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Protecting Freud's Image From Sigmund : FREUD A Life for Our Time by Peter Gay (W.W. Norton: $25; 810 pp., illustrated)

May 08, 1988|Peter J. Swales | Swales is a well-known Freud historian and the author of a forthcoming biography of Wilhelm Fliess (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

In the interest of promulgating his controversial theories, Sigmund Freud saw fit to report and interpret myriad events from his own life, mind and dreams. But he was exceedingly selective when doing so and, later in life, was sharply averse to submitting to a candid biography. Hence, even now, almost half a century after his death--and despite the fact so much is known about the events of his life as a whole--major facets of his mind, character, and personal life remain opaque and subject to much contention. And such matters are critical to any final evaluation of psychoanalysis.

Two attempts have been made at a definitive biography of Freud--by Ernest Jones, with his three-volume study of 1953-57, and by Ronald Clark, with his tome of 1980. Now comes a third such attempt by the distinguished American cultural historian, Peter Gay, in the form of a slick, eloquently written, and elegantly designed volume, which the publisher heralds as comprehensive, trenchant, and "brilliantly argued"--indeed, as the first successful attempt at "unraveling the mind" of Freud in such a way that, at last, the relationship between his life and his work is lucidly laid bare.

In having to rehash a life story by now familiar to so many, professor Gay manages to season it with lots of fascinating new tidbits--mostly with select scraps from hundreds of unpublished letters that he has been the first to gain access to. And these documents allow him to provide the most telling accounts to date of several episodes, some controversial:--for example, Freud's extended analysis of his daughter, Anna, commencing when she was just 22; his collaboration with William Bullitt on a wild psychoanalytic study intended to denigrate Woodrow Wilson, and his escalating anti-Americanism.

Gay is a graduate of a psychoanalytic institute, yet he supposes himself to be in possession of a "historian's professional distance" such as spares him from any "idealization" of his subject. And indeed, as if to demonstrate this, he would seem to delight in criticizing Freud for being variously, at times: reckless, aggressive, callous, arrogant, obstinate; in short, for having all manner of human and professional failings. However, such shortcomings, and much of what we here get to learn about the man that is significantly at odds with the received view, and treated by the biographer as isolated or occasional aberrations rather than being cashed out into any radical reappraisal of Freud's character.

Thus, according to Gay: "His decision to put his daughter Anna on the couch appears like a calculated flouting of the rules he had laid down with such force and precision--for others." But then, three pages later--the reader by then having learned an awful lot about Freud's massive over involvement in his daughter's emotional life toward consolidating a palpably obvious, pathologically intense father-devotion that would ensure her continuing spinsterhood--we are advised: "Most of Freud's seductive maneuvers (toward Anna) were, no doubt, unconscious." Which, naturally, leaves the reader wondering if "unconscious" amounts to an interpretation, an apology, or a plain evasion. In any event, Gay's assertion will hardly convince those more skeptically inclined toward the Freudian canon, who will feel justified in drawing a more sinister conclusion.

So this is a warts-and-all biography; the problem is that it goes only skin-deep. Moreover, Gay's is hardly the portrait of a man equipped to conceive psychoanalysis, for we are left in the dark as to how Freud's life and person inspired some of his most basic assumptions. The biographer espouses the orthodox view that Freudian theory was developed primarily in response to phenomena that spontaneously materialized on the couch. However, recent scholarship has shown that it was founded largely on a priori hypotheses inspired by Freud's reading or subjective preconceptions, while a great deal of its subsequent modifications were profoundly influenced by polemical considerations.

Gay is sharply critical of several of Freud's major case studies--also several of his other treatises--which represent the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory and technique. And he is happy even to acknowledge the covert autobiographical inspiration behind so many of these works. But, in overview, he is little concerned with the flimsy foundations on which the doctrine rests and is content to take Freud's central assumptions as axiomatic.

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