A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers From 1930 to 1980
by Erik H. Erikson, edited by Stephen Schlein Ph.D.
Norton, 782 pp., $29.95
Erik Erikson must surely be the most distinguished living psychoanalyst. His early work in child therapy, his ventures into psychoanalytic anthropology, his rendering of the “identity crisis” and of the “stages” in the human life cycle, all these established him as a brilliant, though aberrant, psychoanalytic theorist, aberrant particularly in his sensitivity to the ways modern culture has shaped the neuroses of contemporary life. Then came his prize-winning biographies of the young Luther and of the aging Gandhi, which catapulted him beyond the starchy circle of Freudian psychoanalysts and brought his work to the attention of historians and literary people. Younger historians began to find Erikson’s form of “psychohistory” attractive. And social critics found his psychological rendering of the Marxist idea of alienation—the famous “identity crisis”—a less pessimistic way of thinking about dropouts and delinquents.
In all these excursions beyond traditional psychoanalytic concerns, Erikson managed always to appear to be honoring Freud’s heritage, indeed claimed his work to be an “extension” of psychoanalytic theory—though that theory was based principally on a theory of instincts and on a parochial view of family drama, with little to say about the strains within society that produced the conflicts. Erikson seemed to be bringing psychoanalytic discussion into touch with late-twentieth-century cultural theory. Whether he brought the psychoanalytic establishment along with him is another question. What is remarkable is that he has managed all this without getting himself kicked out of the psychoanalytic fold (no mean feat, given the fate of earlier innovators). He managed it, moreover, without benefit of a medical degree—or any other higher degree, for that matter—and did so at a time when psychoanalysis was growing ever more medical and professionalized. Psychoanalysts are plainly proud of him and shower him with honors. Erikson is unique among them for his qualities as a writer and thinker, unique also in his concern with the psychological issues of modernity. He may have had a deeper effect on laymen than he has had on his fellow analysts.
So it is of more than passing interest that his publisher has seen fit to bring out a selection of his essays and “papers” covering the half-century from 1930 to 1980. For these essays provide us with a chance not only to assess Erikson as a cultural figure in his own right, but to see him against the backdrop of the psychoanalytic movement.
The collection contains little that is “new” or surprising in Erikson’s thought. But in their half-century sweep, the essays provide new insights into the mind of this gifted man, and into the milieu in which he chose to work. What is apparent from the earliest essay in 1930 to the pieces written a half-century later is that there are two Eriksons: one a surprisingly doctrinaire psychoanalyst, embracing the received doctrines of the master; the other a moralist, artist, and intellectual trying to deal with a culture that has begun to lose its power as an instrument for fulfilling …