SPRINGTIME FOR SIGMUND ?
With its publication date of March 27, 2006, the American magazine, NEWSWEEK, has virtually assured itself a prime seat in the forthcoming celebrations of the 150th year since the birth of Sigmund Freud on May 6, 1856. It is perhaps appropriate that the articles by Jerry Adler (with Anne Underwood), „Freud in Our Midst;“ Claudia Kalb, „The Theorist as Scientist;“ and the interview with the Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel, „Interview: Biology of the Mind,“ should be as replete with disinformation, deception, and rhetorically suave generalizations as the writings of the Magister Ludi himself.
It is difficult to know where to begin — so much is hidden from view, denied, exaggerated, or, simply, mistaken — rather like Freud’s own excursions into science. And, like Freud’s later work (his „metapsychological“ essays), the ready use of persuasive rhetoric. Perhaps the first point to make is that the evident re-working of the Master’s style — what Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen saw as an inevitable aspect of psychoanalytic case histories — by Jerry Adler at once gives the game away (with its attempted seduction of the reader) and provokes and encourages the strange („uncanny„) pleasure upon our hearing of the wretched critical state of civilization and how all things conspire against us.
Das Unbehagen in der Kultur indeed!
This allows Jerry Adler at the end of his opening paragraph to darken the stage and present „his brow furrowed in weariness“ the specter of Freud as Hamlet’s father’s ghost admonishing the living for their knowing ignorance. I once pointed to the brilliant uses of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) employed by Freud throughout his long life. There are four of them: the Rhetoric of narrative persuasion that makes the few case histories so accessible and so mischievously misleading; the Rhetoric of the presentation of the theories of psychoanalysis where words (nouns and verbs especially) are given a new significance not to be found anywhere else but somehow (so we thought) „understandable“; the Rhetoric of the presentation of the self as above all honest, truthful, courageous, alone against an evil and hostile world; and, finally, the Rhetoric of the deliberate con-fusion of identity between an abstract noun — „psychoanalysis“ — and a proper noun „Freud“ whereby the inventor becomes his invention. A real-life instance of the mistake children frequently make in assuming that Frankenstein is the Monster and not its creator. In the Twentieth Century, possibly General Charles de Gaulle was the rare rival able to use the abstraction „La France“ to mean himself — and without embarrassment.
It is interesting that, at this late stage, Adler has managed to find the occasional medical academic to vouch for the stupendous inventions as if they were scientific and/or medical facts of common knowledge. One, Dr. Glen O. Gabbard, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, airily states:
„The unconscious is terribly threatening. It suggests we are moved by forces we cannot see or control, and this is a severe wound to our narcissism.“ Inference: For Professor Gabbard there IS such an entity as the Freudian „unconscious“; he knows what it is; he knows what its effects may be. Secondary Inference: Professor Gabbard has either not read Breuer’s contribution to Studies on Hysteria, or he has forgotten Breuer’s wise caveat: „We shall be safe from the danger of allowing ourselves to be tricked by our own figures of speech if we always remember that after all it is in the same brain, and most probably in the same cerebral cortex, that conscious and unconscious ideas alike have their origin.“(Breuer and Freud, Studies on Hysteria, New York: Basic Books, 1957, p.228)
(Note to self: Do NOT send offspring to Baylor College of Medicine.)
„How much debunking can Freud withstand?“ Adler asks, and promptly turns to the University of Chicago’s resident expert, Jonathan Lear, who claims the originality of Freud’s „core idea“ (i.e., for those breathlessly wondering what this might be, — „human life is `essentially conflicted‘„). Jonathan Lear, who has evidently led a sheltered life, is introduced as „a psychiatrist and philosopher„. Well, why not? In an article preaching the relevance, importance, and greatness of Sigmund Freud, why not? Being mean-spirited (and a little in-the-know) I read Lear’s C.V. for Chicago. As I had assumed an Arts profile with Philosophy as the area of specialization. Not a hospital ward in sight! But wait! Yes! Here we are, at last: „Graduate Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis“. No dates given, but never mind.I regret to say that this reminds me more than anything of those undergraduates I have had (often excellent) of the Mormon persuasion who proudly write „Two years Missionary in Nice, France“ on their C.V.s. They may even have learned more about Life in Nice than they would have at the New England Institute for Psychoanalysis.
Some ten years ago (early 1997) Frederick Crews accepted to write a Foreword to the MIT edition of Malcolm Macmillan’s huge (over 700 pages) study Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc. Let me quote the first paragraph. Ten years ago, Crews felt justified in writing as he did of Freud’s posthumous reputation. The NEWSWEEK articles show that he spoke too soon:
With the publication of this accessible new edition of Freud Evaluated, Malcolm Macmillan and the MIT Press have advanced the long debate over psychoanalysis to what may well be its decisive moment. By now, nearly everyone grants that the standing of Freud’s ideas must be assessed without recourse to the hero worship that he so cunningly promoted and perpetuated. But should we be trying to salvage a core of indispensable insight from his increasingly troubled legacy, or must we admit that his „discoveries“ were simply illusory? Does it suffice that later analysts disavowed many of his most vulnerable judgments, or do those successors remain attached to a fundamentally trustworthy means of obtaining knowledge? This book, I believe, supplies the answers in a definitely authoritative form.
Those who are aware of the international scholarship of the last 30 years cannot but agree with Crews that the time is long overdue for a total (and negative) reassessment of Freud’s career as a scientist (Macmillan is especially strong on the many elementary errors of Freud’s physiological experiments), as a psychologist, and as an overall theoretician for the functioning and significance of the human brain. One can, of course, simply recommend to the still-gullible the serious and thorough reading of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904 published in English translation by Harvard University Press some twenty years ago in the edition prepared by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. This complete edition, incidentally, is still, in 2006, unavailable in French translation in France. Given the enormity of Anna Freud’s Stalinist censorship – over half the letters saved by Princesse Marie Bonaparte were either vigorously cut or completely deleted from the edition issued in the 1950s by Anna Freud, Marie Bonaparte, and Ernst Kris. The guiding principle seems to have been: „Don’t let the public know Father was a Professional Liar and a Credulous Imbecile in Thrall to the Idiotic Notions of Wilhelm Fliess.“
The many international scholars from Max Scharnberg of Scandinavia to Allen Esterson in London, to Mikkel Borsh-Jacobsen in Seattle (or Paris, depending on sabbaticals), or Jacques Bénesteau of Toulouse (his 2002 Mensonges freudiens: Histoire d’une désinformation séculaire won the French Société française d’histoire de la médecine prize in 2003 for the year’s finest contribution to the history of medicine), or Adolf Grünbaum, E. Erwin, & Frederick Crews in the United States, to Malcolm Macmillan in Australia, have all independently and through careful archival research arrived at the same conclusion: Psychoanalysis does not function as it as claimed to have done, Freud frequently lied to the public, to his colleagues, to his patients — and was more talented as a teller of tales — Krafft-Ebing called his lecture on the supposed etiology of hysteria „ein wissenschaftliches Märchen“ (a scientific fairy-story) than as a disciplined and honest investigator of human psychology. The Anglo-American scholar Frank Cioffi asked in a BBC program thirty years ago „Was Freud a Liar?“ The question today, with the knowledge we now have, must be „Did Freud EVER tell the truth?“ The 1960 Nobel Prize-winner for Medicine, Sir Peter Medawar stated in 1975, „The opinion is gaining ground that doctrinaire psychoanalytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual trick of the twentieth century…“ (NYRB, January 23, 1975, p.17.)
Needless to say, the NEWSWEEK articles say nothing about this state of affairs and naturally do not mention the Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar. They do, however, end up with an interview with their very own Nobel laureate, Eric Kandel, who in 2000 shared the prize for physiology or medicine with two other researchers (Arvid Carlsson of the University of Göteborg & Paul Greengard of The Rockefeller University) for „discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system.“ Kandel was awarded his part of the prize „for his discoveries of how the efficiency of synapses can be modified, and which molecular mechanisms take part. With the nervous system of a sea slug as experimental model he has demonstrated how changes of synaptic function are central for learning and memory.“ (HHMI News, October 09, 2000) Eric Kandel, who admits to having been fascinated as a youth with the writings of Freud, still, apparently reveres him as a great man. To the question of Claudia Kalb „How does Freud hold up?“ Kandel replies:
I think he’s a giant. Tremendously thoughtful, insightful and imaginative. There are things that he said that don’t hold up. His view of female sexuality was wrong. But he gave us a nuanced and rich picture of the complexities of human life. He’s one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.
No evidence is offered for this opinion. One wonders if the Freud-Fliess Correspondence has ever crossed Kandel’s desk. But, apart from the generous naivety of Kandel’s vision of Freud, there is a further damaging point raised by Malcolm Macmillan with reference to P. Kitcher’s Freud’s Dream: A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) Macmillan’s stricture about Kitcher’s position is worth quoting because it is precisely relevant to Kandel’s (mis)understanding of Freud’s neurological researches:
A consequence of Kitcher’s focus on the relations between psychoanalysis and the theories surrounding it is that her criticisms of Freud’s own „doctrines“ tend to be general, sometimes missing the point. Thus, in discussing Freud’s neurophysiological doctrine she does not see that his is not a real neurophysiology but a speculative theoretical system brought into existence by translating behavioral and clinical observations such as „stimulus“ and „condensation,“ directly into pseudophysiological terms of energy flow through neurons (my chapters 7 and 14). Where there seems to be empirical content, she usually does not question it. Thus she does not notice that Freud’s theses on childhood sexuality have their origins in doubtful interpretations of adult symptoms (e.g., Dora’s) or misrepresentations of observational data (Lindner’s) (Macmillan 1980, chapter 10 of this book). (Macmillan, 657-58)
To the extent that Kandel’s views are worth taking seriously, it has to be because of his shared Nobel Prize and not because of their inherent value or grasp of the Freudian enterprise. It may be time to recommend to the reader a thoughtful browse through that excellent collection of essays, articles, and speeches, collected as Pluto’s Republic (Oxford University paperbacks) where Sir Peter Medawar illustrates time and again how profoundly unbiological Freud’s thinking was – from the Death Instinct to the Oedipus Complex and other strange notions. And, as a medical scientist, he has particular contempt for psychoanalytical attempts to interfere with phenomena such as the auto-immune diseases. Another book, full of intelligent sanity (and by a distinguished American science reporter) is Edward Dolnick’s 1998 Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (New York: Simon & Schuster).
It needs to be said, for the Common Man and Woman, that Dolnick’s excellent investigative journalism has no place in the Freud Soup of the NEWSWEEK articles. And, by the same token, there is not a whisper about the hideous dangers to children and patients of the twentieth century’s misapplication of psychoanalysis
posted March 25, 2006. Click below for a corresponding text of Frederick Crews