The bewildered visionary


Times Literary Supplement, 16 May 1997

Dispatches From The Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and its Passions by John Forrester. 309pp. Harvard University Press.

The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute by Frederick Crews et al 299pp. Granta Books. Paperback.

IN THE COURSE OF his philosophical studies, Coleridge formulated an adage which he referred to as his ‘golden rule’ and which he was accustomed to express thus: ‘Until you understand a writer’s ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.’ In order to illustrate what he meant, he cited the case of a religious fanatic, the hollowness of whose dreams and fantasies he could clearly see and rationally explain. ‘As when in broad daylight’, wrote Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, ‘a man tracks the steps of a traveller who has lost his way in a fog or by treacherous moonshine, even so, and with the same tranquil sense of certainty, can I follow the traces of this bewildered visionary. I understand his ignorance.’

In the case of Plato, however, Coleridge feels differently. Finding himself baffled by large parts of Plato’s Timaeus, he is unable either to understand Plato’s meaning or to formulate any hypothesis which will satisfactorily explain Plato’s seeming confusion. Mindful of the praise bestowed on Plato by so many great men, he concludes that a contemptuous verdict on his part will scarcely be treated as evidence of superior penetration. ‘Therefore, utterly baffled in all my attempts to understand the ignorance of Plato, I conclude myself ignorant of his understanding.’

During most of this century, a significant and extremely influential minority of Western intellectuals have tended to treat the work of Freud with the same deferential respect which Coleridge accorded to Plato. Very few of Freud’s more careful readers have ever been able to study his writings without experiencing perplexity in the face of the neurological, medical and evolutionary assumptions which evidently underlie his thought but which are never fully expounded. But, partly because of the myth of solitary greatness which Freud himself helped to create, a great many have modestly concluded that the deficiency is theirs and that it is they who remain ignorant of Freud’s understanding.

During the past thirty years, however, a series of studies has appeared in which Freud’s intellectual steps have been tracked more carefully than has been the case with any other modern thinker. A kind of inverted reverence has compelled scholars, Renan-like, to follow in the footsteps of the Master and to chart not the divinity but the humanity of their impress. As the sources of Freud’s theories have been minutely anatomized by researchers as diverse as Frank Sulloway, Malcolm Macmillan, Elizabeth Thornton, Allen Esterson and Robert Wilcocks, the picture of Freud which has gradually emerged is a disturbing one. It is of a man so deeply ensnared in the fallacies of Lamarck, Haeckel and late nineteenth-century evolutionary biology, and so engulfed by the diagnostic darkness of turn-of-the-century European medicine, that he led an entire generation of gifted intellectuals deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of error from which our intellectual culture as a whole is still struggling to emerge.

As the inverted reverence of modern scholarship has probed ever deeper into the intellectual origins of psychoanalysis, Freud has come more and more to resemble the bewildered visionary described by Coleridge. As a result, many scholarly observers will now say, with the same tranquil sense of certainty which Coleridge describes, that we no longer need count ourselves ignorant of Freud’s understanding, precisely because we are now in a position to understand his ignorance.

Tranquillity, however, has not always been the most conspicuous feature of the resulting debate. When, in November 1993, the New York Review of Books published a review article by Frederick Crews under the title ‘The Unknown Freud’, a significant part of the Freudian establishment reacted as though war had been declared. Crews’s article, a lucid and characteristically trenchant summary of some of the most damaging findings of Freud’s latter-day critics, was the ostensible cause of the outcry which now took place. But one suspects that the real offence was caused not so much by the contents of Crews’s piece as by the place in which it had been published. For the New York Review of Books had come to be regarded by many as the house magazine of a particular section of the American liberal intelligentsia who were deeply sympathetic to psychoanalysis. That Frederick Crews’s critique of Freud should be featured so prominently there was what really hurt. Had Tom Paine been invited to preach at Canterbury Cathedral, had Voltaire been summoned by the Pope to celebrate mass at the Vatican, the sense of violated sanctity among the faithful could scarcely have been greater.

Ever since the publication of Crews’s article, the ‘Freud Wars’, which have in any case been raging for most of the century, appear to have intensified. When, two years ago, a group of American intellectuals, headed by Peter Swales, signed a petition calling for balance in a proposed Library of Congress exhibition which was to be devoted to Freud (and indirectly funded by some of his followers), the battle became bloodier still. As whiffs of grapeshot continue to be fired from all sides, as the smell of gunpowder still hangs in the intellectual air, the appearance of a book by the Cambridge intellectual historian John Forrester under the title Dispatches from the Freud Wars seems timely indeed.

Forrester is very knowledgeable about Freud, his theories and his followers. For a scholar who became known originally as a student and interpreter of Jacques Lacan, he writes most of the time with surprising lucidity. For those who maintain a Lacanian scepticism about the value of la clarté, this will be construed as a manifestation of intellectual shallowness. In fact, it means that Forrester is a much more interesting, and potentially a much more fertile thinker than Lacan himself. As Freud’s Women, the book which he wrote with Lisa Appignanesi, illustrated, he sometimes writes both illuminatingly and well about the history of psychoanalysis.

Precisely because Forrester is so well qualified to write an account of the recent disputes, and because an account written by a devotee of psychoanalysis could not fail to be interesting, Dispatches from the Freud Wars will almost certainly disappoint many of its readers. The principal disappointment of the book is that it is not really about the Freud Wars at all. It is rather a miscellany of reprinted essays and papers, only one of which (the one which gives the book its title) deals with recent disputes in any detail. Other essays deal, sometimes informatively, with such topics as Freud’s collection of antiquities, with his theory of dreams, and with the vexed and complicated love relationships formed by Freud’s Hungarian follower Sandor Ferenczi with Gizella Palos and her daughter Elma. Over this rather ordinary scholarly fare the sauce of controversy promised in the title is spread with disappointing thinness.

The book begins with an essay on envy, in which Forrester makes a number of interesting historical links between Freud’s account of the passions and traditional Christian discourse about the seven deadly sins. His own standpoint becomes clear, however, in the way he treats what he calls ‘Freud’s well known equation’ of ‘faeces = penis = baby’.

Freud had arrived at his initial ‘equation’ between faeces and baby by deriving it from children’s theories about anal birth. He had then extended this equation in a number of ways, most remarkably of all by observing solemnly that what faeces, babies and penises have in common is that they ‘are all three solid bodies; they all three, by forcible entry or expulsion, stimulate a membranous passage . . .’ By characteristically treating his own forced and ingenious logic as a universal property of the human mind, and by ignoring the fact that both nipples and fingers had an equal claim to inclusion in the formula, Freud now went on to use his triple equation as a kind of e=mc2 of human psychology, capable of unlocking all manner of secrets. (If babies were really penises, then it would become clear why some women wanted them so much since, according to Freud, what women most desired was a penis. It would also explain why some women do not appear to suffer from penis envy. In such cases, it could simply be argued that the wish for a penis ‘is replaced by a wish for a baby’. This, together with much else, including the supposed anal-erotic basis for our love for babies – who are but faeces in the Unconscious – is exactly what Freud claimed.)

Interestingly and revealingly, Forrester cites this equation without any hint of scepticism. Perhaps even more importantly, he has no sooner cited the equation in its original form than he goes on to reinterpret it in sub-Lacanian terms:   

Feces fit very well with the ‘just saving principle’ . . . . The penis as I’ve portrayed it here, the full penis, the principle of fertility, was for Lacan the very emblem of generativity. And I do not need to emphasize that the baby is itself what we mean by future generativity. Thus we have, in the series feces = penis = baby, the past, present and future of the object which connects the generations together and thus demands special treatment beyond the principles of justice.

Writing like this is fortunately not characteristic of the whole book. But it is immensely revealing. For one of the chief features of such writing (which is still all too commonly encountered in the humanities departments of universities) is that those who produce it are clearly unaware that their words are intrinsically comic. The major fault with such writing is not a failure of intelligence. It is a failure of the sense of humour.

The sense of humour fails in such instances, not because the writers in question do not possess it, but because they have voluntarily relinquished it. They have laid it aside rather in the same way that a churchgoer removes his hat as he enters the place of worship. And they have done so for similar reasons – because they have been filled with the feelings of reverence and solemnity which holiness inspires.

It is this worshipful earnestness which most afflicts our intellectual life, and has done increasingly as the puritanism of our culture has become progressively secular and internal. And it is just such worshipful reverence in the face of the theories of Freud which is evident throughout John Forrester’s book. Although Forrester clearly regards himself as a sceptic who has been won over by the sheer force of Freud’s arguments, he again and again shows towards Freudian theory just the kind of hat-tipping respect which betokens deference rather than true independence of mind. And oddly (or perhaps necessarily in order to preserve a faith which might otherwise shatter), it is just when Freud’s pronouncements are at their most preposterous that Forrester displays his most reverent assent.

When Freud defends his improbable theory that all dreams are expressions of wish fulfilment by claiming that any dreams which appear to confute this rule are really but the expression of a particularly stubborn wish - the wish to prove Freud’s theory of dreams wrong - he is, in effect, formulating the psychoanalytic equivalent of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. Yet, in the very process of pointing this out, Forrester implicitly concedes the legitimacy of Freud’s strategy.

The most interesting chapter in Forrester’s book is the one from which its title is drawn. But even here the reader who seeks real debate is likely to be disappointed. For although Forrester chooses to dispute the views of Sulloway, Gruenbaum and Crews, it is the shadow of their arguments he contends with rather than their substance. The most serious charge which Forrester makes against Crews is that, in his essay ‘The Unknown Freud’, he manages ‘to pass off a deeply personal attack on Freud as part of a scholarly criticism of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and practice’, and that Crews’s principal objection to psychoanalysis consists in his view that ‘Freud was untrustworthy, demented, mendacious and so forth’.

In view of this charge, it is perhaps just as well that the publication of Forrester’s book should coincide with the long overdue appearance in a British edition of Frederick Crews’s The Memory Wars. This book reprints not only ‘The Unknown Freud’ and Crews’s later long essay on the recovered-memory movement, ‘The Revenge of the Repressed’, but also a good proportion of the lively correspondence which ensued in the pages of the New York Review of Books. What Crews’s pungent and immensely well-informed essays make clear is that the charge made by Forrester, that his essay was no more than an ad hominem attack on Freud, is misleading. For, while Crews is certainly concerned with Freud’s personality, he probes Freud’s character only to the extent that this throws light on the theoretical and therapeutic hollowness of psychoanalysis.

The principal aim of Crews’s 1993 essay was to use a review of a number of studies of Freud which had recently appeared in order to dismantle the legend of Freud as ‘the scientist-genius-humanitarian’ and to question what the philosopher Frank Cioffi has called ‘the myth of Freud’s superlative integrity’. To get behind the Freud of psychoanalytic legend, Crews tore down the veils which independent scholars had been discreetly lifting for some years and revealed ‘a different Freud, darker but far more interesting than the canonical one’. This Freud was indeed highly cultivated and endowed with extraordinary literary power. But ‘he was also quite lacking in the empirical and ethical scruples that we would hope to find in any responsible scientist, to say nothing of a major one’. Crews goes on to defend this view by documenting a number of instances in which Freud put forward magisterial-looking claims from sources which were never fully acknowledged, while simultaneously ‘passing them off as sober inferences drawn from the data of his clinical practice’.

One of the questions which Crews does not address is whether Freud consistently and deliberately misrepresented his methods of working or whether, perhaps because of the very power of his messianic self-belief, he fell victim to self-deception on a colossal scale. Crews’s tendency to take the former view, and his use of terms such as ‘fraudulence’ and ‘fakery’, renders his essay more offensive to the Freudian faithful than it need have been. But his central claim remains sound. For again and again, Freud’s own writings furnish evidence that much of the data on which he ostensibly based his theories was, in reality, the product of those theories; it was arrived at not through patient observation, but through his own theoretically wishful interpretations and fanciful reconstructions.

The most telling and the most scandalous instance of Freud’s counter-empirical method is to be found in the original-seduction theory, in which Freud actively sought to persuade women of the reality of scenes of infantile seduction which, according to his own words, ‘the patients know nothing about’ before they come for analysis. Crews’s valuable analysis of this episode leads directly into the second major essay which is reprinted here – ‘The Revenge of the Repressed’. The account he gives of how, under the influence of the misguided former analyst Jeffrey Masson and others, both Freud’s original-seduction theory and the Freudian doctrine of repression have been revived by recovered-memory therapists, is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand current controversies about ‘false memory’. At a time when the British Psychological Society is credulously endorsing moderate-seeming but deeply flawed research on this topic, and when the Royal College of Psychiatrists is hesitating over whether to suppress a robust report on the phenomenon which has been produced by one of its own working parties, Crews’s strictures against what he calls ‘middle-of-the-road extremism’ are particularly apt.

One problem with Crews’s approach, exemplified by his claim that psychoanalysis belongs in ‘history’s ashcan’, is that in his rationalist zeal to cleanse the world of what he regards as a modern superstition, he sometimes allows the impulse to defeat or expunge psychoanalysis to overpower the impulse to understand it. Perhaps we need to recall that rationalist zeal of the kind which Crews deploys against psychoanalysis is itself part of our religious inheritance. For one of the principal characteristics of the Judaeo-Christian tradition has always been its sceptical rationalism and its intolerance of other people’s religious faith. If we truly wish to understand the role which has been played by Freud in our culture we should perhaps recall an earlier critic of psychoanalysis, Ian Suttie, and the immense importance which he ascribed to what he called ‘the taboo on tenderness’. It is in our intellectual culture itself that this taboo is at its most patriarchally powerful. Only, perhaps, if we are able to temper our Judaeo-Christian rationalism with a degree of tenderness, and recognize the incidental or accidental wealth which is contained within the psychoanalytic tradition, will we also be able to assess Freud justly, and understand both the complexity and the depth of the labyrinth of error into which he led his followers.

Times Literary Supplement, 16 May 1997


The appearance of this review led to a lively - and fierce - exchange of letters with  Frederick Crews in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. For this exchange, 'Freud and the Judaoe-Christian tradition', click here.


© Richard Webster, 2002


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