It’s a good thing Frederick Crews didn’t wander into the New York Psychoanalytic Institute on Manhattan’s Upper East Side Tuesday night. The aging analysts packed into the auditorium, sweating through their dark clothes in the September heat wave (only a small desk fan recycled the stale air), would have confirmed the Berkeley English professor and professional Freud-basher’s darkest suspicions about psychoanalysis as a cult of personality. For what were Freud’s followers, in the sanctum sanctorum of sternly silent analysts who conduct long-term analyses with patients lying on couches, in this impossible time for the famously impossible profession, up to? Composing thoughtful rebuttals to their scientistic critics? Ignoring the outside world to present the latest advance in countertransference theory? No. They were watching home movies of Freud.
Overhearing the audience’s indulgent titters, Crews would have found it pathetic, but Crews would have been wrong. The movies were taken in 1928 by a patient and student of Freud’s named Philip Lehrman, an American who had to battle Freud’s Old-World dislike of gizmos to gain permission to shoot the footage. In a typical Freudian move, the doctor insisted on analyzing his patient’s obsession with filming him before letting him do it. (“Was it historical or hysterical?”) Notwithstanding everyone’s reluctance, Lehrman got several minutes of film that brought dozens of bit players and their world to life–the seductive Sandor Ferenczi at a caf, (he once conducted affairs with a patient and her mother at the same time), the warm and animated Princess Marie Bonaparte graciously introducing everybody to everybody else at tea parties (she later rescued Freud from the Nazis), a dashing and alarmingly radiant Wilhelm Reich (he lated invented orgone therapy). Freud himself proved a shockingly commanding presence, a man of barely checked intensity lurking in the shadows (he refused Lehrman’s requests to come out into the sunlight) who only unstiffened in the presence of his dogs.
The emotional coloring of the evening, though, came from the soundtrack, a tape of Lehrman explaining his footage 22 years later to a 1950 meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Over nearly every new person’s image came Lehrman’s voice, giving that person’s name, his psychoanalytic credential, and then where he ended up: Israel, America, or–the camps. It was, one realized, a scene of gravity, even of mourning: Here were today’s analysts, at a time when psychoanalysis seems to be sputtering to an undignified end, done in by managed health care, psychopharmacology, and the intellectual vindication of behavioral psychologists by modern trends in genetics. There were yesterday’s analysts, at the field’s most hopeful, eager beginning, when it seemed the most brilliant secular flowering of European-Jewish life. In between them lay a physical war that wiped out a world and an intellectual war that discredited a past. When the movie came to an end, there seemed nothing left to say.