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Ian Birchall

The dreams of children

(February 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.84, February 1986, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Freud Scenario
Jean-Paul Sartre
Verso £16.95

ONE OF my students recently compared the late Jean-Paul Sartre to Jim Reeves: both have produced a string of major works since their deaths. Since Sartre died in 1980 six substantial volumes have appeared; the Freud Scenario – a film script which was never used – is the most recent in English and the most exciting. It tells of Freud’s early years, when he was still developing and perfecting his theories.

The encounter between Sartre and Freud raises issues of prime importance. The core of Sartre’s philosophy is freedom: we choose our own lives, consciously; any attempt to push our responsibility off onto external or ‘unconscious forces’ is rejected as ‘bad faith’. Freud, by contrast, was a determinist. ‘Nothing’, he declares in Sartre’s script, ‘is accidental’. Every slip of the tongue, every nervous gesture has a cause, a cause which lies out of our control in a part of the mind inaccessible to consciousness.

The positions are starkly juxtaposed; the philosophical – and political – implications are profound. Sartre sums this up in the vivid image with which the film opens. An old woman, blind and paralysed, is being carried round a hospital on a stretcher. But the medical personnel will not accept her into any of the wards. For she is suffering from hysteria, and medical opinion of the time judged that victims of hysteria were not ill but malingering, ‘putting on an act’.

With acute irony Sartre is here exploring the contradictions of his own position. For the logic of the philosophy of individual freedom can lead straight to the pathological Toryism of a Tebbit – the unemployed are to blame for their own fate. Yet Sartre cannot renounce freedom; for if we are not free to choose, then we abandon all hope of revolt, of changing the world. It was in an attempt to resolve this dilemma that Sartre, in the fifties, tested his own philosophy against the work of Marx and Freud.

Marx’s solution is expressed in the famous: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’ Human freedom is real, but located in concrete historical circumstances. Only collective action can change the world.

For Freud the problem remains within the individual skull, and as a result has no solution. But Sartre is always at his best when he is asking questions, not answering them, and his treatment of Freud points above all to the thinker’s unresolved paradoxes. As Sartre shows, knowledge of others is inseparable from knowledge of oneself. Freud is looking for a therapy to cure patients, but we are constantly reminded how much he has in common with those patients. Freud has his own neurotic habits – a recurring phallic cigar – and above all he is hung up about his father. The climax of the scenario is Freud’s slow, reluctant discovery that he himself has an Oepidus complex. Yet however much Freud invokes determination to deal with his patients, he believes passionately and incorrigibly in his own freedom. How, then, can his patients be mere objects?

Moreover, Sartre shows that the question of freedom cannot be detached from the question of oppression. The principle of individual responsibility could make sense only in a world of freedom and equality. Freud’s life, however, is rooted in a complex tissue of oppressions. We see the rigid hierarchy of the medical profession, the crude domination of doctors over patients. The poverty of Freud’s family is vividly portrayed – Sartre actually gives Freud (the great discoverer of childhood sexuality) the line: ‘Poor people have no youth.’

Above all, Sartre focusses on sexism and racism. He shows us Freud the victim of racism, the Jew in a city where anti-Semitic pamphlets are sold openly on the street. But he also shows us Freud the dominating male, whose reluctance to recognise female sexuality is mirrored in his authoritarian and uncomprehending attitude to his own wife.

The two themes come together in one of the film’s most effective scenes. Freud gives a lecture in which he argues that sexual assault on daughters by fathers is commonplace; at the end he is mobbed by angry doctors chanting: ‘Filthy yid! Back to the ghetto!’ Later Freud backs off from this theory, and claims that the daughters subconsciously want to be raped by their fathers. But Sartre leaves us wondering if Freud wasn’t right first time round.

This account only scratches the surface of an amazingly rich text. Ironies and paradoxes constantly provoke thought, while dream images are skilfully and subtly interwoven with the narrative. Above all, the film is supremely optimistic. Freud stands for the spirit of scientific truth; around him, ‘Vienna is rotten! Everywhere hypocrisy, perversion, neurosis!’ Yet Freud greets persecution with the comment: ‘All this proves to me that we are on the right track.’ (He thus echoes Sartre’s own comment years before, when he was being simultaneously denounced in Washington and Moscow.)

As we read of Freud’s lone struggle we remember that Sartre was writing at a time when the French left was hopelessly isolated in the worst days of the Algerian war. The great determinist is thus transmuted into a symbol of freedom.

So why, you may ask, was the movie never actually made? Why do we have to read it in an impossibly expensive hardback instead of seeing it on our Christmas TV screens alongside Moonraker and Son of Lassie? Sartre in fact abandoned the script after hostility and demands for changes from the American director, John Huston, who originally commissioned it. Admittedly Sartre’s script was on the long side – something like seven hours. (Sartre did have problems writing to length – a couple of years as a hack on Socialist Worker Review would have done him a world of good). But other long films have been made – for instance Bertolucci’s trashy and pretentious 1900.

In the end Sartre’s scenario was just too good and too honest for a cinema industry founded on power, corruption and lies.

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