May 19, 2018


The Prophet of Ordinary Unhappiness (David P. Goldman, Spring 2018, Claremont Review of Books)

Frederick Crews pioneered psychoanalytic literary criticism in the 1960s. By 1980 he had concluded that Sigmund Freud was a charlatan. Now professor emeritus at Berkeley, he has devoted much of his career to debunking Freud, taking shots along the way at the whole repertoire of postmodern literary fads. In Freud: The Making of an Illusion he has given us a summa contra psychoanalysis, digesting the enormous literature refuting Freud and adding some of his own discoveries and conjectures. So overwhelming is the evidence Crews assembles of Freud's professional charlatanry and personal turpitude that the reader finishes his book baffled that this prevaricating, mercenary, self-promoting lout ever managed to put one over on the whole educated world. [...]

Crews's lengthy book never lags. So depraved is Freud's villainy, so preposterous his assertions, so calamitous the human woe he left behind in his pursuit of status and money, that morbid curiosity commands the reader's attention until the end. It is an exemplary piece of polemical composition. No one who came of age in the West before the mid-1980s escaped Freud's baleful influence, and it is cathartic (pardon the word) to hear just how gullible we were.

Freud didn't heal his patients. He knew he didn't, but he didn't care:

Freud knew that his claims of healing power for psychoanalysis lacked any basis in fact. From time to time he even intimated, amid many claims to the contrary, that patients ought not to expect good results. Therapeutic success, he wrote in his "Little Hans" case history of 1909, "is not our primary aim. We endeavor rather to enable the patient to obtain a conscious grasp of his unconscious wishes." In a 1912 letter to a fellow analyst he observed, "The therapeutic point of certainly not the only one for which psychoanalysis claims interest, nor is it the most important." Freud's pupil Abram Kardiner recalled his declaring, "I have no great interest in therapeutic problems.... I am much too occupied with theoretical problems all the time." Finally in 1932, when he felt himself to be generally revered, he admitted to the world that he had "never been a therapeutic enthusiast."

"Some of Freud's later patients did aver, vaguely, that they had benefited from their analyses," Crews allows. "Already by 1910, such was his shamanic aura that a stroll around the city of Leyden with Gustav Mahler was said to have permanently cured the composer of impotence. But this was faith healing, not psychoanalysis."

Freud's methods did no good. They sometimes did a great deal of harm. Especially repugnant was his treatment of "Anna O." (Bertha Pappenheim) in 1880-1882, presented in Freudian apologetics as "the foundation of psychoanalytic therapy," the first supposed cathartic cure reported in Freud's Studies on Hysteria (1895).

Freud's coauthor Josef Breuer, who treated Pappenheim, turned the unfortunate young woman into a morphine and chloral hydrate addict. Crews concludes that "her most serious debility, as of the summer of 1882, and for five years thereafter, wasn't hysteria but the horror of attempted and failed withdrawal." Freud and Breuer claimed in Studies on Hysteria that Pappenheim's symptoms were "permanently removed by being given utterance in hypnosis," yet Pappenheim was committed to a sanatorium only five weeks after Breuer stopped treating her.

* * *

The Pappenheim case was "the founding deception of psychoanalysis"--the breakthrough that supposedly unlocked the psyche's secrets. The final chapter of Studies on Hysteria, Crews reports, declared that

the resistance encountered in therapy was "no doubt" the same psychical force that had generated the patient's symptom. Again the intrusion of irrelevant matter into a patient's association "never occurs." When we search for a trauma with the pressure technique, "we shall find it infallibly." The procedure "never fails;" it has "invariably achieved its aim;" and in one instance Freud's confidence in it was "brilliantly justified."

Crews contrasts these bravado assertions with Freud's correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, his closest friend and collaborator during 1897 and 1898: "The cases of hysteria are proceeding especially poorly. I shall not finish a single one this year either; and as for the next one, I shall be completely without patient material." And: "My work now appears to me to have far less value, and my disorientation to be complete,...another entire year has gone by without any tangible progress in the theory."

Freud's crisis of confidence, though, inspired a great leap from the world of clinical documentation--where nothing ever went right--to the grand assertion of theories that could not be proven. He abandoned the molestation theory of neurosis, which required the identification of specific sexual acts perpetrated upon the patient during childhood, to a general theory of sexuality that framed all human relationships in terms of libido. The Oedipus complex was the cornerstone of this new theory.

Such is the nature of these faiths that Mr. Crews's classic comic riffs on Freud are hard to discern from the real thing.

Posted by at May 19, 2018 9:08 AM