Russell Jacoby is a historian, but his book is so far from being a conventional historical account of the development of psychoanalysis that many readers may not recognize it as the work of a historian at all. For one thing, it is openly polemical, not “objective.”
For another, it deals for the most part not with empirical questions but with questions of theory. Yet the theories to which it is addressed — psychoanalysis, Marxism, and the “critical theory” that tried to bring them together — are themselves deeply historical. Indeed they show more respect for the complexity and ambiguity of the past, and for the problematical character of historical interpretation, than much of the work of empirical historians, including those who have condemned these very theories as unhistorical.
At the same time, those theories keep constantly in mind the influence of the past on the present, in contrast to the enlightened view of the past, so popular nowadays, that treats the past as something safely left behind. Our present “enlightenment,” according to Jacoby, is really a form of what he calls social amnesia, a willful repression of things we already knew.
Thus we have chosen to “forget” psychoanalysis because it is disturbing — not least because it insists that the past is not so easily shuffled off as we suppose. The past “lives on,” as Freud said, “in the ideologies of the super-ego and yields only slowly to the influences of the present and to new changes.”
In an age that has forgotten theory, theory has to begin in remembrance. Jacoby’s understanding of this central fact immediately distinguishes him from historians who write about psychoanalysis (and about the past in general) only in order to bury it still further. There is history that remembers and history that originates in a need to forget.
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