Monday, May 08, 2006

Freud Lives On

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This article was taken from Jewish World Review.

Man of our dreams
By Meghan Daum

Sigmund Freud was born 150 years ago Saturday. So, how do you and your mother feel about that?

Did you feel a strange electrical charge between your id, ego and superego Saturday? Interpreting the previous night's dreams with a little more gusto? Is the toaster looking especially fetching right about now, causing you to wonder if your polymorphous perversity extends to kitchen appliances?

Fear not. There's an explanation for all this subliminal activity. Saturday was the 150th birthday of Sigmund Freud, the sex-obsessed, Oedipal-complexed "father of psychoanalysis." Don't bother sending a card now, your unconscious mind already did that for you (and wouldn't you like to know what it wrote?).

Sure, certain feminists have always hated Freud for viewing women as deformed males. And, granted, he may have come up with the whole oral fixation concept as a way of rationalizing his 25-cigar-a-day habit, to which he remained committed even after having his malignant jaw removed ("rationalizing," by the way, is a Freudian concept, as is the line "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" — though perhaps not when you eventually die of cancer).

But there can be no denying that when it comes to the way modern Westerners perceive ourselves, Freud was and is a very big deal.

If not for the contributions of the Shrinkus ex Machina, we would have been deprived of many of the ideas of Kafka and Proust, a great deal of the comedy of Woody Allen and possibly the entire career of Madonna. Freud, after all, is responsible for the modern concept of ego. Without ego, baby boomers would be identifiable only by their passports, and the state of California might not be here at all. Most disturbing, "Like a Virgin" would never have been written.

If you don't believe me, imagine a day without Freud. It would be like a day without immigrants, except with even more hassles because we would have no primal excuse for road rage, no occasion to blame our parents for our failed relationships and no chance to curse the anxieties brought on by our genitals.

We wouldn't even be able to conduct a conversation. Imagine fretting about work or dissecting a relationship without talking about defense mechanisms or repression.

How could we get out of bed in the morning without taking comfort in the fact that hitting the snooze button four times was simply a function of the id, and that those recurring dreams about freight trains have to do with our sexual prowess rather than … freight trains? Moreover, how could we justify gum chewing? Instead of being orally fixated, we'd have to admit we're just rude.

ALL THIS MEANS that a century and a half after his birth, Freud may be in the peculiar position of being both absurdly popular and not altogether recognizable. His legacy has become a manifestation of the very psychodynamics he defined: We often bandy his terms about without even realizing where they come from.

How else to explain the ubiquity of the term "anal," which is imparted by sneering teenagers as well as fastidious owners of muscle cars, many of whom wouldn't know Freud from Dr. Phil? How else to understand our obsession with Freudian slips, the pointing out of which has become tantamount to excusing ourselves after we sneeze?

In this sense, Freud is everywhere. He's in Hollywood story meetings where executives and writers gnash their teeth over "what drives the character." He's in courtrooms as attorneys search for criminal motives. He is, above all, in romantic relationships, where he looms over candlelit tables like a ghoulish chaperon.

No first date is complete without a subtle inquiry into the co-dater's relationship with the opposite-sex parent. No potential partner can be evaluated without considering the magnitude of his Oedipal complex (order of mother on speed dial), her penis envy (size of paycheck) and, most important, both parties' capacities for denial (willingness to overlook poor table manners, bad grammar or affinity for Celine Dion — at least temporarily).

All this might sound like little more than the mundane detritus of contemporary life; the lazy, nonspecific vernacular that allows us to believe we're being self-reflective when we're actually just speaking in cliches. But it's also Freud's legacy in action, the side of the couch to which most of us now tend to gravitate.

Traditional Freudian analysis (the kind that involves daily orations about childhood trauma with little input from the doctor, except a hefty bill), has been eclipsed by more user-friendly counsel (the kind where your therapist reminds you about the Barney's Warehouse sale).

We'd do well to raise a glass — or a cigar — to Dr. Freud. Without him, we wouldn't be in denial, we'd be in denial of our denial.

And that would require some serious therapy.