In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

All about FreudJ.P. Stern
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988

All about Freud

J.P. Stern

4425 words
Freud: A Life for Our Time: A Life in Our Time 
by Peter Gay.
Dent, 810 pp., £16.95, May 1988, 0 460 04761 2
Show More
Show More

Professor Peter Gay is an eminent American cultural historian of German origin, an enthusiastic convert to Freudian doctrine, and an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytical Association – you can’t, as a warmly sympathetic biographer of Freud, do-better than that. The sheer amount of biographical, historical and psychoanalytical detail that has gone into the making of this Life is, as far as I can see, unparalleled in the literature of its subject; and so are the care and informed intelligence with which this stupendous mass of facts, conjectures and speculations has been sifted, as well as the attractive, good-humoured and unstrenuous way most of it has been presented. The book could have been shorter. Some of the bitter quarrels fought out in Freud’s circle of disciples, some of the tales of defection and betrayal, and some of the inconclusive arguments relating both to the most controversial of Freud’s publications and to his personal attitudes, are written out at greater length than seems necessary, and some quotations don’t improve by being repeated. But even where similar insights are presented more than once, the longueurs seem to be caused, not by a loss of narrative control, but by a scrupulous regard for fairness – fairness, one need hardly add, to Freud rather than to his adversaries. In one sense, the subtitle of the book, A Life for our Time, is justified. Professor Gay has been able to use a great deal more material than did Ernest Jones when he wrote his three-volume Life and Work (1954-1957). And as long as the guardians of Freud’s archives continue to exercise their censorship (which, now that scarcely any of the participants in this story are still alive, seems indefensible), this is bound to remain the definitive biography. In the bibliographical essays appended to each chapter Gay has indicated what the nature of the material still being withheld is likely to be, and how it may affect his own conclusions. (Thus one may infer from the evidence hinted at that Freud’s own sex life, which, it had seemed, came to an end when he was not quite 44 years of age, may turn out to have been less impoverished.) Gay is scrupulous in his affection, claiming to have preferred reasonable and probable conjectures to scandalously improbable ones. By and large, this is a remarkably accomplished and rounded portrait of the last Central European intellectual, and it seems unlikely that any future disclosures will greatly alter it.

Does Sigmund Freud deserve such a detailed going-over? There is of course a sense in which his importance as a European and Western phenomenon can hardly be exaggerated. The kind of attention that Gay has brought to bear on his subject yields answers to some of the pressing questions we are likely to ask, while other questions, no less urgent, are left open.

The early part of the book adds little to previous studies. Surprisingly, Freud’s early childhood in Moravia (1856-1859) is given almost no historical setting, nor are we told much about the first few years after the family’s move to Vienna. Unsurprisingly – for this is, after all, a Freud biography by a Freudian – the boy’s glimpse of his naked mother, conveyed by Freud in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in Berlin in decorous Latin, figures more fully than does the account of the family’s social situation. To be sure, there are some dutiful background pages (together with a daunting bibliography) on Vienna in the brief era of liberalism and the subsequent reactionary era under Karl Lueger, the city’s celebrated mayor, whom Hitler admired. But except for his account of life in the city during the Austrian Anschluss of 1938, which is exemplary, Gay’s Vienna is less convincing than his evocations of Freud’s visits to the Berlin of Isherwood’s days. Repeatedly, Gay asks why Freud, who was for ever declaring his dislike of Vienna, nevertheless continued to live there for eighty years, and why even after the Anschluss he was most reluctant to leave. The only answer we get is provided by that old stand-by called, ‘ambivalence’; a more generous view of Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980), or indeed Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, might have yielded a more abundant answer. On the other hand, Freud’s warm if critical admiration of England (which, he shared, incidentally, with members of the Viennese Jockey Club), his remarkable command of English, and his consistently affectionate and trustful relationship with Ernest Jones (the Welshman who went about in a sort of honorary yarmoulka), as well as his conventional dislike of America, are dealt with at great length.

The story of Freud’s friendship with the Berlin ENT specialist Wilhelm Fliess, which ended in 1902 with a quarrel over a question of originality, sets the pattern for a series of similar rows throughout Freud’s life. Gay’s subtle account shows how many diverse elements were involved in this relationship. Closest mutual consultation in the treatment of patients, some of it with disastrous results; repeated and, as it turned out, temporary acquiescence in Fliess’s fantastic diagnoses and cures; Freud’s almost unreserved reports on the progress of his own self-analysis together with his theoretical speculations at a time when most of the tenets of psychoanalysis were maturing in his mind, not to mention his use of Fliess as an object of analysis – all these are aspects of a collaborative enterprise unique in Freud’s life. This is the collaboration of as if equals. It founders on Freud’s assertion of independence and originality, his will to power. Gay presents the relationship as a focal point symptomatic of feelings of guilt and Oedipal aggression. A non-analytical way to see it would be as the first of the numerous occasions marking Freud’s indifference to the common-sense distinction between criticism and betrayal. No other emotional and intellectual relationship was ever as close. Though Freud’s hatred of those who ‘betrayed’ him in later years was no less implacable, and though at one time or another his enemies came to include most of his disciples, no break – not even that with Jung – was as influential in his development. German intellectual history in the early 20th century is not renowned for its irenic ways, but only the anathematising of the German Marxists by their Muscovite enemies throughout the Thirties can compare for sheer harshness with Freud’s reactions.

In the course of their last quarrel Fliess charged Freud with ‘reading his own thoughts into other people’, which Freud rejects as an accusation that ‘renders all my efforts valueless’ (7 August 1901). Gay does not deny the subjectivity, or at least the subjective origin, of Freud’s insights. On the contrary: his major theme throughout this book is ‘the continuous traffic in Freud’s mind between private feelings and scientific generalisations – a traffic that reduced neither the intensity of his feelings nor their relevance to science’; and this, Gay argues, is as true of Freud’s contributions to individual psychology as it is of his large-scale panoramas of universal history. Thus Gay writes of Totem and Taboo, Freud’s unrestrained speculation on primordial parricide as the origin of religion: ‘To uncover (religion’s) foundations in a prehistoric murder allowed [Freud] to combine his long-standing, pugilistic atheism with his new-found detestation of Jung.’ However infelicitous Gay’s adversarial metaphors and admiration of the ‘pugilist’ in Freud, there can be no doubt of his candour. The adventitiousness of biographical events which causes changes in the content of the doctrine is to be made good as science: Gay sees the practice of converting contingencies (e.g. ‘private feelings’) into laws of the mind as the basic move of Freud’s new science.

In the evolution of Freud’s thought we may discern three kinds of public writing. The first, which provides the structure of the first half of Gay’s book, are the case-histories, from Freud’s beginnings with the hypnosis of hysterics onward. These derive partly from his analyses of actual patients and partly from literary fictions: ‘Little Hans’ and his wee-wee maker, ‘The Wolf Man’, ‘The Rat Man’ -titles that recall the Grimm brothers’ fairy-tales. Written up by Freud with a surprising lack of ordinary sympathy, the case-histories represent his primary empirical material. The second strand is made up of his main theoretical writings, from his first book, on aphasia (1891), through Studies on Hysteria (with the physiologist Josef Breuer, 1895) to his first major independent work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), and thence to the writings of his maturity. These essays and treatises, which include his lectures and his textbooks of analytical practice, continue to be based on case-histories, but fan out into ever more comprehensive theories. In the third strand, the immensely influential writings of Freud’s last two decades, the material itself becomes yet more speculative, deriving from and in turn interpreting historical and aesthetic interpretations, anthropology, politics, and the history of religion. These are three different kinds of writing, which demand three different kinds of reading.

Whatever status and credence we give to Freud’s work, it is unique in the history of ideas. There is no other Weltanschauung whose founder’s authority was strong enough to ensure that the evolution of his thoughts remained all but identical with the history of the movement he founded, at least during his lifetime. Freud’s authority derives primarily from a rhetoric which emphasises the hardness of his chosen task, the strenuousness of his work: Traumarbeit and Fehlleistung are some of Freud’s characteristic neologisms; in the Introductory Lectures he prides himself on the decades of work that have gone into the making of his theory (schwere Arbeitsleistung, and again, repeatedly: schwere, intensive und vertiefte Arbeit); offers this as proof of the superiority of analysis over hypnosis, ‘which is all too easy’ (geringfügige Arbeits – leistung); and in a passage in The Interpretation of Dreams he complains of the exhausting labour that compels him to ‘rummage in human filth’. Gay doesn’t quote any of these passages, but he shares their ideology: ‘Every dream,’ he writes, ‘is a piece of work, and hard work at that’; and again, ‘the sexual drive in its mature form is an achievement’ (it’s hardly what Max Weber meant by Leistungsethos). These assertions of arduousness, rather than any playful experimentalism, seem to be present in all of Freud’s writings, but they are by no means peculiar to him. They are the characteristic attitudes of Freud’s age. But ‘when the cat’s away ... ’? A reading ‘for our time’, it seems to me, will have to look at each of those strands I have enumerated from a different perspective.

What are the elements of this immense and immensely influential enterprise that Gay’s book enables us to see? First, and most obviously, there is Freud’s intellectual energy and imagination, his untiring search for ever more comprehensive and detailed accounts of areas of mental life: a search building on, and claiming authority for, insights already charted or asserted in earlier writings, and seeking out ever wider implications in the culture of the West. However varied the material upon which this quest draws, it is almost always pathological; the occasions when someone is described as basking in the assurance of her mother’s unproblematic love are not very frequent. The only way that Freud can make the whole of our mental life available to analysis is by abolishing any categorical distinction between mental health and mental illness, and thus incidentally making of the notion of normality a mere subterfuge and of the notion of spirituality an illusion. Gay mentions several occasions when Freud saw himself as a conquistador. This gigantic conquest emanates from a self that conforms, in the name of ‘the Reality Principle’, to all or almost all the social norms of its time and place (Gay never tires of telling us about the good liberal bourgeois paterfamilias with his three-course dinner, rindfleisch and all). Yet it is a self which, in its creative mode, challenges and shocks some – that is, the most private – of those norms; which, unprecedentedly, displays some of its own wounds as part of the evidence for the validity of its claims; which considers social institutions exclusively in terms of the individual psyche; a self, finally, which is in some important respects philosophically incurious. The motives of therapy and cure, and of emotional liberation, are present in this quest; so are the motives of securing a respectable social standing, material security and fame. But it is the conquistador of knowledge, with his yen to know not certainly but totally, to know not with the assurance of independent evidence but with the prospect of further knowledge, wider relevance, a still more comprehensive grasp – it is he who is the hero of the book, his cool passion and awful wrath. It is a piece of supreme irony not often remarked on that in his interpretation of Oedipus Freud has a great deal to say about the hero’s sexual desires, and almost nothing about his equally strong desire to know the truth.

The young Freud himself speaks of his intense scientific curiosity and ‘greed for knowledge’; at a later stage he will diagnose ‘the roots of scientific investigation’ as being grounded in ‘children’s sexual curiosity’. Yet if the source of this discovery is not to fade out in mere tautology (sexual curiosity becoming both the source and object of such discovery), the desire for knowledge – or rather for a total, ‘scientific’ account of the psychic world – will have to be explained in some different way. For instance, by Nietzsche’s ‘unmasking’ (or, to use a later jargon, ‘deconstructing’) that desire as a form of the will to power. In one of the essays in a book I’ve already mentioned, Carl Schorske speaks of Freud’s ‘wish to bring political authority to heel’ by celebrating ‘in fantasy’ – that is, in Freud’s analysis of the dreams of those in power – ‘a victory over politics’. But after this promising opening Schorske has to exaggerate Freud’s concern with politics to make his argument stick, and Gay is, I think, justified in calling the bulk of the essay ‘eccentric’. In fact, Freud’s politics are hardly ever more than the ‘politics’ of the psychoanalytical movement (except for that dream in which he whistled a revolutionary aria from The Marriage of Figaro in the presence of a haughty aristocrat). He really is, to all intents and purposes, an unpolitical man.

Unlike Hobbes or Plato or Aristotle (Gay compares him to all three), Freud shows no informed interest in social institutions. His observations on the danger of ‘the psychological misery of the masses’, which, Freud claims, leads to the ‘identification of the members’ of those masses ‘with each other’ and thus ‘makes the emergence of leaders difficult’, are a case in point. In the Germany of his time the opposite was true. To quote an earlier critic: ‘For 1930, the year when the Führer individualität won 11.4 million votes, Freud’s observations on the state of the world that surrounded him strike one as less than perceptive,’

This incuriosity on social matters includes his Jewishness. Gay makes much of it, and praises him for his courageous stand as a declared ‘atheist Jew’. It’s not Freud’s courage that is in question, though. If ‘atheist Jew’ is to be more than an oxymoron, a secular age offers nothing to prevent this Jewishness from being reduced to a racial phenomenon – that is, to qualities ascribed by Gentiles to Jews: a process described by Jean-Paul Sartre in his brilliant Portrait of the Anti-Semite. Rejecting the Jewish religion as well as Jewish nationality, Freud writes to the B’nai B’rith fraternity: ‘But enough else remained to make the attraction of Judaism and of Jews so irresistible, many emotional powers, all the mightier the less they let themselves be grasped in words.’ Here is that notorious appeal to the ineffable in the Jewish character which is basic to racial theory, whether philo- or anti-semitic. In Freud’s writings this appeal is rare enough for Gay to conclude that ‘these shadowy intimations obscure as much as they clarify’: they ‘scarcely constitute a rational analysis’. Rational analysis in this context would have to be social analysis, but this is an area in which Freudian analysis yields little insight.

Freud’s quest is for an individual psychology of total, systematic knowledge. Gay doesn’t comment on the fact that the bulk of Freud’s mature work coincides with the publication of a whole series of all-about-every-thing books. Among these embattled mega-opuses, with their Faustian intellectual imperialism, are Richard Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903, briefly mentioned by Gay), Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the 19th Century (1906), Spengler’s Decline of the west(1918and 1922), Ludwig Klages’s Spirit as Adversary of the Soul (1929-1933) and Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the 20th Century (1930). However ill-assorted the company may be, all these are ‘strictly scientific’ attempts at asserting an authorial self by offering a total account of the human condition. Whatever their respective value, none of these undertakings except Spengler’s has aroused much interest outside the German-speaking world. If we read Freud as a member of this warring club of ‘universalists’, the question arises why his account has been ‘universally’ acclaimed, why he has had a huge following and a continuous influence on our modes and mores, on our appraisal of others and on our self-esteem, while their works are all but forgotten. It cannot be because of the scientific value of his theories, which don’t stand up to any of the criteria scientists employ in relation to their discoveries; nor does Freud set up any criteria of his own. In the absence of statistics we don’t even know whether the number of successful analyses is larger than the number of botched ones. The reason for the Freudian success story, or at least a substantial part of it, is more likely to lie in the claim to scientific exactitude than in the validation of that claim. We should look for it in the ‘mixture of genres’ which (in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis) marks each new stage in the history of realist literature. Freud’s mixture of discursive modes includes generalisation and a high degree of abstraction, mythology and telling anecdote, irony and feigned hesitations, appeals now to authority, now to sweet reasonableness and common sense. It includes a superb command of the essay form used as an element in the structuring of systematic treatises, and a particularly effective way of making concrete and reifying the vocabulary of inward states. This armoury of rhetoric is applied with great assurance and accuracy to a particularly vulnerable area of the modern experience. In Central Europe, at all events, among Jewish and Gentile intellectuals alike, the end of the ages of faith in a divine purpose – the ‘divination of man’ – is followed by an age in search of the meaning of life. Freud does not offer to supply such a meaning. Pronouncements like ‘the aim of all life is death’ are not designed to do that. On the contrary, what he proposes are specific therapies to cure people of their desire for any wholesale metaphysical or religious legitimation. What he offers as their highest hope is ‘to relieve the person from the tensions which his needs create in him’ (with her he is less concerned); or, as Kafka writes at the end of his ‘Letter’ to his father, a hope for ‘something so close to the truth that it will bring a little peace to both of us and may make living and dying a little easier’.

It is not clear how much importance Peter Gay attaches to Freud’s rhetoric. His few observations on the subject, as he takes it up in his discussion of the standard English translation of Freud’s work, are not helpful. He rightly rejects as ‘cranky’ Bruno Bettelheim’s argument to the effect that this translation is wholly misleading, and that its use of ‘rebarbative’ Greek and Latin terms ruins Freud’s ‘concern with man’s soul’. But Gay’s own, less severe criticism is based on the mistaken belief that Freud used ‘ordinary, highly suggestive German words’. Freud’s numerous neologisms were not ‘plain German’ when he invented them, though they have very nearly become that. He creates his own technical vocabulary by exploiting the unique facility the language has in forming new compounds and creating abstract collective nouns and reified verbal forms, while yet retaining the appearance of ‘plain German’. Here, too, the claim to wissenschaft is upheld, yet criticism is disarmed by an implicit appeal to the natural language.

The dichotomy of science versus myth, or fact versus fiction, was fundamental to the civilisation in which Freud formulated his view of the psyche and his guidelines of analytical practice. One of my reasons for speaking of his lack of philosophical curiosity is that he never challenges or questions this preconceived common-sense view. On the contrary. All that Freud does whenever methodological wrangles arise is to charge his ‘enemies’ inside the analytical movement and outside it-Adler and Jung especially – with disregarding the ‘reality’ of science and making up obscurantist mystical and mythopoeic stories instead. He is equally uncritical and dogmatic in his contradictory uses of ‘reality’ – an indeterminate ‘principle’ which sometimes excludes the entire psyche, sometimes only dreams, sometimes only illusions, and of which one cannot even say with any assurance, as one can of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘reality’, that it has unpleasant connotations.

So close is Gay’s empathy with his hero that he fully shares these preconceptions: yet a reading of Freud ‘for our time’ might profit from a critical awareness of them. There are signs that the fact-versus-fiction dichotomy is ceasing to be a part of our common-sense view of things. Recent developments in historical studies and literary criticism are among the signs of this change. The way Freud’s writings are being read is not so much concerned with upholding or questioning their ‘scientific’ nature as with understanding their rhetoric. The American philosopher Richard Rorty is among those who have eloquently described and defended this change in our reading habits. In one of his recent strong essays in the London Review he offers such a new reading.

Rorty opens his argument with a quotation from Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci:

    If one considers chance to be unworthy of determining our fate, that it simply a relapse into the pious view of the universe which Leonardo himself was on the way to overcoming when he wrote that the sun does not move ... We are all too ready to forget that everything to do with our lives is chance, from our origin out of the meeting of spermatozoon and ovum onwards ... We all still show too little respect for Nature, which (in the obscure words of Leonardo which recall Hamlet’s lines) ‘is full of countles causes [ragioni] that never enter experience’.

    Every one of us human beings corresponds to one of the countless experiments in which these ragioni of nature force their way into experience.

Peter Gay uses part of this quotation to argue that ‘neither Freud’s “chance”, nor his “freedom”, is a random manifestation of spontaneity.’ Gay reads Freud as taking this notion of ‘chance’ as a radical challenge, an invitation to construct a system in which ‘every event, no matter how accidental its appearance, is as it were a knot in intertwined causal threads.’ Even though, Gay continues, these threads ‘are too remote in origin, large in number and complex in their interaction to be readily sorted out’, it is the purpose of Freud’s ‘scientific’ psychology to connect them causally as parts of ‘the lawfulness of mind’.

Rorty’s argument moves in the opposite direction. He takes the aperçu that ‘everything in our life is chance’ as the motto for a sketch of the psyche which aims, not to define general laws, but to describe very particular reactions; not to eliminate episodes of contingent behaviour, but to recapture them in words; not to designate general traits and essential aspects of the human condition, but to tell illuminating human stories. His proposal is not to read Freud’s ‘facts’ as ‘fiction’, but to make that and numerous other ‘fundamental’ distinctions contingent upon concrete individual situations and their describability in language.

What thus emerges from Rorty’s account is a singularly literary Freud. However, the literariness of Freud’s oeuvre is to be seen, not as a quality attached to a genre called ‘literature’ (as opposed to a genre called ‘science’), but as a particularly appropriate and felicitous use of language: ‘there is no way to force Freud into a Platonic mould by treating him as a moral philosopher who supplies universal criteria for goodness or rightness or true happiness. His only utility lies in his ability to turn us away from the universal to the concrete, from the attempt to find necessary truths, uneliminable beliefs, to the idiosyncratic contingencies of our individual pasts, to the blind impress our behavings bear.’

Is Rorty’s reading plausible – convincing – possible? Freud himself, of course, is quite explicit in his insistence on the ‘scientific’, facts-versus-fiction view of the world, and on psychoanalysis as the embodiment of that view: that is, on the reading Gay offers. It is here that the distinction I proposed earlier should be helpful. The first of the three strands of Freud’s writings I mentioned, the case-histories, fits the literary view of language and world Rorty proposes. As for the other strands, in which the role of contingency diminishes as the legitimation through system envelops more and more of our experience, to the point where rationality itself emerges as the enemy of contingency – these are largely outside Rorty’s revision of Freud. Largely, but not entirely. The core of Gay’s procedure – the act of incorporating ‘events’ in Freud’s ‘personal life’ in his doctrine, together with the particular urgency which these events had for him – this, too, can be salvaged.

The strenuous search for laws and universally valid ‘fundamental’ maxims and rules is a more powerful motive, in our world too, than Rorty is prepared to grant; the borderline between contingency and adventitiousness is more precarious than he seems to allow for. But his reading of Freud offers, not an exclusive alternative. but an illuminating complement to Gay’s remarkable biography.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 10 No. 17 · 29 September 1988

I was interested to see, in Peter Gay’s biography of Freud, reviewed in the LRB by J.P. Stern (LRB, 4 August), that Freud corresponded with Hendrik de Man, the rogue Belgian recently retrieved from obscurity by the news of his nephew Paul de Man’s early political delinquencies. (Gay describes de elder de Man as ‘the maverick Flemish Socialist’.) The correspondence with Freud had to do, it seems, with the ‘extra-medical applications of psychoanalysis’ and the bearing they might have on ‘the mental orientation of humanity’. I can see why Freud in his megalomania would have been interested in the matter – one thing Gay makes clear is how he tended to get bored with mere healing. No doubt many scholarly inquiries will have been set in train by the ructions over Paul de Man’s anti-semitic leanings: perhaps one of these will concern itself with the question of what his more obviously anti-semitic uncle hoped to gain, ideologically speaking, by entering into a correspondence with the author of the ‘Jewish science’.

Kate Graham

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences