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Dispatches from the Freud Wars
Psychoanalysis and Its Passions
By John Forrester


The Freud Wars have been raging for some years now, with serious historical argument and abstract philosophical criticism neatly dovetailed with name-calling, ill temper, and vitriol. From television to the daily newspapers, from the weekly reviews to museum exhibitions, from books and articles published by scholarly presses to professional conferences and debates--all these open spaces for the public expression of opinion have become arenas of contestation. More private spaces are no doubt equally infused with sniping and surprise offensives, sometimes even the search for an armistice--at least they are in my experience. Leaving the necessarily more intractable private spaces to one side for the moment, how do questions as abstruse as different philosophical approaches to confirmation in the sciences or as gossipy as Freud's relationship with his sister-in-law become regular concerns of national newspapers? Why, in other words, do the Freud Wars matter to our culture at large?

For those less involved in the day-to-day skirmishes than the combatants necessarily are, Freud's place in twentieth-century culture--scientific, philosophical, literary, cultural, and religious--is uncontested. "We live," Mark Edmundson writes, "at least according to numberless commentators, in the Age of Freud, a cultural moment in which the critical and descriptive terminologies readiest to use sound with unmistakeably Freudian resonances." George Steiner, Philip Rieff, Jacques Derrida each confirms his judgment. The list of "Eminent Freudians" will inevitably open with different names in different places, depending on our own particular cultural horizon and history; Edmundson's opens with Empson, Burke, and Trilling, but we could just as easily start with Mann, Wilson, and Sartre, to finish with Cavell, Kristeva, and Habermas. And any list should be capacious enough to include Claude Levi-Strauss and Woody Allen, Sir Aaron Klug and Brian de Palma, Richard Rorty, A. S. Byatt, and even the enigmatic French soccer player Eric Cantona. Each of these would probably assent to Rorty's perception that, in the domain of moral reflection, of the creation (rather than recognition) of the self and in the arena of sex, there is as little chance of going back to pre-Freudian beliefs as there is of going back to pre-Copernican beliefs. There is something irreversible about what Freud has done to twentieth-century culture. The vitriolic debates are simply an index of coming to terms with that transformation, with no more real prospect of undoing it than militant greens have of restoring the planet to the status quo ante the automobile. Which does not require us to accept without question the effects on our lives of either Freud or the Volvo.

Certainly in the twenty-five years or so that I have been concerned with psychoanalysis, with its history and philosophy, with its conceptual structure and its social practices, there has never been a time when it was not contested or viewed with suspicion. In the 1970s, the feminist critique of psychoanalysis associated with Friedan, Millett, Greer, and many others was as splenetic and furious as any of the present entanglements. In 1971, when pulling out from a bookshelf a volume of the Standard Edition whose title interested me, by this "Freud" whose name I of course knew but had never read, I had been admonished by a close feminist friend that Freud was not worth reading because he was of all writers the most male chauvinist. The injunction, it may be thought, had precisely the opposite effect. "What is so threatening and so dangerous about this writer that one should make sure not to read him?" Much of 1970s feminism was virulently anti-psychological, fearing that inquiry into motives and inner worlds inevitably entailed a strategy of divide and rule: divide the women into their individual inner worlds so as to remove the possibility of their recognition of what was social and therefore common, in its banal ordinariness, to every oppressed woman. It was rape, not fantasy, that began to concern feminists; and, from the late 1970s on, it was the sexual abuse of children, not the Oedipus complex, that became a new crusade for many feminists. Freud and all the institutions of psychoanalysis became deeply suspect for having highlighted fantasy and desire, rather than brute reality and sexual exploitation.

The vilification of Freud by feminists has undoubtedly provided a stable cultural framework over the last thirty years for much discussion of psychoanalysis. A second principal theme in the overall critique of psychoanalysis has been its status as a source of scientific authority and therapeutic promise. This critique is considerably older than the feminist critique, dating back to the beginnings of psychoanalysis; it is--and this is a very important feature of the cultural and scientific location of psychoanalysis--the constant companion of psychoanalysis, as much a part of its history as its infiltration and co-optation by the movie industry. The letters of Freud, Jung, Jones, Ferenczi and all the early adherents of psychoanalysis are catalogues of the campaigns fought on behalf of psychoanalysis against its critics. These critics have been stationed somewhat, but finally not fundamentally, differently from the current wave: psychiatrists, biologists, social scientists, academic psychologists, cultural critics, newspaper reviewers, novelists, philosophers, and health insurance managers (formerly known as asylum superintendents). One does not need to rely on Freud's concept of a generalized and universal cultural resistance to the difficult truths of psychoanalysis to realize that the proponents and opponents have been conducting trench warfare over the same piece of territory for nigh on a hundred years.

What are we to make of this unceasing struggle? It may be educational to think of the battle between Freud and his critics as akin to the contest between an analyst and his patient. Whose side you are on in this unholy mixture of seduction and strife--whether you think the analyst should be treated with all the suspicion we might reserve for a priest who uses the weapons of the intellectual terrorist, a Grand Inquisitor for our time, or whether you think the analyst might have something useful to say to his patient--can be set aside for a moment. Consider whether Freud's description of that dialogue may not be helpful: "If in the course of a battle there is a particularly embittered struggle over the possession of some little church or some individual farm, there is no need to suppose that the church is a national shrine, perhaps, or that the house shelters the army's pay-chest. The value of the object may be a purely tactical one and may perhaps emerge only in this one battle." Recognizing that the battle over the phallocentrism of psychoanalytic theory and practice, or the battle over the scientific pretensions--as if it were a shrine--or over the therapeutic efficacy--as if it were the paychest--may only be tactical, we are obliged to ask: what is the war itself being fought over?

The war is over far larger issues than either Freud's critics or the professionals who are identified as Freud's defenders and progeny--the analysts, the therapists, the "mental health professionals," as they are dolefully known--are willing to accept. Freud speaks to much larger cultural issues in the twentieth century than, say, Frederick Crews's tripartite division of issues raised by psychoanalysis into questions of therapeutic efficacy, questions of scientific explanation, and questions concerning Freud's scientific probity. Even Crews admits as much when he asks: "Where, then, are Freud's authenticated contributions not to ethics or mores or literary criticism but to actual knowledge of the mind?"--implying that Freud has made "authenticated contributions" to ethics, mores, and literary criticism. Leaving aside the perplexity provoked by the assumption that ethics or mores might not involve actual knowledge of the mind, it is clear that even for Crews, ethics, mores, and literary criticism have been clearly marked by Freud, and we can effortlessly add the following to this list of cultural endeavors irreversibly stamped by Freud: politics, the social sciences, literature itself--not just literary criticism--and the arts in general. We have to take seriously the suggestion that debates about psychoanalysis should not be couched in the form: is it an art or a science? But rather: what changes in our general categories are required by recognizing that psychoanalysis is both an art and a science? Not just the old-fashioned sense of art, as when we say that medicine is an art and a science, in order to remind ourselves that, no matter how scientific medicine becomes, its primary obligation is always to curing the individual, which requires the practical wisdom, the phronesis, associated with any deliberate action in (as opposed to knowledge of) the world. But also the recognition that psychoanalysis has produced in the analyst a cultural figure whose work is aesthetic as much as it is investigative (in the style of the research scientist or of the private detective) and has made available to the patient the opportunity to render his or her life a work of art, a narrative of chance and destiny as well as a thriller, whether psychological or otherwise. Freud, thus, must not only be considered alongside Darwin or Einstein, but also as a combination of Darwin with Proust, Pasteur with Picasso, or even Weber with H. G Wells. Or, for those somewhat less impressed by Freud than these names would imply, at the very least a combination of bogus second-raters: say, Salvador Dali with the suspect scientist Paul Kammerer.

The essays in this book range widely, tracking areas in which Freud's influence has been undeniable, often unexpected and usually controversial. Chapter 1 arose from considering one single sentence of Freud's in which he suggested a surprising and original interpretation of the biblical Judgment of Solomon. The necessary context for inquiring into that sentence turned out, however, to be much broader than biblical texts, implicating the distinctive psychoanalytic transformation of our views of the relations between politics and the individual and between morality and the emotions. What place does an emotion such as envy have in our view of politics if the very constitution of the political subject may be affected by the experience of envy--or, by implication, of other intense passions which may influence, may even provide the basis for, our view of the social world and our relations to others? What effect does psychoanalysis as a result have on political theory in general, and how should psychoanalytic political theory be appraised in that connection? Does psychoanalysis imply the demise of a theory of political agency which calls on universal categories of justice and rationality? Must our model of judicial rationality now be based not so much on ideals of equality and rationality but on the crass reality of the behavior of judicial plaintiffs squabbling over a newborn baby or, in an equally modern mode, of a husband and wife using the justice of the courts to take their revenge on each other?

Certain critics, in their demand on psychoanalysis to make good its claim to be a science, insist that in order to be scientific it must remove every element of subjectivity. While appreciating that objectivity, in the sense of the absence of biased and self-interested claims, is something to be admired under certain circumstances, such as making judgments in court or in the dispensation of funding for charitable or cultural causes, it has always seemed to me an inappropriate goal in psychoanalytic treatment. Treatment, after all, is part of life, and the relationship a patient develops with his or her analyst is as passionate, as intimate, and maybe even as lengthy as many a modern marriage. To demand objectivity of both patient and analyst under these circumstances seems as sensible as asking married couples to be objective and rational in their relations with their spouses.

One may well object to this analogy: marriage is real life, psychoanalytic treatment is only make-believe. From one point of view that is true; but from the point of view of the patient, the line between make-believe transference and real passions is inevitably, if only temporarily, erased. Freud's view of transference-love, that it was as real and as normal as any other instance of that pathology we call love, is clear on this point. It is the foundation of psychoanalysis, and its inevitable and irremediable scandal, that patients develop passionate relations to and with their analysts. The scandal becomes a double scandal, rather like those operatic comedies in which a double marriage brings to a close the dramatic action, when the passions of life have added to them the pursuit of scientific truth and professional achievement. Such was the double scandal of Freud's relationship with Sandor Ferenczi and Ferenczi's relationship with his mistress Gizella Palos and her daughter Elma. How the analysts and colleagues, Freud and Ferenczi, negotiated their ways through the minefield of love and truth, psychoanalysis and science, is the concern of the second chapter, "Casualties of Truth," where I present the view that psychoanalysis is distinctive in its practice because of its resolute lack of concern for ethical principles. Milan Kundera writes of the western novel in its development since Rabelais that "suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality." Something very similar could be said of psychoanalytic practice. No doubt at a deeper cultural level the possibility and the cultural fertility of both the novel and psychoanalysis are linked. And, just as the novel may appear to be the vehicle for the values of honesty and character, of truth and courage, while its very form is irony, indirection, and playful mimicry, so a similar tension inhabits psychoanalysis: one between the ethic of honesty which its theory promotes and the practice of play-acting, the carnival of masks, that its practice consists in.

Those who seek the values that psychoanalysis promotes or embodies have sometimes pointed to the stern bourgeois habits and values of its founder as a firm indicator. To round off the image evoked by alluding to Freud's taste for classical German literature and realist novels, what could be more clinching than the paean of praise to conventional values proclaimed by the collection of classical antiquities that Freud amassed over some forty years as a collector? In Chapter 3 I take a new look at the lessons about psychoanalysis to be learned from Freud's collecting activities, starting with the obvious but usually overlooked fact that Freud collected much more than archaeological objects of contested aesthetic value--what a connoisseur of ancient art, who on the face of it spends his life totally outside the war zones associated with psychoanalysis, recently informed me was a second-rate collection put together by a typical Viennese philistine. Freud was a preeminent collector of scientific objects as well as of objets d'art. Having recognized this, what more do we learn about psychoanalysis and its place in twentieth-century culture once we accustom ourselves to viewing Freud as an original if eccentric collector of unconventional objects devoted to a scientific end? The realization slowly dawns on us that the properly analyzed patient is not necessarily a second-hand Oedipus, Hamlet, or even Marcel. The fully analyzed person may well be just someone who is finally capable of doing a somersault.

Certainly Freud's masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams, bears witness to his acute awareness of the audience for those collectables. In Chapter 4, "Dream Readers," I attempt to answer the most fundamental question concerning the development of psychoanalysis as a practice and as an institution, a question succinctly posed by Jacques Derrida: "How can an autobiographical writing, in the abyss of an unterminated self-analysis, give birth to a world-wide institution?" How does Freud create a science out of a self-analysis? how does he disarm, seduce, persuade, and finally manufacture his readers out of such unlikely materials as the meanderings of a dreamer as he recounts those dreams to an audience? How, in other words, does Freud transform the dream into a proper object for science and its methodical procedures of inquiry? And how does Freud, at the same time, induce the reader--the follower, the critic, the disciple, even the "educated and curious-minded reader" of whom Freud writes--to enter into that intimate, jousting relationship with him, the first skirmish in this century's long-drawn-out Freudian campaign, that his masterpiece initiated?

Chapter 5, "A Whole Climate of Opinion," is devoted to a chronicling of that long campaign in its wider context, the historiography of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century. Beyond the studies of Freud as a personal, historical, or intellectual figure, beyond the conceptual history of psychoanalysis as a set of doctrines and theories, the chapter points toward the necessity for a history of psychoanalytic cultures. Those cultures are multifaceted: part medical, part scientific, part pop, part avant-gardist. The many faces of Freud's offspring, sometimes working together, sometimes in tension or in conflict, require a more subtle history than we have yet been offered. The chapter presents guidelines and guesses for such histories, drawing on figures as diverse as Michel Foucault, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ernest Gellner, Peter Swales, and Bruno Latour.

British readers will remember how the classic work 1066 And All That depicts English history as so many risible attempts, each doomed to failure, to answer the Irish Question. My final chapter, which gives this book its title, addresses a range of offensives in the recent cultural interrogation of the Freud Question. From Stanley Fish to Frederick Crews, via Adolf Grunbaum and Frank Sulloway, the chapter explores the terrain on which the critiques are played out. Some of the observers on the sidelines come away, like Pierre Bezuhov from the Battle of Borodino, convinced that the only way to bring peace is to do away with the General, the invader, the villain of the piece--Freud himself. "We don't need bloody Freud to tell us that!" commented a doyen of the contemporary wave of criticisms of psychoanalysis, Frank Cioffi, when interviewed for a TV program in 1993. Killing the messenger is one of the most hallowed of strategies for dealing with unwanted news. Freud called it disavowal, foreclosure, or repudiation. In the recent intensification of hostilities around Freud and psychoanalysis, repudiation--treating the events as non arrives--is to be found on both sides. For the Cioffis and the Crewses, there is no mistaking, despite their repeated protestations to the contrary and their gratuitous slurs on their opponents and critics, their heartfelt wish that Freud might never have been born or, failing to achieve that end, that all his works and influence be made as nothing. (In the Epilogue to this book, an apocryphal Freud gets to comment on this strategy.) The classic maneuver asserts that whatever Freud said that is true is either banal and commonplace or can be found in writers and thinkers, such as Shakespeare, Pascal, Hobbes, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche, who predate him (and sometimes both). And whatever he says that is novel and revolutionary is false and misleading. In other words, if what he says is right, he stole it from somewhere else, sometimes even passing off the universal wisdom of mankind as his own discovery--"Was it really Freud who first disclosed such commonplaces?" asks Crews. On the other hand, if what he says is wrong, it belongs entirely to him and it is we who are the fools if we believe it. Take another typical example of Crews in benign mood, noting the cultural durability of Freud's achievements: "Freud will survive because his essentially medieval (spirit-possession) and romantic (little elves make deeper selves) conceptions, combined with his emphasis on sex, his facile symbolic code, and his courageous-looking but essentially egocentric and prurient encouragement to look for low motives in everyone but oneself, still pack an emotional wallop." This hilarious passage, clearly completely devoid of any intention to "pack emotional wallop," conveys a limpid sense of the issues for Crews and the spirit in which the Wars should be fought. But, to be fair and accurate, there is no mistaking the complementary visceral reactions of fear and rage on the other side, of the apologists of psychoanalysis, when confronted with the intemperate tone and the wounding criticisms generated by Freud's opponents.

Despite--could it really be because of?--the fact that Freud has been dead for close on to a lifetime, it is clear that there is an incessant to-ing and fro-ing between attacking him and his work and attacking large-scale intellectual and clinical movements which are attributed, in one way or another, to him, as if victory on one front will increase the chances of capitulation on others. Hence there is an incessant oscillation between the widely spaced terrains of battle: between Freud as a person and Freud as the founder of a cultural practice, between Freud as a scientist-cum-priest and psychoanalysis as an institution and cultural presence, between therapy itself as a personal venture, eccentricity, or "confidence trick" (Medawar's verdict on psychoanalysis) and therapy as a fact of twentieth-century life--a movement with as many subvariant products as the modern consumer expects from cable TV. Each of these individual battlefields will be taken to stand for the whole war. Each shot that is fired, let alone seen to hit its mark, in one zone is expected to bring victory across the whole front.

This constant confusion between "Freuds"--as embodied in the "life," the "work," Freudiana, Freud's writings, Freud's theories, classical psychoanalytic theory, orthodox psychoanalytic practice, psychoanalysis as a cultural movement, therapy as a professional practice--is made easy by a strange fact: everyone knows, from a very young age, what "Freud" said and what "Freud" stands for. I remember one day in 1979 bumping into a close friend and his 11-year-old daughter; when I told her that I had just finished writing a book about Freud, she exclaimed: "Freud, yuk! He's horrible!" Very much in the same tone as she might have said: "The Bay City Rollers, yuk! They're horrible!" There is a difficult piece of cultural history to be written in this domain, the domain of Freud as a received idea of the twentieth century. The first entry of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas reads:

ABELARD. No need to have any idea of his philosophy, nor even to know the titles of his works. Refer discreetly to the mutilation inflicted on him by Fulbert. The grave of Abelard and Heloise: if someone proves to you that it is apocryphal, exclaim: "You are robbing me of my illusions!"

For Freud's entry, in the late twentieth century, we might wish to write:

FREUD. No need to have any idea of his philosophy, nor even to know the titles of his works, because everyone already knows all that. Refer discreetly either to the fact that he slept with his sister-in-law (after all, the man who invented modern sexuality must have had some kind of illicit sexual passions, preferably of the unacceptable kind) or to the fact that he made everything up (after all, people like you and me don't spend all their time thinking about sex, do we?). But preferably not both at once. In uncertain company, it's always good manners to say he's rather passe, though he once had something useful to say to our parents' generation (see PSEUDOSCIENCE). But be prepared to backtrack and defend the power of his eternal insights into human nature. If feeling forceful and required to be up-to-date, declare how shameful it is that we've only recently learned about all those scandals. And there are still more to come ...

Not only does everyone know what Freud wrote and what everything Freudian "really means," everyone also knows what all the fuss is really about. So the process of writing about Freud must always be one of uneducating one's readers. I stand on common ground with some of Freud's critics on this issue, since at least some of them believe in reading and thinking closely about his work and its historical context. But, unlike these critics, it is my wager that the more one knows about Freud--the more one has unlearned what one was culturally hard-wired to know about him--the more interesting and surprising and thought-provoking he becomes. The final answer to Freud's critics is that many intelligent men and women--and maybe even children--have recognized and continue to recognize this.

Copyright 1997 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Harvard University Press

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