Looming over most of the essays in Adam Phillips’ wonderful new book is the “anxiety of psychoanalysis about its own status”. Freud’s invention seems to be premised on the idea that there is such a thing as knowledge of the unconscious (the psychoanalytic “talking cure” requires that what is unconscious be translated into something conscious). But much of the criticism that psychoanalysis continues to attract – and this is the nub of what are known, in the United States, as the “Freud wars”– concerns the nature of the “knowledge” that its therapeutic methods are supposed to disclose.
The critics argue that many of Freud’s claims – about the unconscious, the “Oedipus complex” and so on – are unprovable, at least when we measure them against the standards applied to empirical science. Now, it may be that those claims in fact don’t need any special kind of proof, since they’re really just elaborations of the everyday ways in which we interpret people in terms of their beliefs or desires. But if that’s right, say the critics, then there’s nothing new in psychoanalysis – nothing that wasn’t said earlier, and in most cases better, by writers and thinkers like Shakespeare, Nietzsche or Proust.
As it happens, Freud himself wouldn’t have disputed much of that. He is supposed to have said, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, that “the poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious”. And then to have gone on to say that what he discovered was the “scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied”. Phillips is concerned here with the relationship of Freud’s work, especially the case studies, to literature and imaginative writing, and with the status of that “scientific method”. What he tries to show is that establishing the latter means getting to the bottom of the former.
Freud acknowledged that his case studies read more like short stories than medical reports. A work of imaginative fiction, he thought, gives us a “detailed description of mental processes”. Freud’s case studies seek to do the same, by reading the stories that the patient tells during analysis. Central to this undertaking is the method of free association in which, in Phillips’ lovely description, the patient is able to “have [her] disagreeable reflections without feeling the need to pigeon-hole or padlock them”.
Phillips points out that there’s actually something unliterary about the way the patient’s story comes out in free association: it comes out not in patterned blocks of words but in the digressions and “side-effects” that give his book its title. The analyst must allow the patient this radical freedom of speech, a strategy that, as Phillips recognises, brings with it considerable risks – and which has implications, too, for Freud’s hope that his case histories would carry the imprimatur of science.
In Phillips’ view, the “Freud wars” were being fought, inside Freud’s own head, right at the inception of psychoanalysis and never stopped. And the question “what do you do as a psychoanalyst if you don’t do science” is one that Freud never satisfactorily answered. But Phillips believes that psychoanalysis is no worse off for that. Freud’s voice might not be unique, but it is nevertheless an influential contribution to the “cultural conversation” of the twentieth century. Phillips’ beautifully written book will help to keep that conversation going.
Here is Jahanbegloo talking about a "new democratic thinking in Iran" deriving from the work of Kant, Hegel and Habermas:
As you might know, Kant
is a very popular philosopher in Iran and there were several
celebrations in Tehran for the 200th anniversary
of his death in 2004. Well, once again as for Hegel,
Habermas’s recasting of the Kantian principle of autonomy
and its political implications shows how public reason lies
at the heart of democratizing processes and is decisive to
the survival of non-authoritarian political, social, and
economic institutions in our world. And you can see how Kant
— and Habermas’s reading of Kant — can be helpful in
reformulating and re-elaborating a new democratic thinking
in Iran. Habermas via Kant offers Iranian intellectuals and
civil society activists a model of democratic agency and
political thinking that avoids two unattractive
alternatives: that of rooting politics in personal
preferences for authoritarian personalities and that of
eliminating the universality of ethics in the name of a
Michael Walzer has a piece about Israel's war with Hezbollah up on the New Republic's website.
Walzer is in no doubt that Israel is entitled to fight ("since Hamas and Hezbollah describe the
captures [of Israeli soldiers] as legitimate military operations--acts of war--they can
hardly claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate"). The really difficult question is how it fights (Walzer takes it for granted that Israel's aims are wholly short-term: "to stop the attacks across its borders"). Israel's dilemma, he argues, is that it is fighting "an enemy that does not field an army; that
has no institutional structure and no visible chain of command; that
does not recognize the legal and moral principle of noncombatant
immunity". This asymmetry places particular burdens on the party that does field an army with a visible chain of command and so on. Here Israel must act under the following constraints:
There cannot be any direct attacks on
civilian targets (even if the enemy doesn't believe in the existence of
civilians), and this principle is a major constraint also on attacks on
the economic infrastructure. Writing about the first Iraq war, in 1991,
I argued that the U.S. decision to attack "communication and
transportation systems, electric power grids, government buildings of
every sort, water pumping stations and purification plants" was wrong.
"Selected infrastructural targets are easy enough to justify: bridges
over which supplies are carried to the army in the field provide an
obvious example. But power and water ... are very much like food: they
are necessary to the survival and everyday activity of soldiers, but
they are equally necessary to everyone else. An attack here is an
attack on civilian society. ... [I]t is the military effects, if any,
that are 'collateral.'" That was and is a general argument; it clearly
applies to the Israeli attacks on power stations in Gaza and Lebanon.
But what makes acting under those constraints so infernally difficult is that Israel is "fighting an enemy that hides behind civilians":
Academic philosophers have written at
great length about "innocent shields," since these radically exploited
(but sometimes, perhaps, compliant) men and women pose a dilemma that
tests the philosophers' dialectical skills. Israeli soldiers are not
required to have dialectical skills, but, on the one hand, they are
expected to do everything they can to prevent civilian deaths, and, on
the other hand, they are expected to fight against an enemy that hides
behind civilians. So (to quote a famous line from Trotsky), they may
not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in
There is no neat solution to their dilemma. When Palestinian
militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are
themselves responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths
caused by Israeli counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues)
Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the
militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off
counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians. That last
requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use of civilian
shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also an
effective way of fighting. [...]
At best, the [Israeli] army and air force will
weaken the capacity of Hamas and Hezbollah to attack Israel; they won't
alter their resolve. It will probably take the international
community--the United States, Europe, the United Nations, some Arab
states--to bring the Lebanese army into the south of the country and
make it an effective force once it is there. And it will take a similar
coalition to sponsor and support a Palestinian government that is
committed to two states with one permanent and peaceful border and that
is prepared to repress the religious militants who oppose that
commitment. Until there is an effective Lebanese army and a Palestinian
government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled to act,
within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.
Can ideas change the world? The famous words of Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, inscribed on his gravestone in Highgate cemetery, seem to suggest not. ‘The philosophers,’ Marx wrote, ‘have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’
This ringing declaration has often been taken to mean that ideas are futile. But Marx can’t have meant anything quite as crude as that – for one thing, he presumably intended his words to have an effect on whoever read them. He certainly thought the world would change only through active revolutionary struggle, but the revolution nevertheless had to be guided by ideas. It’s ideas that change the minds of the people whose actions then change the world.
Something like this appears to be the thinking behind a new series from Atlantic Books. Its 'Books that Shook the World’ are short ‘biographies’ of texts that can lay claim to world-historical significance, and among the first batch to be published are Simon Blackburn on Plato’s ‘Republic’, Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ and Francis Wheen on the magnum opus of Marx himself.
Like any book about Marx, Wheen’s splendid little volume on ‘Das Kapital’ has to meet an obvious and rather substantial challenge: that what appears in Marx’s work as a kind of prophecy – about the emergence of an organised working class who would be the ‘gravediggers’ of the system that produced them; about a future material abundance that would guarantee equality – has not been confirmed by history but destroyed by it.
Wheen meets this challenge in two, not necessarily compatible, ways. On the one hand, he acknowledges Marx’s errors and unfulfilled prophecies but insists that these are nonetheless ‘eclipsed and transcended’ by his devastatingly accurate description of the nature of capitalism. On the other hand, Wheen maintains that the portrayal of Marx as a ‘mechanical determinist’ is in any case a caricature, and that Marx believed that human beings are capable of making their own history (albeit in circumstances not of their choosing).
Of course, if it’s impossible to predict equality on the basis of iron-clad historical laws, then one has to argue for it, and so advocacy replaces prophecy. In Wheen’s reading, ‘Das Kapital’ is a kind of source-book for socialist argument; not a premonition, therefore, but rather the description of a system that deforms and crushes the human spirit. And as long that system endures, so will Marx’s masterpiece.
‘Das Kapital’, Wheen argues, is an attempt to map the terra incognita of an emergent industrial capitalism. And this exploratory character accounts for what the critic Edmund Wilson described as the ‘brain-racking subtleties’ of Marx’s prose. In fact, Wheen has learned from Wilson not to try to look past Marx’s extraordinary style, but instead to see in its ‘Dickensian’ textures an attempt to embody the way in which, under capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. He brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Victorian Gothic that pervades the pages of ‘Das Kapital’, as Marx attempts to disclose the injustice and exploitation behind the ‘phantom-like objectivity’ of commodification.
The idea that genuine knowledge requires us to penetrate the veils of illusion is not Marx’s own, of course. It goes back two thousand years to Plato. In his book on the ‘Republic’, Simon Blackburn sets himself the task of disentangling that idea from the thickets of Platonic metaphysics.
Like Wheen, Blackburn thinks his subject has been ‘horribly betrayed’ by his followers. He’s particularly hard on the Christianized version of Platonism that took hold in the fourth and fifth centuries. There’s nothing to be said for the idea of illumination through transcendental ascent and we do Plato no favours, Blackburn thinks, by trying to save it. But in that case, one might ask how we can make any sense of the famous Myth of the Cave, which seems to identify reality with the unchanging and the eternal.
Easy, says Blackburn. Once you’ve cleared away the metaphysics, what remains is a quite straightforward ‘plea’ for the scientific and mathematical understanding of reality. The threatening-sounding eternal ‘forms’ are in fact unchanging structures of understanding which allow us to discern in the world properties and relations susceptible to being ordered in quantitative terms.
Christopher Hitchens has a much easier job than either Blackburn or Wheen, for Thomas Paine’s language of the ‘rights of man’ remains and ‘will always be part of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend’. Consequently, he doesn’t devote much space to substantive analysis of Paine’s ideas, preferring instead to establish the context in which the book was written.
Hitchens is particularly interested in Paine’s relationship with Edmund Burke, to whom his tract was ostensibly addressed, and in the friendships that didn’t survive the later attacks on religion launched by Paine in ‘The Age of Reason’. And he is too intelligent not to recognise that many readers will find it hard to avoid thinking at the same time of the psychodrama of Hitchens’ own recent political trajectory, with its broken friendships and abandoned alliances. Who said ideas don’t matter?
Simon Blackburn, ‘Plato’s Republic: A Biography’ Christopher Hitchens, ‘Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography’ Francis Wheen, ‘Marx’s Das Kapital’
The latest issue of the New York Review of Books contains an open letter to President Ahmadinejad of Iran protesting the continued incarceration of the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo. The signatories include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Timothy Garton Ash, J.M. Coetzee, Ronald
Dworkin, Shirin Ebadi, Umberto Eco, Jürgen Habermas, Leszek Kolakowski,
Orhan Pamuk, Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor and Tzvetan Todorov:
A philosopher committed to the principle of nonviolence, Dr.
Jahanbegloo has worked tirelessly to foster cultural understanding and
dialogue between Iranians and other societies. Significantly, as
director of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran, he has conveyed to
myriad readers, students, and scholars the complexity of Iranian
civilization and its rich contributions to humanity. Dr. Jahanbegloo's
effort to illuminate and share Iran's culture and history with others
has earned him deep respect and admiration among both intellectuals and
laypeople from diverse corners of the globe. Not surprisingly, those
who follow his work, both in Iran and abroad, are shocked and
disappointed by this unlawful treatment of Dr. Jahanbegloo. Scholars
traveling to and from Iran are especially concerned about this matter
and contend that Dr. Jahanbegloo's arrest will deter such exchanges and
In short, we believe Dr. Jahanbegloo's detainment demands your
intervention as soon as possible to resolve this matter properly,
ensuring his prompt release.
In 1992, the New York Review published this fascinating interview between Jahanbegloo and Isaiah Berlin, with whom he had maintained a longstanding correspondence. In the following exchange, Berlin makes it clear that his notion of value pluralism doesn't entail scepticism about universal values:
Jahanbegloo: Don't you think that there is a contrast between the principle of universality and cultural relativism?
Berlin: I don't think so. The differences among peoples and
societies can be exaggerated. No culture that we know lacks the notions
of good and bad; true and false. Courage, for example, has so far as we
can tell been admired in every society known to us. There are virtually
universal values. This is an empirical fact about mankind, what Leibniz
called vérites du fait, not vérites de la raison. There
are values that a great many human beings in the vast majority of
places and situations, at almost all times, have in fact held in
common, whether consciously and explicitly or as expressed in their
behavior, gestures, actions. On the other hand, there are great
differences. If you succeed, or even think that you have succeeded, in
understanding in what way individuals, groups, nations, entire
civilizations, differ from one another and, by an effort of
imagination, "enter" into their thoughts and feelings, imagine how you
yourself, placed in their circumstances, could view the world, or view
yourself in relation to others; then, even if you are repelled by what
you find (tout comprendre is certainly not tout pardonner),
this must diminish blind intolerance and fanaticism. Imagination can
feed fanaticism, but imaginative insight into situations very different
from yours must in the end weaken it.
In my review of Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights, I suggested that the novel might be read as an elaboration of a thought about English Jews that strikes the protagonist of Jacobson's previous book The Making of Henry - that "'in America the Jews had taken on a version of the national identity
[and] had made the American cause their own', yet in England, they had
struggled merely for the right to be left alone."
In the TLS this week, Marco Roth (an editor at N+1) argues persuasively that there is also a reckoning here with "American Jewish literary success" and that the novel dramatises Jacobson's own sense of belatedness with respect to the tradition of Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer:
Jewish literature is now synonymous with American literature. ... American bookstores often have special sections marked out "African American Literature", etc, but Jews are simply mixed in with the rest. No special lobby required. Deliberately or not, Jacobson's work can't help but call attention to this looming shadow of American Jewish literary success. ... There are some fine British novels by writers who happen to be Jews (Anita Brookner, for one), but they seem to lack the volatile fearlessness of their American
predecessors and contemporaries. Kalooki Nights is another example of
this phenomenon; yet, at least, it dramatizes its minor status.
Jacobson knows there is something second-hand and shopworn about his
hero, and knows that this rubs off on him too.
Roth says the result of this self-consciously doomed emulation of an American-Jewish model is a kind of "camp". I think I agree with that. And I was trying to get at something similar in my review when I wrote that the frequent comparisons of Jacobson with Philip Roth "rather flatter Jacobson: he is certainly a gifted
phrase-maker, but sometimes seems addicted to his own fluency and
Jonathan Raban writes acutely and amusingly about John Updike's novel Terrorist in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books. Updike's protagonist, Ahmad Mulloy, is an adolescent Islamist raised in the fly-blown precincts of Paterson, New Jersey. Ahmad, Raban observes, is a "very Updikean adolescent":
painfully polite, self-conscious, intelligent, and a world-class
noticer, someone who's barely capable of crossing the street or setting
eyes on another human being without inventorizing his perceptions in a
flight of rapt microscopy.
"Rapt miscropy" is lovely and true. Updike's prose "verbally caresses everything on which it alights", Raban observes later - even the inner life of a callow, East Coast salafist. And that might just be the problem with the novel, though Raban is much gentler with it than other reviewers, notably James Wood in the New Republic and Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic. For instance, Wood finds Updike systematically mangling free indirect style:
What is most striking about this novel is
that, despite Updike's massive familiarity with the technical
challenges of fiction-writing--this is his twenty-second novel, for
goodness sake--he proves himself relatively inept at the essential task
of free indirect style, of trying to find an authorial voice for his
Updike's rhapsodic attention to surfaces, Wood argues, disguises the fact that "Ahmad has no personality, no quiddity as
an eighteen-year-old American". Now Wood has made similar criticisms of Updike before: that his de luxe style is a sort of "seigneurial gratuity" or add-on which drains his books of all drama and agitation. Updike's novels, plump with style and all that strenuous "noticing", invite the question "whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey" (The Broken Estate, p. 232).
In Terrorist, the effect, in Wood's view, is to cripple Updike's attempt to broach the "central novelistic subject" of our age: "religious fundamentalism and its relation to Western secular society". The problem is that Updike's style "does not enable his dramatic functioning as a novelist, it actually nullifies it." Like any contemporary novelist exploring this subject, Updike is working in the admonitory shadow of Conrad's The Secret Agent. But if Woood is right, he has failed, as Conrad put it, to "make [us] see" his protagonist and thereby to disclose his motives (if not to make them intelligible).
Raban is altogether more tolerant of Updike's swooning lyricism than Wood, but he too is unpersuaded by his "flirtation with [this] important subject". However, where, for Wood, the causes of Updike's failure are essentially aesthetic, for Raban they lie elsewhere, in Updike's inability to take seriously the ideology of Islamism. Ahmad plans to explode a truck bomb in the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, but
Updike robs him of the last surviving shred of Islamist conviction and
makes his presence in the truck seem little short of insane. One
shouldn't, of course, belabor fiction with journalism and sociology,
but the life stories of real suicide bombers make it plain that they
were possessed by an intoxicating and deadly idea, first formulated by
Qutb, which led them to attack the West in a spirit of single-minded
passionate ferocity. Ahmad is not possessed by that idea: in his
detached and garbled version, it's a harmless observation that verges
on the fatuous. ... If only the novelist had spent more time dreaming himself into the
paranoid and angry world of Qutb and his followers, and given Ahmad
Mulloy sufficient intellectual and emotional wherewithal to jus-tify
his adherence to the crooked path of righteous violence, Terrorist
might have stood among Updike's best work. As it is, it conducts an
energetic, entertaining, but disappointingly unconsummated flirtation
with its important subject.