The Magazine

Meetings of the Mind

Freud and his revolution.

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