Apparently, Adam Phillips says nary a negative word about Freud in his new book “Becoming Freud.” He is writing hagiography, so we understand.
But, how can we excuse New York Times reviewer VivianGornick for swallowing it all, so uncritically?
One understands that Gornick was chosen to write the review because she, an intellectual, does not have a stake in the game. She is not a psychoanalyst and does not count among Freud’s many critics.
And yet, where Phillips excuses Freud his sins, Gornick excuses Phillips his.
One might have forgiven an author for accepting the party line view of Freud in the past. Recent years, however, have seen a spate of serious academic studies about, for example, Freud’s work with his patients. For the most part they undermine completely the standard narrative of how psychoanalysis was discovered.
The works of Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen should be studied in this regard.
According to Phillips the world of Freud studies now needs a highly censored retelling of the founding of psychoanalysis:
What is needed, he [Phillips] believes, is what he supplies: a sketchy chronology of Freud’s first 50 years threaded through the step-by-step story, richly told and richly interpreted, of how psychoanalysis came to be.
As it happens the world is not short on stories about how psychoanalysis came to be. Ernest Jones wrote the standard version decades ago. Such storytelling has always been fundamental to the movement.
And since it’s all about storytelling, let’s get over the idea that it’s science.
Moreover, what to make of the fact that Phillips lops off, represses or censors all of Freud’s later works, among them: Civilization and its Discontents, The Future of an Illusion, The Question of Lay Analysis, Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism.
Since psychoanalysis has always been much more than a clinical practice, the decision to limit oneself to its clinical origin must count as an attempt to censor the truth. Phillips grants Freud a level of humility that was never his.
Here is Gornick’s summary of Phillips:
Around that time, his colleague Josef Breuer successfully treated a patient suffering from hysteria simply by encouraging her to talk freely about her earliest memory of the onset of her symptoms. Freud formulated the idea that many neuroses originated in traumatic experiences that had occurred in the past and, too painful to be lived with, had remained hidden from our conscious selves. He concluded that there was an unconscious wherein resided a huge amount of information about ourselves that, if brought to light, would relieve us of our mental distress. The rest is history.
Of course, this rendering diverges widely from the facts of the case. I am surprised to see it being presented as self-evident truth. I have written about it myself, relying on Borch-Jacobsen’s research.
Gornick quotes Phillips:
“The facts of a life,” he begins, “were among the many things that Freud’s work has changed our way of thinking about. . . . He will show us how and why we bury the facts of our lives, and how, through the language of psychoanalysis, we can both retrieve these facts and describe them in a different way.”
I will grant that Phillips is a very good writer, but you wouldn’t know it from the first sentence in the quoted paragraph.
Putting that aside, Phillips is wrong about Freud. If anything, psychoanalysis has little or nothing to do with facts. Phillips himself does not even respect all the facts about Freud’s work or even his life.
Psychoanalysis is about dreams and fantasies, intentions, motives, wishes and desires. From time to time it cherry picks a few facts to persuade people of the truth of an interpretation, but it is certainly not fact-driven.
True enough, Freud pretended that he was a scientist, but that was more wish than fact.
It is generally accepted that Freud discovered psychoanalysis when he overcame the temptation to seek out the facts of his patients’ past history in favor of their desires, what they really, really wanted.
To miss this is to miss the story of psychoanalysis.
If psychoanalysis concerned itself with facts it would never have persisted in the face of repeated clinical failures. Bad treatment outcomes would have sufficed to disprove it.
When it comes to explaining why psychoanalysis is so notably ineffective as treatment, Freud blamed his patients. If psychoanalysis does not teach you how to shift the blame and evade responsibility it will have failed in its most important, though often unspoken goal.
What Freud found most difficult to cure in his patients, Phillips tells us, “was their (mostly unconscious) wish not to be cured.” There’s not an analysand in the world who will not recognize the bitter if profound truth of these words. As a historian of analysis once said, the best one can hope for in analysis is reconciliation, not cure. But oh! that reconciliation. What a gift it is.
Apparently, the average analysand—and what gives Gornick the right to speak for all analysands, anyway—is also a perfect dupe, gullible to the point of refusing to blame his psychoanalyst for treatment failures.
I have no idea what she and her anonymous expert mean by the gift of reconciliation, but it sounds like the moment when you recognize that your failure to be cured is not only your fault but that, if you accept that it is your fault, you can gain admittance into the Freudian cult.
At the very least, Gornick’s prose suggests strongly that she is talking about a religious experience.
In the end, she sees the faults in Phillips writing, but is happy to spin them into something positive. She is perfectly willing to forgive him his trespasses.
Adam Phillips is, I believe, one of the most engaging writers in the world on analysis and the analytic movement. He is also a writer who, over many years and far too many books, has fallen ever more deeply in love with his own prose. He is prolix to a fault, and repetition is his middle name. In this book, however, his deficiencies stand him in good stead. “Perhaps” he actually muses, “all a biographer can do, from a psychoanalytic point of view, is to keep repeating himself by describing the recurring preoccupations that make a life. And allow, and allow for, a measure of incoherence.” Phillips is indeed repetitious here — what he says at the beginning he says in the middle and says yet again at the end — but the result is far from incoherent. The repetitions provide texture; texture provides clarity; clarity appreciation. Phillips’s own love of the beauty and power of psychoanalysis here serves both him and the reader wonderfully well.