Eli Zaretsky’s Secrets of the Soul

Eli Zaretsky’s Secrets of the Soul

Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis
by Eli Zaretsky
Knopf, 2004 429 pp $30

That psychoanalysis has lost its once formidable authority is clear; the question remains whether its insights have been surpassed or merely repressed. Certainly the ways of thinking that Freud once deconstructed-religious absolutism on the one hand, naive rationalism on the other-now reign more powerfully than ever. Fundamentalist movements are surging all over the world, while mechanistic technoscience rides an equally messianic logic toward ecological Armageddon. Free-market triumphalists gleefully flaunt their power, deciding the fate of nations with investments and loans made or withheld, rendering political democracy impotent or irrelevant, and this state of affairs is said by economists to reflect “rational choice.”

In America, the destruction of the World Trade Center by militant fundamentalists instantly turned an unelected minority president into a hugely popular Strong Leader; as a result, we are pursuing a war whose central feature is the government’s consistent, disastrous denial of reality. The president and his party have made no secret of their commitment to redistribute wealth upward, increase corporate power, and crush labor, yet they retain the loyalty of much if not most of the working class. Corporate scandals and abrogated union contracts deprive millions of people of rightfully earned retirement income; medical insurance becomes a privilege even as health maintenance organizations degrade standards of care: where are the crowds in the streets? The passion that once infused left social movements now seems the exclusive property of those dedicated to cultural and economic counterrevolution. Although the tens of millions of people whose views on labor, race, feminism, gay rights, and the environment are left of center far outnumber the organized Christian right, they feel helpless to assert themselves politically. Instead they have repeatedly pinned their hopes on a center-right Democratic Party that, in a cut-rate version of the Republican appeal to Middle America, promises to protect them from radical lunatics-a promise that in November 2004 it once again failed to keep.

What forces propel the march of the right, the paralysis of the left, the identification of ordinary people with the rich and powerful, rampant sexual anxiety, al-Qaeda’s apocalyptic violence, Donald Rumsfeld’s delusions of omnipotence, the torture at Abu Ghraib? By themselves, conventional categories of class interest and geopolitics do little to enlighten us. It’s the psychoanalytic vocabulary of unconscious conflict and ambivalence; of sexual desire, guilt, and rage; of sadism and masochism that supplies the missing link in the discussion. The purging of that vocabulary from the mainstream of public discourse not only hobbles our ability to ...


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