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Freud and the Constitution

September 28, 2000

Laurence Olivier’s fine 1948 film version of Hamlet is still the only movie in which the same man won Academy Awards as both best actor and best director. But in one respect the film shows its age badly.

Olivier was taken with a Freudian interpretation of the play that was very fashionable in the Forties. He had read the book Hamlet and Oedipus, by Freud’s British disciple Ernest Jones, whom he consulted before shooting began. Jones convinced Olivier that Hamlet delays avenging his father’s murder because he’s inhibited by an Oedipus complex. He subconsciously identifies with his murderous uncle, King Claudius, because Claudius has done what he subconsciously desired to do: kill his father and possess his mother.

So, in the film, we see Hamlet smooching his mother and later violently throwing her on her bed, underlining his sexual obsession with her. Swords and knives become phallic symbols. But all these Freudian symbols have to be presented visually, because there is nothing in the play to warrant them.

[Breaker quote: 
Free-association 'interpretation']None of these symbols have much to do with Shakespeare, though Freud claimed to have gained many of his “insights” from the Bard. Today nobody except a few feminists takes Freudian Shakespeare criticism very seriously; nobody now thinks that psychoanalysis yields the “truth” about Shakespeare. Freudian concepts are so ill-defined that you can apply them any way you like; when any pointed object can become a “phallic symbol,” there is no end to bogus “insights” (and dirty jokes by undergraduates who want to seem clever). The only solid “truth” to be gleaned from Freud is that practically everything reminded him of sex. He merely projected his free associations onto others, including Shakespeare.

Psychoanalysis was popular because it was a game without rules; its assertions could never be disproved. Once you learned to think like Freud, you could “explain” everything in Freudian terms. But a true science has to be rigorous; there must be ways of testing, and possibly falsifying, its propositions. Without adopting Freud’s peculiar theories, you could never guess that Hamlet is about the hero’s secret wish to kill his father and bed his mother.

In a similar way, unless you subscribe to liberal ideology, you could never guess that the U.S. Constitution means what the U.S. Supreme Court insists it means. There is nothing in the text of the Constitution to support the Court’s views on abortion, pornography, school prayer, suspects’ rights, and a hundred other topics, any more than there is anything in Hamlet to support Freudian notions about Hamlet’s hidden motives.

Like psychoanalysis, constitutional jurisprudence has become a game without rules. By defying the plain meaning of words, ignoring context and history, and using a little ingenuity, you can make the Constitution mean anything you like. If conservatives and libertarians adopted liberal methods of interpretation, they could find that the right to keep and bear arms means that any citizen may maintain his own nuclear arsenal, or that all taxation is an illegal deprivation of property without due process of law (as well as a form of involuntary servitude).

Liberal jurists insult our intelligence when they tell us we should accept their own arbitrary free-association “interpretation” of the Constitution as its “real” meaning. It’s only one of myriad possible meanings, and a very implausible one at that. The Constitution might easily mean any of countless other things, equally whimsical, equally remote from what the Framers said it meant.

The liberal reading is also suspiciously trendy. The Court has found a right of “privacy” that protects abortion. Did it do this because the text of the Constitution inescapably implied such a right, or because of purely extraneous current pressures for the legalization of abortion, having nothing to do with that text? The answer is all too obvious. And why does “privacy” protect abortion against the states, but not taxpayers against the Internal Revenue Service? Because liberals want legal abortion and confiscatory taxation. So they apply their principles with hypocritical inconsistency.

When the fundamental law of the land becomes the malleable instrument of a peculiar ideology, the rule of law is dead — as surely as if a single tyrant bent the law to serve his own appetites. Law becomes, in fact, a raw power to command — a lawless power under the forms of law.

Joseph Sobran

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