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Robert Wexelblatt
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. His most recent book is a short novel, Losses. His short story "Crazy About Her" appeared in Issue 1.3 of White Whale Review, while his Fein essay series have appeared in issues 2.1, 2.3, 3.1, 4.1, and 4.2.

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FEIN ON SYSTEMATIC ERROR

Robert Wexelblatt

 

“Really? You don’t see anything odd in the passage? Nothing that strikes you as wrong? Okay then, I’ll read it to you again.”

The text for the day was the opening chapter of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Some of the students had done at least some of the assigned reading but, in the way of sophomores, none had thought much about it. Freud could be right or wrong but, either way, they might have to reproduce what he said on an examination. What use was there in objecting to any of it—even his calling religion infantile?

In his late work Freud is preoccupied with religion. The Future of an Illusion came out in 1927 and was followed three years later by Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud went on chewing at the bone of religion in his final book, Moses and Monotheism. Here he rehearses motifs dating from Totem and Taboo and reiterated in Civilization and Its Discontents, in particular the murder of the

primal father and the superego-formation that sprouts from the sons’ remorse. But the first chapter of Freud’s most assigned book has more going on in it than an analysis of religion.

Sigmund Freud had about as much religious feeling as a cauliflower; nevertheless, that is where he begins. Since he has had no experience in that line, he takes the word of a friend on the nature of religious feeling. This friend was the writer Romain Rolland who, despite being an atheist, was attracted to Hinduism and became a close friend of Gandhi. Freud had sent him The Future of an Illusion and Rolland wrote back to say he agreed with the book’s argument but regretted Freud had paid so little attention to the “source of religious sentiments.” He described this source as “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were ‘oceanic’. . .” It’s easy to see why Rolland was attracted to Hinduism. In drawing my students’ attention to this passage I asked if it reminded them of pantheism, monism, Eastern mysticism. They looked at me blankly. So I told them a joke that was old to me but, I hoped, new to them—the way teachers do.


“The Buddha’s reincarnated and finds himself on a street corner in Lower Manhattan. He hasn’t eaten anything for more than twenty-five hundred years. He looks around, spots a hot dog stand, and marches up to it. Amazingly, the vendor immediately recognizes the Enlightened One. ‘Buddha! This is a great honor. Tell me, what can I get you?’ The Buddha raises a finger to his lips, considers for a moment, then replies, ‘Make me one with everything.’” I repeated the punch line (“Make me one with everything”), then they got it.

Freud traces Rolland’s “oceanic” feeling of oneness back to infancy when, he alleges, we haven’t yet got a proper ego and cannot distinguish between ourselves and anything else—crib, mobile, mother. Still, he isn’t persuaded by the claim that this feeling is religious. After all, if being one with everything were the source of religious feeling then there wouldn’t be any religions like Western monotheism, which is Freud’s preferred model. Western thinking tends to be dualistic: make me two with everything. Freud was a non-practicing Jew in a Catholic city, and the Judeo-Christian God is outside of nature and history. “This is why He can be begged for miracles,” I observed, “such as an A

on an exam for which you haven’t studied.” Freud maintains that it was “later on” that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion: “The ‘oneness with the universe’ which constitutes its ideational sounds like a first attempt at religious consolation . . .” He likes the idea that religious feeling is infantile but prefers an even more “Freudian” source for the psychology behind the persistent universality of what he considered a mass delusion. It is the passage where Freud explains his idea that I read aloud to my students, asking if they didn’t hear something wrong in it:

The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.


“Really? You don’t see anything odd in this passage?”

Silence.

“Look, if we had Dr. Freud right here in our classroom, wouldn’t you like to ask him if he couldn’t think of any infantile need stronger than that for a father’s protection? Wouldn’t you want to say, ‘Come on, Dr. Freud. Think harder”?

At last, one of the female students did consider that there might be something wrong with what Freud wrote. Infants generally don’t long for their fathers, who can’t feed them, but their mothers, who can, and to whom they were so recently and intimately attached. No doubt they do need a father’s protection but they’re hardly aware of enjoying it. Milk is another matter, and so—one might have expected Freud of all people to note—is the oral gratification that comes with getting it.

Freud’s error is all the more astonishing in that it actually undercuts his assertion that religious feeling originates not in Rolland’s pantheistic oneness but in the infantile need for a cosmic parent. The logic of Freud’s argument ought to have

led him to say that the original deity was a mother not a father, an earth-goddess rather than a sky-god. This might have led him in the direction of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Worse yet, as an aficionado of archaeology, Freud might have adduced ample evidence of early matriarchal religions being displaced by later patriarchal ones. What fun he might have had psychoanalyzing that. He could have pointed to the Israelites’ contention with the worshipers of Isis and Astarte, the way the Olympians under a macho Zeus shouldered aside the Minoan/Mycenaean Mother-Goddess, the history of patriarchal Christianity crushing the Old Religion of Northern Europe, burning thousands of “witches” in the process. Freud was a connoisseur and collector of ancient statuettes; he kept a crowd of them on his desk, including plenty of goddesses. He only had to stroll over to the Naturhistorisches Museum to contemplate the 22,000 year-old Venus of Willendorf, dug up just twenty years earlier.

I offered my students a fanciful mythology. I asked them to suppose that originally men bowed down to the magical female who had the power to


create life. Even in the twentieth century there were still primitive tribes who had yet to figure out the facts of life, which, after all, aren’t so easily grasped. Spirits did it; walking by a sacred spring did it. I asked them to picture some masculine troglodyte genius—gifted at math, precocious in biology—counting on his thick fingers and then announcing to his buddies that it isn’t the magical female who brings forth life, but the male who plants the seed. Women were just fields; they were husbandmen. In short order came the phallic columns, ziggurats, pyramids, and skyscrapers, along with primogeniture, burkas, chastity belts, and public stoning (of women) for adultery. And what does a man hand out to his pals when his wife becomes pregnant? Cigars, of course—which aren’t always just cigars.

 

Discovering the origins of religious feeling is not the principal point of the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents. The opening discussion is an artful misdirection. Freud is giving an illustration of a principle announced only toward the end of the chapter. This principle is that, so to speak, psychically nothing ever dies—or

I wondered if Zeicher might have boned up for our conversation but dismissed the idea. Paul was a thoughtful man b

practically nothing. Therefore the infant’s feeling of helplessness remains deep inside the adult and is available to be exploited later by priests or accessed by psychoanalysts. Freud’s real point is the stratification of the psyche and to make this clearer, he compares the mind to the recent excavations in Rome:

Now let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past—an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one.

Roma Quadrata lies below and before the level of


the Septimontium which is beneath and prior to that of the Servian Wall, which is earlier and lower than the Aurelian Wall. In the same way, the limbic system and neo-cortex did not replace the reptilian complex that preceded them but are built on top of it. Evolution is accretion; we live in a world with both psychiatrists and monkeys in it.

So the mind, says Freud, is layered and the past persists. There can hardly be a more fundamental principle of his theory than this. Digging things up was the nineteenth century’s great research program; it gave us both archaeology and anthropology. Karl Marx was also an excavator, digging down to the economic “substructure” he was sure determined cultures and propelled history. Nietzsche anticipated Freud in arguing for unconscious purposes, insisting that at the bottom of all our motives lay das Wille-zur-Macht. Freud caps this tradition, descending into the abyss, dragging what he finds in the murk up into the light of day. He is like the diver in the Schiller poem he quotes, to a different purpose, at the end of the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents:

. . .Es freue sich,

Wer da atmet im rosigten Licht!

What made Freud say father when his logic and even his hobby should have led him to say mother? Is his error owing to a prejudice against a whole sex? Was he, as many feminists contend, a misogynist, a male chauvinist pig who believed women envied his penis, or just a male insufficiently interested in females—never mind that most his patients were women? Many feminists of his own time considered him a liberator, an enemy of their repression. But things changed after the War. The new, resentful note was loudly heralded by Simone de Beauvoir when she published The Second Sex in 1949:

Freud never showed much concern with the destiny of woman; it is clear that he simply adapted his account from that of the destiny of man, with slight modifications.

And that’s just for openers.

Freud said a lot of odd things about women, also


about men. But about the former he said some consistent things to which women might well take exception. In Civilization and Its Discontents he portrays the primal mother as a sex-object for the upright male and declares her descendants enemies of civilization because, instead of playing house, their husbands play business, culture, war and golf and they resent it. Worse yet, he appears to have a low opinion of the moral capacities of women. In 1925 he wrote:

. . . for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men . . . . [they] show less sense of justice than men. . . they are less ready to submit to the great exigencies of life. . . they are more often influenced in their judgments by feelings of affection or hostility.

This is drawn from the impressively titled piece, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” which Freud had

his daughter read aloud at the Psycho-Analytical Congress in Hamburg. He believed women had a flimsy superego that was not “so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.” To him, as to Piaget and other male psychologists of his generation, it must have seemed axiomatic that the masculine sense of justice constituted the norm, the standard of justice.

In the last decades, Freud has been roundly excoriated by feminists for such biology-is-destiny declarations. Yet what have come to be called feminist ethics draw on precisely the same distinctions Freud makes, only with the values transvalued. Empathetic relativism coupled with respect for emotions and interpersonal bonds are good, while to be coldly detached, applying only the facts and the law and sternly ruling out of account circumstances, personalities, context and consequences is bad. Rigid masculine ethics of the Kantian variety are apt to be inflexible, inhumane, and, in the end, ruinous. And what is the cause of this difference? Even for the feminists it is Freud himself who supplies the reason: girls become


women by remaining attached to their mothers while boys become men by detaching from theirs.

To me, the evidence is pretty strong that what led Freud to say father rather than mother at the end of the first chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents was a kind of systematic error owing less to misogyny than cultural blinders. Freud grew up in the ferociously paternalistic culture of nineteenth-century Europe. His theories not only take for granted patriarchal family arrangements but are built on them. He doesn’t even hesitate to project them back into prehistory, though he must have known that early humans lived in extended families and kinship groups. As for his contention that women inevitably come into conflict with civilization, it is one feminists would certainly accept if only he had inserted the phrase male-dominated before the word civilization. It seems likely that it is because Freud’s civilization was male-dominated that he commits the blunder I find in the first chapter of his most famous book.

Freud usually sounds sure of himself, but we should be fair. Did he really believe that biology is destiny, that the nature of women and men—and

even their moral views—is determined by their anatomy? Well, one should always take care to read the fine print. Consider, for instance, the final sentence and long accompanying footnote that conclude the fourth chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents. These suggest to me that Freud had doubts concerning matters about which he often sounds apodictic. “This may be wrong,” he writes about his contention that it is civilization alone and not something in ourselves that denies us happiness, “it is hard to decide.” The appended footnote includes admissions that more or less reverse the sexual politics of the rest of the book and even his discipline’s capacity to fix gender differences:

Sex is a biological fact which, although it is of extraordinary importance in mental life, is hard to grasp psychologically. We are accustomed to say that every human being displays both male and female instinctual impulses, needs and attributes; but though anatomy, it is true, can point out


the characteristics of maleness and femaleness, psychology cannot. For psychology the contrast between the sexes fades away into one between activity and passivity, in which we far too readily identify activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness. . .

So, psychology “too readily” asserts that man does while woman is. It sounds to me as if by “psychology” he meant Sigmund Freud, which would be a charming example of Freudian self-doubt and psychoanalytic humility. I would like to believe it reveals a suspicion of just the sort of error that would lead him to write father instead of mother at the end of Chapter One.

Systematic error is a technical term from experimental science. It is defined by contradistinction; that is, by contrast to random error. Systematic errors are the result of flaws in the design of an experiment or in the experimenter’s apparatus. If you repeat the same flawed experiment with the same defective

equipment you’ll get the identical error every time. If your clock is running slow, for instance, then all time results will be tardy. Systematic error distorts outcomes the same way every time while random errors do not. Random errors are less dire because they can average out; if it’s humid one day it may be dry the next. Systematic errors, though, ensure consistent distortions which is why they are difficult to detect. That is, they don’t look like errors at all. I found a physics handbook in the library that offers this lapidary advice: If you suspect that your measurements are biased, you should try to identify the possible sources of systematic error. Words to live by.

“If you suspect. . .”? The suspicion of systematic error is, of course, unlikely to come from the person committing it, the experimenter who doesn’t know the clock is running slow. It is more likely that it will come from somebody else, a rival for instance. For this criticism the good scientist should be grateful because good scientists are those who give up their biases the moment they are convincingly demonstrated to them, even if it irks that the demonstration should be made by a rival. In non-experimental disciplines, I’ve noticed, the


tendency is just the opposite. Historians, philosophers, and anthropologists are more likely to resent an imputation of bias, especially if it is accompanied with proof, and clutch their cherished prejudices all the tighter to their breasts, defending them with the ferocity of a mother bear.

I’m not so naïve as to suppose all scientists are disinterested searchers out of truth. Many, being human beings, probably do defend their prejudices—dignified with titles like theory, paradigm, law, certainty—even beyond the point of plausibility. Think of phlogiston, geo-centrism, ether, perfectly circular orbits, the miasmal theory of infection, hysteria as a useful diagnosis or bloodletting as an effective therapy. But, in the long run, scientists go with the data because they have to, if they want to be scientists. The same can’t be said about philosophers because philosophical questions are different from empirical ones. The former can be finally resolved; the latter never are. I think one of the reasons Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is so widely taught is because it is a rare and irresistible hybrid, the philosophical speculations of a scientist. Also, Freud is a kind of epic poet, an elegant stylist who won the 1920

Goethe Prize. Scarcely any of his ideas are not expressed via myth, personification, or metaphor. “Sing, goddess, the mind of Achilles, Peleus’ son. . .”

Systematic error is itself a useful metaphor. In fact, it is so common—once you’re on the lookout for it—that it is tempting to regard systematic error as built into the mental lives of human beings. Political conviction can be a source of such errors and this is especially evident in historiography. A Tsarist historian will give an account of the October Revolution entirely different from the one written by an ardent Trotskyite. The unreconstructed Confederate’s book about the Civil War won’t look much like the one written by a professor of African-American Studies. Ethnocentrism is another source of errors that can be systematic (“God is an Englishman”) as are class prejudice (“the rich always arrange things”) or patriotism (“American exceptionalism”). In private life, egoism and narcissism do the same (“It’s all about me”). Religion has been a great source of systematic error and the slaughter that can result from it. Conspiracy theorists are among the most tiresome propagators of systematic error. Such errors can be ridiculous, as in the comedy of humors; but they


may also be dangerous and tragic. Systematic error can result in personal misery—for example, a woman I know who falls for the same type of wrong man over and over again—or genocidal atrocity (“It’s all the fault of those damned {fill in the blank}”).

The best fable I know concerning systematic error is the story of the sea captain who intended to voyage from Lisbon to New York but made a half-a-degree error in setting his course and so wound up in Brazil. Now that I think of it, my own worst mistakes are of just this sort; that is, persisting in an incorrect assumption which, taken as a first principle, I fail to question until I’m staring at Rio, not Manhattan.

 

Because the questions they deal with cannot be resolved with finality, it comes naturally to philosophers to disagree with one another, both their predecessors and their contemporaries. Many do so by ascribing what amounts to a systematic error to their opponents, especially if they favor a different one. Perhaps the most poignant instance is

that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critique of Thomas Hobbes.

Writing a century after Hobbes, Rousseau stands the predecessor from whom he took so much on his head. To Hobbes, society is good and nature bad; to Rousseau it’s the other way around. Rousseau points to his predecessor’s original mistake (the half-a-degree error) that turns into a systematic error tainting all Hobbes says, such as that the government is sovereign rather than the people and that laws are a response to crime rather than its cause. In Rousseau’s view, Hobbes’ goof is about the state of nature from which, imitating Euclid, he deduces everything else. According to Rousseau, Hobbes’ mistake was to judge how people would conduct themselves in the lawless natural state by imagining how seventeenth-century Londoners—corrupted by greed for property and status, by advertising and pornography, thoroughly accustomed to lying and insincerity—would do so:

. . . this author should have said that since the state of nature is the


state in which the concern for our self-preservation is the least prejudicial to that of others, that state was consequently the most appropriate for peace and the best suited for the human race. He says precisely the opposite, because he had wrongly injected into the savage man’s concern for self-preservation the need to satisfy a multitude of passions which are the product of society . . .

Everything Hobbes subsequently deduces about children, Native Americans, international relations, and the causes of war is, for Rousseau, completely wrong because Hobbes’ original error became a systematic one. What is ironic is that Rousseau himself commits the same sort of error in reverse, interpreting all the new anthropological evidence available to him in accord with a prejudice in favor of anything he deemed close to nature: children, peasants, Dryden’s noble savage. To Rousseau emotion is natural, thinking artificial, so he elevates the heart over the head, promotes sincerity as the

cardinal virtue, adopts the Golden Age theory of history and sees every development since the invention of metallurgy and agriculture as ruinously regressive. Systematic error is, after all, systematic.

As Freud was not only the first analyst but also the first patient, his work is built on an unprecedented sort of autobiography. For me, it isn’t his theories and writings that make him a hero; the theories and writings are the reward for undertaking a heroic self-examination, for doing it ruthlessly and imaginatively. But this also means Freud’s work is shaped by his social world, above all by the father-dominated family and religion that prevailed at his historico-socio-political coordinates. No surprise in that. Who is not limited in the same way? What distinguishes culture heroes is that they transcend these coordinates and remain. . . interesting. Freud is almost always interesting even if he’s often wrong. I admire his courage in taking the risk of being wrong. It’s a kind of bravery I find rare, especially in universities where most students and professors are so prudent that they deny themselves many adventures and discoveries. The thing that makes his saying father


rather than mother at the end of Chapter One of Civilization and Its Discontents so galling is just that Freud ought to have known better.

I’d like to think that if my students and I really could put the question to him, Freud would strike his forehead, blurt out a Viennese, or even Yiddish, expletive, then excuse himself to dash to his office and begin making corrections—systematic ones.

___________________________________

 

EDITOR’S NOTE

I found this piece, untitled, in Fein’s file for the year 1980. While most of the text is typed and there are several corrections and interpolations, everything after “Because the questions of philosophy cannot be resolved with finality. . .” is handwritten. It is as though Fein intended to return or add to what he had written but, for some reason, abandoned the project.

During the academic year 1979-1980 Sidney Fein served as Visiting Professor at Brandeis University. Among the courses he taught was a two-

semester sequence, Humanities 201-202, a survey of Western philosophy with numerous ancillary readings. Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’s Discourse On the Origin of Inequality appear on the first-semester syllabus. The penultimate assigned reading in the second semester was Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. It seems probable that the essay grew out of the classroom experience with which it begins.

It is typical of Fein that his subject is not fixed. Is it Freud’s views on women or the notion of systematic error as a metaphor for human imperfection? Is the essay aimed at contrasting scientists’ eagerness to discard their distorting biases with the way philosophers cleave to theirs? Does Fein really mean to argue that systematic error is an ineradicable feature of all human thought, one that serves up comedy as well as tragedy? For what it is worth, my own view is that this unfinished essay is like many other to be found among Fein’s unpublished papers. It is a kind of riffing, like that of a jazzman who has gotten hold of a tune with possibilities. The musician plays—and so does Fein.


This is the only place where Fein writes at any length about Sigmund Freud. He evidently had a high opinion of the psychologist; yet his esteem is peculiar in being independent of whether Freud’s theories are true or false. He calls Freud a “culture hero,” which is common enough, but also an “epic poet,” which is not common at all.

When I showed this piece to Fein’s daughter Maya, she recalled an occasion when she and her father were at a party. Their hostess and most of the guests were psychotherapists. Maya remembered that there had been a bristling exchange when one of the therapists said something to provoke her father. He retorted with an epigram which she remembered this way: “The difference between Freud and a Freudian is that the latter doesn’t know a metaphor from a meatball.” According to Maya, on the way home her father told her that he had outraged the man by describing Freud as the greatest epic poet of the twentieth century. “He thought I’d insulted Freud which is funny,” he’d said, “since the world is stuffed full of shrinks while there are scarcely any epic poets.”

Sidney Fein’s indignation at what he considered

Freud’s gaffe—one which he perhaps only discovered during the course of his own class—is as much a measure of his esteem as his disappointment. That he fastened on and made so much of this Freudian slip is Feinian through and through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Robert Wexelblatt. White Whale Review, issue 5.1


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