Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Oliver Sacks & Psychoanalysis


“In an extraordinary decision, the Library of Congress this week bowed to pressure from angry anti-Freudians and postponed for as long as a year a major exhibition called ‘Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture.’ According to a front-page story in The Washington Post, some library officials blamed the delay on budget problems; but others contended the real reason was heated criticism of a show that might take a neutral or even favorable view of the father of psychoanalysis. Some fifty psychologists and others, including Gloria Steinem and Oliver Sacks, signed a petition denouncing the proposed exhibit; as Steinem complained to the Post, it seemed to ‘have the attitude of “He was a genius, but…” instead of “He’s a very troubled man, and….”’ Though the library assured them that the exhibit ‘is not about whether Freudians or Freud critics, of whatever camp, are right or wrong,’ the critics refused an offer to contribute to the catalog or advise on the show.”

This is the opening paragraph from Jonathan Lear’s article, “The Shrink Is In,” The New Republic, December 25, 1995. The entire essay was reprinted (with slight modifications), albeit with a new title: “On Killing Freud (Again),” in Lear’s book, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Harvard University Press, 1998): 16-32.

I’m sharing this, not only to let you know of an important and compelling article by Lear (assuming you’ve not read it; if you have, forgive my presumption), but because I was taken aback by the fact that Sacks was one of the signatories to the petition. Of course I don’t know what precisely motivated him to add his well-known name—hence, authority—to this document, but it’s rather curious or perhaps even disturbing in light of the fact that Sacks himself saw a psychoanalyst for over 40 years, beginning in 1966 when he was struggling with an inordinate desire for (if not addiction to) amphetamines. In an article on Sacks by Michael Roth* in The Atlantic (May 16, 2015), not long after we learned from Sacks himself that he was suffering from terminal cancer, Roth quotes from Sacks’ “glorious memoir:”

“In brief remarks on his almost 50 years of psychoanalysis, Sacks tells the reader that his analyst, Leonard Shengold, ‘has taught me about paying attention, listening to what lies beyond consciousness or words.’ [In an interview Sacks once described this as listening with a ‘third ear.’] This is what Sacks has taught so many through his practice as a healer and through his work as a writer.” 
 
It is thus clear that in both his personal and professional life that Sacks was deeply indebted to the founder of psychoanalytic therapy. Indeed, Roth writes that “Sacks sees himself in the tradition of Freud and of the Russian neurologist A. R. Luria, medical men who took upon themselves the depiction of the fullness of a patient’s life and not just the course of an illness.” So it remains a bit puzzling that Sacks would have lent his good name to the animus directed at the Library’s planned exhibition.

Incidentally, the Library of Congress exhibition eventually took place: October 15, 1998 – January 16, 1999.

* Yes, this is the same Michael S. Roth that was Curator of the Exhibition on Freud for the Library of Congress (at that time Associate Director, The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles; he became the 16th president of Wesleyan University in 2007). 

Image (top): “The Unconscious” (1915) Manuscript Division, Library of Congress 

Image (bottom): Oliver Sacks

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