Interview With “Friend of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute” Karl Pohrt
By James Kern, M.D.
Karl Pohrt is an independent bookstore owner in Ann Arbor who has been a friend of psychoanalysis for many years. He has shown an interest in stocking a wide variety of psychoanalytic books at his Shaman Drum bookshop, which specializes in philosophy, literature and the humanities. He has been particularly helpful to the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute through his generous offering of the book discussion space at the store for psychoanalytic book presentations and wide-ranging analytic discussions of other writers whose works have a meaningful analytic subtext. Many of our members have had the opportunity to speak at Shaman Drum. Karl is usually there in the audience, participating actively. Karl was presented with our “Friend of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute” award for 2004.
JK: Karl, I want to thank you again on behalf of the analytic community for your generous support of our educational aims. I find your interest in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic books heartening as well as surprising. Such serious attention to the many messages of psychoanalysis is so under-represented in this day and age that I wonder where your interest comes from.
KP: I think we’re both part of a counterculture in this country at this time. Odd to think of Socrates’ adage “know thyself” as being counterculture today but that’s what I think. I feel that we both share a similar world view. The mission of my store and of psychoanalysis is similar: to honor complexity, care about clarity and truth, be compassionate. I’ve wanted my store to embody the issues that psychoanalysis at its best believes in and stands for. We’re both embattled communities. The National Endowment for the Arts has been studying reading patterns in the US for many years. America is at risk in this regard. There is a shocking decline in serious reading in this country--in reading competence and in attention span. You have this culture dedicated to light entertainment. It erodes the general capacity for more complicated, difficult but infinitely more interesting recognition of what is out there to be understood. And reading and psychoanalysis both lead, in my opinion, to a greater chance to have a life well lived.
JK: I find it refreshing and a little amazing that a commercial enterprise these days could be driven by such values.
JK: How did your interest in psychoanalysis evolve?
KP: My parents valued books a lot. And I went to the Presbyterian church—and took it seriously for a time. It offered one book that explained the whole world. It didn’t quite do it and I’m still looking for that book. My mother also took religion seriously, so I was challenged to do the same. Presbyterians are sort of Calvinist-lite. One of Calvin’s principles that struck me was that humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception. One great contribution of Freud’s was the idea that much was going on below the surface that influenced behavior. An important, radical idea. Seemed to echo the Calvinist concept. (Laughs) I don’t know if the parallel could hold up to logical scrutiny.
JK: Is the Calvinist doctrine that you don't know how sinful you are really?
KP: Yeah,we’re all fallen--since the fall of Adam. And we can’t see clearly. I’m not Christian now, but those ideas stick. Freud suggested a way to enter the world that was not clear. In my 58 years on planet earth I’ve seen the ability of humans to be blindly destructive, to inflict pain, start wars, create poverty--all of this by people who don’t “know themselves.” How do you work your way out from under that? And help others? There’s a book by Madeline Engle called A Ring of Endless Light. She describes her grandfather’s sermon on the last psalm which says that that the mission of humanity is to find ways for all creation to sing--to celebrate life. And it means a lot of work for us to help it happen for us and for others. I’ve been a social change advocate for years but have become somewhat more conservative recently because there are unintended consequences when you try to change the world without being clear as to your own motives. I’m for being emotionally literate as a prerequisite to activism in all things. It seems to me that to go through psychoanalysis is to become emotionally literate.
JK: You mention parallels between Calvin and Freud--self-deception and/or unconscious influences. Does this sense of unconscious mischief help explain the unintended consequences?
KP: Yes. But having it attributed to sinful, fallen nature of man is not very helpful to people. The contribution of Freud’s is that you can go beyond the obvious (including your obvious sinfulness) by introspection and emerge more whole. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he says something like, “I know what I should do but can’t for some reason.” Freud helps you with some of the reasons.
JK: Are there any other ways in which we have common cause?
KP: The demographic is similar--our client base. The worlds of arts and letters and psychoanalysis are similar--as I said countercultures compared to dominant ethos.
JK: There was a brief moment of time when analytic ideas were riding high and much less counter to the culture. They were a way of looking at all varieties of human affairs.
KP: MPI should continue to fight the fight. Your ideas about re-educating the public are absolutely correct. To fight the influence of insurance companies supporting the bandwagon of psychiatric pharmacology and the American belief in quick fix. There is a term coined by a German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which applies. He called the wish for easy spiritual comfort “cheap grace.” I’ve always felt that your client base is my customer base. These are people who are curious about the world and don’t shut down to unpleasant truths. As I get older I realize this is a hallmark for being an adult.
JK: Is there anything we could do together to strengthen each other?
KP: Yes. First, any time you have a program you’d like to bring to Shaman Drum, let me know and we’ll plan for it.
If one of you writes a book, or a chapter in a book, let’s celebrate it. It takes a long time to write a book. It deserves celebrating. I’m an old hand at giving book parties.
Second, I plan to work to increase the market for psychoanalytic materials, to showcase them and make them more available to the general public. Last week I met with the editor of the Other Press. Judith [Gurevich] and I talked about these very issues at lunch. She’s from Belgium and is a Lacanian analyst. We were talking about the crisis of psychoanalysis--in business/marketing terms--and how we plan to make analytic writings more visible and interesting to a larger audience. We thought the way to do this would be to provide an online list of all psychoanalytic books from all publishers along with more detailed reviews than usual. Maybe some of the text and a picture of the cover. What can the analytic community do for me? Buy more books. Making this easier and quicker might involve sending to the analytic community emails or pdf files regarding new books and simpler ways to order.
JK: Thanks Karl for sharing your thoughts and insights.
Ed Note: The University of Michigan recently created the "Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professorship," so named by its designated recipient, Dr. Geoff Eley. Prof. Eley explained that he wanted to name the professorship after Pohrt as an expression of appreciation for the high value Pohrt places on "the relationship between what we do in the university and the circulation of ideas in the society outside." Congratulations, Karl!