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Maud Ellmann reviews Matt ffytche’s The Foundation of the Unconscious

Matt ffytche. The Foundation of the Unconscious:  Schelling, Freud and the Birth of the Modern Psyche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 322 pp. Paperback $31.99.

Reviewed by Maud Ellmann

“There is scarcely anything to which I am so hostile as the thought of being someone’s protégé,” Freud admitted in later life. Anxious for priority as the “conquistador” of the unconscious, Freud was leery of acknowledging his forerunners.  In the wider world, the misconception that the unconscious sprang fully formed from Freud’s genius in or around 1900 has retained a strong hold on the popular imagination.       

Yet the unconscious was neither discovered nor invented by Freud alone.  As Matt ffytche demonstrates in this difficult but illuminating study, the foundation of the unconscious lies embedded in the German philosophical tradition that stretches from Fichte to Schelling.  This tradition itself, ffytche argues, arose in response to the political and ideological pressures of Enlightenment, the need to overcome the vestiges of feudalism along with those of medieval Christianity.  Thus the invention of a psychic unconscious coincided with “the new clamour in the Romantic period for descriptions of an autonomous, self-created individual, which was to be so significant for later forms of liberal ideology.”

At first glance, this argument seems counter-intuitive.  Surely the Freudian unconscious belies the myth of individual autonomy and freedom, a myth which – as Lacan wryly observes – “merits a point-by-point comparison with a delusional discourse” (70).  Against this myth, the concept of the unconscious implies – in Freud’s famous aphorism – that the ego is not master of its house.  Instead this house is haunted by the returned of the repressed, the restless traces of an inaccessible past.  

Yet it is the forgetting of this past, ffytche argues, that guarantees the subject’s freedom from determinism.  In Schelling’s philosophy, the self’s opaqueness to itself, its blindness to its own beginnings, ensures its independence and power of self-creation.  In Schelling’s words, “That primordial deed which makes a man genuinely himself precedes all individual actions; but immediately after it is put into exuberant freedom, this deed sinks into the night of unconsciousness” (137).  In an intricate and compelling argument, supported by meticulous research, ffytche shows how the unconscious, conceptualized by Schelling as a primordial forgetting of origins, makes it possible to conceive of a modern liberal subject unfettered by its antecedents.   “In every man we require a bit of night,” wrote Emerson in response to Schelling’s theory; it is that bit of night that liberates the self from pre-existent forms of absolute authority, both secular and theological. 

Freud’s most celebrated reference to Schelling occurs in the paper on “The ‘Uncanny’” of 1919, which quotes the observation:  “Uncanny [unheimlich] is what one calls everything that should have stayed secret, hidden, latent [im Geheimniß, im Verborgenen, in der Latenz] but has come to the fore” (160). The concept of the uncanny, however, is only one of many Freudian themes prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, which also anticipates the psychoanalytic theories of trauma, repression, desire, and dreams as the royal road to the unconscious.  Nonetheless, as ffytche points out, Schelling is not a psychoanalyst but a philosopher, for whom the unconscious provides the basis for “an ontology capable of representing the independence of individuals” (212), rather than an etiology of mental illness.   

Ffytche, of course, is not the first scholar to challenge the originality of Freud’s discovery.  The most conspicuous precedent is Henri F. Ellenberger, whose gigantic The Discovery of the Unconscious proposes that psychoanalysis is “a late offshoot of Romanticism.”  The originality of ffytche’s study lies in its methodology; instead of tracing lines of influence, as Ellenberger and others have attempted, The Foundations of the Unconscious shows how Freud grapples with a set of problems which have exercised German philosophy since the eighteenth century.   For this reason ffytche does not attempt to adjudicate the truth-claims of psychoanalysis, to campaign for or against the existence of the unconscious.  This book does not contend that the reality of the unconscious, like that of the Americas, preceded the discoverers who brought it into view; nor does it debunk the unconscious as a fraud concocted by a charlatan.  Instead, ffytche demonstrates that the concept of the unconscious emerged out of a confluence of forces – philosophical, political, scientific, theological, literary, parapsychological.  

It is partly because of these tangled roots that the unconscious remains theoretically “disturbed” throughout the history of the psychoanalytic movement, “whether this unconscious aspect is conceived as the repressed (early Freud); as the id (later Freud); as unconscious phantasy (Klein); as the submerged totality of the self (Jung); the discursive structure of the Subject (Lacan); the quality of maternal ‘holding’ (Winnicott); or the unthought known (Bollas)” (280).  It is clear from ffytche’s book that the unconscious had to be invented – and successively reinvented -  whether it exists or not.  It is also clear that the concept of the unconscious is fraught with as many conflicts, disavowals, and historical erasures as the postulated entity itself.