Smart Alec

One of the rejoinders I can remember my father giving me as a child was telling me not to be a “Smart Alec.” Evidently I liked to talk back when I thought my parents were being unfair or interfering with something I wished to do or have. In reading Freud the phrase popped into my head a couple of times. It seems significant. In one instance it came to mind when I was reading Jonathan Lear’s excellent introduction to Freud and psychoanalysis (Freud, Routledge, 2005). Lear describes Freud as under a kind of paternal curse himself, revealed in Freud’s own self-analysis of a dream he had, which Freud concluded to mean something like: “See father, I did amount to something.”

What can I make of my dad’s comment? Another way of putting it might be like this: “don’t be a Smart Alec Kenny, because you’re not as smart as you think you are. You’re a child, and I’m the parent. I know what’s good for you better than you do, and you’re ignoring that. You’re not yet of the age or maturity to make the right decisions. It’s time for you to listen me and come to terms with your temporary dependency. Don’t disrespect my role as your care-giver.” Of course that’s putting things rather seriously. I doubt whether my dad would have elaborated his statement in these terms. I haven’t exactly gotten his voice, his tone correctly. Yet these statements do seem like a fair elaboration of the child-parent situation. So, assuming this sketch is even halfway accurate, what might follow?

To me it seems fairly easy to see what my adult response to this childhood situation has been. First off, I’ve spent my whole adult life getting an advanced education. I received my PhD in 2012.  And I am a voracious reader, to the point that my book-buying habits are probably unhealthy, perhaps even a compensation. If Freud was responding to his father’s curse, saying something like, “look dad, I did amount to something,” you might see my life story as a similar response to my dad: “look papa, I do know a lot, I am smart.” Adult Kenny is an attempt to be Smart Alec.

This makes me think of two other features of my personality, at least in so far as I am able to see myself clearly. For one, I don’t particularly enjoying being complimented, though I do try to be grateful to those who express kind words to me. And I tend to deflect conversations away from my own achievements or thoughts. This is the case in general conversation, as opposed to an academic seminar or book club where the purpose of the meeting is to offer one’s take on a subject. I enjoy a hearty debate and intellectual conversation, as anyone who knows me can attest. So while I have a conscious aversion to being perceived as a “know-it-all,” and however much I may fail in maintaining this image in reality, I am also interested in broadcasting my views more publicly. This website makes that rather obvious. If you write and take photos and put that up online for all the world to see, there is a minimum of presumption that what you have to say or show matters on some level.

Is there a connection, then, between one of my father’s recurrent rejoinders to me as a child, the career path I chose in adult life, and my attempt to deflect conversations away from my accomplishments or arguments? Presumably I’ve grouped these together already because I think the answer to this question is “yes.” But perhaps what’s more important, at least from a psychoanalytic perspective, is the question I’ve posed to myself a few times, thinking of Lear’s interpretation of Freud: in what way is my adult response to my dad potentially inhibiting me from grasping things as they really are, or preventing me from forming mature relationships? If someone as reflective as Freud very frequently treated his colleagues in the way he thought his father viewed him — he broke with other famous psychologists such as Jung because he thought they didn’t measure up — it certainly seems like a good idea to pause, take a breath, and consider whether or not my own behaviour might reflect a similar shortcoming.

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