Freud: What’s Left?

Freud: In His Time and Ours

by Élisabeth Roudinesco, translated from the French by Catherine Porter
Harvard University Press, 580 pp., $35.00
Sigmund Freud, Vienna, 1911
Mondadori Portfolio/Everett Collection
Sigmund Freud, Vienna, 1911

When the surviving directorate of Freudian psychoanalysis reassembled after the disruption and dispersal of World War II, its members faced a situation of combined opportunity and risk. Their movement’s center of gravity had long been shifting westward from Vienna and Berlin toward London and New York, reaching more potential clients and supporters but also fostering schisms that threatened to discredit the whole institution. What was needed, it was agreed, was a means of generating solidarity behind the figure of Freud, the departed leader whose discovery of the unconscious, with the Oedipus complex at its core, could be celebrated by all parties.1

The urgency of that task of establishing solidarity was brought home to Anna Freud by the publication, in 1947, of Helen Walker Puner’s astute independent biography, Freud: His Life and His Mind, which dared to ascribe the founder’s precepts to his idiosyncrasies rather than to the objective nature of the psyche. Anna’s response was to commission a biography of her own, Ernest Jones’s three-volume opus of 1953–1957, that would profit both from Jones’s long intimacy with Freud and from documents that Anna would share with him but largely withhold from the public. Jones was chosen over a better-informed candidate, Siegfried Bernfeld, because he could be trusted to do Anna’s bidding—specifically, to establish a narrative of discovery that would make her father’s great breakthrough vividly persuasive, whether or not it happened to be true.

The trouble was, however, that by 1953 there were two competing creation myths. According to the one that Freud himself had propagated, all of his female patients had told him that they had been molested in childhood by their fathers; but Freud had stumbled across the Oedipus complex when he realized that those “memories” were only fantasies serving to disguise the girls’ own incest wishes. Freud’s published papers from 1896, however, along with his recently recovered letters to his best friend of the 1890s, Wilhelm Fliess, exploded that tale; it was Freud himself who had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince his patients that they had been abused. Moreover, the Fliess letters showed that Freud had initially thought of the Oedipus theme in connection with his own “hysteria”; and he had abandoned his “seduction theory” emphasizing childhood abuse many years before deciding that every psychoneurosis is rooted in repression of the Oedipus complex.

Which of the two imperfect stories was Jones going to tell, the one about Freud’s ceasing to believe his female patients or the one about his flash of introspection, assimilating all humankind to his own nervous case? If Jones had been writing for the sake of historical truth alone, he would have had to choose—or better yet, to expose the dubious features of both hypotheses. The point, however, was to encourage faith in psychoanalysis; and so, as in the gospels, Jones…

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