Fragments for Freud
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Freud has fascinated, continues to fascinate, for many reasons: one of them is that he was himself both blessed and cursed by states of fascination.

He was, for instance, much possessed by the number seven and its multiples, rather as Dante was taken by the number three. He once said that his own life was made up of cycles that lasted for seven years; he dreamed about his seven brothers and sisters, and, late in life, thought that his seven internal organs were conspiring to bring his life to an end. There were seven ‘ring-holders’ in his Tolkien-like ‘Secret Committee’ of the early psychoanalytic movement, founded in 1913. In his earlier years, he was oddly frightened by the Eternal City of Rome, built on its seven hills – one of Freud’s earliest heroes had been Hannibal, Rome’s powerful Semitic enemy – and when he finally overcame his fearful qualms, he visited it seven times.

The number gave form to many of his major publications. The Interpretation of Dreams has seven chapters, as do Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the New Introductory Essays and The Question of Lay Analysis. And so on. There are many adjectives that might be applied to a sensibility like this, but ‘rational’ is not one of them. Nor is ‘modern’, unless we mean by that word a writer as rich and strange as Freud’s quasi-namesake Joyce. (Freud quite often pointed out that his name was just a vowel short of the German Freude: ‘joy’).

Like Freud, Joyce was bewitched by numerology, dream work, the recapitulation of primitive and archaic elements in everyday life, etymology, sexual fantasies and the taboo on sex between parent and child. One of the key words in Finnegans Wake is ‘insect’, a metathesised form of ‘incest’. To be sure, Joyce was more thoroughly superstitious than Freud, and he was also much more given to magical thinking; his anxiety that Ulysses should be published on exactly his fortieth birthday was not simply a wish to give himself a timely present. But Freud had his own willingness to find dates significant: he was quite sure that his beloved dog Yofi had congratulated him on his eightieth birthday: ‘How does a little animal know when a birthday comes around?’ And, despite his angry outburst to Jung about the need to resist the ‘black mud of occultism’, Freud had more than a passing interest in psychic research and the supernatural. His gifted patient of the 1930s, the poet H D, thought that

He is Faust, surely.

We retreat from the so-called sciences and go backward or go forward into alchemy…

One of the keystones of psychoanalysis is the conviction that patients can in effect be healed by words alone – the many words they utter on the couch over several years, the few words returned by their analysts. Earlier periods might have called this verbal summoning of unseen forces a conjuration, or a spell. The roots of the word ‘fascinate’ are the Latin fascinare, ‘to bewitch’ and, probably, the Greek baskainien, ‘to speak ill of, to curse’.


Later in life, Freud spoke English with admirable precision and very few traces of a German accent. But he sometimes had difficulties with English stress patterns. Anyone who has read his work will be amused to note that one of the English words he could never remember how to pronounce was ‘ambivalence’: Am-BIV-alence or Ambi-VAL-ence? ‘Do you know,’ he said, shooting his arm forward as he often did when he wanted to stress a point, ‘I myself have always wondered. I often wish that I could find someone to explain these matters to me.’

That this word has had widespread currency for more than half a century (there is an amusing scene about its meaning in Catch-22) is surely due to the triumph of pop-Freudianism from the late 1940s onwards. It is one of the most handy and durable items in the received toolbox of psychoanalytic conceits, and it has been used with great brilliance by literary critics, above all by William Empson.

It an important word for those of us who are not psychotherapists but have had Freud’s writings (in both pure and debased forms) echoing loudly our minds since late adolescence. There can be few lay readers who do not experience a kind of naughty glee in reading Frederick Crews’s thoroughly researched and brilliantly scathing exposé of Freud’s falsifications of evidence, plagiarism, callousness towards patients, glory-hunting, pig-headed dogmatism, complacency and general caddishness. Crews’s Freud does not merely have the feet of clay that earlier critics (Roazen et al) have pointed out: he is clay from head to toe.

By showing that none of Freud’s classic patients were ‘cured’ by his methods, Crews makes it at least reasonable to suspect that classic psychoanalysis might never been a cure at all. (For some patients, of course, analysis might turn be something quite different from a cure, but none the less of value.) Not that Crews altogether denies the virtues of all talking treatments – merely those that adhere to Freudian doctrines in a rigid and self-stultifying manner. He suggests that the origins of more humane and potentially healing forms of psychotherapy practised today should be sought in those pioneers whose contributions have been overshadowed by Freud, such as Paul Dubois.

So far, so bracing. But the otherwise pure exhilaration of reading Crews’s case against psychoanalysis is muted by the sense that he has not addressed some of the more conspicuous paradoxes of the Freud tale. It is not exactly a newsflash that Freud’s self-invented mythology sometimes led him to make preposterous assertions. (As Freud himself half-admitted in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, which he said should perhaps be read as a novel, or at the end of his case-history of Schreber – incidentally, one of Freud’s most spectacularly irresponsible diagnoses.) Nor is it news that he would often retrospectively impose his repertory theatre of the Oedipus Complex & Co onto clinical insights that had come to him largely by intuition. In his later years, while working on Totemism, Freud admitted in a letter to Jung ‘that I was not cut out for inductive investigation, that my whole make-up is intuitive’.

Elsewhere, he confessed or boasted that ‘I have a special talent for being satisfied with the fragmentary’. To Lou-Andreas Salome, he wrote that ‘The systematic working of material is not possible for me; the fragmentary nature of my experiences and the sporadic character of my insight do not permit it’. If some of those intuitions were sound, and the standard Freudian homunculi essentially ways of presenting a chaos of glittering fragments as a coherent science, there might be a good deal of valuable matter left in the ruins. Enough, anyway, to make it worth while to walk across the old familiar grounds again.


A major question prompted by reading Crews: why did anyone, let alone some of the most sober, distinguished and simply brilliant minds of the last century allow themselves to be taken in by such charlatanism? One obvious response: Freud seemed to his admirers to offer a something they had wanted in a time of increasing secularism – a Key to All Mythologies, an explanation for every aspect of human experience as profoundly neat and gratifying as Marx’s theories were to his admirers. (And to be a good Freudian all you needed was to lie down and let your mind wander, not to appropriate by any means necessary the means of production, distribution and exchange.)

The sale of commodities thrives where there is a gap in the market.

As the great critic Lionel Trilling put it in his essay on Freud and Literature in The Liberal Imagination: ‘The Freudian psychology is the only systematic account of the human mind which, in point of subtlety and complexity, of interest and tragic power, deserves to stand beside the chaotic mass of psychological insights which literature has accumulated through the centuries.’ For the Trilling of 1950, then: Freud = Richness in System and Order; Literature = Richness in Chaos. And Trilling goes on to cite a remark by Freud which has often been quoted in similar contexts: ‘The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.’ Perhaps the most enduring part of Freud’s legacy is not the innovative and so-called revolutionary aspect but its conservatism – its cunning presentation of old wisdom in new packaging.

Trilling’s word ‘systematic’ and Freud’s word ‘scientific’ both read uncomfortably today, though there is still an undeniable brilliance and originality in Trilling’s contention that ‘… it was left to Freud to discover how, in a scientific age, we still feel and think in figurative formations, and to create, what psychoanalysis is, a science of tropes, of metaphor and its variants, synecdoche and metonymy’.

There is, too, something deeply flattering about this, probably felt by all newcomers to Freud’s writings. How charming to think that your dreams are poetry! How wonderful, how ennobling to feel that the squalid, petty annoyances and humiliations and anxieties of day-to-day life are actually the visible manifestations of ancient unseen forces! How thrilling that your arguments with Dad recapitulate the adventures of a Greek hero! How generous of Freud to make you this gift!

Every attentive reader of Freud learns some of the joys of narcissism.


Most attentive readers also learn to be fascinated both by Freud the extraordinary historical figure and by ‘Freud’, the character presented in the texts. The latter is, if anything, more beguiling than the former.

As Patrick J Mahony pointed out in his excellent study Freud as a Writer (1987), in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud compares his work as a psychoanalyst to a chemist, a surgeon, an orthopaedist and a teacher. Elsewhere, he variously describes himself as a detective: Crews has added considerably to our knowledge of Freud’s self-identification with Sherlock Holmes, and of his literary debt to Conan Doyle in the case studies. Other comparisons: traveller and explorer, historian, archaeologist (often), a modest working scientist in the mould of Darwin, a ‘conquistador’ and a warrior. (The imagery of war is everywhere in Freud’s writing, and more obviously so in German, where the term translated as ‘cathexis’ is in fact Besetzung – military occupation.)

‘Freud’ is, then, protean; one of his patients thought of him as Proteus: ‘I was to greet the Old Man of the Sea, but no one had told me of the treasures he had salvaged from the sea-depth.’ And almost always, even in his most self-deprecating moments, Freud presents himself as a hero. Mahony: ‘The Introductory Letters are partly a Bildungsroman, like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, tracing the education of the hero.’

One of the debates which was most damaging to the cause of psychoanalysis – both from outside and from within its own ranks – was whether Freud was a hero or a villain when he abandoned the seduction theory, once, briefly, of such great importance to his early investigations. (See, for example, Jeffrey Masson’s The Assault on Truth, Janet Malcolm’s In The Freud Archives, etc) Mahony and other acute readers of Freud as a literary artist have conclusively shown that ‘Freud’ was also a seducer of his readers – sometimes wooing them as Othello wooed Desdemona with his tales of strange realms and monsters, sometimes making himself an attractive suitor by displaying his earnestness, his solicitousness for their well-being and mental ease, his flattering willingness to take them into his confidence and tell them his most recondite secrets.

No wonder so many readers yielded, and so many of his patients and colleagues all but worshipped him. The ‘Freud’ of Jones’s biography is a not simply a hero but a secular saint. Crews has destroyed that mythical figure, probably for good. Yet by re-casting the noble man into a base scoundrel, he has only re-directed the traditional fascination. Many of us are more attracted by Hannibal Lecter than Hannibal of Carthage.


Most of us like to read about and talk about sex; and about ourselves; and about ourselves and sex. (The relatively easy-going climate in which these things are generally acceptable topics of educated chat was obviously not Freud’s solo creation; but he surely marched in the late-Victorian parade of liberty.) Freud complained, justly, about the difficulties he had faced in making his more scandalous assertions acceptable or even mentionable by ‘respectable’ people; but as Wittgenstein was one of the first to point out, there is also an excitement about sex-talk that drew people to him like crowds to a circus.

Feminists of the 1970s and onwards wrote angrily about the idiocy and harmfulness of Freud’s views on female sexuality and related matters. Like D H Lawrence (who was supercilious and dismissive of Freud), the one-time liberator was re-cast as a vengeful misogynist and patriarch. But it is another paradox of the Freud history that many feminists went on to adopt, adapt and improve on Freud, both in cultural studies (this is, fortunately, not the place to comment on Lacan, Derrida and their ghastly crew) and in the treatment of patients with mental and emotional problems. In a recent newspaper debate between Crews and the feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, it was Orbach who gave credit to Freud as a mainly benevolent force in the world of psychotherapy. Crews meanwhile wished to emphasise the pain that classical Freudian analysis has caused in thousands of patients.

There is a good deal of evidence that a classical analysis can have certain beneficial effects, if not quite the miracle cures of the kind Hitchcock dramatised in Spellbound. In an unjustly neglected book entitled Marches Past, the late art critic Peter Fuller offered some core-samples of his four and a half years on the couch, ‘working’ with a magnificently patient English analyst. (Fuller has a lot to say about the English ‘object relations’ school in analysis, notably Bowlby, Winnicott, Rycroft, and Suttie. No Klein, please.)

One of the complications of Fuller’s analysis was that, as an intellectual then allied with the New Left, he was well-read in the analytical literature, and often wanted to carry on scholarly debates with his analyst rather than ‘work through’ primitive emotions – if that is, indeed, what happens in a transference; if, indeed, there is such a thing as ‘transference’. Fuller eventually decides that the analysis has done him a great deal of good, though the reader may not be altogether persuaded. He ends with the thought that ‘it is another of the sub-themes of this book that insight can do little to alleviate pain’.

Or, to put it another way, the truth does not necessarily set us free.


Seeds tend not to thrive except on land that has been well-cultivated. Freud’s work had the shock of the new, but also the comfort of the familiar. It has long been acknowledged that Freud’s work is one of the late-blooming (thank you, Professor Harold Bloom; and perhaps you, Leopold, too) fruits of Romanticism. Some of his antecedents are pretty obvious – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the other philosophers whom Freud claimed never to have read in his youth – but one can also spot his kindred in the less likely company of Wordsworth (memory, autobiography, the workings of the mind), Rousseau, Coleridge and Arnold; Shelley, Poe, Baudelaire, Nerval. Trilling suggested that the earliest truly ‘Freudian’ text was Rameau’s Nephew, by Diderot, first published in 1762.

They are a family, of sorts, and to one degree or other they are all concerned with dreams and visions, altered states of consciousness, childhood and infantile experiences, ghosts, curses, compulsions, morbidities and desires. Karl Kraus’s notorious sneer that psychoanalysis is the disease of which it believes itself to be the cure might be worth draining of its hostile content and re-examining.


It has been well said that the idea of evolution was in the air ‘like a bad smell’ for 50 or 60 years before Darwin published the Origin of Species. The idea of the Unconscious was also wafting around in educated circles before, during and after Freud’s investigations. He has, no doubt, been given too much credit as the lonely explorer of that undiscovered country, since many other fine minds of his age were also making their explorations: the incomparable William James, Frederick Myers and Eugene Marais. Above all, there is that ‘great and good man’ W H R Rivers, whose more homely term for the unconscious was ‘the unwitting’, and whose analytically influenced treatments of shell-shocked troops appear to have been a good deal more successful than those of Freud himself. James has had his due, but the others remain neglected. One happy consequence of Crews’s ‘Guilty’ verdict might be a revival of interest into these other explorers of inner space.

A parting thought. After John Maynard Keynes spent hour after hour studying Newton’s mystical writings – his work on alchemy and numerology and the Bible as a series of coded prophecies of world history – he concluded that we would understand Newton more appropriately if we moved him from one category to another. Perhaps it would be wise to borrow from Keynes’s aphorism, and from now on to regard Freud not as the first of the modern scientists of the mind, but as the last of the Magi.







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