Friday, July 11, 2014

The Freudian Pseudo-Religion

Naturally, I have taken a special interest in Adam Phillips’ book Becoming Freud. Its appearance coincides with the publication of my The Last Psychoanalyst.

In all fairness, to myself, my own book is not merely about Freud. Freud was the first psychoanalyst, but we cannot really grasp psychoanalysis as a transformative cultural phenomenon without examining his relation with the last psychoanalyst, the French Freudian named Jacques Lacan.

[I will mention in passing that those who have finished reading my book are encouraged to post some review comments on the Amazon site. I would greatly appreciate it.]

In the meantime, yesterday I chanced upon an excellent review of the Phillips book, by one William Giraldi. As of now, Giraldi’s counts as the best review of Becoming Freud.

Giraldi is nothing if not fair minded:

Adam Phillips’s new study, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst,is an effective breviary and defense of Sigmund Freud, and not because it dazzles with a tightrope act of theory, but because it simply and directly underscores Freud’s tremendous accomplishments of comprehension. It also sugarcoats or ignores altogether Freud’s immense flaws and the toxic harm he caused to actual lives….

I would quibble about whether Freud has really helped anyone to comprehend anything beyond Freudian theory, but Giraldi is correct to point out that if Phillips wants to portray Freud as an intrepid seeker of the truth and if he wants us to believe that psychoanalysis, by removing our fantastical blinders allows us to see the truth more clearly, then he, Phillips should not have systematically ignored Freud’s flaws. 

Giraldi sees them clearly:

At only one point does Phillips see fit to mention “the potential pitfalls of psycho-analysis … its potential for misogyny, dogmatism, and proselytizing: the analyst’s temptation to speak on the patient’s behalf, and to know what’s best for the patient: the cultism of the analyst and patient as a couple.” Misogyny, dogmatism, proselytizing, cultism: let’s please agree that those are much more pernicious than mere “pitfalls.” Phillips is normally careful to wear the mask of non-partiality, of cool objectivity, but if you really want to know how he feels about Freuds assassins, you can glimpse his face in this bit: Psychoanalysisthough this has been easy to forget amid the clamor of Freud’s perennial discrediting—was originally about people being freed to speak for themselves.” 

And here:

If it’s true that Freud’s incipient intention had been to liberate people “to speak for themselves,” that’s certainly not what happened in practice. One need only cite Freud’s infamous “Wolf Man” and “Dora” cases to demonstrate that not only did Freud not liberate patients to speak for themselves, he quite knowingly began speaking for them, and in the most fictional, farcical, fabulist ways—ways that revealed much more about Freud and his own wackiness than it ever did about the poor Wolf Man and Dora. 

For further discussion, see my analysis of these cases in The Last Psychoanalyst.

Of course, as I and Giraldi and Phillips and many others have pointed out, psychoanalysis is nothing more than storytelling, and not in the good sense of the term.

Giraldi asks:

Is Freud’s storytelling telling us the truth about the darkness we harbor? “We take refuge in plausible stories, Freud tells us in his own partly plausible story called psychoanalysis,” and that “partly” is an indication that Phillips won’t be cubicled with zealous votaries who deem Freud an infallible deity. But he also won’t hold Freud accountable for his harum-scarum practices, his hasty rationalizations, his dearth of strict method, his ruthless business tactics and egomania, his reckless medical posturing, or his bullying of suggestible, mostly female patients, all of which have been meticulously documented since at least the early 1970s

Storytelling seems more a rationalization for failing to face reality than a pathway into reality.

Still, Phillips’ book does not explain how Freud and his followers turned a pseudo-science into a pseudo-religion. By refusing to examine Freud’s later works in social psychology, Phillips intentionally chose to ignore that question.

Giraldi, like Phillips, is well aware of these facts:

Psychoanalysis, Phillips writes in Becoming Freud, “is neither a science in the usual sense, nor a religion in the traditional sense.” So if it’s not a science in the usual sense, it must be a science in the unusual sense, and there the term “unusual” must do the work for “pseudo” or “fraudulent.” 

From that to the idea that psychoanalysis fulfilled itself by becoming, not a science, not a medical practice, but a pseudo-religion is not a great leap. In my book I take the next step and explain how it happened.

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