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Interview with Eli Zaretsky


Areas of Specialization

Modern European and U.S. Cultural History

History of the Family, U.S., European and Comparative

United States History, 1877-1919

History of Sociology

History of Psychology and Psychoanalysis

Social Theory, Cultural and Interdisciplinary Studies


Publications: Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004); The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: A Classic Work in Immigration History (editor, 1995); Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life (1986).



FH:- Could you remember when you started to think about psychoanalysis? The time when...


Eli Zaretsky- Oh, I was very young when I began thinking about psychoanalysis, like in my teens


FH:- In what kind of...


Eli Zaretsky- - When I was growing up, Freud was such a powerful figure, sort of like Dostoyevsky or Goethe or Leonardo. It really was the deepest philosophy of that age in terms of thinking about basic questions so when I became an adolescent it was a very normal thing, that you would get interested in psychoanalysis and I did. And then I got interested again in it in the 1960s when it was linked by Marcuse and Norman O' Brian and so forth linked it to the student movements. Those were some of the early origins of my interest in psychoanalysis.


FH: The situation if you maybe remember the situation when you started to work more on ...


Eli Zaretsky- - On Freud? On Capitalism? I worked on capitalism before I worked on psychoanalysis and I wrote a book called "Capitalism and the Family and Personal Life" which is an historical analysis of the emergence of the public-private split, and which I braced to industrialization and this was in the early '70s which is a kind of common place idea now, but that was an original idea at that point. I was very interested and remain very interested in understanding the family and family relations and gender relations and sexual relations and so forth, in relationship to capitalism. When I finished that book, I felt that the one thing that I had not accounted for, was not able to account for, through a moralist Marxist, somewhat Marxist historical account really not Marxist very influenced by the emergence of the women's' movement but it was still, I was still very influenced by Marx. I felt that there were still new issues that psychoanalysis brought up which I had not been able to think about historically.


I had never studied psychoanalysis systematically and Juliet Mitchell's book "Psychoanalysis and Feminism" just came out at around that time, 1974, and I read that book and decided to review it, which I did, but in the course of reviewing it I realized that I would have to learn more about psychoanalysis to review it properly and I wounded up reading the whole of Freud because he's a very very wonderful writer, very engaging, very powerful and I started to read it chronologically, since I'm an historian, I started at the beginning and so forth. And at first I thought - Oh, this really doesn't make any sense, and I was arguing against it and so forth, but the more I read, the more deeply I became involved with it and the more interesting I found it.


FH:- Maybe you could say something when you started to read Freud and how it was...


Eli Zaretsky: Well I was reading it in a hospital. I was reading it in a library. I was not an academic at that point. I was editing a political journal. So I didn't have an academic library and I was reading the standard edition in a medical hospital. And I would go there every day and sit there and read it and as I say, I was looking for more social explanation and so I would read these things and Freud and I would think well - Where's the society? Where's the social relations? Where's the surrounding culture? and these kinds of things... But the more that I read Freud, the more I realized well that's not what he's about, but that what he is about is namely that what goes on in the individual itself is already social, the fact that what goes on inside individuals, and understanding what goes on inside individuals cannot be in a sense recuperated back into the society and culture, cannot be sort of explained through what is going on in the society and culture at that point in relationship to that individual even though of course there are all sorts of connections and relationships and so forth, but they can't be mapped on to one another, that that was itself a social and historical fact that there was a new fact in history and that became sort of one of main ideas of my book.


FH:- And at what point are you now in your work?


Eli Zaretsky:- Well I wrote this book called "Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis" and it's coming out in German in about a year. It's come out in English and so forth. I 'm still working on the question of psychoanalysis and I'm writing five essays now which are mostly finished. One is concerned with psychoanalysis and the spirit of capitalism and three of them are concerned with psychoanalysis and various groups of people who the groups are Jews, African Americans and women. Each has a very distinctive history in relationship to psychoanalysis. The place that psychoanalysis occupies in the history of the Jews and modern Jewish attempts to reveal what it means to be a Jew and so forth and African Americans especially the work of Richard Wright, who was very influenced by psychoanalysis and very important in African American history, specially in legitimizing certain experiences of negativity and aggression and so forth, but that had really not really been fully expressed within African American culture before and then women of course I think psychoanalysis represents an alternative to feminism in terms of its understanding of gender. Psychoanalysis, what psychoanalysis did with gender was to take the previous explanation according to "This is what a man is" and "This is what a woman is". It rejected that and it redefined what people are basically in terms of object choice. It redefined becoming a man in terms of making a choice of a woman: working out the evolution of your sexuality, which in early childhood is very mixed and diverse and so forth, comes to be organized around object choice. Same thing for a woman: her sexuality, which is very mixed and so forth and you don't have really distinctions, comes to be focussed on making a choice normally of a man. But obviously in both cases there's other kinds of object choices and this is what Freud meant by bisexuality. No one just chooses a man as an object, a woman as an object. Everybody chooses both and identifies with both. And that was one way of understanding gender. I think feminism has its own way of - or its own ways of understanding gender, and I critiqued it, so I'm writing about that. And also I'm writing an article about the 1960s, the role of psychoanalysis in the 1960s. So these are the five essays that I'm working on now.


FH: That's great. Thank you very much.