THE PUBLICATION of Freud's complete letters to Wilhelm Fliess is of great interest to serious students of Freud's life and work, but is likely to disappoint any general readers who purchase this volume in search of scandalous revelations concerning Freud. Such expectations of dark secrets dragged into light may have been aroused by the publication last year of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. The subtitle of Masson's book featured the melodramatic and misleading word "suppression," where "abandonment" would have been quieter and more accurate. The title, which implied that Freud had assaulted the truth, was even more misleading. The many readers who enjoyed Janet Malcolm's brilliant and funny In the Freud Archives, also published last year, will have vivid memories of the colorful Masson, formerly in charge of the Freud Archives, until difficulties arose between him and two apostles of Freud, the founder's daughter Anna, and K.R. Eissler, her friend and adviser. Masson's book made clear his own disenchantment with Freud and with psychoanalysis, but nothing in this new book indicates this disillusionment.
In his preface, Masson rather cautiously remarks: "It is a hazardous undertaking to edit a work of this magnitude, which is likely to change the image of a great man." Every reader must speak for herself or himself, but I do not find that Freud's image is much changed, for worse or better, by any of the material printed here for the first time. A reader who already owns The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Fliess, edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris (1954), need not necessarily purchase this book. What matters most in it, the "Project for a Scientific Psychology," is available in the earlier volume, and also in Strachey's standard edition. What is now first given us is biographically of some interest, but scarcely essential to the understanding either of Freud's speculations, or of his emerging therapeutic praxis.
Freud, like many of his psychoanalytic followers down to this moment, regarded psychoanalysis as his science. It was certainly his, but it was not, is not, and cannot be a "science" in the generally accepted American sense of that word. Nor can it be called a "theory" (as Freud also liked to name it) according to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who judged it to be "speculation" rather than "hypothesis" and who also observed, somewhat severely, that Freud seemed not to have known the crucial distinction between a "reason" and a "cause." One can agree with Wittgenstein, and with all those who have argued that psychoanalysis is neither verifiable nor predictive. One can even agree with Karl Kraus, the Viennese satirist, who once remarked: "Psychoanalysis is itself that mental illness of which it purports to be the cure." But, in my own judgment, none of this diminishes the intellectual importance or spiritual value of psychoanalysis. A speculation may be more imaginative than a philosophical theory or a science, and therefore more able to afford a larger perspective upon reality than metaphysics or physics can give us. Freud's power was neither philosophical nor scientific, but interpretive, and psychoanalysis, or Freud's speculation, is more an interpretation of the psyche than it is a mode of interpretation.
Masson and the orthodox Freudians are arguing over what is not worth an argument, once Freud's reader understands that Freud, like Montaigne or even like Proust, is primarily a great interpreter of the lives we lead. Indeed, so influential have Freud's interpretations been that they have shaped our culture, to a very considerable degree. Freud thought that psychoanalysis would illuminate both the individual psyche and our general discomfort with culture. But, in 1985, a diffused and adulterated version of psychoanalysis is indistinguishable from our culture. To some degree, psychoanalysis is dead or dying because it has been too successful, in a societal sense, and (alas!) too unsuccessful as a cure for neurosis, let alone for more serious mental illnesses.
READING the now complete letters of Freud to his once closest friend, that involuntary charlatan, Fliess, will not alter any of these truths. They will show, more completely than before, how Freud abandoned his early "seduction theory," which ascribed most neuroses to the misbehavior of perverse fathers, and substituted instead the speculation that fantasies were the cause of neuroses. Doubtless, there is an admixture of both in many cases, and Masson's indignation in The Assault on Truth, though overdone, had some basis in Freud's usual habit of retrospectively rewriting the merely actual history of psychoanalysis. The complete letters show Fliess to have been even weirder in his theories and medical practice than we thought, and also show Freud to have been more gullible and more devoted to Fliess than he would later admit.
The dreadful episode of poor Emma Eckstein, victimized by the bungling of Fliess' unnecessary operations upon her nose, is certainly the low point in the entire story of Freud's life, and it is chastening to have it now upon the record. "Even God makes mistakes," Isaac Babel's grand Odessa gangster Benya Krik was given to chanting when his thugs unnecessarily committed murder. "Even Freud makes mistakes," the most religious Freudian will have to murmur, when he reads Freud's wrethed account of Emma Eckstein's torment at the hands of a quack nose specialist whom Freud adored and venerated for more than 15 years.
Freud himself has taught us that all love depends upon an overvaluation of the person loved, and also that we must begin to love if we are not to become ill. For a while, Freud overvalued Fliess, presumably because he had to have a contemporary he might regard as his equal. Freud should have looked elsewhere, but that seems the only major revelation of the now-complete text of these letters. The origins of psychoanalysis as a speculation are left pretty much where they had seemed to be, in the genius of a solitary interpreter who chose his own solitude, and then for a while made a bad error when he endeavored to share that solitude.