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The Scar of Sigmund Freud

Freud: The Man and the Cause

by Ronald W. Clark
Random House, 652 pp., $19.95


Biographical truth,” Freud wrote to Arnold Zweig, “is not to be had.” The truth of a life, he seemed to imply, would always slip away under the biographer’s gaze, for where is such truth embodied and how is it confirmed? It can hardly be captured by cataloguing the meals eaten, the homes inhabited, the beliefs and constructions of the intellect, or the reports from colleagues, friends, passers-by. Moreover, the biographer is bound up in the truth he finds. Freud warned Zweig against writing an account of his life: “Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding.” In his own biographical essay on Leonardo da Vinci (a “fiction,” he called it) he writes, “Biographers are fixated on their heroes in a quite special way.” They idealize or degrade—not only their subject but themselves. The biography, Freud implied elsewhere, may contain all the conflicts and confusions of an analytic session.

Arnold Zweig heeded Freud’s advice. Many since have not. Ronald Clark, the author of a fine biography of Albert Einstein and respected works on Bertrand Russell and the Huxleys, has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls which Freud foresaw and to which his earlier biographers have succumbed. In fact, in this sober and restrained account of the life. Clark finds beneath the exotic theories a man of “worldlywise common sense,” a common sense in which this biography participates.

This achievement is all the more noteworthy in view of the intoxicated or infuriated reactions Freud has often inspired in the past, including lies, hypocrisy, flattery, lack of understanding, and of course concealment. Freud’s daughter has reportedly exercised a veto power over certain biographical studies, and misleading excisions have been made from the published correspondence. The classic example of a pioneering and invaluable biography that fell prey both honestly and dishonestly to all the dangers of what an analyst would call “transference” is the three-volume work of Ernest Jones. He claimed to have “worked through” his “hero-worshipping propensities” before meeting Freud, but Clark quotes from a letter Jones wrote to Freud (now stored in the Jones archives): “I owe my career, my livelihood, my position, and my capacity of happiness in marriage—in short, everything—to you and the work you have done.” Under such indebtedness, biographical truth is bound to be concealed; it is difficult to imagine, for example, the “serene and benign” Freud that Jones sees in the later years. One does not write objectively about one’s psychoanalytical mentor.

It is also difficult to write about his theories; Freud’s life is intimately tied to his “scientific” work. Newton’s psychological vagaries will always be less important than his results, and Einstein’s personality, however intriguing, will never overshadow his theories. But Freud’s results, he himself insisted, came not only from observation but from introspection. The richest examples in The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life are the most intimately autobiographical ones. The “self-analysis” Freud carried out in the 1890s lay the foundation for many of his discoveries. Freud’s theory was so linked with life, he treated a criticism of one as an attack on the other; theoretical disagreements became ad hominem insults. Freud himself could without qualms speak of a rival theory, for example, in which Otto Rank had “deposited his neuroses.”

Even historical questions are clouded by biographical myth. Freud identified himself again and again as a Moses leading his followers into a new understanding of mental life, and too many have been content to take him at his word. He and his followers made numerous claims to a new world of the unconscious, repression, childhood sexuality. But these claims of priority have begun to be reconsidered, as in Henri Ellenberger’s invaluable study, The Discovery of the Unconscious. More recently, in Freud: Biologist of the Mind, Frank Sulloway attempted a debunking of the “psychoanalytic legend” by discussing Freud’s intellectual debts to earlier researchers, and demonstrating that Freud and his followers had created a self-aggrandizing mythology about the origins of psychoanalysis. Even such studies, though, are haunted by curious psychological fixations. Sulloway has his own self-aggrandizing mythology that gives us a “crypto-biologist” Lamarckian Freud, a Freud, that is, who might never have learned to decipher the meanings of dreams and symptoms, a Freud over whom all this fuss seems to be much ado about very little.

All such questions about the nature of Freud’s contributions, and their relation to his life, may soon be subsumed under more basic and fundamental questions about the value of Freud’s lifetime devotion to psychoanalysis. As Freudian conceptions of the mind have come to dominate contemporary self-understanding, as vast sums of money are spent weekly in psychoanalytic sessions, as analysts are consulted about every nuance of feeling and every aspect of what used to be called simply “personality” and “character,” as treatments drag on for ten or twenty years, and as the seriously mentally ill remain as tortured and as ubiquitous as ever, it is becoming more and more important to determine the clinical value of psychoanalysis and the scientific status of its theory.

Clark’s approach to such questions is cautious: there are not many discernible judgments in his text other than a diffused admiration for Freud. He lets the life emerge from copious selections from correspondence and the works, although his own prose is often far from felicitous (e.g., the Freuds’ Jewishness was “as much a part of [their] life as sunrise and sunset”). He makes use of recent research, quoting, for example, from a cache of letters the young Freud wrote to adolescent friends in which he describes the infatuation he mentions in one of his published memoirs; it turns out the infatuation was less for the young girl than for her mother.

Clark concentrates on “The Man and the Cause”—Freud as the founder and leader of the psychoanalytic movement, the self-described “conquistador.” The section and chapter headings tell the story: A Freudian Beginning, The Making of a Leader, Commander in Chief, Early Skirmishes, A sortie to America, First Defections, New Fields for Conquest, Wartime Acceptance, The Freudian Age. The image is similar to the one in Paul Roazen’s scattered portrait in Freud and His Followers, which arose out of interviews with the disciples and the disenchanted.

In 1902 Wilhelm Stekel (who later said: “I was the apostle of Freud, who was my Christ!”) suggested that Freud begin a weekly psychoanalytic discussion group—the Wednesday Society. In 1906 it became the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, and four years later was a local branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association. (The ideas may have been difficult to accept, but few fledgling sciences could have claimed such organizational success in so short a time.) The early society included Adler, Max Graf, Otto Rank; then came Ferenczi and Jones and Jung. These people were more precariously balanced than Clark’s cautious discussion suggests. Roazen notes that Federn, Stekel, Tausk, and Silberer took their own lives, as did a large number of lesser known early analysts: Karin Stephen, Eugenia Sokolnicka, Tatiana Rosenthal, Karl Schrötter, Monroe Meyer, Martin Peck, Max Kahane, Johann Honegger. “I think we wear out quite a few men,” Freud wrote to Jung.

Freud saw himself, Clark writes, “as the embattled leader to whom, in the heat of the fight, exceptional loyalty had to be paid.” Discussion took place, but dissent was limited. “Whatever Freud maintained in public his flexibility was slight.” He regarded the preservation of psychoanalysis against impurities and opposition as a sacred duty—not an unusual situation for an embryonic science. Since T.S. Kuhn formulated his notion of “paradigms” in scientific research, the sociology of science has been exploring the nature of other such groups. We may not think of loyalty and initiation as part of scientific development, yet they appear again and again from Pythagoras to the academies of Western Europe.

Freud evidently sought a milieu in which he could entertain speculations about, for example, the relation between man’s upright posture and his weak sense of smell, or about the relation between the Ice Age and man’s sexual latency period. Much of psychoanalytic thinking was (and still is) pre-scientific and needed coddling. As Freud wrote to Fliess before the basic questions were even formulated, “We cannot do without men with the courage to think new things before they can prove them.” And as Jones argued, the truths were too hard won and the criticisms too easily made to permit the luxuries of an open society. The origins of science may not be wholly democratic.

But as Clark notes, the situation in psychoanalytic circles was extreme. Freud cultivated faith more than argument and demanded a unified front in battle. Jones speaks of Freud’s “delightful tolerance,” but the earliest dissenters incurred the leader’s vicious wrath: Adler was a “pygmy,” a “jew-boy”; Stekel was a “pig”; Jung, the onetime “Crown Prince,” was simply “crazy.” As early as 1910 the question of scientific freedom was being raised as Freud’s vision expanded. He wrote to Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychologist, of his desire to “create an organization with a central office which would conduct its external policies and give authentic information about what should be permitted to be called psychoanalysis.” But Bleuler, director of the prestigious Burghölzli clinic, was to resign from the Psychoanalytical Association, Clark writes, objecting to its antiscientific attitude.

The virulence and stridency of the quarrels in early psychoanalysis cannot be explained simply by a desire to regulate a new therapy and prevent “wild” practitioners. At least part of the reason lies in the way Freud’s own life history was implicated in his science. It seems to make sense, as Clark implies, that this first-born son of a twenty-year-old mother, who grew up as her “golden Sigi,” a young prince in a small kingdom, whose distaste for the piano was enough to have his sister’s lessons stopped, whose earliest reading included Thiers’s history of France under Napoleon, who followed closely the battles of the Franco-Prussian war—it makes sense that he would lead the psychoanalytic movement as an autocratic general who would speak of “battle and victory,” “conquest” and “defeat.”

The spirit of conspiratorial opposition also seems to have attracted Freud. Under Jones’s instigation he formed a secret committee within the larger psychoanalytic society and presented each member with a stone to be set in a ring. A similar secret exchange of rings was used to bind Freud with Martha Bernays in a long conspiratorial and tempestuous engagement which included forged envelopes, secret journals, and accusations of betrayal. (It is a mystery why the detailed story of this engagement, at the heart of the first volume of Jones’s work, is absent from Clark’s biography.)

Freud considered psychoanalysis to be his child; he spoke of its “birth” and its “latency period.” And he created a large family about it under his anxious patriarchal rule. One critic suggests that Freud wanted to resign from that rule early and appoint Jung in his stead so as to establish a fraternal rather than a paternal organization, and thus avoid the patriarchal cannibalistic murder he hypothesized in Totem and Taboo, and feared, as his fainting fits in Jung’s presence suggest.

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