There is no cure

Michael Wood

  • The Penguin Freud Reader edited by Adam Phillips
    Penguin, 570 pp, £14.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 14 118743 3

In 1936 Freud wrote a letter to Romain Rolland, offering him a speculation about a particular memory as a 70th birthday gift. The memory concerned a trip Freud took to Athens with his brother, and his own ‘curious thought’ at the sight of the Acropolis: ‘So this all really does exist, just as we learned in school!’ Freud describes himself as two people, one making the comment and the other perceiving it:

and both were amazed, although not by the same thing. One of these persons behaved as though . . . he was obliged to believe in something the reality of which had until then seemed uncertain to him . . . But the other person was rightly surprised, because he had not known that the real existence of Athens, the Acropolis and this landscape had ever been a matter of doubt.

Perhaps, Freud says, he was just registering the difference between knowing about something and seeing it with one’s own eyes, but he thinks ‘that would be a strange way of dressing up an uninteresting commonplace,’ and quickly moves on to develop an argument suggesting that his reaction was a disguised expression of a continuing disbelief not in the Acropolis, but in his own chances of getting there. But why didn’t he say just that? Why was his disbelief ‘doubly displaced’, as he puts it, shifted into the past and ‘away from my relation to the Acropolis to the Acropolis’ very existence’? He didn’t actually doubt the existence of the Acropolis in the past and he couldn’t doubt it in the present, since he was there; but his unmistakable feeling was that ‘there was something dubious and unreal about the situation.’

Freud doesn’t profess fully to understand this or the many similar occasions of what he calls ‘estrangement’, but he sees that his mind was falsifying both past and present: that is, telling him fables about them, in order to signal and avoid an unwelcome thought. He settles on what may seem a rather narrow and self-regarding interpretation of what he calls his ‘disturbance of memory’. His doubt about getting to Athens, he says, ‘had to do with the strictures and poverty of our living conditions in my youth’. He didn’t think he would ‘come so far’, and the story is now fully metaphorical, and all about making it. Freud’s arrival at the Acropolis is a measure of his professional and financial success, and his reaction is veiled and tilted towards the past because ‘there must be a feeling of guilt associated with the satisfaction of having come such a long way.’ ‘It seems as though the essential aspect of success lies in getting further than one’s father, as though wishing to outdo one’s father were forbidden.’ This is a general proposition, but there is also the particular case. Freud père was not an educated man, and ‘Athens would not have meant much to him.’ The son’s pleasure at getting there is complicated by ‘an impulse of piety’: he has not only outdone his father but abandoned his world.

It’s hard not to feel that Freud’s self-accusation is really a form of self-congratulation, that in this ingenious reading the reassertion of success is more important than the diagnosis of guilt, and of course there would be other ways of interpreting the memory itself. It’s not so strange that the real world should at moments feel unreal to us. But the local form of any strangeness has a lot to tell us, and Freud’s tracking of the displacement is fascinating; here as elsewhere in Freud the mode of thought, the careful and imaginative teasing out of possibilities of meaning, is more interesting than the thought’s point of arrival. Freud himself once wrote that ‘psychoanalytic research . . . seeks merely to uncover connections by tracing that which is manifest back to that which is hidden.’

This was Wittgenstein’s understanding too. He had searching criticisms to make of Freud’s logic – disguised or substitute wish fulfilments may be fine things, but they can’t, by definition, be the fulfilment of wishes – but he regarded that same logic, in spite of its ‘muddle’, as ‘very important chiefly because it points to the sort of interpretation that is wanted’. He suggested that Freud had created ‘a powerful mythology’, offering ‘an inducement to say, “Yes, of course, it must be like that”’; although we usually say this, it seems, only after we have insisted for a while, and pretty strenuously, that it is not like that at all. ‘But if the explanation is one which people are disinclined to accept,’ Wittgenstein says, ‘it is highly probable that it is also one which they are inclined to accept.’

This probability, or the claim for such a probability, turns a patent conceptual opposition (inclined/disinclined) into a form of collaboration, although, I think, without any causal implication. I am not inclined because I am disinclined; but my (possibly hidden) inclination can be seen in my (all too manifest) disinclination. This interpretative move is characteristic of the most vulgar Freudianism, but also characteristic of Freud himself, and these days seems to get him into more trouble than all his theories of sexuality, infant desire, screen memories, death drive and primal horde put together. Freud didn’t invent the move, he got it from Nietzsche, who is undoubtedly its modern master. At the end of The Birth of Tragedy we are invited to imagine ourselves ‘transposed back to life in ancient Greece’, where we are certain to be struck by its extraordinary beauty. A predictable thought would be: how lucky these people are to live in such harmony and to find so direct an expression of it in their culture. We might even have our equivalent of Freud’s reaction to the Acropolis: all that stuff they told us about ancient Greece is really true. But Nietzsche goes straight for the counter-intuition. Not how great Apollo is but how great Dionysus must be, if Apollo has to work so hard at his music and ritual and architecture. Not how beautiful these people and this culture are, but ‘how much did these people have to suffer to become so beautiful!’

We now make this move all the time in daily life, and it can be too easy – even if it’s never easy in Nietzsche and not often easy in Freud. I know you mean yes because you said no too emphatically. You didn’t say it emphatically? Oh well, I must have heard the emphasis you were holding back. This is what it means not to take no for an answer. Logic is a considerable cultural accomplishment, and so is the recourse to evidence. The notion that inclination lurks in disinclination and, more generally, that opposites can collapse into each other at any time, becomes very troubling, and what’s more, in this kind of interpretation, evidence is not merely ignored, it is taken as proving its exact opposite. And the move may just be wrong, as well as too easy. Think of all those judges in rape cases who are sure what women want. Even Wittgenstein’s ‘highly probable’ begins to seem rather tendentious. There are no probabilities in such a game.

But of course inclination does sometimes lurk in disinclination, no can mean yes, and suffering often does underlie beauty. The fact that a supposed method of interpretation is too easy or troubling or often wrong doesn’t mean it’s useless. It just means it’s not a method. There is a logic that works by means of a periodic breakdown of logic, and the world is full of instances we couldn’t begin to understand without it. The difficult question, usually, is not the relatively simple one of whether no means no or yes, but what else even a genuine no might mean. John Forrester puts the matter very well in Dispatches from the Freud Wars (1997) when he asks how we tell the difference between ‘a patient’s independent judgment of psychoanalysis’ and ‘a negative transference’. ‘That is the fundamental problem in addressing psychoanalysis,’ he says, ‘and an answer hinges on one’s interpretation of the function of negation in human speech.’ Freud himself would no doubt have evoked Goethe’s Mephistopheles in this context, who defines himself as ‘the spirit that always denies’ – literally, says no, ‘der Geist, der stets verneint’. He says no and he means no but even that turns out to be a feature of God’s larger plan. He is, he tells Faust, ‘a part of that strength/that always wills evil and always does good’.

Freud famously said that ‘the alternative “either-or” cannot be expressed in dreams in any way whatever,’ and he often writes as if the same were true of waking life. He is effectively claiming a sense for nonsense, for what Wittgenstein calls ‘muddle’, in the way he claims meaning for dreams. A child ‘retains his belief and renounces it’. Freud writes that two young men had ‘failed to acknowledge’ their father’s death and also that they had taken ‘full account of this fact’: ‘The wishful attitude and the realistic attitude existed side by side.’ We find ways of reconciling ‘what the drive demands and what reality forbids’ even when drive and reality are totally opposed. Of course, Freud suggests, we damage the ego irremediably in the process, but that only reminds us that opposites exist in some realms and not in others, and that difference, even enmity, doesn’t prevent collusion. As Maud Ellmann writes in her introduction to On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, part of the New Penguin Freud series, ‘what is remarkable about Freud’s work is the insight that impulse and repression are complicit rather than opposed.’

A wonderful example of the mode of broken logic, or of the breaking of logic in an excellent cause, appears in an essay called ‘Family Romances’ (the German could also be translated as ‘the family-novel’). Certain neurotic children – that is, almost any children we can think of – have fantasies of getting rid of their parents and replacing them by others, ‘usually of superior social standing’. Sometimes the children imagine they are stepchildren, or adopted. Given the disappointing performances of most of us as parents, we could see these fantasies as very reasonable, but Freud will have none of it:

We would remind anyone who turns away in horror from the depravity we have attributed to the mind of the child, or may even wish to deny that such things are possible, that none of these seemingly hostile fictions are really ill-intended, but preserve, under a slight disguise, the child’s original affection for his parents. The infidelity and ingratitude are only apparent.

‘Seemingly hostile’ and ‘only apparent’ are very touching, and this must be one of the most delicate portraits of love-hatred. The new parents the child invents are merely idealised versions of the old ones, the old ones at their best. There is no contradiction between getting rid of the folks and adoring them. ‘The fantasy is actually only an expression of regret for the happy times that have vanished.’ But they have vanished, and there is no avoiding the disappointment of having one’s parents as they are now and continue lamentably to be. This is where the old logic – now is not then – has its revenge.

Freud himself, in his ‘Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis’, welcomed the idea of myth pretty much as Wittgenstein evoked it. ‘The theory of the drives is, so to speak, our mythology. The drives are mythic in essence, magnificent in their elusiveness. We can’t ignore them for a moment in our work – yet, at the same time, we are never sure that we are actually seeing them clearly.’ It would take only a small slippage for this sentence to say we are sure we are never actually seeing them clearly; and that, of course, would in no way rob the drives of their mythic power, or their importance.

Adam Phillips quotes Wittgenstein’s remark about the mythology and its inducement at the head of his introduction to the Penguin Freud Reader, a very rich selection of Freud’s writing, long and short, which includes the letter to Romain Rolland, ‘Dora’, ‘The “Wolfman”’, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ and many less well-known pieces. ‘We are all Freud readers now,’ Phillips says, shifting the meaning of his title, and since we are Freud’s readers – rather than, say, his disciples or just people looking for the glazed gist of his thought – we shall have to pay attention to the language of this ‘so ambitious . . . writer, so keen and so canny about the magic of words’. ‘Freud,’ Phillips says, ‘is the writer for people who want to find out what words may have done to them, and may still be doing.’ ‘Psychoanalysis is a very elaborate redescription of curiosity.’ That’s a good definition of philosophy too, at least in some of its forms, and takes us back to Wittgenstein’s inclinations and disinclinations.

The terms are rather bland, as if to keep everything at a polite distance, but just behind them we can hear the passions growling, the noise of what Freud called resistance. He explains the whole show beautifully in a 1910 essay on ‘Wild Psychoanalysis’:

There is an outdated idea, based on superficial appearances, that a patient’s sufferings result from a kind of ignorance, and that if only this ignorance could be overcome by effective communication . . . a recovery must follow. But the illness is not located in the ignorance itself, but in the foundation of ignorance, the inner resistances that are the cause of the ignorance and continue to sustain it . . . If knowledge of the unconscious were as important as those inexperienced in psychoanalysis believe it to be, then all you would need for a cure would be for the sufferer to listen to lectures or read books. However, that would have about as much impact on neurotic symptoms as distributing menus would have on hunger during a famine.

A page or so later, in a characteristic complicating move, Freud suggests that the ‘clumsy treatment’ offered by amateur psychoanalysis, the equivalent of handing a menu to a hungry person, nevertheless probably does more good than not letting the person know that the menu exists. He doesn’t of course mean that ‘knowledge of the unconscious’ is unimportant, only that real knowledge is hard to come by, and that merely telling the patient what’s up is at best a rough beginning, and perhaps not the place to start at all. And lectures and books, how could they cure anyone?

But what else was Freud doing with his life, except writing lectures and books? Well, he was working as a doctor. Yet ‘Freud was never all that keen about being a therapist,’ Phillips writes in his introduction to Wild Analysis, one of the most interesting and surprising volumes in the New Penguin Freud series, of which he is the general editor. ‘He preferred being a writer, and writing about why he preferred being a writer.’ Phillips quotes Freud writing to Fliess in 1896: ‘I knew no longing other than that for philosophical insight, and I am now in the process of fulfilling it, as I steer from medicine over to psychology.’ In 1896 psychology was, largely, philosophy. Is there a contradiction here? Of course, but it is precisely the kind of collapsing contradiction Freud teaches us to understand and that Wittgenstein identified: accepting and not accepting may be not logical opposites but tricky twins. It is possible, and may now seem natural, that a therapist, even a gifted one, would avoid therapy when he could – and that lectures and books might do more good than the therapist thought. ‘Freud’s papers on technique,’ Phillips says, ‘take us to the heart of the puzzle that is psychoanalysis; and of Freud’s resistance to his own discovery.’

The puzzles of psychoanalysis (the puzzle that is psychoanalysis and the puzzles it seeks to solve) are the running content of Freud’s work and therefore of the New Penguin Freud. The series is not without puzzles of its own, which is no doubt appropriate. The selection of Freud’s writings made and introduced by Philip Rieff in 1963 was very clear about its scope – ten volumes – but nowhere mentioned the fact that Freud wrote in German or that someone had turned him into English. The old Penguin series used James Strachey’s translations from the Standard Edition, and said so, but the versions were often thought to replace rather than derive from the German texts. The New Penguin books are all about translation, and are the work of different (named) translators, but they don’t tell us how many volumes there are. There is no general introduction to the series, though each volume has two preludes of its own, a discursive introductory essay and a translator’s preface; and in the Penguin Freud Reader Phillips stylishly if rather casually defends the range of different translations with the remark that ‘unlike those who have the misfortune to be able to read Freud only in the original, the reader will find here a more various Freud, less consistent in idiom and terminology than even Freud himself was able to be.’ ‘Was able’ is a very nice touch. Freud was doing what he could to be muddled, but couldn’t go all the way.

The early New Penguin volumes contained lists of published and forthcoming titles in the series, but the recent volumes are mum about everything. Perhaps the series is, like psychoanalysis, terminable and interminable. But it’s a major event, and it’s odd that it should be so diffuse, pretending to be scarcely an event at all, more like a disguised wish fulfilment on the publisher’s part. Here’s the score, by my probably inept count: the first volumes, Wild Analysis, Civilisation and Its Discontents and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, appeared in 2002; The Uncanny, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, The Wolfman, The Schreber Case, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings and An Outline of Psychoanalysis in 2003; Studies in Hysteria (by Freud and Breuer) and Mass Psychology and Other Writings in 2004; On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia and The Unconscious in 2005. The Psychology of Love and The Interpretation of Dreams are due to appear in September this year. Leonardo da Vinci is announced without a date and maybe there are more. As Freud might say (and indeed did say, in ‘Mourning and Melancholia’), ‘we shall . . . relinquish all claim to the universal validity of our results.’

The Penguin series effectively gives us a new Freud, or brings into focus the Freud we may think we have been half-seeing. This is partly the result of the admirable work of Adam Phillips, who has taught us in his earlier writing and now reminds us in his introductions how subtle and self-contradictory Freud was, and how flexible a Freudian can be. From Darwin’s Worms (1999): ‘It’s not that we misunderstand each other, that we keep getting it wrong, it is that we put so much belief – false belief – in the whole notion of knowing and understanding.’ Psychoanalysis ‘simply shows us . . . the power of the contingencies we inhabit: our desire, our childhood and our chances’.

But Phillips is not making anything up: Freud himself provides instances all the way. The translators of the new series severally insist that they were invited to make a ‘literary’ translation of Freud. This sounds as if we are to get a conflicted humanist to replace the supposedly defeated scientist, but the effect is rather different. I would say, rather, that Freud’s work embodies the dilemma of what Nietzsche once called the unnatural sciences: those disciplines that seek organised knowledge of what seems close and obvious rather than what is manifestly mysterious. Human minds and human societies, for example, rather than the stars. Psychoanalysis is a human science that courts its own ruin, but won’t abandon its quest for laws. ‘Freud’s vision of the conscious mind perched precariously and parasitically on the outer surface of an implacable unconscious had its grandeur,’ Malcolm Bowie writes in his introduction to An Outline of Psychoanalysis. ‘But the disproportion between the conscious and unconscious components of the mind gives a strange air of self-apology to Freud’s defence of science and reason, for science, even with its inferential procedures working at full stretch, is still no more than a specialised and well-ordered version of consciousness.’ ‘Every day,’ Proust says at the beginning of Contre Sainte-Beuve, ‘I attach less value to the intelligence.’ This wasn’t true, but you can see why Proust, like Freud, faced with the infinite, unnameable ranges of what can’t be known, even within the self, would want to propitiate the gods of the world beneath reason.

Phillips is not alone in insisting on the failures and limitations of psychoanalysis, but he is the most eloquent at it, and also perhaps the only introducer of these volumes fully to see the failures as opportunities. Psychoanalysis, he writes in his introduction to Wild Analysis, ‘is consistent in what it fails to do for people’. An excellent thing. ‘Its competence resides in what it can show us about its own incompetence. It cures us of the notion of cure.’ He also tells us that Freud was surprised by ‘people’s commitment to their own unhappiness’. This is very different from an unhappy, or even tragic view of people in the world, which is often attributed to Freud; and Mark Edmundson, in his introduction to Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, makes some similar fine distinctions. Freud is ‘our prose-poet of the heart’s desire to break’, he writes, but the master also relishes his own reductiveness. Edmundson grows impatient with Freud as his essay progresses, but early on he manages, and perhaps half believes in, this very sympathetic formulation: ‘Perhaps Freud is not so much a reductionist as he is someone who brilliantly exposes the state of the psyche when it is at its most minimal and besieged. Maybe Freud is not, strictly speaking, a reductionist but someone who aptly describes when we are at our most reduced.’ Or most committed to our own unhappiness.

The new translators give very lively accounts of their practice. There is some agreement about the idiomatic force of Freud’s language, although John Reddick’s claim for ‘oomph’ seems to be going a bit far, and about the unloveliness of Strachey’s ornate Greco-Latinisms: why opt for ‘thaumaturgical’ when ‘magical’ would do? Everyone has a problem with Besetzung. Strachey translated it as ‘cathexis’, which now appears to be an English word – we’ve heard or read it even if we don’t know what it means. The German term is cognate with ‘besetting’, and variously means ‘occupation’, ‘(electrical) charge’ or ‘investment’. The most interesting hesitation on this subject is that of Nicola Luckhurst in Studies in Hysteria, who feels that in Freud’s early work Besetzung may not have possessed the technical focus it later came to have: ‘My understanding was rather that he was still feeling his way to what the word might mean, that the richness of its different inflections was very much present.’ Her solution – to keep ‘cathexis’ but add a gloss – is not very elegant, but the explanation is worth having. Others translators try for direct alternatives: ‘charging’ (J.A. Underwood, in Mass Psychology and Other Writings); ‘investment’ (Helena Ragg-Kirkby, in An Outline of Psychoanalysis); ‘investment’ and ‘charge’ (Shaun Whiteside, in On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia).

Similar worries arise with the trio we know as the ego, the superego and the id. Luckhurst has a relatively easy time here because early in his career Freud writes ‘das Ich’, a term already in use, to mean ‘the self’ without any subdivisions or psychic companions. But nearly everyone else gets into a serious stew. David McLintock (in Civilisation and Its Discontents) thinks ‘we have little choice left,’ and says the Latin categories have become English enough. Ragg-Kirkby doesn’t like the connotations of ‘ego’ and leaves all three terms in German. Alan Bance (in Wild Analysis) really doesn’t have much choice, but for different reasons. One of his texts is ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’, where Freud defends the use of ‘mere pronouns’ rather than ‘sonorous Greek nouns’. ‘In psychoanalysis we love to stay in touch with popular modes of thinking,’ Freud says rather archly. But in English the pronouns sound stranger than Strachey’s Latin, and this edition, comically, has to smuggle the old terms back in by way of explanation: ‘We call this organisation the I [Ego] . . . and we call this the It [Id].’ My sympathies are entirely with Whiteside when he gives up the game, saying: ‘The more “colloquial” versions proved utterly unmanageable, at least to me.’

Translation has (at least) two aspects; in fact there may be two quite different activities lurking under a single name. One is the finding of words in one language for the words of another, and is in a sense quite final. You do what you can, you settle on a version, and you let go of everything you know is missing. It’s the letting go that is hard. The other activity is preliminary to this choice, but could well be independent of it, or not require a choice at all. It is the understanding of the range and tone and family life of the words in the language you are working with, and it is more like literary criticism or linguistic philosophy than anything else. It could issue not in a translation but in a descriptive essay, like many of Nabokov’s notes to Eugene Onegin, for example. Nabokov’s translation is a kind of Edwardian joke, but the notes are a treasure. Much of the nagging that goes on about translation, in the New Penguin Freud and elsewhere, comes from the yearning for this second activity to survive, undiminished, in the first. Paul Keegan, for example, in his introduction to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, follows Bruno Bettelheim in complaining about versions of Freud’s Fehlleistung, his word for what we know as a ‘slip’. It’s true that the German word is a fine one, made up of the idea of missing or failing (Fehl) and the idea of achievement or performance (Leistung). Our achievement is to miss the target. And our miss is an achievement, as with the young woman who said, when asked how her uncle was: ‘I don’t know; these days I only see him in flagrante.’ Now ‘parapraxis’ doesn’t get us very close to this, but ‘slip’ is terrific. It’s stealthy where the German is explicit, and it performs the action it fails to name, the intention we’d like to believe is an accident.

The most touching and in one sense the most Freudian moment in the translators’ prefaces comes when Bance explains that he couldn’t bring himself, any more than earlier translators could, to translate Freud’s word ‘guess’ as ‘guess’, ‘in contexts that related to the analyst’s attempts to put a construction on the meaning of the patient’s revelations’. You mean the man was just guessing? Erraten: the word is not difficult, but it is ‘brutally honest’, as Bance says. ‘“Conjecture” or “interpret” seem more respectable terms, offering fewer hostages to fortune.’ Ah, respectable.

We can look at what Freud himself says on a similar topic, if not in an analytic situation, and compare translations at the same time. The new version, by Reddick, is fine, but the much maligned Strachey doesn’t do at all badly either. Here is a famous passage from Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

Man könnte mich fragen, ob und inwieweit ich selbst von den hier entwickelten Annahmen überzeugt bin. Meine Antwort würde lauten, daß ich weder selbst überzeugt bin noch bei anderen um Glauben für sie werbe. Richtiger: ich weiß nicht, wie weit ich an sie glaube. Es scheint mir, daß das affektive Moment der Überzeugung hier gar nicht in Betracht zu kommen braucht. Man kann sich doch einem Gedankengang hingeben, ihn verfolgen, soweit er führt, nur aus wissenschaftliche Neugierde oder, wenn man will, als advocatus diaboli, der sich darum doch nicht dem Teufel selbst verschreibt.

It may be asked whether and how far I am myself convinced of the truth of the hypotheses that have been set out in these pages. My answer would be that I am not convinced myself and that I do not seek to convince others. Or, more precisely, that I do not know how far I believe in them. There is no reason, it seems to me, why the emotional factor of conviction should enter into this question at all. It is surely possible to throw oneself into a line of thought and to follow it wherever it leads out of simple scientific curiosity, or, if the reader prefers, as an advocatus diaboli, who is not on that account sold to the devil.

[Strachey]

People might ask me whether and to what extent I myself am convinced by the hypotheses set out here. My answer would be that I am not convinced myself, nor am I trying to persuade others to believe in them. Or to put it more accurately: I do not know how far I believe in them. It seems to me that the emotional factor of ‘conviction’ need not enter into it at all. One can certainly give oneself over completely to a particular line of thought, and follow it through to wherever it leads, out of sheer scientific curiosity, or out of a desire to act as devil’s advocate – without signing oneself over to the devil.

[Reddick]

The main impression left by the comparison, surely, is the lack of important differences. We may note that Freud doesn’t put ‘conviction’ between quotation-marks, and that the ‘desire’ to act as devil’s advocate, a very interesting analytic diagnosis, is Reddick’s addition. What we can’t get, and what belongs to what I was describing as critical description rather than translation, is the discreet effect of the repeated doch in the last sentence. It’s a small touch, and ‘surely’ and ‘certainly’ are too heavy. But you say ‘doch’ when you are answering an implied argument (on its own it means ‘yes’ when someone else has said ‘no’) so the effect is like that of a very quiet ‘after all’ or ‘it’s not really going to come up.’ ‘Man kann doch’: you wouldn’t want to say one couldn’t. ‘Doch nicht’: you know that’s not going to happen. It’s friendly and intimate, and Freud in German, at this moment, is closer to his reader than he is in English; not without his defences, but less defensive.

The drift of the passage, of course, is that Freud is not only guessing, but defending the role of guesswork. ‘Scientific’ is wissenschaftlich, related to organised knowledge, rather than, necessarily, the natural sciences, and a page or so later in the same text, Freud manages both to celebrate figurative speech, or more literally picture-speech, or Bildersprache, and to wish he had a language like that of chemistry. Because it’s not figurative? No, because it is figurative, but older and more familiar and perhaps simpler. We note the plea for curiosity, not even redescribed.

What is Freud guessing at through these figures? Many things, but with most urgency, perhaps, the nature of the meeting between the public and the private in modern life. Several of the introducers to the New Penguin volumes stress the social and political dimension of psychoanalysis, making clear that it’s not concerned only with individuals. ‘Freud’s theory of sex is also a theory of politics,’ Edmundson says. And Jacqueline Rose, in her introduction to Mass Psychology and Other Writings, reminds us that ‘we are “peopled” by others’: ‘Even when we dream, we are not alone.’ Especially when we dream, perhaps. ‘Peopled’ is an important word for her, since she is arguing that Freud’s essay on Moses can be ‘read equally as betrayal or as boast’ in relation to his Jewish inheritance. Along similar lines, Phillips says that ‘to assume there is an unconscious is to believe that there really are other people, other voices, inside and outside oneself (that if there is a mind it has minds of its own).’

But the fullest and strangest development of such thinking appears in Leo Bersani’s brilliant introduction to Civilisation and Its Discontents. Here we learn that ‘the real and profound subject’ of the book is aggression, and that aggression can’t, in the end, be separated either from sex or from society:

The explicit argument of Civilisation and Its Discontents goes like this: we must sacrifice part of our sexuality and sublimate it into brotherly love in order to control our murderous impulses towards others. But the text obliquely yet insistently reformulates this argument in the following way: human love is something like an oceanic aggressiveness which threatens to shatter civilisation in the wake of its own shattering narcissistic pleasure. We don’t move from love to aggression in Civilisation and Its Discontents; rather love is redefined, re-presented, as aggressiveness.

‘Psychoanalysis,’ Bersani concludes, in a phrase that takes us back to Freud’s surprise at our appetite for unhappiness and to Phillips’s sense that failure is nearly everything in this theory, ‘gives a persuasive account not of human adjustment but of that which makes us unfit for civilised life.’ Freud’s life as a whole, and especially his final years, suggests he doesn’t believe this. And of course his conscious claims are quite different. But part of him is pursuing this thought, if only on an imaginary devil’s behalf; and it might be true.