Open Book

Freud Revisited

Again - How could a man who was so wrong be such a shaper of modern thought?

Magazine Issue
March/April 2007
Freud Revisited

Sigmund Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind
By Peter D. Kramer
HarperCollins/Atlas Books. ISBN: 0-060-59895-6

How to Read Freud
By Josh Cohen
Granta. 135 pp. ISBN: 1-862-07763-0

How to Read Jung
By David Tacey
Granta. 128 pp. 1-862-07726-6

All the major publishing houses are now producing not just biographies, but biographical essays: short books, with only the crucial stuff in them, often written by well-known writers. These include the series Brief Lives and Penguin Lives, among others, as well as the graphic novel-like series, “Introducing,” in which illustrations of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung or Ludwig Wittgenstein utter their thoughts in comic-book bubbles, as if they were just coming up with them.

What’s good about these “potted biographies” is that they turn lives into a good story and tell you why these people are important—like good feature-magazine articles between book covers, with narrative and analysis interwoven. There’s an honorable tradition of such essaying, as the editors of the latest series addition, Eminent Lives (published by HarperCollins) remind us. The notion of brief biographies goes back to Plutarch, Ben Johnson, and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. On the back page, the HarperCollins editors promote their new works as “perfect for an age short on time.”

One of the latest from the Eminent Lives series is Peter Kramer’s Sigmund Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. Kramer, if you recall, is a psychiatrist and the author of Listening to Prozac and Beyond Depression (also reviewed in the Networker). He presents Freud as an imposing, impossible character. He analyzes Freud’s core ideas and asks one crucial, fascinating question: how could Sigmund Freud, a man who was so wrong about so many things, be so massively important and become, as the subtitle says, the “Inventor of the Modern Mind”?

Freud is often cited as a seminal figure because he “discovered” the unconscious, a vast, mysterious, subterranean territory filled with startling psychic energies and impulses. He didn’t. Even Freud, imperious and arrogant as he was, never claimed that. He gave that honor to philosophers, artists, and the creators of classical mythology and drama. Kramer notes that in Freud’s day, the unconscious was even a subject of idle speculation within the salons of Vienna.

Freud is also credited with originating the “talking cure” that many readers of this magazine practice. He didn’t. Even in the middle of the 19th century, other doctors were treating their patients with talk, though not many. Freud’s early work with mentors like Joseph Breuer focused on hysterical patients—people with symptoms with no seeming neurological, medical basis. Hypnosis was tried; so were cocaine and other narcotics and medications. But often all Freud and others could do was talk and listen.

For a man who became famous for the talking cure, Freud wasn’t a great listener. Here’s how Kramer succinctly judges his personality: “He was a poor judge of character, socially awkward, anxious, obsessive, self-justifying, overly reliant on reasoning and shockingly unempathetic [emphasis added]. . . . He applied his theories stubbornly and then declared victory, in the office and in print. Throughout, he was a mythmaker on his own behalf.”

Freud was a lousy therapist. He cured none of his patients (even if he said he did). Unlike the image of the analyst as a mute, nondirective figure, he repeatedly gave his patients advice. He told one patient whom he should marry. Because Freud was more interested in theory than in individuals, his advice was often ill-considered (and self-serving), sometimes with terrible consequences. At least one suicide resulted. Modern-day supervisors reading this account would never have let Sigmund Freud graduate from their clinical programs.

Almost none of Freud’s theories remain intact. His great claim to fame was his theory of infantile sexuality, which Alfred Adler and Carl Jung disliked (they were ultimately banished or left Freud’s inner circle). Even contemporary psychoanalysts now know that infantile sexuality (as Freud construed it) doesn’t make much sense. No evidence for it exists. It seemed to be a figment of his own imagination. Even the great man himself knew his theory presented practical and theoretical problems. So he constantly amended his own corpus—one of his great strengths. Kramer writes that Freud “had about him something of the hypomanic executive, spewing forth ideas and editing them spottily.” He presented speculations and then “defended them as facts.”

Freud constructed a theory of mind with instinctual drives (the id) battling the superego (society and conscience), moderated by the ego. The result was neurotic complexes, which could only be relieved by aimless, free association while lying on a therapist’s couch. Even Freud knew that his treatment model was deficient because his patients resisted getting better. So he conceived his theory of the pleasure principle (Eros) battling the death instinct (Thanatos), which led him to the chilly notion that the purpose of life was death—hardly a welcomed prognosis for any suffering patient. But maybe it isn’t surprising for a man who was temperamentally glum and whose life spanned the butchery of World War I followed by the new barbarism of Nazism. Freud safely left Vienna with his family in 1938, but his four sisters were murdered by the Nazis.

He became the Great Pessimist, anxiously worrying how his theories—infantile sexuality, mechanical mind schema, pleasure principle, death instinct—would be regarded in the future. For many historians and critics he’s prized not for his science but for his literary accomplishments. A sad conclusion because Freud believed to the end that he was a scientist.

Yet the question remains: why is Freud considered a giant? Kramer tries to provide an answer, but he isn’t entirely convincing, partly because he sees so many of the man’s flaws. Kramer’s provisional answer to his own question is that Freud may not have invented the talking cure, but he consolidated it. Even psychologists who disregard him must give him his due. He was personally imposing and, in Kramer’s phrase, a “force of nature.” Thought is carved by great elemental forces, like water and wind on the surface of the planet. Freud had this about him: his ideas were a raw storm that blew across our culture. And he had the literary gifts to etch his thought into our consciousness.

On a more practical level, says Kramer, psychologists owe Freud two great contributions. First, the idea that human beings desire fulfillment—they aren’t content to be simply miserable (this he shared with almost every philosopher of note). The second, more specific and useful contribution to therapy is the theory of transference. When patients present themselves to a therapist, the relationship they forge is part of the talking cure. Though Freud insisted on the correctness of his theory of Oedipal and sexual conflicts, it was the bond between patient and therapist that was ultimately crucial. Relationship is at the heart of all therapy—even “third wave” cognitive therapists realize that therapy will die if it’s just a workbook exercise. Dynamic therapists, coaches, and counselors of all stripes owe the recognition of this to that great, sour man, Freud, who had no friends (only “study companions” and acolytes), and whom few people ever liked.

Freud’s impact in America has been greater than in Europe. Americans (whom he thought crude and uncultured) were notoriously constrained by their Puritan past and Freud helped them to embrace a newfound sexual liberation. As for being the “inventor of the modern mind,” that may be true on this continent, but not in Japan, India, or China—or among a billion-plus Muslims. The term modern mind recalls the great New Yorker cartoon showing the U.S. being comprised of New York City, a few slivers of the Midwest and a slice of California.

Finally, there remains Freud’s great edifice, the unconscious. Kramer doesn’t make a big fuss over it because he’s a psychiatrist for whom the unconscious has been eclipsed by neuroscience and pharmacology. At best, psychologists give credence to what some call the subconscious, which has been popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. This hidden aspect of the mind is more like a great processing computer that beeps at you from time to time. The therapeutic school it most resembles is Gestalt, where images and feelings rise to the surface and overtake each other in order of importance.

But for others, the unconscious in its Freudian sense remains a potent force. Granta Books’ How to Read Freud and How to Read Jung aren’t written by psychologists, but by literary critics Josh Cohen and David Tacey, respectively. For Cohen, the Freud’s unconscious is a deep, dark sea: by definition, not immediately accessible. It operates by subterfuge and disguise, in dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms. These writers note that for years Freud and Jung’s ideas of the unconscious have carried great force with many cultural critics. Respect the power of the unconscious, says Cohen. His reading of Freud is a subtle and slippery enterprise, though—all in all, it could be more lucid.

Tacey’s How to Read Jung is a clearer retelling of the importance of a man who still has impact for therapists. Jung’s unconscious is a real place, the domain of energies which cohere into “archetypes.” It’s much more hopeful than Freud’s dungeon—which is why it still has cachet for psychologists and healers. Freud thought life was tough, and you should grit your teeth and bear it. Instinctual release only leads to chaos (Americans don’t like to believe this, even if they must). But Jung believed in “individuation”: the health of a balanced psyche.

Tacey gives a better account of Jung’s ideas in 128 pages than Deirdre Bair’s overly detailed Jung: A Biography does in 900. That’s the value and convenience of the publishing industry’s venture into “brief lives”—when it works.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.