Cheerful assassin defies analysis

March 3, 1995

When Frederick Crews attacked Freud in an article 14 months ago, he outraged many psychoanalysts. It was, he argues here, a fury from a profession aware of its accelerating collapse

In its issue of November 18, 1993, the New York Review of Books published an essay-review of mine, "The Unknown Freud", to which the adjective "controversial" hardly seems adequate. The article attracted, and continues to attract, more attention than all of my previous writings combined, dating back to my fledgling literary critical efforts in 1957. For several ensuing months, an unprecedented number of protesting letters to the editor poured in, mostly from psychoanalysts outraged by the indignities I had heaped on their honourable profession and its founder. Two rounds of published exchanges, the first of which alone consumed more ink than the New York Review had ever devoted to the aftermath of an article, left the overwhelming majority of complainants fuming on the sidelines.

As several correspondents remarked in injured tones, the main burden of "The Unknown Freud" could have been predicted from several earlier essays of mine. Since the appearance of "Analysis Terminable" in 1980, I had repeatedly made the same two-pronged argument: that Freud's scientific and ethical standards were abysmally low and that his brainchild was, and still is, a pseudoscience. But why, then, had this recent essay proved so upsetting?

A number of answers come to mind. For one thing, loyalists were shocked to find my judgements aired in the pages of the New York Review, where discussion of Freudian issues had more often than not been awarded to such sympathetic observers as Richard Wollheim, Carl Schorske, and William McGrath. My essay also contained some disturbing biographical information which, though known to Freud scholars, either was new to most analysts - for example, the story of Freud's greedy and fatal meddling in the life of his disciple Horace Frink - or had been discounted by them as atypical and insignificant, such as the infamous sequel to Emma Eckstein's nasal surgery, when Freud made so bold as to accuse that unfortunate of "bleeding for love" of himself.

Then, too, there was my report of what a number of scholars have independently discovered about the birth of psychoanalysis - namely, that Freud, amid the ruins of his untenable "seduction theory", peremptorily and gratuitously saddled his patients with a repressed desire for the incestuous acts that he had until then been unsuccessfully goading them to remember. (His later contention that they had told him about having been molested in early childhood was a characteristic reshaping of facts to comply with theory.) My readers were thus being invited to confront the unsettling fact that psychoanalysis arose from nothing more substantial than a confused effort on Freud's part to foist his explanatorily worthless hobbyhorse on to the fantasy life of his patients - patients who, moreover, far from being cured by his revised ministrations as he would eventually claim, had for the most part already lost faith in him and abandoned his practice. My essay left a plain impression that such opportunistic improvising, which was to become Freud's chronic way of handling theoretical crises, could not have been the work of a genuine scientific pioneer.

Beyond those provocations, however, a more general factor must have affected the uproar over "The Unknown Freud": the gradual but accelerating collapse of psychoanalysis as a respected institution. The "fear and rage" that one analyst (David S. Olds) noted among his colleagues when my essay appeared would not have spread so rapidly without a pre-existing sense that Freudianism could ill withstand another setback. Indeed, one sign of that desperation pervaded the very letters disputing the conclusions of my article. Whereas the original objectors to "Analysis Terminable" in 1980 had flatly denied my entire case against psychoanalysis, these recent statements mostly took the plaintive form of "yes, but. . ." . Although virtually all of my charges were conceded in one letter or another, each correspondent clung to some mitigating point that might justify the continuation of psychoanalytic business as usual. Yes, one analyst granted, Freudian grand theory is a mess, but some of its lower-level formulations still proved helpful when patients invested belief in them (Herbert S. Peyser). Yes, the idea of repression remains undemonstrated, but can we not acknowledge that it possesses "heuristic value in generating research and further theory-building" (Morris Eagle)? Yes, "Freud's tendentious arguments . . . were extremely harmful to some of his patients and to the field he tried so hard to establish," but "psychoanalytic scholars continue to study Freud's theories and case histories as part of the ongoing effort to . . . widen knowledge about a still largely 'unknown' psychological universe. . . ." (Marian Tolpin). Yes, Freud was a bit of a scoundrel, but at least "he did not sleep with his patients, nor found a lucrative ashram' (David S. Olds). And yes, American psychoanalysis is in decline, but the blame can be laid entirely on tight-fisted insurance companies that fail to appreciate the need for lengthy treatment (Lester Luborsky). To judge from such temporising, psychoanalysis appears destined to end not with a bang but with a querulous whine.

Meanwhile, many Freudians who were stung by my article answered it with a tactic that Freud himself had perfected in combat with such defectors as Fliess, Jung, Adler, Rank, and Ferenczi. Instead of addressing my criticisms, they blended ad hominem argumentation with question begging by treating me personally as a Freudian mental case. "I wonder," wrote one unpublished correspondent, "if Frederick Crews was aware when he wrote his vitriolic attack on Freud, that he laid himself bare to Freudian interpretations that would be numerous enough to fill as much space as his article." Another agreed: "We are all post-modern enough to understand the writing of his review as an act, an act about himself and not . . . about psychoanalysis itself."

These and other writers, though they usually deem years of daily clinical inquiry to be scarcely sufficient for grasping a patient's deep unconscious structures, did not scruple to diagnose my own fixations by return post. Crews, wrote one petitioner to the New York Review, cannot see "that he is trapped in a transference which began as an idealisation of (Freud), and which proceeded in normal fashion to hostile rejection. . . . (Thus) he is stuck on Freud-bashing." Peter Aspden said much the same thing in these very pages. The problem is oedipal, my old student Murray Schwartz explained to the American magazine of academic issues Lingua Franca: "He's after the sins of all the fathers." And the psychoanalyst and sociology professor Jeffrey Prager, writing in Contention, depicted me as a "jilted lover" with an irrational vendetta against my erstwhile soulmate, Freud. By persecuting Freud, Prager divined, I am attempting to repress my Freudian past - "to pretend that it never happened".

Other Freudians looked beyond my individual sickness to that of the age. Critiques like mine, said Eli Zaretsky in Tikkun, "are continuous with the attack on the left that began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. . . . They continue the repudiation of the revolutionary and utopian possibilities glimpsed in the 1960s. . .".

Whatever their specific hypotheses about my motives, virtually all Freudian commentators agreed that "The Unknown Freud" had been composed in a state of bitter anger by a malcontent with a vicious disposition. Indeed, this assumption was so common that Adam Begley, writing a profile of me in Lingua Franca some months later, considered it newsworthy to report that I am "quiet, unassuming, the kind of guy you just have to call mild-mannered", and that my academic associates consider me "a kind and gentle man".

Am I a Jekyll and Hyde character, or could it be that the taking of an uncompromising line towards Freud and Freudianism is actually consistent with human decency? Even Begley, to be sure, added that Crews "really hates Freud" - but he was wrong. Rather, I am completely lacking in respect for Freud, a very different matter. I don't hate Freud any more than, say, Karl Popper hated him, or than Ralph Nader hated General Motors, or than Stephen Jay Gould now hates the race-and-IQ theorists Herrnstein and Murray. In each case the sceptical writer feels prompted to denounce a combination of unsubstantiated claims, inflated reputation, and deleterious practical consequences. The act of denunciation can be cheerful and confident as well as public-spirited. That, I clearly recall, was my mood during the writing of "The Unknown Freud".

In theory at least, Freudians ought to have been well equipped to guard against mistaking their anger for my own. Their pertinent doctrine of projection, after all, lay ready at hand for acts of ironic self-scrutiny. In failing to make use of it, however, my adversaries were being loyal to the Freudian tradition in a more fundamental sense. Despite Freud's own self-analysis and the training analyses that came later, psychoanalysis has been tacitly employed as a psychology for the others, not for the interpreter him or herself. As Ernest Gellner has shown, Freudianism rests on an outlook of "conditional realism" whereby psychological truth is thought to be monopolised by, and fully available to, those who have removed their deeply programmed barriers to clarity. The analysed and the doctrinally faithful are thus exempt from their own otherwise remorseless hermeneutic of suspicion. Since the quintessential Freudian assertion is, in Gellner's words, "I am freer of inner veils than thou", recourse to ad hominem argument becomes all but irresistible. This is why the numerous slurs on my personality that circulated in the wake of "The Unknown Freud" were not deviations from but typical instances of the Freudian way with dissenters.

In rendering their diagnoses-at-a-distance, my critics appear to have been guided by a principle that struck them as too obviously warranted to bear articulating - namely, that "Freud bashing" is itself a sign of mental dysfunction. They simply knew, after all, that Freud, despite some occasional missteps and out-of-date assumptions, had made fundamental discoveries and permanently revolutionised our conception of the mind. As three of the unpublished New York Review correspondents put it, Freud proved once and for all that unconscious beliefs and emotions play a large role in our behaviour; that the human mind is at once capable of the clearest distinctions and the most devious twists; and that mental illness stems in large part from an imbalance within the human being between real and ideal, between our rational and irrational selves, and between what we want to do and what we have to do.

These and similar formulations were noteworthy for their high quotient of generality and vagueness, approaching, in freedom from determinate content, the perfect vacuum achieved by the historian and Freud apologist Peter Gay, who has characterised Freud's "central idea" as the proposition that "every human is continuously, inextricably, involved with others . . .". It is hard to dispute any of these statements about "humans", but it is also hard to see why they couldn't be credited as easily to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Nietzsche - if not indeed to Jesus or St Paul - as to Freud. Was it really Freud who first disclosed such commonplaces? Or, rather, has the vast cultural sway of Freud's system caused us to lose focus on his more specific, highly idiosyncratic, assertions, to presume that a number of them must have been scientifically established by now, and to transform him retrospectively into the very personification of "human" complexity and depth?

Freud bashing begins to look less self-evidently pathological when we lower our sights to Freud's actual, far from modest, claims to discovery in four major categories of knowledge. First, the causes and cure of neurosis. We need not pause over Freud's pretensions in this realm, since scarcely anyone, including Freudian practitioners, can now be found who takes them seriously. The "oedipal repression etiology" of neurotic complaints is a dead letter, and psychoanalysis as a therapeutic institution has backed away from all of its original boasts about curative power.

Second, the meaning of symptoms, dreams, and errors. Freud's greatest novelty lay here, in his widening of intentionality to cover phenomena that had been thought to lack expressive content or, in the case of dreams, to be expressive only in random flashes. When we get down to the details, however - for example, Freud's attribution of "Dora's" asthmatic attacks to her once having witnessed an act of parental intercourse - we find that the symptomatic interpretations rest on nothing more substantial than vulgar thematic affinities (heavy breathing in coitus = asthma) residing in Freud's own prurient mind. So, too, the heart of his dream theory, the contention that every dream expresses a repressed infantile wish, was merely an extrapolation from his aetiology of neurosis; it is counterintuitive and has never received an iota of corroboration. As for the theory of errors, Sebastiano Timpanaro among others has shown that it suffers from Freud's usual overingeniousness and wanton insistence on universal psychic determinism and that it is unsupported, in its emphasis on repressed causes of slips, by any of the examples provided in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Having serially applied the same style of license to the decoding of symptoms, dreams, and errors, Freud was able to delude himself into imagining that the resultant "convergence of findings" had proved him correct in all three areas. All it really proved was that the imperiousness of Freudian interpretation knew no bounds.

Third, methodological principles for investigating the mind. Chief among these, in Freud's view, was free association, the correct handling of which can supposedly allow us not merely to discover the meaning of a dream but also to trace a symptom to its traumatic source in childhood. As Ludwig Wittgenstein suspected and as Adolf Grunbaum and Malcolm Macmillan have shown in laborious detail, the claim is hollow. A patient's ramblings, which Freud took to be a direct window on the invariant repressed unconscious, are channelled and contaminated by the psychoanalytic exchange itself, and instead of establishing the causes of earlier events, they merely show what is on the patient's mind at the moment of their utterance. Of greater intuitive appeal are the numerous "mechanisms of defence" that Freud invoked for retracing the psychic compromises behind a given expression or symptom. (I have already mentioned one of them, projection.) Here, too, however, the prospect of reliable hermeneutic power turns to dust. In the absence of any guidelines for knowing which "mechanism" (if any) shaped a given phenomenon, the application of these tools by different interpreters yields a cacophony of incompatible explanations - and, ultimately, an indefinite proliferation of squabbling sects.

Finally, the structure and dynamic operation of the mind. Even when he sounded most tentative in this realm, Freud's speculations about conscious, preconscious, and unconscious mental systems, or about the ego, the superego, and the id, or about instincts of self-preservation and sex, or of life and death, went far beyond any data that he could legitimately claim to have unearthed. On close inspection, the Freudian "dynamic unconscious" turns out to be not only a tissue of contradictions between primitive and sophisticated functions but also an ontological maze peopled by absurd homunculi possessing their own inexplicable sets of warring motives. Freud was occasionally willing to admit the mythic status of his "metapsychological" constructs - which, however, he nevertheless persisted in endowing with quasi-physical energies and seemingly precise functions that his followers have further elaborated. The result has been a legacy of utter conceptual murk.

Where, then, are Freud's authenticated contributions not to ethics or mores or hermeneutics but to actual knowledge of the mind? So far as I am aware, no uniquely psychoanalytic notion has received independent experimental or epidemiological support - not repression, not the Oedipus or castration complex, not the theory of compromise formation, nor any other concept or hypothesis. Nor is this negative result anomalous in view of the reckless, conquistadorial manner in which psychoanalytic theory was launched and maintained in the teeth of rational criticism. What passes today for Freud bashing is simply the long-postponed holding of Freudian ideas to the same standards of noncontradiction, clarity, testability, cogency, and parsimonious explanatory power that prevail in empirical discourse at large. Step by step, we are learning that Freud has been the most overrated figure in the entire history of science and medicine - one who wrought immense harm through the propagation of false aetiologies, mistaken diagnoses, and fruitless lines of inquiry. Still, the legend dies hard, and those who challenge it continue to be greeted like rabid skunks.

A year after "The Unknown Freud" appeared, I published another long article in the New York Review, this one attacking the pernicious "recovered memory movement" and detailing its rather obvious origins in some of the deepest premises of Freudianism. The first of many lamentations - seven grandiloquent pages, signed by a psychoanalyst - arrived on the very day that the first half of my two-instalment essay hit the newsstands. Having been "made physically ill" by my earlier effort, the writer thought it best to quit this time "after reading less than a full page". Thus restored to equanimity, he set about the task of refutation.

Frederick Crews is emeritus professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

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