Book Review: David James Fisher, 2009 “Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition.” Written by Nathan Szajnberg, MD; NYPSI and Columbia University. Wallerstein Research Fellow in Psychoanalysis. Training Analyst, Israel Psychoanalytic Society
Too rarely, a work, like some comet, soars into our psychoanalytic ken. This work, this comet, has collected the dust, debris, remnants of psychoanalytic history, then sweeps into our vision with news about our origins, explanations of our past that cast light on our present and possibly future trajectories. And, like some bygone Hayley’s comet, if we unfortunately miss its first past through our solar system, this psychoanalytic comet may pass by again.
Such is David James Fisher’s book, Cultural Theory and Psychoanalytic Tradition, which passed this way in 1991, but fortunately for us, is reissued. The reader will benefit with greater understanding of, for instance, our French psychoanalytic cousins, who in some ways live in another universe, as well as historical figures, including Romain Rolland, whose thought has been incorporated into our framework, often with our forgetting the origins of those thoughts.
Fisher, trained as a cultural historian and later as a psychoanalyst, opens his book with a remarkably candid account of his professional life trajectory so that we may understand his viewpoint when he writes, the lens through which he sees worlds. He studied in Wisconsin, then spent two years post-graduate work in Paris at L’Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes. He is not just fluent in French, but more significantly, appears fluent in French cultural, particularly French intellectual culture, a segment of the Parisian life in which a philosopher, such as Sartre, ruled supreme, cut a public figure. When Fisher describes the universe of our psychoanalytic and intellectual French neighbors, when he returns from orbiting those spheres to orbit in our system, he brings unique understanding of our psychoanalytic universe, helps us understand better ways of thinking and being that unite and divide us.
I will not review the entire book, but give a flavor of it. The book has three sections: The history of psychoanalysis; cultural criticism; psychoanalysis of history (including psychohistory).
In the first section, we find essays on Lacan, Romain Rolland, Jung and Fenichel. He begins the Lacan chapter ironically, quoting another Frenchman, one of Freud’s teachers, Charcot: “La theorie c’est bon, mais ca n’empeche pas d’exister,” “Theory is good, but doesn’t prevent things (facts) from existing.” Lacan commits most of his professional life turning Charcot on his head. “lacan…subordinated … technique and clinical praxis to theoretical and even literary considerations. Science.. revolved around theory building….” For more on how this attitude of French thinking influenced a different path in the physical sciences at least until the early twentieth century, see Freeman Dyson’s essay in the New York Review of Books a few years back. Lacan insisted he was returning to original Freud, thereby denying an autonomous ego, deemphasizing affects and drives and building his theory based on de Sassure’s linguistics. Lacan was a devotee of the Surrealists. Fisher describes a polar Lacan: genius and imposter. His obscurity was “willed and calculated,” and towards the end of his life he built a cult about him, acting “tyrannically and capriciously.” What can we make of a man who announces in his public lecture, “..for the moment I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking….” (14)?
Romain Rolland was widely known in his time, yet is now mostly forgotten. Yet, he was Freud’s inspiration for trying to grasp the sense of Oceanic feeling (and failing to do so) and ultimately, one impetus for writing “Civilization and Its Discontents.” This essay concentrates Fisher’s scholarly book-length study, Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement.
In the Jung chapter, Fisher displays the man who seduced his psychotic patient, Sabina Spielrein. When Spielrein’s mother in Russia wrote to tell him to desist, Jung told her to pay her bill. (Spielrein, however, apparently shifted out of her psychosis to become a successful, thoughtful psychoanalyst, snuffed out by Stalin. See Bettelheim’s NY Review of Books review of “A Secret Symmetry for rich detail.) Jung also appropriated her original ideas and published them as his own. Jung had already seduced his own psychoanalyst, a nurse at the Burgholzli. After treating Spielrein, he descended into his lengthy psychosis, which he documented in the recently published Red Book, but also in his autobiographical writings. It is likely the Spielrein seduction that led Freud to distancing himself from Jung (possibly even explaining his fainting upon shaking his hand as they were about to embark for the U.S.). He discusses the later Jung, the Nazi sympathizer, who wrote bluntly about the shortcomings of the Jewish mind as “lack(ing) vitality, univeralism, rootedness and creative depth.”
As difficult as it may be to bookend this section with Jung — seducer, psychotic, anti-Semite — with Lacan — obfuscater, genius, entertainer — we are served up two men who were part of our history.
I promised not to review every chapter of this book. My copy is scribbled with marginalia, reflecting the book’s wealth of knowledge and ability to ignite critical thinking. Fisher’s discussion of Civilization and its Discontents is thorough and scholarly. He leads us through some of Bettelheim’s thinking — one of my more influential teachers — “a nonconforming and free thinking intellectual” who contributed to our understanding of maintaining autonomy in a mass age, building a total therapeutic milieu, seeing male ritual incisions as a form of womb envy, listening to the psychoanalytic wisdom in fairy tales.
A historian himself, he closes with surveying the life work of Peter Gay and Peter Loewenberg, the history of studying crowds, Newton’s malignant narcissism.
Best to read this book, even to savor it slowly. It voyages through the universe of psychoanalysis and collects knowledge and wisdom to help us better understand our discipline.