The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: March, 2016

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality


Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.

Is it a Rhinoceros or an Elephant in the Room?: Reflections on Truth

A point that interests me greatly is the status of the concept of truth in contemporary intellectual thought. Insofar as postmodern and poststructuralist modes of thought remain hegemonic in intellectual culture, truth has very little currency. Similarly with our pluralistic and multicultural politics, which privilege a very relativistic approach to issues, rather than an insistence of a particular truth. Terry Eagleton writes, “No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth” (After Theory, Verso, 2004, p. 103). Rather than offer a devastating and unanswerable critique of this position in this blog post, I can only begin by noting that this idea has never been acceptable to me. I cannot do without the notion of truth.

The absurdities of a position entirely dispensing with the notion are well illustrated by the famous anecdote about Wittgenstein and the Rhinoceros in the Room. On one of Wittgenstein’s first meetings with Bertrand Russell, he challenged Russell’s empirical epistemology and the argument somehow arrived at the point where Russell was prodding Wittgenstein to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room they were occupying, but Wittgenstein insisted that he couldn’t be sure of that on an empirical basis and would not conclusively say there was no such animal in the room. So the matter remained unresolved. Perhaps by finding where people’s opinions lie in this matter, we can find out a lot about their general philosophical stance. I am certainly a Russellian on this point. But I wonder how he approached the argument: I suppose he tried to prove that there was no rhinoceros in the room, and failed as far as Wittgenstein was concerned. But did he confront Wittgenstein: did he say, “it is not provable that there is no rhinoceros in this room, not in the absolute theoretical sense you desire, but I do not believe that there is one, nor have I any reason to. And you, do you actually believe that there is one?”  Surely Wittgenstein would not be able to say he did, would have to admit that he didn’t really think there was one, at which the Russellian might say, “Then why argue? We neither of us think there is a rhinoceros here. If we did, we would be acting very differently, and feeling considerable fear, no doubt. Therefore let us not argue over what we both consider false, and what, so far as we know, no one has ever considered true. That is proof enough.” This is perhaps naïve, but constitutes somewhat of an appeal to honesty, and an appeal to argue over genuine points of difference, not over things that are simply unprovable at a very abstract level of rhetoric – and everything is unprovable at a certain level.

So there is a simple and direct truth about certain matters that we should be able to agree about, such as the non-presence of a rhinoceros in any given room (one can imagine exceptions, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, i.e., almost certainly never). These truths will only take us so far, of course, but they should be kept in mind. Hence I am wary of Žižek’s attempts to rehabilitate truth in a new form. Žižek, unlike most contemporary thinkers, writes about truth a lot. In one of his most accessible books, How to Read Lacan from the Norton How to Read… series (New York, 2007), Žižek gives his own version of truth, related to the Lacanian dictum Les non-dupes errant, which he translates as “Those in the know are in error”. His gloss on this dictum is as follows:

What is missed by the cynic who believes only his eyes is the efficiency of the symbolic fiction, the way this fiction structures our reality. A corrupt priest who preaches about virtue may be a hypocrite, but if people endow his words with the authority of the Church, it may prompt them to do good deeds. (33-34)

This is not a particularly impressive passage, and Žižek has probably made this point more convincingly elsewhere, but taking this as representative of his position, we can note a few things: firstly, he equates empiricism with cynicism, and he essentially contrasts it with hypocrisy, preferring the latter. In the old argument, then, between conservative-Burkean “beautiful illusions” and liberal “inconvenient truths”, Žižek is a conservative. Secondly, his example doesn’t make his point. The notion of fiction structuring our reality sounds impressive, but the religious example of “good deeds” tells us nothing about the structure of our reality, but only of individual deeds. (I’m only taking into account this passage here. I’m sure I’ll come across other passages where Žižek makes the point about structure more satisfactorily.) So the example brings the rhetoric down to earth with a bump, and invites numerous questions. Or course, such a priest as Žižek describes may cause good deeds to be performed, but don’t we need to take into account all the consequences of his corruption and his whole being, rather than dismissing it all with the possibility of some good deeds?

Žižek is not wrong to suggest that good deeds as a result of social fictions need to be taken into account in any cultural analysis, he’s only wrong to introduce it not alongside, but at the expense of other criteria. Here again I put forward the approach of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend suggested that in the evaluation of any theory, both the logical force and the material effect need to be taken into account (Against Method). The Žižek of the above passage only wants the latter – and he gives no way of knowing how the latter can even be measured. Given his anti-empiricism, it would not be easy to do!

So if Žižek’s rehabilitation of the concept of truth is really the rehabilitation only of the name, to cover a quite different concept (material effect, in Feyerabend’s term, although it doesn’t even cover that very well), then we’re worse off than when we started. We can’t even agree on basic truths, as we always have to give way before material effect. As unfortunately often with Žižek, in the guise of making a basic philosophical statement, he’s muddying the waters and redefining terms in arbitrary ways. The real truth is, that we’re in agreement about the truth of many things in our everyday life; it is only in theory that there is a massive stumbling block. We can’t wholly solve our problems by appealing to the definitively and unproblematically true, but we certainly can’t solve them by discounting this factor altogether. That is the worst possible starting-point. So, though we like to argue about truth, let’s admit that practically, we do agree what truth is in many basic situations. Let’s admit that there is, in fact, no rhinoceros in the room. That this fact is, indeed, the elephant in the room!*



*”There’s no rhinoceros in the room” = rhetorical way of saying, some really basic empirical truths are worth accepting and not arguing over. “That’s the elephant in the room!” = figure of speech meaning the truth everyone knows but no one says. So the import of my final sentences is simply that we all having working definitions of truth, so let’s admit it, and not pretend we don’t, a la Wittgenstein and various post-modernists.

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