This complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a complaint at not having been mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world.
Anyone who goes to the Freud Museum in North London is immediately struck by Freud’s collection of antiquities, and, especially, by the forest of figurines from various cultures on Freud’s desk. Freud, as the analyst, would sit overseeing them as he listened to the patient from behind the couch; and the patient lying on the couch could see them by turning to the right, but could not, as we all know, see Freud. In the first psychoanalytic setting – the paradigm of every psychoanalytical consulting-room – the patient could not see the analyst but could see his idols.
Clearly, for many reasons, entering Freud’s consulting-room would have been an unusual experience; the Wolf-man was reminded, he wrote, ‘not of a doctor’s office but rather of an archaeological study. Here were all kinds of statuettes and other unusual objects which even the layman recognised as archaeological finds from ancient Egypt.’ Psychoanalysis, of course, always takes place in a museum – and for the more idolatrous, usually in the Freud museum – but the museum, the stored past, comes to life in language.
Hans Sachs, one of the early members of Freud’s Wednesday Psychological Society in Vienna, recalls in his memoir, Freud: Master and Friend, how ‘under the silent stare of idols and animal-shaped gods we listened to some new article by Freud, or read and discussed our own products, or just talked about things that interested us.’ Presumably, the irony of the situation was not lost on them. And since Jewish thought, by definition, sets itself against idolatry, we should take this as one of the important scenes in the history of psychoanalysis: a group of Jewish men, in a room full of idols, having a new kind of conversation about sexuality. Even though they thought of themselves as secular Jews, this was the equivalent of putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It was a critique of traditional forms of reverence, because to talk about sexuality, from a psychoanalytic point of view, was to talk about the nature of belief. As the conventions of love poetry have always insisted, it is in our erotic life that we return, so to speak, to idolatry. And our erotic life – as psychoanalysis would reveal – is intimately connected to our acquisitive, materialistic life.
Towards the end of the 19th century, in the major European capitals, it was possible to purchase gods. ‘The ancients gods still exist,’ Freud wrote to his friend Fliess in 1899, ‘for I have bought one or two lately, among them a stone Janus, who looks down on me with his two faces in a very superior fashion.’ You know the gods still exist, Freud jokes, because you can buy them. They had become a new kind of commodity, just as the personal past was becoming something you could buy in the form of psychoanalysis. Recent archaeological discoveries had given vivid form to the idea that the dead do not disappear. And Janus, we may remember, the Roman god of gods, was the opener and closer of all things, who looked inward and outward, before and after, a pertinent god to have acquired, given Freud’s new-found preoccupations at the turn of the century.
It is, of course, tendentious, to refer to what Freud called his ‘grubby old gods’ as idols. In his collection of over two thousand pieces there were many representations of deities, but Freud did not worship them. He simply collected them with some relish and obviously prized them very highly. On the other hand, it would not be wildly speculative from a psychoanalytic point of view to infer that there were powerful unconscious identifications at work with both the people who had worshipped them and the people who had found them. If, as has been suggested, they also represented his family romance – his wishful allegiance to alternative cultures – then they were also a rather grandiose parody of that idea. It would not be a family romance that could contain Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Near-Eastern and Asian members, so much as a world-historical romance. ‘I have made many sacrifices,’ he wrote to Stefan Zweig, and it is a telling phrase, ‘for my collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and actually have read more archaeology than psychology.’ He couldn’t, we know, have had comparable Jewish antiquities because there could be no such thing.
It is an interesting irony that psychoanalysis – in which only words and money are exchanged, in which no graven images are used, and which is carried out in an atmosphere of relative abstinence – had its beginnings in a setting populated by old gods. Freud’s consulting-room, in other words, was a rather vivid representation of an old dilemma: how many gods, if any, and what are they for? None of Freud’s antiquities was kept in his living quarters. So what was Freud telling his patients and himself by displaying his collection in the rooms where he practised psychoanalysis, a theory and a therapy that was a consistent and impassioned critique of religious belief? These antiquities in a Jewish doctor’s consulting-room articulated two things about culture, which had interesting implications for the new science of psychoanalysis. First, that culture was history, and that this history, which was of extraordinary duration, could be preserved and thought about. The present could be a cover-story for the past. And secondly – and more threatening to the monotheism of a putatively chosen people – that culture was plural. These figurines from such diverse cultures, representing what Freud called ‘the splendid diversity of human life’, ‘the varied types of perfection’, might suggest that the only viable notion of True Belief was as something local, provisional and various. The figurines underlined the fact that there were all sorts of cultural conventions and worlds elsewhere, as many as could be found.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 12 No. 21 · 8 November 1990
Much though I enjoyed Adam Phillips’s excellent discourse on the possible role of Freud’s ‘idols’ (LRB, 27 September), I was disappointed to see that, by equating a diffuse notion of religious belief indistinguishable from superstition with an incorrect and exaggerated assessment of the usefulness of psychoanalysis as something not very different from some kinds of idolatry, he could be seen to be giving possible renewed support to one of the more common misunderstandings about the scope and purpose of psycho-analysis as developed by Freud and practised by his followers today. As Adam Phillips knows very well, Freud’s writings are peppered with warnings against seeing psycho-analysis as a panacea against all ills, and it would therefore in my view have made his article even more interesting and helpful if his last sentence had read: ‘And that is a problem for those who have not recently read or reread e.g. Freud’s papers on “The Question of Lay Analysis” (1926) and “Analysis, Terminable and Interminable” (1937).’
Such a reference would not only prevent those still hostile to psychoanalysis from seeing Adam Phillips’s conclusion as lending support to Karl Kraus’s old chestnut about psychoanalysis as a disease proposing itself as its cure; more importantly, it could help those trying to assess and make use of the real values of psychoanalysis to appreciate the difference between the kinds of analysis of the human predicament which proffer solutions by ‘making man fall down and worship the work of his own hands as though it came from heaven’ or any other abstract or mystical location outside himself, and those kinds of analysis of that predicament which endeavour to assist man in understanding the predicament as fully as possible and in acting as adequately as possible within it.
Or, as Freud put it, modestly, realistically and succinctly, ‘the business of the analysis is to secure the best possible psychological conditions for the functions of the ego; with that it has discharged its task.’ As is plain, this ‘business’ is nothing whatever to do with either idolatry or religion or any other system which claims to have found a solution to the challenges facing us as human beings. All psycho-analysis claims to be is a process from which a real possibility arises for a choice to be made between continuing within the constraints of uniformity and, as Kafka puts it in the quotation opening Adam Phillips’s article, ‘mixing profoundly enough with the diversity of the world’.
It is no doubt a mark of your journal’s remarkable openness to divergent approaches to the various intellectual disciplines that your issue of 27 September includes a sensitive appreciation of the late Sir Peter Medawar and several pages later an extensive essay ‘Freud’s Idols’ by Adam Phillips, ‘the principal child psychotherapist at the Charing Cross Hospital’. Lacan, who is brought in as a trendy sayer of analytic sooths, also remarked: La psychoanalyse est un remède contre l’ignorance. Elle est sans effet contre la connerie. However genuinely helpful much dynamic (non-Freudian) psychotherapy may indeed be, I would suggest that this help has little to do with anything Freud ever actually wrote. A close examination of his texts, including the complete Freud-Fliess correspondence, will, on the other hand, give many instances of scientific and medical connerie.
Phillips’s article is filled with a great deal of forelock-tugging to the myth of Freud as a great man, innovator and, yes – even in 1990! – scientist. I am dismayed to see, after all that has been written on the subject, that in England one can still pull this skein of wool over the reader’s eyes. It is as if Karl Popper had never existed, or as if Adolf Grünbaum had never written The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984). In The Freudian Slip ( 1976), the eminent textual critic Sebastiano Timpanaro describes Freud’s methods as not merely unscientific but anti-scientific. The director of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School, J. Allan Hobson, does the same in his recent The Dreaming Brain (1988). Living, like K.R. Eissler, within those confines where only ‘Freudian Paradigms’ count, Phillips has perhaps not read these works.
Among the many philosophical, biographical and medical infelicities that litter this piece of would-be belletrism, one in particular struck me for its highly dangerous implications and (possible) consequences. It reminded me of a trenchant book review by Peter Medawar in which he castigated psychoanalysis as ‘the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20th century’. Medawar was favourably reviewing the book by the distinguished American neuro-surgeon I.S. Cooper called The victim is always the same. The medically inept and morally grotesque treatment handed out by psychoanalysts to young victims of the neuromuscular disease, dystonia musculorum deformans (DMD), prior to their fortunate meeting with a ‘real’ doctor makes for horrifying reading.
Phillips first demonstrates his philosophical incompetence with the remark: ‘In therapy it is always interesting to ask someone in a state of conviction: what kind of person would you be if you no longer believed that?’ He then concludes: ‘A symptom, of course, is always a state of conviction.’ The insouciant reinforcement of the statement by the addition of ‘of course’ is certainly in line with the grandiose and foolish certitudes so frequently occurring in the Freud-Fliess correspondence: migraine is the consequence of a fantasy of defloration displaced upwards; ‘Dora’ drags a leg because ‘she has made a false step’; women who masturbate suffer ‘gastric pains’ which only the removal of the left middle nasal concha can alleviate.
A reading of the neuro-surgeon Cooper’s work, or even merely of Medawar’s excellent review, should alert the reader to the dangers inherent in Phillips’s phrase. The danger is double-edged. Not only the assumption that some psychological or personality distress is ‘always a state of conviction’ but equally the assumption that what Phillips calls ‘a symptom’ really is one. He must mean by ‘symptom’ some manifestion of conduct or speech seen as the key to the underlying neurosis. Furthermore, he must mean ‘symptom’ as described by the handbooks of Freudian psychoanalysis. Back to the paradigms!
Phillips ends his piece: ‘But the one thing that psychoanalysis cannot cure, when it works, is the belief in psychoanalysis. And that is a problem.’ This attempt at skittish irony is quite unavailing – no more than a pirouette, and a particularly daft one at that. Orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis, using the paradigms established by the Maestro concerning supposedly repressed and supposedly inaccessible (except via analysis) infantile sexual and/or toilet problems, has never worked on anybody anywhere ever.