Freud and the American Death Drive by Patrick Blanchfield

If ever a person could kill a joke, it was Sigmund Freud.

Freud“Here is an American anecdote: ‘Two not particularly scrupulous businessmen had succeeded, by dint of a series of highly risky enterprises, in amassing a large fortune, and they were now making efforts to push their way into good society. One method, which struck them as a likely one, was to have their portraits painted by the most celebrated and highly paid artist in the city, whose pictures had an immense reputation. The precious canvases were shown for the first time at a large evening party, and the two hosts themselves led the most influential connoisseur and art critic up to the wall upon which the portraits were hanging side by side, to extract his admiring judgment on them. He studied the works for a long time, and then, shaking his head, as though there was something he had missed, pointed to the gap between the pictures and asked quietly: ‘But where’s the Saviour?’” 

If ever a person could kill a joke, it was Sigmund Freud. His exegesis of this “American Anecdote” in his “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” (1905) goes on for pages, slowly taking the life out of the already-barely-funny punchline : there is no “Christ hanging between the two thieves.”

Born one hundred sixty years ago yesterday, Sigmund Freud never cared much for America. No one is really sure why. He told one patient he had eaten something during his 1909 tour of the country that had “spoiled in his stomach.” Some historians speculate it had to do with Freud’s obsessional anxieties over his intellectual legacy, and his pique at Americans’ preference for the despised Carl Jung over Freud’s new favored son, Alfred Adler. Others suggest he may have disliked the sleaziness of American capitalism and its culture of crass fixation on money. That said, Freud, who admitted to admiring a single American genius, William James (“The man spoke better German than I did!,” he supposedly told a patient) knew cash value when he saw it. He insisted that an American patient in Vienna pay him only in $10 bills, deeming greenbacks “effective currency” compared to the Austrian kronen, a near-worthless medium of exchange after the First World War. More than anyone, Freud understood the Reality Principle; he had a family to feed. When it came to the American nation, though, Freud’s appraisal was grim: “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake, but a mistake.”

A continent away from Freud’s place of birth, and a century-and-half later, Freud’s judgment hits, as it were, The Real. If you’re cynical enough, with the election season looming, the idea of gazing on the portraits of two thieves feels uncannily close to home. Freud unsparingly diagnosed the shallowness of American pretensions to national exceptionalism, technological progressivism, and social openness. He wrote about both American “prosperity” and “broadmindedness” only ironically, between scare quotes, and saw the opulence of American society and fervor of American patriotism as indexing something else entirely: “the psychological poverty of groups.”  “The present cultural state of America,” he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), “would give us a good opportunity for studying the damage to civilization which is thus to be feared.” He continued, bitingly: “But I shall avoid the temptation of entering upon a critique of American civilization; I do not wish to give an impression of wanting myself to employ American methods.”

Above all else, Freud had a special contempt for the trite pabulum of American nationalism: our self-righteous commingling of religion with politics, our politics-as-religion, our religion-as-politics. “Pious America laid claim to being ‘God’s own Country’; and, as regards one of the shapes in which men worship the deity, the claim is undoubtedly valid.” Freud saw American Manifest Destiny for what it was: just another family romance told by a precocious child to justify its specialness. Except this precocious child could field an army of two million men on Europe’s shores, and, just over five years after Freud’s death, realized one of his most abiding nightmares: “gain[ing] control over the forces nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.” Today, perhaps even more than after 1945, his premonitions seem justified. Human civilization may well wind up obliterating itself, if not with a bang, thanks to America’s 5000-odd nuclear warheads, then with a cough and gurgle, thanks to its tens of millions of air conditioners and fossil-fuel vehicles.

Celebrating the anniversary of Freud’s birth, we must acknowledge his most paradoxical, difficult, and harrowing legacy: his unflinching acknowledgement of how the repressed returns whether we like it or not, in the mode of a drive towards destruction. The simple truth is that America is founded upon bloodshed, and that as a people, our business has always been killing each other and ourselves. Another of Freud’s unfunny jokes was that, in bringing psychoanalysis, he was importing “the plague.” But that was only metaphorical; the plagues which the first European settlers carried ashore literally killed tens of millions. Mock Freud’s parable of the Primal Horde if you will, but our Declaration of Independence is, as psychoanalyst Lawrence Blum brilliantly observes, as transparently a pact between sons who have overthrown their ur-Father as anyone could imagine. The soaring temples to Freedom in our nation’s capital were built by the hands of slaves, and the bones of human chattel and butchered Native Americans stir uneasily beneath our feet.

Repression, denial, and heedless forward motion will not pacify these traumas. At best, such strategies only offer us a brew of distraction, narcosis, and, ultimately, death. Our technological ingenuity has indeed produced a society of magnificent prosthetic gods, along with roughly identical numbers of Americans killed each year by painkiller and tranquilizer overdoses, gunshots, and car crashes. Meanwhile, on the national stage, the division between the latent and the manifest has collapsed completely. Appeals to “Make America Great Again” embody American atavism at its ugliest. We will devise ever-more-efficient tools for massacring children at home and abroad rather than face what we are. We will drown each other in poisoned water rather than ask where we are headed. We will spill all the gore in the world rather than offer to the ghosts that haunt us the blood they need to speak and to be free. And we will gaze at portraits of thieves and joke of the absence on the wall that there are no saviors to be seen rather than confront the emptiness in ourselves.

Freud may rest in peace, but we do not.