Carry on spinning!

The Spin-doctor magna cum laude of Psychoanalysis: Elisabeth  Roudinesco

People nowadays tend to use `psychoanalysis‘ to stand for all forms of psychotherapy, much as `Hoover‘ is used as a generic name for all vacuum cleaners and `Vaseline‘ for all ointments of a similar kind. By psychoanalysis I understand that special pedigree of psychological doctrine and treatment which can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the  writings and work of Sigmund Freud. The position of psychological medicine today is in some ways analogous to that of  physical or conventional medicine in the middle of the nineteenth century. PETER MEDAWAR, „Further Comments on Psychoanalysis,“ in Pluto’s Republic. Oxford: O.U.P., 1983, p. 62.
For Elisabeth Roudinesco a vacuum cleaner is NOT a `Hoover‘! She has been very careful over the years to distinguish between various kinds of psychotherapy and the „real thing“ — as delivered by her guru, Jacques Lacan, and, presumably, by his inspiration, Sigmund Freud. Lacan always recommended „le retour à Freud“ though quite what this would entail that is specifically and genuinely „Freudian“ is difficult to discover. (Let alone whether it would have been a good idea anyway!) Madame Roudinesco has no doubts about the clinical expertise and excellence of Jacques Lacan. She has been, after all, his „official“ biographer and the author of the one big biography of the Master (Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman: London: Free Association Books, 1990). Madame Roudinesco has also investigated some little-known areas of Sigmund Freud’s activities at the time of the Studies on Hysteria (jointly authored with Josef Breuer) — for instance she was behind the 1997 French publication Freud avant Freud: La Préhistoire de la psychanalyse (1886-1896). „Présentée“ by Elisabeth Roudinesco & Per Magnus Johansson (Le Plessis-Robinson, France: Synthélabo Groupe, Collection Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond). She is evidently an original and careful historian, one wishing to make readily available to the public the complex realities of Freud’s relations with his early patients. Highly commendable.

However, the careful (and, as  far as one can tell, accurate) archival historical research contained in Freud avant Freud was carried out by the late Swedish scholar Ola Andersson some forty years before and published (in English!) by Scandinavian University Books at Stockholm in 1962. Madame Roudinesco is not quite the original archive-hunting historian one had thought. Never mind! Perhaps something will come up later.She is, after all, proclaimed by the leading  French press — Le Monde, and Libération — as a „historienne“ and sometimes as „l’historienne de la psychanalyse„. Does a „historian“ of medicine have to be a doctor or a medically qualified researcher?

Not necessarily.

Witness, in England, the enormous popular and critical success of the late Roy Porter of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in the University of London. Porter’s first degree at Cambridge was in history (and his Ph.D., 1977, was entitled The Making Of Geology). Porter remained a widely-read and immensely informative historian of psychiatric medicine until he was untimely felled by that unexpected heart-attack while riding his bicycle alone en route to his allotment. Those of us aware of his many contributions to the history of medicine greatly miss his adventurous and scholarly researches. When he felt he didn’t know enough about the body or the brain for a chapter or an article, he would enquire. He was highly (and rightly) critical of High French Theorizing of the Foucauldian kind and would carefully qualify some of Foucault’s statements for their egregious „universality“ (See, e.g. A Social History of Madness, 1987, and particularly, Mind-forg’d Manacles, 1987).

I should now quote from the review of one of Britain’s leading neurologists, Professor Raymond Tallis, of Madame Roudinesco’s biography of Lacan in its English translation. It is important to bear in mind that the reviewer knows what he is talking about, unlike the biographer:

If Elisabeth Roudinesco’s account [of Lacan’s early „medical“ years] is accurate, he must have made a hash of his first case presentation to the Société Neurologique: his patient, she says, supposedly had `pseudobulbar disorders of the spinal cord‘ – a neurological impossibility. (The innocence with which Roudinesco reports all kinds of clinical cock-ups makes this book a particularly disturbing read for a medic.) Abandoning neurology was obviously a wise career move. Unfortunately, though he lacked all the qualities necessary to make a half-way decent doctor (e.g. kindness, common sense, humility, clinical acumen and solid knowledge), Lacan did not abandon medicine altogether, only its scientific basis. He chose to be a psychoanalyst where, instead of elucidating diagnoses, he could impose them („The Shrink from Hell,“ reprinted in The Raymond Tallis Reader. Ed. Michael Grant. Palgrave, 2000, pp. 284-285).


Professor Tallis’s comments on the Elisabeth Roudinesco biography of Jacques Lacan are offered to give a sense of perspective to the „authoritative“ stature that Roudinesco has achieved in France — or in the French press — whenever an issue involving the previous manifestations of psychoanalysis is concerned. She is called upon by the press and represented to the public by the press as a „historienne„. For instance, when, some twenty years after   the Harvard University Press publication (1985) of the uncensored correspondence for over 17 years of Freud to his intimate friend, the E.N.T. specialist from Berlin, Wilhelm Fliess, a French translation (prepared for Presses Universitaires de France) appeared in 2006 — as if to celebrate the 150th anniversary year — the one reliable resource called into action was Madame Roudinesco. The leading French daily, Le Monde, ran a review of the newly translated volume under the heading: „La passionnante correspondance de l’inventeur de la psychanalyse avec son ami Wilhelm Fliess. NAISSANCE DE FREUD“ (Le Monde, 20 octobre 2006, p. 8). My own correspondence with the London agent responsible for the Freud Copyright told me in 2005 as I was preparing a series of lectures in France on this very topic that the Presses Universitaires de France were under contractual obligation (signed over 17 years previously!) to publish in full the French translation of the English complete edition including the footnotes of Jeffrey M. Masson. This is not what has transpired, and most of Masson’s notes have disappeared. One must say – though Roudinesco makes no comment on this – that PUF made a wise decision to go back to the original German texts of Freud with the help of the German scholars Michael Schröter and Gerhard Fichtner and to present to the French public a complete uncensored edition of these very important letters from the formative years of what was to become „psychoanalysis“.

What Madame Roudinesco does not do anywhere in her Le Monde review of the French version of this correspondence is to show how this correspondence reveals Sigmund Freud to be a patent liar (even to his „friends“), to be remarkably ignorant about human psychology, and his favourite daughter (& heir), Anna Freud to be the „Stalinist“ Keeper of the Lies. No mention is made of the massive censorship of the letters in the 1954 edition of Anna Freud, Ernst Kris, and Princesse Marie Bonaparte (whom we have to thank for saving these incriminating documents from their destruction by Freud himself or by U-Boats in the English Channel). Nor, incidentally, is any mention made of the specific editorial cuts and the reasons (motives?) for these particular cuts. One simple example will suffice to show the partiality (or perhaps — if one is kind — the ignorance) of Roudinesco. The Traummuster – the „Specimen Dream“ – the Dream of Irma’s Injection — (i.e. the first dream analysed in Chapter 2 of The Interpretation of Dreams) is based on a lie, and an impossible lie at that! The „Dream“ is dated – July 23-24 1895 – refers to the many physiological occurrences — albumen in urine — of diphtheria as suffered by Freud’s daughter Mathilde two years previously (i.e. 1893!). The truth of the matter is quite different. Ernest Jones wrote from London to Anna Freud about the health of the Freud children at this putative time. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen wrote to me from Washington where he was going through the Anna Freud letters, her reply to Jones confirms my suspicions that the Freud children suffered from no serious illnesses until early Spring of 1897 when Mathilde succumbed to diphtheria.

Question: WHY did Anna Freud pull the three letters of March/April 1897? They have nothing to do with psychoanalysis — they have everything to do with references to the real date of Mathilde’s diphtheria and, hence, the true dates of her illness (some four years after her father’s report).

Question: WHY does Madame Roudinesco make no reference anywhere to this business?

This is one small but telltale instance of the workings of the „spin-doctor“ mind. You have a business, an enterprise, to keep afloat — why try to sink it? As the inheriting son-in-law, J.-A. Miller must have pondered (as far as Jacques Lacan is concerned) such dilemmas frequently. But — like Madame Roudinesco — he is made of „The Right Stuff“. And the French seem to love having the wool pulled over their eyes by such professional people. Madame Soleil was one of those old-fashioned amateurs — rather like those nineteenth-century charlatans that Vautrin so convincingly skewers in the hilarious pastiche he offers in a moment of frenetic bonhomie in Le Père Goriot.

That the Le Monde review of Madame Roudinesco showed no concern for informing her readers of how, or why, the earlier edition by the faithful daughter Anna was censored is par for the course. We DO know now — & have done for over 20 years — thanks to Harvard University Press and their genial (& courageous) editor Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. In fact, even Masson, whose careful scholarship had provided the original texts, was not aware of the lies revealed by his publication of the Dream of Irma’s Injection.

But Madame Roudinesco’s review in Le Monde is not satisfied with such elementary lapses. She invents (as all good spin-doctors should) material from these letters. Unfortunately, it betrays Madame Roudinesco’s „innocence“ (in Tallis’s phrase) of medical procedures. Freud did not, contrary to her statements, undergo the removal of the middle nasal concha as did Emma Eckstein. His tuberculi septi were left intact. Fliess cauterised his nose more than once; but that is all.

Naturally, whenever the history of psychoanalysis is newsworthy, Madame Roudinesco will be called upon by the press to deliver her considered judgement. So … when a sociologist, Professor Franz Maciejewski, discovers a hotel registry signed in Freud’s handwriting: „Sigmund Freud und Frau“ for Room 11 of the Schweizerhaus Hotel, without hesitation le Nouvel Observateur rushes to get an affirmative assessment from Madame Roudinesco: Did Freud have sex with Minna (his wife’s sister)? They both stayed together at this hotel as „husband and wife“. Madame Roudinesco has a coy side to her, when it comes to Sigmund….. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t…. Madame Roudinesco is certain that Peter Swales is inventing numbers with his thoughts about his research discoveries — you may remember the crafted nonsense about the young man in the train in Italy in Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The trouble is that Peter Swales’s research record is first-class and that, contrary to Madame Roudinesco’s beliefs, he does not wage fantasmagoric war against the legend of Freud-the-Pure-Hero. He writes it as he sees it. And as he sees it seems right!

One point that has not been raised in this article is the simple (but intriguing) question of how the sisters (Mathilde and Minna) lived together for some 40 years without EVER discussing their sexual relations with Sigmund. I merely raise the question. It seems to me, however, that the Freud household must have been a hot place to be at the end of the Nineteenth Century. But this has no relation to the truth or falsehoods of psychoanalysis.

I began with an extensive quotation from Sir Peter Medawar. Let me end with the opening phrase of the Editorial drafted by Michael Alan Taylor for Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, vol. 2, No. 4:

I haven’t the foggiest idea why people behave the way they do!  I don’t think anyone else knows either. Other than psychoanalysis, which is now in Chapter 11 [U.S. bankruptcy], I know of no conceptual framework which offers a detailed explanation of why people do what they do.

But Taylor is speaking as an empirical American psychiatrist. Madame Roudinesco believes that such people are necessarily right-wing, fascist anti-Semitic plotters against the Truth revealed by Sigmund Freud. This was her frequently proclaimed position during the attempts by Freud critics to ensure that the Freud Exhibition at the US Library of Congress would properly include an objective sample collection of works critical of the authority, the truthfulness, and the accuracy of the Freudian enterprise. Scholars like Frederick Crews, philosophers of science like Adolf Grünbaum, were branded as Right-wing malcontents motivated by anti-Semitic beliefs. This is the harmful, negative aspect of the Spin Doctor. The position of spin-doctor requires, of course, that one presents to the public the best possible version of one’s pet subject (even knowing it to be in many ways mistaken). It also requires — this is the dark side– that its critics be shown as people of bad faith, extreme Right-wing politics, and with sinister anti-Semitic motives. This mendacious racket has damaged the reputation of leading Freud researchers. And this very web-site <> has been the victim of slanderous intimidation provoked and nourished by the spinning of Madame Roudinesco. We may even conclude that to have excited such malevolent and mendacious rage implies is a kind of „badge of courage“ and is an indication that we are indeed on the right path.

Robert WILCOCKS, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta.

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