In response to:
Fun With Freud from the November 2, 2000 issue
To the Editors:
I was very pleased to read Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of my Freud’s Megalomania [NYR, November 2]. One forgets one’s own jokes and I enjoyed thinking I had made a reader laugh (in this case the reviewer). I also enjoyed his own (Freudian?) jokes. However I was not just making fun of both camps in the so-called “Freud wars” as he seems to believe. The book is principally about the present state of the cognitive sciences (including psychoanalysis) and the nature of scientific, political, and intellectual authority—issues that are completely ignored by both sides in the “Freud Wars.”
In Freud’s Megalomania I argue that one way of reading (or fixing up) Freud is noting that self-deception is a critical element of human psychology. This is not explicit in Freud, but it is certainly consistent with his theories and it establishes a very deep connection between Freud and the cognitive sciences. If von Neumann is the principal representative of the cognitive sciences in my book, it is because he invented Game Theory, which has influenced economics, politics, psychology, and biology. Game Theory (and its more recent developments) is an attempt to formulate strategies for private advantage in a world where we all deceive each other. This point is made on pages 33-34:
And yet, in a curious way, hadn’t the contemporary sciences been concerned with the very issues that Freud had so penetratingly analyzed in his posthumous work? Game Theory, Tit for Tat strategies, Prisoner’s Dilemmas and Selfish Genes (as their very names suggest) are about the same problems as Freud’s Megalomania, but never quite get to the point…. If von Neumann’s poker player was an expert in the art of bluffing, so was the Freudian unconscious. Whatever today’s detractors of Freud might believe, von Neumann had taken what Freud called the unconscious and stuffed it into a logic machine.
While there is a sophisticated mathematical argument behind Game Theory, the strategies in, for example, poker, politics, economics, or war often depend on bluff and deception, and there is no way to express bluff or deception in a mathematical form—or to otherwise “scientifically explain” them. Von Neumann, who was fascinated by the problem, knew this.
So there is a deep intellectual connection between Freud’s arguments (reworked, of course, by me—but this is the very nature of what is always done in science, philosophy, history, literary criticism, etc.) and what should be one of the central issues in the cognitive sciences. We are very far from being able to build robots that bluff, lie, and deceive others and themselves—just as we are very far from making sense of such abilities in neuroscientific terms. Yet, these are critical to our understanding of emotions, mind, and brain—as well as of our social structures.
The book is cast as a joke because this seemed to be the only way to “seriously” discuss the issues without falling into what Mendelsohn so kindly says my book is “blessedly free of”—the “protesting-too-much that characterizes both sides” in the Freud debates, and, I might add, some discussions in the neurosciences as well.
To the Editors:
In his review of Israel Rosenfield’s novel Freud’s Megalomania, Daniel Mendelsohn mounts an oblique but familiar defense of Freud against his critics, who are uniformly characterized as “angry,” “fierce,” and “vicious.” “Of course,” writes Mendelsohn, the “inadvertently revealing protesting-too-much” by those rabid pursuers invites explanation in “Oedipal” terms. We are meant to see, then, that the very questioning of Freud’s theory has resulted in its further confirmation. And this is accomplished without the nuisance of having to confront any of the critics’ arguments.
In thus psychoanalyzing an entire cohort of historically and scientifically informed scholars while evading the possible correctness of their findings, Mendelsohn indulges in Freud’s own bad habit of stigmatizing rationally based objections as symptoms of unconscious mental conflict. As I documented in the final chapter of The Memory Wars (New York Review Books, 1995), analytic partisans still can’t forgo attempting this tiresome ploy. It’s a bent arrow, but it’s the only one remaining in their quiver.
Freudianism has lost the prestige it once enjoyed in psychology departments and medical schools, where its exploded dogmas and its lack of empirical grounding finally became an embarrassment. It still finds a warm welcome, however, in humanities departments like Mendelsohn’s own, where appeals to empiricism and science are regarded as indicating a defective Cartesian-Baconian sensibility. In those enclaves of tasteful one-upmanship and methodological sleight-of-hand, no thought is wasted on the real-world effects wrought by unfounded ideas about the causes and cure of mental illness.1 Psychoanalysis is cherished in our theory factories for the same quality that disgraces it everywhere else—namely, its serviceability to the reaching of predetermined conclusions that are sure to baffle the uninitiated.
This cheapening of academic discourse, in which Imyself naively participated many years ago, is apparently of no concern to Daniel Mendelsohn. What does earn his enthusiastic approval, though, is a corollary project:the attempt by latter-day Freudian pundits to supply us with an altogether new and squeaky-clean Freud. If there is no gainsaying the record that now shows the great man’s physicianly ministrations to have been quackery and his psychodynamic theory a pseudoscience, why not just declare that his real significance lay in some safer realm? Hence the emergence of what we might call Freud Lite, a pleasantly woolly “philosopher” and “great writer” whose oeuvre, once it gets freed from James Strachey’s “scientistic” mistranslation, will be seen to constitute, in Mendelsohn’s words, “a literary work…like any other.”
In this spirit, Mendelsohn quotes me as having conceded that Freud was “a visionary but endlessly calculating artist,…casting himself as the hero of a multivolume fictional opus.” But Mendelsohn misses the obvious irony here: Freud never admitted that he was writing fiction. He demanded not a provisional suspension of disbelief but assent to the truths of psychoanalysis, the supporting evidence for which was always just about to be delivered. His gift for suspenseful narrative—fetishized by Mendelsohn as a wonder in its own right—was put to work in clinical detective plots whose contrived dénouements were meant to squelch his rivals while demonstrating his own Sherlock Holmes-like infallibility.2 Thus he deserves literary-critical attention not as a novelist but as an unscrupulous, brilliantly self-dramatizing rhetorician.
The vacuousness of Mendelsohn’s aestheticizing is manifest in the weight he gives to the loyal Freudian Steven Marcus’s pronouncement, more than a quarter-century ago, that the “Dora” case history constitutes “a great work of literature.” Since then, a number of Freud scholars, some of them psychoanalysts, have studied that document and its attendant circumstances without dithering over its supposed beauties. What they have learned is eye-opening, but Mendelsohn either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about such cautionary insight.
The Dora report is in part an advertisement for Freud’s sex-obsessed dream theory, for his most recent etiology of hysteria, for his notion (actually Wilhelm Fliess’s) of innate bisexuality, for the “negative transference” that had to be invoked when the justifiably disgusted Dora walked out on him, and for the “well-known” fact that masturbation causes bedwetting, coughing fits, and stomach pains.3 It is also the story of how Freud attempted to bully a virginal and potentially suicidal teenager into agreeing that she yearned to kiss the cigarbreathed therapist himself, suck her father’s penis, and have sex with her father’s mistress.
Still more astonishingly, Freud tells us of his regret that he failed to persuade Dora either to realize that she was in love with that mistress’s lecherous husband or to surrender to his predatory advances. That submission, in Freud’s view, would have been good for what ailed her. For, as he observed about Dora’s having repelled an attempted sexual assault by the same man when she was just fourteen, “I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable” (Standard Edition, 7:28).
In Erik H. Erikson’s summation, the Dora case
is one of the great psychotherapeutic disasters; one of the most remarkable exhibitions of a clinician’s published rejection of his patient; spectacular, though tragic, evidence of sexual abuse of a young girl, and her own analyst’s published exoneration of that abuse; an eminent case of forced associations, forced remembering, and perhaps several forced dreams…. Dora had been traumatized, and Freud retraumatized her. And for roughly half a century the psychoanalytic community remained either collusively silent about that abuse or, because of blind adoration, simply ignorant of it.4
It is this worshipful ignorance to which Mendelsohn would apparently have us return.
The chief obstacle in the path of Freud as lovable littérateur is the real Freud’s repeated insistence that, like his alleged peers Copernicus and Darwin, he was setting forth universal laws that would permanently revolutionize our understanding of the world. As he lamented in 1925, he “always felt it as a gross injustice that people have refused to treat psychoanalysis like any other science.”5 Mendelsohn disagrees, exhorting us to regard psychoanalysis merely as “an interpretative activity comparable to literary criticism.” In other words, we should try our best to ignore the whole body of Freudian propositions, some of which are involved in every act of psychoanalytic interpretation. The wish to forget about those discredited tenets is understandable, but the attempt to induce amnesia in everyone else is unlikely to succeed.
Mendelsohn’s presentation, finally, hinges on what he calls “the tension between science and literature.” No zero-sum calculus, however, obliges us to choose one of those enterprises over the other. The “tension” is felt only by people who’ve been in-doctrinated in a system of thought that encroaches on scientific terrain without meeting minimal standards of empirical accountability. Such people can be expected to launch romantic complaints about the heartlessness of Western rationalism and to cling to a consoling figure—the cult’s founder, of course, who first conjured the illusion of bridging the gap between science and “philosophy.” In Mendelsohn’s formulation, “What data cannot provide is meaning. For that, we need narrative—we need Freud.”
Just why a writer of guileful and self-flattering case histories should be chosen as the standard-bearer of narrative in general remains to be explained. But what Mendelsohn has bestowed on the old deceiver is less notable than what he has taken away. A Freud whose ideas cannot be considered within their intended domain of psychological theory is no Freud at all—and that phantom is precisely what Mendelsohn and others are now trying to foist upon us.
December 21, 2000
See, in this regard, Edward Dolnick, Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (Simon andSchuster, 1998). ↩
The best illustration of this point is Stanley Fish’s shrewd analysis of the Wolf Man case history, excerpted in my anthology Unauthorized Freud:Doubters Confront a Legend (Penguin, 1999), pp. 186-199. ↩
“It is precisely gastralgias of this character which can be interpreted by an application of cocaine to the ‘gastric spot’ discovered by [Fliess] in the nose, and which can be cured by cauterization of the same spot” (Standard Edition, 7:78). Could this be one of those classic literary bits that Marcus and Mendelsohn had in mind? ↩
Quoted by Patrick Mahony, Freud’s Dora: A Psychoanalytic, Historical, and Textual Study (Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 148-149. ↩
Freud, Standard Edition, 20:58. Numerous further protestations to the same effect are cited by Malcolm Macmillan, Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (MIT Press, 1997), pp. 592-595. It seems doubtful that Mendelsohn has read Macmillan’s patient and meticulous study, which leaves the entire structure of Freudian thought in ruins. ↩