Secrets of the Soul: a Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis

by Eli Zaretsky
ISBN: 0679446540

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A Review of: Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis
by Barbara Julian

"My mother had the idea that I was a little bit special," deadpanned Murray Gell-Mann about his wonder-child, PhD-at- age-21-background. Psychoanalysis would explain Gell-Mann's exceptional career in terms of his early childhood relations with authority figures in both his immediate family and the wider culture. In his exhaustive Secrets of the Soul, Eli Zaretsky analyzes the contributions of analysis to modern culture.
It began with Freud's writings in the 1880s and '90s, but its roots interest in dreams and the emotions (think of Romantic poetry and the emergence of the novel), and new industrial-age ideas of the individual as economically separate from socio-familial roles. From these modernist beginnings Zaretsky examines the role of psychoanalysis in the arts, the welfare state, and the radical movements of the 1960s.
As an adjunct to medicine, the goal of psychoanalysis was to heal patients through an understanding of personal myth. In so doing it also "accelerated the demise of Victorian ideals of character, gender roles, (and) class." At first dripping with fin-de-siecle exoticism, it eventually became a sometimes humourous Woody Allen-type commonplace, its language pervading popular as well as academic culture. Zaretsky's history shows how it connects Victoriana to interwar Berlin, Greenwich Village to Bloomsbury, and also who opposed the movement.
Separate schools arose within the animated psychoanalytic community from the beginning, while outside resistance came from Fascists, Bolsheviks, the Catholic Church-any institution threatened by loss of authority in the face of the ideal of self-determination. Freud and 37 other analysts fled Vienna when Hitler invaded Austria, but Freud had already faced censorship. He discussed the Jewish "national myth" which went back to the teachings Moses brought from totalitarian monotheistic Egypt: there began the obsession with the father which Freudians saw as determining the socio-sexual development of the individual. In Freudian terms, Christianity avoided the problem by turning the son himself into a god, and both earlier and later cultures circumvented it by foregrounding the mother (currently through Gaia-science and spirituality). Freud had little feeling for how oriental and mystical traditions fit in, apparently leaving all that to Jung. He wrote as a Jew and against the backdrop of Nazism. (Psychoanalysis came of age, Zaretsky suggests, when theorists could challenge its foundations without being accused of anti-Semitism.)
The early psychoanalytic thinkers were scholars of adventurous intellectual spirit, willing to give new twists to the old stories-stories which not everyone is ready to change even now. A cultural climate of freedom to read, to view art and to assess new ideas is necessary, and such freedom isn't possible in some parts of the world, in spite of growing material prosperity. In the 1980s psychoanalysis took off in South America; it entered Russia (again) post-Glasnost, and is only now apparently seeping into popular culture in China. Zaretsky spends considerable space discussing its relationship to Marxism. As for the Muslim world he merely points out that there "psychoanalysis remained largely undeveloped."
Psychoanalysis is no longer in vogue within Western academic institutions, a decline that began in the 1960s as radical thought shifted from individual to group concerns ("identity politics"). More profoundly, it has been superceded in the medical world by advances in neuroscience and pharmacology. As Zaretsky puts it, computerized brain imaging shows that some conditions just don't originate in childhood conflict, and "drugs are infinitely more cost-effective than analysis."
So, at the outset of the 21st century, has the impact of the shrinks shrunk? Medically yes, but culturally no. Or at least, psychoanalytic thought has pervaded the contemporary mindset to such an extent that we haven't the distance to assess it, except perhaps in situating it now more in the humanities than the science camp. (Zaretsky's title, Secrets of the Soul, is suggestive of this-soul is not a scientific word.)
Neurotherapists are now able to change mood and thinking with drugs, but mind-body research also tells us that mood and thought themselves create brain chemicals. So subjective experience is still primary. The brain is both a theatre and a pharmacy. The new frontier is the study of how emotion and chemistry are linked in the body-mind, and from that psychotherapy will evolve new understandings of "interiority" and "exteriority", and new individualized therapies and counseling programs.

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