The Unreliable Superego

Adam Phillips’ revealing new edition of Freud.

The standard edition of the works of Sigmund Freud runs to 24 volumes, and its influence on the literature of the 20th century is incalculable. Translated by James Strachey (brother of Lytton) and published by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press from the 1950s through the 1970s, the collected Freud gave the English language a whole new vocabulary—we can thank Strachey for “id,” “ego,” and “superego,” his technical-sounding versions of what in Freud’s German was literally “it,” “I,” and “above-I.” Still more important, Strachey’s Freud served as the bridge on which Freud’s theories passed into our culture. As W.H. Auden wrote in an elegy for Freud, “he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion.”

Today, Freud’s reputation as a scientist is at a low ebb. Psychoanalysis has given way to “therapy” and medication as the best cures for what ails us. Appropriately, however, Freud’s achievement has been “repressed” but not banished; like all repressed things, it has returned in a new, disguised form—as literature. Just like the school of biblical interpretation that approaches the Bible as a literary work, “Freud as literature” tries to find secular value in a once sacred text. Thus we have the New Penguin Freud, a project launched this summer under the editorship of British man of letters and psychologist Adam Phillips. Instead of a monumental edition by a single translator, each book will be translated and published separately as a paperback in the Penguin Classics series. There are no indexes, no scholarly footnotes, no attempt to standardize the translation from one volume to the next. And the technical vocabulary has been cut back to a minimum: not a “cathexis” in sight. In short, Penguin Classics is treating Freud like the other great imaginative writers—Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Melville—in its series.

But what does it mean to read Freud as literature rather than as theory? The first books in the New Penguin Freud, published in June, offer some answers. Significantly, the series has started not with major theoretical works like The Interpretation of Dreams or anthropological ones like Totem and Taboo. Instead, the first four books are concrete, practical, and anecdotal: The Schreber Case, The “Wolfman” and Other Cases, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious,and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Together, they suggest four ways of approaching Freud as literature.

Freud as novelist of manners: Freud believed that he had discovered fundamental truths about the mind—laws and mechanisms that were valid for human beings everywhere. But what strikes a reader today is how richly Freud evokes one particular time and place: Central Europe at the turn of the 20th century. When Freud mistakes Botticelli for Signorelli in a conversation aboard a train in Herzegovina, we glimpse the vanished cosmopolitan elegance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the other hand, when he gives a catalog of Jewish jokes, revolving around matchmakers and Rothschilds, we hear the bittersweet folk humor of a world destroyed by the Nazis. Freud is as much an elegist for these high and low cultures as the great Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth. Meanwhile, the childhood traumas of his patients take place in an haute bourgeois ecosystem, with its nannies and maids and summer villas, that now seems remote as Jane Austen.

Freud as literary critic: It is no secret that much of Freud’s inspiration came from literature—his most famous coinage, the Oedipus complex, is an allusion to Sophocles. In his 1916 essay “Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work,” he turns directly to literary criticism. Drawing on his own clinical work, he offers brilliant insights into Lady Macbeth—an example of “Those who Founder on Success”—and Richard III—one of those who believe that past injuries have made them “Exceptions” to moral rules. And of course Freud’s writing is dense with allusions to German literature. His treatise on jokes takes many examples from the poet Heinrich Heine—he is especially fond of Heine’s coinage “famillionairely,” to describe the condescending friendliness of a rich man—and from the aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

More broadly, however, Freud’s approach to jokes, slips of the tongue, dreams, and memories is that of a literary critic. He contends that any “text,” from a nightmare to a six-digit number chosen at random, has an “author” in the unconscious; and like a good “close reader,” he is always asking why something is expressed in just these words and images. In fact, one might say that Freud’s innovation was to treat all of human consciousness as a book, where nothing is written down without a reason.

Freud as detective: The secluded study, the thoughtful silences, the brilliant deductive leaps, even the cocaine addiction—there is no mistaking the similarity between Freud and Sherlock Holmes. Freud’s case studies of the Wolfman and the Ratman share the suspense and glamour of Conan Doyle’s tales of the Red-Headed League or the Speckled Band. Someone comes to Freud with a nightmare of six white wolves perched in a tree, or an obsessive fear of horses. The doctor, like the detective, is not deeply interested in legwork: Instead he sits in his study, listening quietly as the evidence forms a pattern in his mind, and then triumphantly names the culprit. Of course, in Freud’s world the guilty party is always the victim himself, wearing the disguise of the unconscious—it is his own lusts and shames that have left him phobic or paranoid. There is another similarity: Just as with Conan Doyle, one often feels with Freud that the solution comes too easily, that convenient evidence is introduced by sleight of hand. And this leads in turn to the fourth and most interesting version of Freud.

Freud as unreliable narrator:From Emma Woodhouse to Humbert Humbert, the protagonists of novels often have a weaker grasp on reality than the reader does; the author allows or encourages us to second-guess his own creation. It is very tempting to read Freud as one such unreliable narrator, since his theories and conclusions are so often immune to logic. Again and again, he flat-out admits that “I know I shall not convince a single person who does not wish to be convinced” of his theories; as in a cult, one must believe first and understand later. Suspiciously, he seems to pull the same rabbit out of every hat: A full-blown adult paranoiac is suffering from repressed sexual desire for his father, as is a fearful 5-year-old boy, as is an obsessive-compulsive young man. It is hard to read the case study of “Little Hans,” in which a father psychoanalyzes his own child, without wondering if we are reading a devastating satire on the credulity of modern child-rearing. Yet this “unreliability” cannot be a deliberate literary device, since Freud the author and Freud the narrator are identical—every theory he puts forward is meant with the utmost earnestness. And here is where we reach the limits of “Freud as literature”: Freud, unlike Nabokov, would certainly not want to be read with the aesthetic indulgence we give to an imaginative writer. He would be dismayed to discover that, more than 60 years after his death, it is easy for us to enjoy him—as long as we don’t have to believe him.