Freud vs. Prozac

The architect of the unconscious faces his greatest challenge

Michael S. Roth, curator of the hotly contested, long-delayed Sigmund Freud exhibition that opens this week at the Library of Congress, is talking with me about the hoary old Oedipus complex. In passing, I describe it as "wanting to sleep with your father and kill your mother." A flicker of surprise passes across Roth's face as he reminds me, "It's the opposite." So it is, I reply, startled and sheepish. Then I let Roth in on the fact that I'm gay. So was my Oedipus mistake a meaningless mix-up or a classic Freudian slip?

Freud bashers would insist such gaffes tell us nothing of the psyche. But even they couldn't help but suspect that such mistakes reveal something. And so, "We are all Freudians in our everyday thought," the psychiatrist Peter Kramer writes in the exhibition catalogue. Yes, the author of Listening to Prozac confesses that it was Freud who inspired him to go into psychiatry and Freud who continues to shape our conception of the psyche. "We worry," Kramer says, "about unconscious aggression, mother complexes, sexual repression, Freudian slips, and the like." The exhibition demonstrates how completely Freud pervades our culture by showing a delightful collection of video clips, from Popeye to The Simpsons, Dick Van Dyke to Murphy Brown.

Now is the perfect moment for an exhibition on Freud, not only because Monicagate is forcing everyone to ponder when a cigar is not just a cigar, but also because a new understanding of the mind is giving Freud his most serious competition ever. Roth has noticed that his 11-year-old son Max will make psychological jokes—but not Freudian ones. If someone is acting odd, he might say, "What, did you forget your medication today?" Freud, with his theories of libido and id and repression, has been forced to make room for the Prozac philosophy of mind as a soup of neurotransmitters.

Jason Mercier

Of course, Freud has long been under attack from many sides. Roth's exhibition, called "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," was scheduled to open two years ago. But more than 50 prominent figures, ranging from Gloria Steinem to Oliver Sacks, signed a petition protesting it as too laudatory. Biographers have shown that Freud lied, as in claiming to have cured patients when he hadn't. Freudian concepts such as as ego, id, and superego are dismissed by most brain researchers, and the idea that mental illness arises from infantile trauma—the centerpiece of Freudian theory—has, to put it charitably, not been validated. So from a medical and scientific standpoint, says Roth, there are "perfectly good questions about, well, does psychoanalysis work?"

But for most of Freud's readers, this question misses the point. Even for Freud himself, neurosis was the royal road to understanding normal life, and that, not a treatment model, is his lasting legacy. So while the attacks on Freud diminished him, they didn't replace his basic philosophy that humans are driven by unconscious desires that conflict with reality. Witness the feminist turn around: In the 1960s and '70s women writers lacerated Freud for his misogyny, but now many younger feminists have reappropriated his ideas, spawning a vibrant feminist psychoanalytic movement.

Prozac and neurobiology, however, have succeeded where other challenges failed: they offer a full-blown alternative theory of the mind, and Hollywood, always a reliable mirror of pop culture, reflects this duality. "You have your therapeutic Good Will Hunting, where repression in some loose way is the center of the story, and in As Good As It Gets, it's take your medication and you can have the girl," Roth explains. "People are going to weigh these against each other—the model of the individual based on desire, repression, expression, deflection, all those Freudian things, versus a model based on chemicals, humors, balance, where issues of character and freedom must take a different form."

Of course, these views don't have to compete. Freud himself insisted that chemical interventions would someday remedy many psychological problems. As Oliver Sacks notes in a brilliant catalogue essay, Freud started his career as a neurobiologist and devised a model of the brain that foreshadowed our current conception of synapse networks. Moreover, because the talking cure—a general term for psychotherapy of all schools—forges new associations and meanings, it almost certainly remaps those synapse networks. That's why Professor Joseph LeDoux of NYU's Center for Neural Science calls psychotherapy "just another way to rewire the brain." But once they enter mass culture, complementary theories tend to degenerate into warring camps—and Freud and Prozac have become mortal enemies. "It's known I'm a defender of psychoanalysis and Freud," says psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, author of Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. "I can't tell you how many conversations begin with the assumption that, therefore, I must be against drugs, I must be against all this brain research." Of course, he isn't. "We should learn as much as we can about the brain and how drugs can cure certain kinds of pain and suffering," Lear says.

What alarms him is not neuroscience itself, but the way popular culture distorts and exaggerates its findings, enlisting them to prop up a simplistic biological materialism that claims brain research will reveal everything there is to know about being human. Lear draws an analogy to the way obsessional patients maintain their warped view of reality: "Everything they say will be true, but what they don't see is the use they're putting the truth to, which is that it's a way to block out other things that are also true."

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