Americans and the unconscious.

Americans and the unconscious. – book reviews

Laurence Miller

Americans and the Unconscious

Our national mentality has been enchantedby the “charms’ (to use Tocqueville’s word) of the unconscious mind, according to Robert C. Fuller’s Americans and the Unconscious (Oxford University Press, $19.95). We Americans, he argues, “have imbued the unconscious with the function of restoring harmony between the individual and an immanent spiritual power.’

An early inroad was provided bythe exponents of mesmerism, who in the early and middle 1800s became the first Americans to capitalize on unconscious interpersonal psychodynamics. The feats performed by subjects during mesmeric trance states– reading minds, seeing through parts of the body–reinforced the idea that the psyche possessed a powerful hidden dimension with potential links to a higher spiritual realm.

Scientific approaches began in thelate 19th century with the consolidation of American psychology as a distinct academic discipline. The hero of Fuller’s account is clearly William James and his Functionalist school of psychology. By viewing the unconscious depths of human personality as both psychological and spiritual, says Fuller, James “made it possible for modern Americans to view self-exploration as spiritually significant and religious experience as psychologically profound.’ Adding a cheerily progressive version of Darwinism further shaped Functionalism’s view of the unconscious as a gateway to personal growth, material success and spiritual fulfillment.

Upon this gala of transcendentalYankee revelry was thrown the wet blanket of European psychoanalysis. The orthodox Freudians served up a conception of humanity as resigned to the tragic character of life, pursuing whatever limited measure of personal fulfillment was available, while stoically accepting the inevitable compromises and renunciations necessitated by treading the thin line between instinct gratification and the demands of a gray reality.

No surprise, then, that in such publicationsas “Sigmund Freud, Pessimist,’ American writers branded Freud’s work as a “morbid psychology’ or as “downright “depressing.” For his part, James responded to some of Freud’s comments with a grandiloquent “Bah!’ Moreover, Fuller argues, the resistance to the Freudian sexual emphasis had less to do with any innate American prudery than with psychoanalysis’s repudiation of “higher’ spiritual forces.

Meanwhile, there loomed the evengreater menace of a rabidly anti-mentalistic behaviorism. If James is this book’s hero, then John Watson is the villain of the piece. Fuller devotes several pages of character assassination to document the alleged connection between Watson’s intellectual system and his presumed antisocial personality traits.

But behaviorism was just too sterilean idea to have any lasting appeal for the majority of Americans. And orthodox psychoanalysis would eventually be appropriated by, and assimilated into, the American psychological mindset by such neo-Freudian and humanistic innovators as Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Also, Fuller suggests, today’s popularizers of psychology seem to be cashing in on our indomitable national yearning to weave the unconscious into an all-encompassing philosophy of life.

I would have to take issue withFuller’s contention that the Transcendentalist-Functionalist approach to the unconscious is the one that has dominantly and enduringly seeped into the modern American consciousness. Rather, even to this day, and even in America, the contribution of Freudian psychoanalysis to modern psychological, cultural and popular thought can scarcely be overestimated. If you don’t believe this, stop any 10 people on the street, ask them to name a “famous psychologist’ and see how many of them answer, “William James.’

This aside, Americans and the Unconsciousunderscores the fact that psychologies are ideologies and that a system’s lasting influence depends as much on popular mores and aspirations as on scientific validation and endorsement. Fuller has illuminated an important area in the history of psychology and Western thought.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group