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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.

  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.

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