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

grammatical mistakes, mispronunciations, poor penmanship, broken legs, unattended stoves, marriage proposals and wallets absentmindedly left behind were scrutinized for incestuous and perverse desires; ordinary citizens were accused of crimes unbeknownst to them and their denials served as proof of guilt, just as denials of Freudian theoretical insights were proof of the truth of the theory.

It is the last item in particular that has stuck in the craw of many scientific critics of Freud—what Crews has referred to as the Rube Goldberg logic of Freudianism, its implicit and (to some) maddening circularity. “What a psychoanalytic explanation tells us,” Frank Cioffi tartly wrote in his essay “Wittgenstein’s Freud,” “is itself.”6

So casting his narrator as an anti-Freudian allows Rosenfield to air many contemporary anti-Freudian complaints, both great and small; among the latter is the notorious cultlike character of strict Freudianism. (Stewart boasts that he and his scientist friends now worship mathematicians and scientists such as Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann as “gods and demigods” to rival Freud “the Leader, the Teacher, the Master.”) Yet Rosenfield, whose nonfiction writings about consciousness and the organization of the brain are characterized by an admirably easygoing lucidity, doubles the satiric fun here by avoiding overt partisanship of either side. The day before the plot really gets going (when Stewart is handed the manuscript by a mysterious “woman of medium height with an uncommonly beautiful face” who comes to his office—shades of The Maltese Falcon here), he attends a “raucous” meeting of psychoanalysts, psychologists, philosophers, and scientists that is intended as an allegory of the current state of the debate about Freud. Yes, there are the “fanatical” defenders of Freud, who “spoke about the science of the mind as if it had started in 1899 and had stopped…in 1939”; but there are also the equally unattractive anti-Freudians, with their “haughty ‘scientific’ pretensions,” who “mixed criticism of his methods and the untestability of his theories with questions about his personal ethics.” The latter is a reference to the long-standing (and ongoing) debate about Freud’s alleged affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. Does a footnote that Stewart appends at this juncture give away his creator’s real sympathies? “I am not sure,” Stewart notes, “what an affair between Minna and Freud would prove about Freudian theory or Freudian ethics.” Amen. It seems we are doomed to hear such common sense only in novels.

Rosenfield’s critique of the physicalist assumptions of certain anti-Freudians takes hilarious form later on, when Stewart reveals that he has been a collaborator on a “Marilyn Machine,” a robot that thinks it’s Marilyn Monroe because (thanks to a new theory of mind called “Loop Theory”: “We are loops and we loop”) it has been given some of Marilyn’s thoughts. This feat has been made possible by the discovery that “beliefs and desires are physical symbols in our brains,” and hence can be maneuvered and, presumably, reproduced and transplanted. And yet the implications of the Marilyn Machine are hardly straightforward: Stewart and the inventor of Loop Theory, his horribly overbearing colleague Norman Dicke (one hopes there is a Freudian joke here), are nonplused when the machine starts worrying about its “looks” and “body”—even though it has no body. The Marilyn Machine surprises her creators by turning out to be more than the sum of its—her?—parts.

Stewart (like Rosenfield himself) is a reasonable man—a man of science who’s all too aware of the limits of science. In his irritation at the arrogance of the anti-Freudians at the conference, this “hard” scientist is moved to stand up and address “the self-assured pretensions of his critics”:

Even if much has been learned about the brain in the last half century, we are still no closer to understanding the mysteries of sex, desire, consciousness, walking, seeing, thinking, hypocrisy, deception and lying…. Knowing that there is more of a particular neurotransmitter when we are depressed does not explain depression any better than Freudian theory; nor does an analysis of neurotransmitter levels help us understand our feelings, why we have them, what causes them, how long they will last and how we can avoid them.

Here we have come back, however implicitly, to the tension between science and literature. What data cannot provide is meaning. For that, we need narrative—we need Freud. However theoretically awkward it may be to justify, his hybridization of science and literature ideally addresses the needs of real human beings, who are also more than the sum of their physical parts.

After this witty introduction, a kind of à clef preparation for the revelations of the lost “Megalomania” paper, we get the details of the discovery of the manuscript, and indeed the contents of the manuscript itself. As in the introduction, nearly everything about the main portion of the novel comments slyly on various aspects of Freud’s life and legacy. Minna Bernays and adultery, for instance: the beautiful woman who comes to Stewart’s office, Bernadette Schilder, turns out to be Freud’s granddaughter by an (invented) illegitimate daughter of Freud’s, who is given the blissfully mitteleuropäisch name of Emma Benesch-Schilder; we learn that Emma’s mother, Adelaide, became Freud’s mistress after meeting him on a train in 1916. (You wonder whether Rosenfield isn’t giving Freud more credit than he deserves in this department: in July 1915, Freud was moved to boast to his Chronik of having had “successful coitus on Wednesday morning.”)

Stewart’s troubled relationship to the grandiose Dicke is only one of several between self-effacing losers and megalomaniac father figures. Each of the manuscript’s two main parts (there’s also an addendum about a conversation between Anna Freud and Stewart’s hero John von Neumann) turns, in fact, on one such troubled relationship. The first part is the treatise called “Megalomania,” Freud’s first-person account of how he was bullied into offering false testimony on behalf of Julius Wagner-Jaurreg, an overbearing friend from school days who was accused of having performed sadistic electroshock treatments on Austrian deserters during the First World War in order to “cure” their cowardice. (The physicalist bias again.) Freud’s repugnance at the treatment of so-called malingerers is true to life. In September of 1918 he participated in a Budapest conference about “war neuroses”; going against the then-prevalent consensus of many psychoanalysts, he argued that very few “war neurotics” were in fact shirkers. The fictional Freud kowtows to Wagner-Jaurreg for reasons he doesn’t quite understand (reasons, it will turn out, that have everything to do with Freud’s final insight about megalomania). The second main portion of the manuscript is a short addendum called “The Tower of Babel,” which is Freud’s account of a meeting with Maurice Koechlin, an associate of Gustave Eiffel’s who comes to Freud claiming to have been the real designer of that most Freudian of erections—I mean constructions.

It is as a result of his interactions with Wagner-Jaurreg and Koechlin that Rosenfield’s Freud has his great final insight: that it is not Oedipal guilt, but rather a “psychotic” megalomania, a grandiose, self-protective need to delude ourselves about the nature of reality and our place in it, that is the foundation of human psychology and morality. Freud comes to this revelation about the fundamental role of self-delusion when he realizes that the reason the young soldiers deserted was that “they could not justify, at least to themselves, the State’s claims to moral authority…. [They] are no longer capable of self-deception”; from this, he rather dubiously concludes that “authority” itself is “by its very nature” psychotic and inherently megalomaniac.

Rosenfield’s Freud would, of course, never identify himself as such a megalomaniac, but that’s part of the joke—the true megalomaniac is blissfully un-self-aware. By organizing his narrative around not one but several uneasy relationships between megalomaniac bullies and their more thoughtful, self-doubting victims, the author amusingly evokes, in various guises, a fundamental complaint about Freud himself: that once it’s been stripped of its claims to being scientific, psychoanalysis is little more than mindless hero-worship, and that no one better illustrates the psychological, intellectual, and even political dangers of worshipping “great men” than Freud himself, whom his critics accuse of having bamboozled an entire culture into dumb submission.

So why isn’t the “manuscript,” the centerpiece of this allusive entertainment, more fun to read? I found little in the main portion of Rosenfield’s novel as amusing, or as pointed, as the introductory material—the pandemonium at the conference, the Marilyn Machine, the offhanded but quite funny parodies of convoluted scholarly thought (the handwriting of the manuscript is “so much like the writing in Freud’s known works,” one expert declares to a nonplused Bernadette, “that it is clearly an imitation”), even the obvious yet still somehow very funny jokes that Rosenfield allows himself at the beginning, before he has to get “in character” as Freud. (Stewart in a footnote: “I don’t know why…but one of the postdocs, Debra, stuck in my mind that night as the train plunged into the tunnel.”) And yet although the issue of the real-life Freud’s “megalomaniac” tactics is a hot one in the contemporary debate, the “Megalomania” section feels like an in-joke that’s gone on too long. Oddly enough, Rosenfield’s novel gets less and less funny the closer it gets to Freud himself.

It was only after I’d finished his novel and was rereading some Freud that I realized why—why “Megalomania” itself wasn’t as much fun as the buildup: the fictional Freud is nowhere near as much fun to read as the real one. The theme that Rosenfield has so cleverly worked into his fiction—the tension between authenticity and imitation—turns out, indeed, to be double-edged. Because this fiction is such a deliberate, self-conscious imitation of Freud, it raises the inevitable and highly entertaining question of just how good an imitation it is. (A.S. Byatt’s Possession demonstrated that arcane literary mimicry can appeal to the general public as well as to specialists.) From the obvious substantive objection to his fictional Freud—that Freud would, could, never have dreamed this particular new theory—Rosenfield playfully protects himself by working that very objection into the text. “Perhaps not unsurprisingly,” Stewart writes in a footnote, “some of those who read the Manuscript when it was circulated for comments before publication reacted specificallyto Freud’s claim that authority is psychotic….” No doubt they did—or would. (Still, there are such things as habits of thought and fundamental modes of thinking: Freud is unlikely to have ever claimed that anything was “in its very nature” anything, precisely because for him there was nothing in the world that is not somehow the expression of our mental constructions of it.)

But from the ostensibly more innocuous stylistic objection, there is no place to run. The real problem with Rosenfield’s imitation is not scientific but literary: the writerly voice of the Freud in “Megalomania” sounds nothing like the distinctive voice of the man who won the Goethe Prize. The flatly unsubordinated clauses and low diction (“the worth of a man, his value, is his ability to fake it”) that you get from Rosenfield’s Freud bear no resemblance to the elaborate, allusive prose waltzing that you get from the real thing: the alternation of bold assertions with self-deprecating demurs; the distinctive blend of elaborately elegant allusiveness and an avuncular homeyness unlikely to pass editorial muster in a present-day psychoanalytical journal (“Thus our little problem has led us to an astral myth!”); the prosodic to-ing and fro-ing that gives Freud’s prose its rich, dialogic texture. The real Freud talks to you; Rosenfield’s Freud just tells you what he thinks; and as with so many lectures, this one sometimes makes your mind wander off. The (perhaps unintended) effect of Rosenfield’s mimicry is to make you appreciate the real thing all the more.

It may be unfair to judge what is, after all, an extended jeu d’esprit too harshly. Indeed, its invocation of the theme of self-delusion makes Rosenfield’s book as sophisticated and amusing a commentary on the core issues raised by the debate about Freud as you can find right now, one blessedly free of the inadvertently revealing protesting-too-much that characterizes both sides in that debate. The Marilyn Machine, the manuscript itself and the questions about its authenticity, the delusional megalomaniacs who substitute their fantasies for reality: all these elements of Rosenfield’s fiction keep present before us the master complaint, as it were, about psychoanalysis, the problem—central to both psychoanalysis and literature—of the difference between fiction and fact, between what is imagined and what is real. What if it’s all a myth?

And if it is? In this context it’s worth noting the words Crews uses to describe what’s left of Freud, once his scientific pretensions have been stripped away:

We begin to grasp that the deviser of psychoanalysis was at bottom a visionary but endlessly calculating artist, engaged in casting himself as the hero of a multivolume fictional opus that is part epic, part detective story, and part satire on human self-interestedness and animality.7

“Artist,” “fictional,” “epic,” “detective story,” “satire”: here we are squarely in the territory of the literary. For Crews, being forced to reconsider Freud as an essentially literary figure is a “scientifically deflating realization”; maybe so. But is that the end of the road for Freud? Even if Freud is (scientifically) “wrong,” as a writer—a mythographer of the soul, let’s call it—he produced rich and brilliantly textured narratives that help us to think about the world and our lives in it. Myth, after all, is a lie that tells the truth. Here a comparison to the Greeks, for whom Freud had such reverence, is illuminating: no one cares, after all, whether Homer told the truth—whether Achilles or Clytemnestra lived in “real” life; their stories served (and continue to serve) as useful ways of understanding the world and our place in it. But then, the paradox that a myth, a fiction, can be truer and more meaningful than “fact” is one that literature, rather than science, alone can understand.

It’s a paradox that Rosenfield may well have had in mind in offering what I took to be a final ambiguous joke. In the very last line of the “Megalomania” manuscript, Freud muses, apropos of megalomaniac authority figures, that “fraud…seems more convincing than ‘honesty.’” Originally I misread the first word of the sentence as “Freud,” and I now wonder whether this final play with resemblance, this quasi-identification, is in fact intentional: a sly valedictory reminder on the part of the author—who is himself now stranded between literature and science—that literature (fictions, myths, narrative “fraud”) is, finally, more meaningful than science (facts, data, scientific “honesty”).

That same paradox—and the inevitable failure of so many to grasp its illuminating illogic—may have been what Freud, too, had in mind seventy years ago, when he was composing his acceptance speech for the Goethe Prize. That speech ends, typically, with two lines from Faust—a couplet that could be read as a warning to slavish supporters and angry denouncers alike: those who would try to reduce his rich contradictions, to ignore the paradoxes of a science that is also an art, in order to make him an easy target either for glib imitation or vicious attack. Whichever group you’re talking about, it’s hard not to be struck by what Freud would have called a “morbid” emotional energy behind the fervent desire either to build him up as larger than life or tear him down to nothing at all. Such energies, of course, were ones that Freud himself—in the famous coinage that permanently married literature to psychology—characterized as “Oedipal.” There’s no scientific way of knowing that this is, in fact, what he had in mind when he chose to conclude the Goethe Prize speech with those lines from Faust, but it’s a satisfying fiction, one borne out by the lines themselves. “Das Beste, was du wissen kannst,/Darfst du den Buben doch nicht sagen,” Goethe had written. “The best that you can know/you may not tell to children.

This Issue

November 2, 2000