An Interview with Stephen Frosh


Harvey Schwartz: Stephen, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of your books recently. I’ve been moved by the delightfully nuanced grasp you have of the psychoanalytic encounter. In your latest work on Hauntings (see the Recommended Reading list) you describe Freud’s deep interest both in Judaism and telepathy. When analysts get together we not infrequently comment on the phenomena where we may find ourselves in a day dream while with a patient only to have the patient then describe a dream from the night before utilizing the same elements that were just in our daydream. You also discuss how it was mostly later  in Freud’s life that he simultaneously deepened his interest both in telepathy as well as his Judaism.

I first learned about your scholarship through your 2005 book Hate and the Jewish Science: Anti-Semitism, Nazism and Psychoanalysis. Can you tell us something about your background that led you to the interface between psychoanalysis and Jewish history?


Stephen Frosh: Although I come from a traditional, orthodox Jewish background, it took me quite a long time to put this together with my interest in psychoanalysis. Partly, it arose out of a commitment to antiracist practice that made me think about the psychodynamics of racism and then about how anti-Semitism might be understood; partly it came from the growth of religious fundamentalism in the 1990’s and the sense I was getting that in this context I was being positioned as somehow ‘fundamentalist’ – i.e. that any affiliation with a religious/cultural group could be seen as multiculturally ‘exotic’ at best, and fundamentalist at worst.

I wrote a paper about this for the Journal of Family Therapy in about 1997 in which I argued that much psychotherapeutic thinking about religious groups was very poorly informed and that this in itself could become a kind of racism: we are all lumped together as extremists, without any recognition of the diversity and active lines of debate within (in this case) the Jewish community. This paper generated more interest than most of my writing and led me to think some more about what it might mean to participate in a Jewish community and culture and yet also be ‘modern’ and secular. It also brought me ‘out’ as a Jewish intellectual, so that a very significant amount of my work since about 2003 has tried to explore the Jewish dimension of psychoanalysis from both an academic and a personal perspective. I could talk about various people who have influenced me in this respect, from Derrida to Avivah Zornberg, but will leave that for now.


But perhaps the bigger intellectual move came with my growing understanding of Freud and the history of psychoanalysis. Freud’s own identifications –at times despite himself – were so strongly Jewish, and the context in which he lived and worked was so shot through with the characteristic dilemmas of the emancipated, secularized Jew subjected to anti-Semitism, that it seemed impossible to think about the emergence of psychoanalysis without understanding this Jewish dimension. Add to this the actual historical and sociological connections between psychoanalysis and Jews and you have a link that I think is irrefutable: all the early analysts were Jewish; there are many clear parallels between Jewish and psychoanalytic values; and the general ‘feel’ of psychoanalysis, with its interest in marginality, the aberrant, the quirky and the contradictory, is, simply, so resonant of Jewishness. I just think this link between Jewishness and psychoanalysis is really there, and because of my own strongly Jewish identity I want to understand it and use it to pursue certain lines of thought.


HS: Certainly, at least here in the States, many analysts have Jewish orthodoxy in their backgrounds. In fact my prior analytic institute building was colloquially referred to as the shul. On the other hand it is also true that in the process of being in analysis we have the opportunity to have our childhood religious imaginings, our superstitions, our fantasies of the supernatural become part of our analytic experience. There, in our emotional experience of our analyst we can come to know our childhood hopes and fears with an increasingly adult vision and center ourselves more authentically.Though of course residual orthodoxy can infiltrate any human effort, including psychoanalysis.


In your book on Hate and the Jewish Science you describe in detail the history behind the notion that there is something Jewish in psychoanalysis. Included in that history is the contribution of anti-Semitism. Do you see this currently as an active prejudice?


SF: There is no doubt there is a rise in anti-Semitism in the UK, albeit from a low base. If, however, you mean anti-Semitism within the psychoanalytic movement, then I don’t really know, though there have been some accusations that discussions in the British Psychoanalytical Society around Israel and Palestine have on occasions slipped over a delicate boundary. What I think is more striking is that there are times when you can see the international psychoanalytical movement struggling with its Jewish past. For instance, there is quite a lot of evidence that the German Psychoanalytic Society complied rather enthusiastically with Nazism during the 1930’s and through to the end of the war, and that this was partly understood even at the time as a way of throwing off the ‘yoke’ of its Jewish origins. The 2007 International Psychoanalytical Society meeting in Berlin was set up in part to ‘work through’ the legacy of this, but some accounts of it suggest that anti-Semitic feelings emerged quite strongly even then, despite many people’s best intentions.


HS: Regarding forgiveness, your lecture topic, it seems to me that the religious and analytic perspectives are operating on fundamentally different levels of meaning. With theology one is limited to either an intellectual or coercive model – ‘thou shalt' - while an analytic approach honors our childhood irrationalities and the manner in which they entwine with adult thinking.


SF: I am not sure that religious forgiveness is always intellectual or coercive; it seems to me that, at least in Judaism, it is quite rooted in awareness of the complexity of actual human psychology. There’s a differentiation between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness. In relation to God, the assumption is that it is in his nature to forgive (God’s attributes include ‘keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’). As people, however, we are required to forgive someone who admits a fault and make recompense, which is an astute regulatory law that prevents cycles of retribution going on for ever. But it also suggests that forgiveness might be a struggle – otherwise we would not need a law to insist on it. However, I agree with you about the subtlety of the psychoanalytic idea: forgiveness involves recognizing the hurt that has been done to us and understanding that such hurtfulness is intrinsic to the condition of being a human subject, and we have to find ways of living with it, in ourselves as well as in others.


HS: In closing, can you share with us your thinking about the ways that these considerations on forgiveness between individuals may, or may not, apply to the sometimes centuries old bitterness between groups? One can’t help but include the topic of the Holocaust whenever one considers forgiveness.


SF: This is a crucial and yet obviously very difficult question. It applies to historical hurts and also to current ones. My thinking on it relates to what have become known as the recognition and ‘acknowledgment’ agendas. It is hard to do justice to these in this small space, and I hope to speak about them a little in my talk. The key question for me, which perhaps links Jewish and psychoanalytic ethics, is that addressing these inter-communal issues requires acknowledgement of responsibility for hurt – and that this is necessary before we can forgive others, or they can forgive us.


It is simply not possible to live alongside others without causing damage. The American psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin once wrote that this is like ‘bumping into the person’s bruise’, in the sense that whether or not we are responsible for the original injury, we cannot help at times aggravating it. It seems to me that one perception shared by Jewish and psychoanalytic thinkers is that the process of forgiveness and reconciliation has to start with acknowledgement of what we each contribute to the situation of damage; and this applies as much to political as it does to personal situations. On the other hand, your reference to the Holocaust is a reminder that it is important to make distinctions. Something that the writings of Primo Levi, for instance, show very clearly is that whatever we might think about how each of us finds ourselves culpable, some people are responsible for real atrocities, and others aren’t.


HS: Stephen, many thanks. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on these matters during your visit and lecture here in April.



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