Freud’s Clay Feet

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Frederick Crews has a loyalty of preoccupation rare in a literary academic. His attacks on Sigmund Freud began way back in the mid-1970s with his publicly proclaimed conversion away from the Freudian literary criticism he practiced at the time. Since then his assault has drawn sustenance from a variety of revisionist Freud sleuths and scholars. High among the sleuths is the tireless Peter Swales, a onetime assistant to the Rolling Stones and a follower of the cultish G.I. Gurdjieff, who grew interested in Freud because of his cocaine use and sniffed out all manner of facts about the originals of his cases and his supposed affair with his sister-in-law. The scholars include more academic thinkers whose conclusions about Freud don’t always agree with Crews’s, whatever their arguments with Freud’s practice or writings. Like Karl Popper or Adolf Grünbaum, they may also question Freud’s status as a scientist—whether he was one at all, or whether his claims are sufficiently supported by empirical evidence.

Crews’s 746-page biography, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, damning and mesmerizing by turns, is about the young Freud and reaches The Interpretation of Dreams only on page 543, allowing just a few brief glimpses into the second part of his life. It marks the zenith of what has become Crews’s crusade “to put an end to the myth of psychoanalysis and its creator” by stripping Freud of both his empiricist credentials and the image of a “lone explorer possessing courageous perseverance, deductive brilliance, tragic insight, and healing power,” a series of attributes Crews finds in Freud’s own self-portrayal and in Ernest Jones’s landmark biography (1953–1957).

The idealization of Freud the man that Crews is so keen to prove a blinding illusion is hardly prevalent. Most scholars, commentators, and even analysts don’t need it to make use of Freud’s insights into the opacity and unpredictability of the human mind, or the ways in which love and hate coexist, or how our childhoods echo through us, sometimes trapping us, or how our identifications with early figures in our lives shape the complicated humans we become. Or perhaps most important, how much we share with those whom we casually label with the many diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Jones himself, by the time he wrote his biography of Freud, had shifted his theoretical allegiances to Melanie Klein, the Hungarian analyst who so influenced the British Pychoanalytic Society. Indeed, the Freud illusion was only prevalent in the United States from the 1950s until about 1968. At that time, Freud was taken up first by liberal then by radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse; and Freudian therapy, in an American translation, formed part of psychiatric training. Freud, who had died in 1939, became an often comic know-it-all figure in popular culture. Ironically, despite this “fame,” in 1956, the year of his centenary, there were only 942 card-carrying psychoanalysts in the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.