Friday, 28 July 2017

Tell Me About Your Childhood

As, in some ways, one of the great progenitors of modernity, Dr Freud has always interested me. I recently finished CR Badcock’s Essential Freud from 1988 as my bedtime book and then did some reading around it. I don’t know whether there are many psychotherapists around now who still find Freud’s model of human development through crises of childhood sexuality helpful; I had no idea that the man himself tried to extend his ideas to include the whole history of human culture, relating shifts in social economy to the stages of development he thought he had identified in individual human beings. On the one hand I admire his penetration and willingness to follow his insights, and on the other can see how many of these theories were deluded.

The unscientific nature of psychoanalysis also struck me. I think Freud believed he was proceeding on the basis of evidence, and was as scientific as any other practitioner. After all, much of his analysis ‘worked’, so it had to be true, hadn’t it? But gradually various other psychoanalytic schools, developed by people like Jung and Adler who’d fallen out with Freud, took entirely different paths, operating on a variety of completely separate systems, and these ‘worked’ as well. In this way they are more like religious sects than scientific models. Science moves forward as an interlocking system and insights in one discipline can inform others; whereas psychoanalytic schools developed models of human personality and growth which were completely non-communicating, having no links with each other at all. In this way they seem rather like a series of explanatory narratives – myths, if you like – which might be more or less helpful to individuals, but their objective truth lies beyond the reach of mere evidential proof.

Or does it? I wanted to find out more about Dr Badcock, my book’s author, the doughty champion of Freud who ranked his genius along with that of Einstein. I discovered, somewhat jaw-droppingly, that he renounced Freudianism about ten years ago, like King Clovis ‘burning what he had worshipped and worshipping what he had burned’. It was thinking about autism that had made the difference: if autistic people have none of the ability to police their thinking that the rest of us have, then what they do and say should exhibit the drives and desires Freud said inhabited the human unconscious, but they don’t. Instead autistic people are concerned with very different things. Dr Badcock takes this as proof that the unconscious in fact doesn’t exist, and gave up Freudianism as a result. Even I think that’s a bit extreme.

Well. In our pastoral psychology classes at theological college we were taught not by a Freudian, but by a priest who certainly believed, like Dr Freud, that human beings go through developmental crises and if those crises aren’t satisfactorily resolved at the normal time they will be rehearsed in later life (he just argued they were different sorts of crises from Freud’s infantile sexual ones). We should, he thought, be aware of how this might play out in our church communities and our relationships with parishioners.

I’m sure this does happen and is reflected in the strange conflicts and difficulties to be found in churches. I wonder whether it’s because – cosmic significance of the spiritual life aside – the stakes are so low. It’s generally quite hard to see what church life achieves, and the various practical good works churches can do are generally low-level stuff. Apart from the very few people who are actually employed by churches, their members are released from the constraints that operate in work environments and are freed to play out whatever issues are buried in their habits of thinking.

The other day at Toddler Group Sheila told me ‘Stephanie is on the warpath. Somebody’s been cleaning the silverware with Brasso and she’s furious.’ I made my way to the vestry where said Stephanie and Brenda were busy cleaning. ‘Sheila tells me there’s been an issue with the chalices, they’ve been cleaned with Brasso or something,’ I opened. ‘It’s not that,’ said Stephanie, who didn’t seem more outraged than usual, ‘there’s wax on them. Mary [the late former nun who was our sacristan for years] used to tell people to wash the chalices with hot water and I think some of the cleaners are using the water they clean the candlesticks with to wash the chalices, so the wax gets on them.’ ‘I’ve tried to tell everyone about how to go about the cleaning,’ put in Brenda, ‘but some just don’t listen or forget and Sheila’s so deaf I don’t know what she picks up on or not. And then there’s Adela. I’m only here this week because I can’t rely on her to turn up when she’s said she will so I always come along in case she doesn’t. Which she hasn’t.’

And of such stuff is the therapeutic community of the church made. Transference ahoy. You could argue that, in this case at least, we could just do away with all the kit, and there would be no cause for argument. But then we would not have the opportunity to exercise patience and to learn understanding and to develop humility by remembering that we all exhibit the same sorts of frailties, just in different ways. And ultimately that’s (part of) what Church is for. I think Dr Freud would term it the victory of the Superego, and would not entirely approve.

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