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Fun With Freud


The one big prize that Sigmund Freud won wasn’t the one he’d been hoping for. “Definitively passed over for Nobel Prize,” the seventy-four-year-old founder of psychoanalysis grumbled in his Chronik, his private diary, in November 1930. It wasn’t the first time his life’s work had been passed over for recognition by the international scientific and medical communities—or the first time he’d complained about it. As early as 1917, when he was nominated by a previous winner, Freud had been fervently hoping for a Nobel in physiology. But it wasn’t to be. “No Nobel Prize 1917,” he wrote on April 25 of that year. He was still sufficiently preoccupied with the Nobel the following year to make note of it once again as the Europe he knew disintegrated around him. The Chronik entry for October 30, 1918: “Revolution Vienna & Budapest.” For November 3: “Armistice with Italy. War over!” For November 4: “Nobel Prize set aside.”

You’d never guess from Freud’s morose 1930 diary entry that he had, in fact, been awarded Germany’s most prestigious literary honor, the Goethe Prize, only three months earlier. Granted each year by the city of Frankfurt to “a personality of established achievement whose creative work is worthy of an honour dedicated to Goethe’s memory,” it had previously been given to humanists such as Albert Schweitzer, the poet Stefan George, and Leopold Ziegler, the philosopher of culture; the citation that accompanied Freud’s prize duly emphasized the importance of Freud’s work in nonscientific contexts. “Psychoanalysis has not merely stirred up and enriched medical science,” it read, “but the mental world of the artist and the pastor, the historian and the educator, as well.” (The citation went on to describe Freud in terms that must have warmed the heart of the Goethe-loving physician. Freud, it declared, was “Mephistophelian” in the way that he had rent the veils of convention, “Faustian” in his insatiable hunger for knowledge.1) In his acceptance speech—delivered by his daughter Anna; by this time his health was failing seriously—Freud made an oblique but stinging reference to science’s failure to recognize what literature had: “I think that Goethe would not have rejected psychoanalysis in an unfriendly spirit, as so many of our contemporaries have done.”

Freud—like psychoanalysis itself, some would argue—has been stranded between science and literature from the start. As with Plato, another totalizing theorist of mind, his theoretical and intellectual contribution is impossible to evaluate without taking into consideration his prose style. You can’t get the content without the form. It is at least partly for this reason that Penguin has commissioned a vast new translation of all of Freud’s writings, the first volumes of which will begin appearing next year. The standard edition of Freud’s work—the twenty-four-volume edition published by the Hogarth Press between 1953 and 1974 in a translation by James Strachey—has, indeed, often been thought to misrepresent the tone of Freud’s original precisely because it makes formidably “scientific” certain terms and locutions that, in the original, have an accessible, quotidian flavor. (The most famous example of this is Strachey’s rendering of Freud’s das Ich and das Es—“the I” and “the It”—as the Latin pronouns “Ego” and “Id”: what in German is perfectly ordinary diction becomes, in the translation, rarefied and specialized.) The Penguin series seeks to remedy this problem. Edited by the British writer and analyst Adam Phillips, the new translation, produced by literary translators rather than experts in psychoanalysis, aims to present what Phillips calls “a secular, literary Freud who is seen to be like every other writer: endlessly re-describable and re-translatable.” A literary work, in other words, like any other.

The acceptance speech for the Goethe Prize ends with some musings about the great poet’s character (in terms that apply to Freud himself: “A great self-revealer…but also a careful concealer”). But Freud’s fascination with the psyche of “that strange being, the creative writer” is evident at least as far back as two 1907 essays on literature and the literary mind: “On Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” and “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva,” the latter being the first “Freudian” analysis of a literary text to see print. The reason for this interest comes as no surprise. In the Gradiva paper, Freud articulated his belief that creative writers had an intuitive understanding of the human psyche, one that neither scientists nor ordinary people could match. Characteristically, he made this point by alluding to a great work of literature:

Creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people.

Such sympathy for, and appreciation of, the artistic mind were consonant with a lifelong attraction to a broadly humanistic (rather than strictly scientistic) approach to the world. In his 1925 Autobiographical Study, he declared that he’d never felt “any particular predilection for the career of a doctor,” and that he was moved, rather, “by a sort of curiosity…directed more towards human concerns than towards natural objects”; in the 1935 postscript to the Study he went so far as to refer to his life’s work in the natural sciences, medicine, and psychotherapy as a “détour” that ultimately led back to his real interest: “cultural problems.” Freud has come under fierce attack for intellectual inconsistency and convenient theoretical about-faces, but about the priority of a humanistic outlook, at least, he appears to have been very consistent indeed: some forty years before he wrote that postscript, he had expressed a similar thought, in uncannily similar terms, in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess. “I see how, via the detour of medical practice, you are reaching your first ideal of understanding human beings as a physiologist,” he wrote Fliess on January 1, 1896, “just as I most secretly nourish the hope of arriving, via these same paths, at my initial goal of philosophy.”

So it comes as no surprise that Freud was not without a certain literary vanity; the criteria by which he judged his own work were, indeed, often aesthetic as well as intellectual or scientific. He may have considered The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) to be his “most significant” work, but it was his 1910 “semi-novel”—halbe Romandichtung—the Leonardo monograph, that he considered to be “the only beautiful thing I have ever written.” Echoing its author’s own evaluation of the Leonardo book, the analyst Peter Loewenberg has recently declared that “Freud’s cases do not read like clinical texts; he writes so well that they read like the best fiction.”2 As the Goethe Prize suggests, the thought was hardly a new one. Even in a critical article about the Dora case published in 1974, Steven Marcus referred to Freud as “a great writer” and the Dora case history as “a great work of literature—that is to say it is both an outstanding creative and imaginative performance and an intellectual and cognitive achievement of the highest order.”3

The Penguin project will be appearing just in the nick of time. For if Freud’s “creative and imaginative” side has figured so largely of late, it is at least partly because the “intellectual and cognitive” achievement has come under such heavy fire in recent years. It is no accident that Loewenberg’s statement about Freud’s literary allure forms part of an argument for understanding psychoanalysis as an interpretative activity comparable to literary criticism—a humanistic endeavor, in other words, rather than a scientific discipline. Since the early 1970s, when Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas advanced the “hermeneutic” vision of Freud’s work, it has provided supporters of Freudianism with an increasingly popular way of preserving Freud’s cultural centrality while granting the validity of the complaints about the inadequacy of his “scientific” method. Interpretation, after all—whether of texts or of neuroses—isn’t quantifiable. It isn’t a hard science.

Many of the most trenchant objections to Freud’s claim that psychoanalysis was a bona fide science have appeared in these pages. For most of the past decade, the literary critic Frederick Crews has been arguing here that Freud’s theory and method have no legitimate scientific grounding.4 In the introduction to a series of essays critical of Freud, Crews refers to the “black hole of circularity” characteristic of psychoanalytical reasoning, and goes on to catalog its numerous flaws: the “well-documented conceptual errors, relentless apriorism, disregard for counterexamples, bullying investigative manner, shortcuts of reasoning, rhetorical dodges, and all-around chronic untruthfulness.” “These,” Crews concludes, “were the tools not of a scientist but of an intellectual megalomaniac.”5

This brings me to the other way in which Freud has reemerged in the past few months as a “literary” figure: a new novel about him called Freud’s Megalomania. The first work of fiction by Israel Rosenfield, an author of articles and books about cognitive science and hence someone intimate with the controversy over Freud’s place in science and culture, the novel addresses many of the issues that have been raised by that controversy, albeit in a self-consciously clever and very artful manner, one that playfully and quite deliberately pits literature against science, fantasy against reality, fiction against fact—and uses those tensions to illuminate the debate about Freud. It may be more accurate to call this book a “semi-novel”: many of the characters in it are real people, including Freud himself. (Most of the book consists of a lengthy “lost” final paper by Freud in which he renounces his notion that morality in human culture arises from Oedipal guilt.) In his paper on Jensen’s novel, Freud had written that “the opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real”; among the pleasures that Rosenfield’s novel affords is that of evaluating how well and convincingly reality is mimicked.

It’s only appropriate that questions of authenticity be so important, both thematically and structurally, to this novel: they also figure prominently in the debates about Freud’s work, which is increasingly subject to claims that Freud faked his “scientific” evidence by either suggesting narratives to his impressionable patients or, worse, hubristically inventing patient “testimony” when it suited his theoretical goals. Indeed, the potential double-reading of the new book’s title, Freud’s Megalomania, suggests some of the fun to be had here. Since “Megalomania” is the title of the “lost” manuscript, the novel’s title is potentially innocuous: it’s a book about a book by Freud called “Megalomania.” But since megalomania is also the pathology of which Freud’s detractors accuse him, you can read the title as a wink at Crews et al. There are no unconscious jokes here.


Freud’s Megalomania takes a rather Nabokovian form: it consists of the text of Freud’s lost manuscript together with an introduction and notes provided by a scientist named Albert J. Stewart. Stewart is no Freudian: in fact, as he writes in the first sentence of his introduction, “I never liked Freud.” Instead, our narrator is a cognitive scientist, one of the “big family of happy ‘cogs’” who has turned to legitimate scientific and intellectual activities—“Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Philosophy, Robotics and Neurophysiology”—in order to escape from the “Age of Freudian Tyranny.” What he and his friends were fleeing was the logically hermetic world that Crews and other critics have denounced, a universe in which

  1. 1

    There was a hidden irony to the prize that crowned Freud as a literary if not scientific figure: in what may well have been a bit of personal myth-making, Freud in later life attributed his early decision to pursue medicine, rather than law, to the emotional reaction he had during Gymnasium days to an essay called “On Nature” that was (wrongly) attributed to Goethe. 

  2. 2

    Peter Loewenberg, “Psychoanalysis as a Hermeneutic Science,” in Whose Freud? The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture, edited by Peter Brooks and Alex Woloch (Yale University Press, 2000), p. 97. Loewenberg’s approach owes a great deal to Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas. For criticism of the “hermeneutic” understanding of psychoanalysis, see Frederick Crews, editor, Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend (Penguin, 1998). 

  3. 3

    “Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History,” Partisan Review, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1974), p. 12, cited in Loewenberg, “Psychoanalysis as a Hermeneutic Science,” p. 97. 

  4. 4

    Frederick Crews’s fiercely critical essays, along with responses to them, have now been collected in two volumes: Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend and The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute (New York Review Books, 1995). 

  5. 5

    Crews, Unauthorized Freud, p. x. 

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