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CRF Blog » Blog Archive » Why Freud Survives

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Why Freud Survives

by Bill Hayes

In Why Freud Survives for the New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews.

Crews seems to have grown worried that although Freud and Freudianism may look dead, we cannot be completely, utterly, a hundred per cent sure. Freud might be like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni”: he gets killed in the first act and then shows up for dinner at the end, the Stone Guest. So Crews spent eleven years writing “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” (Metropolitan), just out — a six-hundred-and-sixty-page stake driven into its subject’s cold, cold heart.

The new book synthesizes fifty years of revisionist scholarship, repeating and amplifying the findings of other researchers (fully acknowledged), and tacking on a few additional charges. Crews is an attractively uncluttered stylist, and he has an amazing story to tell, but his criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania. He evidently regards “balance” as a pass given to chicanery, and even readers sympathetic to the argument may find it hard to get all the way through the book. It ought to come with a bulb of garlic.

The place where people interested in Freud’s thought usually begin is “The Interpretation of Dreams,” which came out in 1899, when Freud was forty-three. Crews doesn’t get to that book until page 533. The only subsequent work he discusses in depth is the so-called Dora case, which was based on an (aborted) treatment that Freud conducted in 1900 with a woman named Ida Bauer, and which he published in 1905, as “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” Crews touches briefly on the other famous case histories Freud brought out before the First World War — the Rat Man, the Wolf Man, Little Hans, the analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber, and the book on Leonardo da Vinci. The hugely influential works of social psychology that Freud went on to write — “Totem and Taboo,” “The Future of an Illusion,” “Civilization and Its Discontents” — are largely ignored.

The “illusion” in Crews’s subtitle isn’t Freudianism, though. It’s Freud. For many years, Freud was written about as an intrepid scientist who dared to descend into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the mind, and who emerged as the embodiment of a tragic wisdom — a man who could face up to the terrible fact that a narcissus is never just a narcissus, that underneath the mind’s trapdoor is a snake pit of desire and aggression, and, knowing all this, was still able to take tea with his guests. In Yeats’s line, those ancient, glittering eyes were gay. This is, obviously, the reputation the Woolfs carried with them when they went to meet Freud in 1939.

As Crews is right to believe, this Freud has long outlived psychoanalysis. For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory — penis envy, or the death drive — they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition. That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.

Is there anything new to say about this person? One of the occasions for Crews’s book is the fairly recent emergence of Freud’s correspondence with his fiancée, Martha Bernays. Freud got engaged in 1882, when he was twenty-six, and the engagement lasted four years. He and Martha spent most of that time in different cities, and Freud wrote to her virtually every day. Some fifteen hundred letters survive. Crews makes a great deal of the correspondence, and he finds much to disapprove of. [more]