Books in Review

Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 38-41.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Unauthorized Freud:
Doubters Confront a Legend.
Edited by Frederick Crews. Viking. 301 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by Edward T. Oakes

In his book Modern Essays, Cambridge University’s distinguished literary critic Sir Frank Kermode called book reviewing—at least when honestly done and not just as an adjunct to the publishing world’s blurb–making industry—a form of cultural hygiene. Under that rubric there are few book reviews that have had a more beneficial effect on the culture than Frederick Crews’ three–part review of several books on Freud in the New York Review of Books in late 1993 and 1994.

Although criticism of Freud had been building for some time, even within the avowedly Freudian camp, direct attacks on the man and his methodology seemed—at least until the Crews articles appeared—to operate in some peripheral field of vision among the culture’s central gatekeepers. Freudians could pretty much afford to do what in fact they did: take no more notice of these attacks (some of which were quite trenchant) than an elephant would a swarm of fleas. But the venue of the New York Review was different: not only did it have a large number of practicing psychotherapists among its large subscriber base, it had also in the past reviewed and discussed any number of books on Freud with no discernible vandalizing intent to destroy, Samson–like, the whole Philistine temple. Thus to let in a man of Crews’ proven take–no–prisoners adamancy was, as he wryly says, rather as if someone had inadvertently let the American tomcat into Freud’s ornate Viennese parakeet cage.

But what hurt most was Crews’ ability to marshal the many strands of the anti–Freud polemic and weave them into an unbreakable rope which he could then use, with inexorable logic and devastating rhetoric, to link Freud’s protean methodology to that latest fad of our repellently therapeutic culture—the recovered–memory movement. The recovered–memory movement is an ugly and massively destructive trend among therapists—some of whose training borders on outright quackery—to ferret out "memories" of alleged instances of child abuse using methods that count the very absence of conscious memory of abuse as prima facie evidence that abuse occurred, evidence which a hectored and harassed patient (often under hypnosis and certainly awash in the stale waters of free association) eventually admits has been blocked by the "defense mechanism" of "denial." After that crucial threshold has been crossed, nonevidence becomes evidence for both patient and therapist, and with such "evidence" in hand, the two then betake themselves to court to accuse assorted loved ones, schoolteachers, and neighbors of some of the most implausible charges leveled since the Salem witch trials, charges which, even when thrown out of court for their very preposterousness, have already destroyed the lives of the accused.

Needless to say, the howls of execration that greeted these reviews were heard up and down Manhattan’s West End Avenue and resulted in more letters to the editor than had ever been received by the journal in response to one of its articles. As might be expected, Crews defended himself admirably. But the gauntlet having been thrown down, Crews was also obliged to bring out in the near future a book–length work setting out in all its detail the case against Freud, one that would convince all but the most doctrinaire Freudian. This is just what the book under review provides.

It should perhaps be stressed at the outset that this book does not intend to be a time capsule of the case against Freud for the benefit of future historians. That is, Crews has assembled his essays not so much to pay homage to the best, most influential, or most technically thorough essays against Freud. Rather, he has deliberately chosen only the most accessible of essays for the general reader, which means that some of the most pioneering (and unsung) writers in the anti–Freud case might feel slighted, especially when they see secondary works summarizing their research included in their place.

But as Crews notes in his introductory essay, this collection has one eye cocked on the on–again, off–again Freud exhibit recently mounted by the Library of Congress. Amusingly enough, the exact date for its opening has had an uncanny way of shifting, rather like Freudian theory, in response to its critics. At first the exhibit was to have been mounted in the fall of 1996, but when critics accused it of being a complete whitewash designed to distract the general public from the now solidly established case against Freud, the exhibit curator promised a more balanced presentation. Pro–Freudians could hardly object, but when the Library announced the postponement of the exhibit, allegedly for lack of funds, pro–Freudians saw their public–relations chance and accused Freud’s critics of that standard bogeyman, "censorship."

And then, not many months later, the exhibit was suddenly back on track, funds apparently in hand, but this time without the participation of anti–Freudians (except for the eleventh–hour admission of two critics), now thrown into confusion. Thus this book of essays forms a kind of anti–catalogue to the exhibit, to keep the general reader’s mind firmly fixed on some truly unassailable evidence that the Library of Congress will no doubt have air–brushed from the portrait the public will gain of Freud.

Fortunately, despite these limitations of space and intended audience, the work of Adolf Grünbaum was not slighted; for not only is he perhaps the most consistent, the most thoroughgoing, and certainly one of the earliest of the critics against Freud, he is also, second only to Crews, the hardest to ignore. Grünbaum has impeccable credentials—he is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh (still the nation’s leading department in the philosophy of science) and also Research Professor of Psychiatry at the same school—and is possessed of a dry, no–nonsense (if rather Teutonic) style that makes his case even harder to refute, precisely for its lack of rhetorical verve.

Unlike Crews, who comes close to holding that Freud was a complete charlatan whose only virtue seems to have been a preternatural talent for bamboozling an entire century, Grünbaum is willing to concede some low–grade viability to such Freudian ideas as rationalization, projection, and reaction formation. Crews’ own answer to Grünbaum’s mitigating efforts resembles the old joke about the professor who wrote on a student’s paper, "This work is both original and good. Unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original." Most Freudian ideas that strike common sense as plausible in fact have a pedigree that well antedates Freud (such as the idea of the unconscious, a staple of Romantic aestheticism that can trace its genealogy as back as far as Plato’s early dialogue, the Ion). The ideas of more recent vintage, such as the ones Grünbaum credits, can be found better expressed in Nietzsche or Henry James. And as for the rest of the package, the ideas that are original but not good? As Wittgenstein says in Culture and Value, "Freud’s fanciful pseudo–explanations (precisely because they are brilliant) perform a disservice. Any ass can use these ‘pictures’ [from dreams and free associations] to explain symptoms of illness." Karl Popper was right: a theory that can’t be falsified can’t claim any scientific validity.

If Crews were not so effective in tracing the almost direct links between Freudian question–begging "explanations" and the recovered–memory movement, the story as it emerges in this engrossing set of essays would be quite droll. A standard comedy skit has the shrink slip out of the office for forty–five minutes while the patient is on the couch chatting away at the ceiling and free–associating his brains out, with Herr Doktor returning only to set up the next appointment. In a case of life imitating art, Crews cites a letter Freud actually wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess during one of his therapy sessions, a letter that begins: "I have at the moment a lady in hypnosis lying in front of me and therefore can go on writing in peace." Two paragraphs later, Freud insouciantly signs off: "The time for the hypnosis is up. I greet you cordially. In all haste, your Dr. Freud."

In fact, if there is any reader of this volume who finds himself resisting the relentless marshaling of evidence on display here, he has only to read the unabridged Freud–Fliess correspondence published by Harvard University Press in 1985, which at times seems as if it could be titled Quack Speaketh Unto Quack, so bizarre are the revelations it contains. (Needless to say, Freud destroyed Fliess’ letters to him and tried to move heaven and earth to get his end of the correspondence burned as well. Unfortunately for him but luckily for history, Freud’s letters to Fliess fell into the hands of Princess Marie Bonaparte of Greece; although she was an orthodox Freudian of the dreariest kind, she refused his request to destroy the letters, much to Freud’s dismay.)

Particularly outrageous was the "treatment" of one Emma Eckstein, one of Freud’s hysterical patients. Unfortunately for the hapless Miss Eckstein her diagnosis came during the period when Fliess’ influence on Freud was at its greatest; and since Fliess, a nose surgeon, was at the time pushing his nutty theory that neuroses were located in something he called the "nasal reflex" and not where they are in fact located, in the personality and its complex history, Freud allowed Fliess to "cure" Eckstein’s misery by removing the middle left concha of her nose. After an operation that Crews rightly calls entirely superfluous, this feckless nose surgeon immediately returned to his regular (mal)practice in Berlin, leaving Freud’s already hysterical patient on the verge of bleeding to death because, in his typically quack way, Fliess had left a half meter of iodo-form gauze in her nasal cavity at the conclusion of the operation. If that weren’t outrage enough, Freud gradually stopped blaming Fliess for this surgical butchery and soon told his correspondent, in perhaps the most startling letter in the collection, that Eckstein was bleeding not from an incompetent operation but from an unconscious love–call to Freud himself!

It is a sign of how much fauna there is for the anti–Freudian to hunt in this grotesque menagerie that the Eckstein case is only alluded to on a few occasions in this scholarly brief against Freud. More inviting targets of the book include such obvious game animals as: 1) Freud’s habit of using evidence gained in hypnosis and free association as confirmation of his theories despite his famous and flagrant habit of hectoring his patients to come up with just the response he was looking for; 2) his constant rewriting of the history of the psychoanalytic movement not just to favor his own innovations but to cover the tracks of his malpractice, exploitation, and duplicity; and 3) his lazy neurological assumption that infants have brains developed enough to sustain the emotional trauma he attributes to them, and that adults have brains built (to use Crews’ fine phrase) like "cortical dominoes" such that Freud can go directly from a stray remark in a free–association session to some hypothesized infantile trauma. This procedure is what Wittgenstein wittily calls in The Blue and Brown Books the search for Mr. Nobody. We innocently say something like "there’s nobody in the room." But then because the word "nobody" is grammatically a noun, we can too easily deck the word out with a gentleman’s title and then suppose a being with that name is in the room. Freudian logic to a tee.

Again, this round–robin logic might be amusing if its effects weren’t so damaging, a damage, moreover, that still lives on in today’s headlines. But for readers who like their hilarity unalloyed, Crews opens the book with some published objections to his prior work from the Freudian guild, whose members predictably rise to the occasion. Since Crews is himself an atheist, one would think that the Freudians would at least not avail themselves of the old canard about neurotic religious motivations. Not so. Anyone seeking to introduce counterevidence into the standard Freud legend must, according to some Freudians quoted here, by that very fact be an ally of the Christian right or be introducing, in the words of one American analyst, a climate of fear not seen since the Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

But surely the winner in this stoop–to–anything, let’s–see–how–low–we–can–go sweepstakes must be the writer who compared the anti–Freudians to latter–day Nazis on a witch hunt against "Freudian Jews," while the award for the most vulgar cry of anguish belongs to Peter Gay’s expected (but nonetheless dismaying) charge that what motivates the anti–Freudians is not a concern for the truth but an infantile oedipal rebellion against Father Freud. And for an extra fillip of amusement, there is the Austrian government’s post–Waldheim effort to rejoin the League of Civilized Nations through its recent canonization of Freud, an honor it bestowed on the Viennese doctor by putting his image on its fifty–schilling note, a move that would be roughly comparable to Yeltsin’s post–Communist government putting Madame Blavatsky on the Russian ruble or Clinton currying favor with his disaffected New Age and feminist constituencies by ordering the Mint to coin Shirley MacLaine silver dollars.

While reading this absorbing and consistently well–argued book I kept thinking of Crews’ comparison of Freudianism at the end of this century with a late scene in the movie The Wizard of Oz. The four pilgrims—Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Dorothy—have traversed the whole Yellow Brick Road and are finally allowed an audience with the Wizard, who is seen fulminating, amid smoke and mirrors, at the other end of his vast, resplendent throne room. Only the dog Toto notices that all this son et lumière is coming from a control booth manned by a doddering old man no more intimidating than a retired pigeon–feeder on a park bench. So too, the supporters of Freud have finally been reduced to hoping that we will obey the voice of the Wizard: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is the author of Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the editor of German Essays on Religion, both from Continuum.