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  • Why the Freudian Century: Reflections on the Statue of Athena
  • Eli Zaretsky (bio)

Between the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and the 1970s, psychoanalysis transformed the understanding of the human mind not just in the West, but also throughout the world. It affected not only sciences such as psychiatry and medicine, and arts such as literature, theatre, painting, and film, but also advertising, design, news coverage, and manners. Most importantly, it created an everyday, folk psychology, close to personal experience, of the sort that men and women needed as villages gave way to global cities and as a new mass culture emerged. The essence of that psychology rested on a new sense of personal life, itself the product of a historical transformation.

Previously, the individual’s sense of identity was largely determined by his or her place in the family. In the nineteenth century, however, the separation (both physical and emotional) of paid work from the household, which is to say the rise of industrial capitalism, gave rise to new forms of privacy, domesticity, and intimacy. At first, these were experienced as the familial counterparts to the market. Later, they became associated with the possibility and goal of a personal life distinct from and even outside of the family. This goal found expression in such phenomena as the “new” (or independent) woman, the emergence of public homosexual identities, and the turning of young people toward sexual experimentation, bohemia, and artistic modernism. Personal identity thus became a project for individuals, as opposed to something given to them by their place in the family. Psychoanalysis was a theory and practice of this new aspiration for a personal life. Its original historical telos was defamilialization, the freeing of individuals from unconscious images of authority originally rooted in the family. [End Page 679]

The founding idea of psychoanalysis, the dynamic or motivational unconscious, reflected the new experience of personal life. According to that idea, stimuli that came to the individual from the society or culture were not directly registered but were first dissolved and internally reconstituted in such a way as to give them personal, even idiosyncratic, meanings. Thus, there was no direct or necessary connection between the social or cultural environment, including such factors as race, ethnicity and gender, and individual subjectivity. In traditional societies, healers were effective insofar as they mobilized symbols that were simultaneously internal and collective. The French king cured scrofula by touch only so long as his subjects believed he had the power to do so. So too the exorcizing Priest. Freud (1916–1917 [1915–1917]) by contrast defined the subject matter of psychoanalysis as “what is most intimate in . . . mental life, everything that . . . a socially independent person . . . must conceal,” (p. 18) and insisted that although the internal worlds of individuals could be interpreted, they could not be reintegrated into any previously existing whole.

At first, the new sense of personal life had a critical dimension. In Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Carl E. Schorske (1980) evoked the statue of Athena erected in front of the Austrian Parliament in nineteenth-century Vienna. The statue symbolized the “Copernican revolution” of eighteenth century modernity, which rejected traditional forms of authority and instead put a new principle of subjective freedom at the center of all modern pursuits including self-government. Yet the larger implications of the new principle remained to be unfolded in the “second modernity,” associated with mass production, mass democracy, and the rise of women, homosexuals, and racial and national minorities. While the first modernity viewed the subject as the locus of reason in the sense of universal and necessary truths, the second viewed the subject as a concrete individual, located in a contingent time and place. Whereas philosophy was the hallmark of the first, psychoanalysis, along with modernist art and literature, was the hallmark of the second.

Psychoanalysis could never have had such broad effects had it remained a medical treatment, a school of academic or experimental psychology or an idiosyncratic theory of the mind. Rather, its trajectory was inseparable from the larger force that [End Page 680] transformed and eroded traditional authority, especially mass consumption capitalism. As Max Weber showed, even...


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