The Magazine

Meetings of the Mind

Freud and his revolution.

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