After Strachey

Adam Phillips writes about the new translations of Freud

It’s never, in any way whatever, by another person’s excesses that one turns out, in appearance at least, to be overwhelmed. It’s always because their excesses happen to coincide with your own.

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII:
The Other Side of Psychoanalysis

Now that the Freud wars are over it seems a good time for a new translation. This is certainly a good time for psychoanalysis: because it is so widely discredited, because there is no prestige, or glamour, or money in it, only those who are really interested will go into it. And now that Freud’s words are so casually dismissed, a better, more eloquent case needs to be made for the value of his writing. Though likely to be largely ignored – and ferociously contested by the remaining devotees and owners of psychoanalysis – a new translation should be something of a new start for anyone still curious. An opportunity, at its most minimal, to see what’s left of Freud after his writing has been put through the mill of the psychoanalytic institutions and the universities.

When Penguin first approached me about the possibility of a new translation, there was no suggestion that I would be involved. Freud had come out of copyright in the EU, and they were consulting with various people, they told me, about the viability of a new version. They already had, as the Penguin Freud, most of the Standard Edition in paperback, with the exception of the papers on technique, and it was not obvious what a so-called new Freud could be like, what could be sufficiently new about it to make it marketable, at a time when Freud-bashing and Freud wars were more notorious than Freud-reading, and psychoanalysis was no longer every middle-class person’s therapy of choice. What Penguin wanted to know from the people they consulted was how one might go about re-editing, redoing Freud; how one might make a Freud for the new century. I can’t pretend that at the time this was of great interest to me. I am not a linguist, I am not a scholar by nature or inclination; I love reading and writing and practising psychoanalysis but I have never done anything that looks like what people call research. I have also always admired the Strachey translation, and like many people really did think of it as the standard edition. Like the King James Bible, if I can use that unfortunate analogy, it is so good – or we have been so educated to see its goodness – that it seems like the real thing. It’s true that I wondered, when Penguin first phoned me, whether Freud sounded different in other translations; but, then again, reading Brill and Joan Riviere and Katherine Jones and Robson-Scott had not been illuminating. I didn’t, in other words, really think that Strachey was the problem with Freud. I was quite happy to be locked up in Strachey’s Freud and the myth of the Standard Edition and assume that it was more or less for all time.

Just as the risk of psychoanalytic training is that it might make people more interested in psychoanalysis than in other people, the risk of the Freudian texts is that they might make readers more interested in Freud than in other writers. That all writing might become, one way or another, Freudian. I wanted to find out if there was a Freud useable for something other than – for something as well as – more psychoanalysis. The young Auden, for example, was fascinated by Freud but did not end up writing Freudian poems, or indeed, at least as a young man, poems that sounded much like anybody else’s. Psychoanalysis can inform projects that do not themselves have to sponsor psychoanalysis.

My conscious assumption that I would be exempt from the work of the project freed me to say what I thought a new Freud could be like; I wouldn’t have to face the consequences of my suggestions, and I could try things out under the guise of being more dogmatic than I felt. In fact, of course, no one involved in psychoanalysis, no one embroiled, is ever nonchalant or insouciant when they are talking about Freud. I did, though, find talking to publishers about Freud often more pleasurable than talking to psychoanalysts. After all, they only wanted to persuade people to buy Freud, not to believe him. Whether psychoanalysis is a language that requires the kind of assent given to religious language – whether there are ways of using it that are not ways of being utterly convinced by it – is still a question for the future reading of Freud.

I suggested, over lunch, the following things to the people at Penguin: that it should not be a complete edition because, as with all so-called great writers, some of Freud was boring, and some of it repetitive; that it need not be a forbidding corpus, need not be in volumes, nor intimate that if you hadn’t read all of it you hadn’t read any of it; that the demand need not be, as Joyce’s was of Ulysses, that one might devote one’s life to it. There is no reason why Freud can’t be dipped into; and if people are moved or intrigued or gripped they will read on. The selection should be generous but not diligent; but the papers on technique should be included because they are among the most revealing of Freud’s writings, not only about psychoanalysis but about what it might be to help someone. Freud is a great writer about our misgivings about helping and being helped. I said that I thought each of the books should be translated by a different person, and that there should be no consensus about technical terms, each of the translators writing a preface in which they might say something about choices made, about the pleasures and the puzzles and the difficulties of translating Freud. Ideally, I thought, the translators would be people who had previously translated literary texts, and need not have previously read Freud: Freud could then be given a go as the writer he wanted to be, and is, as well as the scientist he wanted to be, and might be. (If psychoanalysis is a science it has to make progress, if it is an art it doesn’t have to bother.) And the translators would, presumably, know what the word ‘Saussure’ meant. I suggested that each book should be introduced by a writer in the so-called humanities, and that there should be two stipulations: the introducers should not be practising analysts nor affiliated with psychoanalytic societies, and they should be asked simply to write their own essays around and about the texts selected by the editor. The introductions would introduce the reader to reading Freud, not to Freud.

The avoidance of analysts, I hoped, might mean that the people involved would not be hung up on what is still called psychoanalytic politics, and would not be overly mindful of what people within the profession would think of as the issues, especially of terminology. People within psychoanalytic groups, unsurprisingly, have a very strong transference, both negative and positive, so to speak, to Freud’s texts; I wanted people who were not quite so embroiled, or who were embroiled in other things. And I wanted them to be people who were used to reading and interpreting texts, not to just learning and using them as instruction manuals. I thought the project would only have life in it if the editor got pleasure out of it.

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[*] When I read a version of this essay as a lecture at Harvard, Mark Solms from the Institute of Psychoanalysis helpfully told the audience that the Institute’s letter was prompted by their fear of loss of income from the Standard Edition, which sounded entirely plausible; though, at least from a psychoanalytic point of view, it is assumed that people tend to do what they do for more than one reason and that the reasons they give are not the only reasons they have.