Freud and psychoanalysis

By the middle of the twentieth century, the poet WH Auden was proclaiming of Sigmund Freud:

to us he is no more a person

now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives.28

Even if one disagrees with his theories, it is true that Freudian ideas have permeated our culture. As Gillian Beers has observed:

We now live in a post-Freudian age: it is impossible, in our culture, to live a life which is not charged with Freudian assumptions, patterns for apprehending experience, ways of perceiving relationships, even if we have not read a word of Freud . . .29

Freud has arguably had more influence on the arts than on psychiatry. Writers such as Virginia Wolff, DH Lawrence, James Joyce and Thomas Mann produced novels that have echoes of his ideas. In fact, Freud maintained that he had not discovered the unconscious - writers had done so before him. The Surrealists, such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux, were inspired by Freud and sought to explore the unconscious. They saw dreams, automatic writing and madness as a means of entering this dark and disturbing territory. They regarded madness as a state of absolute freedom - a state in which bourgeois law had no jurisdiction. In the first Surrealist Manifesto, the leading theorist of the movement, Andre Breton, who was also a doctor and had worked in psychiatry, wrote:

The confidences of madmen: I would spend my life in provoking them. They are people of a scrupulous honesty, and whose innocence is equalled only by mine. Columbus had to sail with madmen to discover America.30

A few years later, Breton published an autobiographical novel, Nadja, in which he described his real-life encounter with a young woman who was descending into psychosis. Here he did indeed provoke the confidences of the mad. The young woman, the eponymous Nadja, formed a relationship with Breton during which she became mentally more disturbed, ultimately being admitted to an asylum. In her last weeks with Breton she completed a series of drawings, some of which were reproduced in the novel.

The Surrealist view of insanity was essentially a Romantic one, in which madness was seen as a process of liberation—a voyage of discovery to the unconscious. This Romantic view was undermined by the fate of an artist connected with Surrealist circles, Antonin Artaud, whose mental breakdown demonstrated that madness was a terrifying and dislocating experience.31 Artaud heard voices, developed delusions about doubles and magical conspiracies, and had bouts of extreme withdrawal. He spent several years in asylums, where he drew pictures and came to identify with Vincent Van Gogh. Artaud contended that society was hostile to men of genius, locking them up in institutions or driving them to suicide. In his famous essay on Van Gogh, he maintained that the Dutch artist had been 'suicided by society'.32 Some decades later, the radical Scottish psychiatrist, RD Laing was to claim inspiration from Artaud's essay.

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