Psychoanalysis against pseudo-science

May 02, 1994|By Arnold Ages | Arnold Ages,Special to The Sun

It has been said that a nation's vices are the sum of its virtues carried to the extreme. This maxim appears especially appropriate in gauging the contributions of the German medical and biological sciences in the late 19th century. Those disciplines laid the basis for much of the pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism and racism that have punctured the serenity of the 20th century.

Sander L. Gilman, a professor at the Cornell Medical College, has inventoried a punishing amount of documentation (his footnotes, bibliography and index occupy 71 pages) in a hugely successful effort to synthesize an entire literature that sought to envelop racist and religious prejudices with a patina of "neutral" or "objective" scientific inquiry.

Thus the respected German sciences of medicine, ethnology, sociology, psychology and philosophy were harnessed to prove definitively that Jews, among others, were unique not by religious conviction but by racial derivation. That uniqueness was characterized by measurable physical differences in the size of the cranium and a host of maladies (hunched back, knock knees, flat feet, clumsy gait) found among that racial type. The number of papers, articles and books that documented the degeneracy allegedly traceable to particular contours of the foot would be laughable were it not the fact that this nonsense was communicated as incontestable truth.

Furthermore, the doctrine of differentness and separateness that divided the Jew from the Aryan was not promulgated by quack figures but by the most distinguished practitioners in German science. The professorate in that country lent its imprimatur (as it did under Hitler) to the most odious slander by typecasting Jews as carriers of pathological bisexuality, hermaphroditism and a host of other pathogens -- for which no known cure was available.

Leading figures in German science filled 19th-century treatises with extravagant theories explaining how circumcision, endogamous marriages, ghetto living and religious parochialism contributed to a cluster of identifiable Jewish diseases.

By the end of the last century, the fixity of an identifiable Jewish pathology was so ingrained in the mind of German Kultur that any theory, however preposterous, was credited.

With regard to conversion to Christianity by Jews, several opinions suggested that it was the only way to cure the poison that was in the bloodstream. Hard-liners argued that conversion could never rehabilitate the Jew because the issue was not belief but race.

So, in this absorbing if disquieting survey, where does Sigmund Freud enter? According to Dr. Gilman, Freud and the entire psychoanalytical movement sought to parry the thrust of the pervasive anti-Semitic discourse by generalizing negative portraits of Jews into Identikits of humans in general, then seeking to propose a radically new approach to curing the ills in question by inventing a medicine -- psychoanalysis.

To this end, Freud leapfrogged over the culturally saturated German language with its built-in "deprecation and menace towards the Jew" and created the language of psychoanalysis, with its Greek myths and Oedipal archetypes. Dr. Gilman further suggests that the language of psychotherapy was a surrogate for the Yiddish and Hebrew that assimilated Jews had either rejected or permitted to lapse.

In this scenario, the revolution in medicine pioneered by Freud was not a jump into another dimension but a kind of prophylaxis against the non-filterable virus known as anti-Semitism. This interpretation of Freud, rooted in a sociological concept, seems to rob the Viennese sage of his well-deserved reputation for broadening the horizons of our understanding of the human mind.

His reputation seems also dimmed by Dr. Gilman's excavations of Freud's response to the outrageous anti-Semitic hate literature of the day, which focused on the Jewish foot as the symbol of degeneracy. In the scenario proposed by Dr. Gilman, Freud jumped from the image of the diseased foot to a complicated theory of dream interpretation in which the foot becomes a factor in female hysteria, seduction and suppressed sexual desire. Similarly, the image of the Jew as one who lacks firm footing as a result of his stumbling gait becomes in Freud's lexicon the need for firm footing in one's reading and analytical habits.

Many a reader will dispute Dr. Gilman's investigation into the genesis of Freud's analytical methods, but few will argue with his clear demonstration of the racist core of the fin de siecle biological literature.

Dr. Ages teaches in the French Department at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


Title: "The Case of Sigmund Freud: Medicine and Identity at the Fin de Siecle"

Author: Sander L. Gilman

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Length, price: 298 pages, $29.95

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