The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis

March 29, 2012

"How did psychoanalysis attain its prominent cultural position?" This book, first published in 2006 in French and now available in translation with some light additions and changes, attempts to answer this question. However, the authors fail because they are sidetracked into writing a pamphlet modelled more on the "attack ads" of the US Republican Party than on balanced historical analysis.

Their argument comes in four waves. The first, "Privatising science", accuses Sigmund Freud of engineering "the complete privatisation of the science of psychoanalysis under the sole possession of Freud, and of its separation from the prevailing norms of the academic world". In the second, they produce an ugly neologism, happily destined to oblivion, "interprefaction", intended to convey how Freud portrayed interpretations as facts. In the third, they give intricately argued examples from Freud's case histories of his alleged forcing of his interpretations on his patients. In the final part, they record how a small clique of the faithful (Anna Freud, Ernst Kris, Ernest Jones, Kurt Eissler) managed, through censorship and the sequestering of historical documents, to rewrite the whole history of psychoanalysis and then protect their account from any attempts to question its accuracy.

Throughout, the authors unearth many new sources, particularly concerning the well-orchestrated attacks by the majority of European psychiatrists on the new doctrines in the period 1907-14. What they make of these is, however, disappointing: page after page is devoted to reproducing passages from sources. We have shadow-history followed by insidious invective; instead of narrative history, we have parroting and polemic.

The problem is that the authors' principal aim seems to be not the writing of history but the reconfiguring of historiography. They do not quote the sources because they demonstrate patterns of controversy and debate in the sciences but because they want to find allies in the past: they agree with these Edwardian critics. They believe, with white-knuckled fervour, that the portrait of psychoanalysis as a grand system of thought is a myth whose hold has been maintained solely by the control of "Freudians" over alternative histories and sources. If, they argue, Freud had not withdrawn from open debate, if Freud had not constructed a mythical history, including the distortion of facts, dogmatic assertion and outright lies (although they temper their accusations on occasion), then psychoanalysis as a cultural world event would never have happened.

So can it be true that Freudianism became so popular and respected only because Freud controlled the narratives, hoodwinked his contemporaries and bullied his followers into blind docility on matters of doctrine and indeed of "fact" and then, after his death, his close coterie successfully (how?) erected a self-serving myth? Is it convincing to claim that, shorn of the myth, the poverty or the plain ordinariness of psychoanalysis will be plain for all to see? This account may sound right to a contemporary for whom psychoanalysis carries no theoretical or therapeutic weight. But it won't do as history.

There are many historical experiments that disprove such a conspiratorial view: for example, the rise of Freudianism in England during the First World War owed very little to Freud (or Jones). In the 1920s, English scientists such as W.H.R. Rivers, T.H. Pear, Lionel Penrose, J.D. Bernal and Bertrand Russell owed none of their psychoanalytic enthusiasm to direct contact with Freud or to the official histories of psychoanalysis; similar stories can be told across the world. Historians - as opposed to historiographical pamphleteers - should feel obliged to recount both critical and enthusiastic responses to Freud. Otherwise we will have no idea why so many eminent figures, from Einstein to Russell and W.H. Auden to Philip Roth, took Freud to be a world-historical figure; nor will we have any idea why the citation indices from 1993-98 show that Freud was the most-cited social scientist or philosopher in the world, well ahead of Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Max Weber and Jacques Derrida.

That poses the real historical question: why, despite so much hostility, does Freud continue to be so read, so influential and so pervasive? Why was he the most widely read non-fiction author in the world for many decades, as Penguin Books will confirm? Instead of answering this question, The Freud Files is a police file, full of evidence of scientific criminality. But no history of a cultural movement can be reduced to a forensic investigation; it must answer the question why Freud was a world-historical figure, whose original combination of (pseudo-)science, cultural criticism, therapeutic sect and scintillatingly invigorating argument is as much a part of the history of the West as Communism, Darwinism and aesthetic Modernism.

The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis

By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani. Cambridge University Press. 450pp, £55.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780521509909 and 729789. Published 24 November 2011

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