Frederick Crews’ latest book, Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays, will be published next week by Shoemaker & Hoard.
Crews joined the UC Berkeley English Department in 1958 and retired as its chair in 1994. In the mid-’60s he shared the widespread ass umption that Freudian psychoanalytic theory was a valid account of human motivation, and he was one of the first academics to apply that theory systematically to the study of literature.
But he soon developed misgivings, and he gradually came to regard F reudianism as a seductive pseudoscience that manufactures the “evidence” it purports to explain.
Crews has continued to advance that point of view for several decades now, but it was his 1993 essay “The Unknown Freud,” triggering the most intense and voluminous controversy ever seen in the New York Review of Books, that made his name a household word. But he was already briefly famous in 1963 for his bestselling satire The Pooh Perplex, and a generation of students in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including many at Berkeley, knew him from his witty composition text The Random House Handbook.
Crews’ change of heart about psychoanalysis convinced him that his loyalty shouldn’t belong to any theory but rather to empirical standards and the skeptical point of view. In the past dozen years he has brought that attitude to the study of various public enthusiasms, from the recovered memory craze, Rorschach tests, and belief in alien abductions to theosophy and “intelligent design” creationism. These, along with psychoan alysis in its latest guises, are among the Follies of the Wise skewered in his new collection of essays.
Crews is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In Berkeley, he won a Distinguished Teaching Award and was named a Faculty Research L ecturer. On retiring, he was given the Berkeley Citation, and just recently he has been honored as a Berkeley Fellow. He lives in Berkeley with his wife of 46 years, Elizabeth Crews, a photographer who was born and raised here. They have two daughters and four grandchildren—some as close as El Cerrito, others as distant as Mexico.
Crews is an avid skier, hiker, swimmer, motorcyclist, and runner who continues to compete in road races at age 73.
Jake Fuchs: The essays collected in your new book discuss a wide assortment of “follies.” You bring to all these a skepticism that those who enjoy your work consider both acute and fair. Your detractors might prefer the adjectives “grouchy” and “obsessed.” There some particular urgency about these various topics, some of which seem pretty silly, that makes them worth your trouble and the attention of your readers?
Frederick Crews: I don’t have any agenda when it comes to topics. Some get suggested by editors, others by people who send me books that might appeal t o my disposition. When I do lock onto a theme, I usually find that, however strange the beliefs in question may be, there are sophisticated academics who “fellow travel” with them for turf-conscious reasons of their own. That’s what really engages me: the abdication of common sense by people who have been given every opportunity to educate themselves in rational principles, but who consider rationality itself to be old hat.
JF: One conclusion that can be drawn from your book is that it’s hard to keep a w ise folly down. Freud, for example, still matters to millions, despite decades of sharp criticism. And creationism, you suggest in one essay, is thriving after receiving the cosmetic treatment known as intelligent design. Do you think any real progress ha s been made in helping people to ... well, think?
FC: Many of my fellow skeptics are utopians who look forward to a heaven-on-earth from which all illusions have been banished. My hunch, on the contrary, is that we’re heading into a world of economic and demographic dislocations, strife over dwindling natural resources, increased superstition and sectarian conflict, and vulnerability to horrendous catastrophes, some of which will be our own fault. I’m embarrassed for my species, which has made a great me ss but can’t seem to take responsibility for the enormous destruction that’s already well under way. But while I’m still here, I’d like to continue to speak up for values that I regard as universally human and “planetary.”
JF: Let’s go into your past a b it and perhaps relate it to the present. In Follies of the Wise, you describe yourself as having been an “antiwar spokesman” during the Vietnam era. Were you a radical? Any misgivings about your activities then? Do you think they may have had a part in le ading your university or the academy in general down unfortunate paths?
FC: Circa 1968, I was co-chair of Berkeley’s Faculty Peace Committee, and my advocacy of draft resistance made me susceptible to the same prosecution that was brought against Dr. Spo ck. We were both on the masthead of a militant organization called “Resist.” But I was a minor figure, nationally, and was accordingly left to speechify without hindrance.
Yes, I thought of myself as a radical in the ‘60s, but when even moderate Republicans joined the antiwar cause around 1970, I felt that my activism wasn’t needed anymore. Since then I’ve been a garden-variety liberal, with no advice to offer except, of course, the obvious suggestion that “wars of choice” are stupid and profoundly un-American.
I did worry, in the ‘60s, about advocating draft resistance when I myself was beyond draft age—but 55,000 Americans and about a million Vietnamese were being slaughtered for no reason, so some scruples had to be overridden. As for the universi ties and UCB in particular, I always opposed academic disruption and violence. In fact, that’s exactly where I parted company with the New Left.
JF: More recently, I’ve heard you characterized in academic circles as a right-winger. Any comment?
FC: That perception is a by-product of the “theory wars” that brought us deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the newer forms of psychoanalysis. By warning, right away, that those movements were anti-empirical, I marked myself in some circles as an opponent of the political causes that the gurus of “theory” imagined they were serving. Only now are some of their successors beginning to realize that when you disrespect evidence and reason, you render yourself politically irrelevant–indeed, ridiculous. And you also become incapable of responding to those who disagree with you except by name calling.
JF: You began your career as a literary scholar; then, as a writer, if not as a teacher, you moved into other fields. However, the two most recent essays in Follies of the Wise are about Kafka and Melville and the criticism concerning them. Does this mark a return to your primal academic scene?
FC: Both of those literary subjects were proposed by the New York Review. By now I do feel more comfortable analyzing trends and movements than trying to say something new about classic authors. The amount of reading that needs to be done for each new project is daunting. But I don’t agree that my “other fields” stand altogether apart from literary criticism. The so-called interdisciplinarity of academic criticism from the seventies until now has been shallow and vapid. Thus, when I continue to write about the circular nature of, say, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, I’m not turning my back on the literature departments but trying to show them how they’ve strayed from the ground rules of sincere investigation. Literary study is in broad disrepute now, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason.
JF: Let’s talk about your athletic endeavors. You’ve had 25 first-place finis hes in races since turning 70. How do you account for that?
FC: It’s longevity, not talent. The other mobile septuagenarians tend not to show up, and when they do, some of them wander off the course.
JF: And the motorcycle? Isn’t it getting to be time to dismount for good?
FC: I ride for one reason only, to find parking spaces in Berkeley. But it’s also a source of amusement, because, with my helmet on, I’m completely invisible to my academic colleagues. There is something very satisfying about that.
FOLLIES OF THE WISE:
By Frederick Crews
Shoemaker & Hoard, 416 pages, $26