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.”
One corner of Anglo-American intellectual life where Freudianism had always been regarded with suspicion was the philosophy department. A few philosophers, like Stanley Cavell, who had an interest in literature and Continental thinkers took Freud up. But to philosophers of science the knowledge claims of psychoanalysis were always dubious. In 1985, one of them, Adolf Grünbaum, at the University of Pittsburgh, published “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis,” a dauntingly thorough exposition designed to show that, whatever the foundations of psychoanalysis were, they were not scientific.
Revisionist attention also turned to Freud’s biography. The lead bloodhound on this trail was Peter Swales, a man who once called himself “the punk historian of psychoanalysis.” Swales never finished high school; in the nineteen-sixties, he worked as a personal assistant to the Rolling Stones. That would seem a hard gig to bail on, but he did, and, around 1972, he got interested in Freud and decided to devote himself to unearthing anything and everything associated with Freud’s life. (Swales is one of the two figures—the other is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson—profiled in Janet Malcolm’s smart and entertaining report on the Freud revisionists, “In the Freud Archives,” published in 1984.)
Swales’s most spectacular claim was that Freud impregnated his sister-in-law, Minna, arranged for her to have an abortion, and then encoded the whole affair in a fictitious case history—a Sherlockian story that was almost too good to check (though some corroborating evidence was later dug up). Swales and other researchers were also able to show that Freud consistently misrepresented the outcomes of the treatments he based his theories on. In the case of one of the only patients whose treatment notes Freud did not destroy, Ernst Lanzer—the Rat Man—it is clear that he misrepresented the facts as well. In a study of the forty-three treatments about which some information survives, it turned out that Freud had broken his own rules for how to conduct an analysis, usually egregiously, in all forty-three.
In 1983, a British researcher, E. M. Thornton, published “Freud and Cocaine,” in which she argued that Freud, who early in his career was a champion of the medical uses of cocaine (then a legal and popular drug), was effectively addicted to it in the years before he wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Freud treated a friend, Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, with cocaine to cure a morphine habit, with the result that Fleischl became addicted to both drugs and died at the age of forty-five. Thornton suggested that Freud was often high on cocaine when he wrote his early scientific articles, which accounts for their sloppiness with the data and the recklessness of their claims.
By 1995, enough evidence of the doubtfulness of psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials and enough questions about Freud’s character had accumulated to enable the revisionists to force the postponement of a major exhibition devoted to Freud at the Library of Congress, on the ground that the show presented psychoanalysis in too favorable a light. Crews called it an effort “to polish up the tarnished image of a business that’s heading into Chapter 11.” The exhibition had to be redesigned, and it did not open until 1998.
That year, in an interview with a Canadian philosophy professor, Todd Dufresne, Crews was asked whether he was ready to call it a day with Freud. “Absolutely,” he said. “After almost twenty years of explaining and illustrating the same basic critique, I will just refer interested parties to ‘Skeptical Engagements,’ ‘The Memory Wars,’ and ‘Unauthorized Freud.’ Anyone who is unmoved by my reasoning there isn’t going to be touched by anything further I might say.” He spoke too soon.
Crews seems to have grown worried that although Freud and Freudianism may look dead, we cannot be completely, utterly, a hundred per cent sure. Freud might be like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni”: he gets killed in the first act and then shows up for dinner at the end, the Stone Guest. So Crews spent eleven years writing “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” (Metropolitan), just out—a six-hundred-and-sixty-page stake driven into its subject’s cold, cold heart.
The new book synthesizes fifty years of revisionist scholarship, repeating and amplifying the findings of other researchers (fully acknowledged), and tacking on a few additional charges. Crews is an attractively uncluttered stylist, and he has an amazing story to tell, but his criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania. He evidently regards “balance” as a pass given to chicanery, and even readers sympathetic to the argument may find it hard to get all the way through the book. It ought to come with a bulb of garlic.
The place where people interested in Freud’s thought usually begin is “The Interpretation of Dreams,” which came out in 1899, when Freud was forty-three. Crews doesn’t get to that book until page 533. The only subsequent work he discusses in depth is the so-called Dora case, which was based on an (aborted) treatment that Freud conducted in 1900 with a woman named Ida Bauer, and which he published in 1905, as “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” Crews touches briefly on the other famous case histories Freud brought out before the First World War—the Rat Man, the Wolf Man, Little Hans, the analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber, and the book on Leonardo da Vinci. The hugely influential works of social psychology that Freud went on to write—“Totem and Taboo,” “The Future of an Illusion,” “Civilization and Its Discontents”—are largely ignored.
The “illusion” in Crews’ subtitle isn’t Freudianism, though. It’s Freud. For many years, Freud was written about as an intrepid scientist who dared to descend into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the mind, and who emerged as the embodiment of a tragic wisdom—a man who could face up to the terrible fact that a narcissus is never just a narcissus, that underneath the mind’s trapdoor is a snake pit of desire and aggression, and, knowing all this, was still able to take tea with his guests. In Yeats’s line, those ancient, glittering eyes were gay. This is, obviously, the reputation the Woolfs carried with them when they went to meet Freud in 1939.
As Crews is right to believe, this Freud has long outlived psychoanalysis. For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory—penis envy, or the death drive—they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition. That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.
Is there anything new to say about this person? One of the occasions for Crews’s book is the fairly recent emergence of Freud’s correspondence with his fiancée, Martha Bernays. Freud got engaged in 1882, when he was twenty-six, and the engagement lasted four years. He and Martha spent most of that time in different cities, and Freud wrote to her virtually every day. Some fifteen hundred letters survive. Crews makes a great deal of the correspondence, and he finds much to disapprove of.
Who would want to be judged by letters sent to a lover? What the excerpts that Crews quotes seem to show us is an immature and unguarded young man who is ambitious and insecure, boastful and needy, ardent and impatient—all the ways people tend to come across in love letters. Freud makes remarks like “I intend to exploit science instead of allowing myself to be exploited by it.” Crews takes this to expose Freud’s mercenary attitude toward his vocation. But young people want to make a living. That’s why they have vocations. The reason for the prolonged engagement was that Freud couldn’t afford to marry. It’s not surprising that he would have wanted to assure his fiancée that his eyes were ever on the prize.
Freud mentions cocaine often in the letters. He used it to get through stressful social situations, but he also appreciated its benefits as an aphrodisiac, and Crews quotes from several letters in which he teases Martha about its effects. “Woe to you, little princess, when I come,” he writes in one. “I will kiss you quite red and feed you quite plump. And if you are naughty you will see who is stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat or a big wild man with cocaine in his body.” Crews’ gloss: Freud “conceived of his chemically eroticized self not as the affectionate companion of a dear person but as a powerful mate who would have his way, luxuriating in the crushing of maidenly reluctance.” (Freud, incidentally, was a small man, five feet seven inches. He was taller than Martha, but not by much. The “big wild man” was a joke.)
Freud would be the last person to have grounds for objecting to a biographer’s interest in his sex life, but Crews’ claims in this area are often speculation. During his engagement, for example, Freud spent four months studying in Paris, where he sometimes suffered from anxiety. “It is easy to picture how Freud’s agitation must have been heightened by the daily parade of saucy faces and swaying hips that he witnessed during his strolls,” Crews observes. Crews is confident that Freud, during his separation from Martha, masturbated regularly, “making himself sick with guilt over it” (something he says Freud’s biographers covered up). He also suspects that Freud had sex with a prostitute, and was therefore not a virgin when, at the age of thirty, he finally got married. Noting (as others have) the homoerotic tone in Freud’s letters to and about men he was close to—Fleischl and, later, Wilhelm Fliess—Crews suggests that Freud “wrestled with homosexual impulses.”
Let’s assume that Freud used cocaine as an anxiolytic and aphrodisiac. That he had an eye for sexy women. That he masturbated, solicited a prostitute, shared he-man fantasies with his girlfriend, and got crushes on male friends. Who cares? Human beings do these things. Even if Freud had sex with Minna Bernays—so what? The standard revisionist hypothesis is that the sex took place on trips that the two took together without Martha, of which, as Crews points out, there were a surprising number. But Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well. He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.” Could he have? Apparently. Should he have? Probably not. Did he, in fact? No one knows. So why fantasize about it? A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.
One thing that’s going on is straightforward enough: this is internecine business in the Freud wars. Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky. Consistent with his policy of giving scoundrels no quarter, Crews is determined to blow that suggestion out of the water. He is on a crusade to debunk what he calls “Freudolatry,” the cult of Freud constructed and maintained by the “home-team historians.” These include the “house biographer” Ernest Jones, the “gullible” Peter Gay, and the “loyalists” George Makari and Élisabeth Roudinesco. (The English translation of Roudinesco’s “Freud: In His Time and Ours” was published by Harvard last fall.)
In Crew’s view, these people have created a Photoshopped image of superhuman scientific probity and moral rectitude, and it’s important to take their hero down to human size—or maybe, in compensation for all the years of hype, a size or two smaller. Their Freud, fully cognizant of his illicit desires, stops at his sister-in-law’s bedroom door, for he knows that sublimation of the erotic drives is the price men pay for civilization. Crews’ Freud just walks right in. (In either account, civilization somehow survives.)
For readers with less skin in the Freud wars, the question is: What is at stake? And the answer has to be Freudianism—the theory itself and its post-clinical afterlife. Although Freud renounced his early work on cocaine, Crews examines it carefully, and he shows that, from the beginning, Freud was a lousy scientist. He fudged data; he made unsubstantiated claims; he took credit for other people’s ideas. Sometimes he lied. A lot of people in the late nineteenth century believed that cocaine might be a miracle drug, and Crews may be a little unfair when he tries to pin much of the blame for the later epidemic of cocaine abuse on Freud. Still, even starting out, Freud showed himself to be a man who did not have much in the way of professional scruples. The fundamental claim of the revisionists is that Freud never changed. It was bogus science all the way. And the central issue for most of them is what is known as the seduction theory.
The principal reason psychoanalysis triumphed over alternative theories and was taken up in fields outside medicine, like literary criticism, is that it presented its findings as inductive. Freudian theory was not a magic-lantern show, an imaginative projection that provided us with powerful metaphors for understanding the human condition. It was not “Paradise Lost”; it was science, a conceptual system wholly derived from clinical experience.
For Freudians and anti-Freudians alike, the key to this claim is the fate of the seduction theory. According to the official narrative, when Freud began working with women diagnosed with hysteria, in the eighteen-nineties, his patients reported being sexually molested as children, usually by their fathers and usually when they were under the age of four. In 1896, Freud delivered a paper announcing that, having completed eighteen treatments, he had concluded that sexual abuse in infancy was the source of hysterical symptoms. This became known as the seduction theory.
The paper was greeted with derision. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the leading sexologist of the day, called it “a scientific fairy tale.” Freud was discouraged. But, in 1897, he had a revelation, which he reported in a letter to Fliess that became canonical. Patients were not remembering actual molestation, he realized; they were remembering their own sexual fantasies. The reason was the Oedipus complex. From infancy, all children have aggressive and erotic feelings about their parents, but they repress those feelings out of fear of punishment. For boys, the fear is of castration; girls, as they are traumatized eventually to discover, are already castrated. (“Castration” in Freud means amputation.)
In Freud’s hydraulic model of the mind, these forbidden wishes and desires are psychic energies seeking an outlet. Since they cannot be expressed or acted upon directly—we cannot kill or have sex with our parents—they emerge in highly censored and distorted forms as images in dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms. Freud claimed his clinical experience taught him that, by the method of free association, patients could uncover what they had repressed and achieve some relief. And so psychoanalysis was born.
This narrative was challenged by Jeffrey Masson, whose battle with the Freud establishment is the main subject of Janet Malcolm’s book. In “The Assault on Truth,” in 1984, Masson argued that, panicked by the reaction to his hysteria paper, Freud came up with the theory of infantile sexuality as a way of covering up his patients’ sexual abuse.
But there turned out to be two problems with the official narrative about the seduction theory, and Masson’s was not one of them. The first problem is that the chronology is a retrospective reconstruction. Freud did not abandon the seduction theory after 1897, he did not insist on the centrality of the Oedipus complex until 1908, and so on. Various emendations had to be discreetly made in the Standard Edition, and in the edition of Freud’s correspondence with Fliess, for the record to become consistent with the preferred chronology.
That is the minor problem. The major problem, according to the revisionists, is that there were no cases. Contrary to what Freud claimed and what Masson assumed, none of Freud’s subsequent patients spontaneously told him that they had been molested—those eighteen cases did not exist—and no patients subsequently reported having Oedipal wishes. Knowing of his reputation as sex-obsessed, some of Freud’s patients produced the kind of material they knew he wanted to hear, and a few appear to have been deliberately gaming him. In other cases, Freud badgered patients into accepting his interpretations, and they either gave in, like the Rat Man, or left treatment, like Dora. If your analyst tells you that you are in denial about wanting to sleep with your father, what are you going to do? Deny it?
Ever since he stopped teaching his Berkeley seminar, Crews has complained about the suggestibility of the psychoanalytic method of free association. It replaced hypnosis as a way of treating hysterical patients, but it wasn’t much better. That is why Crews wrote about the recovered-memory cases, in which investigators seem to have fed children the memories they eventually “recovered.” How effective a therapist Freud was is disputed—many people travelled to Vienna to be analyzed by him. But Crews believes that Freud never had “a single ex-patient who could attest to the capacity of the psychoanalytic method to yield the specific effects that he claimed for it.”
One response to the assault on psychoanalysis is that even if Freud mostly made it up, and even if he was a poor therapist himself, psychoanalysis does work for some patients. But so does placebo. Many people suffering from mood disorders benefit from talk therapy and other interpersonal forms of treatment because they respond to the perception that they are being cared for. It may not matter very much what they talk about; someone is listening.
People also find appealing the idea that they have motives and desires they are unaware of. That kind of “depth” psychology was popularized by Freudianism, and it isn’t likely to go away. It can be useful to be made to realize that your feelings about people you love are actually ambivalent, or that you were being aggressive when you thought you were only being extremely polite. Of course, you shouldn’t have to work your way through your castration anxiety to get there.
Still, assuming that psychoanalysis was a dead end, did it set psychiatry back several generations? Crews has said so. “If much of the twentieth century has indeed belonged to Freud,” he told Todd Dufresne, in 1998, “then we lost about seventy years worth of potential gains in knowledge while befuddling ourselves with an essentially medieval conception of the ‘possessed’ mind.” The comment reflects an attitude present in a lot of criticism of psychoanalysis, Crews’ especially: an idealization of science.
Since the third edition of the DSM, the emphasis has been on biological explanations for mental disorders, and this makes psychoanalysis look like a detour, or, as the historian of psychiatry Edward Shorter called it, a “hiatus.” But it wasn’t as though psychiatry was on solid medical ground when Freud came along. Nineteenth-century science of the mind was a Wild West show. Treatments included hypnosis, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, full-body massage, painkillers like morphine, rest cures, “fat” cures (excessive feeding), seclusion, “female castration,” and, of course, institutionalization. There was also serious interest in the paranormal. The most prevalent nineteenth-century psychiatric diagnoses, hysteria and neurasthenia, are not even recognized today. That wasn’t “bad” science. It was science. Some of it works; a lot of it does not. Psychoanalysis was not the first talk therapy, but it was the bridge from hypnosis to the kind of talk therapy we have today. It did not abuse the patient’s body, and if it was a quack treatment it was not much worse, and was arguably more humane, than a lot of what was being practiced.
Nor did psychoanalysis put a halt to somatic psychiatry. During the first half of the twentieth century, all kinds of medical interventions for mental disorders were devised and put into practice. These included the administration of sedatives, notably chloral, which is addictive, and which was prescribed for Virginia Woolf, who suffered from major depression; insulin-induced comas; electroshock treatments; and lobotomies. Despite its frightful reputation, electroconvulsive therapy is an effective treatment for severe depression, but most of the other treatments in use before the age of psychopharmaceuticals were dead ends. Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.
People write biographies because they hope that lives have lessons. That’s what Crews has done. He believes that the story of Freud’s early life has something to tell us about Freudianism, and although he insists on playing the part of a hanging judge, much of what he has to say about the slipperiness of Freud’s character and the factitiousness of his science is persuasive. He is, after all, building on top of a mountain of research on those topics.
Crews does bring what appears to be a novel charge (at least these days) against psychoanalysis. He argues that it is anti-Christian. By promulgating a doctrine that makes “sexual gratification triumphant over virtuous sacrifice for heaven,” he says, Freud “meant to overthrow the whole Christian order, earning payback for all of the bigoted popes, the sadists of the Inquisition, the modern promulgators of ‘blood libel’ slander, and the Catholic bureaucrats who had held his professorship hostage.” Freud set out to “pull down the temple of Pauline law.”
Crews suggests that this is why the affair with Minna was significant. If it did happen, it was right before Freud wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams,” the real start of Freudianism. Forbidden sex could have given him the confidence he needed to take the extreme step into mind reading. “To possess Minna,” Crews says, “could have meant, first, to commit symbolic incest with the mother of God; second, to ‘kill’ the father God by means of this ultimate sacrilege; and third, to nullify the authority both of Austria’s established church and of its Vatican parent—thereby, in Freud’s internal drama, freeing his people from two millennia of religious persecution.” Then I guess he didn’t just walk right in.
It all sounds pretty Freudian! Where is it coming from? This idol-smashing Freud is radically different from the Freud of writers like Trilling and Rieff, who saw him as the enduring reminder of the futility of imagining that improving the world can make human beings happier. And it is certainly not how Freud presented himself. “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet,” he wrote at the end of “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation: for at bottom, that is what they are all demanding—the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.”
Crew’s idea that Freud’s target was Christianity appears to be a late fruit of his old undergraduate fascination with Nietzsche. Crews apparently once saw Freud as a Nietzschean critic of life-denying moralism, a heroic Antichrist dedicated to liberating human beings from subservience to idols they themselves created. Is his current renunciation a renunciation of his own radical youth? Is his castigation of Freud really a form of self-castigation? We don’t need to go there. But since humanity is not liberated from its illusions yet, if that’s what Freud was really all about, he is still undead.
Atheist Club? Atheist Republic? Is that a band from California, after Linkin Park and Nirvana? Or a new name for a brand of Chinese-made jeans? I know One Republic is a brand of clothing and True Religion is a pair of cool jeans. Only true believers wear them.
And for the atheist, there is always the question when they die:
All dressed up and nowhere to go?
And what does it mean to believe in Nothing? When we live in a world in which we cannot escape from Somethingness?
Seriously folks, this is a serious matter in Malaysia, today and yesterday, at least. Another distraction from the issue of 1MDB and who allegedly stole the money, and who killed Altantuya and who masterminded the tragedy.
Even if one is an atheist, you’d say: Oh my God. Why was so much money allegedly stolen? Why use C4 explosives on the pregnant woman?
That is what we will say and what we have been saying about what the hell is happening in this heaven called Malaysia.
Malay-Muslims denouncing their religion. Why? Loss of meaning. No spiritual compass. Perhaps? The elders have betrayed them and robbed them of their future.
What is the meaning of Islam in Malaysia today? What has the Islamicisation agenda brought us?
Not what Prophet Muhammad taught: Opposing gluttony, combating greed. Look at the kind of lives the leaders and the sultans of the world are living. Look at the poor. Remember what the Arab Spring was about? Herein lies the rise of those who are disillusioned by Islam.
What we are reading about in the Islamic world is about Muslims killing each other, and the richer amongst the Islamic countries are building and buying weapons from the enemies of Islam, to annihilate each other.
A Malay Muslim of the UMNO variety will freak out at the sight of pork or bacon or ham but find it quite moral to squander or songlap state funds to quote Azly Rahman. MACC, what are you doing about these hypocrites? Billions of ringgits have been songlaped by the UMNO state, while you take on small fries.Occasionally you arrest the likes of Isa Samad for show.–Din Merican
At home in Malaysia, we have these streams of reports about massive and even billion-ringgit corruption cases allegedly involving those who profess the religion of Islam. As the popular saying goes, a Muslim will freak out at the sight of pork or bacon or ham but find it quite moral to squander or songlap millions.
Words they merely are. A prison-house of language we live in. Atheism. Agnosticism. Platonism. Theism. Pantheism. Secularism. Islamism. Anachronism. These are mere words.
The last one is not a belief system though. It sounded like an anaconda with a chronic illness. And if it is “anachronistic”, it should be an anaconda with a lipstick.
Who to hunt
Hunt down not the atheist to destroy them. Hunt those who are killing the nation and the coming generations. Those in power who cause untold damage, pretending to believe in God yet godless in the way they treat the world and its inhabitants.
I hope those planning to do the goodwill hunting of the atheists will be ready with the best weapons: philosophy of religion and rationalistic thought.
The self-proclaimed atheists are very smart people and have all the good arguments (though many might be faulty) to argue why they have left religion, in general.
Farewell to Socrates
Dialogue is good, hunting is not, let alone calling for the death of atheists. I doubt the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would agree to that. I doubt Islam is about that brand of paranoia.
When I read about the issue, I recall what I wrote about believing. Here it goes.
“Prayer of a Believer”
by Azly Rahman
Believe in anything you wish to in anything in something in nothing anything that teaches you the beauty within and shows you the kingdom you are to govern wisely shown by you … yourself as Time evolves itself within you begin believing in anything privately privately privately moving into intimacy with yourself so that when you worship you become the worshipper – and the worshipped like the dancer and the danced the waves in the water the self in your self and when you have become good in believing what is good in you the human in your humanity the love in your beloved — you become lovers you evolved you and yourself none should tell you how none should know no signs no symbols no house of worship should shroud your soul from infinitesimal glows you evolve and evolve and walk proudly publicly publicly publicly even like the sage Siddhartha with a begging bowl with Rumi and reason whirling as rhymes in you like a sadhu a wanderer in the wilderness a prophet on Wall Street a soul meditating on a mountain of light away from the madness of civilization’s plight believe in anything you wish to you are truth evolving creating meaning in a world where nothing can become everything and believing makes you a being every minute every breath evolving a cycle never ending a circle expanding illuminating
No. Let us not hunt atheists but focus our energy and resources hunting down hypocrites and those who betrayed this nation and our children: leaders that are godless but wearing the mask of religiosity.
That should be our goal. As for Muslims, we do it with Bismillah hir–Rahman nir–Rahim. In the name of the Universal God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate.
DR AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books. He grew up in Johor Baru and holds a Columbia University doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in five areas: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies Communication, and Creative Writing. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and his blog.
Edward Said (pic above) was a much interviewed man, partly because he stood in a unique cross-cultural place at a painful historical juncture, and could speak about it with intelligence and eloquence,thus attracting the persistent attention of journalists and fellow intellectuals, and partly because he agreed so often to be interviewed , doubtless out of the intellectual’s need for expression, but almost certainly also because there was more than a tincture of vanity in that handsome man who derived so much from so many places–Palestine, the Western literary tradition, the East, America, the British public school tradition,the Arab world, the East Coast Ivy League tradition, Cairo, Jerusalem,New York, well lit European television studios, the border with Israel at whose fence he could throw stones–because he claim to belong to none of them though benefiting massively from them all.
The many interviews he gave between them beautifully manifest these paradoxical self-positionings and deep ambiguities, and in the process offer a portrait–all the more striking for being so unselfconsciously self-conscious–of a vitally interesting individual. A volume collecting his interviews was ready for publication shortly before his lamented death, and he therefore read it; one wonders whether he saw how chameleon-like he was, taking on colours of the side from which his interviewers came: an Arab for Arabs, a ‘colonial’ when talking to other ‘colonials’ (for example the Indian editor of the volume), and a culturally conservative four-square Western-educated intellectual for Western academic colleagues. He even went so far as to say to Israel’s Ha’aretz magazine, “I’m the last Jewish intellectual…I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”
He was, of course, nothing of the sort, and not much of the other thing either. Born a Protestant Christian in West Jerusalem of wealthy Christian Arab parents, he spent his early life in Cairo being educated at a famous English public school there along with later King Hussein of Jordan and the famous bridge player-actor Omar Sharif, and then went to university in America. After taking his PhD in English Literature he joined the faculty of Columbia University in the early 1960s, and New York remained his home until his death in 2003.
Although his chosen milieu was American academia, the accident of his origins gave him a stake in the tragedy of the Middle East, and he became an indefatigable and powerful advocate of the Palestinian cause. Fame came with his book Orientalism , whose argument is that Europeans deal with the Orient through a process of colonisation premised on the Orient as ‘Other’ expressed in many ways, from literature and art to scholarship and thence colonial bureaucracy. He saw the Occident-Orient relationship as deriving not in fact from alienation but from historical closeness, although at its fullest it takes the form of power, dominance, and varying degrees of hegemony in Gramsci’s of ‘cultural domination’. This important idea, and its extension into Said’s views about the relation of culture and imperialism generally, is discussed repeatedly and from a variety of angles in the interviews he gave, which between them therefore constitute a work in itself, and an excellent introduction to hie thought.
For all that Said was a campaigner for Palestine and enemy of Zionism in unequivocal terms (he disliked Martin Luther King Jr. and King was pro-Israel), he was otherwise a small conservative in cultural terms. Despite everything he said about Orientalism, his most abiding loyalty was to Western High Culture ( he loved serious music and opera, and wrote about it frequently) and the literature of the English tongue. Claiming that even Jane Austen embodies the imperialising thrust of English literature–Mansfield Park is paid for by a slave plantation in Antigua, a passingly mentioned item which for Said, as for the many engaged in the industry of ‘postcolonial literary studies’, is an endless resource–Said was able to be a prophet among avant-garde lit.-crit. fraternity, and yet at the same time he came early to despise them.
“One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is a point he often and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it”.–A.C. Grayling
Refreshingly, he was sometimes dismissive of ‘literary theory’ and the jargon-laden ‘auto-tinkering’ of the academy, in which literary criticism is a cheap form of philosophy done by waving banners with ‘Derrida’ and ‘Heidegger’ on them, resulting in salaried logorrhoea, a thick stream of indecipherable nonsense that has spewed, like outfall from a main sewer, into an intellectually polluted sea of futility.
But interviews with him show that he never quite escaped the grip of this intellectual disease. When speaking to fellow lit.-crit. academics he falls easily into the jargon: ‘As (Michel) Foucault said…As (Jacques) Derrida said…’is the familiar refrain, and, like his colleagues he misquotes and misrepresents (as when he shows unfamiliarity with what for example (Thomas) Hobbes and (Karl) Popper really meant, though airily invoking their names in that lit.-crt.way, which is like a verbal twic or twitch: ‘…as Popper said…’)
As just one of many ambiguities that cluster around Said’s intellectual persona,though, his divided attitude to his academic discipline is understandable enough. Often pressed in interviews on the question of how he can regard (Jane) Austen and (Joseph) Conrad as great writers and their works as great literature while at the same time viewing them as imperialist producers of texts not merely expressing but embodying the very process of colonisation and therefore diminishment of the Other, Said had to navigate carefully between emphasising now on one side of the dilemma and now the other, trying to show that a work can be great literature even if it is, because it is of its time and place, an instrument of a form of harm. To perceptions which catch less shiftingly grey nuances, this seems like having a cake and eating it; much of what Said tried to do in interviews was to show how that can be done.
One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is a point he often and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it.
Source: A.C. Grayling, The Heart of Things: Applying Philosophy to the 21st Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), Edward Said, 1935-2003, pp 226-229