A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis

By Eli Zaretsky. Knopf. 429 pp. $30

I was a callow lad of 19 when I encountered Freud in an introductory psychology class in college. I read The Interpretation of Dreams and was swept away by Freud's hypnotic language and fascinating exploration of the inner self. I began waking up cloaked in dreamy images until I was having so many dreams, as Yogi Berra might have said, that I couldn't sleep at all. That initial fascination with Freud ended when I realized he wasn't helping my sputtering social life, which was why I'd taken the course.

America's flirtation lasted much longer than mine, about half a century. Yet Freud and his followers, who dominated American psychiatry after World War II, fell out of fashion in the 1970s, and the nation, too, moved on. What happened? How could a man whose writings and personal magnetism "permanently transformed the ways in which ordinary men and women throughout the world understand themselves" have left behind "a pseudoscience whose survival is now very much in doubt?"

That is the question the historian Eli Zaretsky asks in Secrets of the Soul. Many psychiatrists and therapists would argue that Freud has not sunk quite as low as Zaretsky suggests, that psychodynamic therapy, derived from psychoanalysis, helps many people. (If you're quiet, you can hear the therapists bristling at "pseudoscience.") But while Einstein, Edison and Henry Ford, to name a few of his contemporaries, have endured as iconic figures, Freud has fallen far from the intellectual pinnacle on which he stood a hundred years ago.

Zaretsky's explanation has to do with the way Freud's ideas became intertwined in society, culture and, most important, economics. As society changed during the economic upheavals of the past century, Freud's place in it changed, too. If, to paraphrase Harold Bloom, Shakespeare invented what it means to be human, Freud invented what it means to be an individual in an industrialized, mass-produced world. Before Freud, life and work centered on the family. But the industrial revolution took work out of the family and, for the first time, gave people an identity separate from that of their families. Freud helped us understand those new identities, Zaretsky says, in a way that both eased the transition and sowed the seeds of revolt.

Freud's ideas were crucial for the success of what Zaretsky calls the second industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution was the transition from factory to farm. The second was from factory to vertically integrated corporation, typified by the Ford Motor Company, which forged its own steel, grew its own rubber trees and controlled the whole chain of production, right down to the dealers who sold Fords in any color you wanted, as long as it was black.

Ford and his imitators had to create demand for the products they could now produce so efficiently, and Freud's consumer was exactly what they needed: The individual was seen as "infinitely desiring, rather than capable of satisfaction," Zaretsky writes, "an image that was indispensable to the growth of mass consumption."

But Freud and his utopian followers, including Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, also helped spark the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, with its challenge to industrial society. As Zaretsky points out, psychoanalysis rejected the "suffocating conformity" of the family, encouraged "authenticity, expressive freedom, and play" and led student activists to conclude that work should be satisfying, not merely a way to make a living. Eventually, when that movement collapsed, Freud was taken down, too. A more experimental, drug-oriented approach to therapy began to displace psychoanalysis, and managed care's restrictions on treatment delivered the fatal blow.

This is only a sampling of the issues that Zaretsky discusses in this expansive, authoritative work. He charts the many shifts in Freud's thinking over the course of his long creative life. He recounts the ways in which psychoanalysis spread from Vienna, across Europe, to the United States and around the world. Zaretsky also sorts out the complex web of friendships, schisms and rivalries that enveloped Freud and his disciples, continuing after Freud's death in 1939.

Perhaps because it is so ambitious, Zaretsky's book is also challenging and difficult at times. Dedicated readers will find their efforts rewarded; those who don't already have some familiarity with the basic tenets of psychoanalysis might have more trouble.

But then, as Zaretsky demonstrates, we all have some familiarity with Freud, whether we've read him or not. Freud and his followers "introduced or redefined such words as 'oral,' 'anal,' 'phallic,' 'genital,' 'unconscious,' 'psyche,' 'drives,' 'conflict,' 'neurosis,' 'hysterical,' 'father complex,' 'inferiority complex,' 'ego-ideal,' 'narcissist,' 'exhibitionist,' 'inhibition,' 'ego,' 'id,' and 'superego.' " Freud left us with the indelible understanding that we each have an inner world, and that it binds us to the social and political world in which we live. Zaretsky does an admirable job of showing us how he did it. *

Paul Raeburn is the author of the recently published memoir "Acquainted with the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children."