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Subtlety of Mind

Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision by Paul Roazen Free Press, $8.95, 246 pp.

By Mark T. Whitaker

IT SEEMS a fascinating, if somewhat unsettling thing, that one thinker should be able to "father" a whole generation of intellectual offspring. Yet this appears to be the way psychoanalytic trends have progressed. The psychoanalytic movement itself began with the family of inheritors Freud carefully gathered around him in Vienna. With Freud the process became ironic, though, as it took on all the trappings of his Oedipal complex. He played his parental role to the hilt, demanding reverence and respect, and finished by lamenting the Oedipal pattern of his 'son's' jealousy and betrayal when one after another his heirs began to leave the fold. In the past 15 years a similar scenario has been played out in the "psycho-historical" movement that has grown up around Erik Erikson and his work. Yet in Erikson's case the parenthood was unplanned.

Paul Roazen begins Erik H. Erikson: The Power and Limits of a Vision by pointing out some of these surface similarities between the Freud and Erikson schools. Freud grounded his theory of the primacy of sexual drive in a new and suggestive vocabulary (libido, repression, transference, regression) that was assimilated widely, if often too crudely. The same fate has befallen Erikson's catch-words "identity crisis," "life cycle," and the adjective "psycho-social." Freud also cultivated his Vienna Circle, which he assembled to carry on his legacy after his death; while Erikson never has sought to institutionalize his influence in the same way, an informal school of sorts did spring up at his summer home in Wellfleet, Mass., and was quickly dubbed the Wellfleet Circle.

Like Marx, finally, who looked upon the misinterpretation and trivialization of his ideas and declared that he must not be a Marxist, and Freud, who disowned his potential heirs because of the violence he felt they had done to his theoretical system, Erikson has had to dissassociate himself, genteelly, from much of the simplistic garbage that has appeared under the banner of "psycho-history."

And with the proliferation of facile "psychobiographies" that bypass class, status and political strategy, in their reduction of Hitler's, Nixon's and even the Kennedys' behavior to terms of psychopathology, it is a wonder Erikson has managed to remain so polite.

UNLIKE FREUD, HOWEVER, Erikson can take criticism. Instead of attributing attacks on him to his critics' own insecurity, he has always been quick to re-examine his own thinking and acknowledge its limitations. Even his most skeptical critics--such as Frederick Crews, who reviewed Erikson's last book of Life History and the Historical Moment in the New York Review of Books--praise him for precisely that thoughtfulness and candor. And it speaks to this ongoing curiosity and self-questioning, rare enough for an established thinker whose theories have gained such wide recognition and acclaim, that just as Roazen published the first comprehensive critique of Erikson's corpus, Erikson himself finished Toys and Reasons, a fragmentary but thought-provoking book that addresses itself to most of Roazen's major objections.

One question Roazen tactfully raises has been the source of considerable, sometimes nasty, speculation and debate. The issue is how much Erikson's key thesis--that much of human behavior stems from the quest for a firm and acceptable "identity"--derives from his possible confusion and embarassment over his own identity. Erikson articulated the notion of a dramatic and often life-altering "identity crisis," usually occurring during adolescence, in his first book, Childhood and Society. His notion was that a break-down in sense-of-self could lead either to the perpetuation of identity confusion in a neurotic adulthood or to an inventive re-integration of an identity largely independent of family and established social roles, and thus to a healthy, productive maturity. Erikson carried this concept over into his studies of Luther and Gandhi, and postulated the unfolding of their identity crises as part and parcel of their respective forms of greatness.

With the publication of his last book, however, Erikson himself became the object of some of these same questions. In a review of Life History and the Historical Moment in a New York Times Book Review, Martin Berman pointed a suspicious and defiant finger at Erikson for not laying bare the truth about his own Jewish origins, which Erikson himself at hinted at only vaguely. (Erikson readily acknowledges that his stepfather was a Jew, but Roazen notes that he makes a habit of referring to his parents by nationality only, and not by religion.) Berman also chastened Erikson, in an unbelievably patronizing tone, for not coming to grips with his own illegitimacy. He demands to know why Erikson gave up his step-father's name--Homburger--when he came to America, and chose the name of "Erikson," "son of Erik," instead. Was it, Berman muses, an attempt on Erikson's part to conceal his own roots?

Roazen appraises this controversy dispassionately. He presents the conjectures about Erikson's denials of his own identity, and states all the reasonable evidence that stands in their favor, letting the disparity between accusation and reality speak for itself. But even Roazen's approach seems to beg the question. The best defense to these questions is to say that they really need none. Because Erikson did not know his real father, because he was of Danish ancestry and grew up in Germany, and because he became a permanent expatriate, traveling first to Austria and then to the U.S., he is obviously acutely conscious of the needs and difficulties involved in forging an identity. But this does not detract from the general usefulness of Erickson's theory and can only add to its eloquence.

A more significant objection, and one that Roazen points out, lies in the likelihood that not everyone dwells as much as Erikson on the problem of existential definition. It seems more reasonable that we all share the same group of basic pre-occupations--sexuality, existential angst, class consciousness and false consciousness--but in different proportions for different people. Yet Erikson is one step ahead of this objection; as Roazen notes, he is quick to admit that his insights are not comprehensive explanations of personality. Erikson once suggested that modern thinkers should incorporate Freud as a theorist of sex, and Marx as a theorist of work. Playing on Freud's famous dictum that "anatomy is destiny," Erikson has taken the less reductionist view that "anatomy, history and personality are our combined destiny."

Roazen comes up with his most thought-provoking criticisms on an issue that he never quite makes explicit. He warns that Erikson's "life cycle" theory--his notion of stable growth through eight life stages--can be seen as tacitly endorsing conformity and political conservatism. A celebration of normality can translate into an uncritical endorsement of the status quo, Roazen argues.

If, as Erikson proposes, "a sense of identity implies that one experiences an over-all sameness and continuity extending from the personal past...into a tangible future; and from the community's past...into foreseeable and imaginable realities of work accomplishment and role satisfaction," then there may be disadvantages to having a secure sense of self...in a broader perspective one has to question whether he has not put too much trust in the benign functions of the social order.

This is an important point, but it really requires more concrete examples than Roazen musters. Perhaps the best evidence for this charge that Erikson has misplaced faith in the "genius of old culture" lies in Erikson's brief discussion of the older Luther in Young Man Luther. Erikson attributes Luther's shift in doctrine from the fervent, ascetic preparation for the hereafter to an acceptance and appreciation of man's place on earth as part of God's grand design to his mature acceptance of the limitations on his powers and shortcomings. Yet Luther had also moved into closer and closer collusion with the German kings, and accepting one's place meant for millions of peasants praising destitution and feadal despotism as God's glorious will.

If these represent some limits of Erikson's vision, however, the power still remains, as Roazen notes admiringly throughout his critique. It is a power that derives from Erikson's determination to concentrate on the positive strengths of man's ego, rather than on the negative threat of the aggressive id, as Freud did. Erikson's work is full of words like "adaptation," "leeway," "growth," and "ingenuity;" he moves past Sigmund and Anna Freud's focus on the defenses that repress or rechannel erupting inner drives, emphasizing instead the "potentialities" of fuller ego-adaption, attained through a mutually reinforcing and self-fulfilling relation between psychology and culture. "'Leiben und arbeiten' (to love and to work)," Erikson wrote in Childhood and Society, quoting Freud's description of psychological health. "It pays to ponder on this simple formula," Erikson says. "It gets deeper as you think about it."

In Toys and Reasons, Erikson adds a third element to Freud's description--play. Starting with a vaguely Piagetian hypothesis that play with toys allows children to heighten their awareness of the relation between the subjective "I" and the surrounding world, Erikson goes on to sketch a very rough schema of the ways people in our culture continue to grow and negotiate their place in society through various forms of ritualized game-playing. He finally extends his discussion to military war games and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and the brief glimpse it gave of the potential of ritualized protest for calling the status quo into question while at the same time boosting social solidarity. The books weaves together this series of essays and observations, from contemporary society to child psychology and back again. Erikson is not very systematic, but he offers many warm and challenging insights, often writing as a cultural critic. He moves from references to Tom Wicker's and James Reston's columns to speculating about the role Einstein's playful world-view had in his development of a relativity theory.

The same problems Roazen points out in his critique of Erikson are in evidence in Toys and Reasons. When Erikson describes how seeing Rembrandt's Annunciation in California's DeYoung Museum led him to new and exciting thoughts about the role of perspective in establishing identity, he probably overestimates the general appeal of these insights. And when he rejoices over the spirit of gamesmanship that went into the founding of America and the Constitution, and goes on to praise the "leeway" that American society has allowed for people to test their psycho-social potential, in his excitement he seems to ignore the fact that American society has also deprived whole classes and races of the fundamental hope and stability needed to foster a sense of playfulness and to take advantage of social "leeway."

But Erikson has heard these criticisms before and acknowledges them:

...have my students not long suspected that all these neat listings are my own ceremonial reassurances? Could it be that only the privileged can afford a life cycle? Maybe my charts, these skeptics say, are a reasonably approximate guide to the study of life, but they can also be used to deny what is obvious, namely, that many adults are defined by the very fact that the playfulness of the stages has gone out of them--and not only the poor...but also the fortunate ones who are given so much deprived of all leeway it has paralyzed them...

In response, Erikson makes an impassioned case for what he calls "re-ritualization,"--a restoration to all segments of society forms for playful group interaction in a society that rapidly is becoming, as Michael Walzer puts it, more and more "radically disconnected."

BECAUSE OF HIS OPTIMISM and passion, Erikson merits admiration not just as an exciting thinker, but for being a thoughtful and caring humanist. Robert Coles made just this point in an exchange he had with MIT professor Bruce Mazlish in the New York Review of Books letter column several years ago. Mazlish, who wrote a crude psycho-biography of our former chief executive called In Search of Nixon, had attacked Coles for panning a group of similar psycho-biographies. He called Coles a traitor to the field and made a "Well, Erikson was just telling me over lunch" sort of remark in "the field's" defense. Coles responded that he didn't care to ally himself with "fields" or "schools," but that he admired social thinkers who were original and thoughtful and not overly dogmatic. The difference between you and Erikson, Coles in effect told Mazlish, is that only one of you has a creative and subtle intellect. And you're not the one.

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