NEW YORK — Coming of professional age in anti-Semitic interwar Vienna took its toll on Sigmund Freud. The Jewish secular father of psychoanalysis faced stalled promotions, quotas and a climate in which Jews were smeared as “others” coming to destroy life as the Viennese knew it, said Austin Ratner, author of “The Psychoanalyst’s Aversion to Proof.”
“It fed Freud’s paranoia that the medical community would never fully accept his ideas,” Ratner said.
Ratner didn’t just delve into the ways rising anti-Semitism in Vienna curbed Freud’s motivation to make a case for his theories of psychoanalysis. He also wrote the new book as a call to action for Freudians whose numbers are dwindling. In it, he encourages psychoanalysts to leverage existing scientific proof to make the case for their field.
From Ratner’s perspective, psychoanalysis has spent too many years on the sidelines. The discipline needs to reclaim its position as a tool for understanding and negotiating the human psyche, Ratner said over tea with The Times of Israel at in Manhattan’s Pershing Square.
“Psychoanalysts are not doing as well as a profession as they were 50 years ago. As a profession they’ve shrunk, in part because they haven’t defended their work well,” he said.
The book also serves as a means to understand the political climate both in the United States and worldwide. When thinking of President Donald Trump, for example, Ratner said his thoughts sometimes turn to Freud.
“Trump is a highly emotional guy. His decisions seem overwrought and seem corrupted by emotion. The great legacy that Freud offered civilization was applying rational thought to emotion so we’re not unconsciously dominated by [it] — to learn to act in accordance with our thoughts, not our impulses and our fears and our paranoia,” Ratner said.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Ratner, 47, once considered going into neurology. He received an M.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and completed a mentorship at the American Psychoanalytic Association. But the tug of writing proved too strong, and so upon graduating medical school he moved to Brooklyn to become a wordsmith.
The move proved to be a good one — Ratner went on to win the Sami Rohr Prize for Literature for his novel “The Jump Artist,” and also penned “In the Land of the Living.”
While Ratner wrote “Aversion to Proof” with psychoanalysts in mind, he said he tried to make it accessible to those whose knowledge of Freud is limited to the Oedipus complex and Freudian slips.
“If you have a general interest in psychology, history and philosophy there’s something in there for you,” he said.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Your book discusses the anti-Semitism Freud faced. Talk a little more about how that impacted him personally.
Freud was a member of the first generation of Austrians whose fathers came from the shtetls. They were uneducated and they had no real opportunities. The Enlightenment emancipated the Jews to come out of the shtetls and have normal jobs. They were hungry to seize the opportunities of the modern world.
However, that led to a stereotypical view that Jews were coming in and taking jobs, that they didn’t have the same gentlemen’s background, and that they didn’t care about Austria the same way non-Jews did. It was like the shit that’s going on in our politics now where some people feel aggrieved, that something that belonged to them is being taken away.
In that way anti-Semitism was a significant factor in Freud’s paranoia about how people would respond to psychoanalysis and his general sense of paranoia about the medical authorities.
Freud not only embraced his Jewish identity — he wore it as a badge of honor.
To me Freud is kind of a heroic figure in the history of famous Jewish people. After centuries of pogroms in the Jewish shtetls the Jews tried to keep a low profile. And he said, “No, I’m not going to keep a low profile. I have towering aspirations.” In addition, he never shied away from saying, “I’m a Jew and what’s the problem with that?”
He told a story of having his window open on the train because he was feeling short of breath (he was phobic about being on trains). Someone asked him to close it. Freud wouldn’t and the man yelled an anti-Semitic slur. Freud showed his fists and was like, “Why don’t you come closer and we can get acquainted?”
Freud showed his fists and was like, “Why don’t you come closer and we can get acquainted?”
It’s kind of funny to think of this intellectual giant calling out this other man in this bar room kind of way. I do respect that about Freud. He was not only bold intellectually; he was a bold, forceful person.
Another story about Freud standing up to anti-Semitism is when the Gestapo arrested his daughter Anna. They also came to his offices and searched through his stuff. Then they asked Freud to sign an affidavit saying he had been well treated. So he wrote this snarky thing that said, “I don’t hesitate to recommend the Gestapo to anybody.” He used his cutting sense of humor and stood up against the Gestapo. The man had balls.
What else, aside from your wish to motivate psychoanalysts to defend and protect their field, inspired you to write the book?
I had my own private ideas that there was something awry in the psychoanalysts’ approach to validating their theories and practices. They often exempt themselves from the usual scientific norms in terms of how you validate yourself.
I’m a Freudian. I grew up with it. My grandmother was one of the first child analysts trained in the United States and my mom is a social worker with a psychodynamic bent.
I’ve had help from psychoanalysts. My father died when I was little and I had all these feelings about him without really being able to remember him clearly. I needed some help to understand the relevance of all that to my adult emotional life. Psychoanalysis helped me make better choices and to live a better life.
Why did Freud have trouble proving psychoanalysis works? Was he his own worst enemy?
Freud’s introductory letters on psychoanalysis are a treasure in intellectual history in terms of their clarity, originality and power in explaining human beings. But every time he comes to the subject of proving his theories, he gets very defensive. So part of what I looked at in the book was Freud’s own emotional interferences when it came to proving his own theories in a scientific forum.
Freud’s sensitivity to criticism seemed kind of over the top. What did he expect? You’re launching a radical revolutionary idea. Of course not everybody is going to immediately throw their arms around you.
How do you regard President Trump in relation to Freud?
To oppose a particular politician by trying to label him with a psychiatric disorder seems to be a problematic rhetorical strategy. That said, isn’t Trump completely insane?
I’m hesitant to slap a label on Trump; I hear that phrase malignant narcissism a lot. On the other hand, Trump has people given a lot of cause to speculate about his fitness for office. As a citizen — not as someone trying to diagnose him or trying to label him in any official sense — Trump seems to be someone who has no ability to observe himself and understand his own emotions. His personal motivations seem to be carrying the entire nation along with him and that is the kind of thing that causes disaster.
You talked about how there’s little hope for world peace unless we “resolve the defense mechanisms and hidden fears that underlie aggressive behavior.” That’s a tall order, no?
Carl Sagan, the great popularizer of science, was a Freudian. He said psychoanalysis was necessary for human civilization to survive the nuclear age. He said we’ve all felt love, and we’ve all felt fear, and sometimes you have to adjudicate between those two emotions. However, you can’t adjudicate between two emotions with another emotion. You need to do that with your rational mind, and the only way to do that is through Freudian psychoanalysis.
Sagan felt that if human beings are unable to apply rational insight to their emotional life in an international sphere, then we’re doomed. That’s not to say I think everyone needs to go through an analysis, but these ideas need to be part of our national conversation.
So considering what’s happening in North Korea, Venezuela, and so on, do you think world leaders could benefit from psychoanalysis?
No, I don’t think putting Kim Jong Un on a psychoanalyst’s couch would be likely to work for very long. It would be a quick way to have your head on a pike to try and psychoanalyze him.
I think it’s more about having a psychologically, emotionally enlightened culture where our educators are more sophisticated about emotion. Then we can raise a new generation of more modern, enlightened people who are more sophisticated about defense mechanisms.
How has spending so much time with Freud informed your work as a writer?
It’s influenced my writing in two different ways.
Characters who don’t understand themselves have been around in literature since the original Oedipus. And they’re in Shakespeare and they’re in the stories of Chekov. Freudian psychology is such a great way of understanding characters like these.
The other way is in the actual act of writing. You’ve heard of the term writer’s block. If you can understand your own internal conflict, your own inhibitions about getting it done, then it becomes easier to just do it. It becomes easier to write.
I remember my Aunt Debbie, who is a psychoanalyst, telling me when I was in high school, “Oh after I got a psychoanalysis my writing got so much better.” I didn’t understand what she meant back then, but now I do. You just don’t get in your own way as much.