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Book Review : Putting Psychoanalysis on the Couch

November 27, 1987|LEE DEMBART

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis by Peter Gay (Yale: $17.95; 208 pages)

A good friend of mine who has seen several psychiatrists over the last 20 years recently told me that his first analyst was not Jewish, and from him he learned that one shouldn't waste one's money on non-Jewish psychiatrists.

All the rest of his doctors have been Jewish, he said, and from them he learned that one shouldn't waste one's money on Jewish psychiatrists, either.

The close association between Jews and psychiatry has long been a matter of speculation and comment going back to Sigmund Freud himself, the inventor of psychoanalysis and the "Godless Jew" in the title of Peter Gay's very stimulating book.

Freud was an avowed and strident atheist who was nonetheless proud of his Jewish heritage. He thought that being an atheist and being a Jew were essential factors in his founding of psychoanalysis. Gay puts this thesis to the test.

A Scientific Temperament

Atheism, Freud thought, gave him the scientific temperament to apply reason to facts and made him sufficiently iconoclastic to cut through conventional thought. Being a Jew made him comfortable in the role of outsider, a position that his theories forced him to accept.

Many, including Freud, have described psychoanalysis as a "Jewish science." Freud used the term approvingly. Some have gone so far as to claim that Jews have a special Angst , a despair of the soul, that leads them both to become analysts and to become analysands.

Gay disagrees, writing: "Freud's misty intimations fail to resolve the issue of just how and what his mysterious 'racial' heritage had contributed to the making of psychoanalysis." He hinted "to his most dependable Jewish followers that Jews are exceptionally equipped to do psychoanalysis. But he made very little of the notorious boast that the Jews, being the people of the book, are, as it were, chosen for the sort of intellectual pursuit that Freud had undertaken."

Gay, a Yale University historian who is an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Assn., examines these claims in this short book packed with ideas and concludes that atheism was a requirement for the founding of psychoanalysis but that Judaism was not.

No Coincidence

"A believer, whether Jew or Christian, could never have founded psychoanalysis," he writes. "That founder had to be too iconoclastic to accommodate religious faith." But he notes that Charles Darwin, another great iconoclastic scientist, while also an atheist, was by background and culture an establishment Protestant. Gay concludes:

"It is no coincidence that Darwin, too, should have been an atheist. Hence it does not follow that only a marginal man, and in particular a marginal Jew, could have done Freud's life work."

Gay notes that many thinkers--theologians among them--have sought to make a synthesis between religion and psychoanalysis, but Freud flatly rejected all such efforts. For Freud, as for Darwin, religion and science were irreconcilably opposed world views, one based on faith, the other based on reason.

"Freud's fundamental conviction (was) that there are two wholly incompatible styles of thinking in the world, the theological or metaphysical on the one hand, the scientific on the other, and that no mental gymnastics, no effort of will, can ever reconcile them," Gay correctly writes.

Gay places Freud squarely in the tradition of the European Enlightenment and the philosop h e s. He quotes what Diderot said was the aim of his Encyclopedia a century before Freud:

Examined and Shaken Up

"Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection."

Freud claimed--and Gay agrees--that psychoanalysis is a science and is at the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum from religion. But the comparison of psychoanalysis with religion seems to me to be not so easily dismissed as they would wish.

I find that both psychoanalysis and religion require a leap of faith. I find both scornful of dissent (people who argue against psychoanalysis are told that they are being defensive). Both seem to me to appeal only to people who wish to imbue their lives with meaning in the face of the apparent absurdity of the universe.

Traditional psychotherapy seems to work for some people but not for others. As in religion, salvation by the talking cure seems to require both faith and grace, whatever Freud and Gay would have us believe. Without question, Freud was a monumental figure in the history of thought. When Freud died in 1939, W. H. Auden wrote, "To us he is no more a person/ Now but a whole climate of opinion," words that are truer now than they were then. Freud opened the door to a systematic exploration of the sources of human emotions and motivations, and he demonstrated that no matter how rational we think we are, irrationality rules us.

Gay's book is an examination of the sources of Freud's own thought. It is an important and welcome contribution to the vast literature that already exists on Freud and the movement that he founded. But as for the alleged chasm between psychoanalysis and religion, his book is very far from the final word on the subject.

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