American Prophet

Life History and the Historical Moment

by Erik H. Erikson
Norton, 283 pp., $9.95

The appearance of another collection of Erik Erikson’s incidental pieces, loosely connected in theme, is not in itself an event of great significance—not, certainly, one to be compared with the arrival of the brilliant and novel studies on which his reputation mainly rests: Childhood and Society, Young Man Luther, Gandhi’s Truth. It has been six years now since Erikson’s last major book, and though everything he writes merits attention, his career has recently been in a phase of clarification, consolidation, and response to criticism. Recently Erikson the author has been much occupied with Erikson the figure: with the benevolent adjuster of social polarities (as in his cautious and labored encounter with Huey Newton at Yale); with the prophet and catalyst of a “new identity” for Americans and others;1 and with the psychohistorical pioneer whose well-intentioned dicta, twisted by partisan opponents, must be patiently restated, not without an occasional note of injured majesty.

Now we have Erikson’s most explicitly personal book, in which he directly discusses his early life and career, spars posthumously with Freud, recounts the origin and methodology of his research into Gandhi, and politely rebukes the feminists who took him to task for theorizing about the “inner space” of womankind. In these conference papers, addresses, and reviews, Erikson always has at least one eye on his reputation. It is, in short, his own achievement, rather than any new area of inquiry, to which our attention is now persistently directed. A prior concern with Erikson is requisite if Life History and the Historical Moment is to take on importance.

No one who cares about the vicissitudes of Freudian thought, however, will lack that concern. For Erikson above all other ego psychologists has turned psychoanalysis, a doctrine plagued by mechanism, reification, and arbitrary universalism, into a reasonably flexible tool for addressing historical particulars. It is Erikson, again, who has expanded and most clearly systematized Freud’s ideas about early development, making all those zones, modes, modalities, and stages look less like crackpot categories than like ordinary observables of childhood. And it is Erikson who has done most to combat the gloom imparted to psychoanalysis by Freud’s temperamental bias. The currency of such Eriksonian terms as “basic trust,” “identity crisis,” and “moratorium” may remind us how successful he has been in urging a nondeterministic view of crises and their solutions. His success has been won through vivid and delicately handled examples—not just in the three famous books, but also in essays that subtly blend analytic penetration and restraint. He is at once the most resourceful, the most humane, and not coincidentally the most popular of all Freud’s heirs.

Erikson’s prestige is the more remarkable because psychoanalysis as an intellectual movement has plainly fallen on hard times. There is wide agreement that the logic of Freudian reasoning is suspiciously loose; that its data are too private and inferential to be scientifically trustworthy; that many of its particular assertions, especially regarding women, have owed more to ideology and superstition than to clinical fact; and that its lingering appeal to Freud’s personal word leaves it only partly responsive to new knowledge. Though the individual Freudian may—and too often does—shrug off these criticisms, their cumulative effect has been to jeopardize his whole style of thinking. Psychoanalysis finds itself conceding one failing after another in the hope that some shrunken core of method or insight will be considered salvageable. Except for ponderously whimsical Parisian recastings of Freud’s “text,” only Erikson’s fledgling discipline of psychohistory seems capable of stirring excitement today.2 And it is clear to most observers that psychohistory is far from invulnerable to the criticism that has been besetting psychoanalysis on every side.

If Erikson has thrived in this worsening climate, part of the reason may be that he has managed to join in the dissent from orthodoxy without forsaking the most promising aspects of psychoanalysis—its attentiveness to signs of conflict, its hospitality to multiple significance, its ideas of ambivalence, identification, repression, and projection. Nothing in his gracious prose suggests that he feels threatened by an acknowledgment of the more quirky and culture-bound side of Freudianism. He himself has come to accept the idea that a theory of trauma and dysfunction cannot be considered a general psychology, and his display of scruples inspires confidence in his own more modest and qualified use of that theory.

Nor does Erikson wish to deny that psychoanalysis is among other things an instrument of social and political advocacy. Several chapters of Life History, along with previous essays, are marked by an awareness of Freud’s biases and of the partisan function of psychoanalysis “in the cultural and ideological controversies of our time.” Indeed, Erikson welcomes this function, claiming that psychoanalysis cannot be a healing art without “directly intervening in the processes by which values are formed and transmitted in society.” Unlike the classic Freudian, who pretended to be practicing value-neutral medicine while he was promoting a Weltanschauung, Erikson appears to know just where his clinical principles cease and his moral commitment begins.

That moral commitment must itself be counted among the reasons for Erikson’s public acclaim. Unlike Freud, who could not always suppress his scorn for human folly, Erikson is patently a friend of man. He remains unmesmerized by those psychic recesses that prompted Freud to brood about a primal crime, hereditary guilt, and man’s incurable lust for war. Erikson instead hopes to instill enlightened and pacific ideals in a species which may yet repay his faith in its unfulfilled nobility. His emphasis falls on the altruistic strivings of youth, the satisfaction of motherhood, the dignity and wisdom of age, the indispensability of the nuclear family, and the need for harmony among the nations, which will surely outgrow their immature divisiveness. Readers who think of Erikson as having derived these perceptions from deep psychological research are bound to feel relieved that the nightmare of Freudian fatalism has been dispelled at last.3

Not everyone, however, is prepared to regard Erikson’s achievement in this generous light. Those who dissent from particular ingredients of his ethical vision, or whose wariness is aroused by the coinciding of that vision with educated middle-class opinion, have already begun to wonder whether he hasn’t contrived a shrewd but specious compromise between Freudianism and liberal ideology. The suspicion is rude, even shocking; yet once it has been entertained, Erikson’s writings are curiously helpless to drive it away. It is clear that he has grafted his own virtue-oriented scheme of development onto Freud’s drive-oriented one, but his objective basis for doing so is far from readily apparent.

In order to refute his detractors, Erikson must be able to show, not merely assert, that he has drawn his ideas from replicable scientific findings; otherwise the debate immediately reduces to an exchange of unsupported claims. But here the empirical weakness of the Freudian tradition lets him down. As psychoanalysis is gradually demoted from a science to a body of challengeable propositions, fewer and fewer readers will be satisfied by Erikson’s personal assurance that he has seen and circumvented the methodological pitfalls. Erikson himself, after all, has debunked the physicalistic pretensions of psychoanalysis, spurned its main interpretative expectation (which is that primitive and infantile concerns will always be found to underlie complex and adult ones), and depicted it as one movement among many that have derived a new “truth” out of emergent cultural forces. How then can he offer his own neo-Freudian conclusions as the fruits of psychoanalytic investigation? Has he, in his psychohistorical researches, discovered that certain Freudian ideas are permanently and cross-culturally valid?

No forthright answer to this question can be extracted from Erikson’s works. Unlike his late friend David Rapaport, who brought to psychoanalytic theorizing a dry Kantian rigor, he has been by disposition a peace-maker among competing ideas. He is, by his own account in Life History, someone with a propensity for “moving on,” taking inspiration where he finds it while indefinitely postponing the choice of “belonging anywhere quite irreversibly.” What drew him toward psychoanalysis was not its conceptual niceties but, he says, Freud’s speculative “freedom and enjoyment of inquiry,” with which he has always felt “a particular and maybe peculiar identification.” Yet Erikson is not quite ready to admit that his ideas originated in that unconstrained license to generalize. Rather, he falls back ambiguously on the very authority he would seem to have demystified—the authority of psychoanalysis as a reliable scientific method.

It is, oddly enough, because he is preeminently a moralist that Erikson needs to keep that empirical authority alive. The strong cultural influence that psychoanalysis exerted for decades, and that Erikson hopes to retain, was facilitated by Freud’s sincere but mistaken conviction that he was an ethically neutral scientist. The selfishness and undependability he ascribed to the unconscious impressed people because they thought of him not as an anti-utopian social philosopher but as a conscientious explorer sending back reports from an alarmingly savage territory. If readers had been able to penetrate his scientistic vocabulary of drives, cathexes, and mechanisms, they would have seen immediately that psychoanalysis is a socially engaged doctrine—and their interest in it would have been more guarded. Erikson’s root concepts, in contrast to Freud’s, are explicitly moral, and he openly aspires to guide his readers toward certain sociopolitical values; but for this very reason he cannot bear to part with the myth of the psychoanalyst as scientist. In order to be heard with the respect to which renowned Freudians have long been accustomed, he must swallow his evident misgivings and do what he can to keep that myth alive.

Erikson’s method of handling historical problems implies an awareness that the a priori nucleus of Freudian ideas is highly suspect. Yet he repeatedly calls psychoanalysis a “science,” one which “will take generations to find proper forms of verification,” but which meanwhile has managed to cast light on “man’s central motivations.” The analyst’s consulting room, he says, is also “a psychologist’s laboratory,” and “clinical verification…is always of the essence in any conceptual shift in psychoanalysis.” If we ask what this verification consists of—how, for example, it can be disentangled from the ideological influence that Erikson concedes and actually applauds as a means of keeping psychoanalysis adaptable to “humanist enlightenment”—we are met only with a smokescreen of temporizing rhetoric.

This rhetoric consists largely of hedged assertions that psychoanalysis includes, or should include, “methods of observing its own functioning in the cultural-historical process.” “Precisely because it knows how to study the importance of oversimplified world views for the management of anxiety in each person and community, and especially so as it becomes aware of its own historical fate in such changing world images,” psychoanalysis “may have the built-in correctives” for “pseudo-ethical” distortions of its concepts. Which is to say that the psychoanalyst may attain a kind of objectivity by noticing, and somehow making allowance for, the very ideologizing of clinical doctrine that Erikson encourages him to indulge.

The murkiness of this position should be readily apparent. If the consulting-room “laboratory”—a laboratory whose forms of proof may be worked out several generations from now—has yielded certain concepts that Erikson correctly finds redundant and indefensible, how can we imagine that “built-in correctives” will spare psychoanalysis from ideological warping?

It is true that Freudians have always prided themselves on what Erikson approvingly calls their “disciplined subjectivity,” namely their alertness to the effects of transference and counter-transference; and in Life History he calls grandly for an extension of self-analysis to the psychohistorian’s “re-transference on former selves” and even to “cross transferences from one reviewer of the same subject to another.” But all this punctilio appears quite empty when we realize that the analyst may overlook a given instance of unconscious projection on his part; left alone with his good intentions and his belief in his own acuteness, he possesses nothing resembling the inter-subjective checking whereby genuine sciences bring the individual theorizer to logical and empirical account. That Erikson himself is unusually self-aware, no one would deny. But by ascribing a special self-corrective acumen to a movement whose cultural relativity he has helped to expose, he risks too much of his credit in a dubious cause.

Whenever Erikson brings himself to the verge of admitting that psychoanalysis has no adequate means of weeding out folklore, we can be sure to find a tepid non sequitur allowing the point to slip vaguely away. Thus one chapter of Life History ends with this inconclusive paragraph:

Psychoanalysis represents a very special admixture of “laboratory” conditions, methodological climate, and personal and ideological involvement. Other fields may claim to be governed by radically different admixtures and certainly by much less subjective kinds of evidence. But I wonder whether they could insist, at any time, on a total absence of any one of the ingredients described here.

The obvious rejoinder is that “other fields” make no claim that their adherents are immune to passion and fashion; what they claim is allegiance to certain criteria of falsification which psychoanalysis, by virtue of the inaccessibility of its data and the open-endedness of its logic, must necessarily forgo. But here and elsewhere, Erikson does not stay for an answer. He leaves us to infer, erroneously, that “personal and ideological involvement,” since it can be detected in scientists of every sort, poses no fundamental obstacle to the verification of Freudian ideas.

If Erikson were merely being generous toward a discipline he admired from a distance, his equivocations about psychoanalysis would have only a peripheral interest. In fact, however, he is more committed to the Freudian mode of drawing inferences than one might gather from his tentative-sounding prose. The key debility in that mode is its fatal readiness to corroborate any number of incompatible hunches about a given phenomenon, which can, according to the analyst’s whim, be taken to mean either what it seems to mean, or exactly the opposite, or some other idea which it has supposedly “displaced.”

Erikson’s habit is to take just enough advantage of the pliability in Freudian reasoning to gain a privileged angle on his subject—and then to highlight his forbearance in not following through with an orthodox reductionist interpretation. Hoping, for example, to show that the Ahmedabad mill strike was “the Event” in the emergence of Gandhi’s vocation, he found support in Gandhi’s telltale “wish to ‘play it down’ “—that is, in the fact that the strike receives no special emphasis in Gandhi’s autobiography or elsewhere in his writings.4 With the concepts of resistance and denial ready at hand, the psychohistorian can place his central dramatic emphasis wherever he pleases. It is small recompense when he sensitively discusses and cautions against the arrogance of method which he nevertheless continues to exercise.

Despite the contrast he repeatedly implies between Freud’s narrow views and his own open-mindedness, Erikson from the beginning has embraced some of the more dogmatic points of Freudian doctrine. The epigenetic scheme articulated in Childhood and Society presumes, along with Freud and Abraham, that there are real “stages of the libido” corresponding to the imagery of adult patients and that the ground plan of human character is demarcated by certain constants: the potentially traumatic conflicts over feeding, elimination, phallic assertion, and, in females, an inceptiveness which is apt to make a girl “more dependent and more demanding.”5 “Freud’s findings regarding the sexual etiology of a mental disturbance,” declared Erikson a quarter-century ago, “are as true for our patients as they were for his…”; and he chooses this very passage to reaffirm in his latest work, as if to restore a solidarity with Freud that he might seem to have long since demolished.

There is, in an ironical sense, justice in the statement that the sexual etiology of neurosis remains as true as ever, for Freud never demonstrated that etiology in the first place. He merely chose to reconstruct determinative infantile trials on the basis of “screen memories” and leading themes in his patients’ associations. Virtually the entire Freudian theory of childhood was devised by remote and chancy inference, without direct observation of children themselves. In Childhood and Society Erikson accepted that theory in most of its essentials, using his own work with children not to test the theory but to provide anecdotal illustration of it. To be sure, he then went on to argue with exemplary force that intrapsychic factors alone give only a partial account of any patient’s situation. What he did not do, however, was to inquire whether ordinary childhood development ought to be characterized by rubrics borrowed from the study of extraordinary adult breakdown. As opposed, say, to the truly empirical formulations of Piaget, Erikson’s ideas about the stages of childhood have a distinctly scholastic air.

But there is nothing derivative about the uniquely Eriksonian successors to those stages. On the contrary, they seem to have been invented ex nihilo. I refer to the highly moralized struggles between “intimacy and distantiation,” “generativity and stagnation,” “integrity and despair,” and so forth. Without disclosing the evidence that made him settle on each pair of terms instead of some other pair, Erikson has presumed to set forth a complete life plan for his species, irrespective of cultural differences. Like Freud in promulgating the death instinct, he has directly translated his world view into “science.”

That world view, as we have already seen, is in some respects opposite to Freud’s, and one must admire the ingenuity with which Erikson appears to anchor it in Freud’s work. Where Freud is reductive and “originological,” Erikson is expansive and teleological, depicting both the individual and the human race as growing toward the realization of predestined ideals. Those ideals, embodying everything that leads “outward from self-centeredness to the mutuality of love and communality, forward from the enslaving past to the utopian anticipation of new potentialities, and upward from the unconscious to the enigma of consciousness,” are a concise summation of the liberal-Protestant ethos that Erikson found so attractive when he arrived in the New World. He has paid America the honor of deciding that its favorite virtues are, in some unexplained sense, immanent in the very nature of man.

A skeptical reader may feel entitled to be told how Erikson knows that the “guiding vision” now required by mankind is already enacting itself in history. But rather than defend his teleology in detail, Erikson appears content with the reflection that psychoanalysis and prophecy traditionally go hand in hand. Indeed, he tries to convince himself that Freud’s speculations were secretly in alignment with his own. Freud, he divines, anticipated “a new morality…which in our time may well (again, because it must) evolve from psychoanalytic and ecological considerations.” And when his persuasive energy falters, Erikson is not above enlisting the support of Freudian ideas that he has elsewhere explicitly rejected. For instance:

If I, furthermore, postulate a built-in developmental aim of adult maturity in the individual life cycle and an intrinsic socio-evolutionary goal of one specieshood for mankind, I may, again, remind you that Freud pointed to the recurrent self-assertion of Eros as a power binding larger and larger units of mankind together, and this just when he was tragically aware of the periodical and ever more efficient destructiveness of Thanatos.

What Freud is here said to have been tragically aware of is an “instinct” that Erikson, earlier in the same volume, characterizes as “a grandiose contradiction in terms.” But when one posits intrinsic socio-evolutionary goals for mankind, one can’t be finicky in one’s choice of corroborating references.

It should be borne in mind that Erikson’s hollowest pronouncements are all of recent date—bearing witness, perhaps, only to a certain overexposure to Daedalus conferences on large and timely issues. The usefulness of his concepts remains unaffected by any doubts we may harbor about his world-unifying Gandhian ambitions. At the same time, however, the prevalence of unsupported moralizing in Erikson’s late writings is bound to raise new questions about his early ones. How independent of popular opinion has Erikson ever been? Has his ideological outlook followed from his psychology, or did it rather help to dictate that psychology?

Take, for example, Erikson’s central (though still inadequately defined) concept of identity. He has previously told us that he first began speaking of “identity crises” when observing ego-impaired veterans in the early 1940s.6 But from his latest book we learn that the ideological imperatives of those years also left their stamp on his idea. “In the Roosevelt era,” he recalls, “we immigrants could tell ourselves that America was once more helping to save the Atlantic world from tyranny.” The best hope for resistance to the tide of fanaticism and authoritarianism seemed to lie in the “expansively open…’national character’ ” of his newly adopted country. “What now demanded to be conceptualized…called for a whole new orientation which fused a new world image (and, in fact, a New World image) with traditional theoretical assumptions.” Erikson does not say that he produced “identity” expressly to meet this political requirement, and that is most unlikely. Yet the term was launched on a prevailing updraft of nationalistic idealism, and Erikson was plainly eager to ride that current himself.

Rereading Childhood and Society today, we can’t miss its nakedly political, almost allegorical emphasis—its sunny view of the resourceful American personality, threatened only by “Momism and bossism”; its cautionary examples of German and Russian characterological rigidity; its blunt advice that we watch for renewed attempts by Germans to solve their identity problems at the world’s expense; and its enthusiasm for foiling communism by the exporting of American ideals to foreign masses, who must be convinced “that—from a very longrange point of view—their protestantism is ours and ours, theirs” (Childhood and Society, p. 402).

In thus combining American chauvinism and hypotheses about national character, Erikson was indulging in a well-established and, by the Forties, highly mobilized academic pursuit. The study of “culture and personality,” founded at Yale in the Thirties by Edward Sapir and Erikson’s mentor John Dollard, had concentrated at first on primitive societies and global questions about variability in human nature. By the Forties, however—when, according to Robert Coles, Erikson was writing papers on “submarine psychology” and the most productive ways of interrogating German prisoners (Coles, Erik H. Erikson, pp. 43-44)—this hybrid of anthropology, sociology, and psychology had yielded a victory garden of instrumental projects, from prediction of German feelings about saturation bombing to what Margaret Mead called “the most notable contribution” of national-character research during the war, namely exploration of “the relationship between preserving the Emperor and obtaining a simultaneous and complete surrender of all the Japanese armed forces.”7 Soon after the war, predictably, the Russian “national character” became irresistibly fascinating, with sponsorship of culture-and-personality studies shifting from the prewar Bureau of Indian Affairs to policy institutes, RAND, the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force.8

At Yale, Berkeley, and Harvard as well as in his government service Erikson was in contact with the mainstream of culture-and-personality research, and Childhood and Society, with its progress from the Sioux and Yurok through Hitler to Gorky, can be read in part as a précis of the field’s development. Erikson, too, briefly studied Indians, not just under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but from the BIA’s tacit cultural vantage. In his original report on the Yurok he noted enthusiastically (despite the fact that he “was not able to make relevant observations on Yurok childhood as it is today”) that “the Yurok child, under proper treatment, has a much shorter way to go in adaptation to white standards than does the child of other tribes.”9 And the pathology which, thanks to close study of one film about Gorky’s childhood, he was able to detect in those baby-swaddling Russian peasants (“Is the Russian soul a swaddled soul?”) and their steely Bolshevik masters—“our cold, our dangerous adversaries”—accorded well with many another diagnosis of incurable Soviet irrationality (Childhood and Society, pp. 388, 399).

After the mid-Sixties, for reasons that need no rehearsing, Erikson appears to have changed his mind about the bumptious, eternally adolescent American character and its evangelical destiny. Instead of worrying only that happy-go-lucky Americans might be too impressionable, he now suspects that our myth of the “do-it-yourself personality” rationalizes “the reactionary possession of privileged interests and organized powers” (Dimensions, p. 104). At times he even implies that the whole country is a menace whose collective sickness embraces, in Marcusean style, “the repression of inner conflict in those who overadjust to power, the suppression of adversary opinions, and the ready oppression of foreign people” (Dimensions, p. 111). In short, Erikson appears to have accommodated himself to the new left with the same alacrity with which he formerly became “Americanized.”

What is bothersome here is not the mere change in Erikson’s outlook. Few social thinkers went through the Sixties with their ideology intact, and no special glory attaches to those who did. My point is rather that we must note the extent to which Erikson’s psychological ideas have tagged behind his swerving politics. For Erikson suddenly appears uneasy, not just with the specific American myth of the self-made man, but with the very concept of national identity. Attachment to one’s nation is now regarded as acquiescence in the paranoid projectiveness whereby each artificial grouping vents its craziness on the others. It is in this period of retreat from his cold war patriotism that Erikson has discovered mankind’s inborn program of evolving toward “one specieshood.” When national pride is battered, universalism is revealed to be nature’s immutable law.

Readers whose political consciousness isn’t advancing at the same rate as Erikson’s cannot help but observe how sharply his recent characterological findings differ from his earlier ones. As one former disciple, David Gutmann, remarks:

…in the early 60’s Erikson saw the modal American as a decent and fundamentally reasonable individual…. Today he sees him as a dangerous and primitive psychological type, externalizing his rage and frustrations through sadistic forays against outsiders who represent metaphors of his own impotence. Which of these two versions is the correct one? Can American life and particularly the American character possibly have changed so drastically in so short a time?10

For Gutmann the first Erikson was right and the second one is wrong about our national disposition. More searchingly, we must ask whether his notions in either epoch have been sufficiently independent of the prevailing political mood.

When that mood turns divisive and acrimonious, not even the supremely adaptable Erikson can spare himself from controversy. His gathering troubles are well represented by a chapter of Life History that is given over to an ingenious, appealing, but finally empty defense of his now notorious essay, “Womanhood and the Inner Space.” Considered simply in relation to psychoanalytic orthodoxy, that essay was a progressive document, denying the universality of “female masochism,” minimizing penis envy and “female castration,” and allowing for constructive roles in addition to the reaffirmed one of mothering. Yet it was also a heavily tendentious declaration, insisting, on the basis of no substantial evidence, that women’s achievements are bound to reflect “the implications of what is biologically and anatomically given” (Identity, p. 292). And this blow was cushioned with prose that would have aroused suspicion in a milkmaid:

The singular loveliness and brilliance which young women display in an array of activities obviously removed from the future function of childbearing is one of those esthetic phenomena which almost seem to transcend all goals and purposes and therefore come to symbolize the self-containment of pure being—wherefore young women, in the arts of the ages, have served as the visible representation of ideals and ideas and as the creative man’s muse, anima, and enigma. [Identity, page 283]

In defending his besieged essay, Erikson shows that his feminist critics overlooked numerous qualifications with which he had characteristically blunted his thesis. Yet the critics would hardly have warmed to his reasoning if they had followed it more minutely. For though Erikson was desperately sincere in urging women to expand their public influence, his purpose in doing so was not to recognize female equality but to shore up his own crumbling utopianism. Unnerved in recent years by the proclivity of male leaders, especially American ones, for aggressive foolhardiness, Erikson has appealed to inward-looking womankind to rescue his dream of universal cooperation. What was once entrusted to a nation is now handed along to a sex—provided only that the sex go on behaving like its innately nurturant, enclosing self. This large compliment, needless to say, is lost on women who are weary of serving fantasy roles and who are trying precisely not to be evaluated according to their genital morphology.

Psychoanalytic theory would have meant little to him, Erikson confesses in Life History, without “Freud’s phenomenological and literary approach, which seemed to reflect the very creativity of the unconscious.” In that “literary” approach lie both the immediate charm and the long-term vulnerability of Erikson’s work. He is, at his best, remarkably skillful in capturing the essence of a personality, finding a key detail and drawing out its significance, identifying the large pattern that was too pervasive for the method-bound to recognize. But he remains impressionistic and improvisational when straightforward logic would be welcome. From the beginning he had been less a sober clinical researcher than a virtuoso, mingling sensitive observations with a blend of Freudian dogma, conventional sentiment, and engrossing self-dramatization.

The resultant mixture looks rather volatile, and doubly so now that Erikson has raised the proportion of moralizing and apologetics to empirical psychology. It becomes harder to remain awestruck as he exhorts us to “the redirection of much of human instinctuality,” affects to find in the militancy of youth and women a necessary penultimate phase before “one specieshood” comes to pass, and meanwhile scurries to silence his detractors by accusing them of “re-repression of the obvious.”

Unfortunately for all of us who have been intellectually drawn toward psychoanalysis, very little remains obvious in the legacy of Freud. It is also unfortunate that Erikson, who has done so much to reveal that fact, requires us to forget it if we are to endorse his prophetic aspirations. The task that lies before people of Freudian inclination today is not the intuiting of new psychosocial trends, much less the coaxing of world libido into sublimated channels, but the unsparing reassessment of psychoanalysis itself. Where that reassessment will end, perhaps no one can say; but that it cannot be contained within the limits preferred by Erikson is obvious indeed.


High Tide February 5, 1976

  1. 1

    See In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton (Norton, 1973) and Dimensions of a New Identity: The 1973 Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities (Norton, 1974).

  2. 2

    I do not mean to ignore the efforts of antipositivist philosophers to show that certain of Freud’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously. See generally Richard Wollheim, Freud: a Collection of Critical Essays (Anchor, 1974). But new appreciations of Freud’s intuitive genius only accentuate the failure of both Freud and Freudians to state his theory in a defensible form.

  3. 3

    For an idea of how far such gratitude may be taken, see Robert Coles, Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (Little, Brown, 1970). One must read several pages into Coles’s chapter entitled “The Mahatma” to be quite sure who is intended.

  4. 4

    Erikson’s mercurial tendency is especially visible in his handling of this issue. Throughout Gandhi’s Truth the capitalized Event is accorded a momentous historical and biographical weight. Now, in Life History, Erikson surprisingly rebukes his critics for assuming “that because [the mill strike] became important for me, I also consider it the Event in Gandhi’s life.” Four pages later, however, he is once again referring to how he “made sense of the meaning of the Event in Gandhi’s life.” The bewildered reader must decide for himself how, if at all, these statements can be reconciled.

  5. 5

    Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. (Norton, 1963), p. 90.

  6. 6

    See Identity: Youth and Crisis (Norton, 1968), pp. 16-17.

  7. 7

    Margaret Mead, “The Study of National Character,” in The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method, ed. Daniel Lerner and Harold D. Lasswell (Stanford University Press, 1951), p. 75.

  8. 8

    For an outline of such developments, see Milton Singer, “A Survey of Culture and Personality Theory and Research,” in Studying Personality Cross-Culturally, ed. Bert Kaplan (Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 9-90.

  9. 9

    Erik Homburger Erikson, Observations on the Yurok: Childhood and World Image, University of California Publications in Archaeology and Ethnology, 35, No. 10, p. 283 and n.

  10. 10

    Erik Erikson’s America,” Commentary, September 1974, p. 62.