Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay
1988, 810 pp.
Biography is a difficult and disreputable art, much beloved by lay readers and despised by experts. Certainly everyone can agree on the need for biographies in general, but it is rare indeed to find anyone who agrees on the need for one specific biography in particular. Sigmund Freud was no different: he went to some length to frustrate his future biographers, often destroying years of correspondence and notes, and writing (after his own regrettable flirtation with biographical writing) that "Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it." Peter Gay, the German-born cultural historian, is so thoroughly steeped in all of Freud’s ideas that he has the wit to cite this sentence on the very first page of his introduction to this enormous and enormously comprehensive volume. Perhaps only Gay could have written this book: his curriculum vitae boasts six books on Freud, a four-volume history of bourgeois culture, some serious work on the Second International, a history of Weimar culture, work on Voltaire’s politics, and four books on the Enlightenment. He is a formidably meticulous scholar, which makes the book fascinating without being flashy. “I have tried to be accurate rather than startling,” he says, and with a subject matter as contentious as the life and work of Sigmund Freud, that he accomplishes this is an impressive feat.
I will save the reader of this review from a lengthy play-by-play of Freud’s life. In events it was rather dull: his family moved from Frieberg to Vienna when he was quite young, and he lived in Vienna his entire life, mostly in the same apartment at Berggasse 19. He took several trips to Italy, which he loved, and one to America, which he hated, studied briefly in Paris as a young man, and eventually was forced to emigrate to London after the Anschluss. He was married to the same woman for 53 years and had six children. And he wrote a lot of books.
Gay argues immediately that it is impossible to separate Freud from Freudian thought. Something of a committed Freudian himself, his chapter on Freud’s early life reads like a summary of The Interpretation of Dreams, as Gay points to the where the seeds of Freud’s thought were hidden in Freud’s youthful experiences. Gay is also keen to explain away any of Freud’s professional, personal, or theoretical mistakes through psychoanalytical reasoning. Poor reasoning or petty personal conflicts are fairly consistently chalked up to unresolved conflicts within Freud’s (or Jung’s, or Adler’s, or Ferenczi’s) ego. This is not always persuasive, and reveals Gay as a more incisive historian of ideas than personal biographer, and sometimes seems to indicate that the author is avoiding asking really tough questions of his subject. Gay tends to side with Freud on all of the major conflicts in his life, from the early break with Breuer over the importance of sexuality in psychological development (which Freud later discarded), through the break with Jung over the character of the libido, all the way up until the later fights with Ferenczi’s idea of “intense empathy” and “mutual analysis.” But Gay is always factually accurate: where Freud makes mistakes or produces terrible books, Gay says so, but does not take the further step of considering what impact those mistakes have on the body of Freud’s thought as a whole. I took careful notes of Gay’s analysis of each of Freud’s books, and when compiled they paint a much less rosy picture of Freudian thought than one is left with upon reading the book. Consider this list:
The famous “talking cure” developed in the therapy with “Anna O.” was far from the instant cure Freud presented it as in his 1895 Studies on Hysteria. Anna O. was in treatment at three other clinics until well into the 1880’s, the talking cure having played no part (as Jung himself discovered and pointed out later) in her recovery
The famous “Irma’s Injection” dream from Freud’s 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams was about a patient named Irma who was nearly killed by the malpractice of Freud’s friend Wilhelm Fleiss. Freud had referred “Irma” (whose real name was Emma Eckstein) to Fleiss, who left a piece of gauze in her nose after an operation. When it was finally removed, after she spent weeks almost bleeding to death, she was left permanently disfigured. Freud later covered for Fleiss, and convinced him to continue practicing medicine.
Freud consistently invented stories about childhood sexual trauma which he attributed to his patients, most notably “Dora” from his 1905 case study. Dora was being molested by a family friend, but Freud interpreted this as a repressed sexual attraction to her father. Dora denied this (on the fairly rational grounds that it’s absolutely stupid) but Freud “took her ‘most emphatic contradiction’ as proof that he was right in his conjecture.” Much later he recognized this “heads-I-win-tails-you-lose” policy was hardly scientific and was criticized for it, but never recanted his analysis, and still proceeded to build an intellectual edifice on what was essentially fiction. He frequently found himself later in life forced to blame his patients for making up stories and deceiving him, when in fact it was he who forced them to admit the truth of scenarios he had invented. Gay follows him in this, explaining away Freud’s duplicity as a “lack of empathy” towards his patients and particularly “Freud’s general difficulty in visualizing erotic encounters from a woman’s perspective.”
In his early work on hysteria (circa 1895), Freud presented a paper in which he claimed that all 18 hysterical cases he had examined had their roots in childhood sexual trauma. Unfortunately, the rest of his speech refers to a half-dozen of them which are exceptions. By the time he revisited the topic in 1897, he admitted to a friend that he dropped his work on hysteria because not one case confirmed to his hypothesis.
Freud’s 1901 Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which is the origin of the famous “Freudian slip,” was based deeply in the now-discredited work of Wilhelm Fleiss, and argued for no less than psychological determinism. This book sustained the least criticism from Gay, but was among the most disliked by Freud himself, and added nothing in terms of theoretical structure, only an entertaining popularization.
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is probably the cornerstone of Freudian theory, and receives the highest praise from Gay, who paints an image of Freud the scientific pioneer battling both the societal repression of the Victorian bourgeois and his own conservative, straight-laced sense of decency. But, in Gay's own estimation, it fails to address the nature of the sex drive, the nature of sexual excitation, a defensible definition of pleasure, or provide any concrete evidence of its claims.
There are exactly six extended case studies in Freud, including Daniel Paul Schreber, who Freud knew from an autobiography but never met, and a child called Little Hans, who Freud met once briefly but analyzed with the father as “intermediary.” The Wolf Man was initially considered a big success, but soon relapsed and later said that what helped was Freud’s kindness, not his analysis. One case study was just a lesbian with nothing wrong, though Freud thought homosexuality to be a version of narcissism and stunted sexual development. Dora has already been discussed. The Rat Man, I must admit, was a success, but one accidental success does not make for a general theory.
By the time he gets to Freud’s later, more speculative work, even the resolute Professor Gay seems to throw up his hands. Yes, all of Freud’s speculation in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci was based on a single sentence which itself was a mistranslation. Yes, his theory of the origin of civilization in Totem and Taboo was based on an incorrect speculation by an anthropologist named Robertson Smith, and on Freud’s long-held Lamarckian views, which, as everyone now knows, were incorrect. “This was sheer extravagance,” Gay says, “piled upon the earlier extravagance of the claim that the primal murder [which founded civilization] had been a historical event.” But “Freud firmly stood by his improbable reconstruction.”
By the 1920’s when Freud was writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and The Ego and the Id, poor Professor Gay finds himself having to deal with his contradictions and inconsistencies. “Freud rarely spelled out the precise import of his self-correction,” Gay writes, perhaps in frustration. “He would not specify just what he had discarded, what modified, and what kept intact from his earlier formulations, but instead left the adjustment of apparently irreconcilable statements to his readers.” After all, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud says that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, just that he is following an idea to what he felt was its logical conclusion. Naturally, he defended that idea as though it were a doctrinal proof, but without acknowledging that he did indeed take it seriously.
Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety “strings together ideas instead of demonstrating their necessary connection,” and shows a Freud who is “anxious to be done once and for all with the work of rebuilding.” The Question of Lay Analysis is written as a dialogue for a popular audience, defending the idea that psychoanalysis requires no medical training or licensing, and was written after one of his acolytes was sued for quackery. Freud’s analytic study of Woodrow Wilson, on which he collaborated with a dubious character named William Bullitt is so embarrassing, so full of “snide antagonism and mechanical psychologizing,” that Gay tries desperately to suggest that perhaps Freud only wrote the introduction and only claimed to write more of it in an effort to sound more important. He is left wondering why Freud would lend himself to such a “caricature of psychoanalysis.” At this point in the book I repeatedly wondered over coffee with friends how anyone took Freud seriously. Imagine my gratification to find that the great A.J.P. Taylor reviewed Freud's book and concluded by asking: "How did anyone ever manage to take Freud seriously?"
Freud’s final book, Moses and Monotheism is “more conjectural than Totem and Taboo, more untidy than Inhibitions, more offensive than The Future of an Illusion.” It consists of three linked essays, the last and longest of which has two initial prefaces which effectively cancel each other out, and a third preface in the middle, which repeats earlier information. Here Professor Gay is reduced to assuring the reader that this was out of design rather than senility. The book postulates Moses as a real historical person, an Egyptian non-Jew and something of an anti-Semite who was murdered by the ancient Hebrews in an re-enactment of the foundational father-murder from Totem and Taboo. This would make the historical Jesus the leader of the primal father-murderers, and Christianity a big lie, contrasted to the older father-religion of Judaism. That there is no evidence whatsoever of the actual life of either Moses or Jesus seems not to have given Freud pause.
Then there is the infamous Cocaine Incident. The notoriety of Freud’s 1884 paper “On Coca” is so great that it is nearly a chore to revisit this subject, but it is necessary for any sustained critique of Freud’s life and work. “On Coca” purports to be the successful treatment of morphine withdrawal using cocaine. The patient was Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, who was using morphine to combat excruciatingly painful neuromas due to the amputation of several fingers. The treatment was not only a failure, since Fleischl did not break his morphine addiction and had no reduction in pain, but Fleischl became addicted to cocaine, began injecting himself with enormous quantities, and died six years later addicted to both substances, apparently from what we now call a “speedball.” It gets worse for Freud: he was aware that the treatment was unsuccessful, since he wrote about it in a letter a month before publishing his article. So he knew when he wrote the article that he was lying, but published it anyway, and though he claimed to be wracked by guilt, he never took responsibility for his failed treatment which contributed to a man’s death. Even worse, Freud’s letters mention at least two other occasions in which he mis-diagnosed physical ailments as psychological ones, leading to the deaths of patients. Freud it seems was not only a non-scientific speculative theorist basing his theories in now-discredited pseudo-science, but further was an accomplice to and a committer of repeated fatal malpractice.
There is a pattern here: Freud would consistently boast of scientific breakthroughs he had not yet achieved, then would falsify either the process or the results to conform to his preconceived ideas, and would later revise his theories based on new evidence (or blame the old mistakes on other people’s errors) in order to avoid admitted that he had serially committed scientific fraud. Gay is never this explicit. He deals with the cocaine episode, though he never returns to Freud’s life-long cocaine habit, and follows Freud in attributing his errors to other people and to Freud’s well-meaning personality mistakes. The evidence he presents is all factually accurate, but he does not draw the reader's attention to its implications, either out of a misguided sense of impartiality or a less-defensible allegiance to Freud's reputation.
What survives unscathed? The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Freud’s late attacks on civilization and religion, all of which are interesting, but by their very nature speculative and impossible to prove scientifically, and indeed are based in Freud's earlier fraudulent work. But then, Professor Gay, the consummate historian of culture and ideas, follows Stefan Zweig’s argument that Freud is best understood as a philosopher and moral theorist, and argues that his real importance is his impact on culture and ideas. To come to grips with Freud necessitates coming to grips with this question. At times Gay refers to some of Freud’s work as quasi-historical novels, often draws parallels to Freud’s love of art, and argues that Freud possessed a frustrated longing to engage in artistic creation. This seems hardly fair play. Freud maintained his entire life that he was a serious, rigorous scientist who was revolutionizing the world in the same mold as Copernicus and Darwin. He saw himself as doing for the human mind what calculus had done for the natural world, and tersely noted in his diary every year that he was “again passed over for the Nobel Prize.” A thinker must be judged based on the goals he sets for himself, and if Freud (and his acolytes) maintained that he was a serious scientist, then it is as a serious scientist that he must be judged, and found wanting. Moreover, bad science, particularly bad science which, as we have seen, has been falsified by the scientist, cannot later be explained away as deliberate works of fiction. I, for instance, intend to pursue a career as an academic economist. If I were to falsify a paper (let alone my entire life’s work) and be caught out in it, I could hardly explain that it wasn’t actually economics at all, but that on the contrary, I was writing very clever poetry.
And while Freud’s impact on the artistic world cannot be questioned, it was that application of his theories which annoyed him the most. Gay never tires of referring to him as a quintessential bourgeois, and his stolid, conservative artistic tastes reflect that characterization: he had no interest in the Modernists or the avant-garde artists who were actually influenced by him. He wrote several polemics against “wild analysis,” and despised the watering-down of his specific clinical vocabulary to take in general, ill-defined cultural trends. Of course, he and his followers almost constantly engaged in “wild analysis,” using psychoanalytic language as a weapon in their petty personal disputes, and Freud argued in favor of “lay analysis,” which is quite difficult to separate from the “wild” variety. The inextricable cultural utility of Freud’s terms and the prevalence of their use in artistic discussion would have infuriated him, so we can hardly judge him a success because he succeeded in doing exactly what he tried not to do.
But it cannot be denied that Freud’s language has a powerful resonance. A recent study by the American Psychoanalytic Association found that Freud is widely taught in American universities, but only in arts, culture, and social science departments. If Freud is mentioned at all in psychology and psychiatry courses, it is as a dead tributary of psychological thought, important only for historical context. Instead, versions of his ideas live on in cultural studies, not because of their scientific accuracy or clinical application, but because in their widest interpretation they can accurately reflect patterns which emerge from a sustained study of human expression. These patterns existed well before Freud, and rather than diagnosing them as he claimed, he was so steeped in them that he gave them their most precise expression. There is quite a lot of validity to Harold Bloom’s joke about how a Freudian reading of Shakespeare is less useful than a Shakespearean reading of Freud, that Hamlet did not have an Oedipus complex so much as Freud had a Hamlet complex. Recognizing the practical utility of the modern rendition of Freud’s vocabulary, we must conclude that we can keep Freudian ideas only if we strip out Freud himself and end up with terms so divorced from what he originally meant that they preserve only the sound and spelling of the word, but none of its original content. Since the tragic flaw of Freudian theory seems to have been Freud himself, it is only by removing him and his actual ideas that we can salvage some meaning, albeit transformed, from his work.
That I could even conduct the above discussion is due to Professor Gay’s scrupulous, unimpeachable scholarship and splendid writing. I consumed this daunting book at a startling rate and emerged with a grasp not only of Freud’s theories but with a wealth of factual minutiae which is slightly alarming. I know who gave Freud his famous couch, I know what his favorite opera was, and I know how many operations he endured due to his mouth cancer. I know his dog’s name, his address, and where he bought his hats. I am conversant in all of Freud’s various friendship-ending disputes, with Fleiss, with Jung, with Adler and Rank, and with Ferenczi. I took something like thirty pages of notes, which I have endeavored (and failed) to spare the reader in this review, and even read the lengthy, meticulous bibliographical essay which ended the volume. Though I dispute many of the author’s analyses and conclusions and feel he is too kind to his subject, I will state without equivocation that this book is one of the finest works of scholarship, intellectual history, and biography I have ever read, and it is with great pleasure that I look forward to experiencing Professor Gay’s numerous other works.