Physics Envy

Jean-Martin Charcot, chronophotography, credit wikipedia

Physics Envy

On the Couch; Writers Analyse Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 346pp, h.b., reviewed by Leslie Jones

The twenty-five contributors to On the Couch consider the founder of Psychoanalysis from a range of different perspectives. Yet key themes recur. Apropos the vertiginous decline in the scientific status of Freud’s system, a consensus emerges from these pages that many of his leading ideas, notably those concerning homosexuality, child development, the Oedipus complex, “no longer convince us” (Adam Gopnik, p255). Siri Hustvedt,  lecturer in psychiatry, likewise, endorses the earlier feminist critiques of Freud by Kate Millett, Simone de Beauvoir and Karen Horney. And Peter D Kramer evidently speaks for several other contributors when he remarks, “How extraordinary that such implausible theories should predominate in the scientific community, in medical practice, and in popular culture, for decades”. He characterises Freud’s core ideas, such as a link between obsessive compulsive behaviour and overzealous toilet training, as “fantasy”.

So what now remains of Freud’s legacy? For one thing, his undoubted reputation as an essayist. Professor Phillip Lopate, editor of Art of the Personal Essay, reads him “as one does a poet, for his allusive lyricism” and for his “aphoristic sublimity”. Referring to Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Lopate states “I know of no book that more directly encounters the crucial question: Why is human happiness impossible, except for brief moments?”. Gopnik, in similar vein, contends that both Marx and Freud continue to reach us “as literature reaches us”. He recalls that Harold Bloom considered Freud “the Montaigne of the twentieth century” and praises him for “replacing the pious fictions of received dogma with the human truths of actual behaviour”. Gopnik, another admirer of Civilisation and its Discontents, compares Freud to Dr Johnson and says that no one could be “more succinctly Latinate or depressingly accurate”. Freud’s engaging writing style is also highlighted by Sheila Kohler, who mischievously praises his skill “as a writer of fiction”. She suggests that in Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905), Freud deliberately hid the identity of patient Dora to create a sense of mystery. And Rick Moody thinks that Freud’s Studies on Hysteria (1895) (joint author Josef Breuer) is indebted to the nineteenth century novel in that “he had to have a big ending. A Cure”.

Freud’s first scientific publication, as Mark Solms reminds us, was his ‘Observations on the Configuration and Finer Structure of the Lobulated Organs of the Eel described as Testicles’ (1877). Entering the University of Vienna Medical School in 1873, he studied neuroanatomy for the next eight years. Microscopic staining was invented by Joseph von Gerlach in 1858. Freud excelled in this field, devising new methods. So far, so orthodox. From October 1885 to February 1886, however, Freud attended Jean-Martin Charcot’s lectures on hysteria at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Like Charcot, the ‘Napoleon of the neuroses’, Freud believed that lesions in the brain caused the symptoms of hysteria. In Viennese medical circles, “Mental events were perceived as “brain events”.  But the inability of neuroanatomy to identify any such lesions led Charcot to devise novel methods, notably hypnosis, to remove these symptoms. Freud, in due course, developed his ‘talking cure’ to elicit the traumatic memories supposedly causing hysteria. “A radical break with the positivist perspective was the sine qua non of the development of psychoanalysis, as the premise of the latter is a mental mechanism of symptom causation, an idea that Freud carried over from Charcot” (see ‘White Lines’, QR, Leslie Jones, June 7 2018, a review of Freud, the Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews, 2017).

However, Freud never deviated from the view that the ultimate origin of the neuroses was a physical process in the brain. He made statements to this effect in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and in An Outline of Psychanalysis (1940). In 1895, fearing that his case studies on hysteria “were no more than “short stories”’, Freud began his ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’. The goal was to uncover the neural underpinnings of psychic states. He discussed this ultimately abortive project with his close friend, the otolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess, in 1895. “The phenomena of mind”, he averred, “do not belong to psychology alone; they have an organic and biological side as well”. “Freud had physics envy too” (Siri Hustvedt, On the Couch, p 304).

Freud & Fliess, 1890, credit Wikipedia

In ‘Reflections on War and Death’ (1918), Freud opines that “War strips off the later deposits of civilisation and allows the primitive man in us to reappear” (see ‘Freud and the Writers’, by novelist Colm Tóibin, On the Couch). Freud himself temporarily succumbed to the bellicose impulses unleashed by the Great War, celebrating in 1915 the “beautiful victories of the Central Powers”.

In war, “people really die and no longer one by one, but in large numbers, often ten thousand in one day” – death can no longer be denied (Freud, quoted Tóibin, p 92). In ‘Playing the Game’, Michael S Roth elucidates the “sad biographical dimension” that informed Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), in which Freud radically revised his theory of the drives, positing a death instinct or ‘Nirvana principle’. Before its publication, his favourite child Sophie had died in the influenza epidemic. Her second son Heinerle subsequently died in the pandemic, leaving Freud “inconsolable”. He told Oskar Pfister that “Everything has lost its meaning for me”. Indicatively, “In the wake of Sophie’s death”, Freud was reading Schopenhauer (Michael S Roth, On the Couch, p 270).

In the aforementioned review of Freud, the Making of an Illusion, we concluded that “For all his failings, Freud surely deserved a more appreciative and generous biographer”. After all the relentless Freud bashing, herewith a positive assessment of his work.

Arthur Schopenhauer, portrait by Jules Luftschutz, credit Wikipedia

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review

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2 Responses to Physics Envy

  1. James Calhoun says:

    You are right: Freud was an outstanding relevant and elegant essayist, like Havelock Ellis or Hilaire Belloc, if not as erudite as Jung, though you tend to play down his personal failings, the unscientific aspects of psychoanalysis, and its malign influence on western social attitudes. The attempted “synthesis” between Marx and Freud from the 196os has been a blight on politics.

  2. Edgar Hammond says:

    Fliess, Freud – and Reich – were odd bods, with a mixture of good and bad ideas, and experiments comparable to contemporary theatre magic and seances, a transition phase from phrenology and mesmerism into modern medicine. It is little known that Fliess and Freud were interested in occult notions, though from a tradition very different to that of Jung. The astrological rhythm theories of Fliess may prove fruitful than his nasal surgery.

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