Freud and Fraudulence

Sigmund Freud, Vienna, 1911

Sigmund Freud, Vienna, 1911, Mondadori Portfolio/Everett Collection

Freud and Fraudulence

The New York Review of Books is the semi-monthly repository of tasteful opinion within the boundaries of what it is intellectually correct to think. The books under review are just the launching place for essays that are often really good and set the tone for opinionating that is state-of-the-art.

If you have a view that the New York Review would not allow on its pages, the chances are that you know it and – if you care about your standing — will generally keep quiet about it.

Take Freud. The New York Review receives a book, Freud: In His Time and Ours, by Elisabeth Roudinesco, one of Freud’s lifelong acolytes. One might expect them to give it to one of Freud’s many admirers. But instead, they have given it to one of Freud’s best-known critics, Frederick Crews. His review this week portrays Freud as the fake wizard behind a real curtain who neither discovered his basic theory in the experiences of his patients nor extrapolated it from the data they provided.

Has it become intellectually correct to say that? Is it all right? One won’t be shunned? One can still get invited to parties in New York?

What is Freud’s made-up story, according to Crews? Freud wrote that his patients complained of having been sexually abused in childhood; but it dawned on him that their complaints must be a cover story concealing the patients’ own repressed incestuous desires. Based on this “discovery,” Freud inferred that the same phenomenon must be widespread, not confined to his patients. Repressed incestuous desires must pervade the psyche of the whole human race. Everyone wishes that, like King Oedipus (who did it unknowingly in the Greek tragedy) he or she could kill the parent of the same sex and copulate with the parent of the opposite sex. Although the repression of this primordial desire is the prerequisite for civilized life, it also makes the acculturated man or woman unhappy, distorted and unnatural.

What’s the truth of it? Crews summarizes the findings of later researchers. Freud’s patients did not complain of having been sexually abused. On the contrary, they rejected and made fun of Freud’s constant harping on sexual explanations for their diverse troubles. Freud elaborated his theories some time later than the treatments he misleadingly referenced as evidence. It may or may not be relevant that, while he was making his alleged discoveries, he was also getting high on cocaine.

His imaginative constructions were then elaborated into a kind of cultural/psychological “theory of everything” — in books he authored in the fields of anthropology, sociology, biography, history and religion. Experts in these fields disputed Freud’s Totem and Taboo, The Future of an Illusion, Moses and Monotheism, Civilization and Its Discontents et al, but he succeeded in creating a thought-world that was more imposing and unified than their piecemeal objections looked to be.

The more telling objections came more slowly from painstaking researchers like Adolf Grunbaum or Patrick Swales (not to mention B. A. Farrell or Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg, referenced in my “Getting Past Marx and Freud”). The upshot, for these investigators? There is no empirical evidence for the claims Freud made, theoretical or therapeutic.

He can’t explain what’s troubling you and he can’t heal you.

Should I mention that my mother knew a woman who’d been completely and successfully psychoanalyzed by Freud himself and committed suicide anyway? Nah. Probably not. It’s not sporting. But I think it’s okay to say that I have talked two friends out of committing suicide and a third out of her addiction to marijuana, and didn’t charge a penny for it!

In other words: the emperor has nothing on. The rest of Crews’ essay touches on hidden but disreputable sides of Freud’s character, but that would mean much less if his theoretical claims were true or at least well founded.

What’s it to me? Well, I have entered the lists to combat the Freud claims and their cultural influence in a number of books and articles. So this is something of which I’ve long been convinced.

What’s new in my professional eyes is that it’s now all right to say so in The New York Review of Books! Which means … it’s all right to say so. Or will be pretty soon.

What’s the personal impact? For Freud, the trouble with everybody was sexual repression. One of the less pleasant memories of my teenage years is of the boys who said to me, on dates:

“Whassa matter? Ya frigid?”

It’s my understanding that this manipulative taunt is still in use, getting girls to acquiesce in unromantic, unloving, mindless advances. The boys too are victimized insofar as they believe that this idiocy is accurate psychology and that they are curing something. Everybody is acting out a script they didn’t write.

What else is impacted? The natural bond between parent and child has been put under a leering question mark.

Opinion-shapers like the critic Lionel Trilling or the philosopher Bernard Williams have denied that a civilized person can be “authentic” (wholly oneself) since that would involve revealing the beast within.

A modest first-year student at Yale University petitioned to live off campus to avoid sharing her dorm with men. Her petition was denied. My impression was that the university determined that her modesty came from sexual repression and – if Yale could teach her nothing else – it could at least cure that grave psychological distortion. If she declined to be cured, she should go elsewhere. Liberal arts are not for everyone.

Whatever virtues may be assigned to women, by nature or culture, Freud made a joke of the feminine virtues with his hypothesis that the defining trait of women was their alleged envy of men’s genitals. How much spirit, how much natural self-approval, was crushed in young women by this preposterous claim, we shall probably never know.

Philosophers in the Anglophone world and on the Continent have opined that, whether he was right in the details or not, Freud opened up the oceanic depths of the psyche for us moderns.

Oh really? There are oceanic depths all right. They were known to the psalmists, to the Greek lyric poets and tragic playwrights, to Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius, to Ronsard, Montaigne, Shakespeare and nineteenth-century novelists, not to mention Michelangelo, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the architect of the Taj Mahal. Did Freud add anything to our awareness of these depths?

He afflicted creative people with the conviction that their achievements were tied to morbid distortions permanently lodged in childhood. How many false bohemians, needlessly narcotized to numb the pitiless views they took of themselves, were wrecked on the rocks of that theory!

How many good stories never got written or lived because subjects no longer followed their creative leads trustingly and instead assigned every intuition to an unconscious patrolled by Freud and his sentries!

How many put-downs were thought or uttered, based on a street insult that begins mother— but pretends to the name of objective science? Hey, an insult is an insult. In this case, believe the street. The street knows what that means.

It’s becoming permissible to doubt all that.

Better days lie ahead.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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