Hey, wait a minute. I don’t think I was as categorical in dismissing all of Freud’s empirical claims as you suggest. I merely argued that it wasn’t necessary for them all to survive the test of time for Freud to be worth taking seriously. And some of the empirical criticisms in the Crews book I think are badly argued. Take the feedback loop idea that largely dismisses all psychoanalysis and psychotherapy as the imposition of ideas by the therapist on the patient. I simply don’t buy the idea that we always tell our therapists what they want to hear, although obviously that can happen and has happened. Whether it does happen will surely depend on the quality of the analyst/therapist, and the self-confidence of the person on the couch. My own therapist is intensely frustrating because she never seems to guide me or to posit any destination to which she wants me to arrive. If she does–“Andrew, don’t you think you’d be happier in a relationship?”–it invariably results in a lively discussion about her motives and transferences.
No doubt if Dr. Freud had been analyzing me, and subjecting me to all sorts of theories and ideas he was trying to prove or disprove, and doing lines of coke, and expostulating in German, I might have felt inclined to confess I always wanted to murder my father. (Come to think of it, there were plenty of times in my adolescence when this wasn’t that far from my consciousness). But that doesn’t invalidate the entire exercise. It might just make Freud one of the less successful practitioners of the field he largely invented. The feedback loop, in other words, returns to an examination of oneself, one’s motives and one’s unconscious desires. That’s where the loop ends. And in good therapy, it makes for a deeper and more self-possessed person. It’s not going to result in, say, a change in smoking habits. But it will allow you to restrain yourself from repeating unhealthy patterns in relationships, or at least communicating better with people around you when you do. Do we think psychotherapy helped Woody Allen not to sleep with his daughter? Probably not. Psychotherapy should not be mistaken for morality. But it sure helped him make some wonderfully insightful and self-aware films.
And I do buy at least part of Freud’s notion of the interpretation of dreams. Last night, I had one of my constant dreams of trying to catch a train or a bus and failing. This often happens, but the details change. Last night, I dreamt I was with my first real love, a fellow college student who had no capacity to reciprocate fully because he was terrified of being gay. It’s been a very long time since I dreamt about him (I haven’t set eyes on him in well over a decade) and, this morning, I wondered why. Does sleep theory tell me anything interesting about that? I’d love to know what, but I doubt it. Does Freud? You bet. Most times, when I do a dream session with my therapist, I know almost as soon as I finish recounting the dream what it’s about, because, unfortunately my dreams are often extremely crude and obvious. But they clearly do mean something. And that meaning has something to do with my hopes and unrealized aspirations (in last night’s dream, the obvious hope to find a reciprocated love, and yet always–literally–missing the bus). And it’s often occasioned by an obvious stimulus: in this case, having recently met a man I really like. I’m sorry but I can’t dismiss that kind of analysis as useless just because it can’t be proven either way. It tells me that I am actually feeling something for this new person in my life, and that, once again, I am full of the anxiety that I once felt for my first, failed love affair. I think that tells me something I was not completely conscious of before. And without Freud, I probably would not have seen that so clearly. Interpretation, in other words, is not subject to proof. But the uninterpreted life is not worth living.
I think this is why it is possible to experience a Freud revival at the same time we are witnessing an enormous leap in pharmacological therapy. Ultimately, we can see that Freud was limited in his impact on the curing of mental illness, but profound about opening up the world’s consciousness to the unconscious and its varied and mysterious manifestations. So you can take Zoloft to calm your hysteria or soften your depression. But you can see a therapist to understand the roots of your depressive or hysterical tendencies.
Which is where Jonathan Lear’s far more interesting book comes in, and where the several less fraught essays in Michael S. Roth’s Freud: Conflict and Culture help illuminate rather than implausibly eviscerate Freud’s impact on our world. Did you like them better as I did? I’d start in on them, but I’ve already gone on enough for one posting. (I have a slight conflict of interest here, since I published Lear’s central pro-Freud essay, “The Shrink Is In,” in The New Republic a couple of years ago, although it was largely inspired and edited by my executive editor Margaret Talbot.)
One other thought about a revival of interest, pro and con, in Freud. Is this a genuinely post-ideological discussion? Or do I detect a left-wing bias in the anti-Freudian hysteria? New York Review of Books and all. On the other hand, the most vituperative anti-Freudian I know is Charles Krauthammer, former shrink now columnist. Any thoughts?
Off to take a short post-protease nap.