Fortress Freud

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm
    Cape, 165 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02979 7

Psychoanalysts have a difficult relationship with the rest of the world – or, as they sometimes call it, ‘the goyim’. Janet Malcolm’s two very striking books of reportage, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives, make this clear. Freud’s wife, according to her grandson, ‘divided the world into those who knew of grandfather and those who did not’. The latter, he said, ‘did not play any role in her life’. In that sense every analyst is Freud’s wife and lives in a world entirely taken up with psychoanalytic concerns. Sometimes it seems that they hardly know what may happen in real life and fear it accordingly. On the night of the New York black-out in 1965 someone I know was with his analyst. As the lights went out the analyst – not the patient – jumped out of his chair and shouted: ‘They’re coming to get me.’ Psychoanalysts have had good reasons for considering themselves beleaguered, but for the past twenty years at least, the world, being less interested in them, has been less interested than they imagine in finding them out. ‘No decent analyst would let his picture appear in the Times,’ one New York analyst snapped at another, as if he had caught him sneaking his image into the temple of Baal. Ms Malcolm speaks of the ‘chilly castle of psychoanalysis’ and admires its austerities. One might less admiringly think of it as Fortress Freud and question whether it too needs to be so insistently defended.

The idea that psychoanalysis is something to be guarded from the world was of course Freud’s: ‘we have been obliged to recognise and express as our conviction,’ he said in 1933, ‘that no one has a right to join in a discussion of psychoanalysis who has not had particular experiences which can only be obtained by being analysed oneself; and Ms Malcolm, who is unusual in being nice as well as astute, wants us to know that he regretted this – ‘you can believe me,’ she quotes him as saying, ‘when I tell you that we do not enjoy giving an impression of being members of a secret society.’ Though she concedes that he went too far in speaking of a ‘right’ to talk about psychoanalysis, she also believes that he had no alternative: ‘From the resistance that even card-carrying Freudians put up against the Freudian unconscious, the resistance of the non or anti-Freudians may be deduced.’ But the idea of ‘resistance’ is an old Freudian wheeze for dismissing other people’s opinions; and one doesn’t have to cite the shortcomings of the rest of the world in order to account for Freud’s attempt to declare psychoanalysis a total exclusion zone.

Despite what is said by loyal members of the task force, Freud was never entirely on his own, though it’s true that in the years of ‘splendid isolation’, as he called them, the years of his friendship with Fliess, no one shared the confidence he had in himself. By 1902, however, a psychoanalytic society met every Wednesday around a table in his waiting room; and if to start with it had only four members, its discussions were still considered sufficiently interesting to be reported each week in the Sunday edition of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt. At the end of his life, when he made those remarks about giving an impression of belonging to a secret society and not enjoying it, his ideas were ‘detonating’ (Ms Malcolm’s word) throughout the intellectual world. He was passionately determined to make his mark as a scientist, and it could be that the most effective way of persuading the world that he’d seen further than any of his rivals, especially those among them, like Adler and Jung, who’d been obliged to pack their bags and leave the Freudian house, was by surrounding his secrets with secrecy. ‘I am nothing by temperament but a conquistador,’ he said in a letter to Fliess, and he fought hard to make his sovereignty over the unconscious secure. In the world at large Freud’s revelations were assimilated in all sorts of ways. Psychoanalysis, however, was a family matter.

The situation has scarcely changed even now. Take, for example, Freud’s own reputation. Present-day analysts, so Ms Malcolm asserts, are unruffled by what is now routinely, though not always persuasively, said about Freud: that he persecuted his colleagues, that he took unfair advantage of them, that he faked his evidence, that he fucked his sister-in-law. ‘Most Freudian analysts,’ she writes, ‘can take or leave Freud himself,’ and reading that sentence, one may briefly wonder what can have happened to make them all so reckless, but her real meaning, to judge by the analysts whom she herself cites, is that they can take or leave what is said about Freud by anyone who isn’t an analyst. Within the profession security is almost as tight today as it was when Freud was in charge, and it is still the case, Ms Malcolm reports, that ‘outsiders wishing to join in the discussion of psychoanalysis are in effect told to go away and maybe come back after they’ve been analysed.’ No analyst would say in public that he had doubts about Freud.

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