Introduction: The Anti-Freudian Mood
Everybody knows that Freud has fallen from grace. Whenever I have told someone that I was writing a book about him, the response has almost invariably been the same: “Hasn’t he been disproved?” Or I have been asked about the latest scandal from the newspapers: “Wasn’t he a cocaine addict?” “Didn’t he lie about his patients being sexually abused?” “Freud’s Reputation Shrinks a Little” read a recent front-page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, introducing an account of Freud’s American patient Dr. Horace Frink, whom Freud apparently urged to divorce his wife and marry a former patient. In the same article Frank Sulloway is quoted: “Each of Freud’s published cases plays a role in the psychoanalytic legend. But the more detail you learn about each case, the stronger the image becomes of Freud twisting the facts to fit his theory.” Hardly a month seems to pass without a story or a comment of this sort, whether in the popular press or in scholarly writings and reviews.
The tide had already begun to turn in the 1970s. The first hint that Freud’s reputation was in trouble came from the new feminists. The year 1970 itself was particularly rough, when, in separate books, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and Eva Figes all took Freud to task for his reactionary views on women. 1970 also witnessed the publication of Henri Ellenberger’s massive study The Discovery of the Unconscious, with its irreverent chapter on Freud; a few years later Paul Roazen’s Freud and His Followers continued in a similar vein. Ellenberger and Roazen were significant precursors of the more full-blooded criticism of the 1980s, but in retrospect they seem relatively mild and conventional. The past decade, by comparison, has brought an avalanche of anti-Freudian writings, their tone ever more hostile. Undeniably, Freud’s reputation has undergone a sea change.
The contrast with the 1950s and 1960s, when I first read Freud, could hardly be greater. In the wake of Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, published between 1953 and 1957, the American intellectual community seemed to have reached a consensus that Freud was not only the most important thinker of the twentieth century but one of the giants in the history of thought. The year 1952 saw him installed as the author of the final volume in Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books of the Western World, placing him in the company of the immortals. In Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), Lionel Trilling, the voice of the liberal intellectual establishment, pronounced him the prime mover of modernism, and he was accorded a similar dignity, a decade later, in Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson’s widely used anthology, The Modern Tradition. Philip Rieff’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist reflected perhaps most perfectly the stature he had attained by the year of its publication, 1961. Freud, Rieff argued, was the great moral intelligence of the century and the virtual creator of the modern conception of the self. Steven Marcus—who, with Lionel Trilling, edited a one-volume abridgment of Jones’s biography—summed up the mid-century consensus just as it was about to dissolve:
Writing a couple of years before Marcus, Frederick Crews more accurately sensed the winds of change that were about to buffet Freud’s creation. “Psychoanalysis,” Crews predicted, “will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits.” Unquestionably, the collapse of Freud’s reputation in the 1980s—not unlike the simultaneous collapse of Marx’s reputation—was an extraordinarily dramatic reversal of fortune.
As the twentieth century moves through its last two decades, it becomes increasingly evident that the figure of Sigmund Freud remains as one of a very small handful of intellectual presences who have presided over the complex courses that Western thought and culture have taken throughout the entire epoch. His reputation and place in the history of the modern world have never stood higher or enjoyed a firmer security than they do today.
In one respect, Freud might seem to be alive and well in the contemporary intellectual world. I am thinking of the prestige that psychoanalysis still enjoys in literary studies, particularly those influenced by his French disciple Jacques Lacan. But analytically inclined literary critics have been largely uninterested in Freud himself, and, in any event, the Lacanian version of psychoanalysis favored by many literary critics is a very different intellectual animal from the Viennese original, lacking both Freud’s strong clinical base and his devotion to lucidity. One might even argue that the airy extravagance of recent literary theory—psychoanalytic or otherwise—has actually contributed to the pervasive sense of Freud’s disgrace: to many, the bad intellectual manners on display in deconstruction bear more than a family resemblance to the interpretive habits fostered by analysis. Frederick Crews, for one, is as dismissive of contemporary literary theory as he is of Freud, and for similar reasons. Crews’s fellow critic Nina Auerbach observes of Freud’s popularity in the literary community: “No sadder proof exists of the rift between literature and science than this new adherence to a Freudianism that is rapidly losing authority outside the circle of literary theory.” The boom in psychoanalytic literary studies, then, seems to have at best ambiguous implications for Freud’s reputation as a thinker.
For some time I have pondered how to respond to the new anti-Freudianism—how to take the measure of it, how to offer a corrective to its obvious excesses. If I thought of trying to chart the shift in all its manifestations, I was confronted with an embarrassment of riches: there were too many naysayers to choose among. Inevitably, however, some of them were more interesting and impressive than others, and eventually I hit on the tactic that has led to the present book: I would look very closely at the critics who offered the most systematic, original, and disturbing (if not always the most hostile) reinterpretations of Freud’s life and thought. These, I quickly became convinced, were precisely the three figures whose views of Freud I examine in the following chapters: the historian of science Frank Sulloway, the Sanskrit scholar and sometime psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, and the philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum. Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum can hardly be said to constitute a school, because their interpretations of Freud are so utterly unlike. Nor do they appear to have influenced one another’s thinking. What they share is simply a marked hostility to Freud, as well as the talent and industry to have created counterviews whose weight and ingeniousness require that they be taken seriously.
Frank Sulloway studied with the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. His Freud, Biologist of the Mind, published in 1979, aims to place Freud within the tradition of evolutionary thought leading from Darwin to Wilson. The book argues that Freud’s psychoanalytic biographers fundamentally misrepresent his achievement when they portray him as a psychological thinker. This misrepresentation, Sulloway believes, was intended to create an image of Freud as an embattled innovator carrying on a lonely and heroic campaign against organic determinism. Freud, Biologist of the Mind—whose subtitle is Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend—is thus as much an attack on the hagiographic proclivities of traditional scholarship on Freud as it is a revisionist interpretation of the psychoanalytic revolution. Freud’s ideas, Sulloway insists, are simply an offshoot of the Darwinian paradigm that has dominated biological thought from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Jeffrey Masson is the best known of my three critics, mainly because in 1983 he was the subject of a withering New Yorker profile by the journalist Janet Malcolm, whom he subsequently sued for malicious misrepresentation (in a case that recently reached the Supreme Court). While employed as a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, Masson obtained analytic training and eventually rose within the Freudian establishment to become the editor of the Freud-Fliess correspondence. His highly visible defection from analysis in 1981 and the publication, in 1984, of The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory made him the most famous analytic renegade since Carl Jung. His book argues that the psychoanalytic revolution was based on Freud’s cowardly cover-up of his discoveries about the sexual abuse of children. In Masson’s view, moreover, the entire history of psychoanalysis has been corrupted by the original lie on which the profession was founded: analysts have excused the abusive behavior of parents by blaming psychological disorders on the erotic imagination of children. Freud emerges from The Assault on Truth as perhaps the greatest moral failure of the century. Whether intentionally or not, Masson stands Philip Rieff’s Freud on his head.
By comparison, Adolf Grünbaum’s critique of Freud seems decidedly sober and academic. But if Grünbaum is less irreverent than Sulloway or Masson, his indictment far surpasses theirs in philosophic weight. Many commentators seem to feel that his Foundations of Psychoanalysis, also published in 1984, is the most impressive piece of philosophical criticism to which Freud has yet been subjected. Grünbaum’s interpretation is complex, and his attitude toward Freud more nuanced than either Sulloway’s or Masson’s. In essence, though, his book (like the numerous articles that preceded it) amounts to a prolonged and detailed argument that Freud’s theories are inadequately supported by evidence. Freud, Grünbaum suggests, was a failed scientist, even if his failure was more honorable than the enemies of psychoanalysis have generally allowed.
Other critics have made more spectacular charges. Peter Swales, for example, claims that Freud had an affair with his own sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, and that he plotted to murder Wilhelm Fliess, while E. M. Thornton has written a book purporting to show that Freud’s ideas were the “direct outcome” of his use of cocaine. Still others have developed Freud-bashing into a finer rhetorical art, notably the literary critic Frederick Crews, himself once a true believer but now a violent apostate. Yet the rival candidates have been unable to elaborate their complaints into a systematic revision. None of them has produced the kind of serious, full-scale reinterpretation of Freud offered by Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum.
In the chapters that follow I have found myself burdened with what might seem contradictory responsibilities. The first has been to provide a clear exposition of the views of my three chosen critics. In the case of two of them, Frank Sulloway and Adolf Grünbaum, this expository task has been unusually difficult because their own writings are extremely dense. Sulloway’s book is so cluttered with detail that its main lines of argument often remain elusive; Grünbaum writes in a unique philosophical jargon that is surpassingly intricate and pedantic. I doubt that many readers will have had the fortitude to persevere to the end with either Sulloway or Grünbaum. So my initial duty, ironically, has been to render their ideas as plain as possible without doing violence to their inherent complexity. Jeffrey Masson, by contrast, is a clear and vivid writer, but he makes up in deviousness what he lacks in density, so that in his case, too, the job of exposition has not been easy.
Beyond exposition, however, I have been eager to mount a critique of the critics. Indeed, my interest in Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum stems most deeply from the conviction that they fundamentally misrepresent Freud. If Freud himself were not such an overwhelming intellectual presence—if he were a lesser figure in the history of thought—it would be hard to justify conducting such a close and (some might think) protracted argument with my three subjects. But I hope that both the exposition of their views and my animadversions will serve to shed useful light on Freud himself, even though he appears in these pages largely refracted through their hostile lenses. Sometimes I have worried that my enterprise might seem rather scholastic, as I cite chapter and verse from my authorities and then seek to counter them by noting failures of logic or evidentiary malfeasance. More than once I have had to remind myself (as I now remind the reader) that Freud is too important a figure to allow Sulloway’s, Masson’s, and Grünbaum’s interpretations to go unchallenged, even at the risk of an unseemly argumentativeness. In this respect, the book is unlike anything I have written before: a labor not of love, but of duty.
Inevitably one must wonder what has caused Freud’s fall from grace. What does it mean? We should not discount the banal possibility that, in some respect, it is nothing more than a reaction against the uncritical celebration of his ideas in the 1950s and 1960s. There is an unwritten law in the history of reputations according to which too much enthusiasm inexorably inspires the urge to revise and deflate. The law holds not just for thinkers but for artists, scientists, and politicians as well. Even figures whose greatness might seem beyond dispute must submit to the stock market effect in the history of renown: every bull brings its bearish counterpart, as inflation and deflation follow one another in an endless cycle. If Johann Sebastian Bach has been subjected to the yin and yang of historical evaluation—widely ignored, if not actually denigrated, until Mendelssohn’s famous revival of 1829—we can hardly be surprised that Freud should receive the same treatment. Perhaps at a deeper level this process betrays the need to find our heroes flawed. The literature on the trahison des clercs, from Edmund Burke through Julien Benda to Paul Johnson, suggests that ambivalence toward intellectual innovators is one of the constants of modern history.
But two considerations set Freud’s case apart. The first is the peculiar insult that he represents to familiar and deeply held ideas—ideas about the self, about reason, about propriety. Freud himself often cited the insulting nature of his thought to explain the hostility it inspired; he had, he said, disturbed the sleep of the world. Of course, there is a danger in this line of argument, which in psychoanalytic theory has been given the doctrinal label of resistance: objections to analytic ideas are not to be judged on their intellectual merits but to be exposed as psychic defenses, rationalistic fig leaves used to conceal embarrassing emotional truths. Here is Freud explaining why so many people reject his teachings:
The only proper response to this kind of reasoning is to insist that it is entirely out of bounds: it undermines the very possibility of intellectual life and, if taken seriously, would lead to a dismissal of psychoanalysis itself as nothing more than a projection of Freud’s neuroses. Ad hominem arguments—of which the appeal to resistance is a classic example—simply have no place in reasoned debate. That having been said, one must also concede that, empirically speaking, Freud was probably right: his ideas disturb us as do those of no other important thinker, and many of our objections to them, whatever their intellectual validity, spring from deep emotional sources. We of the late twentieth century are perhaps less inclined to take offense than were Freud’s contemporaries, but he nonetheless refuses to fade gracefully into the historical woodwork. Rather, he continues to be a rebarbative figure of contemporary debate, and there remains, I’m convinced, an underground reservoir of resentment to his troublesome ideas. Granted, this perennial anti-Freudian sentiment cannot alone explain the specific criticisms of Frank Sulloway, Jeffrey Masson, and Adolf Grünbaum. But it assures them of a receptive audience. Apparently there are always people eager to believe the worst about Freud. I know of no other thinker who occupies a similarly unlovely place in the collective imagination.
Psycho-analysis is seeking to bring to conscious recognition the things in mental life which are repressed; and everyone who forms a judgement on it is himself a human being, who possesses similar repressions and may perhaps be maintaining them with difficulty. They are therefore bound to call up the same resistance in him as in our patients; and that resistance finds it easy to disguise itself as an intellectual rejection and to bring up arguments like those which we ward off in our patients by means of the fundamental rule of psycho-analysis.
The second factor setting Freud apart is his creation of a professional movement that is still very much with us. In the United States today there are some four thousand practicing psychoanalysts, who look to Freud as their founding intellectual authority and the first (and greatest) practitioner of their therapeutic art. As individuals these professionals may not know or care a great deal about Freud, and their ideas may deviate considerably from the original dispensation. But no one can doubt that Freud’s reputation is bound up with the estate of contemporary analysis. In this respect he is very much like Marx—also at once an intellectual innovator and the conscious founder of a movement that sought to realize his ideas in the world. Just as Marx’s reputation has suffered from both the questionable successes and (more recently) the undeniable failures of communism, so Freud’s suffers from the prevailing sense that the profession of psychoanalysis has grown stale and bureaucratized (and not a little greedy), and that its intellectual habits are sclerotic, perhaps even moribund. The analogy must not be pushed too far, because Freud’s disciples have been vastly more decent, humane, and indeed sensible than Marx’s. There is also much to be said for the proposition that, whatever its shortcomings, psychoanalysis remains the best therapeutic game in town. Nonetheless, one often senses that attacks on Freud disguise highly personal and perhaps legitimate grievances against the contemporary analytic profession. Jeffrey Masson makes this connection explicit in his autobiography, Final Analysis, which recounts his harrowing experiences as a psychoanalytic trainee. We need not conclude, with Masson, that psychoanalysis is an abusive scam to recognize that Freud has been hurt by the failures, the excesses, and, above all, the plain mediocrity of his followers. Although it is legitimate to distinguish between a thinker and the movement that invokes his authority, I also believe that a thinker cannot be entirely exonerated of the crimes and misdemeanors committed in his name. This is true even for a figure like Friedrich Nietzsche, who apparently entertained no plans to bring his ideas to life in the world of politics and institutions but who nonetheless managed to say things that inspired (or misled) others to regrettable political acts. It is true in spades for the likes of Marx and Freud, both of whom labored mightily to embody their ideas in concrete, institutional form.
The perennial resentment aroused by Freud’s uncomfortable ideas and the liabilities attending his association with a slightly weary therapeutic profession will not of course explain why he came under such sharp attack precisely in the 1980s. To account for the aggressive anti-Freudianism of recent vintage we must look to more specific historical factors. Once again, two considerations impress me as paramount: the first is the renaissance of feminism during the past quarter century, and the second is what might be called the neopositivist intellectual backlash of the 1980s, which lent to the assault on Freud a distinctly reactionary flavor.
I have already suggested that the disenchantment with Freud can be traced to the revival of feminism. Betty Friedan’s chapter “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud” in The Feminine Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s characterization of psychoanalysis as “The Reaction in Ideology” in Sexual Politics (1970), and Germaine Greer’s dismissal of “The Psychological Sell” in The Female Eunuch (1970) all excoriated Freud as a principal font of modern misogyny. Their diagnoses had been anticipated two decades earlier by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), whose chapter “The Psychoanalytic Point of View” already identified the particular analytic ideas that feminists found most invidious. Pride of place in this litany of abuse belongs to Freud’s theory of penis envy: the notion that women’s psychology is based on a feeling of genital inadequacy, from which follows their inclination to passivity, narcissism, and masochism. The theory condemned women to perpetual inferiority (because “anatomy is destiny”), representing them as castrated males whose lives were dominated by efforts to compensate for this fundamental defect. In the 1970s the attack on Freud’s ideas about women established itself as a fixture of neofeminist discourse, rehearsed in countless books, articles, and reviews. I have no doubt that it provided a firm base of sentiment and opinion—a kind of ideological substructure—upon which the more comprehensive criticisms of the past decade were to build. One might say that the feminist critique created a specially aggrieved interest group within the general ranks of Freud’s detractors.
But feminism served only as a backdrop to the intensified anti-Freudianism of the 1980s. The specifics of Freud’s female psychology play no role in the writings of Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum. Perhaps the case against it had been so thoroughly aired in the 1970s that nothing further needed to be said. Alternatively, the notion of penis envy may have impressed the new critics as too marginal in Freud’s thought, or just too preposterous, to bother with. By the 1980s even many of Freud’s defenders were inclined to dismiss his ideas about women as the expendable residue of a long-standing cultural prejudice. Nevertheless, in Jeffrey Masson’s effort to rehabilitate the seduction theory one detects an unmistakable echo of the neofeminist aversion to Freud. Masson appeals unabashedly to the sentiment that Freud turned his back on the real sufferings of women and children when he deserted the seduction hypothesis. Psychoanalysis, in this view, is fundamentally a male plot, one that aims to perpetuate the physical and emotional victimization of the powerless. Significantly, Masson found his most sympathetic audience among feminists.
My claim that Freud’s recent troubles owe something to what I’ve called a neopositivist backlash will seem less immediately plausible. The most conspicuous and apparently encompassing intellectual phenomenon of the 1980s was the so-called linguistic turn, the effort of philosophers and literary theorists to understand human culture and behavior in terms of the interpretive structures of language—to treat them, in short, as texts. The linguistic turn was hostile to science, or at least to the positivist assumption that human experience could be analyzed in a manner analogous to the scientific study of nature. In general, its adepts regarded Freud—the interpreter of dreams, slips, and symptoms—as an important forerunner of their own point of view. In the writings of Jürgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur there even emerged a distinctly hermeneutic version of Freud himself, which claimed him as the most significant progenitor of the shift from an objectifying, empiricist understanding of the human realm to one stressing subjectivity and interpretation. The phenomenon is closely related to the contemporaneous embrace of Freud by literary critics and the efflorescence of what is sometimes called “the literary Freud.”
The most striking thing about the anti-Freudian writings of the 1980s, and particularly those of Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum, is their obliviousness to the linguistic turn in intellectual affairs. One hesitates to speak of an express rejection of the skeptical and relativistic views propounded in advanced intellectual circles, because they give no evidence of even being conscious of the prevailing Zeitgeist. To be sure, Adolf Grünbaum spends some time demolishing the hermeneutic interpretations of Freud proposed by Habermas and Ricoeur, but he seems quite unaware of the broader intellectual movement they represent. One would simply never know from reading Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum that many of their contemporaries entertained profound doubts about science, objectivity, truth, and the possibility of achieving stable, irrefragable knowledge of the self and society. Perhaps I ought to speak not so much of an intellectual backlash as of the unperturbed adherence to an older habit of thought and a remarkable indifference to what has proved the cutting edge in academic circles.
Unquestionably this imperviousness to the linguistic turn is the most striking common denominator linking the intellectual habits of my three critics. All of them are unreconstructed, indeed unapologetic, positivists. Frank Sulloway’s sole concern is to demonstrate that Freud’s thinking reflected the methods and views of Darwinian evolution and that he anticipated contemporary sociobiology. Sulloway clearly regards the matter of interpreting Freud as a simple question of reading documents, assembling evidence, and seeing to it that the manifestly correct account displaces the false one (tendentiously constructed by Freud’s psychoanalytic biographers). Jeffrey Masson, for his part, talks about documents and facts, truth and lies, proof and disproof, right and wrong with such breathtaking insouciance as almost to persuade one that not merely the linguistic turn but the entire twentieth-century revolt against positivism never took place. Adolf Grünbaum is more sophisticated than his fellow critics, and, by comparison, he carries his positivism with greater awareness. But his tolerance for ambiguity is nonetheless low, and he gives Freud a hard-nosed empiricist dressing-down for his evidential shortcomings. I don’t necessarily dislike Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum for their unexamined positivist ways. On the contrary, I find them attractively innocent of the pretensions afflicting many of those who have taken the linguistic turn—or perhaps one should say gone around the linguistic bend. My point, rather, is to draw attention to the shared assumptions that unite their otherwise dissimilar views and to suggest that the anti-Freudian impulse of recent vintage stands at odds with the most visible intellectual current of the age. Stylistically, the opposition to Freud has a decidedly conservative feel about it, lending it a curious resonance with the politics of the 1980s.
This brings me to my final thought about the significance of Freud’s fall from grace. I detect in it an underlying rejection of the modern, and in particular the modern conception of the self that Freud did so much to create. We might even characterize the reaction against Freud as postmodern if we agree to use that term analogously to the way it is used in architecture, where it denotes a rejection of the modernist aesthetic. In the intellectual and artistic realms, modernism entailed a loss of confidence in the stability and transparency of the self. It also entailed the recognition that all human knowledge is subjective and indeterminate. Freud’s theory of the unconscious, which denies that the self is aware even of its own ideas, was the most powerful articulation of this modernist sensibility.
If I am not mistaken, the hostility to Freud that emerged so spectacularly in the 1980s was part of a broad-scale revolt against the culture of modernism. It was a revolt against the uncertainties and ambiguities that the modernist legacy burdened us with, above all the sense that the self is unreliable, indeed largely unknowable. The antimodernist persuasion longs for confidence about what can and cannot be known; it wants to believe that the choice between correct and incorrect behavior is unambiguous; it holds that definitive conclusions (about the self, society, the world) can be confidently reached on the basis of unimpeachable evidence. I cannot think it without significance that Freud’s recent critics should exhibit precisely such uninflected positivist views. They not only assail Freud, but do so in a manner—at once blithe and apodictic—that implies a rejection of the entire modernist enterprise. The attack on Freud, I am suggesting, ultimately registers a profound discomfort with the fundamental intellectual transformation of the twentieth century.
1. San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 1990. [BACK]
2. Millett, Sexual Politics; Greer, The Female Eunuch; Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex; and Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes. In “Freud and the Feminists” (Raritan 6, no. 4 [Spring 1987], pp. 43–61) I try to assess Freud’s feminist critics, like Millett and Greer, as well as his feminist defenders, like Juliet Mitchell and Nancy Chodorow. [BACK]
3. Steven Marcus, Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis (Boston, 1984), p. 1. [BACK]
4. Frederick Crews, “Analysis Terminable,” Commentary, July 1980, pp. 33–34. [BACK]
5. Nina Auerbach, review of Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self, by Lawrence Frank, The New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1985, p. 43. [BACK]
6. E. M. Thornton, The Freudian Fallacy (New York, 1984), p. ix. [BACK]
7. Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey (London, 1953–74), vol. XI, p. 39. [BACK]
8. In Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (New York, 1981) Janet Malcolm paints an unglamorous and dispiriting portrait of analytic practice in the 1980s—a gray, routinized medical subdiscipline that seems light-years removed from the adventurous, eventful therapeutic world conjured up in Freud’s famous case histories. [BACK]