A Rah-Rah Freudian Slips: Talking Cure on Lumpy Couch

Cassandra’s Daughter: A History of Psychoanalysis , by Joseph Schwartz. Viking, 339 pages, $28.95

One can imagine a popular history of psychoanalysis that would be both gripping and informative. But if it actually ranged in time from Freud’s early discoveries up to recent concerns about psychopharmacology, and if it thoroughly covered all the ground in between, including the literary, artistic and cultural manifestations of psychoanalysis, the book would have to be about the size of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary . For the point about psychoanalysis (as about so many other art forms) is that everything depends on the details. If you think about the popular histories that have succeeded as stories–Adam Phillips’ book about D.W. Winnicott, say, or Peter Gay’s biography of Freud–you will notice that they take only a small slice of the field, but they work it intensively. The joy, the terror, the hilarity and the conflict of psychoanalysis all reside at the nitty-gritty level, and that is where the ideal popular history would have to dwell.

Joseph Schwartz’s Cassandra’s Daughter is not this ideal history. The book is carefully researched, well intentioned, occasionally sensible and sometimes vaguely amusing, but it is also heavily footnoted, dreary to the point of somnolence, filled with undigested primary material, constricted by the guilty conscience of political correctness, and composed by someone who cannot tell a story to save his life. Mr. Schwartz is a psychoanalyst practicing in London, a trained physicist and the author of Einstein for Beginners , but he is not, alas, a writer–or at least not the sort who is capable of dealing with this particularly complicated tale.

The flaws show up as early as the title. In a prologue to the book, the author explains to us that Cassandra, like psychoanalysis, was a disbelieved prophet. But, he argues, “We are now too mature to rely on the Greeks for our narratives. The story of psychoanalysis is not the story of Cassandra, but the story of Cassandra’s daughter.” The problem is, Cassandra didn’t have a daughter. If you are attempting to defend a besieged, possibly dying discipline from its doubters and attackers, you only sell guns to the enemy when you ally your chosen field with a patently nonexistent character.

But Mr. Schwartz is too tin-eared to realize this. He is the sort of author who is capable of writing a sentence like “In this social arrangement, fathers, deprived of daily contact with their growing children of more than a few minutes each day, have been deskilled in their parenting role, leaving mothers to do the work of tending to the emotional and physical needs of the children as well as those of their husbands.” His favorite adjective for literary works is “best-selling.” As a physicist who classifies psychoanalysis as a real (albeit admittedly subjective) science, he insists, “In the literary tradition, the words do their work on the reader. In the scientific tradition, the reader does the work on the words.” I don’t even know what this means, but I do know that this sort of thinking is what enables Mr. Schwartz to miss out on the very best that his own tradition offers. If you separate the language in which an idea is expressed from the idea itself–if you imagine that good writing is just the icing on the cake of meaning–then you have missed the central insight we inherited from Freud.

Mr. Schwartz knows, or has been told, that clarity and even poetry of expression characterized certain practitioners. In attempting to explain why Freud and not his important collaborator Josef Breuer became the founding father of the field, Mr. Schwartz notes: “Certainly a significant factor was Freud’s skill as a writer.” But he manages to make this seem like yet another smooth trick practiced by the wily old boy, something akin to his gentlemanly tailoring and his preference for upper-crust society, when in fact it was central to his whole method. As Mr. Schwartz demonstrates, Breuer was the first to practice the “talking cure” (which Mr. Schwartz calls the “listening treatment”), but Freud was the first to practice interpretation. And the entire value of interpretation hinges on tact, delicacy, balance, context–in short, all the factors that give a writer a good ear. To see interpretation mangled by Freud’s disciples, both then and now, is to see what happens when a non-writer gets his hands on the technique. Similarly, Mr. Schwartz spends dozens of pages on the British psychoanalysts John Bowlby and Ronald Fairbairn, and then sums up Winnicott in a few paragraphs as “the poet of psychoanalysis.” You and I might think this sounds like a good thing, but apparently it has its limitations: “He saw straight through to the most fundamental psychological processes and instead of seeking to frame an understanding of them, as did Fairbairn, he found the words to give them expression.” Instead ?

If Winnicott is the poet, Mr. Schwartz is the advertising copywriter of psychoanalysis. “Psychoanalysis is arguably the single most important intellectual development of the 20th century,” he opens his book by saying, and he closes with the assertion, “The insights of psychoanalysis are crucial to the creation of emotional well-being, and to a humanity that can embrace difference and find common solutions to the difficulties created by modern life.” In general, the publishers have oversold this so-called “complete” account of everything “from the couch to Prozac.” In fact, Prozac is mentioned only parenthetically, while the brief general allusions to psychopharmacology at the end of the book are both listless and predictably antagonistic.

If you are already a psychoanalytic practitioner, you will know everything this book has to tell you. If you are a novice, you will be bored to tears by the endless lists of names and factions, by the unceasing infighting. You will assume, if you have not been exposed to the field before (or perhaps even if you have), that psychoanalysis consists of a lot of crabby, nit-picky, turf-defending men and women who project their own flaws outward onto the world. You will notice that the final breach between Freud and Jung occurred because each insisted on explicitly interpreting the suppressed assumptions and Freudian slips in the other’s letters. And you will conclude that psychoanalysis, if it is as important as Mr. Schwartz claims, is too important to be left to the psychoanalysts.

But you can reach the same conclusion far more quickly and pleasurably if you forget about Mr. Schwartz’s book and go back to the real writers. Start with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and maybe his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis or his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious . Then move later into the 20th century; you will certainly want to read Winnicott, and you might even want to take a look at some of the weirder offshoots like R.D. Laing and Bruno Bettelheim (both of whom are entirely omitted from Viking’s “complete” history). For more recent material, you can luxuriate in Janet Malcolm’s thrilling accounts ( In the Freud Archives , Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession ), and you can get a taste of actual analytic practice by sampling Mr. Phillips’ beautifully rendered On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored or On Flirtation . And don’t forget the movies ( Spellbound , Lady in the Dark ), the poetry (Robert Lowell, Louise Glück) and the novels (Philip Roth, for a start).

Or just walk down the streets of New York, where an afternoon’s conversation and eavesdropping will give you more fascinating information about psychoanalysis than is contained in the whole of Cassandra’s Daughter .