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Zak Witus: A cigar isn't just a cigar

By Zak Witus, Columnist
Published July 13, 2014

Sigmund Freud was a totalitarian. Whenever people would challenge his theories from within, he would ostracize them as blasphemers. Whenever people would challenge his theories from without, Freud would denounce them as heretics. Once, when somebody suggested to him that his habitual cigar smoking signified an unconscious phallic fetish, Freud famously replied: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

This response exemplifies one of the defining characteristics of the totalitarian: Laws, or in this case theories, apply to everyone except the one dictating them. Freud’s psychoanalytic method very often works by interrupting and challenging people’s enjoyment. But, when the enjoyment at stake was Freud’s own, his all-encompassing psychoanalytic theory mysteriously didn’t apply.

Today people invoke Freud’s famous saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” as a kind of pseudo-wisdom. Its psychological function remains the same: to resist analysis and defend one’s own enjoyment. Since Freud is often thought of as an analyzer in the extreme, and since even he acknowledged limits to analysis, we’re supposed to recognize such limits as well. But that argument ignores Freud as the totalitarian that he was. We shouldn’t interpret his pseudo-wisdom as evidence of real limits to analysis. We should wonder why Freud and the people who invoke his cigar platitude set the limits of analysis where they do, and, what’s more, we should ask ourselves what enjoyment is at stake for those who oppose analysis.

One might claim that my critiquing the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” argument is a defense of my own enjoyment. After all, I enjoy critiquing and analyzing, and Freud’s pseudo-wisdom is an attack on that, so, by my own theory, wouldn’t it make sense that I’d resist the pseudo-wisdom in order to defend my own enjoyment? Yes, but that’s ok — I’m fine with that counter-argument, because I’d just be another case in point.

Personally, I struggle with when to analyze and interpret and when to just enjoy. I don’t believe that a cigar is ever just a cigar — everything is analyzable and interpretable in some context — but acting as if we believed that “things just are what they seem” allows us to rest, relax and just enjoy, all of which are important for maintaining sanity. Luckily for me, ever since I read “Animal Farm” in tenth grade, I’ve typically enjoyed analyzing enough to compensate for any enjoyment lost in the process. For me, deconstructing movies is the point of watching them. Reading a book to find the meaning beneath the surface is what makes reading fun. Analyzing the world beyond what it seems is what makes life worth living.

A cigar is never just a cigar, except when we must pretend that it is. Maybe Freud’s cigar smoking isn’t a sign of his unconscious phallic fetish, but, by Freud’s own standards, it certainly would’ve been. In conclusion, I’d like to quote the film “Silence of Lambs” (1991), when the protagonist Agent Clarice Starling says to the imprisoned psychoanalyst/psychopath Hannibal Lecter: “You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don’t you – why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to.”

In many college courses we develop such high-powered perception, but we’re taught to almost always direct it outwards. Undoubtedly, the ability to accurately analyze the external world is a magnificent one, but, as Agent Starling points out and as Drs. Freud and Lecter demonstrate, the far scarier task is often analyzing what’s within us.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.