SUSAN DENTZER: Michael Roth, thanks very much for joining us.
MICHAEL ROTH: You're welcome.
SUSAN DENTZER: Let's start by talking a bit about why you came to be curator of this exhibit.
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, I was asked to join a discussion about the possibility of doing an exhibition on Freud in the archives here I would say about five years ago now. The library had decided even before then to showcase the major holdings with exhibitions, and it didn't take too long before they thought that an exhibition on the Freud holdings would be very interesting and also valuable because many people in the United States and elsewhere don't realize the Library of Congress is the largest repository of Freud materials. And I'm a historian and I had written my first book on psychoanalysis as a way of thinking historically, and came to this general discussion, and about a year later I was asked to be curator.
I must say I was surprised by that because I wasn't really in the Freud industry full time. I had written that book but had gone on to other things. But it was really a great pleasure and very exciting to come back to think about how to present Freud in this context.
SUSAN DENTZER: Almost instantly after the library announced that this exhibit was in the planning stages, a major controversy arose. What was the effect on you?
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, I had done work in the history of philosophy in France, and was used to certain scholarly debates of a much lower intensity, and I knew that when the exhibit opened there would be controversy. But I really was surprised by the controversy that started not immediately after the announcement but about six months later or so. I was surprised both because there was not much to protest against since the show hadn't been developed in a complete way, and also because some of the people protesting actually were talking with me and making suggestions about the exhibition. So in some ways I think the controversy was manufactured to draw attention to the work of scholars who liked that attention, and in other ways I think it was reasonable that as people were concerned, that the show would be used by the Freud establishment to prop up their own therapeutic claims, or their own - their own desires, and I didn't see that as a real possibility myself. But after talking with some of the people who did protest, I did come to see that it looked that way to many people, and I had to address that perception.
SUSAN DENTZER: And the major ways you chose to address that perception were what?
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, the substantial way we did that was to add some critical voices, or more critical voices to the advisory committee, which already was made up of some distinguished scholars who were not anti Freud or pro Freud. They were just thoughtful, intelligent researchers. I really did want to avoid lining up a team of people with blue shirts who called themselves Freudians and green shirts who called themselves anti Freudians. That seems to me really silly and rather boring.
But in the end - in fact, thanks in part to Professor Crews, I came to realize that there was no way to avoid trying at least to balance to some extent the voices of people who came to identify themselves being on one team or the other. I first thought that we could avoid that kind of partisanship, but in this field that is so contested, that was not possible.
SUSAN DENTZER: Why was that not possible? What did Professor Crews tell you that brought you around to that view?
MICHAEL ROTH: He made a good point, I think, in a phone conversation. We have actually never met, but in a phone conversation he made the good point that people who I thought of as nonpartisan seemed to him or to other people to be partisan. And so I think that that seemed to be a reasonable claim. And so into the catalog, or the companion volume which is published by Knopf, we added some essays that are explicitly about controversial aspects in Freud biographical criticism, or theoretical criticism as well as some essays from contemporary psychiatrists who are reflecting on Freud's legacy, but really aren't pro or anti Freud.
And so I think the most important thing the controversy resulted in was that it gave us more time to plan the exhibition, and I think to help us see that the most important thing to present about Freud and psychoanalysis was not the academic debates between various American professors making claims and counter-claims about Freud, but to present the problems with which Freud was concerned because those problems remain vitally interesting for us today; much more interesting, I think, that pro and anti Freudians.
Freud was dealing with how overwhelming sexuality can destroy an individual or a culture, how overwhelming violence and aggressivity can suddenly erupt in the most highly organized societies.
Now, he may have been wrong about the explanation for that, but he drew attention to issues that remain for us puzzling, interesting, sometimes fascinating, and I think if we can use the exhibition to return to those questions and issues, we will be well served.
SUSAN DENTZER: Now, it will not surprise you to learn that people like Professor Crews still believe that this exhibit is entirely too hagiographic of Freud and not deeply probing enough into some of the lapses Freud had as a scientist in effect.
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, it doesn't probe the lapses of Freud as a scientist. This is not a lecture and this is not a book. This is an exhibition, and I think in an exhibition what we tried to get across were some of Freud's key ideas and the controversies into which those ideas were inserted, or which those ideas created. So in the various parts of the exhibition you have quotations floating above the cases that show that Freud's work was always the subject of controversy from the 1890s to the 1990s, and at the same time Freud's ideas, his questions remain of interest, and they are used by a variety of people.
We concentrate on how popular culture has made use of Freud in cartoons, in television sitcoms, in serious cinema, even though these ideas may not be true. We make the point in the exhibition that there is not a scientific consensus on any of Freud's ideas. There is no reason to believe that any of his major ideas are true, yet those ideas have been fundamental in shaping the 20th Century.
So it's true that this exhibition doesn't try to evaluate Freud. At some point I did have the idea of ending the exhibition with a section called is it true, does it work, and we can line up the different opinions on both sides. And my advisory committee in this regard led by one of the Freud critics, Morris Eagle, dissuaded me from going down that road. They thought it would be simplistic and boring to end an exhibition with basically an academic lecture of pro and anti people, and instead we were steered to thinking about what did Freud end his life thinking about. What were the most pressing problems that faced Freud at the end of his life, and of course they had to do with Nazism and the extraordinary explosion of aggression and violence in the 1930s in Europe, and how a society that seemed extraordinarily sophisticated and organized can suddenly explode in what looked like primal violence.
Now, that's an interesting subject for the views of this exhibition, I think much more important and much more interesting than a debate between a Freudian and an anti-Freudian.
SUSAN DENTZER: Professor Crews would respond to that that Freud perhaps asked an interesting question, but did very little to shed light on a meaningful answer in this sense. He posited that the aggressive impulse, and perhaps even the death wish were motivating the same forces that led to the outbreak of the wars in Europe.
On the other hand, he also said that those forces were constantly at work within us, so he never answered the question of why they suddenly - if we're constantly fighting these forces within us, why do they suddenly break out in certain episodes and lead to war.
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, Freud did attempt to address the issue of why at certain points the ways in which we repress or inhibit these aggressive impulses break down, and how people in crowds were in packs of suddenly developed, extraordinarily aggressive appetites that they tried to satisfy.
This is not, of course, limited to Nazis or Germans in World War I. You can see the same thing in packs of, let's say, professors. Often when they're alone they're very reasonable and interesting people, and when they are put together sometimes they change very dramatically, and Freud was interested in the way professors, journalists, people in the street changed the way they act on impulses when they're thrust into groups and they're given strong leaders.
Now, this explanation may not be a good one, and I don't want to defend it or even think that the viewers of this show think the exhibit defends this explanation. The exhibition really wants to show the kinds of questions Freud asked and the ways he asked them, and people may conclude at the end of it that those are not the best ways to ask those questions, and I have my differences probably with Professor Crews, but that's not what this exhibition is about.
This exhibition is about Freud's place in the 20th Century, his unavoidable place in the intellectual history of our century. If you're walking down the 20th Century history of ideas, the history of culture, Freud is someone to reckon with. You can reckon with him like Professor Crews does, which is to both try to push him out of the way, or wish that he wasn't there, or you can reckon with him like a Freudian would, which is perhaps to worship him being in the middle of the road.
These both seem to me actually pretty uninteresting ways of dealing with Freud's influence. More interesting to me is the way filmmakers, artists, poets, writers have use for it for various purposes. And the exhibition tries to show that, and also to play with that idea. In the end of the exhibition there is this collage of images of people who have used Freud for various purposes. And we want to suggest both the seriousness of the issues with which Freud was concerned, and also the inspiration that Freud provided for artists and other creative people to turn his ideas for their own purposes.
SUSAN DENTZER: Freud dealt with these themes that many people would have found objectionable. To what degree did that constrain you given that this is an exhibit in a public institution in Washington, D.C.?
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, this is the first time someone has asked me this question, which I think is a really great question, because everyone asks me were you constrained by the Freudians or were you constrained by the anti-Freudians, and the answer is in both cases no. I mean, I listen to them because sometimes they're smart and creative people, and you need all the help we can get when you're doing an exhibition like this.
But the real issue for me when I was planning this was are we going to be able to deal with the Oedipus complex - sex, aggression, homosexuality - which are fundamental topics in psychoanalysis and need to be dealt with in a sober and direct way. And I must say it's been wonderful that there has been absolutely no pressure about it.
One of the great items in this exhibition is a letter Freud wrote in English to a woman whose son seemed to be homosexual, and Freud - I think he was 79 when he wrote this letter, and quite famous already, and he didn't know this woman at all, took some time to write to her in English and explained to her that he thought that she should get used to her son being a homosexual, that it was not a crime and it wasn't a vice, and this is prominently displayed here in Washington in a climate where those thoughts still seem to many people to be radical or inappropriate, and for Freud they seemed to be just basic thoughts of a civilized society that was trying to be more tolerant rather than be more abusive. And I'm delighted to say that there has been no pressure, no context of censorship in that regard at all.
SUSAN DENTZER: Freud did believe that homosexuality, though, was a perversion, that it was not a normal condition.
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, he thought that perversions were pretty much covered in the range of all our sexual activities, that perversion wasn't a moral category for Freud. He thought that sexuality came in all kinds of flavors and activities, and that there was no moral reason to prefer one to another.
Subsequent writers trying to moralize Freud went in different directions. But Freud is crystal clear about this. For him, sexual desire develops from perversion into more constrained forms. Society prefers the more constrained forms, but there is no good reason to do so.
SUSAN DENTZER: What did you learn in the course of putting together this exhibit that was most illuminating to you first about Freud and second about our culture and our societies believes in feelings about Freud?
MICHAEL ROTH: Well, I'll take the second part first. What I learned about our society and culture's feelings about Freud was that they still run deep and can be ignited fairly easily, and that's of interest to me because I do think that Freud has become less relevant to psychiatry with the added . . . psychopharmacological drugs and the ease with which they are given these days, and the insurance structure that makes long term therapy very difficult for most people.
So I thought that Freud would be less important than he in fact is in our culture, and going to making the films for this exhibition, just seeing the range of materials from Bugs Bunny, to Popeye, to Hitchcock, to Fueni, to Stellars and Sitcoms. It was just a great pleasure actually to go through all of these films with my students and colleagues and friends, and choosing things for the exhibition, and see the wonderfully creative use that especially American filmmakers and television makers have used Freud for. It's really a great - it was a great pleasure.
And in relation to Freud, going back through the material to select quotations for the exhibition, we didn't want to just display manuscripts that people couldn't read. In each case we have exploded manuscripts where quotations jump off the page and people can see what Freud said in his own words, and then there is some commentary. And it was a great reminder to me how strong a writer Freud is. Again, he may be wrong about his explanations. He may have missed certain things in his therapy, but reading the prose was just great fun, and I hope some of the viewers will have that experience when they read some of the things reported from the manuscripts that again, Freud posed questions in a way that are very provocative, even in the 1990s, and I hope that that provocation comes through in the materials that are presented here in Washington.
SUSAN DENTZER: Is there a particular line that stood out for you that Freud wrote?
MICHAEL ROTH: Yes, there are two lines that come to mind. One is that - in the Ego and the Id, which we have on display here as when Freud says that psychoanalysis does not set out to make pathology impossible, but to give people the choice to act one way or another, depending on what they learn about themselves in the course of psychoanalysis. I think that's really important. Freud doesn't set out to cure people or make them normal. Psychoanalysis is not about self-help to become like everyone else. It's about finding something out about yourself, and then you have to decide what to do.
The other line that is a powerful one, I think, is from an early work of Freud's. He says human beings can keep no secrets. They reveal their innermost selves with their clothes, with their twitches, with their unconscious mannerisms; that whatever we do, we're expressing things about ourselves, for people who have eyes to see and ears to hear. And I think that this is really the fundamental orientation of Freud, which some people don't believe is true, and I think there is no way of knowing really. It becomes a way of thinking about the world, that we communicate as we're doing now, and with intentional speech, but we also communicate with our bodies, we communicate when we think we're not saying anything at all, and that those things we really want to keep secret are the things that somehow emerge from us.