Recent books as of 2015-01-25 — January 25, 2015

Recent books as of 2015-01-25

  • Janet Malcolm, [book: In The Freud Archives]

    One fellow, Kurt Eissler, is the [foreign: éminence grise] who presides over the Freud Archives — a repository of Sigmund Freud’s papers. Another fellow, Jeffrey Masson, befriends Eissler and, using apparently enormous reserves of personal charm, wheedles his way into the good graces of Eissler and of Freud’s daughter Anna.

    Now, apparently Freud’s understanding of psychological illness reached a crucial turning point when he rejected the so-called “seduction theory.” (I don’t know much Freudian vocabulary; if I did, maybe I’d be using “neurosis” and so forth here. As it is, I worry that I’d misuse a very precise term.) The seduction theory, according to Masson and Malcolm, is sort of a materialist theory according to which psychological illness arises from repressed childhood sexual abuse. (“Seduction” must have meant something different back in the day, because my goodness does that word seem ill-matched to the phenomenon it’s meant to describe here.)

    According to orthodox Freudians, Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory was the crucial turning point at which he invented psychoanalysis. Rather than study the direct effects of childhood sexual abuse, orthodox Freudians turned to studying psychological illness as a manifestation of fantasy. That is, Freudians stopped being quite so concerned with what actually happened to their patients, and started being much more concerned with how people’s minds manipulate the actual facts of the world.

    There seem to be good arguments for both perspectives. On the one hand, as Masson puts it, it matters a great deal that your patient lived through Auschwitz; we need to engage with the actual world as the patient experienced it. On the other hand, there are a lot of layers between the facts of the world and how they manifest as psychological disorder. Perhaps, for instance, there are certain patients who emerge from physical abuse stronger and tougher; in these cases, abuse alone isn’t enough to uniquely determine the patient’s mental state.

    Masson comes to the conclusion that the seduction theory was right all along, which instantly makes him an apostate among Freudians.

    All of that would be fine, and would make [book: In The Freud Archives] a nice little essay about a particular dispute in the history of psychoanalysis. Instead, Malcolm spends most of her time on the psychoanalytic infighting around Eissler, Masson, and a cast of others who spend their days poring over the letters that Freud and his friends wrote to one another. It reminds me of nothing so much as the line famously ascribed to Kissinger (though I think it predates him): that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Who, honestly, really cares whether Masson’s particular brand of psychoanalysis is in keeping with what the master himself desired? Has psychoanalysis descended to a brand of fundamentalism where only the purest adherence to officially sanctioned dogma is allowed?

    So Malcolm’s book is a short biography of some cranks. I wonder whether she herself perceives it that way. Maybe it’s all a very tongue-in-cheek joke. Certainly possible.

    Her book does make me want to go read more about Freud, but not this sort of scholarly squabbling.

  • Thomas H. O’Connor, [book: Building A New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970]

    To my mind there are two unavoidable questions that anyone has to ask if he’s familiar with the Boston of today, and if he’s read Robert Caro’s [book: The Power Broker] (as I assume Thomas O’Connor has):

    1. How did Boston arrive at the place it’s in now, where sizable chunks of the city (West End, Government Center, Mass. Pike) have been bulldozed and replaced with soulless concrete, and where even larger chunks would be destroyed if the Big Dig hadn’t put them underground?

    2. Following Caro, you can only understand power if you understand how it’s exercised against the powerless. So how did all the bulldozing affect those with no power to resist?

    O’Connor’s book has “politics” in the subtitle, but it’s politics-as-a-game rather than politics-as-lived-by-the-little-people. It’s largely a love poem sung to Boston’s mayors John Hynes, John Collins, and Kevin White. O’Connor nods in the direction of those who lost their homes when the West End was plowed under, but he mostly seems satisfied with it, because he believes that Boston from before the destruction was so much worse.

    I can’t weigh in on how pre-destruction Boston looked. According to O’Connor it was a used-up backwater that was literally rotting into the sea. The redevelopment of the 1950s brought actual tall buildings — most notably the Prudential Center — to a city that had basically none. It drew business back into the city.

    Even taking O’Connor at his word, there’s fundamentally a counterfactual in here: was destroying Boston the only way to save it? Did any cities manage to pull themselves out of the postwar decay without “urban renewal”?

    Apart from all the urban-renewal destruction I had already been aware of — West End, Scollay Square, the highway that cut the North End off from the rest of the city — O’Connor’s book informs me of loads more. Among the saddest is the New York Streets neighborhood in the South End. It was called New York Streets because its streets were named after towns in upstate New York: Troy, Rochester, Genesee, Oswego, Oneida, Seneca. The city destroyed it; it was replaced with soulless factories, including the Boston Herald’s. The Herald left recently, to be replaced with a new high-end development and a Whole Foods. It abuts the highway, which cuts the South End off from South Boston; walking from any of the South End’s attractions to the Broadway T stop, for instance, requires that you pass under an Interstate highway.

    During the first few years of my time in Boston, walking from the Haymarket T station to the North End involved a similar walk under Interstate 93. The Big Dig put I-93 underground, replaced it with a park, and reconnected the North End with the rest of Boston for the first time since the Hynes administration. Much modern development in Boston seems designed to redress the wrongs that the city perpetrated against itself under the mayors whom O’Connor venerates.

    “America’s Walking City” did a fabulous job in the Fifties and Sixties destroying its beautiful walks. To O’Connor, many of those who opposed this destruction were old Protestant sticks-in-the-mud, quite happy for Boston to remain small and old and familiar and very dead. From a vantage point fifty years on, the opponents of development seem to have a point.

  • Ronald C. White, [book: Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural]

    It’s hard to imagine that a single speech by Abraham Lincoln — a speech of barely 700 words — could be expanded into a 256-page book. But in fact this book feels no longer than it needs to be; the speech is exceptional, and is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever read. White’s book elaborates on the slow evolution of Lincoln’s thought, which led him to this unspeakably jaw-dropping line:

    > [I]f God wills that it [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    I imagine a man on his knees before his God every night, trying to understand how to end the anguish of the war that was tearing the country apart. Eventually he came to the realization that this war might well be the penance that our country paid for its original sin.

    As a work of rhetoric, as well — a piece of argument assembled carefully for its intended audience — the Second Inaugural is a masterpiece; White walks us, line by line, through its every carefully chosen syllable (“and the war came”).

    I think every American needs to know that speech, and the history that surrounds it. I could make a good case that everyone ought to read White’s wonderful book.