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Norbert Elias: Beyond Freud

Posted on by Stephen Mennell

Norbert Elias, Au-delà de Freud: sociologie, psychologie, psychanalyse (Paris: La Découverte, 2010). Edited by Marc Joly; translated from English and German by Nicolas Guilhot, Marc Joly and Valentine Meunier; with an afterword by Bernard Lahire. 215 pp. ISBN: 978-2-7071-5760-7.

This is arguably the most important ‘new’ book by Elias to appear in the last decade. Marc Joly has put together a collection of Elias’s writings that bear upon psychology and psychoanalysis, none of which has previously appeared in French. These include the essays on ‘Sociology and psychiatry’ (1969), ‘The civilising of parents’ (1980) and ‘civilisation and psychosomatics’ (1988), which have already been published in English and (in the first two cases) German. The volume also includes a translation of the transcript of Elias’s 1950 lecture, ‘The field of social psychology’, delivered at king’s College, London – which has been included in neither the Gesammelte Schriften nor the Collected Works.

But what makes this volume of the greatest significance is that Marc Joly has succeeded in making a coherent, readable and cogent text from the sprawling multivariate drafts of the major essay on ‘The Freudian conception of society and beyond it’ that Elias was writing in the months immediately leading up to his death in 1990.

Elias never made any secret of the profound influence that Freud had on his work from the 1930s onwards. The influence was in any case very obvious. Yet careful reading always revealed that, as Elias said himself, he was never an uncritical and orthodox adherent of psychoanalysis. Freud’s impact upon the human self-image remains profound, but today Freud’s ideas are markedly less fashionable among à la mode intellectuals – who seem generally to throw the baby out with much of the bathwater that arguably is indeed disposable. That is relevant to the reception of Elias’s work because, especially in the USA, the perception that Elias is ‘a Freudian’ tout court becomes an excuse not to read his works with the care and attention that is required. One problem is that Elias never set out at length where he stood in relation to Freud – what he agreed with, what he disagreed with, and why – until he attempted to do just that in the last months of his life.

In his last few years Elias was effectively blind. His last writings, including The Symbol Theory and the ‘Maycomb model’ essay, as well as his work on Freud, were dictated to assistants. Since he could not read the result, he had also had to rely on the assistants to read back what they had typed up from the previous day. This appears to have exacerbated Elias’s existing tendency to produce many different drafts of the same ideas. Nevertheless, in the case of The Symbol Theory (which he did more or less complete), Elias would not give permission to Richard Kilminster to take radical editorial initiative to eliminate false starts and repetitions and to sort out the material into some more coherent and systematic exposition. Precisely such radical editorial initiative is what Marc Joly, using his experience as a journalist, has achieved with the Freud papers – which, hitherto, had languished at the DLA in Marbach in a state that was thought to preclude publication.

The resulting 54-page essay (pp. 131–85) is highly convincing. It is in certain respects – to those familiar with Elias’s thinking – fairly predictable, but it is no less persuasive for all that. The first major section describes Freud’s as ‘a social theory founded on the opposition of individual and society’; like so many others up to the present day, Freud had no effective notion of social dynamics,. He was after all a psychologist, so it is hardly surprising if his thought was psychologistic – his explanations were sought in the properties of the individual human mind. In other words: homo clausus rides again. The next section of the text assembled by Joly follows logically under the heading ‘a myth of origins’. Next comes an extended discussion of ‘social repression and psychological represssion’. And then, in characteristic fashion, Elias moves on to advocate ‘a processual reorientation of Freudian concepts’. And finally: ‘beyond nature and culture’: or, Elias might have written, ‘In my beginning is my end’, for the problem of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ had been one of his preoccupations from the beginning of his intellectual life.

Now that Marc Joly has shown what can be done with the Freud papers, we have plans to publish his edition of them in the original English. Watch this space to find out how we manage to squeeze them into the last volumes of the Collected Works that are now under preparation. In the meantime, if you read French, read this book.