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Psychoanalysis Is Dead ... So How Does That Make You Feel?

Arguably no other notable figure in history was as wrong as Freud was about every important thing he had to say.

February 18, 2004|Todd Dufresne

What an utter disappointment the 1990s were for the fans of Freud. Time magazine asked aloud, and on its cover no less, "Is Freud Dead?" And the former analytic stronghold, the New York Review of Books, published lengthy feature articles debunking Freud's reputation as a man and as a thinker.

By the end of the decade, even the New Yorker was in on the action. Taken as a whole, these sensations of the 1990s, part of the so-called "Freud wars," capture the gist of a cause well lost.

The year 2000 -- the centenary of "The Interpretation of Dreams" -- should have been a triumph for Freudians. Instead, amid the celebrations was a funereal whiff of defeat: The psychoanalytic century was over before the 21st century had begun. Everyone knew the answer to Time's rhetorical question. Psychoanalysis was indeed dead.

Well, almost everyone knew. You can always count on intellectuals to keep a candle burning for whatever idea they've invested long years, enormous sums of money and, perhaps above all, limitless ego promoting.

Obviously, it's not easy to walk away from a venture of this magnitude -- one that helped pave the way for tenure and the prestige of authorship. Over the years, there were so many books, so many reviews, so many lectures, all with so little perspective on Freud's limitations, and partisans were just not ready to give it all up. So the Freud industry soldiered on.

Freud is truly in a class of his own. Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been -- and still are -- infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.

So what can we see today that we didn't see during the last century? We now know that Freud compulsively fudged the historical record. This tendency is evident in Freud's backsliding statements on his advocacy of cocaine, his opportunism concerning the case of Anna O., his flip-flops on the seduction theory, and in almost every instance where he mentions a patient.

Just ask the "Wolf Man," Sergius Pankejeff, whom Freud supposedly cured but who was, in truth, consigned to psychoanalysis for an additional 60 years. Not surprising, Pankejeff considered Freud's effect on his life a "catastrophe."

We also know that Freud never seriously dealt with the problem of "suggestion," which totally compromised his clinical findings and, by extension, his theories. Already, by the 1890s, few believed in Freud's convenient claim that suggestion -- the undue influence of the psychoanalyst over the patient -- was possible only in the biologically predisposed and was thus of no consequence to his findings. Amazingly, these critical insights were buried under Freud's rhetoric of denial and by his growing fame. Now we've come full circle. Today we know better than to trust in memories, or in free associations, that supposedly issue from the "therapeutic alliance" between analyst and patient.

Then there is the theory of the unconscious, which has also seen better days. We all agree that Freud did not "discover" the unconscious, and are sophisticated enough to see that it has a history that long predates him: as the devil that possessed Christians; as the mesmerism and hypnosis that invoked the split, double and multiple personalities of the 18th and 19th centuries; and as the theme of "doubling" that informed much Victorian literature and, today, still informs the dumbest plot lines in Hollywood and in psychotherapy.

Now connect the dots. In each iteration of the unconscious, some anointed medium -- priest, quack or analyst -- claims special access to the darkest, scariest reaches of our minds. For a certain price, he or she can cure you of this demon.

Of course, as with exorcism, the psychoanalytic "cure" hinges upon belief in mysterious entities such as the unconscious. For with belief we are back in the realm of suggestion and, at its best, the placebo effect. True, that's not nothing. But the cult-like exigencies of psychoanalysis dictate that normal human suggestibility be exploited for the cause of conversion. As Karl Kraus put it many years ago, psychoanalysis itself became the poison it purports to cure. Another way to put it is that it is psychoanalysis itself that has infected the Western soul with penis envy, Oedipal conflicts, death drives and so on. For these ideas are not given to, and cannot be found in, the world. They must be created. Consequently, the death of psychoanalysis is itself the only cathartic event psychoanalysis was ever designed to deliver.

In the beginning, psychoanalysis was laughable, and then it was ponderable. Then, unfortunately, it was tragic -- for patients and for Western culture in general. Now psychoanalysis is just laughable again. This is a good thing. At last we are in a position to do justice to Freud.

To this end I propose the following: Next year let's honor the centenary of Freud's famously unfunny 1905 book, "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious." For although in 2000 some people still weren't ready to celebrate the death of Freud, in 2005 we can all give this book and its screwball theories the sendup they so richly deserve.

Woody, give me a call.

Todd Dufresne, a professor at the Northern Ontario Medical School, is the author of "Killing Freud: 20th Century Culture & the Death of Psychoanalysis," published this month by Continuum Books.

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