by William McDonald Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
Dedications: Fritz Bromberger and Stanley Bates
“Analysis allows us to suppose that the great, apparently inexhaustible wealth of the problems and situations the imaginative writer treats can be traced back to a small number of primal motifs, which stem for the most part from the repressed experiential material of the child’s mental life, so that imaginative productions correspond to disguised, embellished, sublimated new editions of those childhood fantasies.”
Freud to Stefan Zweig, 9/4/1926.
“I am not a man of science at all, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am nothing but a conquistador by temperament, an adventurer if you want to translate this term, with all the inquisitiveness, daring and tenacity of such a man.”
Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 2/1/1900
“Psychoanalysis sets out to explain… uncanny disorders; it engages us in careful and laborious investigations, devises hypotheses and scientific constructions, until at last it can speak thus to the ego: … Come, let yourself be taught something on this one point! What is in your mind does not coincide with what you are conscious of; whether something is going on in your mind and whether you hear of it, are two different things…. In every case… the news that reaches your consciousness is incomplete and often not to be relied on. Often enough, too, it happens that you get news of events only when they are over and when you can no longer do anything to change them. Even if you are not ill, who can tell all that is stirring in your mind of which you know nothing or are falsely informed? You behave like an absolute ruler who is content with the information supplied him by his highest officials and never goes among the people to hear their voice.
Turn your eyes inward, look into your own depths, learn first to know yourself….’
It is thus that psychoanalysis has sought to educate the ego.”
Freud. “A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis” (1917)
“We want to believe that the self is a single and a solid thing. But we need to stop thinking about the self as a kind of solid art sculpture and start thinking of it as a river, flowing and changing. Maybe many years ago I had the idea that a book has an innate quality, and was a solid, identifiable monument of unchanging value. But it’s clear to me that books are, like people, works in progress.
They are constantly being transformed… Life is many fictions, all talking to each other.”
Richard Powers, LAT Interview, 12/10/06
“Whether he be original or a plagiarist, man is Novelist of himself.”
Ortega y Gasset
Sigmund Freud. It’s a partly fictional name—he was born “Sigismund Schlomo Freud”—but for us he’s “Freud,” a name with a cultural resonance equal to “Darwin,” “Marx,” even “Einstein.” A maker of the 20th and 21st centuries, without a doubt—but, unlike Darwin (who’s been controversial but largely right), or Einstein (who’s been right about everything but a Unified Field Theory, which may yet emerge), and even unlike Marx (whose reading of history has been superseded dramatically by events but whose critique of capitalism still resonates), Freud occupies the most paradoxical of positions: No one in this room would call himself a Freudian—I know I wouldn’t—though there are certainly evolutionists and relativity physicists and maybe even a Marxist or two among us. Even more strongly, nearly all of us in the room—again, including myself—think Freud was wrong, spectacularly wrong, about many things: for example, the scientific validity of psychoanalysis, or the motives of his followers, or female sexuality (little girls are not failed little boys), and a host of other well-publicized blunders, giant Freudian slips. A more kindly, if condescending, view holds Freud to be a Victorian, his work specific to late 19th century middle European neuroses and family structure, and therefore dated and irrelevant for the wider world. Most psychologists today would say that they’ve shifted from Freud’s drive-motivated, repression-fueled model of the psyche to a process-and relation- oriented paradigm. But for all this skepticism, even rejection, we are all, every one of us, nonetheless Freudians, for no one has done more to shape contemporary Western self-understanding than our much-maligned Sigismund Schlomo—or, to be fictional, Sigmund. Do you believe any—or all—of the following?
That human beings have unconscious as well as conscious impulses, and we “repress” or “suppress” unpleasant experiences;
That our memory is never fully conscious or complete, yet much is available to us that we have forgotten: sometimes by choice, other times by breaking into our conscious thoughts;
Early childhood matters in important, and probably decisive, ways for adult character;
Children are sexual creatures, not genital-free angelic beings who live in a pre-sexual paradise of innocence and frolic;
Our minds are inherently social, not anomically individual; we begin in families, not alone, and the dramas of early socialization create the general patterns our later lives shape and refine;
We regularly speak of our—or if we can someone else’s— “narcissistic” behavior; of “neurotic” behavior; of “complexes,” Oedipal and otherwise, of overactive (or under-active) libidos;
We speak of our “projections” of our own needs and narratives onto others;
We speak of “transferring” feelings from one person to another;
We believe that shell-shock and other so-called “hysterical” trauma are real, not expressions of cowardice or weakness;
We sometimes say, and do, things for motives that only come clear—if they ever do—at a later time;
We conjecture that our conscience takes its origins from early parental correction, and from social norms that we internalize at a young age: that it’s composed in other words “of the desires we’ve been forced to abandon.”
Most of us think we understand how we “sublimate” our sex drive into socially productive activities, and that we also understand that sexuality and reproduction are separable, with sexuality being much the larger category: a view most of our ancestors would not have accepted;
Daniel Kiefer, “Sympathy for the Devil: On the Perversity of Teaching Disgrace” to be published in April, 2009 in Bill McDonald, ed., Encountering Disgrace: Reading and Teaching Coetzee’s Novel (Camden House).
And on and on and on… I could spend most of my time building this catalogue. Think of how all our personal narratives would change if Freud had never written, what thoughts we could, and couldn’t, think about ourselves. Or think about the uncritical certainties about personal identity that earlier generations enjoyed, or perhaps were blinded by. And it’s not just our personal take on the world; areas of thought as remote from psychoanalysis as economics are full of Freudian lingo: economists launch “case studies,” speak of “customer fixations” and the “drive” to make money (to steal from Robert Frost, “Great is he who imposes the metaphor”). Figures such as “drive” (Trieben) and “depression” now seem natural in our discourse, hardly metaphoric at all, but the original tropes come from Freud. He was partial to economic metaphors himself, proposing a constant quantity of libido, or psychic energy, available to each of us: rather like an energy bank from which we could only draw a discrete amount of capital. What do we do with this capital, asks Freud? “We invest it in objects in the world.” Freud offers us a psychic economy of scarcity; satisfactions from those “objects in the world” are hard to come by, and the best we can hope for is a balanced portfolio, bringing our investments in line with our deeper natures and, if we’re lucky, breaking even. We should work hard—Freud’s personal motto was, in French, “Work is the only Salvation” [“Travallier comme une bête”]—and be satisfied with limited gains. We may dispute his findings, but not his issues.
So, in other words, Freud—superannuated, obsolete, even despised —is everywhere in our culture; he is both in the wastebasket and in the air. We inhabit psychoanalysis in a way that we do not inhabit “evolution.” When we say “Darwinian,” we mean only to describe ideas that trace their origins to Darwin, but when we say “Freudian” we simultaneously call forth a view of the world that we reject, and that we use without thinking. He’s become, literally, part of our “common sense.” Austria, which fictionally claims Freud as its native son, has issued a postmark that reads “Freudiana: You can see the original only in Vienna,” creating the fiction that Freud’s a psychic tourist site. So how did he come to be so irrelevant and demonized, and so successful, at the same time?
Jacques Derrida, The Post Card
Ilse Grubrich-Simitis. 10.
First, there’s Freud the Scientist. His first teacher was Ernst Brücke, Director of the Institute of Physiology in Vienna. From him Freud inherited the strict materialism standard in 19th century science, and strong suspicion of causes other than chemical-physical forces. Famously, his doctoral dissertation involved four hundred dissections to locate the well-hidden testes of the eel (a literal Freudian project if there ever was one). When he studied with the great French psychologist Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris he observed hysterical symptoms—a paralyzed arm, say, that had no neuroanatomical defects—that paralleled the effects created in hypnosis. He saw that an idea suggested to a receptive patient could produce behavior the conscious mind couldn’t immediately account for. He also, shockingly, saw Charcot—a virtual circus performer at the famous Salpêtrière hospital—putting patients on display for crowds of visitors, a kind of scientifically endorsed freak show that Freud vowed never to emulate with his patients. Most doctors (all men, of course) thought most “hysterics” were faking it. The great majority of these so-called fakers were women, and few in the patriarchal Viennese medical establishment took them seriously. But Freud did take them seriously, even though it damaged his already tenuous reputation among his overwhelmingly Catholic colleagues. He treated women whom no other physician would listen to, and he helped scores of them. He removed the stigma surrounding hysteria for men and women alike. These patients were people like us in that they had simply forgotten much of their past, only in their case the forgetting was more extreme and had uncontrollable dark consequences for their behavior.
Several sources have been used for this biographical sketch, including Freud’s Autobiography
and Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for our Time
Over the next ten years other kinds of explanatory models came into Freud’s view, all of them connected in some way to the reductive, narrowly materialist foundations of his scientific and medical training. His older friend and mentor, Dr. Josef Breuer, told him a story about a young woman he had treated years earlier, in 1880. He came to her house on Liechtensteinstrasse in Vienna to treat what he understood to be a chest cold. But it immediately became obvious that she had many painful nervous or “hysterical” symptoms, including paralysis of one arm and intermittent blindness. Each of these, it turned out, represented some difficult episode in her lengthy nursing of her dying father. Breuer got her to trace each of her symptoms to some part of that ordeal, and as she did so that symptom disappeared. This became the famous case of “Anna O,” real name Bertha Pappenheim, who herself went on to become a committed and highly influential social worker in Frankfurt, among other things rescuing Jewish girls who were being sold as prostitutes in Turkey. Though “Anna O” was never Freud’s patient, Freud adopted her phrase for the treatment she had received from Breuer: “the talking cure.” Each “hysterical” event sprang from some specific trauma in the twenty-one year old’s life, and this “one symptom, one cause” explanation fit well with his scientific training. But “Anna O’s” experience simply wasn’t replicated by the patients Freud began seeing on his own; their symptoms couldn’t be so easily tied to single events, and cures proved far more difficult to achieve.
Soon afterwards Freud made his first decisively literary
move, one that, without his realizing, laid the groundwork for all of psychoanalysis. He determined that the stories he and fellow psychologists were hearing in therapy—that a clear majority of Viennese fathers or older male siblings had been molesting their families’ children, female and male—simply could not be true, and that these shocking sexual narratives were literally imagined by patients as a way of deflecting their unacceptable urges, even at the youngest
Studies in Hysteria, SE ii, 57.
ages, to be sexual partners with their opposite sexed parent. This is Freud’s central early discovery about specifically mental life: that our narratives about memories are shot through with wish-fulfilling fantasies, substitutions, reconstructions: in short, that they are necessarily fictive and necessarily connected to some real event, but not necessarily the event they present. Here’s the young Freud: “Memory and fantasy supplement and subvert each other in such an equivocal and undecidable fashion that no single origin, be it an empirical event or an unconscious desire, can ever be conclusively determined.” That step from real to imagined molestation set psychoanalysis in motion: our memories are constructed and reshaped by psychic forces, and are not unchanging, always reliable descriptions of the past. But despite these ambiguities and complications, and despite his comment about “undecidability,” Freud was still convinced that psychic disorders could be reduced to single mental events or processes: the conflict between a patient’s uniquely reconstructed experience and a strict causal explanatory model—a conflict that would haunt all his lifework—came into clearer focus.
At the same time Freud’s early education included much more than science. Austrian liberals in the 19th century followed their German counterparts in elevating classical culture to the highest status, and about 40% of the school day was devoted to Greek and Latin.
It offered a secularized but geistliche
(a mental/spiritual) alternative, to the dominant conservatism of the Austrian Catholic Church. Classical culture provided a kind of neutral meeting ground for the boys of Vienna’s ethnic groups (not girls, of course), and for young learners who were skeptical about religion. It was especially valuable to the young Jewish intelligentsia, whose access to education and professional positions was at best precarious. At home Freud learned Hebrew
This claim has outraged some, notably Jeffrey Masson, who in The Assault on Truth argues that Freud in effect abandoned hundreds of adults who continued to suffer deep trauma from actual childhood abuse. Freudians reply that, even if the exploitive events took place in actuality, the memory of them has the same dynamic and psychic structure as those imagined. Masson’s claims led to a famous lawsuit against The New Yorker and Janet Malcolm (In the Freud Archive), who claimed that Mason’s dramatic findings were inaccurate. Malcolm’s book did contain a few inaccuracies, but according to the court not substantial ones: Masson lost the suit.
Here is Freud himself on the creation of the “seduction theory” (Autobiography 36-37): "...I must mention an error into which I fell for a while and which might well have had fatal consequences for all of my work. Under the pressure of the technical procedure which I used at that time, the majority of my patients reproduced from their childhood scenes in which they were sexually seduced by some grown-up person. With female patients... their father. I believed these stories, and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent neurosis in these experiences.... My confidence was strengthened by a few cases in which relations of this kind with a father, uncle, or elder brother had continued up to an age at which memory was to be trusted.... When, however, I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had forced upon them, I was for some time completely at a loss... The neurotic symptoms were not related directly to actual events but to phantasies embodying wishes and that... psychical reality was more important than physical reality. I do not believe even now that I forced the seduction phantasies upon my patients, that I had 'suggested' them. I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex, which was later to assume such an overwhelming importance. Moreover, seduction during childhood retained a certain share, though a humbler one, in the aetiology of neuroses. But the seducers turned out as a rule to have been older children.” A curious conclusion: it seems to leave a version of the seduction theory in place (“older children”) even as it dismisses it.
“Dora”, 15: see also Saunders, 2007.
and something of the Talmud; at school he learned Greek and the Greeks. He read Cicero’s Latin and Sophocles’s Greek fluently by the age of fifteen, and perhaps most revealingly, kept his diary in the latter language. His final secondary school exam required him to translate, of all things, the opening chorus of Oedipus the King, in which the Theban people cry out for a deliverer from the plague: Confluence indeed. So he knew ancient Greek literature intimately from childhood, and was equally at home in Roman history and especially in the new science of archeology (psychoanalysis and archeology grow up together as sciences of the buried life). So from the beginning Freud was accustomed to use past cultures as reservoirs of human models and symbols central to his understanding. He might have enjoyed Emerson’s quip: “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”
Freud was also, as a young man, drawn away from anti-Semitic Austria to England. His visits began in 1875, he soon spoke the language fluently, and his experience of its pragmatic secular liberalism, particularly his reading of John Stuart Mill—he translated Mill into German—“had a decisive influence on my whole life.” Paris, on the other hand, he found “unheimlich,” uncanny, and its sensuousness, especially as embodied in Sarah Bernhardt (and perhaps Charcot’s hysterics freak-shows) frankly scared him: a straight-laced man all his life, he preferred Puritanical, pragmatic England. In short, Freud’s education and his quick, receptive mind immersed him in layers of literature and culture than didn’t mesh readily with his dedication to the narrow science of his era. (Sidebar: as you’ve undoubtedly already noticed, I’m using “literary” in the widest possible sense: texts of imagination and self-conscious figurative language, but also the characteristic ways in which we interpret narratives of all sorts, written or spoken, public or private: our inherited, and usually uncritical, ways of reading as well as narrating our experience.)
If I were giving this talk with this title fifty years ago, I’d now turn to the English department and show how authors and critics, themselves well versed in Freudian theory, used that theory to unmask a character or unpack a difficult text. Freud was more in favor then—his detractors hadn’t carried the day—and many writers and readers from Thomas Mann through Lionel
According to Richard Armstrong, A Compulsion for Antiquity: SF and the Ancient World, Livy’s history provided Freud with a model for the construction of childhood memories, and the critical approach to Livian narratives of the German historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr in his Roman History (1811-32) helped Freud understand how “psychic truths” can cover material truths. Armstrong claims that Freud promoted “an imperial takeover of history itself by the legionaries of psychoanalysis.” On a related topic: The Schliemann excavations at Hisarlik in the 1870s (archeological metaphors run throughout Freud’s writings) and the imperialist agenda of colonial expansion (Jean Paul had spoken of the unconscious as an “inner Africa” and Freud termed female sexuality the “dark continent of psychoanalysis”) also contributed significantly to the nascent psychoanalysis. Armstrong connects political and scientific imperialism in these ways, marking Freud as a conquering European.
A great Freudian joke: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos was actually banned by the Lord Chamberlain in England for several years on moral grounds: lifted only in 1912.
Trilling were glad to draw on his hard-won insight. Even Berkeley professor Frederick Crews, perhaps his most determined and vitriolic literary opponent today, began his career as a psychoanalytic interpreter. Crews has termed Freud “a visionary but endlessly calculating artist, engaged in casting himself as the hero of a multivolume fictional opus that is part epic, part detective story, and part satire on human self-interestedness and animality." This sort of denunciatory project still goes on today.
If I were giving this talk twenty-five years ago I’d take special pleasure in skewering Freud with his own performance. Indeed, turning Freud on Freud, analyzing the analyst, has been a blood sport in the humanities for much longer than that, but masters of that practice—Crews again, biologist Frank Sulloway, and the best of his critics, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum (who sticks with the texts, not constructions of SF’s “character”)—all brought out prominent books that consigned Freud to the dustbin of history, along with
Frank Cioffi, Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (1999) argues that SF was adept at disguising his non–rationality: “…critical reflections which would normally arise are forced out of their natural paths in response to SF’s rhetoric… the practice of ‘plausible deniability’ is endemic to the psychoanalytic apologetic.” For Cioffi, Freud’s ideas are demonstrably groundless, but we continue to accept them because of the brilliance and audacity of his intellectual conjuring tricks. Cioffi knows Freud very well; he’s mastered the canon, and his book is itself emotion driven, brilliantly witty in its critiques, and highly personal, as though SF had personally mistreated him and he’s doing payback. His basic issue is “broken trust”: Freud promised new discoveries and feigned conformity to the rules of truth-seeking inquiry, but manufactured a pack of intricate and seductive falsehoods. Worse, his acolytes defend him with police state authority; critics are “made to feel as if we had disrupted a midnight Mass with a demand for proof that Jesus was born on 12/15.”
other 19th century fads such as mesmerism and phrenology: still firing bullets into the body of the allegedly long-dead King. Here’s the most eloquent—and literary— of Freud’s despisers:
“I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues [to the time before birth and after death]—and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embryos spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
If I were giving this talk ten years ago I’d be focusing on the problems with the translations of Freud into French and, for this audience, English.
James and Alix Strachey’s Standard Edition
has come in for wholesale criticism because the couple chose to emphasize the “scientific” connotations of Freud’s vocabulary at the expense of the more improvisational, free-flowing qualities
The French Collected Works are currently being retranslated entirely under the leadership of Jean Laplanche.
of his style. We’d also enmesh ourselves in the tangles of Freud’s manuscripts “in their Vienna, London and Frankfurt phases,” their various drafts and complex publishing history.
Today there’s a fourth story, and for me anyway, the best of the lot. It begins with what Freud himself considered his greatest personal failure: he did not establish psychoanalysis as a science. French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls Freud’s wish to do so his “neurological fable,” the fiction that disciplined his thinking and writing, but also disguised its many-layered, complex nature. You could see the origins of that complexity most easily simply by walking into Freud’s library. If you entered that famous address, 19 Bergasse, in Vienna anytime between 1891 and 1938 and walked up the marble stairs to Freud’s office you would have been greeted by dozens of small ancient statues and figurines and by a rich and highly varied collection of books. Freud began the figurine collection when his father died: statues, toys, memorabilia—all
The “Penguin Edition” of Freud, under the supervision of Adam Phillips, began issuing its newly translated volumes in 2002. Unlike the Strachey edition, there are different translators for different volumes, with some corresponding differences in terminology. If anything, this should help emphasize Freud’s open-endedness and play down the “systematic” quality in his work. But all these new translators lack one endorsement that the Stracheys alone could claim: Freud analyzed both of them before he gave permission for them to publish!
grave-goods from Egypt, Rome, Greece (archeology incarnated). And books: if you go today to the Freud Museum in London you can see many of the volumes that the eighty-two year old Freud took with him when he fled the Nazi Anschluss in Vienna in 1938: books in seven languages; hundreds of books on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; the Greek playwrights in the original; Goethe’s complete works (142 vols.); nearly complete editions of Arthur Schnitzler and Thomas Mann, more than 700 books in English (for example, a well-thumbed David Copperfield, Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamen, and a Paradise Lost that contains many annotations); 400 in French (including Maupassant’s complete works); 100 in Italian; and over a thousand interdisciplinary humanities books in German, especially history, literature (281 titles), philosophy, archeology (121 titles) and fine arts (99 titles). Before the flight he sold nearly all his science and medical books, no doubt because they were the most marketable, but also because he no longer referred to them very much. In a way, then, Freud as an old man implicitly assigned himself to the humanities division of the university.
Sidebar: The Greek for statues is agalmata
, “things in which one delights,” and the sculptor was an agalmatopoios
, a maker of delightful things. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna deliberately undervalued Freud’s collection so he could take them to England legally.
Davies and Fichtner, Freud’s Library: A Comprehensive Catalog, passim.
Here’s my simple thesis: Freud the stern 19th century scientist viewed both philosophy and especially literature as temptations.
He regular denied that he had read those philosophers—Schopenhauer, Bergson, Nietzsche—whose ideas anticipated or paralleled his own, even though his library contains their marked-up volumes.
He even claimed that he avoided philosophy for that very reason: he wanted to keep his mind fresh and focused on his own ideas. With imaginative literature the situation was even more complicated, since he obviously read a great deal in several languages, and readily acknowledged its many anticipations of his work: Oedipus is only the most striking example. So Freud the lifelong materialist felt as though he lived under the threat of being a fiction writer, a person who honored the products of the imagination and the imaginary, a scientist who just made things up. Here he is, as early as 1894: “… it strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories, and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science. I must console myself with the reflection that
See, for example, Freud to Fliess: “I do not want to read, because it stirs up too many thoughts and stints me of the satisfactions of discovery.” Later, in On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement (1914), SE xiv, 15-16: “… and perhaps the same would have happened to me if in my young days I had had more taste for reading philosophical works” [Schopenhauer the subject}. Freud continues: “In later years I have denied myself the very great pleasure of reading the works of Nietzsche, with the deliberate object of not being hampered in working out the impressions received in psycho-analysis by any sort of anticipatory ideas.”
the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own…. a detailed description of mental processes such as we are accustomed to find in the work of imaginative writers enables me, with the use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind of insight into the course of [a disease].”
Even more scary, he knew how “the poets” had anticipated his work of illuminating the unconscious, even that in a real sense literature had made psychoanalysis possible. “The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious,” he wrote on his 70th birthday. “What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied”
Freud knew that the “unconscious” was a favorite trope of many Romantic writers, who sought to counterbalance the universalizing rationality of the Enlightenment by privileging the buried, vital life. As a man of the Enlightenment he tried to contain his own latent Romanticism by claiming that he was organizing, making scientific, the material that the poets had intuited but “didn’t really understand.” Only science, a position outside literature’s ephemeral borders, can give knowledge.
In other words, he used the old
“The Case of Fräulein Elisabeth von R.” SE 2:160-61.
In a less envious, more typical mood, Freud wrote the following about artists and analysts: “we probably draw from the same source, work on the same object, but each of us has a different method. Analysts observe the unconscious of others; artists observe their own and draw its images into utterance.” (“Jensen’s Gradiva”, SE 7: 120-21)
gambit of Socrates: praise the poets excessively, and then do away with them as ignorant and unreliable. Poets may be his predecessors, but they are literally “un-witting” predecessors who provide material, not interpretations. Like patients, literary texts (and their authors) are to be interpreted by the body of knowledge called psychoanalysis. Freud may praise Dostoevsky lavishly for his insights but he never altered an interpretation of his own because of what Dostoevsky wrote. The idea that psychoanalysis might be applied literature, not applied science: that idea had to be controlled, suppressed, put away in a safe place. In short, and not unlike his hysterical patients, Freud suppressed literature’s unacceptable pleasures and transgressions.
But as Freud taught us, what we repress we are helpless before, and that was Freud’s fate with regard to literature. Like Plato the failed playwright, who had to invent a new literary form—the dialogue—to use, yet contain, literature’s seductive power, Freud could not escape the individualizing and narrativizing force of the literary. Nor could he escape its half-hidden power to control how patients could
narrate their lives: the inherited modes of storytelling, of narrative genres, and the metaphors and images through which
his patients created together a fresh account about the patient’s past. Freud used these same half-conscious literary models—e.g., realistic novels (today we’d have to include movies)—when he transferred their stories into case histories or, more commonly, into instances of theory. And they were realistic fictions: born in 1856, Freud’s imagination is at heart pre-modern, pre-Picasso and Joyce. (I have occasionally presented students with an excerpt from the 1901 “Dora” case without identifying the author, and they invariably take it for a mid-19th century novel.)
As Freud kept trying to harden individual tropes and plots into systematic knowledge, they kept breaking out of his control. This is because psychoanalytic cases are always unique, cases of the special case, and so raise havoc with larger scientific generalizations. “The doctor’s therapeutic method may be replicable, the patient’s symptoms may be reproduced by many patients, but the story the patient tells of his suffering, though similar to that of other patients, will be singular.”
Freud was compelled to claim that (1) none of his patients were unique—hence they could produce replicable data—but also that (2) their cases were singularities, unique. That’s his dilemma in a nutshell: his “evidence” is necessarily taken from unique analytic sessions, and
it’s therefore already interpreted in some sense by
For a more systematic test of this hypothesis, see Hutter 225, and 228-230.
memory and imagination’s reconstructive powers. As philosopher Richard Wollheim argues, there’s no way in principle to acquire “pure data” for psychoanalysis. You in principal can't devise repeatable experiments to demonstrate true readings of complex life situations that will never precisely recur. Judgments of "intuitively right" and "plausibility" therefore play a major role, in literary criticism and psychoanalysis alike. Moreover, analysis produces an enormous surfeit of material that resists reduction to a few set, theoretically established patterns. The singularity of the Oedipus story is the great disrupting truth buried in psychoanalytic theory.
So in crucial ways psychoanalysis is made possible by Freud’s prior literary engagements, engagements he tried to exclude from his work.
It ultimately drove him to give up “case histories” as a genre; he only composed five major cases in his entire career, and came to distrust the stubborn specificity of the form even as he used its mode of knowledge to cure and even to theorize. Ironically, the “case history” model has proved fertile for fiction writers that came after him: perhaps the most famous example is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or, just last year, Heidi Julavitz’s brilliant refashioning of the “Dora” case in her novel The Uses of Enchantment.
All this may surprise you, since the “Freud” most of us know has almost nothing to do with Freud the writer. What we’re accustomed to is the highly fictionalized “Freud” presented in the canned summary, the Textbook Version, of “what Freud said.” That he said many things, some of them contradictory, or that he voiced them at different times in a fifty year career of writing a score of books and hundreds of papers: all that gets lost in the rush to make him Simple and Clear. So we’re told in a paragraph or two that he had these ideas, and we’re invited to form a judgment about them based on the reductive summaries that make Freud’s own reductive summaries look long-winded. This is the Freud most people “know”: the creator of a tidy set of propositions called “psychoanalysis” that can be evaluated as a set of scientific hypotheses, and whose data can be replicated. This is also what most people reject when they reject Freud—as they should, because it’s a fiction (in the negative sense!). Most of Freud’s major critics read him this way: the system that fails scientifically. And, apart from a few scientific studies that seem to support this idea or that idea, it does fail.
But as we’re beginning to see, Freud was much more complex, contradictory, error-ridden, and brilliant than these summaries can ever show us; far from clarifying, these
For the alleged successes, see Holland.
summaries actually obscure the richness—and the most useful parts—of Freud’s work. Clinical practice and theory are always different in the same way that literary theory and the reading of an individual text are always different: the subtleties and nuances of the individual meaning are lost if the experience is 'written up" solely as a further illustration of the theory.
So to summarize this part of my argument, Freud was compelled by his material—the narratives spun out by his hundreds of patients immersed in their “talking cures”—to use figurative language and narrative structure inherited from fiction writers. He tried to blame the subject matter and excuse himself, but that was just the point: case histories are necessarily stories, and Freud passes onto us the stories told to him that he has screened through his interpretive apparatus. This left him in perennial conflict between the quest for single scientific conclusions, his claims about the permanent and universal in human life as embodied in archetypal mythic figures—Oedipus, Electra, Narcissus—and the shifting, endless openness of the individual unconscious as it emerged in each analytic session, and that he associated with the “temptations” of literature. The individual and the unique made science much more difficult, yet that was exactly the therapeutic scene: each conversation
and set of associations was unique and unrepeatable. Freud tried to reduce them via what he termed “generality-formation” to a group of universals he always claimed arose directly from this “data,” yet that no longer seems convincing, or introduces such a modesty about the theory it enables that it no longer satisfied his ambitions.
The second major way in which literature confounded Freud’s dream of
total empirical knowledge came with the phenomenon known as transference. One of Freud’s early cases ended in failure, a failure that he lamented in print. This is the case of “Dora,” his first published case (written 1901, published 1905) and arguably his most infamous one. The eighteen-year old “Dora” —her real name was Ida Bauer—was brought to Freud in 1898 by her father for treatment of various hysterical symptoms. Her story, spun out over many analytic sessions, reads like a 19th century melodrama, and it’s way too labyrinthine to retell here in any detail. The gist of it was that Dora’s father, beset by several illnesses, was nursed to health not by his indifferent wife but by the wife of his best friend, “Frau K.” The two of them soon developed a more intimate relationship. Dora, who as a girl had helped care for the K’s children, was first, at 14, kissed by Herr K. unexpectedly, and then later, at 16, propositioned by him as they walked by a serene Alpine lake. Her father refused to believe her story about his close friend, accusing his daughter of imagining the whole business and even of lying, arguably to protect his own clandestine love. Dora developed hysterical symptoms (migraines, nervous coughing, aphonia, stomach pains) that Freud slowly unraveled via dream interpretation. In therapy both Dora and especially Freud drew directly on forms of fiction they had read to narrate their respective versions of her story. Ultimately he forced—really, he bullied—Dora into accepting his interpretations about her sexual fantasies, interpretations that validated his theory of repression, his theory of repression, and she soon thereafter, on the very last day of the 19th century, abandoned therapy. Freud partly blamed himself, not because he thought he was wrong in his interpretations but because he had not taken full account of the transference—and counter-transference. Here’s Freud on the subject, written more than twenty years after the “Dora” case appeared: “An analysis without transference is an impossibility. It must not be supposed, however, that transference is created by analysis and does not occur apart from it. Transference is merely uncovered and isolated by analysis. It is a universal phenomenon of the human mind, it decides the success of all medical influence, and in fact dominates the whole of each person's relations to his human environment.”
Every psychoanalytic session creates a special instance of transference in the unique environment of the therapeutic session. It’s kind of closet drama, a substitute theatre of the mind, a simulacrum of the real world which patient and analyst inhabit. In that simulacrum world the trauma and dilemmas of the patent’s past life are “transferred” or re-enacted in his or her relationship with the analyst; the relation between patient and analyst becomes the stand-in text for the fractured or buried history of the patient’s relationship with parents or other intimates. The patient transfers her feelings—anger, love, fear—from her past trauma to the analyst; he stands in for her father, her mother, her abuser. In short it’s a fictional world, in the broadest and least pejorative sense of the word, and as in a fictional world the feelings generated are very real while the situation in which they occur only appears to be as real. So like a novelist driven by subliminal, even nonverbal forces—what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement”—the patient unknowingly replicates in the present the early traumas buried in her unconscious by recomposing them as scenes with her analyst. He in turn converts her trace images, dream-
"An Autobiographical Study" : SE 20, 47.
fragments, filtered memories and unplanned associations, into a coherent narrative. Freud’s beloved Goethe described literature in precisely these terms: the sublimation of dark forces into revelations of the light. And Freud’s model of the dreamer seems to presume a “writer” buried in the basement who produces stories and cloaks them in metaphors and displacements.
So the patient acts out her life-dilemmas within the protected sanctity of the relationship with the analyst; her story is projected, her dreams and images made verbal, and reinterpreted. Short fiction and scientific case study together: the literary is there to overcome the limits and limitations of the language of science.
For patient and therapist—who can’t help re-inventing one another—the quest is for a new (kind of) story, one that substitutes for a strictly medical account a life-organizing narrative grounded in fiction. And
Freud’s sublimation theory of art has the odd “Freudian” effect of desexualizing art. It also makes art passive with reference to drives; can’t art anticipate desire rather than merely follow it?
Here’s another, slightly different summary of this relationship: "[Analysands] tell the analyst about themselves and others in the past and present. In making interpretations, the analyst retells these stories.... The end product of this interweaving of texts is a radically new, jointly authored work or way of working. One might say that in the course of analysis, there develops a cluster of more or less coordinated new narrations, each corresponding to periods of intensive analytic work on certain leading questions. Generally, these narrations focus neither on the past, plain and simple, nor on events currently taking place outside the psychoanalytic situation. They focus much more on the place and modification of these tales w/n the psychoanalytic dialogue.... The psychoanalytic dialogue is characterized most of all by its organization in terms of the here and now of the psychoanalytic relationship. It is fundamentally a dialogue concerning the present moment of transference and resistance." Shafer 1980, 35-6.
the goal is pragmatic, not strictly scientific: the new narrative must be useful, must bring the patient’s buried life into the light (like archeology) and enable her to lead a less crabbed and painful, and more self-knowing, life. Similarly, in counter-transference, the analyst must be consciously aware of how his or her own unconscious projections and fictions shape his relationship to the patient. Freud was blind to his own desire in the ”Dora” case and because he failed to attend to his own fiction-making he bullied her in a way uncannily like the way her erstwhile seducer, Herr K., tried to bully her. He seemed as morally anesthetized as the rest of her family. Needless to say, a bad result ensued.
Freud tried to minimize the fictionality of transference first by situating it among several other therapeutic techniques, and second by presenting the analyst as the person who always perfectly understands the process in the patient, and himself.
But as his own history repeatedly showed, it’s all but
On other occasions Freud expressed a much more positive view of transference: "The process of cure is accomplished in a relapse into love, if we combine all the many components of the sexual instinct under the term 'love;' and such a relapse is indispensable, for the symptoms on account of which the treatment has been undertaken are nothing other than precipitates of earlier struggles connected with repression or the return of the repressed, and they can only be washed away by a fresh high tide of the same passions. Every psychoanalytic attempt is an attempt at liberating repressed love which has found a meagre outlet in the compromise of a symptom.... in analytic psychotherapy too the reawakened passion, whether it is love or hate, invariably chooses as its object the figure of the doctor.... The doctor has been a stranger, and must endeavor to become a stranger again after the cure; he is often at a loss what advice to give the patients he has cured as to how in real life they can use their recovered capacity to love." "Jensen's 'Gradiva'" (1907: SE IX, 90)
impossible to do that. Freud feared indeterminacy, open-endedness, the “epistemological promiscuity” (Neil Hertz) that case histories so often entailed, in which the lines between what Dora knew and what he knew, and consequently, the status of his knowledge, and of his professional discourse, would be impugned. He wrote to Jung about the difficulties of narrating a patient’s story at all: “How botched our reproductions are, how miserably we pick apart these great art works of psychic nature!” Here Freud grudgingly admits what Nicholas Royle calls “the interminable resistance of the literary to psychoanalytical accountability.”
Third, there’s Freud’s writing itself. He won prize the Goethe Prize—then Germany’s most prestigious literary award—in 1930 for the excellence of his German style, and in the same year no less a figure than Thomas Mann promoted him for the Nobel Prize, not in biology but in literature. Freud’s writing itself, always clear and precise, also became more layered and multiple as his career developed. As a young man he wrote as a sure-handed, sharp, penetrating discoverer of hidden clues and meanings. In other words, he wrote in the genre of detective fiction, and his relentless pursuit of hidden
Letters, 6/30/1919. In The Psychology of the Transference, Carl Jung writes that within the transference dyad both participants typically experience a variety of opposites. In love and in psychological growth, the key to success is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process, and that this tension allows one to grow and to transform.
mysteries—and his confidence that clear answers could be found (progress is inevitable; the murderer will always be caught!)— characterized his narrative manner. He was a new, brash thinker selling his revolutionary ideas hard. He deeply desired to be the scientist of the mind, shining light into every cranny of its labyrinth. Sherlock Holmes was one of his models, and Oedipus the royal riddle-solver another.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Had I time and space I was going to give you a couple of paragraphs from a later, and more representative Freud text, Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle) of 1920, and show you in detail how the meandering, multilayered style of the “late” Freud—autobiographical, literary, scientific, legal, philosophical—makes meaning. So please forgive me some reductive, summary writing of my own.
is especially apt, since in it Freud explores an idea that he personally dislikes, yet feels forced to put forward. In therapy, he tells us, he continually encounters several kinds of destructive, pleasure-rejecting behaviors: not only self-destructive thoughts (or narratives of past acts) but the persistent repetition of painful memories or actions that run against self-interest or self-pleasure.
Earlier he had termed this the “repetition compulsion,” but that process now seemed secondary to him, a veil concealing a deeper truth, one that always works silently, without being noticed (in fact the “death drift” makes us hear the silence within us in a new way).
Freud, who as the “Young Detective” had reduced every human motive to the pleasure principle, now faced a complication, one he reluctantly formulated as Todestrieb
, the “death drive” or, perhaps better, the “death drift.”
As he pursues this vexed subject his familiar “detective” style is overtaken by another: His prose first becomes binary and dualistic—the death drive is as fundamental as the pleasure principle—and then elaborately elusive. As he thinks his way into the problem he alternates bold assertions with self-deprecating demurs; he makes an argument then takes it back; he’s allusive yet chatty, puzzled then assertive then puzzled again; he revisits his main ideas, directly mirroring the very activity of repetition he’s attempting to unravel; he terms his idea “unheimlich
,” uncanny, a secret, half-known and only half-knowable, and recognizes that it’s enmeshed with pleasure and the
Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1821) uncannily anticipates Freud’s 1920 “discovery”: life is not constituted by progress, but rather an endless repetition of past traumas played out in a world of bewildering contingency, waste and loss. It led De Quincey to a rhetoric of sublime passivity, what he himself termed “a music of preparation and of awakening suspense.”
erotic, not simply their opposite: and all this is to-ing and fro-ing gives his prose a rich, dialogic, uncanny texture of its own. (It wouldn’t get printed in psychology journals today!) Beyond the Pleasure Principle
is an elaborate dramatic monologue to an imagined audience quite like that of the Underground Man—“Gentlemen” Freud calls his interlocutors, just like Dostoevsky’s character—and in effect puts himself on trial, defending his claims against skeptics as he had in “Dora” but now mainly against his own
doubts and reservations, not the resistance of his patient. It’s virtually a self-reflexive text about Freud’s mature way of writing.
People feel that they know Freud, to the point that they needn’t read him; I’ll offer the opposite: that Freud was always reading and rereading Freud, that he was in part a stranger to himself, and the subject of constant self-inquiry.
Or here’s another angle: as he aged Freud increasingly wrote in the mode of heroic irony, bravely insisting on our limitations and the final impenetrability of the unconscious; the torch of the Enlightenment could only take him—and us—so far. Reading Freud himself lets us see the wrestling, the irresolvable tensions between ideas and motives, and consequently the many layers of his thought in action: just the sort of complexity we encounter in good fiction, and a far
cry from the canned conclusions that pass for “knowledge” of Freud. The disorderly and contradictory nature of puns, dreams, stories, and myth—all Freudian staples—describe a kind of resistance to clear, complete meaning which lies at the heart of literature and within the Freudian psyche.
A few quick final points: The ways in which literature makes meaning correspond closely to the interdisciplinary account of psychoanalysis I’ve offered here, certainly more closely than those of Freud’s now-dated science. From his first writings Freud creates character on the page, especially his own character (autobiography from St. Augustine forward has been one of literature’s great genres). The majority of the dreams he interprets in Interpretation of Dreams (1900) are his own; psychoanalysis takes its rise from Freud’s own mind, conscious and unconscious alike.
Second, literature’s fundamental device, plotting, involves the ordering of events in text, and depends on the principle of “interconnectedness” among its parts: incidents, episodes, actions all contribute to the “design and intention of a narrative.” Literary plots emphasize historical change of characters and, sometimes, societies; Freud’s case histories and clinical work do the same.
Brooks, Reading for the Plot
Third, as he aged Freud turned away from his novella-like case histories and returned to the other rich literary tradition he had drawn on from the beginning: mythology. His interest in archetypal image and culture’s primal scenes emerged with Totem and Taboo (1913) and dominated the late writings: The Future of an Illusion (1927); Civilization and its Discontents (1930); Moses and Monotheism (1939). These ancient tales yield knowledge, and the form of their narration, as Aristotle first showed, actively contributes to that knowledge. So Freud, in reading Oedipus Tyrannos, comes up with a new universal theory of the psyche’s development that he claims has been there all the time: exactly how literary interpretation works. Oedipus played out in adulthood the entirely unconscious dramatic triangle of father, mother and son that each boy-child traverses: for Freud and Sophocles, his story had already happened. His tragedy is ours. We recognize in his story what we cannot know directly about our earliest conflicts. So we read Oedipus, but like all great narratives Oedipus also reads us, revealing in its disquieting pressures on our psyches and our received ideas how blind we have necessarily have become. Clearly psychoanalysis is entangled, enmeshed in the literary.
Mark Turner summarizes: “Even the most basic mental events—forming a plan to do something, looking at a clock while making a decision about this plan, discussing the decision w/friends—require that we draw on the interpretive principles found in the literature of every culture…. We notice these principles so rarely in operation, when a literary style puts them on display, that we think of them as special and separate from everyday life. On the contrary, they make everyday life possible. The literary mind is not a separate kind of mind. It is our mind.” Story, projection and parable: these are fundamental forms of all cognitive perception, and much of our thinking is organized as story; narrativizing is fundamental to consciousness. Freud maintains that the Oedipus and Narcissus stories are archetypal for our development, and while we may resist his choice of tales we follow him in acknowledging that our sense of self arises from narrative patterns we have consciously, and unconsciously, inherited.
In my title I called up one of the clever clichés so often attributed to Freud: not every cigar is a phallic symbol, not every object conceals a hidden sexual meaning. But, fittingly, that quote is a fiction; there’s no record that Freud ever said it. And its refusal of symbolism in preference for plain realism and the quotidian gives us an inverse Freudian slip, a recognition that not
Mulhall, Chapter 1, formulates Freud’s narratives this way: In the end Freud sets aside “vertical” explanations (underlying process, etc.) for “horizontal” ones: accounts of character that draw on a total context of meaning to which they owe their identities.
everything is coded—though in dreams anything can be, and often is. Freud hasn’t “slipped” all the way into the English department; his interdisciplinary discourse, his invention of new modes of scientific/literary inquiry, his Judaism, his tacit philosophizing, all place him well beyond the borders of any specific discipline. But today he seems equally at home among those who study narrative as among those who treat the psyche. We’re familiar with the famous “doubles” or doppelgangers of 19th century literature, the characteristics of a single man externalized and made dramatic by two characters: Ishmael and Queequeg, Faust and Mephistopheles, Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich, Jekyll and Hyde. Freud could have commented on any of them— he had plenty to say about Faust—but for me he embodies perhaps the most famous of all, Holmes and Watson: a brilliant, cocaine-using mystery-solving man of strict science and deduction interwoven with a medical humanist, a careful listener and observer, and a gifted craftsman of unique case histories: in short, a fiction writer.
Early in 1922 Freud found a growth in his mouth: no surprise after years of twenty cigars a day.
He was convinced that he couldn’t think sharply without nicotine. He took himself to his rhinologist, and then secretly to a clinic for the first of what would be thirty-three operations. The clinic called his wife Martha, saying that her husband needed sleeping clothes for his stay. She and her daughter Anna found him sitting up in the hospital bed, still in his suit, badly stained with blood. There were no private rooms, and Freud was quartered in a tiny chamber divided by a temporary curtain; on the other side lay a dwarf being treated for cretinism. After his family left the incision hemorrhaged, and his barely muffled cries aroused the dwarf, who got help before Freud choked to death on his own blood: one of history’s happy moments. The growth was cancerous, but he was not told for six years
: his family feared the consequences for a man already preoccupied with death. On a trip to Rome a few months later he experienced more hemorrhaging, and underwent a more radical operation to his palate and jaw. His cheek was laid open from mouth to right ear, and much of the upper palate and a section of
Taken from Ernest Jones, Salley Vickers and Mark Edmundson.
jawbone were cut away. This had the effect of opening his nasal cavity to the mouth, requiring a cumbersome oral prosthesis so that he could speak and eat. Freud nicknamed it “the monster,” and from 1929 forward he ate alone. He had to hold “the monster” in place when he spoke, creating a weird effect for new patients. The prosthesis fit was never very good: chafing, soreness, plus tissue shrinking when he took it out all made reinsertion worse. Sometimes his physician had to come and insert it. He could only smoke his cigars by forcing open his teeth with a clothespin. This went on until 1938 and the flight from the Nazis to London led only to more operations, decline from age and aggressive radium treatments, until the cancer was finally declared inoperable in 1939.
Like Socrates Freud beautifully crafted his end into an ethical act: in his last days he reread The Apology, and also Cicero and Montaigne, all of whom said that to philosophize is to learn how to die. His calm and determined attitude toward death, Freud rightly believed, would inevitably be a commentary on the secular and somber philosophy of life that psychoanalysis offered. His physician Max Schur had long ago agreed to help him across, and he did with four centigrams of morphine—a lethal dose for a healthy individual is around 120 milligrams—on the morning of September 23, 1939. Freud’s body was cremated, and his ashes placed in one of his prized, long contemplated Greek urns.
Bill McDonald grew up in Glendale, near the Western end of our lovely local mountains. Both his parents and most of his relatives were teachers, and he was not a rebellious child. He earned his B.A. at Colgate in philosophy and religion in 1961, then returned to Claremont for his doctoral work in religion and literature. This interdisciplinary training allowed him to land a job in a Midwest English depart, where he, his wife Dolores and three boys spent four years before returning to California in 1969 to join the U of R’s new, innovative Johnston College. Thirty-six years later he’s now retired as Emeritus Professor of English and the Hunsaker Professor of Teaching at Redlands. It’s rare in education to have the chance to build a new college, and the Johnston program remains at the center of his work at the University. He’s co-authored one book on the College’s history (1989), and co-edited a second one (2003); in 1999 he brought out a book on the German Nobel prize winning novelist Thomas Mann. His other interests include British and Irish modernism, the history of the novel, literary theory, the ancient Greeks, the ”History of Love,” roses, wine, opera, the Rams (since 1949, the poor man), and staying in touch with many former students from his forty year teaching career. This June he and Dolores will lead a UofR alumni trip to Greece. Finally, he once again claims, as always, to be the adopted son of Fritz Bromberger.
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