Sigmund Freud hated America. Ok, maybe he didn’t quite “hate” America, so much as “regret” our existence and feel it to be a “gigantic mistake” in the course of human history–which, I guess, is the gentlemanly way of saying you hate something. Like most “cultured” Europeans of his time, he viewed America not as a land of opportunity, but a land of crass commercialism, superficiality and prudishness. The root of Freud’s personal contempt, though, may have stemmed more from his belief that in a country so infatuated with the surface of life, there simply was no place for his theories of deep, subconscious sexual drives. But he failed to take into account one of the first rules of commercial life in America: sex sells.
In 1908, Freud was invited to deliver a lecture series at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts about the, then, still nascent field of Psychoanalysis. Not surprisingly, he was quite reluctant and felt it a waste of time to come proselytize to us uncultured prudes. However, after a very generous–and sorely needed–monetary enticement, he finally overcame his initial misgivings and began to see the invitation for what it really was: a tangible confirmation of growing respectability and acceptance. So the following year, the purveyor of the Father Complex arrived in America, for his first and only time, aboard a ship named the George Washington. As he pulled into New York Harbor, staring circumspectly at the center of American commerce, he turned to his colleague Carl Jung and quipped, “They do not know that we are bringing them the plague.”
America is a land founded on two basic principles: Freedom and Democracy–the Freedom to pursue what you believe will bring you happiness and respect for an individual’s right of consent. Granted, these principles have not always been enacted to the extent that most would like to see, they, nevertheless, have always been present as a moral compass for judging the legitimacy of our thoughts and actions. But as Freud knew–and as I was just informed of again recently here on Thought Catalog–this, apparently, is all an illusion. Actually, your subconscious is controlling your life.
You have your thinking mind and your subconscious mind [and]…your subconscious is what’s running the show. It’s the driving force behind your functioning biology, and it’s what’s responsible for your instinctive feelings and reactions that may not always initially make sense. It’s a million times more powerful than your conscious mind. So in a sense, your subconscious is controlling your mind.
Yet much to Freud’s amazement, everywhere he went in America, he was met with not only a great warmth, but an incredible enthusiasm.
Apparently we did not fear–or somehow failed to recognize–the profound damage that his theories could do to our peculiar form of government and culture. And actually, as Freud biographer Mark Edmundson notes, “no nation outside of Germany and Austria was more hospitable to psychoanalysis than America.” The five lectures he gave at Clark University were immediately turned into a very popular book and Psychoanalysis soon became a frequent topic in general-interest magazines. By the mid 1920s, Freud had become a household name and by the 1950s his doctrines–Oedipus Complex, Sibling Rivalry, Introvert, Extrovert, Inferiority Complex, Freudian Slip–part of common parlance.
Today, though, the popularity of Freud himself has drastically declined and the majority of his theories have actually been disproven. However, there is one very important element that continues to plague us: the subconscious. We continue to believe that there is this tiny ball of chaos inside of us, over which we have very little control, that determines the majority of how we think and act. Yet, somehow, we still profess the same confident belief in democracy, consent, choice and autonomy that we held before our infection.
America has always been a nation with severe “Daddy Issues,” who practically deifies our “Founding Fathers” and their belief in a rational system of government based on the consent of the governed. But what sort of content can any of these words possibly have if we are not actually capable of making rational choices; of using reason to evaluate alternatives to determine a course of action?
I do not pretend to be an expert on any of this, but I do know that if this is in fact true, then our obsession today with consent, choice and autonomy is actually nothing more than play-acting or wish fulfillment. They become words with the weight of a cloud, wrapped in a dream. I, personally, do still believe in this vision of rational consent. Does that just make me a naïve child?