The Book Club

Crewsing Along at High Altitudes

Good morning, Andrew,

So you didn’t like Crews’ over-the-top mocking prose style, eh? We mustn’t leave Slate readers with the impression that this is the only tone in the book or that Freud critics are less than solid citizens of the intellectual world. Indeed, it was Ludwig Wittgenstein who raised the question of how one could verify the interpretation of a dream. The actual selections in Unauthorized Freud are quite sober and scholarly, even dry. Francine Prose, reviewing the book in the New York Observer, felt Crews’ energetic debunkery put their learned and careful formulations in the shade. I did think it was unfortunate that so many of the selections are snippets from longer works instead of free-standing essays. The frequent ellipses give a rather breathless feel to the book, and make the arguments hard to follow unless you are already a little familiar with them.

I’m less ready than you to dismiss the relevance to the Freudian project of the information and arguments Crews assembles. You seem willing to accept the likelihood that Freud never cured anyone although he said he did; that his case studies, still cited as central documents and foundation texts, are actually works of fiction; that his theory of dreams (that they invariably represent repressed wishes) which he himself claimed was absolutely central to his whole system, has been disproved by sleep research; that the technique of psychoanalysis elicits from the patient the kinds of material the analyst wants to hear; that analysis is, in short, a kind of logical feedback loop in which truth is defined as that which fits the theory (yes means yes, and no means yes). In other words, as Karl Krauss quipped, psychoanalysis is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.

You admit all this, but deny it has important implications. I don’t know, Andrew. It doesn’t seem to me that a whole lot of the once grand Freudian edifice is left standing in l998. Even the things you mention–the concept of repression, the Oedipus Complex (derived by Freud from the almost entirely imaginary case of Little Hans, who was “analyzed” by his own father, not by Freud)–are under heavy attack. Just yesterday, for instance, there was a news item suggesting that Sybil, the celebrated multiple-personality patient whose case, in the 1960s, spawned tens of thousands of diagnoses of this once practically unheard of illness, was never a multiple at all: she was responding to the suggestions of her therapist, who (like Freud) used hypnosis and other methods known to produce this kind of acquiescence, and who, like Freud, had a great deal professionally invested in sticking to her diagnosis. It does seem telling that a method intended for seriously mentally ill people is now reserved for high-functioning neurotics (who else can afford it?). And maybe for some it’s perfect. One analyst friend of mine (actually, former–she lost her faith and went eclectic) said she finally realized her true role in her patients’ lives when one revealed that in addition to psychoanalysis she was also seeing not one but two psychics. I enjoyed analysis tremendously–I’d still be there except for the time and money issues. But you know, after three years and twenty-five thousand dollars (insurance covered only a pittance, and then nothing), I couldn’t put my finger on what it had done for me. The one difficult life change I had made–quitting cigarettes after decades of chain smoking–I had had to go to another therapist for! My analyst would have been happy to discuss WHY I was unable to quit until they wheeled me into lung surgery. He was working on a time frame of centuries.

You raise the interesting question of why Crews is so hot under the collar about Freud. The question would of course infuriate him–it’s a classic Freudian tactic to attribute criticism to resistance (no means yes): It is precisely the Truth of the theory that makes you believe it is False! For a person of a rationalist bent, this argument is enraging. But what’s fascinating about Crews is that he is himself an ex-Freudian, and of the most suspect variety, a Freudian literary critic. So I think you are right to sense a missed opportunity in his book, which is for him to come to grips with what about Freud ever attracted him. You get no sense of that in Unauthorized Freud. He really is like the village atheist, who sees religion as a logical error buttressed by historical untruth and promoted by people with low motives, and who has no sympathy for the kinds of questions religion asks, or for the needs it fills, or for the experiences it comes out of. It’s just all stupid. One expects more depth and complexity of, as it were, an atheist who is an ex-priest, like Crews.

The great book to be written about psychoanalysis is, I think, its social history. Freudianism swept America (not Europe) in the 1950s and permeated every aspect of our culture, from pedagogy and childrearing to poetry and the movies. Clearly, it spoke to something deep–if not psychological truth, what was it? Similarly, the decline of Freudianism is not due to people getting smarter, or even new facts coming to light about Freud, negative as most of these have been. The Rise and Fall of Freudianism–but who could write it?

As ever,