Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

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Retrospectively, the popular interest attracted by The Ordeal of Civility is difficult to fathom. Part of the reason for the stir occasioned by its publication was that Cuddihy was raising—even if in an oblique way—one of the central dilemmas of post-World War II American policy: how to promote economic progress and Western-style political systems, in short, modernization, in the Third World. Nevertheless, the major reason is that Cuddihy—in an extraordinarily uncivil fashion—challenged the polite intellectual’s evasion of discussion of the disproportionately important role played by Jews in fashioning the radically new ideological and conceptual systems associated with modern culture.

The motivation underlying this evasion was the anxiety, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that open discussion of the Jewish dimension of Marxism or even Freudianism might rekindle anti-Semitism. Cuddihy himself became the target of the charge that he was anti-Semitic. Those harboring that suspicion misread his argument. As an Irish Catholic (even if a lapsed believer), Cuddihy had no love for the secularized Calvinism that he identifies as at the core of modern bourgeois civility. His work is intended as an act of homage to “the great unassimilated, implacable Jews of the West . . . who exhibit a principled and stubborn resistance to the whole Western ‘thing.’”

Some of the difficulties with Cuddihy’s thesis are apparent even to a nonspecialist. Given Vienna’s history as imperial capital and Roman Catholic bastion, one can hardly say that the city’s sociocultural ambience was a secularized Calvinism. One should note in this connection how importantly Rome figured in Freud’s dreams. Moreover, the supposed parallelism between Yid and id with which Cuddihy is so taken is misleading: The German term Freud used was das Es.

Cuddihy’s work appears to have had almost no direct impact upon later scholarship dealing with his two major protagonists. Neither Frank J. Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (1979) nor William J. McGrath’s Freud’s Discovery of Psycholanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria (1986), for example, even lists The Ordeal of Civility in its bibliography. There is similarly no reference to Cuddihy’s book in such examinations of Marx’s intellectual development as John McMurtry’s The Structure of Marx’s World-View (1978) or Jerrold Seigel’s Marx’s Fate: The Shape of a Life (1978). In a larger, indirect way, however, Cuddihy’s work has had an immense influence. Since its publication, the student of Marx or Freud can no longer ignore the relationship between their Jewishness and their ideas, even if his explanation differs from Cuddihy’s.