Freud Bashers’ Greatest Hits: Viennese Quack Takes a Beating

Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend , edited by Frederick Crews. Viking, 301 pages, $24.95.

Reading Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend , you can almost hear the tremulous duets rising above the Upper West Side and the Central Village: the whispers of anxious analysands shaken to the core by this anthology of authoritative attacks on the good doctor from Vienna, the answering murmurs of analysts emerging from their trances long enough to assure their clients that only an epidemic of oedipal fixation could have prompted this mass assault on the father of the “talking cure.” As if we didn’t have enough on our minds-exhuming buried souvenirs of childhood incest and abuse, coping with our submerged desires to murder our same-sex parent and copulate madly with Mom or Dad!

Now, thanks to Frederick Crews-a former professor of English at Berkeley whose early passion for Freudian literary criticism soured drastically, and whose subsequent critiques of Freudian theory and practice are familiar to readers of The New York Review of Books -we must confront the unnerving possibility that all those pricy therapeutic hours were wastes of time and money squandered on a “mistake that grew into an imposture,” and that “our great detective of the unconscious was incompetent from the outset-no more astute, really, than Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau-and that he made matters steadily worse as he tried to repair one theoretical absurdity with another.”

Obviously, Mr. Crews has scant interest in modest renovation, in rooting out the goofier excesses of orthodox Freudian theory. He wants nothing less than to dig down to its shaky foundations and topple it completely-a demolition project for which he’s marshaled essays by 18 scholars that “take the full measure of Freud’s well-documented conceptual errors, relentless apriorism, disregard for counterexamples, bullying investigative manner, shortcuts of reasoning, rhetorical dodges, and all-around chronic untruthfulness.”

So Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen debunks the critical Anna O. case, the miracle cure from which the roles of memory, repression and oedipal feelings were extracted. The real-life model for Anna continued to suffer a good while after Freud claimed she had recovered. She endured facial pains that led to a nasty morphine habit. Her cure (if there was one) for her psychic disease (if there was one) probably had little to do with the stories of childhood trauma, real or imaginary, suggested to her by her manipulative doctors.

Frank Sulloway traces Freud’s debts to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, a true crackpot who based a whole psychology on his belief in male and female menstrual periodicity-and in the all-importance of the nose as a sexual organ. Several essays touch on Freud’s fabricated and capricious experiments with dream interpretation and free association, while others discuss his actual therapeutic practice, a series of seemingly actionable crimes against hapless patients whose lives he effectively ruined. In one persuasive article, Allen Esterson examines the destructiveness of Freud’s assumption that young “Dora” was secretly in love with a man who made unwelcome sexual advances to her; in another, David E. Stannard details the reductive silliness of Freud’s “analysis” of Leonardo da Vinci.

Few of these revelations or debates are new; most of this has been excerpted from published work, or is familiar from Mr. Crews’ The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute . Still, it’s interesting enough, even to the “general reader” for whom this volume is intended. At times, though, you may wish that Mr. Crews had written the book himself instead of calling in his panel of qualified experts. Ultimately, Unauthorized Freud reads like what it is: a collection of scholarly articles, the Doubters’ Greatest Hits.

Part of the problem is simply one of pace, rhythm and contrast: Mr. Crews’ prologues to each section are often so much snappier and livelier than the work he’s introducing that beginning an essay is rather like being summoned back into the lecture hall after the comparatively enjoyable coffee breaks at some professional conference. While several of the writers-Peter Swales, for example-write lucidly and gracefully, Mr. Crews alone rattles on with reckless, manic glee, trashing classic and contemporary psychoanalysis, slinging accusations of charlatanism and fraud. Frequently, his tone may remind us of the Amazing Randi James, exposing the fakery of spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller, or of that grade-school pal who first convinced us that there is no Santa Claus, or God. Compared to Mr. Crews, the psychologists, philosophers and historians represented here seem measured-indeed, academic.

At the book’s slower moments, general readers (that is, neither Believers nor Doubters) may find themselves thinking irritably of how much more fun it is to read Freud. Many of his case studies seem like odd little novels, or detective stories, energized by the thrill of discovery and by the operation of a peculiar logic that makes weird and daring imaginative leaps. It’s pleasurable to observe Freud’s mind performing its idiosyncratic magic-and considerably less amusing to watch these sober, sensible folk explain the sleight-of-hand, reveal the mirrors and the contraptions that create the deceptive illusion.

Which returns us to the question of who the “general reader” might be. Mr. Crews intuits that “people who have publicly committed themselves to the psychoanalytic worldview” are unlikely to be swayed by a few soreheads claiming that the master manufactured his patients’ memories and firmly guided their “free” associations. Rather, Mr. Crews hopes, “people who entertain mixed or uncertain feelings may find themselves engaged by Unauthorized Freud .” Perhaps it’s a mistake to imagine that the term “general reader” denotes other readers like one’s self, but-projecting wildly, I suppose-I’d assume that most readers (and admirers) of Freud have had little trouble detecting on their own his fondness for the illogical and the far-fetched conclusion; his willingness to make the facts of a case conform to his hopes for its outcome; and the risible insufficiency of both his views on women and his assumption that the cultural mores of upper-middle-class fin de siècle Vienna were hard-wired in the species. Both Stanley Fish and Frank Sulloway point out the absurdities of Freud’s “cure” of the Wolf Man (analyzing a nightmare, Freud decided that his patient’s phobias derived from surprising his parents in the primal scene) without pointing out, at least in these excerpts, what Freud himself chose to ignore: that the Wolf Man, who rather touchingly said, “Psychoanalysts are a problem, no doubt about it,” had other problems-among them, a family history of suicide and mental illness.

One understands that Mr. Crews’ wish to fling open the doors of “the wizard’s empty palace” reflects his response to the harm done in the name of psychoanalysis-especially by therapists who “have cast their lot with the so-called recovered memory movement, which has been causing incalculable personal, familial and social havoc since the mid-1980’s.” But most revolutionary thinkers-Jesus, Darwin, Marx, Einstein-have been indirectly responsible for a certain amount of collateral damage. Surely it must be possible to adopt a more reasonable, less embattled stance toward Freud’s achievements. We need not accept his zanier conclusions to value the way that his ideas-about the ego and the id, about repression, sublimation, projection-have enabled us to interpret ourselves to ourselves. Nor does our growing awareness of his dicey methodology entirely diminish our respect for his role in propelling us, for better or worse, out of the Victorian era and into our own overanalyzed century.