Freud’s Discontents

Freud’s Discontents

Why did one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers fade from significance?


On the death of Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden memorably observed that he was “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” And this was 1939—he had seen nothing yet of Freud’s influence. Across the North Atlantic, Freud’s new science of psychoanalysis transformed common sense and was itself transformed in a host of new applications. In the humanistic disciplines, and especially in literary study, engagement with psychoanalysis became almost obligatory. The general public was equally enthralled by Freud’s ideas. His books circulated widely, on college campuses especially, and his thought traversed popular culture from fiction to film.

This popularity came, in part, because Freud’s thought—and its extensions in the various schools of psychoanalysis—had extraordinary versatility. Freud saw sexual love and destructive hate as volcanic forces permanently threatening modern society. While he intended to come to the aid of bourgeois civilization, he did more than perhaps anyone to make sex and violence topics of everyday conversation. Freud argued in Civilization and Its Discontents and other works that if we were to come to terms with the libidinous and aggressive drives boiling up from beneath the surface of civilization, we would have to confront and master these forces. This led Freud and his followers to develop programs for individual therapy; it also became a central proposition for both the nervous self-assurance of Cold War liberalism and the calls for reform by the era’s leftists. Liberals like Lionel Trilling and Marxists like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse found in Freud nothing less than a stimulus to rethink life in common. They all insisted that psychoanalysis did more than address individual biography and pathology; it could help solve the conundrums of collective politics.

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In light of such wide influence, it is rather shocking how swiftly, if just beyond conscious notice, Freud’s relevance has waned in the past two decades. Looking back over the letters and science of the 20th century, the lasting controversies that publicly swirled around Freud and psychoanalysis prove his onetime pertinence: Like the lowly scorpion sent to bring down a champion and memorialized in the heavens for the pursuit, even his most bitter enemies could depend on Freud’s vast presence to gain substantial attention.

In America, former psychoanalytic literary critic turned apostate Frederick Crews wrote regularly in The New York Review of Books about the master’s personal sins and scientific failings. The short-lived director of Freud’s archives Jeffrey Masson notoriously turned on his own establishment when he claimed that psychoanalysis originated in a vile plot to obscure the reality of child abuse. And a Library of Congress exhibition on Freud, which suffered criticism from the moment of its conception, led to bureaucratic infighting and staff changes.

But from the view of the early 21st century, none of these melodramas now seems imaginable. Our time has chosen a simpler psychology to celebrate and debate. It is more common now to regard humanity as lucid about its interests, and rational in its fulfillment of them (a few behavioral foibles aside). According to one famous treatment, human beings can move from brutality to empathy mainly on a diet of some novels. Violence does not need to be “internalized”—­as Friedrich Nietzsche proposed and Freud agreed with—so much as left behind. The way ahead is to pit slow thinking against fast thinking. We can end pointless conflict, one best seller explains, by grasping that conservatives and liberals both act on evolutionary “intuition”—the idea that American political debate, for all its provincialism, is structured by the rivalry between tendencies to be either close-knit or cosmopolitan. If there is trouble, the best course is to pop the right pill.

Far from being Pollyannaish and anything but plangent, psychoanalysis communed with an age of crisis. Instead of believing that pathologies could be described or drugged away, Freudians wanted us to work through them. There was no going back to earlier beliefs that humans could regard themselves as rational animals. Psychoanalysis was about facing the sheer disorder unreason threatened, rather than looking away.

What has been lost by the decline in psychoanalysis’s public relevance has not only been Freud’s system of thought but the delicate balance he embraced between science and culture, reason and passion, the Enlightenment and its Romantic critics. Freud, as Thomas Mann observed in 1929, “unquestionably belongs with those writers of the nineteenth century” who “stand opposed to rationalism.” Spurning the “shallow and outworn idealistic optimism of the daylight cult of Apollo,” Freud believed that psychology had to embrace rather than ignore the fragility of reason. But Freud not only sought to emphasize reason’s embattlement; he also sought to lend a hand in its struggle against the stronger passions. By revealing the weaknesses in the elaborate structure of human rationality, psychoanalysis ultimately helped serve “enlightenment.” Freud’s psychoanalysis was, as Mann put it, “Romanticism turned scientific.” He wanted reason to win out, but not by understating its vulnerability.

Élisabeth Roudinesco’s new biography, Freud: In His Time and Ours, is a welcome reminder of Freud’s considerable influence on 20th-century intellectual life. More important, she puts center stage Freud’s complex brand of rationalism and the full scope of his achievements, which went far beyond offering a cure for individuals. In particular, Roudinesco captures Freud’s recognition of the insurmountable ways in which our irrational desires and longings shape who we are and how we act.

This correction is needed not only to give us a more accurate sense of Freud’s innovations, but also to contrast it against today’s more complacent assumptions about human rationality. Despite what economists and psychologists and political scientists insist, the rational self is not always master in its own house—whether in individual life or in collective experience.

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Roudinesco’s biography is the third major one since Freud’s death. The British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones penned a massive study of the master’s life over the course of the 1950s. Thirty years later, the accomplished historian Peter Gay—who also trained as a psychoanalyst as he turned to write Freud’s life—published what has now become the standard work.

Jones’s study was remarkable for its breadth. But it was Gay who benefited from a flood of new information that has long since slowed to a trickle, including many revelations about Freud’s life offered by the release of some of his well-protected correspondence, as well as access Gay had to those who personally knew Freud.

Compared to Jones’s three volumes and Gay’s exhaustive 800 pages, Roudinesco’s biography is the slighter narrative. She also cannot displace Gay’s synthesis. Yet her version has other points of distinction. In particular, she offers insights into some of the ambiguities in psychoanalysis that Gay and Jones glossed over.

The high points of Freud’s biography used to be well-known. Born to a Jewish family in the town of Freiberg in Mähren—then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, now in the Czech Republic—Freud had a childhood that paralleled an age of liberal ascendancy in Central Europe. Trained as a doctor in Vienna and Paris, Freud built a career for himself as a man of science, hoping to decipher the reigning middle-class maladies of his day, notably hysteria. After several false starts, he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, which marked a breakthrough in his thinking by regarding our nightly visions as “the royal road” to the unconscious life.

During World War I, Freud’s thought was greatly influenced by his anxiety over his sons who were fighting at the front. He was affected even more by his exposure to cases of wartime trauma, especially shell shock. And while his sometimes rebellious coterie of disciples spread his ideas far and wide, Freud’s own work took on a new and more tragic inflection. With the liberal ascendancy now a pleasant memory, Vienna had become a cauldron of political radicalism and cultural experiment, and Freud found himself at its center. He published in psychology and medicine but also in anthropology, art history, and cultural criticism. The books he wrote during this period ranged in genre from autobiography to literary criticism to social theory, and his subjects included Moses, Leonardo da Vinci, and Woodrow Wilson.

Freud’s productive years in Vienna came to a swift end in 1934 when Christian populists brought down the Austrian Republic. Four years later, Germany absorbed the country in the Anschluss, an event that Freud noted laconically in his diary with the entry “Finis Austriae.” He spent his final year in London, ministered to by his daughter Anna, a psychoanalyst in her own right. Suffering from a painful mouth cancer for close to two decades, he passed away secure in the knowledge that while unreason had triumphed in Europe, he had created a far-flung movement that was attempting to understand it.

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Like Jones and Gay, Roudinesco recounts Freud’s life and the development of his thought with great flair. But there are some special novelties in her narrative, particularly in contrast to Gay’s study.

Gay was fiercely loyal to Freud, and he bristled at his protagonist’s detractors, even as he professed to float above controversy. But Gay’s Freud was also a contested one. Believing that psychoanalysis had risen to its apex in the “ego psychology” that focused on rational self-mastery and that was dominant during the Cold War, Gay’s version of Freud came close to reversing the insight into the fragility of reason that started the enterprise.

Roudinesco offers a more complete reading of Freud’s ambivalent attitude toward rationalism. Part of the reason for this is her greater appreciation of the sheer breadth of his legacy. Roudinesco first came to public notice for a mammoth 1980s study of the history of psychoanalysis in France, published in English simply as Jacques Lacan and Co. That book examined perhaps the most internationally controversial Freudian of the 20th century, who famously emphasized Freud’s most subversive themes. By contrast, Gay’s biography never mentioned Lacan or his vision of the radical possibilities of psychoanalysis.

One approach the two biographers do share is their rush to reach The Interpretation of Dreams, the intellectual turning point that Freud assigned to his development of psychoanalysis. Gay—who dismissed the importance of Viennese intellectual life and Freud’s Jewish identity as somewhere between incidental and irrelevant to the making of psychoanalysis—has Freud to the starting line within 100 pages. Roudinesco is a bit less uncompromising about these influences, but she follows Gay in getting Freud to his “discovery” early in her book, even though by the time he published The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud had already lived more than half his life.

A consequence of Gay and Roudinesco’s speed is that they overlook the important role that these and other contexts played in the development of his thought. For example, both miss how developments in natural science in Freud’s era were critical to the difficult birth of psychoanalysis. Critics may have persistently doubted psychoanalysis’ scientific credentials, but, as Katja Guenther and the late John Forrester have shown, its origins are unintelligible apart from arguments about the mind and brain.

In other ways, Roudinesco’s biography does bring out a much more neglected Freud, one whom Mann identified more insightfully than Freud’s prior biographers. Gay took Freud’s commitment to reason, whatever its embattlement, as his polestar. “Freud, who more than any other psychologist concentrated on the workings of unreason, detecting sexual motives and death wishes behind the masks of polite manners and untroubled affection, was one of the great rationalists of the modern age,” Gay argued. “He waded into the sewers of irrationality not to wallow in them, but to clean them out.” But like Mann, Roudinesco constructs a different portrait: of a Freud who did not sidle up to the abyss of passion merely to turn his back on it.

By doing so, Roudinesco is also more sensitive to the full range of Freud’s accomplishments. This is especially true of his anthropological, historical, and literary works that others often neglect and that made the great psychoanalyst not just a healer but also a bold social and cultural critic. Roudinesco rightly criticizes Jones for “transform[ing] Freud into a scientist more English than Viennese, more positivist than Romantic, much less tormented in his choices than he had been in reality.” But while she doesn’t offer the same criticisms of Gay, one suspects she might have applied a similar verdict to his biography as well, except with Gay, it was not positivism but Cold War liberalism that he used psychoanalysis to buttress. While lionizing Freud’s audacity, Gay, for example, treated Freud’s speculative reinterpretation of the origins of human culture, Totem and Taboo (1913), as a flight of fantasy. By contrast, Roudinesco regards the work as “one of his finest.” She, in fact, goes even further. Written shortly after Freud’s trip to America in 1909, the book, Roudinesco contends, reflects a democratic turn in his thought. In her reading, it offers an incisive indictment of colonialism and racism.

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Recovering the fuller range of Freud’s thinking and influence on the 20th century, however, leaves the question of why the pertinence of his thought has waned in the 21st. Having completed his volume before the staggering reversal of Freud’s influence, Gay closed his biography with the master on his deathbed. Gay’s final sentence characteristically idolized Freud for his rationalist composure: “The old stoic had kept control of his life to the end.”

Roudinesco cannot end her biography as neatly in light of how “interest in psychoanalysis declined in Western societies.” Rather than Gay’s stoicism, Roudinesco is forced to take up the stance of nervous reassurance: “I tell myself,” she writes, “that, for a long time yet, Freud will remain the great thinker of his time and ours.” We are left at the end of her book with few answers as to why Freud’s legacy is now in jeopardy.

One can make some educated guesses, though. For one thing, since its heyday there has been a transformation of the pathologies that first inspired psychoanalysis. Freud’s early patients were hysterics. Yet hysteria has disappeared in the intervening years, replaced by other pathologies like anxiety and depression. And Freud never came to grips with outright psychosis, or what has come to be called borderline personality disorder.

Psychoanalysis also began to shift its focus after Freud’s death, taking up—among other things—the “pre-Oedipal” period in life, which Freud had neglected. Today, his approaches within clinical psychology and psychiatry have also been routed very substantially in favor of behavioral and drug therapies. One of Woody Allen’s characters tells his psychiatrist wife in a recent film: “If you’re channeling Freud, ask for my money back.”

And then, of course, there’s the more general decline of grand systems of thought. Existentialism, Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis all dominated intellectual life 50 years ago. They offered intellectuals elaborate theories that allowed them to range over a wide variety of topics and social problems. But as of late, these grand theories have suffered a common shipwreck. “Anyone can spend his life constructing a comprehensive general theory,” observed one scholar writing on the relationship between psychology and politics in the 1990s, but it “will soon be refuted or outdated.”

This skepticism toward the overarching theories of the 19th and 20th centuries has come to incarnate something of the spirit of our age and it is another reason why the prominence of psychoanalysis has declined. Today, we have acquired a preference for indubitable findings and cautious and often minimalist forms of theory and politics. It may be true that gargantuan structures like the one Freud erected proved to rest on shaky foundations; the trouble is that only small hideouts are left among the rubble.

The price of this growing skepticism toward general theories has been very high to pay. This is true for psychology and more generally the social sciences but also for the richest possible versions of liberalism and leftism, both of which intersected fruitfully with psychoanalysis at midcentury. The grand theories of an earlier age offered us an ability to look at the intersections between the self, society, and history; in comparison, their replacements look not just intellectually meek but politically unpromising.

Psychoanalysis once served as a starting point across the humanities and social sciences, to say nothing of academic psychology. The abandonment of Freud’s speculative penchant has largely meant a return to positivistic theories of human nature. People, in this conventional view, are rational political and economic actors, knowledgeable about their own interests, free to choose them, and—as a default at least—trustworthy in their pursuit. Rational humanity finds itself once again enthroned, its idiosyncrasies sometimes acknowledged as requiring modest tweaks and technocratic palliatives, as if our world did not undermine that optimism at every turn.

Our ongoing history—not least this year’s presidential election—has proven the insufficiency of such approaches. But even beyond today, the intricacy of our personal worlds, and the upheavals of our social and political ones, will not permit such doctrines to rule for much longer. Their intellectual replacements may not resemble psychoanalysis exactly, but a renewed struggle against this view of human rationality—a struggle that no one did more than Freud to sponsor—­can provide future inspiration.

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