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  • Energizing the Elemental: Notes on a Conversation with Carl E. Schorske
  • Michael S. Roth (bio)

In the late summer of 2011 I made my way down to southern New Jersey to spend some time with Carl and Elizabeth Schorske. I hadn’t seen the Schorskes in some time, though we speak every so often by telephone. Given the occasion of this issue of American Imago in his honor, we were to talk about his early encounters with the work of Freud and psychoanalysis. These encounters took place during the Second World War, when Carl worked at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and in the 1950s, when he taught at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Freud and psychoanalysis fell in and out of focus as our conversation meandered amongst the memories we have in common—especially with regard to Wesleyan, where I was his student (and am now the president). I began my historical studies with Carl there in 1976 and completed my Ph.D. under his guidance at Princeton seven years later. I first listened to Wagner and Mahler in his classes, and I still teach many of the books he assigned to me. I’ve written about his historiography and edited a collection of essays in his honor.1 Having a conversation with Carl for American Imago was for me a real pleasure.

The last time we had discussed Freud and psychoanalysis in any depth was more than fifteen years ago when I was named the curator (at his suggestion, I think) of a Library of Congress exhibition on the subject.2 But Freud has been there from the very beginning of our relationship. I was a freshman at Wesleyan and already interested in Freud when Carl returned to the university as a visiting professor. I talked my way into his seminar on Vienna. I was in way over my head, but I saw this as a great opportunity to do a research project on Freud. This intense interest in Freud was unusual for a frosh in the mid [End Page 595] 1970s, but the professor’s only objection was that my German was much too elementary to do serious work. I plunged ahead, challenged by the reservations of this much-admired historian.

My topic was the impact of the First World War on Freud’s theory of the instincts, and I’ll always remember the grilling I received in class. In the end, Professor Schorske expressed some admiration for my research and my arguments, but he told he that I had “an awkward, wooden style.” The most important thing I could do, he emphasized, was to work on my writing. I didn’t know what to make of this mixture of encouragement and criticism. It was only later as a graduate student that I came to realize how important it was for Schorske that historians learn to present their work in a mode that was in harmony with their subject matter. His own historiographical project, as I put it years later, was to develop a form of history writing that explored culture in crisis in a rhetorical form that reflexively illuminated and questioned its subject matter (Roth, 1995).

When I handed him my first paper on Freud, Schorske had been engaged for decades in rethinking the relationship of the instincts to struggles in the public sphere. “Instincts,” though, is probably too narrow a term to describe Schorske’s interest in the propulsion of the archaic, in how the distant past can be activated for political aesthetic and religious purposes in the present. As we sat in his living room, our conversation turned to some of his close friends who also tilled this soil, especially in the decade following the Second World War. The most famous of these, Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse, harvested the first crop of these efforts in the second half of the 1950s. Marcuse published Eros and Civilization in 1955, and Brown followed in 1959 with Life Against Death. Both books broke away from the American psychoanalytic community’s accommodationist view of Freud as a thinker who could help one fit into the mainstream, and imagined him instead as a thinker whose insights into...


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