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Sigmund Freud On the Couch:
A Classic Case Of Ambivalence

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 1998

  In Style

When the exhibit "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture" opens at the Library of Congress today, one question will still be unanswered: Why does Sigmund Freud drive people crazy?

For example, when a notorious Freud-basher from New York was denied access to a batch of Freud's documents some years ago, he sent the woman who controls the archives an envelope filled with Ex-Lax. The message: She was being too anal-retentive. Another time, a Freud biographer received a photo of himself in the mail. The picture was doctored so that the biographer's hand was colored blood-red.

Sure. Lifting the lid on your id – and much of the rest of traditional Freudian practice – has fallen out of fashion with psychiatrists. But such melodramatic reaction, according to Inge Scholz-Strasser of the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna, says much more about those who despise Freud than it does about Freud. "The fantasies that the critics emphasize," she explains, "are the fantasies of the people themselves. Not Freud's."

"The vociferous and virulent criticism" by the anti-Freudians, observes Long Island psychoanalyst Harold Blum, "represents something about the person's own conflict and reaction to psychoanalytic thought."

But then, the anti-Freudians counter, what do you expect a shrink to say?

The Objects of Freud
If you think the exhibit will help you fathom the furor over Freud, you must be dreaming.

The show itself – 180 objects, 108 images, 90 film clips – is somewhat flat. Literally. The effects are mostly two-dimensional: an amalgamation of papers, letters, photos, paintings and other thin things. Much of the stuff comes from the Library of Congress, which boasts the largest Freud archive on the planet. There is a near re-creation of a room in the Freud Museum of London, which is a re-creation of his office in Vienna. At kiosks throughout the area, video monitors play Freudian slips, um, clips. One Freud family home movie features the old man – on a couch. Other booths offer relevant snippets of famous movies and TV shows – everything from silent films to Woody Woodpecker to "The Simpsons." There is a "theme wall," too, of Freud-related comic books, newspaper stories and magazine covers.

Freud's couch was too rickety to make the trip. But a sofa-shaped stand of Styrofoam and plywood, draped with a rug used by his reclining patients, is on view. Antiquities – carved figures from other cultures – are here and there. So are a couple of small envelopes that once contained Freud's medicinal cocaine, though the FBI asked the library not to display the powder.

You'll see a self-portrait of Freud's patient Sergei Pankejeff, also known as the Wolf Man. And you'll see Pankejeff's self-revealing painting of wolves in a tree. There's a letter from Freud to the mother of a homosexual and Freud's day book from 1918. The show will be up until Jan. 16, when it will go to New York, Los Angeles and Vienna.

What Do People Want?
After spending some time with Freud's paraphernalia, the visitor is left wondering, what's the beef? The obvious purpose of the show is to illustrate Freud's work and his immense – and inarguable – influence on the 20th century.

Hmmm. You want to belittle his legacy? Why is that? Verrrry interesting.

The space is divvied up into three areas: therapy, theory and society. Visitors will learn of Freud's controversial innovations, such as talk therapy, free association and dream interpretation. There are artifacts relating to sexuality – aggressive and repressed. And lots of allusions to other Freudian notions, such as the three components of the mind (ego, id, superego) and the three stages of childhood (oral, anal, phallic).

"The show is not about the controversies surrounding Freud," says curator Michael Roth, a historian and associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Sometimes an exhibit is just an exhibit.

Not to literary critic Frederick C. Crews. In his new book, "Unauthorized Freud," Crews, who taught English at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1958 to 1994, explains why he was vehemently opposed to the original plan for the exhibit. The seed of discord, he writes, was sown in the summer of 1995. Analyst Blum, who also oversees the Sigmund Freud Archives in New York City, announced to a gathering of psychoanalysts that the exhibit would be staged "under the virtual sponsorship of the United States government" and would celebrate Freud's revolutionary genius and everlasting legacy.

Such a Freudfest, Crews writes, "would be a handsome ideological return to the show's main financial backers," including Blum's archives, Scholz-Strasser's museum in Vienna and others.

So when independent researcher Peter Swales – famous for contending that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law – circulated a petition imploring curator Roth and the library to incorporate more criticism of Freud in the exhibit, Crews and others reached for their signing pens. The show was postponed for financial reasons, says the library. The delay gave Roth more time to consider the critics' complaints.

There is ample criticism in the final version of the show. Posted throughout the exhibit are quotes, for instance, from J.M. Cattell in 1926: "Psychoanalysis is not so much a question of science as a matter of taste, Dr. Freud being an artist who lives in the fairyland of dreams among the ogres of perverted sex."

And Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1942: "But this procedure of free association and so on is queer, because Freud never shows how we know where to stop – where is the right solution."

And Crews in 1988: "Psychoanalysis will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: Its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits."

Retired English professor Crews says he's going to see the exhibit sometime after it opens.

He's pleased that Roth agreed to include two anti-Freudians – Frank Cioffi and Arnold Grunbaum – in the catalogue. Grunbaum, as it turns out, is Roth's former father-in-law. Roth says he didn't ask Grunbaum to contribute in the first place because "I didn't believe he would want to appear beside me."


Swales and the other petitioners had a "beneficial effect," Crews says now. "The organizers are more careful about making scientific claims."

So, Crews is asked, does that make you feel good about the show?

"I wouldn't go that far," he says. "The claims have been scaled down."

The Long Distance Runner
At one end of the spectrum is Crews and "I am at the other end," says Freud aficionado Harold Blum. "Throughout this past century, Freud's been denigrated and disparaged. But he's withstood the test of time."

In fact, Blum says, Freud is "generally recognized as a figure of immense cultural importance. He changed the way we understand drama, history, biography, and he gave us a whole new picture of how a person becomes a person. He unified dreams, fantasies, fairy tales and myths – and from many different cultures around the world."

The genius of Freud, Blum says, was that "what he found in Vienna was not that different from what he found from other places and other times. The Oedipus complex, for instance."

Denunciation of Freud, as you'll see in the exhibit, is as old as the man himself. From the get-go, Blum says, Freud has been accused of being everything from "a palm reader to a phrenologist to a charlatan to a quack."

What is being acted out at this exhibit, explains Edward Shorter, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Toronto and author of "A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac," is "the same split that has divided psychiatry for 200 years – the biological split and the psychotherapeutic split."

In this age of pharmacological solutions, the practice of psychoanalysis has fallen on hard times. Freud's "talking cure," which can take years and cost an arm and an ego, is hardly ever used by doctors anymore. Dreams have given way to drugs and group therapy and recovery movements.

In fact, Shorter says, "the number of psychoanalysts who are getting out of psychiatry is enormous. These people are rushing massively into psychopharmacology."

In the United States, Shorter points out, only 2 percent of all psychiatric patients undergo analysis these days. The exhibit, he says, "is a last-ditch stand for the analysts and for the historians of analysis."

Contemporary research has shown, Shorter says, that psychiatric illness arises in the brain and is treatable through psychobiological methods.

Asked about Crews and Swales, Shorter praised their scholarship.

However, they belong to a group of people, he says, "who are anti-Freud, but not necessarily pro-pharmacology."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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