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The Art of Being Erich Fromm

Adorno seems to have suspected what Marcuse articulated more sharply: that Fromm was not a revolutionary who thought that only with the overthrow of the current social order could we expect human happiness, but a meliorist. He thought he could show his patients in his psychotherapeutic practice, and later the readers of his many best sellers, how to be happy and useful on the basis of their own inner resources even if consumer society provided little help.

The conflict with Horkheimer and Adorno, which ended with Fromm being dismissed from the institute, was dispiriting, but New York gave him exactly what he needed. He became close friends with the Columbia social scientists, and widened his horizons. Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict found him more than receptive to the insights of the new cultural anthropology. Simultaneously, he became a close colleague of neo-Freudians such as Harry Stack Sullivan and Karen Horney. His emotional life was not neglected; his attractiveness to women much older than himself was still strong, and he had a long affair with Horney (whose daughter he analyzed in defiance both of orthodoxy and common sense), as well as with the African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham.

The outcome was his first and in many ways best book, Escape from Freedom. His studies in working-class political attitudes had revealed that many working- and lower-middle-class Germans had unexpectedly authoritarian attitudes. Today, we are unsurprised by the conservative moral, religious, racial, and political views of many white working-class Americans. Eighty years ago, the same attitudes came as a surprise to investigators. Escape from Freedom has a simple explanation:

It is the thesis of this book that modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.

That striking dichotomy—total submission and quest for dependency or confident self-assertion—is characteristic of Fromm, and a good part of his appeal to many of his readers. But the heart of Escape was Fromm’s exploration of the different ways in which we evade the anxieties of freedom. Some aspects of the human condition were invariant; the first encounter with our own separate individuality occurs at birth when we are expelled from the security of the womb. During childhood we acquire a sense of self, and begin to become capable of acting autonomously. Unsurprisingly, Fromm’s anthropologist colleagues were doubtful whether anything could usefully be said about children in all societies; coming of age in Samoa was just too unlike growing up in Frankfurt.

But Fromm was interested only in the contrast between premodern Western society, which he thought of as a society that provided psychic security but left little room for individuality, and the modern society that had come into existence after the Reformation and the rise of the capitalist economy. It provided what he described as “negative freedom,” a loss of security and the promotion of an individualism that throws us on our own resources in a competitive and frightening environment. For Fromm, angst about human existence was not an inescapable element in the human condition, but it was hard to escape in modern society. He was not a Heideggerian, but a heretical follower of Freud and Marx.

The two names with the longest entries in the index of Escape are those of Luther and Hitler. It is an old accusation against Luther that he taught the Germans to subject themselves to authority in a way that disabled them from joining liberal Europe. It is not obvious that the charge is just. As Friedman mildly observes, the Luther who serves as a proto-Hitler, demanding absolute submission to God and authority, “was not the Luther portrayed by Reformation scholars.” As to why Hitler found willing followers, Fromm reached for an explanation in the development of a sadomasochistic psychology; the authoritarian personality was manifested in submission to superiors and brutality to inferiors.

Although the search for the authoritarian personality was the centerpiece of Escape from Freedom when it appeared in 1941, elements of Fromm’s later criticisms of the consumer society were already visible; in particular, some sharp comments about the commercialization of friendship antedate his later observations about what he called the “marketing” personality, the character of people who treat their own abilities as so many resources to extract favors from others. They are much like the greeters at Wal-Mart, from whom one can hardly expect affection for incoming customers. The other strategy for evading the need to cope with the demands of freedom that Fromm identified was “automaton conformity,” essentially going through the motions that authority requires. Friedman rightly observes that this was an idea that resurfaced a decade and a half later in William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.

The title of Lawrence Friedman’s biography is well chosen. Not only did Fromm lead several lives in sequence, in Germany, the United States, and Mexico, he invariably led several at once. At the height of his career, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s, he was in near-perpetual motion between Mexico City and New York, lecturing inside and outside the academy, analyzing patients, training students, running psychoanalytic institutes in Mexico and New York, advising politicians about disarmament, trying to create a worldwide movement for socialist humanism, urging an end to nuclear weapons, and writing a string of highly successful books. Nor did this interfere with his private life. Fromm married his third and last wife, Annis Freeman, in 1953; it was a long and happy marriage, although Annis had doubts about her husband’s fidelity that Friedman seems to share.

The subtitle of the biography is equally well chosen. If readers of Lawrence Friedman’s engaging account of Erich Fromm remember one thing from The Lives of Erich Fromm, it will be that The Art of Loving has sold twenty-six million copies since it was published in 1956. In a recent interview, Friedman puts the number at thirty million. According to Friedman, it had by the early 1980s become the second-best-selling work in the German language, eclipsed only by the Bible. A fiftieth anniversary edition was published in 2005. Friedman writes: “On Valen- tine’s Day in recent years, the book has been featured in the window of the Harvard Cooperative store in Cambridge, purporting to instruct those who lacked ‘rich productive lives.’” This may seem strange: The Art of Loving is far from a handbook promising satisfaction to anyone who masters its techniques; the “loving” whose art it encourages its readers to practice has more in common with agape, the divine love that Saint Paul speaks of, or with spontaneous selfless secular love, than with the erotic drives on which Freud concentrated his attention.

The book’s success is less strange than it appears. Fromm was insistent that the last thing he wanted to do was write a self-help manual in the fashion of How to Win Friends and Influence People, still less a Western Kama Sutra. He was a friend and political supporter of Adlai Stevenson, who famously quipped that he found “the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling,” and would have hated the idea that he had anything in common with Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale. Indeed Dale Carnegie’s notion that we should work on our personality to make ourselves attractive to others the better to sway them to our purposes is just what Fromm criticized as the “marketing” personality.

Nonetheless, The Art of Loving really is a self-help manual. It has a great deal in common with the innumerable works that fill the “personal development” sections of bookstores throughout the US. What gives it its edge is that it is self-help for readers who wish to know something about the ideas of Marx and Freud, who think that contemporary societies overvalue money and consumption, and who are receptive to Fromm’s insistence that if love is an art, it takes knowledge and effort to master the art. Fromm’s message was, as he said himself in the preface to The Art of Loving, familiar to anyone who had read Escape from Freedom, Man for Himself, or The Sane Society; but while those books were substantial and sociological, The Art of Loving was very short, very personal, and aimed directly at the reader.

Others besides Lawrence Friedman also ascribed its success to more personal factors. Fromm had had a difficult second marriage; he and Henny Gurland were devoted to each other, but she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis; she was a depressive, but the constant pain of her illness would have destroyed the tranquility of a much happier person.

Henny committed suicide in 1952; soon after, Fromm began his courtship of Annis Freeman, and they married in December 1953. The Art of Loving appeared two years later, and its markedly optimistic, even exuberant tone reflected Fromm’s own uninhibited happiness. Fromm always held that a person who was really capable of love would love not only whomever he or she was “in love” with in the conventional sense, but humanity generally, and life itself. On this occasion, the unity of theory and practice seemed to have been achieved; readers often remark on the sense of a personal encounter with the author that they experience.

Love of the world is entirely consistent with thinking that it is endangered by human folly and aggression, and Fromm was one of innumerable writers on the left who thought that the cold war was all too likely to end in a nuclear holocaust and the end of civilized life. This was what led him into American politics. He was famous enough to get the attention of serious politicians such as Adlai Stevenson and William Fulbright; Annis was wealthy in her own right, and once The Art of Loving started selling in vast numbers he too was rich enough to contribute to political campaigns and pay for advertisements in The New York Times and elsewhere calling for nuclear disarmament and the pursuit of less hostile relations with the Soviet Union and its allies. It appears that, through his connection with influential academics and politicians, he may even have had some influence on President Kennedy with his suggestion that the United States should embarrass the Soviets with kindness, so to speak, engaging in measures of unilateral disarmament to reassure the Soviets of the peacefulness of American intentions.

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