Freud on America

Presented at Encore Colloquium on The Errancies of Transmission in Paris, France in February 2012

“ I’m going to see what a porcupine actually looks like”
Remark attributed to Freud before leaving for the US on the steamer George Washington for the U.S. in 1909 (the same liner on which American President Woodrow Wilson travel[ed] ten years later in order he claimed to guarantee peace to Europe and to provide a “99 % insurance against any future war”)

Scarlet Letters

Freud’s experience and remarks about the United States, which he habitually called “America” , reflect three moments of encounter with the new nation and its traits. traints. This encounter ultimately shaped his thinking in a way that has been, in my view, underestimated.
Particularly of interest is the way in which “America” became for Freud an instance of his “failure” to transmit his own discovery through the creation of the International Psychoanalytic Association as well as the way specific cultural formations supported both resistance to the unconscious and efforts to destroy its transmission.

Prior to his only visit in 1909 the idea of an “American” civilization had already exercised an influence on Freud via George Beard’s analysis of neurasthenia – “the American illness” . While Beard’s book is never mentioned in Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Ppsychological Study (the work that I intend to discuss here) the influence of Beard’s thesis of a particular “weakness” attributable to American culture never left Freud’s thoughts.
Freud’s remark “don’t they realize we are bringing them the plague” can be read against the background of Freud’s acceptance of Beard’s diagnosis of Americans American’s – that their propensity to over-work and their creation of a modern cult of speed, efficiency and mechanization ultimately led to psychic impotence.
The result of Freud’s voyage was to leave a lasting impression of the damage wrought upon the psyche of the American people by the new forms of Puritanism, particularly Scottish Presbyterianism ( a form of Calvinism). Freud also noted the wide circulation in early twentieth[-]century America of new forms of racism (in particular Dalton’s theory of eugenics) that led him to ignore many of America’s claims to inherit the mantle of the [E]enlightenment.
Despite making anecdotal remarks to colleagues and brief outbursts of chagrin in letters , Freud did not address the question of “America” directly until he presented to Ernest Jones the first draft of his text “The Question of Lay Analysis” ,written partly out of ire at the obstinate refusal of the US institutes to allow lay practioners. There he explicitly denounced the forces that were at work in the U.S., inability to accept a leader, fear of losing a financial advantage, etc. But as Ilse Simatos-Grumbrich has shown[,] Jones and Etingon asked Freud to remove these comments for fear of an American sucession. [secession?]
“Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A psychological Study” was a summation both [of] Freud’s fury and also all the neurotic traints traits he felt the culture supported. But when this book appeared in 1967 it became an embarrasssement for the American Freudians and has remained out of print since its initial publication by co-author William Bullitt. [SHOULDN’T YOU MENTION EARLIER, FROM THE START, ITS BEING A CO-AUTHORED WORK?]
This strange book was a response to two defeats, one inflicted by the American analysts and supposed followers[,] the other by the subject of the book, Woodrow Wilson. When Freud met William Bullitt, whose lover Louise Bryant he had taken into analysis, he seized the opportunity to make his own statement on the catastrophe that the Treaty of Versaille[s]
had wrought on Europe.
Freud’s bitternesss over the refusal of France and Great Britain to set aside their imperial ambitions and make a just peace treaty led him Freud into a collaboration with a writer who knew next to nothing about psychoanalysis and who severely compromised the analytic value of the text. But at the time the fact that Bullitt was outside the psychoanalytic movement was to Freud’s advantage. Unlike a Ferenczi or Jones, Bullitt’s contributions to a book with Freud would not be inhibited by any concern for the consequences such a work might have on any further rivalries within the IPA.
Unaware of psychoanalytic theory Bullitt would also allow Freud to approach his subject in a way that transgressed many of Freud’s own tenants regarding the limits of interpretation
This odd and remarkable collaboration was “plagued” by the “errancies” of transmission. If the work has any coherence, and this is open to question, it is that Freud’s analysis of Wilson’s actions are grounded upon an insistence on the destructiveness of the super-ego, but the incoherence and contradiction of the book is itself a (re)enactment of the effect of the superego on transmission.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson: a psychological study was begun in 1930 but it took eight years to complete and then did not appear for another 30 years. Since its brief appearance in 1967 it has been kept out of print [kept suggests legal enforcement – vs, say, merely has remained out of print] in the U.S and as a consequence only briefly appeared in translation in France and other European countries although it has now been included in the Gesammelte Gessemelte Werke prepared by Ilse Grumbrich-Simatos.

Freud presents Wilson as an exemplary case of “failure”[,] and Wilson’s failure to defeat the efforts of Lloyd George and George Clemenceau to humiliate from humiliating the Central Powers, and thereby sowing the seeds of a future war , is presented by Freud as the consequence of the place of superego in transmission.
As a consequence of its relation to super-egoical injunctions the political act, for Freud, is inevitably a “failed” act or deadly act. Nowhere else in his writing , and in an impassioned manner,does Freud allow his reader to see his awareness of the political catastrophe of his time.
If we find in Freud relatively few references to the rise of totalitarianism it is my view that this is in part due to his bitter search for the reasons for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles . Freud concluded that with this document the death warrant of European civilization was signed. [< Passive voice necessary here?] Catastrophe was inevitable and the ease with which small fanatical bands could take advantage of this weakness was more than obvious, so much so that Freud himself could underestimate quite how quickly nineteenth[-]century liberalism could collapse. The sense of a European catastrophe resulting from Wilson’s action combined with Freud’s long held “suspicion” about America cultural form and value . America, which long wanted to remain isolated from Europe and had attempted by its policy of isolation and manifest destiny to veil its symbolic debt to European civilization, had re-enacted, through the agency of Woodrow Wilson, the murder of it’s own “symbolic” father. The motif that Freud had always emphasized in his reflections on America, one that first appears in the notes of the Vienna Society meetings immediately after his return from Clark University, was that in America the function of the father had been degraded. This question of the “American” father is what links the analysis of Wilson to Freud’s fury at the rejection of lay analysis in the U.S. US and ultimately to his “failure” in his own lifetime to accept the innovative research conducted by those who did have something to contribute to the future of psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein for example, and give his support to some of the narrowest interpretations of his work, Anna Freud, Hans Hartmann among others. The earliest symptom that Freud identified in those who sought his guidance amongst the nascent American Psychological Association was that they could not commit themselves to a theory that placed sexuality at the center of subjective experience. Their refusal of the oedipal theory was a way to deny any rivalry or death drive towards the father . This denial of the father by those who invited Freud was reproduced amongst the first American psychoanalytic associations who Freud felt were unable to tolerate a leader amongst themselves or accept what he called “authority” – meaning on an imaginary level his authority, but on the symbolic level the “authorization” of their own acts as analysts. II Prior to the books book’s publication the only person to have read it appears to have been Ernest Jones who claimed in his 1957 biography that “it contained remarkable things” and would be published in due course. Far from being the marginal or incidental work that authorities like Peter Gay have claimed,the book was clearly of great concern and also trouble for [to?] Freud. Indeed the difficulties and ultimate reservations that he had about the contribution of his collaborator were such that he placed a restriction on its publication comparable only to the restriction [the one] that he placed on the reading of many of his letters. The restriction was shrouded in a mystique created by Freud’s co-author for his own political reasons but Freud was aware of them and participated in the subterfuge. The two authors agreed that the book was not to be published until the death of one of [its] it’s minor characters – the Second Mrs Wilson, Edith Galt. Since this did not occur until 1965 the book was published “out of time” – as a [relic] relict. When it was published in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam conflict ,Woodrow Wilson was an anachronism just as Freudianism was clearly an anachronism. The subject and the author were, to many eyes, completely out of step with the new political reality of the later half of the twentieth century. Over the last 50 years, however, a considerable shift in the understanding of Wilson’s political significance has taken place. He has become one of the most exhaustively studied of American presidents. These studies have all ignored Freud and Bullitt’s contribution but have been able to do so because Bullitt misled mis-led Freud so distinctly in the area of Wilson’s marriages and relation to women. Even Ernest Jones, who tended to know the gossip, could not explain why Freud did not wish the book to be published until after the second Mrs Wilson, Edith Galt was deceased. After all[,] what Freud had written about her husband that did not already existed in the public record. [] Finally let us return to supposed reasons for the delay in publishing the book . This was not in fact to protect the honor of Edith Galt but was symptomatic of the embarrasment and “mis-carriage” [hyphen?] of the book and [its] it’s attempt to transmit the effects upon Europe of the libidinal history of one man – Wilson. Bullitt told Freud in 1938 when the book was ready for the press (it had been completed by 1932) that if his name was associated at that moment with a book critical of Woodrow Wilson it would damage his political career. Freud demurred.
Freud had used the details of Wilson’s career, expanding the a relation between political acts and symbolic debts to the father , to illuminate the way the super-ego could lead the subject to lose all sense of its own desire, and to collapse under the conflicting commands of the superego. But it was impossible to construct the sexual history of Wilson and to further claim that the “libidinal history” constituted evidence of both Wilson’s failure to rebel against his father and a fixation on becoming Christ.
In order to articulate the manner in which Wilson was tormented by and submitted to the commands of his superego Freud allowed Bullitt to create a fiction around Wilson’s relation to women.
This fiction began with both authors supporting the notion that Wilson was excessively passive and responsive to his father’s love because his mother was a sickly, withdrawn figure who had never recovered from the traumatic effects of her own voyage to America.
Wilson’s father was presented as the dominant figure of the family, sublimating his sexual desire in his preoccupation with oratory and the seduction of his congregation. But Joseph’s Wilson’s loquacity did not make him the all dominant figure in the Wilson household. As Freud points several times in the book[,] names are very important for the Unconscious. By dropping the use of Thomas from his name Wilson underlined that he identified strongly not only with his mother, but with his mother’s family name .
Freud and Bullitt created the fiction that Wilson wanted to be the “wife” of his father, and that after the death of his mother his concerns about his father reflected this wish. But while such a fantasm may have existed it what was deemed necessary of denying the evidence that Wilson fell in love with a number of women, and that his passionate correspondence with several of them caused his first wife some suffering.
Where the analysis of the super-ego appears to have generated the greatest errancies is in the elaboration of femin[in]ity
Freud is at pains to offer an account for the well documented account of Wilson’s first marriage. But what is clear is that Wilson in an obsessional manner divided his object. He fell in love with another divorcee and was as in love with her as he was also a devoted husband to his first wife. Further more [Furthermore] he was very ready to marry another divorced woman as soon as his first wife died and apparently did not mourn her for very long.
Freud appears at a loss to account for this in any other terms than that he always needed a woman’s breast and that he found in his second wife the very model of devotion to a man – an unstinting devotion to his cause which Freud assumes is the recovery of the experience of the boy being loved by his mother.
But this piece of theorization is in complete contradiction to his initial premise that Wilson’s mother showed little libidinal interest in him and was withdrawn[,] leading him to be over-indulged by his sisters.
In fact it is clear that despite his admiration for his father and his adoption of his traits the only voice he wished to obey was a woman’s and that in fact it was the relation to the maternal super-ego that was the determinant in his life. He could always remain indifferent to his struggles with men so long as he could count on a woman who would re-inforce the voice of the maternal super-ego that guaranteed both that he could do no wrong and that he should listen only to her demand that he renounce his sexuality.
The loyalty to the second Mrs Wilson was perhaps a figment of Bullitt’s own fear of the maternal Superego incarnated in the figure of a wife who maintains a constant support of her husband, whose secret failings are so unimaginable and yet intimate to her that to encounter the difference would be to destroy her being. To destroy the fantasm of the woman – complete in being both mother and wife.
Finally we must turn to Heckscher’s accusation of “hatred”. However mis-led [misled] and over-trusting Freud was of Bullitt[,] Freud’s eloquent introduction to the book emphatically disproves that Freud’s study was an act of hatred. Freud’s admission of his own prejudice towards Wilson is very moving, because as he so openly admits he needed to overcome this prejudice in order to recognize why Wilson was “so exotic” to him. Wilson was his “porcupine”
Bullitt had mis-leading [misleadingly] suggested that Freud “freud first became interested in Wilson when he learned that they were born in the same year”, but Freud’s apology for his own prejudice towards Wilson and its conclusion into Freud’s affirmation of his pity for Wilson suggests that the importance to him of studying Wilson was that he represented in his approach to existence everything that Freud was not.
No doubt there are moments that Freud recognized in Wilson’s wish to deliver humanity from the destructiveness of war a wish that he also harbored to produce a discovery that would bring humanity to a reckoning with its own limitations. In reckoning with the limitations of the human Freud had in his lifetime life time succeeded where Wilson had failed. The crucial difference being that Wilson’s failure had, because of fate and not because of his own intention, had such a catastrophic consequence for so many Europeans.
Wilson was not solely responsible for what occurred, Freud had studied the reports of the treaty far too closely to ignore the fact that Lloyd George had, with his secret negotiations, and subsequent denial of his verbal commitments[,] used the Treaty to extend the reach of the British Empire and destroy Britain’s main marine competitor, Germany. Freud had allowed Bullitt to use the book to glorify his own criticism of Wilson, which was certainly an instance of political insight, but which led the book to imply that the only American of real consequence at the Treaty of Versaille[s] was Bullitt.
This led to a considerable distortion of what Freud had aimed to do in the book and what he had in fact learned from the study of the relation between Wilson and that aspect of American civilization that was so deeply imbued with the influence of Calvinism and English non-conformism. These religious influenced [influences] had contributed to the degradation of the paternal function and revealed what Freud had not been able to articulate so preciscesly before[,] which was that the Super-ego was working hand in glove with the death[ ] drive. This crucial advance was as we know picked up remarkably by Lacan and is the basis of his further elaboration of what Freud had so explicitly indicated in “Thomas Woodrow Wilson”[,] that the strength of the ego could never be any match for the superego and that theory and clinical practice of psychoanalysis could never be oriented on the axis of the ego or the psychological. The creation of Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a fiction with which he could transmit these crucial insights.