Autonomy, the French Revolution, and Human Rights:

Lynn Hunt, Bob Lentz The Psychohistory Forum

Lynn Hunt was born in 1945 in Panama and is the oldest of three sisters.  She received her PhD in history from Stanford University in 1973 and subsequently taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for 13 years.  Since 1987 she has been at the University of Pennsylvania where she is Annenberg Professor of History.  She received a Distinguished Teaching Award from Berkeley in 1977, was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991, and is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California, 1997-1998.  Professor Hunt has written extensively on the French Revolution, including The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).  Other books she has written or edited include Eroticism and the Body Politic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991),  The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800, ed., (New York: Zone Books, 1993), and Telling the Truth about History, with Joyce Appleby and Margaret Jacob, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).

BL: When did you know you wanted to be a historian?

LH: When I was a teenager I became interested in history, but I didn’t really decide to go into history until my second year in college.  I attributed it to the fact that my mother’s parents were immigrants from Europe.  Her father was a German-speaking Russian from Ukraine and her mother was born in the United States to an immigrant family from Germany.  So they were both Germans but from different parts of Europe.

BL: What are your areas of expertise?

LH: My subject area is the French Revolution and the 18th century.  I also do a fair amount of work on historical methods.  In the 1980s my interest shifted away from what might be called traditional social history, which I had done in the 1970s, towards the new cultural history which is language, symbols, and the various forms of symbolic behavior and how they enter into politics and society.

BL: Symbols include the arts?

LH: Absolutely. I began with certain speeches and festivals, then I did quite a bit of work on engraving, and from there I became more interested in painting — how they’re used to set up a new political culture in a revolutionary period such as the French Revolution.  One of the characteristics of revolution is the need to re-create identities very quickly, so there’s a heavier than usual reliance on things like festivals and propaganda.  You can’t accomplish political re-education all at once.  One of the fastest ways the revolutionaries tend to believe it can happen is by mass rallies and by changing all of the symbolic aspects of politics — the seal of state, the symbols of the nation — and giving them a new content.

BL: When and how did you first encounter psychohistory?

LH: I had always been interested in psychology.  When I was a teenager I had already read a lot of Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and the American school of ego psychology.  I had seriously thought of going into psychology when I was in college.  The big influence on me in graduate school was Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.  The book was the subject of intense discussion in the late sixties.  I think it stuck with me because most of my fellow graduate students were so hostile to it, and I was not.

BL:  Were there any mentors who helped you with the psychodynamic approach to history?

LH:  I had one lecturer in graduate school, Margo Drekmeier — she taught early modern European intellectual history — who was very interested in the relationship between psychological and sociological components, and encouraged me to read in that area in a general way, although it was more heavily on the sociological side.  The big book in those days for us was Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1967).
The other person at Stanford who had a not immediate but long-term effect was Paul Robinson who has always been interested in Freud and the psychological dimension.  His first book, The Freudian Left (1969), was on the modernization of sex — Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and others.  He probably doesn’t do psychohistory, strictly speaking.

BL:  You’ve had neither analysis yourself nor any psychoanalytical or psychotherapeutic training.  How did you become able to do psychologically/psychoanalytically-informed history?

LH:  I think I came at it more from the side which has recently grown in importance, the cultural studies side, in the same way that people in literature did, through a long project of reading Freud and an intense interest in psychoanalysis, though not from a clinical therapeutic side.  That’s very characteristic these days of literature people who tend not to be psychoanalytically trained — there is a tremendous amount of psychoanalytic work being done in literature compared to history.  Most of my historian friends have been or are in therapy, so it’s not that they are uninterested in the psychological dimension.  But, interestingly, in their historical work they tend to avoid it because in history the psychological dimension has fallen out of favor in the last decade, though I think it is bound to come back.

BL: How can we hasten its return?

LH: There need to be more general articles like the Fred Weinstein article in History and Theory, “Psychohistory and the Crisis of the Social Sciences” [1995 34(4), 299-319], which tried to grapple with how to bring the social and the psychological together.

BL: How do you define “psychohistory”?

LH: I see an important distinction to be made.  Psychohistory has been identified with explicitly using psychological, especially psychoanalytic, theory of individual development in historical context.  I would like to see more of a move toward a revival of the psychosocial which I see as having been quite prominent in historical work in the nineteen-teens, nineteen-twenties, and nineteen-thirties; as having been quite prominent in sociological work — in the work of Talcott Parsons, for example — but as having dropped out, ironically, with the rise of social history in the post-World War II period.  The older connection was already implicitly there in Max Weber and Emile Durkheim — more socially oriented theorists who saw that the psychological had to be incorporated.  This is the part that would speak to all historians as opposed to the very specific interest in current psychological and psychoanalytic theory and its possible application.

BL: Has psychohistory itself had any impact on your areas of expertise?

LH: Certainly, Bruce Mazlish’s work, The Revolutionary Ascetic (1976), is important in studies of comparative revolutions.  Ironically, in my view, there has been more interest in psychological explanation in explaining extremes in history — revolutionary movements, fascism, totalitarianism, witchcraft — what are seen as abnormal historical experiences — than in explaining mainstream events.

BL: Would the psychosocial cover more the mainstream?

LH: Well, it certainly would remind historians that everyone has a psyche — not just Hitler, not just the extremes and abnormals.  It’s not just people who believe in witchcraft who have psychological components to their behavior.

BL: Tell us briefly about your best known work, The Family Romance of the French Revolution, on the psychological aspects of the French Revolution.

LH: It’s an attempt to do a collective psychological analysis of the way the French thought about politics.  I use a fair number of psychoanalytic concepts to do that, to try to get at what was the psychological underpinning for the way politics were re-thought during the Revolutionary period.  I closely follow the work of two people with competing visions of how the psychological works.  On the one hand, Freud, who, in Totem and Taboo, tries to analyze the origins of all political organization and social structure, which I think is an important attempt to get at the way in which founding myths are established.  I also use the work of Rene Girard,   Violence and the Sacred (1977),who is a critic of Freud’s but who is also interested in the psychological dimension of collective behavior.  In the case of Freud, what I’m interested in is the whole idea of a primal story of the foundation of political authority.  In the case of Girard, it’s really his competing claims about what that primal story really is.  He focuses on the community’s need for a scapegoat to overcome its internal desires for violence rather than on the father figure.  The scapegoat can be the king but can also be someone else who does not occupy a paternal role.

BL: What has been the nature of the commentary on The Family Romance?

LH: I think for historians the big issue is the use of psychoanalytic concepts in connection with historical analysis to which many historians are violently resistant.  And they’re also resistant to the idea of analyzing the collective unconscious which is a concept that I take from Freud and also, to a certain extent, from Emile Durkheim.  There are things about the French Revolution such as an excess of emotional attachment to certain issues that are just impossible to explain in terms of rational calculation of interest.  For example, the queen, Marie Antoinette: why did they have to execute her?  Extremely unusual event in world history, to kill a queen who cannot rule, who has never ruled, who will never be able to rule — and the kind of vitriol that surrounded her person and her trial!

BL: Could you elaborate on the “collective unconscious”?

LH: I think of it as that area in which rules of conduct and presuppositions about the meaning of life are developed that are either not entirely conscious or not at all conscious to the people whose behavior we’re talking about.  For example, why would the French Revolutionaries, in the midst of war — a war that they’re losing at that moment — spend their time having a trial of the queen in which they discuss her sex life and her supposed incest with her son in great detail?  It shows that a lot of the rules of political behavior are actually developed unconsciously rather than in the process of conscious political discussion.  What I tied to argue in my book is that the collective unconscious for Europeans is very much tied up with family models of authority, and I tried to work through to new models of authority, which can’t be done entirely on a conscious level.
I think there are various clues about the collective unconscious in political behavior.  I used actual political decisions like holding the trials of the king and the queen, and planning to execute them, and what that might have meant to people.  But I looked at not just what was said in newspaper editorials or in political speeches, but also by what subjects were chosen for engraving, for painting, for the writing of novels.  I tried to access what unconscious rules were being developed there by looking at father figures, mother figures, brother figures, and their development over time in both novels and paintings.  Then, perhaps most controversially, I also used the writings of the Marquis de Sade [1740-1814] as what I called a kind of revolutionary dreamwork, as one especially extreme expression of these familial models of authority and how they’re being worked through.  I used pornography, in short, as a clue to what was going on in the collective unconscious.  (I have edited a book called The Invention of Pornography.  In that book, I and my collection of essay writers argued that pornography began as a form of political and social commentary — a form of criticism of aristocracy and monarchy — and only really took shape as we know it as a modern commercial product sold for sexual arousal — as a sex-aid product — at the very end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries.  We don’t know why the shift in pornography took place; that’s a subject that remains to be researched.)

It’s not until Sade that you get the working through of all possible pornographic themes.  There is no one who is more extreme than the Marquis de Sade because he understands murder and death as being the final result of what he is talking about, and portrays it as such obsessively over and over again.  Why do we get this very extreme representation of pornography in the 1790s?  I argue that what the French Revolution does is show people, largely unconsciously, that all authority is conventional, all authority depends on people believing in it.  The most striking thing that the French Revolution does, and I think this is what Sade is commenting on, is to undermine the idea that authority is natural, traditional, God-given — that it has some transcendental foundation that cannot be contested.  Instead, what the French Revolution does is say, “We can remake the social and political order according to ideas we have about what would be the best social and political order.”  What Sade does is essentially turn that around and say that you could also remake the social and political order along the most evil lines.  In other words, the idea that you can create the authority you want by a decision of human will opens the possibility that anything is possible.  Sade is showing that if there is no foundation of authority other than in human will, then all things are possible and the foundation of morality is in question.  Sade is not just a simple celebrator of this discovery but also the person who showed its most alarming consequences.

BL: Are there any psychosocially significant revolutions in the world today?

LH: The whole Islamic world is basically in a state of revolution.  This would be a very interesting movement for a psychosocial analysis because it’s clear that there are enormous psychological as well as social issues involved in Islamic fundamentalism.  There’s a steady current of resistance to modernity.  What modernity represents for many people in the Islamic world is a threatening rearrangement of familial roles and, especially, gender roles — what the role of women is supposed to be in a modern Islamic society.  I see a large amount of reaction to the idea that women in the Islamic world will be like women in the Western world, completely autonomous beings.  That is a big, big strain in Islamic fundamentalism.

Where the fundamentalists actually get power they try to turn back the clock on women’s autonomy and self-motivation and self-determination.  But it’s very hard to do that.  It’s an area that calls out for symbolic analysis because what you’re wearing underneath that black robe is a tremendously fraught issue.  In all revolutionary situations: what people wear becomes the ultimate symbolic arena.

BL: What is the importance of childhood to psychohistory and the psychosocial?

LH: It’s been one of the most difficult things in historical analysis to resolve because we tend not to have huge amounts of information about the childhood of historically significant people.  As a consequence of this paucity of information on individuals, there’s been a fruitful turn toward looking at the history of childhood in a social as well as a psychological way in a more collective fashion, focusing not on the lives of specific individuals but on more general patterns of childrearing.  Surprisingly little has been done on this, at least in French history, since Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1962), pointed the way to the importance of a kind of collective analysis of the history of childhood, and there needs to be much more done on this subject.

BL: Who are some others who have made the greatest contribution to psychohistory or the psychosocial?

LH: I have been most influenced by those who have started from the social and then tried to incorporate the psychological.  What I find most promising for the future is, for example, the kind of thing laid out by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (1939).  Elias was a German Jew, forced to flee in the 1930s, who lived much of his life in Switzerland.  He tries to bring together a sociological and psychoanalytic analysis, tries to offer a kind of developmental history of the West in these psychosocial terms, which is also one of the things that Freud does.  So it is not about an individual — it’s an attempt to get at the unspoken rules of social behavior and what they might tell us about the changing historical contours of the psyche, how the experience of the psyche might have actually evolved over time.  This is an area that has been much neglected but now, interestingly, Elias’ direction has been picked up much more by the Dutch and the Germans than it has in the Anglo-Saxon world, not just because he wrote it in German originally, but for reasons that have to do in part with the dominance of behavioral psychology in America in university faculties.

Someone like Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (1980),is very important because, even though he’s hostile to psychoanalysis, he points to a way of understanding the psychological historically over time.  Also someone like Ariès who was deeply interested in how psychological experiences were shaped historically.  I’m also interested in the work of a philosopher like Charles  Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989), who wants to understand the origins of what he calls “modern inwardness.”  Now, he understands it in terms of intellectual history, which I think is too limiting, but he again points to a kind of Western development of ideas of the self rather than assuming that the self is the same in every era over time.  So I’m very interested in the developmental  view and that’s why for me, Ariès, Elias, Foucault, and Taylor, and even Jürgen Habermas who has some suggestions along these lines in his early work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), are very interesting ways of reviving the whole area.

BL: What are you working on now?

LH: I am working on the history of human rights.  One of the things I’m very interested in is the history of human rights is a kind of Norbert Elias question, which is, What vision of the self has to come into play for human rights to make sense?  I’m interested in practices and ideas about individual autonomy, which I want to argue became much more prevalent in the 18th century than they had been before — not that there were no ideas before, obviously there were — but that everyone might be an autonomous person is an 18th century idea which started in the 17th century.  One of the things I’m going to argue is that the novel is very important for spreading this idea and making it a kind of concrete reality psychologically for most people.  The idea that you can read about ordinary people — imagine yourself as identifying with them — is an important psychological component of making human rights a credible idea.  You have to move away from the Medieval notion that a person is a kind of marker in the system of kinship relations, is completely defined by the communities that they are in, is defined much more in the communal and social context in which they live, to a more 18th-century and modern notion, that the individual is self-determined, that you make your own choices, you decide what you want to do.  I think there’s a lot of social determiancy that goes along with the psychology that’s behind human rights.  You can’t have human rights — and I don’t think you had human rights before the 18th century — unless you can imagine that all individuals, starting with all male individuals but spreading quite quickly thereafter, are equally able to make their place in the world.

BL: Do any exemplary novels come to mind?

LH: The novel for me in this regard is the one that many people in 18th-century English literature talk about, Samuel Richardson’s novel, Clarissa.  One of the things I’ve always been interested in is why it is that the fictional individual in the 18th century is almost always a woman, why it is that it’s the woman that is the heroine of the story when rights are in the first place imagined to be male.  Yet, for Rousseau, Richardson, and most writers, it’s a female figure that is the figure that they use to develop these ideas of what it is a self is.  So, why Clarissa?  Why Pamela? — Richardson has another novel, Pamela, about a servant girl — and that’s very important in starting this off because here you have middle class and upper class people identifying with a servant girl.  And for Rousseau it’s also a woman in his novel, Julie.  My current thinking is that it’s because women are especially poignant cases of dealing with restraints.  There’s a way in which the idea of the struggle for autonomy is much clearer with women who are much more controlled by their family.  So you can get a much better story about the conflict over individuality with female characters because they’re not free to leave home — they’re not free to go off and seek their fortune.  Now, of course, there are many stories about that with males: Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe — I don’t mean to say there are no male heroes.  But one of the really interesting issues is why the heroes aren’t just male, since they are the ones who are free to go off and make their way in the world.  I think it’s because there is a tremendous emotional investment with the idea of what to do about constraint, what to do about restraint, what to do about limits on autonomy.

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