It happened today - October 22, 2015

On October 22 of 1899, an obscure academic printing press released the first advance copies by an obscure Vienna doctor of an obscure volume that changed nothing including his bank balance as it took years to sell the first 600-copy print run. But then it changed everything, as pop interpretations of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams swept popular culture and helped convince us that everything is relative, which is the signature tune of the post-modern era.

Freud’s theories are, of course, complex. And the understanding of Freud, that whatever we thought we were doing we were really trying to have sex, probably with our mothers, leaves out some details. But it captures the essence in two important ways. First, it is debased. And second, if even partly true it reduces all our conscious thoughts, our logic and our sense of self to illusions, banishing free will and moral responsibility.

As Marshall McLuhan put it in the 1960 essay “Popular/Mass Culture: American Perspectives”:

It is often said that the major development of this century has been the discovery of the night world of dreams…. By day, we are the bottom half of a double boiler. We are all steamed up but we don’t know what’s cooking.

Now if true it makes even talking about dreams pointless, because our interpretation of dreams like everything else will be driven by unconscious processes that put on a peculiar puppet show in our conscious minds for no purpose anyone could discern even if it had one. But people latched onto it anyway without understanding its implications.

According to Paul Johnson in Modern Times, there was a weird confluence between empirical verification of some of Einstein’s theories and intellectuals’ discovery of Freud following the devastating and demoralizing experience of the First World War that helped undermined the pillars of reason. Now as Johnson insists, it was not in any way Einstein’s fault; his misnamed “Theory of Relativity” has nothing to do with everything being relative. It merely demonstrates that the objective laws of physics are different, under extreme conditions, than Newton thought, and that mass, length and chronology are altered by motion of one body relative to another. But it didn’t matter what he said, it mattered what intellectuals thought he said. And they thought some guy with a brain so giant he tossed off aperçus about E=mc2 before breakfast had proved everything was relative.

The concept became absolutely pervasive. Will Durant, a tireless popularizer of history and philosophy who with his wife and coauthor Ariel won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, wrote in his 1924 The Story of Philosophy that “Philosophy is to history as reason is to desire: in either case an unconscious process determines from below the conscious thought above.”

Again, if true, it renders all philosophizing pointless and impossible. And yet we go on writing books, just as professors who preach that everything is relative would be shocked if their employers took that attitude toward their employment contracts. Freud’s own theories are absurd and empirically unsound, though his one-time collaborator Carl Jung’s are surely even worse. But they were embraced with a troubling eagerness by people who apparently wanted to be told they were not responsible for their actions so they could cease to exercise all that tiresome self-control.

Those people were, of course, the human race, among whom we are included. And the temptation is a perennial one. But it really burst loose in the period after World War One, making ours the Age of Relativism, in which life is not just a dream, it’s a bad one.