The Courage of Rudolph Binion

Bob Lentz

CP: How did you come from demo-graphic and political history to psychoanalytic psychobiography and psychohistory?

RB: I found myself a psychobiographer in spite of myself. I had taken up Freud only incidentally to be obliging to some student who requested a readings course on Freud. Then the student switched to Rilke for the second semester. I came across Lou Andreas-Salome behind both these figures and ended up writing Frau Lou, my book about her. I got involved in trying to explain her short stories and novels with reference to her actual life experiences, some of very recent vintage. The deeper I immersed myself in those experiences, the more contradictions I stumbled upon between her own self-versions and what I could reconstruct of the facts about her from documents of the times, such as exchanges of letters and others’ diaries. How her memories had been distorted over the years! Why were they distorted? I had originally taken psychoanalysis as the orthodox straight approach to understanding a human life and assumed that her major experiences had been with her father in her childhood and then with the preacher who took the place of her father in her heart, and that the later men in her life, especially the overpowering father figures beginning with Nietzsche, had been Freudianly experienced by her. But little by little the childhood material behind her fiction seemed dragged in, forced, only marginally relevant.

More and more I came to see that what was happening in her adult life, especially her Nietzsche experience, dominated at least her fiction unconsciously. I put into my conclusion that my whole method was wrong – the material simply redounded against it – and found myself a revisionist Freudian psychobiographer. I did a couple of other psychobiographical studies but drew connections from biography to large-scale history only tenuously. Finally I had to make the transition from psychobiography to what was going on in groups or masses or nations. That’s how I got into the Hitler business: because I thought I could go from the individual charismatic leader to what was passing unconsciously between him and his following.

I’ve got to throw in something. In my conclusion to Frau Lou I remember speculating on how memories might fade, disintegrate, and recombine, saying that the Freudian models of the topography of the mind were just inadequate but that lots of other thoroughgoing studies like the one I had just done were needed before any new conclusions could be reached. The other day in my dentist’s waiting room I saw a story in Time or Newsweek on a neurological conception of how memory works, or doesn’t work when it doesn’t, from a book called The Myth of Repressed Memory. It was about the memories or pseudornemories of child abuse that ex-patients, or patients, are coming up with against their parents. I saw that what I had then dimly envisioned with Frau Lou as a kind of reconsideration of how memory works is now pretty much what, though with some differences obviously, neurophysiologists and psychologists are coming to, though on other grounds than mine. I was quite amused.

CP: Did you pick up any formal psychoanalytic or psychological training?

RB: No, I not only did not but I’m sort of glad that I didn’t. I don’t believe in applied psychoanalysis – I think that’s a big mistake. I share Lloyd deMause’s early view of the independence of psychohistory, specifically from psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is the starting point in historic fact, with the concept of an unconscious and its psychodynamics. But psychoanalysis in its practice has been essentially limited to consulting rooms and clinics, and the experience with individuals that provides. The historic record is much richer in independent information. It deals primarily with masses and groups, and that’s what psychohistory should be concerned with. I think that how the unconscious works, how it works historically, historic memory, should be studied without preconceptions derived from psycho-analytic experience. Psychoanalysis was the childhood of psychohistory – a Sunday-psychoanalyzing of historical figures by shrinks or ex-patients or on-going patients. While psychohistory has much in common with psychoanalysis, it must not look to psychoanalysis for authority or for clues or hints.

I’m up against this problem whenever I teach a seminar in psychohistory. I hesitate about whether to give the students some psychoanalytical background. I do now give them one week of reading on the ground that this is where psychohistory came from, so it’s important to know it historically. But I’m always afraid that they’ll look at it the way some psychohistorians used to look to Erikson and others for models, that they’ll then read it into the evidence or organize their historic facts around it in trying to understand or make sense of historic events, and that this will be an exercise in futility – that it would stack the cards or vitiate the evidence in advance. One should just plunge in and ask, “Why is this happening? What’s going on here unconsciously?” The “why?” question is the first one a psychohistorian should ask – without any models, especially since the psychoanalytical paradigms just don’t apply to history if you’re dealing with large-scale events.

CP: How does a psychohistorian “plunge in”?

RB: The closest I can find to a fine expression of what I do is Bergson’s in his Introduction to Metaphysics. He says that you exhaust the intellectual knowledge of the subject, you move around it, look at it from every known angle. Suddenly you plunge in, suddenly you feel it from the inside. At that point everything’s clear, everything falls into place, everything makes sense. You get breakthroughs, discovery of documentary material that you didn’t even know existed. It’s all confirmatory. You know you’re on the right track. Internally you get the sense that this is the way it was lived. You’re way ahead of other historical explainers because you add the internal fit, the internal understanding, to the usual evidential, external exactness of your interpretation. Take the very human experience of the fall in marital fertility in the European family at the time of the contraceptive revolution in the late nineteenth century which I looked at it in a recent article. If you use just external things like statistical correlations – degrees of industrialization, rural-urban, Protestant-Catholic, young-old – to explain it, it’s extrinsic. But if you start asking, “Why did marital fertility suddenly fall? Why was family planning suddenly adopted in all walks of life and all nations of Europe, and Europe only, when it was? What’s going on here collectively?” and put yourself in the place of the population that’s undergoing this transformation at the time, it’s something else. Both the outside story and the inside story must check with whatever answers you find: both must make sense. If you look only to the outside picture and try to make sense of it in a positivistic way, then you’re missing the whole point of it.

CP: Your most famous psychohistorical work is, of course, Hitler among the Germans. Now, almost twenty years after its publication, do you have any further thoughts and feelings on Hitler and the Germans?

RB: It’s hard to get that book behind me in Germany or Austria. It’s terrible. I once told Andreas Hillgruber, a great researcher and friend of mine, “I’m done with Hitler.” He replied, “You’re never done with Hitler!” No, I’ve never had occasion either to want to change anything in that book or to add anything. Not that I think it was well written – that it was not. It’s very difficult to write psychohistory because it is so complex. It’s so difficult to make it intelligible and to present it methodically so that people don’t lose the thread. In every line you want to add a hundred things that go off on tangents right and left, that associate in one way or another, because psychohistory is complexes that work on different levels of awareness and are all so difficult to retrace.

CP: How do you view the state of psychohistory in Europe today?

RB: I know it perhaps better than most because I lecture in German, French and Italian. So I’m the privileged psychohistorian as far as European invitations go. It seems I spent most of last year flying back and forth to Vienna, where I suddenly had a strangely good press and they wanted to hear me on this, that, and the other thing. England I don’t know well, though I lectured at Oxford once or twice. I think the English are, in their national character at some level, incompatible with psychohistory – they just can’t understand it. The French have their mentalites, sort of unthinking, unreflective, uncritical attitudes. Still, France is open, hospitable to the unconscious, but on the psychoanalytical side. They’re all broken up into fiercely factional Lacanian cliques; therefore, anyone who does psychohistory is instantly attacked, assailed. The French are also exceedingly difficult because they’re so intellectually polemical-minded, they love to scrap and fight. Now, the Italians are responsive to everything foreign. In Italy I’ve enjoyed front-page covers, many triumphant moments, that were soon forgotten. I think they translate more books from abroad than any other people, though maybe the Japanese are in close competition. But I wonder who buys the books, who reads them all. They’ll recycle history like anything else – it’s superficial.

The Germans had, because of Hitlerism itself, a kind of hiatus, or gap, in their national education and missed the whole Freudian period. So, when it came to post-Freudian developments, including psychohistory, they had to plug in very late along. I find them prejudiced in the first instance, receptive after that. Initially they’re all wary of what they call monocausal explanations, anything that smacks of reductionism, perhaps because of the Hitler experience. It is immediately spattered with mud and rejected out of hand. But if you say this is one of the reasons, the psychological reason, and there are many other causes, they’ll listen sympathetically and soon be quite responsive. There isn’t that kind of factionalism that in the French experience derives from psychoanalysis itself. In Germany my own Hitler work was and still is exceedingly controversial because it had very much to do with the political sense of my reading of the records that Germany as a mass followed Hitler. This was not welcome in some quarters because the original postwar adjustment to the Hitler period had been to consider that Hitlerism was an aberration, a conspiracy of a bunch of political gangsters who pulled wool over German eyes, and now that the wool was off their eyes they were back to the democratic path that was theirs by a natural vocation for freedom and brotherly equality and justice throughout the world. Indeed, they are now very democratic-minded, and Hitlerism is pretty much out of their system as a nation. But the record is the record.

CP: Any suggestions how North American and European psychohistorians might work more closely? Collaborating on the Berlin conference in two years?

RB: In general I’m a little sceptical of what conferences do. They don’t really promote much awareness. They’re usually just free rides for the participants who know what the other guy’s going to say anyway. The media coverage, if any, is here today, gone tomorrow. The level on which fruitful interchange takes place is reading each other’s books and following through. If the interest is there, nowadays you get a book fast. I don’t know that there’s any need to drum things up.

CP: You’ve written in German a lot this past year. Could you give us a synopsis of your critique of Freud’s theory of aggression?

RB: What I criticized primarily was Freud’s late theory of a certain quantity of aggression which, if it isn’t discharged outwardly, is discharged inwardly, in which case it is self-destructive. One would expect that, if discharging aggression outwardly were a precondition for the individual surviving longer, when there was virtually no warfare in Europe for the century after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 longevity would be less; in fact, never did life expectancy increase so greatly. You would expect that women, who tend to be, in Freudian terms, more masochistic in discharging their aggression inwardly, would die younger. But they live longer. You would expect that the hardened killer would live forever if he weren’t caught and executed. The theory just doesn’t check – it just does not work.

CP: And another paper about Freud as a fin-de-siecle character?

RB: I tweaked his beard by saying how, first, he prided himself on blazing new trails, not being influenced by others. But a full-fledged theory of a death instinct is already implicit in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice of 1912, among other works of that time. Mann’s implicit theory corresponds strangely to Sabina Spielrein’s conception that was aired in Freud’s own Wednesday evening circle in 1912 and that Freud evidently misunderstood, misheard, judging by his replies and responses to the paper that she presented. He picked up a lot from Ferenczi and others. He was very late when he came out with his death theory after World War I – after all the cultural elites had dropped it long since in Europe. Anyway, there were loads of lines that I took, having fun as it were with what was obviously just a theoretical blind alley and blunder on Freud’s part. The reason was not that I wanted to shake a finger at him – it was the 25th anniversary of the museum set up in his house in Vienna, and the theme of the year in Vienna was aggression and death in Freud’s thinking. My guest lecture in the Town Hall was to be monitored and questions fielded by the directress of the Freud museum. Hence reverence was in order, but dammit, I just couldn’t – I just found that the theory was a huge mistake. Freud was a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant theorist and researcher, but when he settled for that late-life device to undercut all the other instincts by love and death drives, he just screwed up hopelessly.

CP: Is there anything about psycho-history today that troubles you?

RB: The innumerable footnotes to psychoanalytical theorists in psychohistorical articles. A couple of the editors of things I wrote asked for psychoanalytical references to substantiate what I was affirming, which drove me up the wall. Early along I focused, because the material forced me, on the mechanism of traumatic reliving. Then, with a ten- to twenty-year lag, it established itself in psychiatry independently. But, at the time, way back, a bunch of wise-guy psychoanalytical-type historians said there was nothing in the clinical literature to bear me out. But it was my own research experience that spoke through my findings.

Also, a number of people honor me by sending me their drafts and asking for comments and I love that. But I find that when they’re verging on new insights they sort of guard themselves and hold back for fear of breaking new ground, or of losing the bulwark of the established, received wisdom.

CP: Where would you like to see psychohistory go in the future?

RB: Well, I can think of so many things. How does mass unconscious process work? This is the most difficult thing. There are approaches to it that some of us have taken, but we still look upon it as a kind of unexplored territory for the most part. We’re just beginning to carve out paths in it. All the works exploring mass consciousness so far are tentative. You’re bound to be breaking new ground because shrinks don’t put nations or continents, group identities, on the couch. Almost anything one has the courage to do will be rewarding.

Psychodemography, or psychodemo­graphic history, can be very fruitfully explored. Demography has tended to be positivistic, quanto-historical with loads of information. You name it: breastfeeding, mass traumas, plagues – all sorts of human experiences that people are collectively reliving, abreacting, and that have never been explored psycho-historically.

I remember a student coming to me asking for some mass psychological topic in Weimar Germany. Though I don’t like to suggest topics, I couldn’t resist after a while and said, “Why don’t you try the German runaway inflation in the early 1920s, which was a state of mind? Just explore the psychological, the psychohistorical aspects of it.” At first, she seemed to rise to the challenge but then got so uptight. This was going away from the received – with a student it’s more difficult, they’re more sensitive to this – the received, accredited, established, recognized, canonical modes of procedure and problem-posing. She wound up violently hostile to me for ever having suggested it, as if I had forced the topic on her. People are afraid to do anything new in psychohistory. They’re afraid to do psychohistory if they’ve got a professional career in the balance, but to do anything new in psychohistory puts them in double jeopardy.

CP: In your 1977 article “Doing Psychohistory”, you wrote that “the aspirant psychohistorian is best advised to pick a biographic subject.” Would you still give that advice? What other?

RB: I don’t know that I’d give it still. I guess it was in part projective. I myself had done a psychobiography [Frau Lou] first off. That is certainly how I came to the workings of history psychologically understood, and, therefore, maybe it wasn’t a bad course to follow. But, no, I’d rather not give advice. If someone wants to plunge right in on a group level, so much the better. It’s like the old line about the faith: each must come in his or her own way to a method or practice or approach.

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