Why is Freud popping up on our screens and into our consciousness?

Opinion: Perhaps the current interest in Freud’s life is in inverse proportion to the degree to which his work is now read, outside of universities

‘According to Variety magazine, the drama series Freud: the Secret Casebook will present Freud as the first criminal profiler, and will intersperse murder cases with “the psychoanalyst-cum-detective’s tangled and provocative personal life”.’ Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

‘According to Variety magazine, the drama series Freud: the Secret Casebook will present Freud as the first criminal profiler, and will intersperse murder cases with “the psychoanalyst-cum-detective’s tangled and provocative personal life”.’ Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Fri, Aug 15, 2014, 12:01

Picture Sigmund Freud as a Viennese Sherlock Holmes, with a cigar instead of a pipe. Add well-upholstered cafe interiors, fin-de-siècle costumes and lashings of Mahler. Freud: the Secret Casebook is currently in the works, being brought to television screens by the producers of Downton Abbey and the screenwriter for The X Files, Frank Spotnitz. According to Variety magazine, the drama series will present Freud as the first criminal profiler, and will intersperse murder cases with “the psychoanalyst-cum-detective’s tangled and provocative personal life”.

It will be the latest in a series of biographical films, plays and novels in which Freud’s life has been portrayed. Most recently, we have had the film, A Most Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender, based on Christopher Hampton’s stage play, The Talking Cure; the play Freud’s Last Session by Mark St Germain; and the novel Where Three Roads Meet, a recreation of his death by Sally Vickers.

In the course of the 20th century, the writing of biography was transformed by Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, although Freud himself was highly sceptical about the value of biography. The British writer and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, explores this irony in his new book, Becoming Freud: the Making of a Psychoanalyst (Yale University Press). More a biographical essay than a comprehensive biography, since it ends with Freud aged 50, this beautifully lucid study is jargon-free and richly informative, which is hardly surprising since Phillips was the series editor of The New Penguin Freud.

Personality cult

Perhaps the current interest in Freud’s life is in inverse proportion to the degree to which his work is now read, outside of universities. Nevertheless, the extraordinary reach of his cultural influence remains undeniable, having touched the fields of visual art and film studies over recent decades, almost as much as philosophy, literature and psychology.

Who would be considered to be Freud’s equivalents today? Magazines such as Prospect publish lists ranking the world’s leading public intellectuals each year, with arguments invariably ensuing about who has been omitted – usually Noam Chomsky. Some of those listed are not well-known outside their own scholarly specialisms (which is another way of saying that I have often not heard of them). So, in the spirit of invidious list-making, I would select sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennett, as well as Manuel Castells, whose theory of “the network society” is hugely influential in the fields of global communication, media and cultural studies.

One thinker who is frequently introduced as the leading public intellectual of our day is the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist, Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Institute of Humanities at Birkbeck College, in London. He has published prolifically on philosophy and psychoanalytic theory – in particular reinterpreting Hegel, Marx and the French psychoanalytic thinker, Jacques Lacan, and is a fiery and impassioned speaker on capitalism and geo-politics. His two recent documentary films, directed by Martha Fiennes, A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology demonstrate his erudition and his fizzing energy, as he pops up in famous film locations, expounding a psychoanalytic history of cinema. While he undoubtedly has a playful side, his jokes do seem to depend upon a thorough grounding in Hegel and Lacan. His critique of capitalism is fierce, but his own ideas of revolutionary communism are much harder to define, and couched in language that is very specific to his own work; hence the need, presumably, for an international academic journal dedicated to his vast output. To the non-specialist, it looks very forbidding.

In contrast to this rather hermetic Zizekian rhetoric, there is also a discernible impulse in recent years towards reclaiming a common ground in intellectual debate, one which is being facilitated by the digital shift. Online opportunities for dissemination of ideas proliferate, with outlets for communication ranging from pithy TED talks to blogs. Anyone with a smartphone can keep up with speakers of their choice, from Malcolm Gladwell to Clay Shirky, to Thomas Piketty. There may not be a single dominant idea, but some of the barriers to learning from leading contemporary thinkers and teachers have definitely become more permeable.

Mainstream thought

Perhaps as a consequence of our spending so much time looking at screens, public interest in discussion and debate is being met in the form of live events also: festivals of ideas, discussion nights such as those run by wearetheuniversity.com in Dublin, and public lecture series. Publishing ventures such as author Alain de Botton’s accessible “School of Life” book series, and the recent relaunch by Penguin Books of their Pelican imprint, show a heartening commitment to bringing influential ideas into the mainstream.

A glance at my own bookshelves reveals solid blocks of those old blue-spined Pelican primers, on subjects ranging from history to feminist theory. And one paperback there, by David Stafford-Clark, was evidently prized by me as a student in search of a shortcut. Perhaps the producers of the new television series would find it useful too, though it might just confuse things: its title is What Freud Really Said.

Helen Meany is a journalist, critic and arts consultant

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