Freud and the Force: Classics on the Couch

By Dr. William Sharp

 A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…

 Film critic JeanLuc Godard wrote in the 1960s, “Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second…. A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end… but not necessarily in that order.” Lucas’s Star Wars films clearly exemplify  that quote – as the film series starts in Chapter 4 (1977, A New Hope), runs through to Chapter 6 (1983, Return of the Jedi) before going back in time to tell the story in Chapter 1 (1999, Phantom Menace), proceeding then through to Chapter 3 (2005, Revenge of the Sith) before restarting with Chapter 7 (2015, The Force Awakens) and the anticipated Chapter 8 (2017, The Last Jedi – unlikely!) and Chapter 9 (2019, yet unnamed!).   This doesn’t even take into account “Rouge One” (2016) which would kind of fit in between Chapter 5 and 6.

When I experience that kind of non-linear timey-wimey stuff (to quote the BBCs Dr. Who), I immediately start to wonder about the presence of the unconscious, and specifically in this instance, I became curious about Freud and The Force.

Why do stories continue?

Harvard professor Cass Sunstein wrote in The World According to Star Wars (2016) that, “The hero’s journey has deep psychological residue. It taps directly into the resources of the human psyche. Whoever you are, it’s your tale as well.” Performance philosopher Jason Silva echoes the thought, saying that we assume the perspective of a character in epic tales as we are on our own ‘hero’s journey.’  Who are you in the tale of Star Wars?  Luke? Darth Vader? Obi Wan?

 Hyman Spotnitz (founder of modern psychoanalysis) and Phyllis Meadow (founder of many schools of modern psychoanalysis) wrote in Eros and Thanatos: The Pre-feelings of Love and Hate (1976):

School children read the Greek myths as delightful stories about imaginary people. They learn from the dictionary that the very word mythical means nonexistent, or the opposite of factual. Then when they grow up and read about modern psychoanalysis they are told the opposite; that the gods and demigods of ancient Greece [AND FARAWAY GALAXIES FROM LONG AGO] behaved very much like themselves.  Myths survive because they echoed universal aspects of our own experience.  (p. 21) [Brackets are my additions]

Why this story?

On the interpsychic and social level, Star Wars is about repetitions we see on the world stage:  eternal struggles enacted through politics.  The story is about rebels against an out of control, power-coveting empire, created after a republic is infiltrated and then overthrown. The power is held because we are told repeatedly, ‘Fear will keep the most remote planets in line.’  Fear is powerful, and we learn later, fear is a path to the dark side.

Torture is allowable.  When Darth Vader wants information from Leia (SPOILER – his own daughter, although we don’t know this in Chapter 6), torture is apparently allowable, for the “right reason.”  Similarly, in 1977, Linda Ellerby notes, “it was not a helpful time in America… We were cynical, we were disappointed, oil prices were through the roof, and our government has let us down.”(Sunstein, 2016, p. 61).

Terrorism in our more recent past brings up similar beliefs and values, as we hear a similar sentiment from Dick Cheney, who is quoted as saying, “We have to work [on] sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks [the terrorists] operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.” (Sunstein, 2016, p. 119)

Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader says, ‘We need a system where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem, agree what’s in the interest of all the people, and then do it. If they don’t, …then they should be made to.’  This is not dissimilar to former President Obama’s notion, “I want to work with Congress to create jobs and opportunity for more Americans. But where Congress won’t act, I will.” And he did. (p. 119) Now one side could argue this was sidestepping congress and not making them do it and it might be for an objective good, but there are others who would view it through a different lens. Take for instance today’s political stage with President Trump.  If Sunstein wrote a follow up, think how much he could say about bullying and aggression on the world’s stage today. But here, psychoanalysis has something to offer- a middle ground, perhaps understanding, and a new hope for maturational responses to complex and multisided issues.

So on the interpsychic level, Star Wars resonates with the themes and issues of the world around us.

On an intrapsychic level – the level of our inner world and personal unconscious – there is an attempt to keep a fusion or balance in the forces of our of psychic energies – between the two drives of life and death/Eros and Thanatos.  This is what I believe resonates on an unconscious level when watching Star Wars, and helps explain its popularity and continued success.

Freud and the Force

Here is where I would like to highlight some ways in which Freud’s drives and Lucas’s Force are similar.  Freud wrote in The Two classes of Instincts (1923), “Both kinds of instincts would be active in every particle of living substance, though in unequal portions.”  Similarly, Obi Wan says (as does Yoda later) that the Force is in every living thing, surrounding us, and binding us.

The Force and Freud’s drives are neither good nor bad, they just are.  And as we see in the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker, love, specifically the desire to keep love alive, drives him to engage in destructive and deadly acts.  Freud similarly wrote of how easily love and hate can flip and become interchangeable: “Now, clinical observation shows not only that love is with unexpected regularity accompanied by hate (ambivalence), and not only that in human relationships hate is frequently a forerunner of love, but also that in the number of circumstances hate changes into love and love (into) hate.” (pp. 41-42)

Freud theorized that a high functioning society would be based on the constructive binding of both love and hate in the service of maturation.  Treatment for the individual was a loosening of repetitive patterns of behavior which were not working towards the patient’s goals. “The more the patient feels his aggressive impulses and expresses them in words, charged with genuine emotion, the more aware he becomes of his love impulses and the easier it is for him to act on them without obstruction and in healthy and socially constructive ways.” (Freud, 1923, p. 30) Yoda teaches Luke that although hate and anger can lead to the dark side, they are not stronger, just sometimes easier to act upon.  In psychoanalysis we see this when impulses give way to action. If patients can’t tolerate frustration or fail to symbolize or use fantasy and language, they are left to discharge, sometimes gaining pleasure in the act, but often suffering in the long term and failing to mature.

The Force and Freud’s psychoanalysis are also similar in their applications and interventions.   In training Luke to be a Jedi, Ben says, “reach out with your feelings.”  Similarly, in training to become a psychoanalyst, Spotnitz (1980) writes in “Constructive Emotional Interchange in Group Psychotherapy” that constructive emotional interchange is not an exchange of feelings, it’s an interchange, “the process of influencing people beneficially through their emotions.” I read this as using feelings to help patients [Jedi to be?] reconnect withfeelings that catalyze the growth processes.” (p. 94)

We learn through the movies that the Force is complicated – welcome to the paradox of human existence!  It would be easier to say that the life drive is creative and the death drive destructive, but that doesn’t capture it.  The life drive is about tension increase.  The death drive then, about tension decrease.  We need both to live. With this as a working definition then, we see that the Empire of Star Wars is not just evil, bad, and dark, but rather has a uniting and organizing force, just perhaps not fused in a way that we judge as productive.  The balance between drives and the balance in the Force is the same in that regard.  Note, that when sending someone off, the customary comment is “May the Force be with you,” not ‘may the light side be with you.’  Like the Yin and Yang, balance is the key and one does not seem to exist without the other.  So with that in mind, let me say, “May your drives be fused, and the Force be with you!”