The limits of interpretation, between Freud and Jung

Am scris textul de mai jos acum șase ani. Cîțiva dintre oxigeniști l-au văzut deja. Va deveni util într-un context viitor. Că e-n engleză, va trebui să mi-o treceți, din nou, cu vederea. Că am omis notele bibliografice, era numai firesc aici. Merită să amintesc doar cîteva titluri: Paul C. Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious; Ken Frieden, Freud’s Dream of Interpretation; Rhodri Hayward, Resisting History. Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious.

One hundred and seventy years ago, an international religious movement, based in what would come to be known as “the burned-over district”, was reaching a dramatic turning point. Millerism had staked its future on pinpointing the very date of Jesus’ Second Coming, also known as the End of the World. October 22, 1844 passed unremarkably. The ardent Adventists were left with picking up the pieces. Out of that Great Disappointment came, most prominently, the Seventh-day Adventists, whose story is, up to a point, my own.

Beyond psycho-sociological explanations of the resilience of Adventism in the face of disconfirmation, one finds that the very hermeneutics that set believers up for disappointment provided the theological tools to justify that very disappointment. In the words of a Seventh-day Adventist apologist, “what had seemed like the greatest disappointment of all time was now [within the context of new exegetical and doctrinal elaborations] seen as indeed one of the most remarkable fulfillments of all prophetic history – a movement of God’s own appointment, despite its human limitations and misconceptions”. The date had been right, only the nature of the event had been misunderstood – Jesus had actually begun a new, final phase of pre-advent heavenly ministration (typified by the Levitical Yom haKippurim ritual). And passages in Revelation 10, 12 and 14 were reinterpreted as intimations of the religious origins and identity of the definitive version of God’s remnant – the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

To any outsider, these readings of the Biblical text must seem fanciful at best. It is therefore important to realise that the so-called “historicist” hermeneutics of Biblical apocalyptic, embraced by Miller and his Sabbatarian descendants, is not an Adventist innovation, but rather a long-standing tradition. Most Christian millenarians throughout history have attempted to ground their eschatological expectations in Biblical prophecy. After the Renaissance, these endeavours took on a positivistic flavour, attracting scientific minds like that of Isaac Newton. Miller himself had sought to establish a clear, univocal, systematic methodology of reading Biblical symbols, in the belief that God’s long-term plans could become apparent, to the studious eye, in the veiled language of Scripture.

The error of historicism is theologically grounded in the dogma of the supernatural authorship of the Bible. If the Divine Spirit is its true authorial voice, then it is perfectly justifiable to allow for meanings that couldn’t have occurred to either the human author or his intended audience. Daniel can very well dream up a second century BC “end of the world”, in the restorationist manner of the Jewish prophetic tradition, with the Temple of Jerusalem functioning as the capital of a new world empire. This doesn’t preclude the possibility that what his visions describe are actually European Medieval events, or a temple in heaven, entering a new phase of its history sometime in the nineteenth century AD (even if such “fulfilment” is not verifiable historically, but requires, in a vicious circle, new revelations). Seventh-day Adventist theology goes as far as to deny that the Danielic oracle means anything else but what their historicist interpretations dictate. Given that the end of the world hasn’t happened yet, it must be that the prophet spoke unwittingly to us, about our own eschatological times.

Thus, the ancient canon is treated as a canvas upon which generation after generation of believers project ever-novel millennial scenarios. The text is merely pretext for exegetical creativity and fodder for new enthusiasms. The Spirit is always right, since He never actually meant any of those past, disconfirmed, fulfilments. Or, in a milder version, any past fulfilment was merely another anticipation, in an indefinitely multipliable sequence, of the definitive fulfilment. Which brings to mind Henri de Lubac’s study of Patristic and Medieval exegesis: any portion of the Bible was liable to multiple interpretations, in a fourfold departure from the literal meaning of the text. All the more so the apocalyptic sections!

More significantly, these hermeneutical problems are in no way exclusively post-Biblical. In perfect agreement with the rabbinical tradition, the New Testament authors themselves indulged in very creative readings of older scriptures, historicist readings of prophecy being an intra-canonical phenomenon. The Gospels portray Jesus extending Daniel’s visions to cover Roman history, just as the Habakkuk pesher found at Qumran made the prophet’s utterances concerning late sixth century BC events deal with late first century BC circumstances. And, obviously, the New Testament is full of messianic fulfilments of Old Testament predictions, in spite of the fact that none of those passages is an unambiguous reference to Jesus, and many of them are unambiguously about someone else, or just plain ambiguous.

All of the above is a mere sketch of the spiritual process that ended with my deconversion. I am an atheist primarily because I found the humanity of hermeneutics to be inescapable. We are meaning making machines. The Spirit of God hiding behind or within a text is the worst idea ever, since we can make Him or it say whatever we want. Which is the same as saying that we can find the Spirit behind or within any text – one could read Plato as a prophecy of Jesus (as one has) and divine the end of the world in a cookbook (psychopathology is not that far from common hermeneutical excess). Which is tantamount to admitting that there is no spirit except the interpreter’s.

What would Freud and Jung make of my story? I believe Freud would salute my disentanglement from an eschatological frame of mind, thus allowing myself to live in the present. He would recognize the delusional character of the narcissist re-appropriation of ancient texts. He would argue that dreams are not to be investigated for a predictive function, but only for their unconscious content, that stems from past experience (that is, when they are actual dreams, not propaganda in a prophetic genre). And, fundamentally, he would acknowledge the regressive nature of the desire to foreknow, to be in control of ultimate outcomes. Texts, ancient or modern, testify only to the more ore less conscious processes of their human authors, and a hermeneutics that tries to guess behind them another world altogether, or to glean from them some superhuman understanding (especially of the future), is just an unending cycle of wishful thinking.

Jung, on the other hand, would probably be disappointed. He would see my attempt to impose limits on interpretation as reductive, severing my self from the rich life of the human spirit. Scriptures (all scriptures, not singularly the Judeo-Christian) are supposed to be investigated for all their bounty of meaning, suggesting, even through subversion of senses, new ways in which we can integrate and individuate. Oneiric symbols are to be amplified, shadows allowed to manifest themselves. The future belongs to us, and can be teased out in the shimmering light of our common inner life. The apocalyptic needs metamorphosis, not healing.

While Freud had explicitly shied from styling himself a “prophet”, Jung used unashamedly Gnostic language to speak of his analysis. Freud wanted psychoanalysis to be taken seriously as a science. Jung, on the other hand, passed his analytical psychology for the only science. But I cannot repress the suspicion that Freud and Jung were themselves creators of the psychological depths they were allegedly plumbing, and that their premises and methodologies are ultimately theological.

This is somewhat more obvious in Jung’s case. His eclectic reinvention of old divinatory arts and his recasting of God as humanity’s evolving selfhood amount to the creation of a new mysticism. The unending proliferation of meaning, derived from a vast array of symbolic libraries and the allowance of “synchronicity”, is strictly religious. Jung seems to believe, together with Teilhard de Chardin, that “the universal energy must be a thinking energy… a transcendent form of personality”. In their estimation, science cannot help being revelational, even if, at least in Jung’s case, atheistic. But, against all psycho-logising (i.e. spiritualising), we learn more and more about how complexity, and indeed consciousness, does not require complexity to emerge.

Freud, on the other hand, still owed too much to modernity to feel comfortable with such an open assumption of the spiritual nature of man. And yet, there are those who argue that he was a prophet nonetheless. True, for Freud, only the past can be properly divined. But Freud’s past is even harder to divine than the future, since it is the exclusive realm of the unconscious, never to be disproved. Dreams, actes ratés, altered states of consciousness or free association are the language that the irrational speaks. “The endless possibilities opened up by the mystic’s act of transcendence persist in the endless possibilities of the unconscious when fielded as an explanation. The waywardness that once characterised miraculous episodes is now inherent in the psychological tools that were developed to contest them.”

According to Harold Bloom, Freud “read the unconscious as Judaic exegesis read the Hebrew Bible, with every nuance, every omission being made to show an extraordinary wealth of significance. But, if everything has an ascertainable meaning, then all meaning is overdetermined…” In Ken Frieden’s evaluation, “the prophetic dimension of ancient dream interpretation was at once suppressed by Freud and implicit in his practices”. “He acted as a modern prophet, influencing personal lives and intellectual history, at the same time that he argued against prophecy.” And it could be argued that this paradoxical, if not perverse, prophetism is rooted in the very realisation that dreams don’t have a literal meaning, which allows the explosion of invested meaning.

Maybe the sectarian fragmentation of psychoanalysis, with an orthodoxy left to defend the original theory, is only to be expected, given its theological nature. When the unconscious speaks, everyone hears what he or she wants or needs to hear. Not all theoretical gain is a gain in knowledge. To the contrary, knowledge is gained when one finds means to dismiss excess theory. And a methodology that can be used against itself is no method at all – see for instance how Paul Vitz has turned psychoanalysis against Freud, establishing the neurotic origin of his unbelief in an unresolved Oedipal complex. The unconscious spoke, and the father of the unconscious missed it.

The title of this paper is an obvious invocation of Umberto Eco. I stand with him on the need to recognize that, even if ambiguity is ultimately unavoidable and sometimes desirable, texts impose their own limits on interpretation. There is a point where text becomes pretext. Just as there are texts that are meaningless. I don’t need to find reason in dreams (which seem to be only consciousness operating at its grammatical level), or to multiply entities (create the unconscious) in order to explain psychopathology. The unconscious can remain, by definition, unknowable, just as any respectable divinity is.

By the way, I wrote some of this paper in liminal states of consciousness, while falling asleep, or in my dreams. My unconscious – well, who knows, maybe humanity’s unconscious – is speaking. If Freud and Jung be mad, let them be mad at the unconscious, whose unwilling prophet I am, too.

13 Responses to The limits of interpretation, between Freud and Jung

  1. polihronu says:

    Nu știam cînd am scris cele de mai sus de Peter Lomas și cărțile lui, printre care tocmai The Limits of Interpretation: What’s Wrong with Psychoanalyis?

  2. polihronu says:

    Cătălin Moise îmi aduce aminte de un polihronu tînăr 🙂

  3. Sorin Chereji says:

  4. polihronu says:

    That’s the oldest trick in the book. Si Ceausescu denunta apartheid-ul din Africa de Sud in anii ‘80.

  5. polihronu says:

    Episodul millerit e revizitat din perspectiva psihologiei maselor într-o carte recentă: The Delusions of Crowds. Why People Go Mad in Groups a lui William J. Bernstein. Are un capitol util și despre David Koresh.

  6. polihronu says:

    “utopicul și mesianicul sunt figuri ale sintaxei” –

  7. Lausanne Losanna says:

    Stie cineva daca se pot gasi cartile domnului Constantinescu in format electronic?

Lasă un răspuns:

Te rog autentifică-te folosind una dintre aceste metode pentru a publica un comentariu:


Comentezi folosind contul tău Dezautentificare /  Schimbă )

Fotografie Facebook

Comentezi folosind contul tău Facebook. Dezautentificare /  Schimbă )

Conectare la %s

Acest site folosește Akismet pentru a reduce spamul. Află cum sunt procesate datele comentariilor tale.

%d blogeri au apreciat: