Friday, February 22, 2013

Chomsky, Freud, and the problem of acolytes

[The current New Yorker  features a clear-eyed, deft, though not really probing  appreciation of the celebrated English psychoanalyst  Adam Phillips, by the reliable Joan Acocella.   Phillips is a sort of Freudian quasi-demi-acolyte-paravail;  in recognition of which, we repost this (updated) essay.]

A word, first, on the audacity of coupling the names of Freud and Chomsky, albeit only in the specific dimension of their relation to acolytes.  Both were/are charismatic men, having attracted brilliant and fervid followers;  but if that were all there was to it, it would be intellectually shallow to group them into a sort of two-person granfalloon.   After all, any two-bit swami or Hollywood celeb  has fervent fans, with attendent defections (stalkers) and what-have-you;  their names do not deserve to be in any way yoked with these.

On the personal level, Freud and Chomsky have in common  extraordinary intelligence, along with extraordinary intellectual bravado.  At the level of theory, both champion something many others find hard to take, and which is built around a core notion of 
(1) a mental primordium, which
(2) is crucially, critically, and mysteriously influenced during your very early years, and which then subsides, and is relatively inflexible thereafter.
(Note:  A slightly less audacious coupling, this of Freud and Holmes, may be consulted here:  )
(Our essay may be considered in the spirit of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.)

Consider this heartfelt account, from an orthodox Freudian:

Konrad Lorenz noticed that, if you walk in front of a little chick  at a certain time in the chick’s life, he’ll follow you, and if you do it at other times  he won't;  there’s a particular time when he gets ‘set’.  And we have found out in psychoanalysis that in human development, too, there is a time that is uniquely formative… The Oedipal period -- roughly three-and-a-half to six years -- is like Lorenz standing in front of the chick .. the source of all subsequent adult behaviors.  If you take a person’s adult life -- his love, his work, his hobbies, his ambitions -- they all point back to the Oedipus complex.
-- (quoted in) Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis:  The Impossible Profession (1981), p. 158


The prolonged biological helplessness of the human infant  and the contingent vicissitudes of the child-parent relationship  remain of decisive and demonstrable significance  in all optative aspects of human psychology.
-- Leo Stone, The Psychoanalytic Situation (1961), p. 107

(Much in my essays is satirical;  but here  let me drop  all humor whatever, and urgently plead:  Mothers, nurse your babies!  Infant formula delenda est!!)


Freud was acutely aware  of the danger that anti-Semitism … could result in … suppression of psychoanalysis,  and he hoped that the adherence of a Swiss Christian of Jung’s stature  could help rescue his movement from this fate. …
Freud needed a ‘son’ no less than Jung needed a ‘father’, but the kind of son Freud wanted  was one who would be willing to defer unconditionally to his authority …
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), pp.  20-21

Thus far, the potential conflict -- the set mouse-trap -- is merely generic, without intellectual specificity or interest.   But now we come to the nub, or at least to some substance:

As time passed, Jung’s differences with Freud  became harder to conceal.  Two of Freud’s basic assumptions were unacceptable to him:
(1) that human motivation is exclusively sexual, and
(2) that the unconscious mind is entirely personal and peculiar to the individual.
… Jung believed there lay a deeper layer … the collective unconscious… a dynamic substratum, common to all humanity, on the basis of which  each individual  builds his or her private experience of life.
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 22

Now the rift has bite! 
But -- a bite beyond the obvious.  For, in general, there are several parallels between the two great secular Jewish scientific-humanistic innovators, Freud and Chomsky.  But in the specifics of this instance, it is actually Jung, the apostate-to-be, the renegade from Freudianism, who holds a doctrine -- the collective unconscious (cf. and ctr. the “group mind”) inevitably reminiscent of Chomsky’s central doctrine -- far more central than linguists realized at first -- of an innate and universal Language Acquisition Device:  one determinative of each person’s contingent linguistic development, yet not available to direct introspection.

Jung maintained that the incest taboo was primary:  it existed a priori, and was not derived from the father’s prohibition of the boy’s lust for his mother.
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 23

Here Jung is surely right;  and here Chomsky is surely right, when he insists that the basic lines of individual language-acquisition  are not dependent  in detail  upon parental or tutorial correction or specific instruction.

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Okay, back to the soap-opera:

Freud admonished him:  “My inclination  is to treat those colleagues who offer resistance [to Freud’s ideas]  exactly as we would treat patients in the same situation.”  Jung was irked by such condescension..
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 22

Actually  I would tend to defend Freud here.  Unconsciously to treat recalcitrant colleagues like wayward patients (those who refuse to take their meds, for instance) is -- well  if you wish, condescending, but actually worse than that.   Yet, consciously to adopt -- as a behavioral hypothesis, defeasible in the event -- such an analytic stance, lifts us to a quite different  and little-frequented  realm.

The explicit rift, Stevens informs us, came in 1912, with the publication of Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido;  he quotes a pertly-worded challenge from the younger man to the elder:

“It is a risky business  for an egg to be cleverer than the hen,” Jung wrote to Freud. “Still, what is in the egg  must find the courage to creep out.”
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 23

This is delicious.

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:

At work, I am perforce required (being after all on the brink of retirement, or else death) to consider the matter of my successor:  Not in any grand sense, but simply, someone to do the job I do, more or less as I do it, which is (as cryptolinguists come to learn) more difficult than it looks.  And if someone were to send me a sassy e-mail along those lines, I would be delighted.  Indeed, I would feel free to retire the next day, knowing that the task was in good hands.

Freud, however, didn’t take it so well.
-- And indeed, rather than expatiate further  on this well-known episode of psycho-socio-intellectual history (anent which  I have no special knowledge or insight at all  -- consult any source :-- Ernest Jones, or even this), it would be well, were I to comment instead, however briefly, upon a matter I know first-hand:  Der Fall  Jakov Malkiel.

Professor Yakov Malkiel was the doyen of Romance Philology in America.  Or rather, in time, he became the doyen of Romance Philology tout court, a shining example of how the Bolsheviks and later the Nazis  did America a great favor  by sending us some of their best.  Malkiel reached us in two steps: first his bourgeous Jewish family fled the Bolshies, only to land in Berlin, where Malkiel earned his doctorate during the, umm, ‘thirties …  Thence he fled to America, initially winding up, with spectacular inappropriateness, in Cowboy Country.  I believe I may have documented all this in an appreciation, based on some tapes I made of interviews with him, published (probably) by the Berkeley Linguistics Society, although I’m uncertain whether it ever actually appeared.  Y.M. specifically forbade a Festschrift.
Anyhow -- while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Malkiel was, not quite my Doktorvater, but one of three who might claim that title, the others being Prof. Charles Fillmore and Prof. Ariel Bloch.  In actuality, none of them really guided my dissertation in the least -- I went very much my own way (so much so, that it helped to foreclose a career, in a field where it does help to belong to a recognized coterie), as you can easily verify here -- but each was, in his own unique way, an inspiration: not so much for the doctoral thesis (Otto Jespersen and -- sic -- Rebecca West, were more determinative here) as for mind in general, and thus life in general.

Once safely out of sagebrush country, YM (as we shall call him, after the pattern of his acolytes) settled-in well in Berkeley.  In his chosen field of Romance Philology, he truly put it on the map, founding and editing a revered journal of that title.   And among the contributors  was a young Spanish professor, of inclinations more philological than literary, who was reportedly (this was before my time there) by way of being considered something of a protégé, named Jerry Craddock.  Things hummed along, until, one day …..

Now, the following incident is something I know only by hearsay (and thus, possibly mis-know).  But the way I heard it,  young Craddock published an article which differed from his senior, Professor Malkiel:  and this, in a way, or on a tone, that the latter considered snide.
Great was the consternation on Olympus, as the gods chose sides.

Into the office of the hapless Craddock  stormed Dan Yakov, a Man of Wrath.  Flinging the offending article onto the cringing Craddock’s desk, he cried -- one word:

Magistricide !  A word that resonates like swords on Roman cobble-stones --
Magistricide !  An arrow, fledged and fleshed  --
Magistricide ! a j’accuse javelin, flung
straight into that black thing
the paynim calls his heart …

Thereafter YM had no acolyte-in-chief or heir-apparent -- he and Craddock never did make up.   He did have numerous Malkielitas, as they were called -- comely and industrious young women who came and went, doing good work for a time, and never threatening his patriarchal supremacy.
As for Craddock -- He should obviously have left that campus, yet he hung around, hanging on, a figure of pity (of the cross-oneself kind), like Mario Savio, the former free-speech firebrand, who likewise never left Berkeley, but dragged out his life in trembling semi-obscurity, as a warning to the young.


YM’s kiboshing of the Festschrift  always struck me as one of his less creditable actions.  But perhaps those who have been around the block (or around the bend)  may better instruct us.
Thus, Sigmund Freud, long a prophet without honor in his own country (or indeed, city),  jibbed  at the prospect of effusive (albeit belated) gushings upon occasion of his seventieth birthday:

Previous birthday celebrations  had been bad enough,  but this was bound to be worse.  At one moment  he considered escaping by immuring himself in a sanatorium for a week, but concluded that would be too cowardly and too unkind to his well-wishers.
-- Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p. 122

Even so, upon plea of a heart ailment, “I have managed to suppress a Special Number of the Wiener Medizinische Zeitschrift  which was being planned".
Likewise on the occasion of his eightieth, when he quashed the proposal for a Gedenkbuch or Sammelband.

Such qualms have their hidden wellsprings, and are hard to interpret.  But in 1936 (op. cit., p. 208) Freud learned of a proposed biography by the distinguished German-Jewish writer Arnold Zweig, with whom he had thitherto enjoyed good relations, yet responded with an obscurantist, a near-delirious diatribe, which has some diagnostic value:

Whoever undertakes to write a biography  binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery  and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, since biographical material is not to be had [sic], and if it were, it could not be used [sic, sic].  Truth is not accessible;  mankind does not deserve it.  And wasn’t Prince Hamlet right  when he asked, who would escape a whipping, if he had his deserts?

These effusions are reported by Freud’s admiring… biographer, Ernest Jones.   And they point towards our old enemy, the Narcissistic Wound.   Honors that arrive late, in the twilight of life, cannot poultice that wound, of which they serve as a reminder.
[Update]   And now this, expressed with characteristic vinegar-and-salt by an Oxford outsider-philosopher:

And if there are any who think my work good, let them show their approval of it  by attention to their own.   So, perhaps, I may escape  otherwise than by death  the last humiliation of an aged scholar,  when his juniors conspire to print a volume of essays  and offer it to him  as a sign that they now consider him senile.
-- R. G. Collingwood,  An Autobiography (1939)


There is a another parallel between Malkiel-Craddock and Freud-Jung.  The latter pair, ex professio, engaged in a specific hazardous activity for a fraught relationship -- interpreting each other’s dreams.  Do not try this with your spouse or fiancée!

Of all the dreams they analyzed, two were to be critical for their friendship.  The first was one of Freud’s, which Jung did his best to interpret on the basis of only a few associations from Freud.  When Jung pressed him for more, Freud looked rather suspiciously at him, and declined:  “I cannot resk my authority,” he said.  At that moment, commented Jung, he lost it altogether.
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994)

(Of course, this is only Jung’s account.)
The other was a dream of Jung, which, Freud swiftly decided,  denoted … magistricide, a death-wish against himself from his designated heir.

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Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
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Freud broke  not only with his would-be-heir-apparent Jung, but with his important -- his crucial -- early collaborator, Wilhelm Fliess;  broke bitterly.  Nay more:

A similar fate overtook Freud’s relationship with Breuer, Adler, Stekel, Meynert, Silberer, Tausk, and Wilhelm Reich.  Reich developed a psychosis, from which he recovered only temporarily, while Siberer and Tausk  eventually committed suicide.  For Jung, the consequences were almost as dire.
-- Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 25

 What we have here  is not the tragedy of Oedipus, but  what we may call a Cronus Complex -- after the god that ate his young, lest they  in their turn  slay him, who had slain his sire.   Eventually he was overthrown by Zeus, his own son.

Saturno devorando a su hijo -- Goya

[Update 12 Nov 2012:
The level of reader interest does not warrant our developing the parallels with Chomsky and his school (or rather: schools).  In any case, the tale has already been exceedingly well told by Randy Harris in The Linguistics Wars (1993). 
So, back to Freud.]
Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!

Despite his conscious best efforts, Freud himself left no designated successor;  his first choice for that mantle, Jung, wound up a schismatic.    Though an excellent analyst in her own right, it was largely owing to the default of consanguinity that his daughter Anna (née Freud, morte Freud;  she never married) served as, not so much the reigning caliph, as a successor-placeholder. 
Complicating matters further  was a shift of the geographical center of mass for psychoanalysis, from Mitteleuropa to the Western Hemisphere.   This was a result  partly of the fractiousness of those prickly central-Europeans, which manifested itself very early in the movement  and got worse and worse;  partly from the upheaval of the two World Wars, which spewed so much irreplaceable Kulturgut across the Atlantic and onto our shores;  and partly to a factor which I am unable to evaluate:  Why did the New World (which Freud himself looked down on -- he once remarked that the only good thing to have come of “Columbus’s crime” was the discovery of tobacco) prove such fertile ground for the Freudian spores?   For that, you would have to stretch out the Americas themselves upon the couch.   The fact is, North America provided early and crucial support -- yet not initially from the centers you might imagine (New York, Boston), but rather from Worcester, Massachusetts (a place-name that has not much thriven since, and which may send some of you to your gazetteers) and from Canada, where Ernest Jones (his later meticulous biographer-hagiographer) had taken refuge from British hostility and neglect.   And in later days, the per-capita center-of-mass of orthodox Freudianism  has wound up being … Argentina.


With the passing generations, we come to the new and more vexing problem of acolytes of acolytes -- acolytes paravail.
The clearest illustration of this is in Islam.  The Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace) died without designating a successor.  Now, the Arabic word for ‘successor’ is khalifah, and it is under this designation that successive figures at the head of the empire-wide Muslim ummah  were known, capriciously anglicized as caliph. 
The first caliph, Abu-Bakr, was an uncontroversial and rather colorless figure, who did not reign long.  Then two more -- and then a truly charismatic successor, Ali, eventually evinced by the upstart Yazid.
At this point the history of Muslimdom splits, according as whether you accept, as a pragmatist, the legitimacy of that succession -- those who do are known as Sunni -- or reject it in favor of a mystical investment of the person of Ali:  these are the Shia.
Things then trundle along for a time, history ticking over, until another conflict arose among the latter group of schismatics, so that now the world enjoys the choice between Twelver Shiites and the more exigent Seveners.

Well.  All this by way of allowing the world-historical searchlight  briefly to sweep the skies, before again alighting upon that doughty, ragged band of psychoanalysts.
Of the many post-Freudian schools that developed, typically named after one or another… not so much caliph as anti-pope  the Jungian school, the Adlerian, the Reichian, the Kohutian, or the followers of Karen Horney  or Harry Stack Sullivan -- we shall say nothing.  But rather turn our gaze back to the tried-and-true sunnis of Freudianism, those who soldiered on in the master’s shadow, spurning the howls of the apostates.  And this, simply because it has been so brilliantly chronicled by Janet Malcolm, in her series of New Yorker articles, “In the Freud Archives”, later reprinted as a book.

This intrepid journalist had the good fortune to come across a truly colorful character -- a sometimes professor of Sanskrit who somehow managed to swashbuckle his way into the tight closed circle -- the sphincter, in fact -- or orthodox Freudians, and be handed the keys to the crown jewels, the jealously guarded Freud Archives; by name, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson  (Some of our own pilferings from this treasure-trove  can be inspected here.)  From a literary standpoint, he is a memorable character:  He enters the scene like the magnificent Psmith …  and exits it ignominiously like Ukridge.
One would not have imagined that so unlikely a character could have a sosie simultaneously on the world stage, but indeed he did:  one Peter Swales, an odder bird, with a background, not in Sanskrit (beileibe nicht), but with the Rolling Stones, and otherwise  entirely self-taught.
I originally read the article back in 1983, as it appeared in the magazine;  and was disappointed that, issued in book form over a decade later, it had not been updated or expanded, save for one brief chastened and chastening afterword.   The fact is, after what was really a quite sympathetic portrait  given his various behaviors, Masson turned around and sued her, and the suit dragged on -- slithered on like a serpent -- for many years before being finally dismissed.  Understandably, Ms. Malcolm no longer has any appetite for going back to touch the subject.

Compare Newton, principally re his troubles with Hooke:

Philosophy is such an impertinently litigious Lady, that a man had as good be engaged in lawsuits, as have to do with her.
-- Newman, ed. World of Mathematics (1956), p. 265

I’ll not attempt to summarize her book, since it is short enough as it is, and every line is golden.  

It is supplemented by the author’s other brief but brilliant gem, Psychoanalysis:  the Impossible Profession, likewise originally an article in The New Yorker.   It might seem that In the Freud Archives virtually wrote itself, since she had the good fortune to stumble upon a couple of quite colorful and voluble characters.   But in this more theoretically, less anecdotally focused work, her own contribution is paramount, in both insight and wit.  As:

Hartvig Dahl is the New York Psychoanalytic Institute’s grudging concession to the claims of “pure research”;  he is a sort of shabbas goy to the orthodox membership.
-- Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis:  The Impossible Profession (1981), p. 84

She also manages to bring Chomsky in to the mix -- not in an enlightening way, but we quote, since Chomsky has been rather l’Arlésienne of this piece.  Describing the intensive study of a taped analytic session by Dahl and his sidekick, a linguistics Ph.D.:

The tool for the unmasking of these covert communications  was Noam Chomsky’s transformational-generative grammar, in which Virginia Teller was well versed.
-- Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis:  The Impossible Profession (1981), p. 84

Umm… no.   Detailed and probing rhetorical and semantic analysis of a text can indeed be fruitful (das weiss ich selbst sogar beruflich), but it has no more to do with TG than with quantum mechanics.


Freud’s biographer, and one of the most faithful acolytes of all, writes:

In 1914,  Freud made one of his radical revisions of his views on the structure of the mind, in an important essay  entitled “On Narcissism:  An Introduction”.  It caused some bewilderment among his adherents, until we were able to assimilate its numerous implications.
-- Ernest Jones, Freud: Years of Maturity (1955), p. 302

Jones, speaking as one who had faithfully followed the party line, found this new swerve “disturbing”.
One is immediately reminded of the scene in generative linguistics, from the publication of Chomsky’s “Remarks on Nominalization” on:  repeatedly pulling the rug out  from under the feet of his followers.

For an enigma of Dr. Freud,
wrapped in a mystery of Sherlock Holmes,
try this:
The Adventure of the Botanical Monograph

Elementary, my dear Watson ...

So:  does Freud fit the picture (as his detractors have claimed, and his defenders denied) of Saturno devorando a sus hijos?
That Freud should repeatedly have felt the need to proclaim that (paraphrasing) “you all have a right to think as you please, and go your own way, without offending me”,  has a flavor (at best) of “He doth protest too much” (and, at worst, of certain beguiling invitations of Stalin).   But a rather more circumstantial perspective is quoted (in translation) by his sympathetic biographer:

“There is another consideration … which makes me specially unfitted for the function of a despotic censor … I do not find it easy to feel my way into alien modes of thought, and I have  as a rule  to wait  until I have found some connection with my meandering ways.  So if you wanted to wait with every new idea until I can endorse it, you would run the risk of getting pretty old.
-- Ernest Jones, Freud: The Last Phase (1957), p. 60

That is wise, and rings true.  Whether Freud was always able to draw on such wisdom, is another matter.

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Whoever was raised upon Marx, or Freud, or Chomsky, and who writes in their wake, is forever looking over his shoulder.   But occasionally -- as indeed with those masters, who after all had, for a time, masters of their own -- there is a clean break with the past, and no looking back.  Thus, rather plaintively, two prominent but non- or indeed extra-Chomskyan American linguists:

Such comment suggests that the recent history of the field  can be described by comparing a known Chomsky  with the inferred content of a Tomb of the Unknown Bloomfieldian.
-- D. Hymes & J. Fought, American Structuralism (1975), p. 127

Weiteres zum Thema/Related posts:

[Update May 2014]  The co-presence of the names Freud or Chomsky in the title of this essay, is largely accidental.  I happened to have been reading a fair amount about the history of the psychoanalytic movement, with its repeated scissions and loyalty-wars, and was reminded of similar events among those schooled by the Chomsky movement, several of whom I knew personally.  But I intended no substantive comparison between the actual standing or intellectual systems of these two giants of mind.  Yet (in another book, that happens to lie upon my night-table), the philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner  does explicitly bring these names into apposition, in the course of his rather abstract meditation -- philosophical and sociological, more than really depth-psychological -- upon the history of Freudianism as an intellectual and social phenomenon.  Gellner counts himself among the admirers of the Cantabridgian linguist, and the detractors of the Viennese physician, whom he compares thus:

The point which Chomsky made in his celebrated critique of behaviourism -- that the stimulus-response model, when applied to linguistic competence, works only if one retrospectively invents the stimuli required to account for the given response -- applies with at least as great a force  to this aspect of Freudianism.
-- Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985; 2nd edn. 1993), p.  107

[Update]  The converse of an acolyte is an intellectual ancestor.  Here a historian, and admirer of Freud, notices an anomaly:

One of the difficulties in placing Freud precisely within the community of scientists  stems from his unmatched eminence as a founder.  No other innovator -- not Copernicus or Galileo, not Newton or Darwin or Einstein -- had so few direct ancestors.
-- Peter Gay, The Freud Reader (1989), p. xx

[Update 11 juin 2014]  How sharper than a serpent's tooth ...

An update to the incident reported here:
Le président d'honneur du FN, qui multiplie les piques à l'encontre de sa fille
Jean-Marie Le Pen se vengera-t-il du parricide politique dont il se dit «victime» après ses propos invitant à «une fournée» d'artistes? Interrogé par Le Scan, le président d'honneur du Front national assure qu'il «prendra ses responsabilités et donnera ses instructions» lors du prochain congrès du parti.


Concerning the strained relations between two premier Dutch historians:

How can we account for Jan Romein’s continued view of Huizinga as his imperfect but revered mentor? … Is this not a nearly classical oedipal relationship?  The intellectual son  slays his revered intellectual father -- his Doctorvater ….
-- Harry Marks, introduction to Jan Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras:  Europe in 1900 (1967, Eng. transl. 1978), p. xxiv

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