Freud, as Marx, destined for the limbo of half truths Psychoanalysis: Freudian leadership has foundered on claims without proof and effort without progress.


January 18, 1998|By Paul R. McHugh | Paul R. McHugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sigmund Freud's theory about the workings of the human mind, psychoanalysis, does not accommodate a friendly adversary. "You're either for us or against us," his champions cry. Yet, that's what I am. A friend, because I've admired the therapeutic skills of many analysts and have tried to promote what they do best; an adversary, because I believe that psychoanalysis promised more than it delivered to my discipline, psychiatry, and has encouraged a nihilistic outlook on life in which the best of human actions are given base derivations.

Over the last 30 years, as a friendly adversary, I've watched psychoanalysis lose authority in academic medical centers and retreat, like Marxism, into college humanities departments where, sheltered from any practical test, its dubious proposals on how unconscious sexual fixations shape an artist's work can endure.

But now, its tenure, even in these havens, is threatened. The former chairman of English at the University of California (Berkeley), Frederick Crews, has launched a brilliant campaign against Freud in the humanities.

His latest salvo, titled "The Memory Wars - Freud's Legacy in Dispute" (New York Review Book, 301 pages, $22.95), encompasses three previously published essays, readers' letters of rebuttal and his rejoinders to them. He views psychoanalysis as an oversold distraction to humanistic studies - its only indisputable achievement being self-perpetuation. This book, full of scholarship, common sense and expressive clarity, is a knock-down, out-front, in-your-face fight for truth. The answers to Crews from humanities professors tend to be weak and self-serving, twisting facts to fit theory.

On the other side, John Forrester - a reader in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University - has contributed "Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and Its Passions" (Harvard University Press, 309 pages, $27.95) and Nicholas Rand - a professor of French literature - has co-authored with a French lay psychoanalyst Maria Torok "Questions for Freud: the Secret History of Psychoanalysis" (Harvard University Press, 239 pages, $24.95). These authors do not write as well as Crews. An arch tone and a mandarin style (quite different, by the way, from Freud's) muddle their delivery. Their message, though, is the same.

They claim Crews does not appreciate the progress within Freudian thought and thus fails to see what a useful system it is, one that cannot be bettered except in the details.

In essence, these authors believe that conflict-laden events - repressed since childhood - forge human character, life direction, attitude and creative enterprises. If an artist submitted to psychoanalysis, they say, these significant experiences and their powers would be unveiled. A psychoanalytically sophisticated critic, however, will find their traces in the artist's books, poems Bor paintings. It's all quite sound, and only "small minded clerks" (Forrester, page 253) deny it.

Rand and Torok go further: Yes, Freud made mistakes and did occasionally contradict himself but these flaws deserve their own psychoanalysis and should not damn him. Freud carried a "repressed trauma" from age 9 that he did not resolve when he analyzed himself in 1896.

Once you realize how this trauma - an uncle caught counterfeiting rubles - disrupted the unconscious of young Freud and distorted his writings on psychoanalysis, they suggest, then you will appreciate that his few errors and inconsistencies are but neurotic symptoms - mere flecks in the gold.

Some reflections on how psychoanalysis fared in departments of psychiatry may indicate the likely course and outcome of this skirmish in the humanities. To me this has all the familiarity of an old quarrel now thankfully long over, but worth revisiting for its message.

Claims without proof and effort without progress scuttled Freudian leadership in American academic psychiatry. The professors of the 1950s and '60s did not use their opportunity to study a broad range of psychiatric patients and distinguish their differences. Rather, they explained every mental disorder as a product of childhood conflicts and traumas. Mothers and fathers were ever the pathogens.

As they tried these ideas in busy clinics, many physicians saw that the truths in Freudian doctrine resembled informed common sense more than new insights. Closer study failed to validate any of the unique elements of the doctrine (for example, dream theory). Psychoanalytic treatments grew interminable and often had little effect on the objectionable behavior that prompted them (viz. Woody Allen). Finally, to a cold eye, supervised analytic training looked more like initiation than education.

The best students just moved away from psychoanalysis. They didn't stop to refute Freudian presumptions - such as the universality of Oedipal conflicts, the concept of an unconscious forged by repression or the salience of infantile sexuality -they just relinquished these tenets as lacking much clinical cogency.

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