• Email
  • Print

An Exchange on Freud and Women

To the Editors:

Christopher Lasch has asserted incorrectly (NYR, October 3) that Women and Analysis: Dialogues on Psychoanalytic Views of Femininity consists mainly of essays written by people unsympathetic to Freud’s psychology of women; that one of them in particular, Marcia Cavell, is “laboring to refute” Freudian theory; and that I have accused Freud of peddling an ideology.

On the contrary. The book is designed precisely to counter the neofeminists’ indictment (Lasch’s term) of Freud and psychoanalysis, and most of its contributors are in fundamental sympathy with Freud’s theories.

It may be that Mr. Lasch means something unusual by “sympathy,” however—so that any attempt to question or rethink Freud’s theoretical formulations amounts to heresy. Freud himself never required that sort of orthodoxy of his followers, and did not expect thinking about the psychology of women to stop on publication of his last paper. The point of Women and Analysis is not to refute Freud’s concepts, but to look at them again in light of what has been learned over the past forty years about what Freud called the “dark continent” of the sexual lives of women.

Jean Strouse

New York City

To the Editors:

In his review of Women and Analysis, an anthology consisting of several classic psychoanalytic statements on women together with responses by contemporary authors, Christopher Lasch remarks that “the original essays are accompanied by commentaries which, except in a couple of cases, are written by people unsympathetic to Freud’s psychology of women.” Apparently he includes me in this group, and calls my contribution to the volume a repetition of “the well-worn accusation that Freud’s sexual theories incorporated mechanistic nineteenth-century biology.” The subject of my article was a 1924 essay by Helene Deutsch entitled “The Psychology of Women in Relation to the Function of Reproduction,” which puts forth a view of female development founded on the libido theory. This theory is the basis for Deutsch’s contentions that the clitoris is a “masculine” organ and that masochism is natural to women. One could not discuss these claims without discussing their biological presuppositions, though this formed only a part of my article.

The more important point is that Mr. Lasch should take criticism of the libido theory as indication of a lack of sympathy with Freud. Few Freudians would; which points to a strange split between the humanists’ view of psychoanalysis (in this context I consider myself in the other camp) and the psychoanalysts’. Humanists seem to think that, for better or for worse, psychoanalysis began and ended with Freud. It was one of the intentions of Jean Strouse’s anthology and of the anthology Psychoanalysis and Women, which Mr. Lasch also reviewed, to show that the psychoanalysts, including the “Freudian” psychoanalysts, do not think so. Freud was more modest on most subjects, including that of women, than either his feminist critics or his humanist supporters suggest, and was continually acknowledging the need for further research and fundamental revisions of his theories. Mr. Lasch’s review implies that, on the contrary, all the information about women is in, and that Freud did with it all there was to be done. As a “Freudian” myself, I find this view a disservice to Freud and to psychoanalysis, let alone to women.

Marcia Cavell

State University of New York

Purchase, New York

To the Editors:

Christopher Lasch’s review of three books on women and psychoanalysis has the overall impact of making those who differ with, or go beyond Freud seem social democratic, reformist, non-dialectical—and perhaps most to be abhorred—superficial. By contrast Lasch makes Freud seem dialectical and deep. Also universal and “true.” To top it all, revolutionary!

On the contrary, some of us, even us psychoanalysts, view the Freudian formulations as superficial. And non-dialectical. The large groundwork of material which leads us to such thoughts was not brought out in the review although it is present in two of the books under consideration.

Perhaps I can suggest a small portion of a very large point by a brief comment on dialectics. There may be a confusion between a conflict theory, which Freud’s obviously and clearly was, and a dialectical theory, which is more questionable. This important distinction can be illustrated in Freud’s theory on women.

There is no doubt that Freud was massively impressed with the submersion and subversion of women’s minds. Juliet Mitchell says that Freud was merely describing the psychic destruction that patriarchy inflicts on women, not necessarily advocating it.

Perhaps so many people believe he did advocate it because there were some things Freud did not see dialectically at all—that women also react back against this destruction of their minds. At the most fundamental level women produce a psychological counter-movement, a deep psychic protest. Freud certainly picked up on this protest too. But he did not follow through on either the full or the real dialectic here—that is, the influence of patriarchy on women’s minds and women’s specific psychological reaction against it, which leads to a specifically feminine synthesis, a feminine psychic structure. Instead Freud went over into seeing the protest as something masculine, i.e., the wish to be masculine. Thus, he saw only two possibilities, neither of which are dialectic: either the wish to be a man or full surrender. The latter according to social norms is equated with “health”; the former with sickness and being unfeminine.

Freud then also failed to see that the resultant feminine psychic structure would have to be not only a protest, a negation. It would be formed of a negation of the negation, a positive movement towards a new synthesis which is distinctively feminine, arising out of feminine experience. It cannot be stated in masculine terms, or even masculine analogies.

What Freud described is the more superficial and apparent diversion of feminine development into the only terms that may seem recognizable in a patriarchal framework, that is masculine terms. In patriarchal society there is almost no place to put this feminine synthesis into manifest action. The only institutional forms available are those which provide for, and reward, either masculine forms of activity or so-called feminine forms of submission. Psychoanalysis, which deals with events going on beneath accepted institutional forms, could have been the field to eludicate this feminine contribution. Instead, the inability to recognize the presence of a distinctive feminine synthesis led Freud away from it. This is why so much of Freud rings so close to true and yet so misleads women into resignation and mystification. It is here that what could have been the revolutionary import of Freud was deflected and lost.

Here I think is the core of the difference. One can sit in a psychoanalytic office hearing a great many things and can decide these mean penis envy and the wish to be masculine. Or one can sit, as I do, and hear similar words, dreams, fantasies as women’s valid and valuable protest and attempt to move beyond patriarchy. One then disagrees with the Freudian construction.

This, incidentally, does not lead into any great “social democratic optimism” as anyone who tries to transcend patriarchy knows deep in her gut. It does, however, lead me to believe that Freudian theory, “unrevised” and uncriticized can be totally and dangerously wrong.

Robert Seidenberg has written a beautiful report of an “ordinary housewife” suffering with a phobia, which illustrates just this distinction. He has also written an equally beautiful restudy of Antigone. He, incidentally, is one of the deepest admirers of Freud, but one who has transcended Freud’s limitation. The first study is reprinted in the book I edited, one which Mr. Lasch says ignores close followers of Freud.

There are many other points to be raised about Freudian dialectics but not everyone who criticizes Freud does so from this point of view. In the books under consideration, but not considered by Mr. Lasch, several other approaches are also represented. To cite just one example, Robert Stoller presents a formulation which certainly seems deeper than Freud’s. On the basis of large amounts of new knowledge, Stoller and others now believe that one’s most basic sense of what it is to be female (or male) develops much earlier than the time of Freud’s Oedipal period. Thus, the deepest psychic structures that are formed by virtue of learning that one is really female cannot originate in the Oedipal fantasies as Freud said they did (and as Juliet Mitchell makes the basis of her study). Stoller believes that the influences of the Oedipal period are a later and less totally determining overlay. The more basic meaning of feminine identity has already been decided on other grounds. Stoller is, so far as I know, totally loyal to the whole Freudian outlook and methodology. As may be obvious, I do not necessarily follow him in this. He and several other close followers of Freud who are represented in my book are merely trying to take into account a wealth of new evidence.

It is true, as Mr. Lasch says, that no one can “prove” or disprove a theory such as Freud’s. It is also true that such a theory should be consistent with all available evidence. Likewise the fact that Freud’s theory is highly elaborated does not make it “true.”

I do agree with Mr. Lasch that the burden rests on those who disagree with Freud to construct a better theory, as well or better developed than Freud’s. I do not believe we yet have a good enough theory of women’s development (or men’s either).

We do have much new and exciting evidence which can go into creating the basis of such a theory. Some of this comes straight out of psychoanalysts’ offices. The very purpose of my book was to assemble a sampling of this material because very few people, even those trained in the field, were aware of the existence of these riches. With all that I don’t know, I know that that was true.

This evidence had been, until recently, neglected by establishment psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis. This same establishment has given, as we know, great prominence to Freud’s formulations. I regret that the same comment applies to a review in these pages….

I have hoped that this newer and more provocative material can lead on to better psychological formulations by creative and courageous thinkers. I am sorry that such thinkers among your audience have been deprived of a report on these productive kernels.

May I now venture a question? Why not publish another review of the two books Mr. Lasch neglected? I’m certain that this is a demand that almost every spurned author (editor) would love to make of a reviewer. I don’t know if any have had the lack of grace to do so. Perhaps this is one symptom of defective female incorporation into proper masculine form. So why not?

Surely this is a topic of such importance to more than half the race that it could merit a few additional pages. Perhaps by someone who is more interested in engaging with, or at least reporting on, the existence of this newer and exciting material, whether for or against? Perhaps a woman?

Jean Baker Miller

Brookline, Massachusetts

Christopher Lasch replies:

The question of whether the contributors to Jean Strouse’s collection are in “fundamental sympathy with Freud’s theories” is not to be settled by assertions about their intentions on the part of the editor or contributors; it can only be settled by analyzing their arguments. I see no reason to revise the judgment to which such an analysis irresistibly leads, that most of the contributors to this volume are uneasy with a theory which seems to them to stigmatize women and to impede the struggle for women’s rights—to do women a “disservice,” as Marcia Cavell puts it in her essay on Helene Deutsch.

Cavell’s letter, in which she characterizes her own work as a “criticism of the libido theory,” provides additional support for the view that their attempt to counter what they see as a slander on womankind leads revisionists to scrap the essential psychoanalytic ideas. The general tendency of this “criticism of the libido theory” is to substitute “cultural” explanations for what is mistakenly seen as a biological one. In her essay on Deutsch, Cavell approvingly quotes the following passage from Kardiner and Ovesey: “Freud attributed to genetic predisposition what, in reality, were the consequences of an interaction between women and the social institution of the male-oriented culture in which they lived.” She then goes on to suggest that penis envy has to be reinterpreted as a response to cultural oppression—and therefore as well, by implication, a perfectly rational and intelligible response.

It is not difficult to see that this type of “criticism of the libido theory” can lead only to its abandonment and that it leads us, moreover, to interpret psychic phenomena with hardly any reference at all to the unconscious (since we do not need the concept of unconscious mental processes to explain why women should rebel against injustice). Freud was not so “modest” that he forebore to identify the foundations of psychoanalytic theory, as he called them—the ideas that were absolutely indispensable to it: “the assumption that there are unconscious mental processes, the recognition of the theory of resistance and repression, the appreciation of the importance of sexuality and of the Oedipus complex.” Those who cannot stomach these ideas cannot pretend to be working in the Freudian tradition.

Jean Baker Miller makes no pretense of being in “fundamental sympathy” with Freud; his ideas, she says flatly, have been superseded by “newer and more exciting material.” Let us briefly consider this assertion, passing over her disquisition on dialectics and her references to masculine protest, where she seems to confuse Freud’s ideas with Adler’s. On closer inspection, the “newer and more provocative material” Dr. Miller would bring to our attention turns out to be the same old revisionism, decked out with neo-feminist rhetoric and the jargon of existentialism.

Stoller’s theory of “primary femininity,” as he himself admits, merely follows up the work of Ernest Jones, Karen Horney, and Gregory Zilboorg. As he also admits, his own work rests on observation rather than on material derived from analysis. This gives me a chance to clear up a point in my review that seems to have troubled a number of readers, judging from letters, too copious to print, both to the editor and to me. When I said that psychoanalytic theory could not be refuted by experimental and behavioral psychology, I did not of course mean that psychoanalytic theory cannot be refuted by any empirical evidence at all—the view that Dr. Miller and several other correspondents mistakenly attribute to me. I meant simply that the evidence has to bear on the mental phenomena psychoanalysis seeks to explain—not, for example, on the physiology of the female orgasm or on the history of woman’s subordination, which psychoanalysis does not pretend to explain.

Stoller’s work shares the tendency common to revisionism in general to substitute what he calls “simple observation” for the analysis of mental life. Simple observation, Stoller insists, is enough to convince us that a sense of feminine identity precedes the little girl’s discovery of “castration.” But it is precisely this commonsensical impression that analysis of dreams, fantasies, and neuroses contradicts and corrects. Here as in many other cases interpretations acclaimed as “deeper than psychoanalysis” prove on closer consideration to be prepsychoanalytic; far from “transcending” Freud, they take us back to the point from which Freud started.

Dr. Miller also recommends the work of Seidenberg, who she says has “transcended Freud’s limitation.” I shall confine myself to the case of the housewife (“The Trauma of Eventlessness”)—another attempt to sidetrack the unconscious by presenting an “objective” analysis of neurosis, somewhat in the style of Laing and Cooper. His subject’s neurosis, according to Seidenberg, represents a legitimate “rebellion” against woman’s lot, in this case the boring and meaningless life of a suburban housewife. What a signal advance over Freud! Seidenberg’s interpretation explains everything except what needs most to be explained, namely why the housewife’s “salutary and self-preservative” neurosis took the form of the particular symptom in question, agora-phobia. It does not help to know that agora originally referred to the political community, from which women are excluded, etc., etc. Here as elsewhere in his discussion of this case Seidenberg relies more on word-play than on analysis of the subject’s unconscious. Thus the claim that his “existential” interpretation adheres to Freud’s own concept of anxiety, which did recognize the importance of “objective danger” in the etiology of anxiety, depends on twisting words out of all semblance to their original meaning. Freud said that anxiety was a response both to the “excessive demands” of the instincts and to external dangers that threaten the ego “with annihilation” (An Outline of psychoanalysis, New York, 1949, pp. 111-112). Seidenberg would have us believe that his housewife was afraid of the “danger” that her life in the future might turn out to be boring and meaningless. At the risk of identifying myself once again with “orthodoxy,” let me suggest that the “danger” of boredom was not what Freud had chiefly in mind when he spoke of the annihilating threats to the ego from outside. Seidenberg’s formulation trivializes the whole issue.

The question of “orthodoxy” demands a final word in its own right, since my critics have tried to present the disagreement between us as a conflict between dogmatic orthodoxy and a courageous willingness to “rethink theoretical formulations”—between humanists who adhere blindly to Freud and psychoanalysts who are willing to “go beyond” him. Quite apart from my critics’ failure to “go beyond” Freud, it seems that they do not understand the nature of orthodoxy. It is characteristic of orthodox systems of thought, like Catholicism or Soviet Marxism, that they are endlessly adaptable to the political and cultural requirements of the moment, capable of absorbing and neutralizing all kinds of alien ideas while still claiming descent from the founding fathers. This is why the most effective challenge to orthodoxy is sometimes a return to its original source—for critics of Catholicism in the sixteenth century, a return to the New Testament; for critics of Soviet Marxism, a return to Marx. To go back to Freud today is precisely to reject the proposition that psychoanalysis can be adapted to changing intellectual fashions—for example, to the need to exonerate women from a “disservice” done to them by Freud and his followers—without becoming something quite different from, and in important respects contrary to, psychoanalysis.

To insist on this point is not to lay down rules for doctrinal purity but to ask for a recognition of the theory’s intellectual rigor—the source of whatever is illuminating in it.

  • Email
  • Print