Thursday, August 17, 2017

In defense of Freud

George Prochnik reviews Frederick Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, in the NYTimes. Crews, as you may know, is a literary critic who was a Freudian early in his career, but then decided that psychoanalysis was deeply mistaken. He has since devoted considerable time and effort to debunking it.

From Prochnik's review:
Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.

Crews is right that the matter demands further investigation, but this is not the book he has written. Instead “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” focuses on the man — specifically how a reflective young scientist with high ambitions and gifted mentors lost perspective on his “wild hunches,” covered up his errors and created “an international cult of personality.” In practice, this translates into 700-plus pages of Freud mangling experiments, shafting loved ones, friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and ultimately, God help us, swindling humanity at large. Here we have Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester, woman hater, money-worshiper, chronic plagiarizer and all-around nasty nut job. This Freud doesn’t really develop, he just builds a rap sheet.

There is value in Crews’s having synthesized the full roster of Freud’s blunders between 1884 and 1900, the period his book concentrates on. Almost all of this material has been covered before, but not compiled in one volume — and Crews has brought a new level of detail to some of these accounts.
Crews is so invested in denying Freud primacy for any of the ideas associated with psychoanalysis that have retained a jot of credibility, and offers such a paucity of larger sociohistorical context for a study of this scale, that in reading his account it is easy to imagine humanity’s understanding of sexuality and psychology as such was advancing quite admirably until Freud came along and thrust us all into the lurid dungeon of his own ugly obsessions. Stefan Zweig’s account of sexual life in pre-Freud Vienna provides a different perspective: “The fear of everything physical and natural dominated the whole people, from the highest to the lowest with the violence of an actual neurosis,” Zweig wrote in his autobiography. Young women “were hermetically locked up under the control of the family, hindered in their free bodily as well as intellectual development. The young men were forced to secrecy and reticence by a morality which fundamentally no one believed or obeyed.” The cruelty of this social paradigm was equally pernicious across the Atlantic, contemporary observers noted, where New England’s code of civilized mores was often crippling for women and morbidly confusing for men.

By identifying sexual desire as a universal drive with endlessly idiosyncratic objects determined by individual experiences and memories, Freud, more than anyone, not only made it possible to see female desire as a force no less powerful or valid than male desire; he made all the variants of sexual proclivity dance along a shared erotic continuum. In doing so, Freud articulated basic conceptual premises that reduced the sway of experts who attributed diverse sexual urges to hereditary degeneration or criminal pathology. His work has allowed many people to feel less isolated and freakish in their deepest cravings and fears.
And so:
The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.
As you may know, I continue to find psychoanalytic ideas useful, as I assert in Neural Weather, an Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I read John Bowlby's Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1. Attachment while it was still in typescript. I was guided in this by Mary Ainsworth, who had studied with Bowlby. In that work Bowlby began reconstructing (some) psychoanalytic ideas using ideas from systems theory (Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior, 1960) and observations from ethology. That seemed to me to be the way to go, and still does: reconstruct the ideas in contemporary terms. That project is on-going.

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