"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 24, 2017

On the Problems of Biography: Freud Reconsidered

I am at work on two recent books that are both, in part, biographical studies but also studies that grapple with the problems of biography and how to interpret an author's life in light of his works. The first is--it will not surprise you--by the incomparably compelling Adam Phillips (about whom see here): Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (Yale UP, 2016), 192pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Becoming Freud is the story of the young Freud—Freud up until the age of fifty—that incorporates all of Freud’s many misgivings about the art of biography. Freud invented a psychological treatment that involved the telling and revising of life stories, but he was himself skeptical of the writing of such stories. In this biography, Adam Phillips, whom the New Yorker calls “Britain’s foremost psychoanalytical writer,” emphasizes the largely and inevitably undocumented story of Freud’s earliest years as the oldest—and favored—son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and suggests that the psychoanalysis Freud invented was, among many other things, a psychology of the immigrant—increasingly, of course, everybody’s status in the modern world.
Psychoanalysis was also Freud’s way of coming to terms with the fate of the Jews in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So as well as incorporating the writings of Freud and his contemporaries, Becoming Freud also uses the work of historians of the Jews in Europe in this significant period in their lives, a period of unprecedented political freedom and mounting persecution. Phillips concludes by speculating what psychoanalysis might have become if Freud had died in 1906, before the emergence of a psychoanalytic movement over which he had to preside.
Biographies of Freud are not wanting, beginning with the three-volume and largely apologetic endeavor of one of Freud's close early associates, Ernest Jones (about whom see here).

A more recent attempt, by the widely respected historian Peter Gay, was published to great acclaim in 1988 as Freud: A Life for Our Time. I read it shortly after it came out when I was an undergraduate student in psychology, and it is a fine study, though not (as Paul Roazen showed) without some residual tendencies towards an apologetic treatment of Freud that he didn't need.

Phillips' study is a unique one, now joined by another one from Todd Dufresne (who studied under Roazen): The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life (Cambridge UP, 2017), 322pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Freud is best remembered for two applied works on society, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents. Yet the works of the final period are routinely denigrated as merely supplemental to the earlier, more fundamental 'discoveries' of the unconscious and dream interpretation. In fact, the 'cultural Freud' is sometimes considered an embarrassment to psychoanalysis. Dufresne argues that the late Freud, as brilliant as ever, was actually revealing the true meaning of his life's work. And so while The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and his final work Moses and Monotheism may be embarrassing to some, they validate beliefs that Freud always held - including the psychobiology that provides the missing link between the individual psychology of the early period and the psychoanalysis of culture of the final period. The result is a lively, balanced, and scholarly defense of the late Freud that doubles as a major reassessment of psychoanalysis of interest to all readers of Freud.
This latter study, I must confess, has challenged my own approach to Freud's late works, which I have heavily discounted. I'm still rethinking this issue as I make my way through this book.

But, having finished Phillips first, let me turn to it. It is a slender volume and the writing is much more taut than one finds in a lot of his other books, whose characteristically discursive style I noted here. It is interesting to read Phillips alongside Dufresne because Phillips gives pride of place to the early works, where as Dufresne weights the very last works the same as the earliest.

Phillips repeatedly makes the argument in  Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst that if Freud had died in 1906 then psychoanalysis would have developed very differently, and far less ideologically, without a prescribed history and an apparently inviolable canon of sacred texts, rituals, and rules.

The early Freud, that is up to his turning 50 in 1906, wrote books that evidence a much freer spirit: "Freud in his forties was a younger man than he had ever been: less cautious and more boldly and brashly speculative. And the writings of this period have a corresponding sense of exhilaration and possibility" (145). Of those writings, Phillips singles out five, starting with the landmark The Interpretation of Dreams (1899/1900).

The book on dreams was quickly followed by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).

These books, Phillips says, show more openness to engaging with others--artists, feminists, socialists, among them--though he notes several times Freud's total lack of interest in engaging politics, which he preferred to ignore almost at the cost of his life. Even as late as 1938 he thought that the Nazis were still not a serious threat, and that the Catholic Church was more of an enemy to him as both a Jew and an analyst.

That view is one that is quite understandable in the world Freud grew up in, born in Freiberg in Moravia, then part of the Habsburg Empire, before moving to the imperial capital of Vienna, where he would remain until the last 18 months of his life before being forced to flee to England to "die in freedom."

But with Phillips I tend to see in the early Freud not the hardened hostility to Christianity that would emerge in 1927's Future of an Illusion but, as he says in his concluding line to Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalysta man working with ideas and methods "for those eccentrics and dreamers who don't know what to make of themselves."

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