Freudian Slip

Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer
Sunday, October 15, 2006


A Novel

By Sebastian Faulks

Random House. 563 pp. $25.95

What if Freud had never lived? Our everyday explanations of motives -- repression, defensiveness -- might differ. Novels might contain less stream-of-consciousness narration. But sexual intercourse would still have begun, as Philip Larkin put it in a much-quoted line, in 1963. And psychiatry might be right where it is today.

This last claim is at the heart of Sebastian Faulks's ambitious historical novel, Human Traces . Faulks follows the careers of two fictional psychiatrists, each active professionally from the 1880s until the aftermath of World War I. Thomas Midwinter is an English Darwinist given to theorizing about the development of the brain. Jacques Rebière is a Frenchman fascinated by unconscious mental processes.

The men are linked by love and work. Rebière marries Midwinter's sister; Midwinter, one of Rebière's patients. The doctors open an asylum, where Midwinter treats Rebière's psychotic brother. The novel is meant to succeed on two fronts: as a drama of intertwined lives and as a meditation on the nature of mind.

Faulks, the author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray , has a substantial literary reputation in England, but on this score Human Traces disappoints. Often, it descends to the tone of middlebrow romance, with descriptions awash in local color and backstory tucked into subordinate clauses: "Tante Mathilde was sitting by the door again, intent on her sewing, while Grand-mère, the mother of Jacques's own mother, who had died of childbed fever in the week of his birth, cleared the plates from the table and took them out with heavy steps to the scullery." Even granting the intent to mimic 19th-century modes of expression, the love scenes are overwritten. ("My dearest, dearest boy, I adore you. I will make your life for you. I want no other destiny, just to be with you. Don't talk anymore. Just hold me tighter. Tighter. Always.") The characters are types. Any distinctiveness lies in the decades they pass through and the scientific theories they espouse.

At the center of the book are two set pieces: a pair of public lectures, one by each doctor, and a matching pair of case reports. Rebière's contributions sound Freudian, but he develops them from theories that predate psychoanalysis. Speaking in 1892, Rebière tells his audience, "In Vienna, the great neurologist Moritz Benedikt has recently described what he calls the 'second life,' by which he means the important existence of a secret life in many unwell people, which contains a 'pathogenic secret,' almost invariably of a sexual nature. He has given many examples of patients with hysterical symptoms, almost all of them women, who have been rapidly cured by confessing their secrets." Rebière goes on to discuss Karl Albert Scherner, who in the 1860s proposed "that dreams are a language of symbols, which can be interpreted. . . . Scherner listed such things as pipes, towers and clarinets as emblems of the male, while the female is represented by staircases or narrow courtyards."

Without Freud, Faulks suggests, we would still have gotten psychotherapy, dream interpretation, the symbolizing unconscious and an appreciation of the motivating power of sex -- while bypassing penis envy, castration anxiety and other dead-end concepts.

But even Rebière's relatively level-headed therapy is no match for brain-centered psychiatry. The book takes a decided turn when Midwinter demolishes his colleague's formulation of a patient's history by explaining her symptoms in physical terms and arranging to have her cured through surgery. Neither man mentions Freud by name, but Midwinter takes a swipe at the Oedipus complex as an exaggeration of the "fireside truth" that boys often undertake "an amicable competition with the father" for the mother's attention. The Vienna movement, Midwinter quips, will be the first school of medicine "to base its treatment of the sick on the withholding of medicine."

Faulks conveys the excitement of neurology as it turned its attention to mood, memory and behavior. He has Midwinter discover the research of Paul Broca, Carl Wernicke, Alois Alzheimer and others, as well as emerging evidence for the actions of chromosomes and genes. Effectively, Faulks argues that Freud's work set the medical world on a century-long detour.

Faulks does not restrict himself to defending what are probably today's mainstream views about Freudianism's excesses. Midwinter advances speculative theories that would, in practice, be developed in the 1970s by Julian Jaynes -- that the hearing of inner voices was essential for the leap from hominid to human, so that schizophrenia is the evolutionary price our species pays for self-awareness. Meanwhile, Rebière dabbles, with some success, in mysticism. The problem, Faulks implies, is not that a mind-centered view (or even a spiritual one) must fail but that Freud went off course, indulging in pseudo-science.

Faulks understands the difficulties inherent in using fiction to convey these complex arguments. He offsets his characters' earnestness -- and his own -- through attention to settings and plot details. He sends his protagonists to California and Tanzania to fill in pieces of the puzzle. He allows Rebière to indulge in titillating sexual obsessions. Generally, the effort to entertain succeeds. And Human Traces can be moving, as its characters grapple with the limitations of knowledge and reason. Despite its shortcomings, the book should serve as a popular vehicle for reassessing the history of psychiatry and confronting the mystery of consciousness. ยท

Peter D. Kramer's brief biography of Sigmund Freud will be published in November.

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