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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 draws on the ego psychology of Ernst Kris, who

insisted that the “reality” from which a literary creation proceeds is not only the reality of the author’s drives and fantasies, but also the structure of his artistic problem and the historical state of his genre.

Defending analysis against the charge that it is unscientific, Crews here argues that it has a measure of verifiability; but later he read Karl Popper, and this was seemingly a critical moment for him, for it was then revealed that verifiability was anyway of small account, falsifiability being the criterion to apply. And Popper’s application of this criterion to psychoanalysis appears to have made a decisive impression on Crews. But in those far-off days no such doubt had occurred to him. In the same essay, he warns against certain dangers—one must not produce “ludicrous diagnoses of writers’ mental diseases,” for example; and he rightly emphasizes the general importance to critical theory of the interpretative concept of overdetermination:

I submit that we are entitled to consider both overt purpose and the perhaps contradictory purpose (or purposes) that may emerge from imagery or the shape of a plot.

On the whole the tone is bien pensant and serene.

Only a year later “the anguish and frustration of Vietnam” fired, among other things, Mr. Crews’s attack on Norman O. Brown. Interesting as this essay is in itself, I want to draw attention to one feature of it that here seems more important than the general disagreement it expresses. Crews opposes Brown because Brown is opposed to the dominant American ego-psychology, and because he takes an interest in other post-Freudian teaching, such as that of Melanie Klein. So far as I can see, Crews’s references to Klein are always hostile (he likes to think of her as the showman of a sort of Grand Guignol parody of analysis) or contemptuous (95 percent of American practitioners think little of her). He shows no sign whatever of having given Klein any serious thought; and when he speaks of D.W. Winnicott, though he does so more kindly, he offers only a vulgarized allusion to the work of a theorist held by many to be, at any rate in the aesthetic implications of his achievement, the most interesting and perspicuous of modern analysts.

Winnicott’s concern, though one might not guess as much from Mr. Crews’s allusions, is not mainly with teddy bears and grubby blankets but with the implications for human creativity of what he calls “transitional” experience; the baby survives its necessary passage into a world of independent objects by creating an object which already exists, so acquiring in its play a capacity to transform and use the given object. All subsequent cultural experience is “located in the potential space between the individual and the environment (originally the object).” Thus the problem of creativity is removed from the familiar context in which we endlessly discuss the intentions or the needs of an author and the external requirements of his genre; for Winnicott explains the precursor of the aesthetic event as an event neither “subjective” nor “objective.” He holds that the capacity for symbolization is possible only when this paradox is accepted and not regarded as a means toward some resolution.

Even in so crabbed and distorted a summary Winnicott must seem to have some relevance to current critical issues—more, perhaps, than the Freudian revisionists still preferred by Crews. I take these lapses to be characteristic of a curious provincialism in Crews; although his work is thoroughly footnoted with references to many diverse works, he rarely looks outside the limits he has chosen. And this may be one reason why he has despaired too early.

Still in 1967, he turned his attention to Conrad and demonstrated the methods of psychoanalytic criticism in order to shame ideologically corrupt critics who never get beyond Conrad’s manifest content. His opponents here seem to be men of straw, and in any case his analysis of Heart of Darkness commits the very faults the author more than once warns us against. After an incautious dose of Freud, Crews says, a man may “become the purveyor of a peculiarly silly kind of allegory,” hearing everywhere “the squeaking bedsprings of the primal scene.” But he himself hears them in Conrad’s Congo, and blames Conrad for their audibility: “the text threatens to become no longer a story but a clinical document…. [It] is in the most agitated sense an autobiographical work.” Indeed, one of the difficulties faced by the reviewer of this book is that the author often disowns his argument before we can say why we don’t like it; a prefatory note accuses the Conrad essay of “biographical reductionism.” “Reductionism” becomes henceforth one of his major worries, an obsession which, attentive to Crews’s cautions, we should not attempt to explain clinically.

A couple of years later Crews is saying why he rejects Northrop Frye’s injunction not to “stray outside literature.” This prompts him to look again, this time with less confidence, at the question of how you defend Freud’s “revolutionary explanation” against the claims of “empirical responsibility.” “The few experiments thus far undertaken,” he concedes, “while generally supportive of the theory, hardly close off alternative interpretations…. The skeptic is free to say…that the Freudian theory is unscientific because its assertions cannot be verified.” And that fact, together with another very awkward one, namely that a book cannot, like a patient, be invited to “support or refute” the analyst’s hunches, explains why most literary criticism of the analytic variety is inept.

The suspicion that psychoanalysis was after all unscientific could only be strengthened by Crews’s discovery, in the early Seventies, of his “longstanding but hitherto tacit commitments to reason and democratic process.” He no longer felt able to support extremist movements, and attacked the revival of Wilhelm Reich (“the world can be made safe for genitality only through cultic delusion”), emphasizing the dangers that ensue when Freud’s “horrific” but still ironically humanist conception of the superego falls into the wrong hands. The commitment to reason continues to grow, and in the last chapter we are given another, more rational look at Freudianism, under the title “Reductionism and Its Discontents.” Described as an attempt to “renew appreciation of the criteria that enable rational, nonsectarian discourse about literature to occur,” this chapter gives only a qualified welcome to Freud, who is needed among other things to counter the “affect-stifling” procedures of Frye; but mostly it worries about reductionism. Freudianism can be quite properly reductive, but is too often reductionist, as in the early work of the psychoanalytic critic Norman Holland.

This argument about theoretical reductions that are good (“reduction”) and bad (“reductionist”) seems largely internal to Crews himself. More interesting is the search for a reliable psychoanalytical model. Ego-psychology, it appears, remains the best, though even it is unsafe. And here Sir Karl Popper, after waiting some years in the wings, makes his decisive appearance. He maintains that science occurs only when there exists a community which agrees on certain empirical criteria by which statements can be falsified. But Popper, though he may be a useful ally if one is looking for a theory of institutional competence (a theory which psychoanalysis could doubtless use), is no help at all to anybody who would like to believe that the “revolutionary explanations” of psychoanalysis are scientific. For Popper does not regard it as a science at all.

In his recent piece on Erikson (NYR, October 16), Crews moves on a bit and claims, for instance, that one of the things that let Erikson down was “the empirical weakness of the Freudian tradition”; and he rehearses a number of fatal objections to the scientific status of that tradition. “Very little,” he now admits—and this is the note caught by Mr. Phillips in his editorial—“very little remains obvious in the legacy of Freud.”

When Dr. Robert Mollinger took issue with this conclusion in a letter to this review (February 5), he restated a position once held by Crews himself (“much of psychoanalytic theory has been supported by independent [i.e., empirical] investigations”) and commented on the author’s disregard of other modern developments of the tradition. Crews’s refutation was a simple declaration of his Popperian faith (“a body of theory cannot be called scientific unless its hypotheses can be exposed to tests for falsification”) and the casual dismissal of Melanie Klein I have already mentioned. Mr. Crews says that he “persists in thinking that psychoanalysis, whether or not it is an efficient therapy, has things to teach us,” but what they are is likely to emerge, one gathers, only after there has been “an unsparing reassessment of it.” As things now stand, Mr. Phillips’s word “apostasy” is only the slightest of exaggerations.

It might be useful to reduce the narrative of Crews’s deconversion to four stages. (1) Literature can be psychoanalyzed, and psychoanalysis is satisfactory because, as near as makes very little difference, its findings are verifiable. (2) We must be reasonable, resisting the extremism of Brown but also the “affect-stifling” taxonomies of Frye: (3) We must be even more reasonable, or we shall fall into reductionism. Meanwhile we should feel no great enthusiasm for the only psychoanalysis that will serve as a model, namely American ego-psychology. (4) The Popperian phase: psychoanalysis is not falsifiable, so not a science; moreover its therapeutic value is very doubtful. It may have some uses, but it is far from clear what they are.

It seems possible that the situation is less desperate than is here suggested. Freud himself was in large part responsible for the assumption that psychoanalysis must and can be tested by the criteria appropriate to the physical sciences; and if you were already feeling uneasy about its capacity to meet such tests, a reading of Popper is likely to have just the effect it seems to have had on Crews. Yet it should be remembered first that Popper, in emphatically denying psychoanalysis the right to be called a science, allows that it is, like other “metaphysical systems,” capable of verification though not, at any significantly high level, of falsification.1 And he adds that “if a theory is found to be non-scientific or ‘metaphysical’ it is not thereby found to be unimportant.”

There are admittedly versions of this position which sound stronger; see, for example, Frank Cioffi’s “Freud and the Idea of a Pseudo-Science,” which tries to convict Freud of “the habitual and wilful employment of methodologically defective procedures,” such, Cioffi argues, as all pseudo-sciences use.2 Thus to unfalsifiability Cioffi adds a further charge of bad faith, the deliberate obstruction of disconfirmatory procedures.

The principal procedure attacked by Cioffi is interpretation; he concludes that it is as vicious in psychoanalysis as in pyramidology, and for the same reasons: the data and the hypotheses can always be modified to evade disconfirmation. But there are objections to this argument, the most important being that there is a difference in kind between theories which are “context-free,” like those of physics, and those which are “context-dependent,” like psychoanalysis, the context being the therapy.3 And this objection can be broadened into a criticism of all who try “to fit Freudian theory into an appropriate model of science, and then label the divergencies as indices of its pseudo-scientific nature.”4 As I understand the matter it is not the physical scientists who cling to the notion that physics is the queen of the sciences and that all others must carry their heads at the same angle. Indeed some are now willing to argue that Popper’s falsificationism itself depends upon a metaphysical theory of truth. At any rate there seems no urgent reason, while this refined debate is in progress, to give up psychoanalysis because Popper, or post-Popperians, call it unscientific.

I mention these debates without going into them, lacking both space and authority to do so; the point is that Mr. Crews, who has after all a profound interest in the theoretical status of psychoanalysis, has so far not attended to them.5 B. R. Cosin, C. F. Freeman, and N. H. Freeman, for example, give strong reasons for rejecting Cioffi’s account of the subject, and indeed they have a claim to be heard on the subject of certain crude assumptions which the falsificationists may be making (the notion that facts are neutral with respect to theory, that there can be “theory-free” observation). Above all they insist that the anti-Freudians have seriously misunderstood the concept of interpretation itself, which is part of an active and developing relationship, to be welcomed and resisted by the patient, just as Freud’s theory states. Modern psychoanalytical theory emerges from this long paper looking a great deal more healthy than Crews supposes.

The heart of the matter, whether for analysis or for critical applications of it, must be this question of interpretation. Certainly it is so in the work of Roy Schafer, whom Crews does mention in passing; Schafer defines psychoanalysis as the interpretation and reinterpretation, in the perspective of life history, of the utterances of the analysand during the session—a process of giving meaning to what had lacked meaning, and one with more affinities for the humanities than for the natural sciences. It is, in short, a hermeneutic activity; and such problems as the causal relation between infantile trauma and adult disorder, much emphasized by the falsificationists, can yield to a process of interpretation that is self-critical and self-correcting,6 dependent on the context it affects.

It seems likely that Crews’s difficulties could be met without abandoning psychoanalysis, or reducing it to the status of an outmoded methodology that still offers a few testable low-level hypotheses. It is simply a different kind of science and belongs to what discriminating Germans call the Geisteswissenschaften. “The birth of psychoanalysis opens up the possibility of arriving at a dimension that positivism closes off, and of doing so in a manner that arises out of the logic of enquiry,” says the Frankfurt philosopher Jürgen Habermas, lamenting the long delay, even among German theorists, in implementing this program. Psychoanalysis is of course different from other branches of hermeneutic enquiry; but the general laws we follow in interpreting historical or literary texts apply. The defensive procedures of neurosis are linguistic; the analyst has to translate a deformed and “privatized” language into a public one, a task which has obvious analogies with that of the literary critic.

Freud’s own theory, according to Habermas, was wrong in definable ways. These ways are not to be discovered by indicating differences between his theory and theory of physics, though he himself might have supposed so. “He did not comprehend metapsychology as the only thing it can be in the system of reference of self-reflection: a general interpretation of self-formative processes.” This general interpretation is “a systematically generalized history,” which provides a scheme for many histories with foreseeable alternative courses, much like a general theory of history or of the novel.7

The relevant difference between the physical and the hermeneutic sciences is that the former base their explanations on context-free laws and the latter are context-dependent; their explanations and interpretations are part of the process of the context. We need not at present suppose that a methodology different from that of physics is an offense to reason, as perhaps Mr. Crews is tempted to do. Nor need he suppose that the only future for literary psychoanalysis is in detecting more and more manifestations of the primal scene in the Congo or in Highbury or Walden; or in the free-floating chaos of opinion that Norman Holland has recently favored. Our point of departure (the French Freudians have long ago moved on) will lie rather in a fuller understanding that reading a text and reading a patient are interpretative processes of a very similar sort. What the practitioners of these two kinds of reading can learn from each other is a large enough subject to renew Crews’s zest for responsibly confronting deep revolutionary explanation.

  1. 1

    For possible ways of testing see J. O. Wisdom, “Testing an Interpretation Within a Session,” in Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Richard Wollheim (Doubleday, 1974), p. 332 ff.

  2. 2

    Explanation in the Behavioral Sciences, ed. Robert Borger and Frank Cioffi (Cambridge, 1970), p. 471 ff.

  3. 3

    Jürgen Habermas will help to explain this point. He distinguishes between the “explanatory understanding” that proceeds from “general interpretations” such as those of metapsychology, and the rigorously formulated explanations of the empirical sciences. In the latter case the content of theoretical propositions is “unaffected by operational application to reality”; in the case of the former “theoretical propositions are translated into the narrative presentation of an individual history in such a way that a causal statement does not come into being without this context” (my emphasis). Thus metapsychology is not context-free. See Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968, translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 272-273.

  4. 4

    B. R. Cosin, C. F. Freeman, N. H. Freeman, “Critical Empiricism Criticized: The Case of Freud,” Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior, I (1971).

  5. 5

    He does not mention the important symposium Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Latakos and S. Musgrove (Cambridge, 1970).

  6. 6

    Mr. Schafer’s A New Language for Psychoanalysis has just been published; my reference is to his inaugural lecture as Freud Memorial Professor at University College, London, last autumn.

  7. 7

    See Knowledge and Human Interests, chapters 10-12.

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