Sunday, August 27, 2017

Making Freud Undead

In what must be the most comprehensive review of Frederick Crews’ new book on Freud—Freud: The Making of an IllusionLouis Menand tries to explain why Freud still survives.

In truth, Menand is trying to bring Freud back from the dead. If Crews was trying to drive a stake through Freud’s cold dead heart, Menand wants to salvage what he can from one of the twentieth century’s greatest “confidence tricks.” We owe the phrase to Oxford biologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar.

Of course, Menand teaches literature—at Harvard—so his interest in psychoanalysis is primarily literary. He suggests that literature professors wanted in on the game, but the easier interpretation is that Freud’s writings are literature pretending to be science. They are, as I have said, overpriced storytelling. Literature professors—like yours truly—were drawn to Freud’s imaginative faculties, not to his pretense to be doing science. By now, no serious thinker really believes that Freud was a scientist.

We must clarify some of Menand’s misrepresentations. He mentions that when Freud left Vienna for London after the Anschluss, he left his four sisters behind. They all died in the Holocaust. Menand does not mention that Freud could have taken a couple of them with him, but preferred to use the exit visas for his dogs.

A detail, perhaps, but a telling detail, especially since Crews was trying to show that Freud was not God. Worse yet, Freud was not even a decent human being. Being an indecent human does not make you godlike.

Menand also offers this strange sentence:

A product of Mitteleuropa, once centered in cities like Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Moscow, psychoanalysis was thus improbably transformed into a largely Anglo-American medical and cultural phenomenon. 

Inexplicably, Menand ignore the fact that psychoanalysis has thrived and prospered in countries like France and Argentina. If you want to explain how Freudian theories are surviving you must say something about the places where they are alive and well. But then, you would need to explain why Freudianism is so congenial to Roman Catholic cultures. That means that true-believing Freudians have taken up the Catholic side of the Middle European culture wars between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Menand fails to do this, so his theorizing loses the name of reason. He is doing what Freudian theory does: ignoring any facts that might disprove it. Karl Popper made this point seven decades ago. It’s about time that serious thinkers grasped it.

Menand is correct to note, with Crews, that Freudian analysis bears a very close resemblance to literary studies. Taking an obscure text and trying to suss out hidden meanings… you could be doing dream analysis or literary studies.

He does not notice that in Freud’s time these techniques were more closely aligned with Biblical exegesis and that searching after what people really, really want, or really, really believe derives from witch hunts and inquisitions. The notion that potential heretics are hiding their true beliefs drove the inquisitors. None of it had anything to do with science.

For the record, Freud certainly knew of the inquisitor’s manual: the Malleus Maleficarum. Even the most cursory glance at that fifteenth century work tells us that witches were hunted because of their negative effect on male sexuality. The Malleus Maleficarum is a book about how certain kinds of women canse male sexual dysfunction... and how to cure it. Sound familiar?

So, Freud took up a venerable religious tradition, secularized it and pretended that it was science. If you think about it, what inquisitor would not have thrilled to the notion that he could discover scientifically what people really, really believed.

Literature professors were not drawn by Freud’s pretense to be doing science. Psychiatrists were. And yet, in time, the bloom faded and people discovered that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with science. It was also clinically ineffective. True enough, as Menand and Tanya Luhrmann remark, it was better than lobotomy and many of the available medical treatments. Because it did no ostensible harm. 

Menand explains the Crews argument:

Psychoanalysis had already been discredited as a medical science, Crews wrote; what researchers were now revealing was that Freud himself was possibly a charlatan—an opportunistic self-dramatizer who deliberately misrepresented the scientific bona fides of his theories. 

Freud fell out of favor because medical treatments proved to be far more effective than psychoanalysis. Freud’s dangerous method was done in by medication:

Studies suggesting that psychoanalysis had a low cure rate had been around for a while. But the realization that depression and anxiety can be regulated by medication made a mode of therapy whose treatment times reached into the hundreds of billable hours seem, at a minimum, inefficient, and, at worst, a scam.

Among those who argued this point Jacques Lacan… the most influential Freudian since Freud. Menand does not mention him. If he had wanted to show how and why Freud has survived, ignoring the influence of Lacan is irresponsible.

Instead, Menand argues that modern psychoanalysis has broken free of Freud by discarding the absurdities in his theory. Again, this point is subject to dispute.

True, a group of American physicians and psychologists tried to make Freud’s theory and made it more palatable. Did they understand the theory? They did not. If you put a group of physicians in a room to ponder metaphysics, theology, epistemology and rhetoric, they will not come up with anything of real consequence. 

Lacan argued that American physicians had butchered the theory. And thus, that it befell him to show how it all fit together. This meant that you cannot add and subtract different parts of the theory without destroying it. One might say that Freudian theory was like the predicate calculus: if you start tinkering with the axioms, the edifice will crumble.

Menand says that Freud has now become a poet of the mind. In that he is certainly correct:

For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory—penis envy, or the death drive—they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition. That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.

But then, in order to drag Freud back from his grave, Menand offers up his own notion: that Freudian theory was science. Say what? He just told us of the studies that have showed that psychoanalysis was not science. Thus, his assertion is wrong:

The principal reason psychoanalysis triumphed over alternative theories and was taken up in fields outside medicine, like literary criticism, is that it presented its findings as inductive. Freudian theory was not a magic-lantern show, an imaginative projection that provided us with powerful metaphors for understanding the human condition. It was not “Paradise Lost”; it was science, a conceptual system wholly derived from clinical experience.

Freud insisted that psychoanalysis derived wholly from clinical experience. He was lying. The theory was not inductive. It did not care about facts. It dismissed fact in favor of desire when Freud abandoned the seduction theory. As for the notion that literary theorists took up with psychoanalysis because it was science--that too is ridiculous. 

So, Menand offers a weak defense of Freud:

It can be useful to be made to realize that your feelings about people you love are actually ambivalent, or that you were being aggressive when you thought you were only being extremely polite. Of course, you shouldn’t have to work your way through your castration anxiety to get there.

Actually, castration anxiety in Freudian theory corresponds to guilt over sins of word, thought and deed. And Freud’s version of symbolic castration corresponds to the penance that any sinner must do to overcome his guilt. If you discard the theoretical foundation of the theory you end up with psychobabble.

Obviously, Crews’s book is well worth your attention. I also recommend my own book, The Last Psychoanalyst. Had Menand paid it any attention, he would have avoided his most egregious errors.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Great piece. And your takedown of Freud in your book is enlightening.

I don't care much for Louis Menard. I read "The Metaphysical Club" many years ago and found it to be like Swiss cheese, especially in the way he tried to connect all the characters (Homes, Pierce, James and Dewey) together as representative of a single intellectual continuum of pragmatism. The way Menard treats John Dewey in that book mirrors what you've said here about how he deals with Freud: a lollipop portrayal that ignores the errors and dark side of the man. Dewey messed up American education at least as much as he improved it. Menard seems to be blindly enamored with the "scientific" certitudes of pragmatism, empiricism and observation. Like you've said here, he doesn't trace the assertions back to his subjects' foundational premises. Like Walter Isaacson and Malcolm Gladwell, Menard's treatments are not a very deep examinations of deep stuff. I assume he would scoff at such a remark, as Harvard literary sophisticates are wont to do.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stuart Schneiderman said...

Too long and too ignorant....

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: When Freud left Vienna for London after the Anschluss, he left his four sisters behind. They all died in the Holocaust. Menand does not mention that Freud could have taken a couple of them with him, but preferred to use the exit visas for his dogs.

That sounds like a great slam invented by someone with extreme animosity towards Freud. Psychologists might call this sort of thing projection - a need to project negative and selfish motives onto others who need to be hated. I wonder what parts of this narrative are true?

For one Freud died in 1939, and left Vienna in 1938 at age 82. So at least 3 of sisters were murdered by gas chambers 3 years after his death.

A second link shows he did love his dogs, and its hard to imagine someone abandoned his dogs for a unknowable future murder of his wider family members.