Fighting Freud

Out of My System: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Critical Method

by Frederick Crews
Oxford University Press, 214 pp., $10.00

The winter number of Partisan Review contains an editorial comment entitled “Freud in the Seventies,” in which it is maintained that the “apostasy” of Frederick Crews from Freud—Crews having “been one of the staunchest as well as one of the most flexible interpreters of psychoanalytic theory, particularly in relation to literature”—must be seen as an indication that the “intellectual community” has almost completely lost faith in psychoanalysis.

The editor, William Phillips, goes on to give reasons for thinking that something needs to be done about this, but I mention his piece because it rather strikingly illustrates the point that the book under review, and some associated shorter writings by Crews, have wider implications than at first sight appear. Since I intend to suggest that Mr. Crews has got things wrong, and that his “apostasy” (which is in any case not yet complete) may be caused by a corrigible misunderstanding, I had better admit now that my knowledge of psychoanalysis is lay knowledge, and that I have never been a “psychoanalytic critic.” It would be dangerous to claim disinterest, always an ambiguous proposition in these matters; but I can at least claim to be concerned to avoid not a personal impoverishment but an impoverishment of the techniques and theory of humane interpretation—an awkward phrase I will try to justify.

Mr. Crews is a strong-minded critic, and a writer of considerable rhetorical resource, but in this book it is himself rather than us he is trying to persuade. He had planned, he says, to write a book expounding a consistent position on psychoanalytic criticism; but the war and the student troubles of the Sixties intervened. He lost some of his old confidence in Freud; and, caught up in political debate and ideological self-scrutiny, he wrote in the heat of various moments the essays here collected. Looking them over later, he discovered to his surprise that they somehow added up to the book he had wanted to write in the first place. The discontinuities and self-contradictions could either be ironed out by the insertion of brief disclaimers, or offered as testimony of an intellectual odyssey—of a deconversion experience not yet quite complete. We are to read it as a study of “the difficulty of mediating between empirical responsibility and urges toward deep and revolutionary explanation.” One gloss on this phrase is: “A growing conviction that Freud does not make scientific sense.”

Since that is the central issue, I shall say nothing about Mr. Crews’s politics—his discovery that he was not born to be a fanatic, his eventual decision against the anticultural postures of the Movement. The main point is that a sense of empirical responsibility has seriously weakened his adherence to the “deep and revolutionary” explanations of psychoanalysis. First we have a ten-year-old essay called “Can Literature Be Psychoanalyzed?” and giving the answer yes, though Crews now thinks it “too charitable toward the scientific claims of psychoanalysis.” It is a low-keyed performance, addressed to doubting laymen, and …

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