March 2, 2017
Cold War Freud and Freud: An Intellectual Biography review – the Politics of Psychoanalysis
A pair of rich, illuminating studies epitomise a new wave of thinking about the Freud wars and the history of analysis
If Freud, as Auden wrote in his 1939 elegy, is “a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”, then it would be fair to say that the local weather patterns around him shift from temptestuous to clement with uncanny regularity. Geography inevitably plays into the picture.
There are actually only two (relative) constants in the diffusion of Freud’s invention, psychoanalysis, from 1906 on. One is the acceptance of the fact that each of us has an unconscious life: parts of ourselves that are hidden from our own view inform dreams, and shape unwitting remarks and behaviour. The second is the talk and listening technology of two people – the free-associating patient and the analyst engaged in an intimate therapeutic conversation. The rest of the huge and often subtle panoply of Freud’s ideas, developed and revised over a lifetime of practice and writing, has been – and is – up for grabs.
There is a wealth of material to pick over. From Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, published when he was 35, to his last, Moses and Monotheism, written just before his death at 83, there are 23 volumes of the standard edition, not to mention many thick tomes of reflective and revealing letters to his fiancee (then wife), Martha, and to friends and colleagues, plus proceedings of international psychoanalytic meetings. Followers, interpreters, critics and bashers, reinventors and film-makers, slipper and watch manufacturers, in America, India, China, Europe, Africa and Latin America, can thus dispute, develop or make jokes about everything from the importance of the sex drive or libido to the dynamics of memory and repression; the relations between ego, id and superego; identification; therapeutic practice; cultural liberation and much more, including, of course, Freud’s own integrity – his scientific and medical status.
As Dagmar Herzog, an eminent historian of religion, gender and sexuality, points out in the introduction to her excellent Cold War Freud, the derestriction of the now fully digitised Sigmund Freud Archives in the Library of Congress from 2000 on has ushered in a new era in Freud studies, one rich in contextual detail. Joel Whitebook’s illuminating intellectual biography is part of this fresh and buoyant wave of thinking.
It marks a welcome change from the bile of the Freud wars, that wholesale attack during the last two decades of the 20th century on Freud’s reputation and work (or what might lurk under his capacious mantle). In the US, the virulence of the assault was undoubtedly linked to the postwar centrality of psychoanalysis in both popular and medical culture, where it formed part of psychiatric training until the roll out of drug therapies from the 70s on.
Herzog shows with telling detail how the variety of psychoanalysis that was developed in the US after the second world war had little in common with Freud’s initial project. A wholesale flight from sexuality and an insistence on conservative conformity within the patriotic family dominated many analysts’ repertoire. The sign of “cure” for the ego psychologists became an individual’s ability to control her impulses and adapt to reality. What was understood by “reality” was delimited by the norms of the 50s. The analyst’s task was to work through internal conflicts with the patient, never bringing in shaping social or political conditions. Even analysts for whom Freud’s libidinal emphases were in play sent women back to sterile marriages and worse. Convention ruled, undeterred by the famous emigres from the Frankfurt School who married Freud to social critique and had started publishing in the US.
Herzog brings fascinating documents to bear to show how US psychoanalysts formed alliances with Christian clergy who themselves wanted treatment. In 1952, Pope Pius XII even granted his imprimatur to analysis – as long as it didn’t arouse too many sexual appetites. It was against this cold war analytic ethos that the women’s movement reacted so vociferously, often blaming Freud for a practice that wasn’t his.
Homosexuality was a highly fraught arena, judged by the analysts to be a perverse condition that could be successfully treated. Freud himself had hypothesised that everyone was bisexual and could experience homoerotic feelings and fantasies. He often enough noted them in himself. Not so the US cold war analysts, who also condemned the Kinsey Reports with their challenges to the accepted face of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Herzog meticulously charts the long campaign to eradicate homophobia from American psychoanalytic ranks. Though individual analysts, such as the pioneering Robert Stoller, had long stood against the general trend, it wasn’t until 1991 that the American Psychoanalytic Association officially allowed openly gay practitioners.
Like an anthropologist engaged in fieldwork, Herzog moves from site to site to give us a textured understanding of complex historical matter. She zeroes in on German psychoanalysis, where the naturalising of aggression served to exonerate a troubled postwar nation in which Nazis were still everywhere. She scrutinises the politically radical post-68 Anti-Oedipe by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, grounding the book and its huge impact in its times, and stressing that it initiates a conceptual shift in how to think about the interrelation between psyche and politics.
Herzog also focuses in on the ascent of trauma theory or PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. During the 50s, when postwar reparations were being sought from Germany, it was disputed that the camps could have long-term psychic as well as physical damage on individual survivors, particularly since psychic damage seemed only to manifest itself after the event. A large dose of antisemitism was at work in these deliberations. Only with the Vietnam war (and the work of NGOs with torture survivors) did PTSD become a recognised mental disorder.
Whitebook argues that Freud was never able fully to explore the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere
Whitebook’s Freud is an elegant foray into the man and his mind by a philosopher who is also a psychoanalyst. Freud was notoriously suspicious of biographers (as Adam Phillips’ recent anti-biography of the young Freud stressed). Perhaps he intuited that, once he had given us something of a Proustian autobiography in The Interpretation of Dreams, the very readings his own work prompted would be turned back on himself. Whitebook is both questioning and respectful. He is also shaped by present intellectual currents, so a discomfort with enlightenment universals and an alertness to gender underpin this book far more than they did, say, Peter Gay’s classic Freud: A Life for Our Time or Ernest Jones’s first enthusiastic portrayal of the Freud who was his friend and mentor.
Whitebook persuasively positions Freud as a thinker of the dark enlightenment, “a deeper, conflicted, disconsolate, and even tragic yet still emancipatory tradition within the broader movement of the enlightenment”. Freud understood the forces of the counter-enlightenment, the pull of the irrational, the sway of belief, and integrated all this into his vision. Whitebook’s Freud broke with his own Jewish tradition to forge an identity as a secular and sceptical scientist, but was alert to the shaping distortions of the passions he so skilfully reinterpreted. He offers new insight into Freud’s move away from philosophy to science and medicine, and gives a gripping and even-handed rendition of Freud’s homoerotic yet thoroughly intellectual friendships with the zany but charismatic Berlin doctor Wilhelm Fliess and later with Carl Gustav Jung.
My only reservation with Whitebook’s account is his attributing a modish traumatic significance to Freud’s early family life. He speculates that Freud was traumatised by the oddness of his relations with his mother, Amalia. He was her first, idealised son, but in the aftermath of her next son’s early death, she purportedly developed depression, leaving little Ziggy to the whims of his Catholic nanny. Amalia was a generation younger than Freud’s father, which also meant that one of Freud’s nephews was a little older than him. As a result of this family constellation, Whitebook argues, Freud was never able fully to explore and theorise the unruly, pre-linguistic, pre-Oedipal maternal sphere. Mothers are far less central to Freud’s thinking than fathers. But as a child of the second half of the 19th century, Freud’s early experience was historically hardly uncommon. The powers of patriarchy may have had as much to do with the “Missing Mother” in his work (a figure also important in much Victorian literature) as his own intra-psychic state. In later life, partly under the influence of female analysts, he began thinking about the pre-Oedipal far more.
That said, Whitebook’s is a rich and illuminating intellectual biography, and like Herzog’s Cold War Freud kindles new thought. Together, the books signal that there are still many areas to pursue in the field Freud sparked. The Freudian weather currently feels clement.
• Lisa Appignanesi is the author of Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors, and, with the late John Forrester, of Fre