Latest Freud-bashing tome is based on whimsical hearsay
Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews does little to understand the complex scope of the psychoanalyst’s intellectual canvas
Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his office in Vienna, circa 1937. Photograph: Bourgeron Collection/RDA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Freud: The Making of an Illusion
In 1984 Jeffrey Masson published The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, a book that claimed psychoanalysis was a pseudoscience, based on a fabrication of lies that oppressed women.
Other “Freud bashing” books have made similar claims; labelling Freud everything from a child molester to an intellectual fraud.
The American literary critic, Frederick Crews, adds another anti-Freud tome to the list. Crews’ book is principally concerned with morally judging Freud – specifically between 1884 and 1900, as he was steadily building on his theory of psychoanalysis, a form of therapy Freud founded in Vienna. It believed people’s lives could be improved by making their unconscious thoughts, impulses, and motivations, conscious: thus gaining insight into a great sense of their own self awareness.
But Crews claims Freud was no revolutionary writer or thinker. Moreover, he says Freud’s sacred mythology has been protected since his death in 1939, by a cult of disciples such as Anna Freud, Freud’s youngest daughter, and Ernest Jones, Freud’s official biographer and longtime friend.
These and other loyal Freudian disciples, says Crews, ensured any gossip or stolen intellectual property was quickly swept under the carpet to protect the reputation of the lucrative science of psychoanalysis and, more importantly, its founding father.
Freud, in Crews’ view, was a repressed homosexual, a lonely stranger, an ego maniac, a celebrity-seeking imposter, an adulterer who cheated on his wife by sleeping with her sister, an intellectual conman, a money-grabbing liar, a misogynist, a misanthropist, manipulatively self-deprecating and constantly in fear of public humiliation.
Gossip and name-calling aside, there are gaping holes throughout Crews’ narrative. Freud’s theories and ideas explored – in a multitude of ways – the paradoxes contained within the complicated dichotomies of sex and death; love and desire; the irrational and the repressed; mythologies and facts; culture and barbarism; and dreams and the conscious mind.
Nuance, symbolism, metaphor and a certain amount of scepticism is needed, however, to appreciate the wide, colourful, and often complex scope of Freud’s intellectual canvas.
Crews gives this zero attention. Preferring to whittle everything down to accusatory catchphrases, or intellectually reductive throwaway one liners.
Freud’s labelling of fundamental sexual doctrine – such as drive, libido, stage, desire, and quest – normalised sexual terminology at a time when it was a taboo in western society
The Oedipus Complex? Nothing but a warped sexual fantasy that “Freud unquestionably discovered in his own mind,” Crews tells us, with smarmy self assurance.
Crews allows no room for balance in his argument. There is no effort made to properly explain the Freudian concepts he’s attempting to cut down to size. Instead, Crews plays the sensationalist-gossipy-hateful-tabloid hack. Snooty in style and delivery.
The chapters are sloppy, the prose clunky, long-winded and lacking clarity. Crews then randomly diverges into pages of bullet points, getting into nitty gritty analysis of what previous Freud scholars did or didn’t say to the point of complete absurdity.
It’s certainly true Freud didn’t get everything he wrote spot on. And yes, he used cocaine excessively in his time. But haven’t many of our cultural heroes done the same?
Even fervent Freudian enthusiasts admit Freud was a deeply flawed thinker in some respects. Freud’s fixation on incest and child abuse in his work was, in fact, wildly misguided at times.
It’s worth remembering though, that Freud’s labelling of fundamental sexual doctrine – such as drive, libido, stage, desire, and quest – normalised sexual terminology at a time when it was a taboo in western society.
Over the course of this exhausting narrative – which comes to nearly 700 pages – Crews does ask one interesting question: does psychoanalysis teach us anything at all? He fails to give a plausible answer, though.
Other writers have provided more insightful insights.
In Becoming Freud the practicing psychotherapist and cultural critic Adam Phillips argues that the entire psychoanalytical project – while admittedly “a mad science” brimming with paradoxes and contradictions – is about enabling people to recover their pleasure in being alive.
Phillips has also written about Freud’s belief that our sexual desire is always in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy it. In other words: we always want more than is available, however much we have.
Readers should also consult Freud: An Intellectual Biography by Joel Whitebook and Freud in His Time and Ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco. Both authors provide balanced accounts of one of the most exceptional and daring thinkers and writers to emerge in the modernist era, whose ideas principally came from a tradition of the dark enlightenment which sought to confront repression and the irrational in human beings, while somehow trying to find reason amidst all the chaos.
But don’t bother with Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Life is too short. The book is based on nothing more than whimsical hearsay, sensationalist gossip, and judgmental moral panic.