Citizen Fromm

If psychoanalysis is a medical specialty, popularizations are as pernicious as might be The Little Osler, Or The Boy’s Home Surgery. If psychoanalysis is a department of literature, as some think, they are relatively harmless. Erich Fromm’s The Forgotten Language is a collection of lectures delivered to the girls at Bennington and then to a group of medical students. Unless high schools have changed since my day, and I fear they may have, there is nothing in the book which should be over the heads of high-school students with a C average. Such popularizations are very merchandisable and presumably attract patients in droves, but are they valuable otherwise?

Dr. Fromm, with Karen Horney, is usually identified with Americanized post-Freudianism, the genial, or hunky-dorey school of psychoanalysis. Perhaps this is unfair. Dr. Fromm does not really seem to view life through the horn rims of an assiduous, New School-attending bachelor girl social worker, the rank and file of this powerful movement. I do not think he thinks of the cure of the mind in terms of the substitution of silk screens of Picasso over the mantel and Don Giovanni on the Deluxovox for the Dodgers and Hoppy in the dénouement of the American success story. He knows that what is wrong with modern man is not that he is not high-toned enough. He is more than that. But he is emphatically something not contemporary. He is an eighteenth-century man, a reasonable man. This gives his books, especially this one and the last two on religion and ethics, if not the unworldly aloofness of notes by a man from Mars, at least the sweet urbanity of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. He knows, as those who are too often linked with him seem not to have noticed, that our society is sick, deranged, demoralized, and that it is no good trying to heal the sick, deranged and demoralized by attempting to adjust them to it, even on its most civilized levels.

On the other hand, he shows no evidence that he thinks anything is needed that could not be provided by a calm and reasonable old-time country practitioner or a good cynical priest. It is a little like watching Voltaire trying to exorcise an intelligent and thoroughly malignant dinosaur from his Swiss garden by the sole means of his dry, wise, but somewhat stereotyped irony. Voltaire could not write or understand tragedy. In Psychoanalysis and Religion Dr. Fromm equates tragedy with the realization of death. Voltaire believed in God in a mild, Deistic way, but he did not believe in the Devil. Younger men than Dr. Fromm or myself, but of our general class, born in one war, ruined in a second, fated to die with the rest of the species in a third, are uninterested in the existence of a Deity, but recognize that some pretty strong empiric evidence supports the Devil’s case. Dr. Fromm’s little analysis of dreams and unconscious symbolism, quite a masterpiece, really, of lucid, elementary exposition, misses the point. Freud may have said, changing the old philosophical saw, “Nothing in the unconscious which is not already in sensory experience,” but, actually, dark unknown, possibly unknowable Titans struggle beneath the surface of man in all Freud’s later metapsychological works. Even Jung’s soft, herbivorous terrors are formidable enough. Dr. Fromm gives examples of dreams, simple things that begin with job difficulties and end with father fixations and such like. He analyzes the Oedipus cycle in terms of the matriarchal community versus the patriarchal State. At the end, like Marx with Hegel, he stands Kafka on his head to educe the Inspector and the Priest of The Trial as the “voices of the humanistic conscience”! This won’t do. Perhaps Dr. Fromm is familiar with that world-wide International, the Third Degree. While one cop beats, tortures and curses the prisoner, another stands by, interferes at the last moment, and says, “Look, son, I’m your friend. I’d like to help you out of this jam and help you get back on your feet, if you’d just let me.” That’s the bastard to watch out for. He wrote Mr. Vishinsky’s duets and gave the learned reports on the effects of foreign proteins in the Jewish bloodstream.

Something is awfully wrong with man and something is awfully wrong with his society. This is so obvious that people like Breton and Dali have made business careers out of purveying charlatan horrors as commodities to rich and idle women and ballet régisseurs. I don’t doubt but that the average patient would be better helped by Dr. Fromm’s sweet reasonableness than by over-sophisticated young doctors whose heads might be very Black Holes of Calcutta of existential anguish. I like Dr. Fromm. I like Diderot or Mirabeau or Beaumarchais, but over their shoulders peers the Marquis de Sade, just as the Comte de Maldoror peeks around the voluminous coattails of the author of Les Misérables and grimaces at the inventor of the Religion of Man.

Something is terribly wrong somewhere. Humanitarianism is not the answer. Dr. Fromm is a good citizen. I agree that if we were all good citizens of the community of love, or even the cooperative commonwealth, it would be easier to find the answer, but good citizenship alone isn’t it. I don’t think Freud found the answer. Certainly none of his descendants has. At least he knew the problem existed. The Greeks knew it, and Shakespeare, and a lot of others. When they wrote about it, we call it tragedy. Possibly psychoanalysis is only a rather naïve development of literature, at that.



This essay originally appeared in The Nation (1951) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays