Freud and his Critics by Paul Robinson

Freud and his Critics by Paul Robinson (UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1993) pdf

  Freud and his Critics by Paul Robinson (UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1993)The Anti-Freudian Mood

Everybody knows that Freud has fallen from grace. Whenever I have told someone that I was writing a book about him, the response has almost invariably been the same: “Hasn’t he been disproved?” Or I have been asked about the latest scandal from the newspapers: “Wasn’t he a cocaine addict?” “Didn’t he lie about his patients being sexually abused?” “Freud’s Reputation Shrinks a Little” read a recent frontpage headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, introducing an account of Freud’s American patient Dr. Horace Frink, whom Freud apparently urged to divorce his wife and marry a former patient. In the same article Frank Sulloway is quoted:

“Each of Freud’s published cases plays a role in the psychoanalytic legend. But the more detail you learn about each case, the stronger the image becomes of Freud twisting the facts to fit his theory.”

Hardly a month seems to pass without a story or a comment of this sort, whether in the popular press or in scholarly writings and reviews.

The tide had already begun to turn in the 1970s. The first hint that Freud’s reputation was in trouble came from the new feminists. The year 1970 itself was particularly rough, when, in separate books, Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, and Eva Figes all took Freud to task for his reactionary views on women. 1970 also witnessed the publication of Henri Ellenberger’s massive study The Discovery of the Unconscious, with its irreverent chapter on Freud; a few years later Paul Roazen’s Freud and His Followers continued in a similar vein.

Ellenberger and Roazen were significant precursors of the more full-blooded criticism of the 1980s, but in retrospect they seem relatively mild and conventional. The past decade, by comparison, has brought an avalanche of anti-Freudian writings, their tone ever more hostile. Undeniably, Freud’s reputation has undergone a sea change.

The contrast with the 1950s and 1960s, when I first read Freud, could hardly be greater. In the wake of Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography, published between 1953 and 1957, the American intellectual community seemed to have reached a consensus that Freud was not only the most important thinker of the twentieth century but one of the giants in the history of thought. The year 1952 saw him installed as the author of the final volume in Robert Maynard Hutchins’s Great Books of the Western World, placing him in the company of the immortals. In Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1955), Lionel Trilling, the voice of the liberal intellectual establishment, pronounced him the prime mover of modernism, and he was accorded a similar dignity, a decade later, in Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson’s widely used anthology, The Modern Tradition. Philip Rieff s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist reflected perhaps most perfectly the stature he had attained by the year of its publication, 1961. Freud, Rieff argued, was the great moral intelligence of the century and the virtual creator of the modem conception of the self.

Steven Marcus—who, with Lionel Trilling, edited a one-volume abridgment of Jones’s biography—summed up the mid-century consensus just as it was about to dissolve:

As the twentieth century moves through its last two decades, it becomes increasingly evident that the figure of Sigmund Freud remains as one of a very small handful of intellectual presences who have presided over the complex courses that Western thought and culture have taken throughout the entire epoch. His reputation and place in the history of the modem world have never stood higher or enjoyed a firmer security than they do today.

Writing a couple of years before Marcus, Frederick Crews more accurately sensed the winds of change that were about to buffet Freud’s creation. “Psychoanalysis,” Crews predicted, “will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits.” Unquestionably, the collapse of Freud’s reputation in the 1980s—not unlike the simultaneous collapse of Marx’s reputation—was an extraordinarily dramatic reversal of fortune.

In one respect, Freud might seem to be alive and well in the contemporary intellectual world.  am thinking of the prestige that psychoanalysis still enjoys in literary studies, particularly those influenced by his French disciple Jacques Lacan. But analytically inclined literary critics have been largely uninterested in Freud himself, and, in any event, the Lacanian version of psychoanalysis favored by many literary critics is a very different intellectual animal from the Viennese original, lacking both Freud’s strong clinical base and his devotion to lucidity.

One might even argue that the airy extravagance of recent literary theory—psychoanalytic or otherwise—has actually contributed to the pervasive sense of Freud’s disgrace: to many, the bad intellectual manners on display in deconstruction bear more than a family resemblance to the interpretive habits fostered by analysis. Frederick Crews, for one, is as dismissive of contemporary literary theory as he is of Freud, and for similar reasons. Crews’s fellow critic Nina Auerbach observes of Freud’s popularity in the literary community: “No sadder proof exists of the rift between literature and science than this new adherence to a Freudianism that is rapidly losing authority outside the circle of literary theory.” The boom in psychoanalytic literary studies, then, seems to have at best ambiguous implications for Freud’s reputation as a thinker…

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