Sigmund Freud, 1856--1939

03 Apr 1997 10:25

Austrian neuropathologist. His secure contributions to knowledge consist of a number of papers on aphasia, well-regarded at the time, but long since assimilated to the general body of neuropsychology.

Charity dictates that we stop here, or perhaps add some remarks about his devotion to rationalism, horror at the Great War, opposition to Hitler, and stoicism in the face of exile and cancer. But malice is more fun, and more instructive.

Freud was an early advocate of cocaine, recommending it for a great many ailments, physical and mental, including, of all things, heroin addiction; latter, he rather reluctantly admitted that this was perhaps not the wisest thing he ever did. He himself was for many years an enthusiastic user, to the point where his nose bled and became filled with pus --- which he treated with more cocaine.

In the latter half of his life, especially after 1897, he articulated a Lebensphilosophie called "psychoanalysis", blending contemporary neurological ideas (cf. "Project for a Scientific Psychology"), hydraulic and mechanical analogies, the numerology and pet notions of his friend the quack Fliess, Freud's own horror of masturbation, dream and omen interpretation, Lamarckism (extending even to the inheritance of acquired memories), and philosophical anthropology out of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (possibly second-hand; Uncle Sigmund professed not to have read them until after he formulated his theories, and to have been pleasantly surprised by the anticipations). It purported to explain, inter alia, jokes, errors of speech and action, dreams, the development of personality, custom and morality, myth and folklore (thus Nabokov: "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts"), art, and the origins of religion and family life; and to not only explain, but provide the only cure for neuroses and hysteria (the latter was a commonly-diagnosed mental illness of the turn of the century, now extinct; cf. multiple personality disorder). Associated (in the minds of its devotees, if not necessarily that of the master himself) with demands for more sexual freedom and less hypocritical morals, it grew rapidly in popularity in the West, in the decades following the Great War, to the point where sympathy, if not belief, was nearly universal in the general educated public of North America and Western Europe in the 1950s, at which time "the analyst" and his "fifty-minute hour" entered the lexicon. (Its influence on psychiatry was much stronger in North America than in Europe.)

As an addition to the body of knowledge, psychoanalysis is nugatory. The philosophers of science are divided as to whether it is unfalsifiable and unscientific (Popper) or falsifiable and falsified (Grünbaum). The Lamarckian bits --- and with them, the theories of the origin of family, society and religion --- simply have to go, and that the death instinct ever got a hearing from people supposedly benefitting from the Darwinian enlightenment is --- instructive. The central concepts of repression, and the recovery of repressed memories from infancy, are neurologically dubious, if not flatly contradictory to what is known about the physical basis of memory and the development of the brain; the theory of dreams is no better supported by our actual knowledge of the dreaming brain. In anthropology, Malinowski's demonstration that the Oedipus complex was not to be found in the Trobriands must now surely be classical. A philologist (Nietzsche would have appreciated this) has cut the theory of slips and errors to ribbons with Occam's Razor and textual criticism. Psychoanalysis has contributed nothing to the solution of the really basic, puzzling aspects of the mind --- how we remember; how we think; how we can represent the world; how we can hold intentions and act on them; etc., etc. --- indeed it just assumes that the unconscious can do them too.

Clinically, researchers dispute whether or not psychoanalysis is slightly less effective than other sorts of therapy; it is certainly not noticeably more effective, and equally certainly more costly, time consuming and intrusive than any of its rivals.

Psychoanalysis, then, survives in various ill-lit intellectual underworlds: literary and artistic criticism, the more vaporous forms of philosophy and social science, popular psychology. Taken together, these probably account for most of the intellectual activity of the West, and Freud's brain-children are not about to be run off the stage any time soon. His genius was not for science or healing but rhetoric and, in the oldest sense, mythology, telling-of-tales. Literary cultures seem to need mythoi, bodies of stories which their members can appeal to for allusion, illustration, stereotypes, themata, with some guarantee that their readers will get the reference immediately. In antiquity the classical myths performed this office, as they did again after the revival of learning, when they were supplemented by the Bible. Today, for the intelligentsia of the West, psychoanalytic notions fill part of the space once occupied by the stories of Nessus and Deianira, of Judith and Holofornes. I prefer the old myths: the stories are better, the poetry incomparable, and it's much easier to see that they are merely myths. Better, I suppose, Freudian stories about polymorphous perversity than ones about Stalin or Mao or the Virgin of Medjugorje; but Odysseus or Medea would be better still, and best of all, to not establish mythologies while claiming to dispel illusions.