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.

His experience as leader of the group also influenced later theory. In his essay on group psychology he speaks of a group being founded out of feelings of “sexual jealousy and intolerance.” A group, he writes, has “no critical faculty”; it “wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its masters.” The leader “must himself be held in fascination by a strong faith…. He must possess a strong and imposing will.” This theoretical analysis is nourished on its own struggle, but there are strong cultural influences here. Freud’s words, written in the early 1920s, resemble other writings on authoritarianism of the period. His relation to his disciples bears an uncanny similarity to Arnold Schoenberg’s relation to his musical sons, Berg and Webern, and to their concerns about musical authority and law. It becomes difficult to see if the historical and psychological situation in which Freud worked is confirming the theory or if the theory is growing out of the drama.

Freud’s sense of himself as a new source of authority energetically opposed to the prevailing authorities needs explanation; but here Clark becomes less and less useful as greater understanding is demanded. Freud, he mentions, ascribed this spirit of opposition to his experience of anti-Semitism, but Freud himself forbade his wife to light the Sabbath candles, and courted the Aryan Jung for psychoanalysis to prevent it from becoming a “Jewish science.” (During the Nazi period, Jung obliged by dismissing what he called the “Jewish categories” in psychoanalysis.)

Clearly there is an ambivalence in Freud’s sense of being in opposition. This is not merely a biographical issue, but one that was important to his theoretical researches. Freud wrote admiringly of Leonardo da Vinci, “He dared to utter the bold assertion which contains within itself the justification for all independent research: He who appeals to authority when there is a difference of opinion works with his memory rather than with his reason [Freud’s italics].” This made him, Freud continues, the “first modern scientist,” teaching that “all authority should be looked down upon.” For Freud, then, being a “man of science” paradoxically meant discarding the tradition while demanding its acceptance of his work; he had to create his own authority ex nihilo. This was also the attitude cultivated within psychoanalysis itself: as it demanded to be accepted as a science, so too, from its earliest days, did it reject the authority of science and its skeptical inquiries.

In Freud’s intellectual life the conflict is remarkable. “I do not want to read,” he writes to Fliess, “because it stirs up too many thoughts and stints me of the satisfaction of discovery.” And later, in his essay on the history of the psychoanalytic movement, Freud says he is thankful that he is ignorant of Schopenhauer’s work with its analysis of repression; he owes, he writes, his priority in the discovery of repression to his “not being a wide reader.” Yet, of course, he read voraciously, and both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—who also threatened his originality—are often referred to in his writings.

Freud’s anxiety was increased by the claims and contributions of others: Breuer could be credited with discovering cathartic therapy, Stekel the “Thanatos” instinct, Groddeck the id, and Fliess the hypothesis of bisexuality. The historical evolution of psychoanalysis has always been hard to trace because from the start it chose to hide much of its past.

Freud links Leonardo’s concern with independent research to the artist’s opposition to his father; he ultimately characterized his own oppositions and concerns with priority and authority by invoking the Oedipus complex as well: “It is absurd to be proud of one’s ancestry,” runs one of Freud’s most private dream thoughts, “it is better to be an ancestor oneself.” This became the problem of psychoanalytic theory too, as it closed itself off from its past and other resources of investigation. But it may be that the theory itself could benefit from the treatment it prescribes: an interpretation of its past might help to reveal its premises and free it from its repetìtive defenses.


All his life, under his carefully trimmed beard, Sigmund Freud bore a scar from a childhood accident. Ronald Clark mentions the scar and even quotes Freud’s comments on it in his essay on “screen memories”: “I can still feel the scar…but I know of no recollection which points to it, either directly or indirectly.” Clark quickly moves on to the next detail. But there are no innocent biographical facts for Freud. A “screen memory,” or, in fact, nearly any memory from early childhood, collects about itself metaphorical meanings. The most trivial event may produce the most echoes in the mind, taking on implications that would drive a more serious event into amnesia. These memories, then, require interpretation. They are in Freud’s view so resonant that in an interpretation “it would often be necessary to present the complete life history of the person in question.” They are compressed biographies.

The scar hides one such Freudian memory; it is a physical trace of a past event that remains present throughout life. The memory behind it must have later resurfaced, for Freud returned to it in his writings. In late editions of The Interpretation of Dreams, he tells of an accident, “brought on myself.” “I had climbed up on to a stool in the store-closet to get something nice that was lying on a cupboard or table.” The stool tipped, his jaw was struck, a one-eyed doctor came to stop the bleeding. The memory was accompanied by a thought, “That serves you right.” The scar was deserved, the record of an injury caused by a restless will. The ambitious two-year-old climber felt the blow of fate which the ambitious dreamer of later life was to feel again and again. Such is the danger of desire.

But this injury dealt to the infant in his exploration for “something nice” connects with other screen memories that were crucial to Freud as he began to analyze himself during the 1890s. He wrote to Fliess of one memory that had turned up again and again for twenty-nine years (a memory that Clark does not even mention), in which his elder step-brother Philipp holds open the doors of a cupboard—perhaps the same one that was responsible for the scar—for the bawling infant Sigismund as his young, slim mother enters the room. The image of the cupboard expands under Freud’s analysis to include the birth of a sister, the fear of his mother’s disappearance, and the dismissal of his old and ugly nurse who had taken him to church, taught him about Heaven and Hell, and was imprisoned for using the infant Freud as an innocent accomplice in theft.

The cupboard, then, is where Freud sought his lost mother, his imprisoned nurse, and “his mother’s insides.” The analysis evokes the threat of retribution, the dangers of exploration, the promise of femininity, and the presence of pain and fear. When recalling the memory to Fliess he was engaged in a similarly painful exploration into his past and wrote several days later: “I have a reassuring feeling that one only has to put one’s hand in one’s store-cupboard to be able to extract—in its own good time—what one needs.” This cupboard, then, seems also his own mind, and the extraction from it the birth of psychoanalysis.

One wants to explore these memories still further to read from them the patterns that the mature Freud insisted lay within. But Clark is already left far behind: his biography does not interpret; it merely reports. And when he does interpret, the results seem unimportant. For example, there is little reason to suspect any sort of connection between a mysterious woman, Rebecca, who may have been married to Freud’s father before his mother was, and Freud’s hypothesis that Leonardo da Vinci had two mothers; far more interesting might be speculation about the fact that when Freud wrote the Leonardo essay he was living with both his wife and his wife’s sister: that trio lasted over forty years. Clark also merely reports Max Schur’s startling discovery of the report, in censored portions of the Fliess correspondence, of a grossly negligent operation Fliess performed on the nose of one of Freud’s patients, the Irma of the dream of Irma’s injection. But Clark could have said more about how these revelations, including Freud’s reiterations of his own trust in Fliess, might alter our understanding of that relationship.

The failure to interpret, the failure, that is, to become actively engaged in Freud’s life, and risk the dangers of biography, ultimately does not serve biographical truth. The early part of Freud’s life, with all its echoing memories, is of less interest to Clark than the growth of the movement. But the Freud we see is altered because Freud viewed his own past as crucial and as crippling.

One tradition of the nineteenth century saw the mind as an organism continually transformed by its experience and evolving toward greater understanding, but beyond mechanistic explanation. Freud saw the mind in a different light, in a tradition of later nineteenth-century science. His first speculations sought the laws by which the experience of the past determined current mental activity. “Everything fell into place,” he wrote to Fliess, speaking of his magnificent construction of the mind in the “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” “the cogs meshed, the thing really seemed to be a machine which in a moment would run of itself.” The activity of this machinery was regulated by the principle of conservation of energy, which Freud, in a psychological interpretation, called the unpleasure principle: the mind always acts to reduce excitation, to minimize unpleasure, whose source is early experience.

And so Freud sought the aetiology of the neuroses, the origins of mental illness in the events of the past that determined the present. He admitted to a wish “to pin down a father as the originator of neuroses.” When observing his patients, he found “in every case, the father, not excluding my own, had to be blamed as a pervert.” In his early work, he claimed the malfunctioning machine was thwarted by inherited syphilitic infection, or, in a later hypothesis, by the father’s actual seduction of the child. But these ideas ultimately gave way to a sophisticated theory of the timeless unconscious which preserves infantile wishes and could affect the adult’s understanding. The unconscious was the primal past located in the mind; out of it rose illness. “The Child,” Wordsworth wrote, “is father of the Man”; but here the romantic notion of childhood innocence and its loss in a corrupt and corrupting world is inverted. The paternity of the past is a permanent binding authority. “Our hysterical patients,” wrote Freud and Breuer, “suffer from reminiscences.” Wordsworth’s haunting “spots of time,” those images of childhood that resonate with healing power, have become Freud’s screen memories with their dark desires and threatened pain.

Freud was determined to be freed from the binding authority of the past. His early attempts to do so seem almost desperate: “I have destroyed all my notes of the past fourteen years,” he wrote to Martha Bernays in 1885, fifteen years before The Interpretation of Dreams, and eight years after a similar “auto-da-fé”; along with the notes went “letters, scientific excerpts, and the manuscripts of my papers…. As for the biographers, let them worry, we have no desire to make it too easy for them…. I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray.” Later in his self-analysis, he claimed to have found in himself, along with the Oedipus conflict, the need for a “romanticization of origins.”

But these early attempts to write a sort of autobiography, called, in Freud’s words, “The Development of the Hero,” could scarcely set the machine going in another direction; burning documents and rewriting origins could hardly help him or his patients. If the threat came from the past, it was in the past that the battle would have to be fought. If memories caused illness, they would have to be examined. The cupboard would have to be reopened, its contents extracted. Freud’s self-analysis was such a revisiting of the past, a move inward and backward that sought to understand the power of the machine. But here again, the Freud Clark gives us is almost incidentally involved in this quest, though it is out of that analysis, chronicled in the letters to Fliess, as much as out of observation of patients, that the claims for the clinical value of the theory arise.

The chief patient I am busy with is myself,” Freud writes to Fliess in 1897. “I have been through some kind of a neurotic experience.” He writes of darkness, heat, overwork, depths, and strange forces. “I believe I am in a cocoon, and heaven knows what sort of creature will emerge from it.” There is a sense of awakening, then, an “indescribable sense of intellectual beauty.” A flood of memories arrives with the beauty; they are seen in a new light.

This analysis, which in Jones’s words was a journey on a path “hitherto untrodden by any human being,” seems remarkably similar to the journeys the romantic writers described in autobiographical works which grew out of the great confessional tradition of Augustine and Rousseau, analyzed by M.H. Abrams in Natural Super-naturalism. Through self-consciousness and understanding, one is transformed by the experience of crisis. The journey for Wordsworth, for example, as for Freud, was in the return to the past. For Hegel, the transformations were continuous and based upon increasing self-consciousness.

Freud was steeped in this literary tradition. He refers to Rousseau’s Confessions in his work. He loved Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus as a student. He translated a volume of J.S. Mill’s writings into German, and was a devoted reader of Goethe. For these men, gaining knowledge of the self was painful and transforming. For Freud, the disease and the cure were literal, and he prescribed similar journeys for his patients. “A neurosis would seem to be the result of a kind of ignorance,” he writes in the Introductory Lectures; psychoanalysis is a “re-education.” “The patient’s mental life,” he writes, “is lifted to a higher level of development.”

Of course, psychoanalysis takes place under different conditions from those early educational forays into the mind. The attempt here is not to grow out of the past, but to break its determining power. That power is broken not simply by remembering but by interpreting. Events in mental life have complex meanings that have to be released. The romantic journey is given a modernist twist: nothing lies on the surface; we are strangers to our own thought processes; everything contains hidden and multiple meanings. The journey takes place not through pastoral lands but through darkness and forbidden desires.

One of Freud’s screen memories is of his mother rubbing her palms together to show him the strings of black dirt that seemed to be ground out of our flesh: from dirt we are born, and to dirt we shall return. Freud’s return to that past is found in The Interpretation of Dreams, which is nearly Freud’s autobiography. “None of my works has been so completely my own as this,” he writes to Fliess, quickly adding the nature of this possession: “it is my own dung-heap, my own seedling.”

The Interpretation of Dreams is written as a journey, an “imaginary walk” that passes through, in its various arguments, a “dark wood,” a “cavernous defile,” “the high ground and open prospect,” and an end to the “easy and agreeable portion of our journey…every path will end in darkness.” The journey begins and ends in darkness, taking place almost completely in the underworld of the mind. The epigraph of the book is from Vergil: “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions.” The book, Freud writes to Fliess, is his personal Inferno, “an intellectual hell, layer upon layer of it with everything fitfully gleaming and pulsating.” The journey through The Interpretation of Dreams is, Freud makes clear, the model for the psychoanalytic journey: the oneiric is interpreted the way symptoms are, or jokes, or culture itself.

The autobiographical content of The Interpretation of Dreams is unfortunately not considered by Clark, whose selection of detail seems, at times, almost positivistic in its intention. Alexander Grinstein’s Sigmund Freud’s Dreams, a second edition of a similarly titled work published over a decade ago, usefully complements that approach, although Clark does not mention the book. Grinstein examines Freud’s dreams from 1895-1900 which appear in that work and attempts to complete the interpretations left vague or censored by Freud himself. He draws on the biographical detail of Freud’s letters, the Jones biography, and other autobiographical accounts to piece together the sorts of associations to the dreams Freud might have made. Even the order of discussion and the footnotes to the text are treated seriously as evidence of meaning, an approach Freud himself might have approved of since the book was, in Freud’s words, “all written by the unconscious”—“written as if in a dream.”

Reading Freud’s dreams without the distractions of the theoretical argument reveals yet another side to the biographical truth: the baroque intellect of Freud’s night world. There is the dream of one of the three Fates making Knödel in the kitchen; a dream of Goethe writing a scathing attack on Freud’s friend; his old teacher Brucke asking him to dissect the lower half of his body; and nonsense words like “Norekdal”and “autodidasker.” Jones said Freud wore his learning lightly, and Freud claimed he was not a wide reader, but at night his mental library came alive. The dreams invoked not only Hamlet, Oedipus, Hannibal, and Prince Hal’s premature appropriation of his father’s crown, but also Zola’s Germinal, Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, Garibaldi and The Marriage of Figaro. Grinstein provides summaries and analyses of each historical and literary association, interpreting its relation to Freud’s dream. He identifies the first novel Freud says he read as Hypatia by Charles Kingsley, and summarizes the revolutionary play Das Liebeskonzil by Oskar Panizza. Freud’s dream life, it turns out, was not his alone; the great psychoanalytic themes recur again and again in the texts his dreams invoke. The entire culture seems to throb with them, even, as Carl Schorske has argued, the political culture of the late Hapsburg empire.1

Grinstein’s analyses are accomplished, he writes, by a method similar to that used in clinical practice though here the patient is not available to supply associations and reactions. But what is the relationship between such interpretation, which is close to Freud’s notion of biographical truth, and the scientific claims which seem so bound up in it? The cure seems to grow more out of a literary and philosophical tradition than a scientific one. Illness, however, is not a trope. Freud’s scar is a literal scar. How can opening the cupboard and revealing its contents possibly repair the damage from the fall?


It may be that the past is not as decisive as Freud thought. It may be that the years of early childhood do not set the machine going along certain routes. Or it may be that the interpretations given memories and symptoms are spurious, or do not cure. Freudian theory has always come under criticism, and more contemporary rumblings of doubt can be heard in some of the comments Clark includes in the biography. As Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg have stated in a recent two-volume consideration of the scientific validation of Freudian theory, “There is virtually no evidence that psychoanalysis generally results in more long-lasting or profound patient change than other theories.”2

There has more recently appeared a new sort of criticism of Freudian theory, one that argues not only that Freudian theory may be incorrect, but that the introspection which Freud saw as so crucial to his own self-analysis or to his patients’ confirmation of his interpretations may itself be a myth: Introspection may not exist, and so can certainly not be appealed to in support of psychoanalytic theory. Clinical data of confirmation of interpretations would then be useless in research. This approach is taken by the philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum in his paper “Epistemological Liabilities of the Clinical Appraisal of Psychoanalytic Theory” in the December 1979 issue of Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought.

Grunbaum appeals for support to a recent paper by the psychologists Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, “Telling More Than We Can know,”3 which, although they make no mention of psychoanalysis, puts forth the argument that introspective access to mental life may be seriously limited. Interpreting numerous experiments, they argue that we may be aware of facts about ourselves or our sensations, but “there is almost no conscious awareness of perceptual and memorial processes.” Moreover, when we claim to be reporting on our cognitive processes, when we insist that we are indeed engaged in introspection, we are really basing our reports on theories of mental life which we find plausible. In fact, they write, there is reason to believe that “people’s reports about their higher mental processes” are “neither more nor less accurate in general than the predictions about such processes made by observers.”

Grunbaum argues that if such conclusions are warranted by the experimental data (and this is not clearly established) then “the purported insight achieved by the patient is not the product of a process of veridical self-discovery, but rather reflects the patient’s conversion to the therapist’s interpretation.” In other words, the journeys of self-discovery found in Western literature, the self-analysis of Freud, and virtually any sense we have of knowledge of ourselves are all illusions. The self is, in this view, a construct of the social and cultural views of the self. We ascribe processes to our mental life because we have been convinced, by “plausible” argument, that they exist.

Those who assert such a view of the mind still believe in the possibility of establishing objective truths about mental life through observation of behavior. But they see “self-knowledge” in the same way as do those literary “deconstructionists” who argue that the “self” and the “unconscious” are just “tropes,” figures of speech that only seem to point to “real” “structures.” For these latter-day literary critics, our “reality” is constructed for us by the culture, much in the same way the patient, according to Grunbaum, is converted by his therapy.

Freud, however, might not have been at all shocked by these theories. He would have, for example, agreed with Nisbett and Wilson in their argument that mental processes are inaccessible to introspection. He wrote to Jones: “Of course there is a great difficulty, if not impossibility, in recognizing actual psychical processes in one’s own person.” But he understood these matters much more deeply, drawing on the Kantian tradition. For example, Nisbett and another psychologist, Lee Ross, write, “What is unconscious is normally unconscious for the simplest of reasons: People lack the machinery for bringing the relevant facts into conscious purview.”4 They mean that there is nothing complicated to decipher about the unconscious; for them it is that area of the mind that may include the simplest of mental processes, unreachable by consciousness in the same way the back is unreachable for scratching. Freud, however, writes in The Interpretation of Dreams: “The unconscious is the true psychical reality; in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs.” The unconscious, that is, is the foundation for mental life, an inner reality which exists apart from behavior, but which cannot be reached “in-itself.”

What is the meaning then of introspection? How does one come to know oneself? In The Ego and The Id Freud writes, “The question, ‘How does a thing become conscious?’ would…be more advantageously stated: ‘How does a thing become preconscious?’ And the answer would be: ‘Through becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it.’ ” We come to know ourselves through language. “The part played by word-presentations now becomes perfectly clear; by their interposition internal thought-processes are made into perceptions.” Thoughts can never be reached “in themselves” without the mediation of language. It is only through language that we come to know our minds.

Bringing the infantile prelinguistic reality and the contemporary unspeakable forces into the realm of language is one of the fundamental steps in psychoanalytic introspection. One does not look into oneself; one lets oneself speak. A dream for example is recounted in speech. The resultant “word-presentation” is then interpreted not through introspection but through its suspension. “In the process of interpreting a dream, we abandon reflection and allow involuntary ideas to emerge.” These associations create a text which is finally reflected upon: the connections are observed, the hesitations and ellipses made apparent, the repetitions and patterns outlined.

The entire analytic process takes place along similar lines. The patient holds an “image” of himself that is clearly inadequate for explaining his conflicts, symptoms, compulsions. Through speech and reflection upon that image of himself, through recognition of repeated relations between people, through observation of his own patterned emotional responses, the patient conducts his analysis, interpreting his life, attempting to discover some sort of autobiographical truth. Psychoanalysis takes place through interpretation of “language,” if the word is interpreted broadly to mean all forms of communicable gesture. This does not mean that there is nothing but language; Freud would split here from the literary theorists in his insistence on some sort of accessible truth. But language is the foundation for the theory. Throughout his writings Freud speaks of rhetorical figures—of transcription, translation, inversion of aim, exchange of object. The dream-work’s repression yields condensation and displacement which are variations of metonymy and metaphor. Identification is based on analogy, and transference is literally a carrying over, an emotional metaphor. Introspection is analysis of our own language.

Nisbett and Ross’s experiments, and Grunbaum’s argument, have very little effect then on Freudian theory, which does not depend on “conscious awareness of perceptual and memorial processes,” or on “introspection” as they use the word, but rather on a reflective analysis of the external expressions of mental life. But the most important questions still remain. How is an interpretation verified? When, for example, in looking at the words and acts of our lives do we recognize “truth”? Do we do it as a scientist might, attempting to fit the interpretation to the data? Can psychoanalysis be clinically verified?

Moreover, what is a psychoanalytic cure? Is it just a conversion? And if it does arise through interpretation, how does work with speech ultimately lead to a transformed mental life? Freud’s most salient observations may be in his book on jokes where language play was linked to release of repressed energy; the same sort of coiled force released in a laugh may be released more slowly in interpretation. A cure may be the spoiling of a mind’s bad joke by analysis.

These questions are all important as psychoanalytic culture becomes more and more dominant. But it might be premature to expect Freudian theory to resemble Newtonian physics and yield laws, experiments, falsifiable propositions. More likely, in its rhetorical origins, it is Aristotelian, defining the categories and structures which no theoretician can afford to dismiss without close attention, and which are capable of modification.

Understanding another person’s life in a biography is as fraught with difficulties and distractions as understanding one’s own through analysis. Faced with documents, speech, public facts, one seeks an order, an interpretation that Freud referred to as “biographical truth.” I don’t think Clark has reached that truth in his biography, but the information he presents is useful for beginning an exploration of the life. Even Freud would have agreed that the existence of the scar is at least as important as understanding its origins.


How Valid Is Psychoanalysis? An Exchange March 5, 1981

The Scar of Sigmund Freud’ October 23, 1980

  1. 1

    In Fin de Siècle Vienna (Knopf, 1979).

  2. 2

    The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy (Basic Books, 1979), p. 341.

  3. 3

    Psychological Review, May 1977, pp. 231-259.

  4. 4

    Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross (Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 245.