The Magazine

Meetings of the Mind

Freud and his revolution.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Revolution in Mind

The Creation of Psychoanalysis

by George Makari

Harper, 624 pp., $32.50

Psychoanalysis is the movement that launched a thousand New Yorker cartoons, with a bearded shrink taking notes while the patient (or dog) lying on his couch complains. But it has left us just two memorable jokes. One by the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus: "Psychoanalysis is itself the disease it purports to cure." And the other attributed to the great Los Angeles philosopher Sam Goldwyn: "Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined."

They're roughly the same paradoxical joke, and like all good jokes, this one has an element of truth in it. Freudian psychoanalysis developed its own fixed ideas and obsessions, its own compulsive rituals, its own endlessly repeated neurotic conflicts marked by paranoia and hysterical fits.

George Makari, the director of Cornell's Institute for the History of Psychiatry, has left out the two jokes, but not much else. He's written a detailed, nonpartisan, and often mesmerizing (hypnosis is one of the subplots) account of every labyrinthine turn and Byzantine intrigue of the Central European Freudian movement until Central European political psychosis sent it into exile in the 1930s.

Makari never underestimates the difficulty of exploring the terra incognita of the unconscious, and his book leaves you with a basic respect for Sigmund Freud, and for many of his followers and rivals, as intrepid individual thinkers. But Freud's movement kept tripping over its own ambition.

The book is a history of theoretical overreach. It proves, once again, that the most elaborate and irrefutable systems of thought, and the most bitter disputes, are the ones unencumbered by evidence. Makari repeatedly laments the movement's failure to sustain a spirit of free scientific inquiry: "After 1910, the Freudian project narrowed and libido theory hardened into an oath of loyalty. .  .  . The groundwork had been laid to turn Freud's great synthesis into a monotonous, closed system."

There's no doubt that it had been a great synthesis. Freud took the Enlightenment ideal of rationally examining whatever had been the province of religion, in this case the soul, and combined it with the Romantic interest in the night side of human existence: dreams, myths, dark passions, taboos, madness. From 19th-century philosophy he absorbed Schopenhauer's idea of an implacable inner will that carries us along despite our conscious intentions and Nietzsche's brilliantly disorienting psychological aphorisms.

But he was also trying to merge psychology with developments in science, including the concept of energy in physics and the germ theory of disease, in which a single cause could be isolated for every case of certain illnesses. For Freud, looking into mental illnesses, that single cause would be repressed sexual energy.

The idea of an unconscious region of the mind wasn't new. Sophocles and Shakespeare implied it, the German Romantic philosophers speculated about it, Eduard von Hartmann's influential Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869) found most human motivation, including sexual imperatives, to be unconscious. And Freud's mentors, Charcot in Paris and Breuer in Vienna, assumed that unconscious suggestions or memories were at work in hypnotism and hysteria.

But in Freud's developing theory, unconscious impulses were unconscious because they were disturbing and therefore repressed. Nothing was more disturbing to respectable 19th-century minds, nothing led more of a shadowy, unmentionable existence, than sex. Inadmissable sexual desires created mental conflict, Freud concluded, and mental conflict manifested itself as neurosis. And some degree of self-division and self-deception was inevitable, since we can never fully acknowledge our own dark impulses.

"Like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer," Makari acutely remarks, "he believed we must mistake ourselves."