The Magazine

Meetings of the Mind

Freud and his revolution.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."

Freudianism itself would mistake itself (for an exact science), but Freud's theoretical investment in sex initially made sense because, as Makari makes clear, he had original ideas about it. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality was a revolutionary book when it appeared in 1905. He dismantled the conventional assumptions that perversions like masochism and fetishism were caused by defective heredity or moral laxity, presenting a theory of a pervasive and amorphous sexual energy, which he called libido. It could attach itself to all sorts of objects, normal or abnormal, depending on both childhood experience and adult circumstance. In the process he scandalously sexualized childhood and proposed that its perverse urges and fantasies were unconsciously retained in adulthood. They could be diverted and sublimated, but relentless repression inflicted grave psychological damage.

There was a clear suggestion that many of Western culture's traditional constraints and taboos were self-defeating, increasing sexual obsessions and vices instead of suppressing them. Freud, mostly ignored by doctors and academics, was first taken up by a younger generation of sex reformers and crusading journalists like Karl Kraus who favored lifting laws against prostitution and homosexuality and conceding to women the same sexual needs and freedom that men claimed.

He was enlisted, somewhat unwillingly (he favored only moderate reform), in what turned out to be the opening salvos of the 20th century's sexual revolution. Despite the stern, paternalistic aura that developed around Freudian analytical protocol, the equation of Freud and sexual permissiveness, propelled by the inner logic of his theory's pansexualism, never went away, least of all in America. Neither did something else, a crude and complacent reductionism.

Kraus and other early allies turned against the Freudians when they started analyzing artists and writers (including Kraus) through their work, reducing every cultural aspiration to a shoddy substitute for sexual gratification. You want to climb the mountain, do you, or paint a picture of it? Ah yes, well, of course we know exactly what that means. Freudianism was easily turned into metagossip--scandal without the inconvenience of having to discover any actual scandalous behavior.

Yet Freud's own works usually transcend the narrowness of his libido theory. They're filled with subtle observations about human self-deception and self-sabotage, emotional ambiguities, the way we mistake ourselves and others through displacement and projection, the way "Freudian slips" (or jokes) reveal secret wishes, the stubborn persistence of childish irrational or magical thinking in adulthood--in Ernest Gellner's phrase, "the cunning of unreason."

He might easily have settled for a psychological pluralism, giving up on boiler-system sexual determinism in the process. (He eventually gave Eros some company, Thanatos, a dubious aggressive and self-destructive death instinct, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle). But his libido theory evolved into a rigidly schematic set of dogmas, and the only evidence for it consisted of psychiatric couch confessions and free associations that were often prompted by the doctor's hints and theory-driven spin.

Some of Freud's followers began having, like Kraus, second thoughts. At the contentious early "Wednesday Society" meetings of young physicians and intellectuals at Freud's apartment, which began in 1902 at the suggestion of Wilhelm Stekel, everything was up for grabs. It was, as Makari puts it, "a loose confederation of heretics." But in 1908 Stekel was forced to recant after attributing some cases of phobia simply to psychic conflict, not of sexual origins, in the process calling into question Freud's diagnosis of similar cases. Having humiliated him, Freud quietly pocketed some of his ideas, setting a pattern of anathema followed by appropriation that Makari notes in half a dozen cases.

Alfred Adler was more of a threat. His theory, stressing a patient's self-conception and need to overcome feelings of inferiority by achieving a real or illusory sense of superiority, made sex one factor among others. It was, Makari notes, both more coherent and more commonsensical than Freud's. (In fact, it would nicely explain the fierce infighting of the Freudians.)

Freud, who began as a rebel against entrenched orthodoxy, couldn't abide a rebel against his own orthodoxy. "He has created a world system without love," he wrote in a letter, "and I am in the process of carrying out on him the revenge of the offended goddess Libido." In 1911 Adler was forced out of what had become the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, and Stekel and others soon left, too, and went off in their own directions.

Even more momentous was the movement-splintering departure of Freud's Swiss heir apparent, Carl Jung, who was more interested in mixing psychology with myth and religion than leaving it poised on a pleasure principle, and after a long intricate démarche with Freud he stepped down as head of the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1913 and went off to start his own therapeutic sect, even more elaborate and esoteric in its conjectures than Freud's. Another eminent Swiss psychologist, Eugen Bleuler, left at the same time, as did dozens of others throughout Europe, all of them arguing that Freud's insistence on psychosexual mechanisms for all problems had become the problem.

Freud, in turn, attributed the dissent of Adler, Jung, Bleuler, and his later heir apparent Otto Rank to their own neuroses. They couldn't see the primacy of sexual dynamics because they themselves had repressed them. The prophecies had become self-fulfilling and the movement self-enclosed. Freudian theory was made impervious to criticism, which only increased the criticism. On the eve of World War I, the movement was, as Makari puts it, "a tangled web of envy, jealousy, paranoia, and ambition .  .  . the psychologists could not keep themselves from internecine conflict, and worse still, the squabbles seemed scientifically insoluble."

As the Kraus-Goldwyn hypothesis would have it, they needed to have their heads examined. Makari doesn't flinch from the numerous scandals conducted under the thin cover of the doctor-patient bond known as "transference," with analysts seducing their patients or allowing their patients to analyze them (while still paying the fee), or the antics of the "wild" analysts, brilliant but erratic sex radicals like Otto Gross and Wilhelm Reich. But the real scandal was the tendency of the psychoanalytical system to perform acrobatic somersaults over inconvenient clinical findings and land on its feet.

This had been noted early. Makari doesn't mention it, but in 1900, a Vienna Medical Society skit satirically declared: "If the patient loved his mother, it is the reason for this neurosis of his; and if he hated her, it is the reason for the same neurosis." Much later, when Freudians predicted that dependent men would necessarily prefer large-breasted women, some studies were done that showed they actually preferred small-breasted women. Of course, said the Freudians: a resistance formation!

Karl Popper would show that Freudianism, like Marxism, was unscientific because it was unfalsifiable. But much of it was falsified anyway, as research finally cornered Freud's psychosexual shibboleths after World War II. Girls don't suffer from penis envy. Boys aren't possessed by castration anxiety. The Oedipus complex isn't inevitable or crucial. The timing of toilet training doesn't form character. Dreams usually aren't disguised sexual wish fulfillments. Neuropsychology has confirmed some of Freud's basic assumptions about unconscious memories and motivation and conscious inhibition of impulses, but his attempt at a precisely calibrated, deterministic theory of neurosis has fallen apart.

Yet in broad outline--which is all his later books offer, like the anti-utopian Civilization and Its Discontents and the antireligious The Future of an Illusion--the would-be "conquistador" achieved something like the rearrangement of the map of the human condition he sought: another decisive check to human pride, after Copernicus and Darwin. His books, and depth psychology in general, usefully remind us that rationality is precarious and civilization is always under siege, not just by the savages out there but by a savage part of ourselves. He became, as Auden put it in the poem marking his death in 1939, "a whole climate of opinion." We all speak his language: libido, Ego, Id, repressing, projecting, wishful thinking, split personality, narcissism, etc.

Makari doesn't go as deeply into the history of Freud's ideas and those of his predecessors and rivals as Henri F. Ellenberger did in his magisterial The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), but he's done something different and equally valuable. He's written a fascinating account of the psychopathology of those ideas' everyday life.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.