Master mind

Sometimes a sesquicentennial is just a sesquicentennial.

Unless of course it’s the 150th birthday of Sigmund Freud: godfather of psychotherapy, the Wizard of Id, secular Jew and, arguably, lead designer of the modern mindset.

The cultural clichés of couches, cigars and trains rushing through tunnels all began with Freud. But the deeper meaning of his work far outstrips those images.

Freud was a complex man who gave rise to complex psychological theories debated even today. So much contemporary thinking on human nature traces back to the prim Viennese neurologist that it’s impossible to fully measure his impact on medicine and culture.

But Rabbi Yoel Kahn wants to give it a try.

The director of the Taube Center for Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Kahn helped spearhead FreudFest, a three-month series of lectures, screenings and art exhibits culminating in FreudFest Day on May 21 (Freud’s actual birthday is May 6).

Notable guest speakers include Israeli religion professor Aviva Zornberg, NPR’s Ira Glass (host of “This American Life”), philosopher Jonathan Lear and Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky. Separately, the Jewish Film Festival will present screenings of classics such as Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and the 1926 German expressionist film “Secrets of the Soul.”

“It’s not about Freud,” says Kahn of FreudFest. “It’s about Freud’s ideas: dreams, imagination, the unconscious, as well as psychotherapy. He is the leaping-off place for so much of how we see the world.”

Though Freud’s work has universal application, the Jewish community has proudly claimed the good doctor as one of its own. Despite Freud’s well-known disdain for religion, he was a proud Jew. Ultimately, as an old man he fled Nazi-occupied Austria, while his sisters later perished in the Holocaust.

Some scholars see a link between Freud’s theories and his status as a Jew living in a virulently anti-Semitic country.

“If there’s anything Jewish about Freud, it’s the ability to be of society and simultaneously stand outside it,” says Sander Gilman, an Emory University history professor who will appear at FreudFest. “He’s not in the ghetto, but because there is prejudice, he always feels not quite welcome. It gives him a real edge.”

Adds cultural historian Michael S. Roth, “Freud’s reaction to Nazism was to become more public about his identification as a Jew. He was a confirmed and vocal atheist, but that didn’t get in the way of identifying as a Jew, though a secular Jew to be sure.”

Roth, who also serves as president of the California College of the Arts, will deliver the FreudFest keynote speech, “Why Freud Haunts Us.”

His presentation will feature film clips to show how Freud’s ideas became common currency in the 20th century. The clips include everything from a Popeye cartoon (Pluto tells Popeye if he stops eating spinach, his neurotic impulses will be cured) to a scene from an old “Newhart” episode in which Bob explains transference.

“Watching Bugs Bunny psychoanalyze Elmer Fudd doesn’t give you enormous insight into analysis,” says Roth, “but it does show that people get it enough to get the jokes. It’s become part of American folk psychology. People use these concepts to understand one another.”

“Analysis has been a living enterprise,” says psychoanalyst and FreudFest presenter Nancy Chodorow, “because Freud still remains the best and only theory we have of certain elements of mind.”

Those elements, according to Freud, originate in a roiling unconscious mind, tempered by childhood trauma, informed by emerging sexuality and divided into the classic Freudian triune: id, ego and superego.

“Freud invented the theory of the mind, and the methods for analyzing and discovering its processes,” adds Chodorow. “Freud would be the first to say other people, like poets, understood unconscious mental processes but they didn’t have a theory of their workings or a method for studying them.”

Chodorow’s admiration for Freud extends even further. “He was the only major thinker of the 19th century and most of the 20th who made sex and gender central, who made people’s sexuality central to who they are.”

The field of psychology has changed since Freud’s day. A hundred years ago there was only one option for the psychotherapy consumer: Freudian psychoanalysis. Now, there are numerous schools — American ego-psychology, British object-relations, Jungian analytic psychology, Lacanian analysis — all with journals and institutes devoted to their doctrines.

While Freud’s style of psychoanalysis is still practiced, it takes up a relatively small corner of the therapy universe. For many patients today, a weekly visit to the shrink is often boosted with anti-depressive drugs such as Prozac.

If simply feeling better is the objective for most patients, then pills have largely replaced the couch. But is feeling better enough of a goal?

“Freud said some day there may be a chemical intervention that would replace the therapy he talked about,” says Roth. “He was open to biological explanations. But what Freud discovered was that people begin to feel some relief from psychic suffering when they get to tell their own story.”

Naomi Janowitz, chair of religious studies at U.C. Davis and another FreudFest presenter, agrees.

“Questions of meaning aren’t subject to medication,” says Janowitz. “Freud was fearless at raising questions, and he had deep insights into the unconscious motivations for the individual and society.”

Janowitz doesn’t just talk the talk. She has already completed her coursework to become a psychoanalyst herself.

Meanwhile, she finds much in Freud’s work that resonates with her as a professor of religious studies. “He saw religion in the role of defense, related to childhood fears,” she says. “On the other hand, he very clearly identified as Jewish. He was more influenced [by Judaism] than he consciously admitted.”

Gilman, who has written two books on Freud, isn’t so sure. “He is rigorously anti-religion,” he says. “He thought it was magical thinking, a way of organizing the world that was not productive. Religion was a neurosis. But what we’ve learned is that there are multiple ways of organizing identity, and religion is one of them. Religious belief is not pathology but normal human experience.”

In his academic research, Gilman sees a direct connection between the rise of Freud’s influence, beginning in the late 19th century, and the advent of elective cosmetic surgery. In fact, his FreudFest lecture is titled “Freud’s Nose Job.”

Linking psychotherapy and cosmetic surgery makes sense to Gilman. He sees both as common pathways to increased self-esteem.

“It’s the question today,” adds Gilman. “If you feel bad about yourself, do you go to the cosmetic surgeon or the psychotherapist? Freud was competing with cosmetic surgery.”

As influential as Freud has been, many of his theories — from the Oedipal complex (which, to oversimplify, contends that boys idealize, even sexualize, their mothers) to penis envy — have come under withering scrutiny over the last 50 years, to the point of serious debunking.

But Freud’s fans haven’t counted him out yet.

“Was he right about Oedipal?” asks Gilman. “He uses those categories as a way of talking about human relationships. Yes, he’s sexist, he’s a central European thinker, a neo-romantic, but an awful lot of what he came up with makes sense. The debunking of Freud is the debunking of the magic man who can tell you what your dreams mean.”

Adds Gary Grenell, a Seattle psychoanalyst who was visiting San Francisco recently, “Freud’s lasting contributions to psychoanalytic understanding of human nature are a belief in the power of the unconscious to exert control over human behaviors; the belief that dreams are meaningful phenomena that can inform us of our inner emotional life; and a belief that people are made up of powerful drives that must be balanced with the constraints of society.”

For Kahn, FreudFest is more than just a programming bonanza for the JCC. It’s personal. His mother is an analyst and five of his best friends were also the children of therapists. “My world as a contemporary American,” he says, “was so informed by Freud’s ideas.”

The same is true for all the FreudFest participants, and probably everyone else in the industrialized world. And as alienating as that world can be, as frightening as that inward journey might be, the legacy of Sigmund Freud offers a measure of comfort.

“Freud,” says Janowitz, “gives us tools for figuring out how we think of ourselves as active agents in the world. He’s very much in favor of becoming as aware as possible.”

Freud — his inner and outer lives

What’s happening at May 21 FreudFest

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.