The Book Club

A New Bottle for the Old Freudian Wine

Dear Andrew,

I wonder how far apart we are in our views of Freud? After all, I did say I thought psychoanalysis might be useful for high-functioning neurotics, which would explain why we both enjoy it. (I actually first wrote “useless”–point for sigmund. But I did enjoy it.) I think I can admit that usefulness, without belittling important needs it didn’t meet, as you do, with your rather high-handed reference to “smoking habits.” My point was, here was an issue that I wanted to address directly, that I talked about a lot, that was, not to get too personal, closely related to major issues in my life (people quietly killing themselves with addictions). I think it’s not too much to ask that one’s analyst, who is after all a physician, put one on to a good anti-smoking program. But my main point in raising the smoking issue was that this is a method of therapy that is not suited for some issues–really serious ones, like mental illness, or ones that need to be addressed fairly quickly, like a major health issue. But these are the issues that psychoanalysis was developed to address, and that account for its connection to the medical profession, its prestige, its high fees. Now analysis is something else: a way highly educated, articulate people (it’s a talking cure, after all!) can overcome internal barriers to love, intimacy, achievement.

This would be a good place to mention my friend Dan Menaker’s witty novel, The Treatment (Knopf). Jake Singer is a teacher at a posh boys’ school who is consumed by anxieties large and small and by hostilities disguised as diffidence. His analyst, the mad Catholic and very Cuban Dr. Morales, is a hilarious comic invention–but the real joke is that Dr. Morales, with his mangled English and arrogant accusatory style (of Jake’s use of words like “maybe” and “I suppose” he says: “You guess, you suppose, you think maybe. You castrate yourself before it happens, what you so fear–that if you display your balls, someone else will cut them off. Preemptive self-castration.”) is always right. I think you’d enjoy this book, Andrew.

The thing is, Andrew, life is full of suffering and people want to be happy, and yes, I think a good therapist can help a lot. They may even help more than a good friend, a good teacher, a good priest (none of whom are likely to give you three hours a week in which you do all the talking!) I know lots of people who would definitely benefit from therapy–people who are stuck in self-destructive patterns, like always going for unavailable men. But I believe no one has shown that psychoanalysis in particular is a better kind of therapy than many other kinds: even Jungian therapy, which strikes me as a total crock, helps some people. So it may be that what makes therapy work is not the psychological theory behind it, but the therapeutic relationship. Real Freudians don’t think that’s it though: they think their particular theory of personality, their particular method of therapy, is the right one. Then, every now and then, someone does a study of, say, computers programmed to say “shrink-like” things (I see. Tell me more.), and finds people thinks it’s great.

About Jonathan Lear’s book. I didn’t like it as much as you (I should confess I only read the first half of it–the half not about Aristotle). I felt it was too transparent an attempt to find a new bottle for the old Freudian wine. Lots of elevated writing, but I found his promotion of lay analysis disturbing: I know too many people whose medical problems were ignored or misdiagnosed as psychosomatic by clinical psychologists to want to fill the country with more practitioners unable to recognize true mental illness, brain tumors, hormonal disorders, premature Alzheimer’s and the many other physical causes of aberrant behavior, depression, etc. And his claim that Freudian analysis was conducive to democracy is just silly. Is he thinking of making it compulsory, and free? Argentina probably has the highest proportion of analyzed citizens in the world–and we all know what a garden of democracy that great nation is.

Two final points. I don’t think Freudian skepticism is a leftwing thing at all. Crews’ home base, the New York Review of Books (hardly a leftwing venue, these days, in any case) publishes plenty of Freudians, Janet Malcolm, for example. The political hard right has always resisted Freud, because it’s about sex, is associated with foreigners and Jews and intellectuals, undermines parental authority, and encourages “understanding” people’s behavior, not just condemning them. Historically, the left has liked Freud, for the same reasons–it’s about sex, etc. In the 70s, feminists attacked Freud for his sexist ideas about women, penis envy, the idea that women’s psychosexual development rendered them less moral than men, that sexual masochism was natural to women etc. They won those battles, sort of, and now feminists are Freud’s best friends, at least in the academy. Feminist lit critics, English professors, postmodernists–these people are very interested in Freud, for reasons I don’t quite understand. I would say that Freudian skeptics fall across the political spectrum.

Well, this has been fun. Maybe I should call my analyst when I get back to New York…



PS. You don’t blame analysis for Woody Allen’s odd sex life, but you give it the credit for his creative work. Someone else could say the opposite: Woody Allen was an immensely productive comic way before he lay down on that couch, but umpty-umph years of analysis enabled his narcissism to bloom like a hothouse gardenia. The fact is we don’t know anything about Woody Allen and his shrink. As my analyst said when I twitted him with the Allen story, “Do you know he was in ANALYSIS? Or was it just… therapy?”