Freud, Moses and the Holocaust
Professor Eli Zaretsky
An Interview with Eli Zaretsky
HARVEY SCHWARTZ: Eli, It's a pleasure to have you be the inaugural speaker for our new lecture series and website, Jewish Thought and Psychoanalysis. Your important scholarship in both areas makes you the ideal lecturer on Freud, Moses and the Holocaust. I recently finished reading your book Secrets of the Soul. What I found most powerful about the work is your ability to maintain a consistent focus on Freud's discovery of intrapsychic mental functioning and then juxtaposing that alongside the sociologic observations you were also making. You didn't dilute what is the essence of Freud and that is refreshing to read. This combination of perspectives makes for an important contribution to our literature.
There's more to say about that as well as your paper The Role of Psychoanalysis in the History of the Jews that I list in my Recommended Papers section of this site. Before we go there can you tell us a bit about your background and what has led you to your study of psychoanalysis and Jewish thinking?
ELI ZARETSKY: Well, first I want to thank you Harvey for this opportunity. Perhaps the following, which is the first paragraph of my introduction to my new book, Political Freud, will get at some of why I write on psychoanalysis.
In 1968, at a convention of Students for a Democratic Society, I spied the title of a pamphlet by Herbert Marcuse on the book table: “The Obsolescence of the Freudian Conception of Man.” That ideas like repression, regression and the unconscious could become obsolete shocked me. I remember this today because it encapsulates the two meanings of Political Freud. First, for a New Leftist like myself, Marcuse epitomized the idea that it was impossible to understand politics without insight into the irrational forces that shaped history, and that Freudian thought was incomparably the deepest path we had to such insight. Second, the title suggested that Freud’s thought was itself historical, in other words, that it depended on the social and cultural conditions that gave rise to it. In the next few years, I watched Freudian thought become obsolete, at least in many respects, and for reasons having nothing to do with its intellectual content, but rather through the dynamics of consumer capitalism, the politics of gender and sexuality, the commercial ambitions of pharmaceuticals and insurance companies, the openness of the public sphere to any sensational claim, no matter how ill-founded, and the changing meanings of private life.
As to the Jewish side of it, I come from immigrant Jewish parents. I identify with Freud’s Jewishness, with his immigration— both at the beginning of his life and at the end, with the loss of his four sisters in the Holocaust and with his identification of Judaism with being in the minority, thinking for your self and thereby developing a critical perspective.
HS: It does seem like its been a while since our political thinking took account of the irrational forces that underlie our history. From the clinical side I see patients who are impassioned with politics, on both sides of the spectrum, develop a more nuanced sense of themselves in relation to society and society in relation to them. This takes place through their deepening analytic insight into their own inner experiences that they had in part been projecting outside onto the culture. Their politics become more sophisticated as their self-awareness becomes richer.
You mention your immigrant Jewish background. Was Freud a presence in your growing up - was his thinking part of your dinner table conversations? Also, can you share with us the path that led you to the academic study of psychoanalytic thinking in contrast to the clinical study?
EZ: Yes, Freud was very present in my mind when I was young, especially during adolescence. This was not because of my parents. My father was a hairdresser and my mother was a homemaker. I’m sure they were aware of Freud, but knew very little of his theories. I imagine it was because of the psychological and sexual awakening associated with adolescence that I first became aware of Freud. Also, coming from an immigrant background I was drawn to the great modernists like Freud, Kafka and Joyce. When I was18 or so I met a psychoanalyst, his name was William Pike, and he was a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I vowed to go into psychoanalysis when I was 35 and then forgot my vow. But later I did, and remembered it in analysis.
I do not think I have the temperament to be a clinician. I get bored too easily, and am much more interested in my own thoughts than in other people’s as a rule. I like people and am very social. I never wanted to be a therapist. I only have been interested in one career in my life— being a college professor. Around the 1970s I had a young daughter and was not up to moving, and lived in San Francisco, and there were no academic jobs in history and was very interested in psychoanalysis, so I started teaching in psychological programs— therapists had just been thrown out of most universities who were pursuing “true science,” ie sea slug memory, and they were starting free-standing schools -- that’s where I taught for a while.
HS: The premise of this website and lecture series is that, broadly speaking, there is some relation between the Jewish zeitgeist and the development of psychoanalysis. This is a well argued point. In your paper The Role of Psychoanalysis in the History of the Jews you emphasize the uniqueness and centrality of 'not knowing' in both Jewish thinking and psychoanalysis. You draw a line between the Jews' unknowable monotheistic notion of god - not seen or touched, no graven images - and Freud's capacity to discern and explore the unknown world of the unconscious - and at that through the experience of tolerating the unseen, untouched and in part unknown psychoanalyst. Can you elaborate.
EZ: Freud’s theory about monotheism is that what was important was the leap from sensual and empirical thinking to conceptual thought; he calls the original idea of God “almost rational.” In the same way Freud believed that we couldn’t equate our minds with the conscious perceptions or thoughts that we know directly, but that we needed a concept of the mind— the unconscious mind— and had to infer its nature; we can't observe it, even with a microscope or by examining neurons. As to the Jews, Freud was also trying to explain why the Jews resisted Christianity, which— from his point of view— offered enormous sensory consolations, above all by relieving the sense of guilt— but avoided the direct effort to communicate with God that distinguishes Judaism. If you consider an early Christian thinker, like Augustine, he is obsessed with God— at least in The Confessions— in a quite Jewish way, but later everything becomes Jesus and Mary.
HS: Similarly perhaps, nowadays on the clinical side there are new challenges and distractions to helping individuals learn how to listen to their own inner experiences - their own 'unknowns' - the aspect of their minds that so influences their lives which we can approach through psychoanalysis.
In closing, can you comment on whether you see a change in the ways that mass culture either supports or intrudes upon authentic relations among the members of our communities.
EZ: The most difficult thing is to say something intelligent about the present. Not just our present, any present. Obviously, for me the decline of a psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious, of resistance and of regression is a real loss. Many people today seem to me to have a very limited perspective, largely centered on a truly shallow conception of “freedom of choice.” Freedom of choice, to me, presumes that people know their real needs and desires, as well as have a deeper sense of their true interests. This is by no means the case. The market in general appeals to the senses, to immediacy, simplification and also standardization. On the other hand, the possibilities that have been opened up today by feminism, gay liberation and globalization are truly breathtaking. Freedom from gender stereotypes, and from the limits of national culture are unprecedented. I think one of the main problems today is that our leaders have not grasped the possibilities inherent in the present, and without great leaders it is hard for people to think deeply about the horizons of the human project. In China, and in late antiquity, when politics disintegrated private life thrived and great psychological theories evolved. However, I imagine our situation is the opposite and as we get a debased politics we also lose touch with our inner lives. Only time will tell