Freud vs. Prozac

The architect of the unconscious faces his greatest challenge

Paradoxically, reducing mind to body alienates us from our bodies. Freud certainly thought biology influences the mind—"anatomy is destiny," he postulated, propping up sexism. But the essence of his belief is that our lived experience of the body is what's important. In short, Freud was earthy. He argued, for example, that we get pleasure from defecating. But far from banishing this pleasure to the realm of the trivial or dirty, Freud posited a real psychological cost to society's restrictions on shitting: forcing babies to defecate only at certain times and places—not to mention making them regard the whole process as shameful—provokes a rage that we never overcome but merely repress into our unconscious.

How different is the pop-Prozac account of how the body influences the mind! There, consciousness is a blend of chemicals that needs to be calibrated into balance by medical experts, and our lived experience is discounted in favor of laboratory assays. "The personality-altering pill is high technology, something unknowable, foreign," writes Kramer in Listening to Prozac. Though he generally supports its use, Kramer warns that the drug "may be experienced as self-alienating even when, in particular instances, it restores people to themselves. Having diminished the power of psychoanalysis, we are all the more at the mercy of professional knowledge."

Our mind stripped of the power to shape its destiny and our bodies handed over to the medical-industrial complex: That's a caricature, but it's merely the flip side of the smiley, sunny images used in ads for antidepressive drugs. The very fact that these absurd images are pitted against the Freudian conception of a cryptic and conflicted psyche strongly suggests that Lear is right and the legitimate findings of neurobiology are being exaggerated to obscure other truths. And Lear thinks the target, the thing that is being hidden, is the unconscious.

Jason Mercier

The unconscious not only frightens us as individuals, it also threatens political authority. Authority sets the terms of the debate, deciding which arguments are legitimate and which are not. But seeking out unconscious motives means probing behind these terms, smoking out hidden agendas. Even if Freud hadn't been Jewish, the Nazis would have hounded him out of Austria because his theories undermined fascism. After all, if psychoanalysis questions the authority of the analyst, it certainly could—and did—question the authority of the demagogue.

McCarthyism, the Lewinsky scandal, child-abuse panics—such events grip us in ways that border on hysteria. "It's not that we can always figure out what's unconscious and therefore never get caught up in a drama we don't understand," says Lear. "But the difference between assuming we already know what the issues are and more humbly assuming that we don't understand everything that's going on can have tremendous consequences." Merely by accepting that there are unknown and unknowable motivations inoculates cultures against "being gripped by the next wave of things to fear."

It can also inoculate us against political tyranny. Communism was the result of thinking the mind is all nurture, a tabula rasa on which society could imprint civic virtue and class solidarity to create Socialist Man, while Nazism emerged from the opposite philosophy, that biology and genetics were all-important and that anyone who wasn't born into the "master race" was irredeemably inferior. In truth, humans live between biology and spirit, and when a society tilts too far toward one view or the other, tyranny often follows.

While Freud is being attacked and talk therapy truncated by HMOs, one-sixth of America's gross national product goes to health care. Congressional Republicans, spurred by the biotech lobby, have called for doubling the federal government's already huge biomedical research budget. And ever more human behavior—from addiction to intelligence to antisocial behavior—is being attributed to DNA and brain biochemistry.

The cumulative effect of this biological materialism is to discredit humanism. From Socrates through Freud, the imperative was to examine your life, know thyself. But now society is veering toward a view that an unexamined life can be quite worth living, thank you, just as long as the serotonin is flowing.

Already, certain crucial questions—such as why our culture makes us so ill that we need psychiatric drugs—are being relegated to almost trivial status, mainly because they lend themselves to political answers, not biological ones. The study about immigrant mental health, for example, disappeared with barely a media ripple, though it certainly raised profound and urgent questions.

Biocentrism routinely shrugs off such issues as how we should we organize society and what is the purpose of life, leaving them to get answered in the darkness of our collective unconscious, where we are at the mercy of unseen forces, such as economic greed, political power-lust, and cultural aggression. Or, when it doesn't ignore political and social questions, biocentrism recasts the debate in biological terms by, for example, defining the body politic as just that—a body, a bioentity that obeys the same natural laws as, say, ant colonies. In this view, social Darwinism makes perfect sense, though now society throws a pharmaceutical lifeline to some of those who don't fare so well—a pill that can make you "better than yourself."

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