By the time the man who invented the “talking cure” was dying from cancer of the mouth, he was a public celebrity and revered in his field, though his controversial reputation, which persists today, was already in place. An unsigned editorial published in The New York Times two days after his passing at age 83 in 1939 questioned his clinical validity in the same breath that it championed him as a great thinker: “Whether he was a true scientist or not, Freud’s place is secure if for no other reason than that he broke down ancient taboos and cleared the way for a new approach to the mind.” The literary scholar Harold Bloom, writing in The Times in 1986, the centennial of Freud’s establishment of his private practice in Vienna, called Freud “The Greatest Modern Writer” (in his headline, no less) while dismissing psychoanalysis as a kind of living fossil that “still survives among us, as an isolated and disputable therapy.” A 2008 report published in The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association said psychoanalytic theory thrived in English departments and in the arts—from film to television to theater—but was treated as “desiccated and dead” by psychology programs in universities. As Freud’s stature as a historical figure grows, analysts must treat him as something more than pop culture fodder; he is also their field’s founder and its seminal thinker.
This task is increasingly important; today, Freud is more of a pop icon than ever. A recent nonfiction book about Freud’s cocaine use was a best-seller at the end of the summer. A star-studded blockbuster film directed by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen as Freud recasts the father of analysis’s relationship with Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient—herself a future analyst—Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightly) as a sexed-up psychological thriller. It recently became a critical smash at its debut during the New York Film Festival. The success of Freud’s Last Session—a modest but thrilling one-act play now in its second year of sold-out shows off Broadway—should come as no surprise. To much of the public at large, Freud and his theories are dated oddities, stigmatized as disproved, even as they help sell innumerable books and movie tickets. Ask an analyst, however, and they’ll tell you Freudian analysis is alive and well—even if its form is unrecognizable to those familiar with the cliché of the couch-bound patient being asked by an old man to “hear more about that.”
In the office of Lewis Aron, a Ph.D. and director of the N.Y.U. Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy & Psychoanalysis, there were two leather chairs, a long couch and a wispy line drawing of Freud hanging behind the reclining chair where he sat slouching as he spoke to The Observer. We entered the room and inspected the furniture and he told us to take a seat—not to lie down, mind you—on the couch.
“The mistake most people make is that the way they are defining analysis is how it was in the 1950s, in its heyday, which is really when it was first being defined. If they then look out in the world and wonder, ‘Is analysis alive or dying?’ … My feeling is that if you see psychoanalysis as something that’s alive and changing and growing,” he trailed off, the portrait of Freud frowning heavily over his shoulder.
“Maybe it’s not going to look like I expected it to look,” he added, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
One of the country’s preeminent programs in analysis, N.Y.U. postdoc was established in 1961 by Bernard Kalinkowitz; it was the first university program to give non-M.D. psychologists a way of formally training in psychoanalysis. It is known for using a progressive curriculum, incorporating—like many other institutions these days—various methods of psychology into the general spectrum of analysis. But Freud is still a complicated influence. Some students discussed an anxiety of being branded “too Freudian.” Last year, the program renamed the “Freudian” track the “contemporary Freudian” track.
In his office on the Upper West Side, Dr. Aron hosts reading groups that speak to this assimilation of various theoretical models into classical Freudian practice (his forthcoming book is called Towards a Progressive Psychoanalysis). A few weeks ago a group of five women joined Mr. Aron to discuss Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris, a book about Jean-Martin Charcot, with whom Freud studied hypnosis. The conversation turned to the issue of countertransference, or how much an analyst’s own individual take on the treatment should be brought into a session with a patient. It is a topic debated by everyone from classical analysts to relational psychologists to contemporary Freudians and more progressive analysts like Professor Aron.
“Freud defines psychoanalysis in contrast to suggestion,” he said. There was a brief silence and the conversation continued about Ms. Hustvedt’s book. Later one of the students in the class interrupted.
“You say we’re not supposed to be influencing our patients,” the student said. “Just by sitting and having an expression on our face we do have influence.”
“I was being ironic,” Dr. Aron said.
Another student chimed in: “If we were so influential, wouldn’t we see dramatic improvements in our patients immediately? We’re not influential. We’re not.”
This line of conversation doesn’t have an end. The level of an analyst’s presence in a session has been a question since the beginning of psychoanalysis. Though Freud insisted that he be seated out of his patient’s view, he would go on walks with them. He would even feed them (admittedly, exceptions and not the rule). The persistence of the debate speaks to the difficulties of reconciling the Great Man’s ideas with what modern therapy has become.
Dr. Aron defines Freudian analysis in broad terms with many subsets—a belief in the unconscious (or, as another professor put it, “Anyone who is middle class and has gone to college is a Freudian”).
“As an educator,” Professor Aron said, “to call yourself an analyst or call yourself a psychologist in 2011 and not have a pretty good familiarity with Freud is just to be uneducated. It seems to me that it’s part of anybody’s good education. That doesn’t mean that people are identified as working in a Freudian tradition. Our Freudians are adapting Freud to modern life. Nobody’s practicing the way he practiced in Vienna. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Most Americans, in 2011, do not want to hear a theory—even a highly metaphorical one—that deep down they desire to kill their one parent in order to make love to the other. As Steven Ellman, of the contemporary Freudian faculty at N.Y.U. postdoc, put it, Americans have a “very narrow view of Freud,” one that is grounded predominantly in the Oedipus complex. Many of his writings, however, moved away from that.
“Narcissism,” Dr. Ellman said, “something that shouldn’t be unknown in New York society, was a major aspect of his theory.”
No matter. Was Freud a coke addict? Did he have a love affair with his sister-in-law? And besides the torrid details of his biography, there is the much-documented misogyny, his often laughable treatment of homosexuality in his writing and his inability to say when he is wrong. Arnold Rothstein, director of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training at N.Y.U. Medical Center, has noted in his own work when Freud reaches the limits of psychology, he blames it on biology.
Freud is not respected clinically, but for all his contentiousness, he’s an easier sell as a pop culture figure than he is a scientist. Dr. Alan Bass, a psychoanalyst and a first generation student of Derrida (he translated four of his books), teaches Freud in both a clinical and an academic setting (at the New York Freudian Society and in the philosophy department of the New School, respectively). He said that with philosophy students he stresses how Freud’s theory is constructed and held together. With analysts in training, he emphasizes clinical principles—what a given theory has to do with the way one works with a patient.
“I would say Freud’s clinical reputation in my very particular view is mixed,” he said. “It contains clinical genius, it provided clinical tools that are indispensable but there are also major problems and blind spots in it at the same time. To be really responsible about Freud is to really come to grips with both sides.”
This is a time of 140-character rants and news updated by the half-minute, all of it breaking. The NYPSI’s Dr. Gann put it succinctly: “the zeitgeist runs counter to what an analytic perspective and process necessitates.”