Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and author of the recently published The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days. In this week’s issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription), he has published a brief essay about his book, which has also been reviewed in The Guardian. It is, I think, an important essay, since Edmundson addresses questions that are of great importance to us today. Manifestly, the book began as an investigation about death and dying, an attempt to more fully understand what it might mean to die a good death, a good secular death. But as Edmundson began to study Freud’s old age and his later works, he came to see that the hurdles and plights that Freud faced were in many ways still ours. Both religious fundamentalism and political tyranny threatened Freud in his old age, and in very immediate ways.
But Freud did more than experience that tyranny, he also wrote about it in amazingly prescient books and essays. Totem and Taboo, Group Psychology, Future of an Illusion, and a number of his other later writings analyzed how and why authority goes bad and becomes oppressive. He concluded that the rise of Hitler was but part of the endless recurrence of the same dynamics, a sad hunger for Truth, the Center, the Leader, and the Law. Anna Freud pointed out that by understanding the darkness of that need and caring to make it plain for all to see, Freud was one who had perhaps truly brought something into the world that was genuinely new. Edmundson has made a major contribution by reminding us of Freud’s later studies.
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